Saturday, March 31, 2012

Old Friends

Old friends,
Old friends,

Sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes, of the high shoes, of the old friends

Old friends,
Winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy

I spend quite a bit of time in the car.  Driving from one appointment to another can take hours.  To pass the time I like to listen to music, a bit of talk radio, but most of all I like to talk with my mom in California.  For some reason, having a chat with mom is the perfect way to finish off a long day.  It kind of reminds me of being a little kid, sitting at the kitchen table, pretending to do homework and rambling on as mom cleaned up after dinner.  In those days the conversation was 99% about me.  Come to think of it, I did 99% of the talking while mom just smiled and listened.  I talked about the usual stuff – school and sports, but most of all, my friends.

These days our conversations are a bit more diverse. Mom recently turned 84 and no longer spends much time in the kitchen and my homework is all done.  She does however spend a bit more time reflecting on life.  I remember my grandma doing the same so I guess it is normal as you age.  Either way, I enjoy the stories.  The other day we started talking about friends, but this time it wasn’t about my friends at St. Dominic Savio, it was about hers.  We started off with some neighbors, people she’d met while visiting the old neighborhood, but then got to the good stuff – the old friends.

One by one she rattled off names of people from my childhood.  First came her friends.  There was Mrs. Robertson, the lady with 112 hair clips who filled our house with Shaklee vitamins; Mrs. Dodd, the lady down the street who seemed to be 98 when I was 9, but lived for another 30 years; Mrs. Alpago, who ran the Church’s Guild like a tight ship, always leaving time to make homemade donuts, Mrs. Armijo, my beloved Godmother, and several others whose names I did not recall, but somehow remembered from my early days.  Then came my dad’s friends.  There was Joe Miller who always wore a smile on his face especially when he was winning at poker, Ron Delude whom everyone called Frenchie for a reason I never figured out, Johnny Miller who’s cool demeanor and slicked back hair made him memorable to me, Uncle Robert who was the neighborhood James Dean, and many more. 

One by one she relived the old days.  There were stories of how the friends met, poker games at the house with homemade pizza, this wedding and that wedding, church events, and lots and lots of laughter.  To me it seems like so long ago, but she spoke of the times and places like yesterday.  The level of detail was great and even though I don’t recall all the faces, the people came alive in story.  I’ve heard many of these stories before and I’m sure I will hear them again, but I don’t mind. The story of friendship will never grow old. 

I started to think about Old Friends a few weeks ago when I received an unexpected Facebook invitation.  I don’t get on Facebook as much as I used to.  Maybe I’m too busy or maybe I spend too much time in front of the screen in my 9-5.  Either way, when I do check in, I’m usually off after a quick review.  So when the friend invite popped up, I took a glance and closed it for another day.  Something funny happened though.  Rather than getting lost in the business of the day, that photo stuck in my head.  I thought about it over and over trying to figure it out the mystery, but no luck.  I somewhat recognized the name, but could not place the photo.

That next Saturday I got up early, grabbed a cup of coffee, and looked closer at the picture on my screen.  As I set the cleanly shaved head and twenty plus years aside, the photo came into focus and a rush of emotion filled my eyes.  Suddenly I was looking at my old friend from high school whom I had not seen in twenty-five years.  All I could say was, “Wow!” as I came across a series of photos from days gone past.  There were photos of vacations, photos of school events, and photos of friends whose faces came to life after seemingly being washed away in time.

I don’t remember how I lost touch with my group of friends.  It just seemed to happen slowly.  We went to different colleges, dated different girls, got married, had kids, and started to work.  At the time I did not think too much of it as life was moving fast and each new adventure brought new faces, new names, and new friends.  However, just like my mom, I’ve begun to reflect a bit more.  I guess I have my kids to thank for that.  When they were little I didn’t think about the past too much probably because I didn’t remember being that young.  But, when your kids hit middle school and high school your memory becomes a bit clearer.  If you’re like me, you remember that first day walking the halls of high school and all the adventures that came your way over the coming four years. 

I reviewed my old friend’s Facebook page and discovered names of people I had almost forgotten.  After searching a bit more, I sent out a series of friend requests and happily received responses.  With eagerness I read notes regarding what had happened to those I once held so dear.  There were stories of their lives today and stories of lives missed out on.  Some brought joy while others brought disappointment.  Everyone seemed to be doing well.  Some like me moved far away from home and got busy with marriage, kids, and jobs, while others drifted away purposely, never to be heard from again.  While I read some stories with a touch or regret for missing out on all those years, in the end I was the lucky one.  With a few clicks of the mouse I had reopened my past and rekindled old friendships, which will carry me into the future.   

Earlier this month Maddie’s middle school put on a roaring rendition of “The Music Man”.  Months of hard work after school and on weekends culminated in a weekend of sold out shows and many smiles for all.  At the end of the last show tradition calls for a party after everyone cleans up the sets and puts away the costumes.  Set to the beat of a DJ and fueled by pizza, snacks, and drinks, the kids dance away celebrating a job well done.  Emma had participated in a few plays and play parties in middle school as well and I can reassure you they all end up the same way.  The kids stand together, tears in their eyes, as they reminisce about the great times they had together.  Usually those tears are mixed in with a bit of laughter about this funny thing or that crazy thing.  Either way, the emotions are raw, honest, and focused on one thing – friendship.  As much as they will miss the songs and the dancing, nothing compares to what they will miss the most, their old friends.

That night I picked up Maddie and quietly drove home.  Her eyes were a bit sad, but she was focused on texting.  Just as fast as a new message arrived, a new one was sent out.  The emotion of the day was still in high gear and they needed to stay in touch.  When we arrived home we spoke a bit about the weekend before she went up to bed exhausted.  As I walked in to check on her I found her updating Facebook.  Amongst a series of posts about the friends they made during the play and the sadness they felt now that it ended, she posted something that brought to life much of what I had been feeling as I relived the past with my mom and rekindled old friendships online.  Rather than being sad about old friends who have passed on or disappointed for years missed out, she offered the following:  

"Don't cry because it's over.  Smile because it happened."

Bravo my dear!  Bravo!

All the best to friends near and far,

As a way to capture some unique moments in time I thought you’d enjoy the following:

Time it was and what a time it was it was,
A time of innocence, a time of confidences

Long ago it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; they're all that's left you…

Dad and his high school buddies

 Mom and Dad on graduation day

 Poker games with Frenchie, Uncle Robert, Joe, Johnny, Mom, Kath, etc.

 Matt and his high school friends circa 1987

 Maddie and her friends from "The Music Man"

Credit to: Simon and Garfunkel, “Old Friends” and “Bookends” 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

She Blinded Me With Science

It's poetry in motion
He turned his presentation to me
As deep as any ocean
As sweet as any harmony
Mmm - but He blinded me with science
"He blinded me with science!"
And failed me in biology

When I'm listening close to him
"Blinding me with science - science!"
I can smell the chemicals
"Blinding me with science - science!"

He blinded me with science
And failed me in chemistry

A lifetime ago I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, at least for a while. Now, this was after I ruled out policeman, fireman, musician, and all the other cool things young boys wanted to be at the time. I'd seen a few doctors in my time and they seemed like normal people with a good memory and lots of reference books. With a little smarts and a lot of confidence, I told myself it could be done.  It all made sense until...He Blinded Me With Science.

As high school faded and college became a reality, my Dad reminded me that sooner or later I had to choose a major. Before the days of the Internet it was tough to find good information about majors so I did a little research and threw a few darts on the wall. Business? No, I'd have to wear a suit everyday. Education? Perhaps, as long as I did not have teach kids like me. Computer Science? What would I do with that (ha)? Medicine? Well, of course, that’s the job for me!

So off I went getting ready for life as a doctor. I read a few articles about medical school, talked to a few professors, and even began to schedule my classes. The first was an advanced Biology class, which was challenging, but came easy to me because I enjoyed it so much. Biology seemed to be all around us so connecting to the subject matter was easy. Then came Chemistry. I was never a big fan of the topic, but if I was to become a doctor I had no choice but to climb that mountain and conquer it.

If you know anything about mountain climbing, you know walking up to Mount Kilimanjaro one day and proclaiming, "Bring it!” is not a guarantor of success. Rather, you need to get the right gear, take a few climbing classes, start out at smaller mountains, and progressively improve your skills until you are ready. Somehow this didn't enter my mind when I signed up for Chemistry for Majors.  You see I did not complete any of the prerequisites. Not only had I not taken Chem. 101 like I was supposed to, I never even bothered to take Chem. in high school. Looking back I am not sure how I got into the class, but I do remember how I felt shortly after it began.

On day one, the professor introduced himself and immediately began to cover the chalkboard with a series of phrases and calculations I had never seen before. Rather than raise my hand and ask a question, I decided to look around and see if anyone else looked lost. Unfortunately everyone else was smiling, writing away, and nodding with acknowledgement. I felt like that scene in the 80's movie "Better off Dead" when everyone except John Cusack seemed to laugh at the math teachers jokes and to race at the chance to answer the first question. I was clearly outnumbered and in the wrong place.  The teacher had just Blinded Me With Science!

I continued on with the course, eking out a passing grade and learned a few things about bravado, preparation, and hard work. When it was done, I reviewed the course load ahead and determined that this was just the start.  There would be many more classes including the dreaded Organic Chemistry ahead of me. It was then that I decided that this medical thing wasn't for me. So, off I went in another direction and over time forgot about that chemistry teacher and that class until a recent visit to CHOP.

This visit to CHOP was unlike those we have had before. It was not for the girls’ check-up or treatment. This was for a Grand Rounds speech by Dr. Barry Byrne of the University of Florida. Grand Rounds is a formal meeting where doctors and residents discuss the details of a clinical case, sharing findings and discussing options. Today, Dr. Byrne had the honor of speaking about his Pompe disease research. What made this day so special was that he had asked us if the girls could support him by answering questions at the end. Donna and I were honored and the girls were thrilled!

We met up with Dr. Byrne, Dr. Finkel, and the head resident before the talk.  We shared some stories about the girls, our experiences at CHOP, and the research studies Emma and Maddie are participating in down at U of F.  Once we were done with the small talk, we entered a big conference room filled by close to two hundred doctors all wearing lab coats embroidered with impressive titles.  As I sat down and looked around, I realized this room looked strangely familiar. It was a bit more comfortable and definitely more high tech, but it looked just like my Chemistry for Majors class.

I eased into my chair remembering that this time I had no test to take and no class to pass. I was here as a guest.  My girls were the important ones. My job was just to listen and listen I did, and confused I became. Dr. Byrne began his speech with a few jokes and then began to lay out one long technical term after another with ease.  He showed charts I could not understand and graphs I could not comprehend.  I began to sweat.  I began to panic.  Before I knew it, I was back. I looked up at the others to see if they were as confused as I, but everyone else was smiling, writing away, and nodding with acknowledgement. Oh no!  Dr. Byrne just Blinded Me With Science!

At the end of the talk, he invited the girls up on the stage to tell their story and answer questions. I stood on the side of the stage for support, as this was their show. I could tell that at first the experts weren't sure what to do as they looked at these sisters on stage. Should they ask questions or just respectfully listen and then clap? Rather than let the quiet set in, Emma kicked it off saying; "I do a lot of speeches at school so I’m not afraid to answer questions.  Please go ahead." That opened the floodgates and off they went. 

Question after question rolled in and Emma and Maddie fielded them with the ease of a Major League shortstop. They ranged from “what is it like to have a sister with the same disease” to “how do kids accept you at school” to “did you see the signs”, etc. I felt a rush of pride. Here were the same little girls who once sat in tears over their diagnosis, standing in front of a group from one of the best Children's Hospitals in the world, answering questions like it was a day out with their friends. Their grace, their poise, and their passion humbled me.

And then just when I was feeling my best, in rolled a question that went something like this. "Can you explain why your body experienced elevated liver enzyme levels even though you did not have a liver condition?" I glanced over at Dr. Byrne and we both realized that maybe he ought to save them on this one. However, just as he approached the microphone, Emma looked over, and waived him off. She then looked out into the crowd and replied with, "Creatine Kinase is released from your muscles when they are stressed or overworked thereby increasing the CK level in ones liver.”  I stood speechless.  

Just when I felt like I belonged with the scientists, my own daughter set me back. When I least expected it…

She Blinded Me With Science!

Keep studying,

Credit to: Thomas Dolby, "She Blinded Me With Science"

Dr. Byrne with the girls

Sunday, March 4, 2012

In Your Eyes

In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete

In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches

In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
The heat I see in your eyes

Every so often you have an experience that has an impact on your soul. It could be a day of sadness, a day of joy, or a day of reflection. Whichever it is, hopefully you are wise enough to recognize it and note it down in your book of life so you will remember it for the rest of your days. While these experiences don't appear too often, I believe they reside all around us, waiting for recognition. Last Sunday was such a day, a day when I did not only see the impact with my eyes. I saw it through the eyes of others. For those who attended, I saw it, In Your Eyes.

Last year's event was such a great time we committed to do it again. Donna and I started our preparation back in December and after the New Year, took off with a passion. We outlined our fundraising goal, spread the word across email and Facebook, gathered friends to join us, and eventually raised over $5000. We also supported Emma as she started up a new MDA club at her high school. The new club became an opportunity for students to get involved in something bigger than themselves and have some fun. The kids did a great job raising money through some unusual methods and built up great team spirit by making custom shirts for the event.

The day of the Muscle Walk was filled with some expected emotions and some unexpected ones. The expected ones were anticipation, a bit of nervousness, and joy. Anticipation encompassed us as we watched our fundraising grow right along with the list of walkers. Nervousness set in just days before as we realized that each walker would need to have their own waiver. Finally, joy encompassed us when we arrived at the event and began to see the smiling faces of everyone who came to support us. Some we expected to see while others were a welcome surprise.

The unexpected emotions came as the walk was to begin. For those who don’t know, Maddie was recently chosen as MDA’s Pennsylvania State Goodwill Ambassador for 2012. Her job is to support the activities of the MDA in our area, be a leading face to those active in the events, and to say thank you to all who donate their time and money to benefit kids and adults with Muscular Dystrophy. She has participated in a couple events so far, but the Muscle Walk has been the biggest to date, as she would have the honor of cutting the ribbon to start the walk.

As I stood on the opposite site of the ribbon to take Maddie’s photo, I noticed something I did not last year. Last year I was in the crowd, walking with our friends, and pretty much just taking in the experience. This time I had the unique opportunity to see the faces of everyone at once and I noticed something inspiring. As my camera lens zoomed in on Maddie preparing to cut the ribbon, I saw the true reasons for the day. I saw belief; I saw pride; and I saw love. The belief was in the eyes of the families who knew the money raised at this event would continue to help their own. I saw pride by those afflicted by muscular dystrophy as they prepared to show that despite some challenge, they too would “walk” today. Finally, I saw love in the eyes of every volunteer, friend, and coworker who were here not for themselves, but to openly show that they care about someone. It was in the eyes that I saw the spirit of the day.

My good friend Greg volunteered to take photos of the event so everyone would be able to remember who was there and what fun they had. He’s posted the photos up to the website, so please click on the link and check them out. As you’ll see, he did an awesome job capturing the spirit of the day much better than I could with these few short words. To help along with capturing the spirit, we've also put together a short video below and at which we hope you enjoy.

So, if you are in our area next year and want to join us for the Muscle Walk, you are most welcome. If you are not, visit the MDA site and look for a walk in your area. I can’t promise we will be able to join you in person, but we will be rooting you on from a distance.  What I can promise is that you will leave the event with a smile on your face, joy in your heart, and a spirit that will live on….

In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes

Keep Walking!

Credit to: Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes"

The included video is having some trouble so please check it out on YouTube by clicking the following link: