The Art of Casual Drowning

Just in time for the summer swimming season, here’s a story about how I almost drowned in a friend’s pool a few years ago. 

“Catch me, Daddy! Catch me!”

“Okay. I’m ready”

I thought I was, too, treading water a couple of feet from the end of the diving board. I lifted my arms up out of the water and my four-year-old daughter jumped.

Rule #1—Be polite. Don’t bother anyone with your annoying cries for help.

I caught her okay. But the weight of her pushed me down under the water. I sank until my feet touched bottom. How deep was this pool? Eight feet? Nine? It felt like I was 20,000 leagues under the sea.

My first instinct was to get my daughter up and out of the water. I put my hand up under her butt and lifted her straight up. Some subtle change in pressure told me I had succeeded, her head was above water.

But mine wasn’t.

I tried to kick off the bottom and swim up, but I was still holding my daughter above my head, and I didn’t get very far. I sank back down, tried to walk along the bottom until I got to the edge of the pool. But my feet slipped out from beneath me, and I was getting turned around in the water, disoriented. I couldn’t remember where the edge of the pool was.

Meanwhile, I really needed to take a breath. The feeling in my chest had gone from discomfort to straight up pain. I cursed every cigarette I ever smoked and the diminished lung capacity that came with it. I was in trouble here.

It’s Your Funeral, Fool

I won’t say my life flashed before my eyes, but my death did. I imaged my funeral service where tearful mourners would whisper things like, “he sacrificed himself for his daughter” while in the back room the funeral director (and perhaps a few of my close friends) were having a good laugh.

“He drowned teaching his daughter to swim! Ha! What a tool!”

I couldn’t have it. Panic kicked in along with my survival instinct. Clearly the problem was my daughter — I couldn’t go anywhere as long as I was holding her up. So I pushed her as hard as I could toward where I imagined the edge of the pool was and kicked for the surface.

I broke the surface and exhaled a plume of water and air that would have made a humpback whale proud. I immediately sank back underwater before I had a chance to breathe in. I kicked up toward the surface again. My arms and legs felt like lead. When did they get so heavy? I pumped my arms and legs harder and I broke the surface, taking in a great sucking gasp of air.

I quickly turned to see where my daughter was, and immediately saw my foolishness. She was wearing her inflatable swimmies around her arms, of course; had been the whole time. She bobbed toward the edge of the pool, laughing. She was in no danger, never had been. All my heroics had been for nothing.

drown
“No, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me …”

I sank under water again, but at least now my brain had some oxygen and I could think clearly. My arms and legs still felt like lead, though. And my chest still hurt. Bad. I half doggy-paddled, half-lunged toward the edge of the pool. It still seemed really far away. I turned over and half-floated, half-backstroked until I felt the edge of the pool bump my head. Then I turned and hung on for dear life.

Near Death, No Problem

“Daddy! Catch me again!”

“Ur…” I said. It wasn’t a conscious word. It was the sound of my lungs filling up again. “Gaa. Ur. Blaa…”

“Daddy!”

“Yeah,” I sputtered. There was snot running out of my nose, tears streaming from my eyes. How awkward – this was a friend’s pool. “Daddy…needs…a…minute…hon.”

My wife noticed something amiss in my strange slumped over position.

“Rob, you okay?” she called from across the pool.

My entire near-death experience had gone unnoticed. No reason to bring attention to it now. I gave her the thumbs up sign. No problem here.

“Daddy, I want to jump again. Catch me!”

I stalled for a few minutes until my breath was back. The chest pain was gone. My heart was still beating fast, but it wasn’t racing. My arms and legs were tingling, but otherwise felt strong. In fact, in some weird way I had never felt more alive.

“Okay,” I said, pushing out into the deep water again. “I’m ready.”

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Reprinted from Wayne TODAY, September 2008.

Marriage Counseling: Gays Welcome!

Here are my thoughts on gay marriage published in TODAY February, 2004. I am soooo far ahead of the curve on this one! (Ouch! I dislocated my shoulder trying to pat myself on the back!) Plus, the idea of an expiring/renewable marriage license is nothing short of brilliant!

What is a marriage?

Gay Marriage—Fully endorsed by divorce lawyers everywhere!

In the eyes of the law, marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But in San Francisco, that law has changed. Newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom recently lifted a ban on gay marriages. So far more than 3,000 same-sex couples have legally tied the knot.

But gay marriages in San Francisco may not be allowed for much longer. Several conservative groups have filed suit against the city, and the State of California is also trying to re-enforce the ban on gay marriages. “The Governator” is against it. San Francisco’s city elders have filed a counter-suit claiming that the government is violating the civil rights of its gay citizens.

The question here isn’t one of should gays be allowed to marry. It should be a question of why aren’t they allowed already. Our Constitution promises every citizen the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A certain segment of our citizenry is homosexual – it always has been and it always will be. Some people are just…gay. Yet the powers behind most government and religious institutions still refuse to recognize these citizens as equals.

Committed gay couples are entitled to the same legal benefits as married heteros; namely, some tax breaks for maintaining a home together, additional breaks if you have kids. That’s only fair – anybody who helps raise a child or maintain a piece of property in this country deserves those benefits, be they married or single, gay or straight. The Constitution also states “all men are created equal” yet they are rarely treated that way in America.

1,2,3 … What Are We Fightin’ For?

That being said, what is it the gay community really fighting for? The right to further complicate their already complex relationships by legally binding themselves to one another? How long after we hear about the first gay marriage will we hear about the first gay divorce? How will this impact our already-overwhelmed family courts?

Several years ago I wrote a column suggesting that we could reduce our nation’s high divorce rate by having marriage licenses expire after five years. A marriage would continue only upon the mutual agreement of both partners. Now, after examining the issues raised by gay marriage, I’d like to take that idea a step further – abolish marriage licenses all together. I’m not comfortable with the idea of any politician deciding who can get married and who can’t. The government shouldn’t sanction who people love. It’s not what we elected these people to do, and it’s not what the Constitution of this country intended.

Gays are fighting hard to have their relationships legally validated. Their efforts would be better spent trying to reform tax and insurance laws that would benefit any couple with a home and family. If a couple of single moms decide to buy a house together, they should get the same tax breaks as any man/woman couple who are homeowners and parents. Who cares what goes on in the bedrooms of these people? Nobody should question or pass judgement on anyone else’s sexual preference in this, “the land of the free.” Yet our nation’s leaders do it routinely. That’s why the government should get out of the marriage business.

And the gay community should realize that a marriage has very little to do with the documents that make it official or declare it null and void.

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Originally published Wayne TODAY, February 2004

The Incredible Hulk Is Dead! Long Live Hulk!

Here’s one for all the of the original Hulkamaniacs out there…everyone knows who the coolest Avenger is! BONUS : Check out my “20 Questions With Lou Ferrigno!

I read all sorts of comic books growing up, but The Incredible Hulk was my favorite. But the big green galoot’s run is coming to an end, and I’m not sorry to see him go.

The Hulk has a dark side that’s haunted me since childhood.

hulk and bruce banner
“The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets!” Really?

Publisher Marvel Comics announced recently the 49-year-old title would be ending this August with issue #635. (Since nothing ever truly ends in the comic book universe, the green goliath will still he-man his own title, simply called Hulk, which launched in 2008.)

The incredible Hulk was the strongest of all superheroes. His brute strength was…well, incredible. But his power was tied to his temper. The Hulk’s simple creed was, “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets!”

Don’t Get Mad, Get Hulky

The comic book had a brilliant premise, creator Stan Lee’s combination of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Meek scientist Bruce Banner harbors a monster inside him, a big green wrecking machine who comes out when Banner is angry or stressed. Push pansy Bruce far enough and he transforms into a Not-So-Jolly Green Giant. Hulk smash!

Who among us wouldn’t like to have that transformative power on occasion? As a kid it represented a chance to right a thousand injustices, a chance to tip the scales against bullies, older kids, and adults.

But it was all a lie. Losing your temper never makes you stronger. It makes you weaker. Lose your cool, and you lose your advantage.

Note To Self: Don’t Get Hulky

It took me a long time to learn this. I punched a lot of holes in walls, and busted innumerable telephones over the years. In 2003, I raged against an ATM machine, a stupid stunt that cost me hundreds of dollars in fines and almost landed me in jail. (Did you know there are cameras in those things? You did? Oh. My bad.) My temper has never worked to my advantage. Rob smash! But the only thing it ever got me was heartache, a reputation as a hothead and a jerk, and a hand injury.

kirby hulk
Original artist Jack Kirby made the Hulk menacing.

I’ve finally managed to control my temper (well…I’ve improved…) I’ve mellowed with age, therapy, and medication. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to wonder how much growing up with The Incredible Hulk played into my violent outbursts. I can’t lay all the blame on the Jade Giant, but I don’t think following his temper-fueled adventures  did me much good as a kid. Unlike many superheroes, Hulk wasn’t a very good a role model.

Superhero or Super Asshole?

Stan Lee created many memorable superheroes, characters that were very human despite their special abilities. Daredevil was blind. Spiderman was a high school geek. The X-Men were all misfits – mutants– looking for a way to fit into society. These Marvel heroes taught young readers respect, hard work, and other basic building blocks of self-confidence.

But Hulk wasn’t Hulk unless he lost his temper.

Some superheroes use their powers to enhance the lives of their alter egos. Peter Parker and Clark Kent always had great scoops for the newspapers they worked for. Daredevil would capture bad guys, and his alter ego, criminal attorney Matt Murdock, made sure they stayed in jail.

But Bruce Banner’s superpower actually ruined his career as a brilliant scientist. Most storylines involved a few pages of Hulk smashing things up then leaving poor Bruce Banner to either pick up the pieces or run from authorities. Banner lived the life of a loner, a fugitive, no friends, no family, always on the run.

That’s what a bad temper will get you.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 2011

A Dignified Death For Man And Man’s Best Friend

Our dog Barnabus was dying.

Miss you, Barnabus. You’re a good boy.

My wife and I both knew it, though we didn’t want to say it aloud. We’d been involved with animal rescue for many years, and we knew what the final stages of a pet’s life looked like: the loss of appetite, the incontinence, the restless wandering. No matter how Barney stood, lay, or sat, he couldn’t seem to get comfortable.

Barney was the fifth dog we needed to put to sleep. My wife and I aren’t serial killers…we often adopt elderly dogs and they sometimes don’t remain in our family as long as we’d like them to. Euthanizing a pet doesn’t get easier the more you do it, but it gets easier to recognize when the end is near. We waited too long three of the four times we needed to do this before. We knew our pets were sick and suffering, but we didn’t want to say goodbye.

From Homeless To Our House

Barney was with us for nine years. We adopted him from the Jersey City animal shelter when our son was only three months old. We saw a beagle on the Jersey City shelter’s web site that we wanted to adopt. But when we got to the shelter, we found the beagle had already been euthanized. We asked who was next to go, and were directed to a skin-and-bones shepherd mix crammed in a tiny cage.

“He’s been here ten days. His time is up.”

A few minutes later Barney was riding in the backseat of our Geo Prism, on his way to a new home. For the next nine years, he was one of the most faithful, most loyal, most loving dogs we ever lived with. He was gentle with our kids, protective of our home, and tolerant of the other dogs that came to visit (and stay!) It didn’t take Barney long to learn that this was his home, too, his kids, his family.

We never knew Barney’s exact age. He was at least three or four years old when we adopted him. The last few years he was on arthritis medicine. He struggled so much getting up and down the steps to the back yard the last two winters, I wasn’t sure he’d make it to spring. But he did.

Except this spring Barney started having intense seizures. He had several over the course of a week, but then they stopped for more than a month. We hoped we were in the clear, but then they started again, worse than ever. We seemed to lose a little bit of Barney with each seizure – it took him longer to regain his composure after an attack, and he remained disoriented and confused after his last serious seizure.

Goodbye, Barney … Goodbye, Jack … 

We decided to put Barney to sleep on June 3, the same day that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died. The irony was not lost on my wife and I.

Kevorkian, aka “Dr Death”, pioneered the right to die for terminally ill humans. He is reported to have helped more than 130 patients take their own lives, and is the inventor of the Thanatron (Death Machine) device, which can kill a patient by injecting a mix of chemicals in to the bloodstream, and the Merictron (Mery Machine) which causes death through inhalation of carbon monoxide.

Dying to read this!

A strong advocate of “right-to-die” legislation, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 for helping a late-stage ALS patient take his own life. Kevorkian was paroled in 2007, and continued to be an advocate for patient’s rights until his death.

Barney brought joy and love into our family for nearly a decade. The last loving gift I could grant him was to end his suffering, and let him go gently into that good night. How sad that I could give this gift of peace to my dog, but not my father when he was suffering from the final stages of cancer 15 years ago.

Kevorkian was famously quoted as saying “dying is not a crime.” Maybe forcing a dying person to live in pain and suffering should be. If so, our government would be guilty a million times over.

This Is The End, Beautiful Friend

Barney had another seizure in the waiting room of the vet’s office. The doctor helped me carry him into the examining room, and gave Barney a shot of valium to stop the seizure. We discussed it for a few minutes, but the vet didn’t disagree with my decision. Clusters of seizures, coupled with Barney’s other behavioral changes, pointed to a probable brain tumor. The doctor put another needle into Barney’s arm, and before he had even finished injecting all of the pink fluid, Barney was gone, resting in peace.

I walked out to the waiting room a few minutes later carrying Barney’s collar and leash. A girl waiting with her cat took one look at me and started crying. I felt strangely apologetic. I’m sorry my dying dog bummed everybody out. He didn’t mean it. He was a good dog – a great dog — and this was really the best option, an option that should be available for man and beast alike.

Good night, Dr. Kevorkian. Thanks for teaching us all about dying with dignity.

Good night, Barnabus. Thank you for teaching me how to live with grace and appreciation.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, July 2011

My Wife’s Stroke or Why This Blog Sucks

Why does this blog suck so badly?

Well, it’s not updated often enough, for starters. Why? Because I’ve been busy.

Don’t believe me, read on. It’s been a crazy year. Then Google me, or look for my ebooks on Smashwords or Amazon — I’ve got a couple of new ebooks coming out, and more planned. Told you I’ve been busy!

Bad Luck, Invisible Dangers, and Obvious Miracles

reprinted courtesy of Wayne TODAY, March 2011

stroke graphic
This is your brain having a stroke. This would be funnier if it didn’t happen to my wife in February 2011.

Talk to anyone who has been in a serious car accident, or survived some other life-threatening situation, and they’ll usually finish their harrowing tale with the phrase, “It’s a miracle!”

I always doubted this sentiment. How can such bad luck be seen as a miracle? Is it miraculous your luck wasn’t worse?

But I look at miracles differently now.

Last month my wife had a stroke. It wasn’t a tiny TIA (transient ischemic attack) either. One neurologist called it “a big hit on the right side,” a major CVA (cerebrovascular accident). If you looked at her MRI, you’d expect her to have paralysis, lost of speech, and brain function.

But she doesn’t. Laura’s lost some sensation on her left side, and dexterity in her left hand, but her mind and speech seem unaffected. She’ s not “fine,” as she likes to remind me, and she’s got a lot of difficult therapy ahead of her. But relative to the size of her stroke, her condition is, well…miraculous.

Our network of friends immediately stepped up and pitched in following my wife’s stroke, and we’ve never felt more grateful for their support.

Terror Time

“You scared the hell out of everybody,” I told her. “You’ve got everyone thinking about their own mortality. Everybody wants to know how this could happen to fairly healthy woman in her forties.”

But the cause of my wife’s stroke remains a mystery. Tests show no heart irregularities or blockages in her cerebrovascular system.

It was just one of those things. Bad luck, with a miracle on the side.

I was surprised by how deeply news of my wife’s stroke affected everyone, especially my friend Ross, who really only knows my wife casually. I had to repeatedly reassure Ross that Laura would be okay, and was expected to make a full recovery. Maybe it was the sudden-ness of it that caught Ross off guard.

But maybe it was something else.

Two weeks after my wife’s stroke, Ross had a massive heart attack. He coded on the table, but was revived. He’s also expected to make a full recovery.

Another miracle, like being helpless in the jaws of a shark that spits you out instead of eating you. You’re left feeling both attacked and blessed.

Life, Frail and Delicate

We build our lives around people and places, careers and hobbies, ideals and attitude. But no matter how simple or complex we make them, our lives are still glass structures built on sand, a house of cards in windstorm. Life is a fragile, delicate thing, which is exactly what makes it so precious.

Plan, structure, and organize your life all you want (you should — like any mechanism, you have to constantly tinker with life in order to keep it running smoothly) but understand that life can change in an instant. Look at northern Japan, where people are struggling to put their lives back together in the wake of an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear crisis.

Some dangers, the worst ones, are invisible and impossible to predict: blood clots, malignant cell growths, shifting tectonic plates deep beneath the earth. All you can do is plan, prepare, and live each day to the fullest.

And be aware of — and grateful for – the miracles you catch along the way.

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Commuter Blue, Commuter Pink

Welcome to the New Year! Well, not so new, really, but I’m slow blogging. Below is another example of how my opinions change over time. The first column is from September 1996, shortly after I took my a job in New York City. It’s a major bitchfest about my commute. The second post is from September 2008, shortly after I got an iPod, which revolutionized my commute in new and exciting ways.

The first week it was exciting.

commute-commuting-taxi-people-cars-new-york
A good seat is hard to find.

The second week it was cute.

The third week it was bland.

The  fourth week it was tiresome.

By week five, it was down-right grim.

I’m talking about the daily commute to my new job in New York City. We’ll talk more about the job itself in future. Today, we’ll examine the ordeal of “getting there.”

Long Day’s Journey Into Shit

The day begins with a 20 minute drive that usually takes twice that long because of traffic. Then it’s time to get on a crowded bus and hopefully find a seat. If not, you wind up standing, trying to keep your balance and prevent sprawling flat-out in the aisle while the bus wheels around hairpin turns. This bit of fancy footwork takes another 20 minutes.

Arriving in Port Authority Bus Terminal is were the real fun begins. There are two choices for someone in my shoes (namely, me) — if you’re early enough, the weather is cooperative, and your legs feel strong, you can take the leisurely 25 minute walk across town. If not, it’s time to face, (gasp.) the subway!

You’ve probably heard a lot of terrible things about the New York City subway system. Now that I’ve been a rider for several weeks, I feel qualified to say, EVERYTHING BAD YOU’VE HEAR IS TRUE! The subway “adventure” begins with an ominous decent down several crowded escalators. Then it’s a brisk walk through a long underground tunnel that has the air capacity for twenty people, but always contains about two hundred. The walk is brisk because YOU CAN’T BREATH DOWN THERE! I’m amazed every time I pass through this dank dungeon that I don’t see the skeletons of commuters who didn’t make it piled up against the walls. I guess the PA Transit Authority comes by ever half-hour or so and clears them away.

At the end of the tunnel is another series of stairs and, finally, the subway trains. I’ve been told the trains are “much cleaner” than they used to be, but to me they still seem like a human Pietre dish; I’ve seen just about every kind of body fluid and secretion within the confines of these “meat wagons.”  Riding the subway is an adventure in itself. If there are no seats, you become a “strap-hanger” (the “straps” are actually stainless steel rings which always feel disturbingly greasy.) Strap-hanging makes standing on the bus look like a walk in the park. With quick starts, abrupt stops and unexpected twists and turns, you’re fortunate if you don’t wind up in the lap of some guy who looks like he’s been riding the trains for days, and has forgone the luxuries of bathing or using public restrooms.

It’s time to move up after the subway: two escalators and a flight of stairs. Sometimes the crowds are so thick, you could probably lift your feet off the ground and still make it to the exit doors of Grand Central Station. From there, it’s a two-block walk to the office (and these are those long avenue blocks.) After an hour-and-a-half of traveling, you’re finally at the office. In another eight hours you’ll reverse the process in order to get home again. Oh, joy.

Poem for the Misbegotten

I know I shouldn’t complain about the commute. Thousands of people do it every day. A friend of mine has been commuting to New York City for eight years. He tells me you get used to it after a while. My theory is, the bus and subway fumes kill enough brain cells to make it tolerable.

In the midst of this dismal commute, there is a brief moment of enjoyment. It comes during the darkest segment of the journey, during the “tunnel walk” from Port Authority. Hanging above your head, every 15 feet or so, are little phrases. Together they make a poem. It goes:

commuters lament
The Commuter’s Lament by Norman Colp.

“Overslept,

So tired.

If late,

Get fired.

Why bother?

Why the pain?

Just go home.

Do it again.”

The first time I saw this I was expecting to see a Nike logo or Pepsi ad following it, but none came. I realized it was simply an eloquently phrased public service announcement, a commuter’s prayer. It is a poem written by Norman Colp called “The Commuter’s Lament,” and it’s been in the Port Authority commuter tunnel since 1991. (I’m not unhappy to report that “The Commuter’s Lament” was vandalized by optimistic poets in 2011.)

It summed up the desolate chore of earning a living. It made me smile, then laugh out loud (nobody seems to mind when you do this in New York City.) Sure, I hate the commute into work everyday, but so does everyone else. I was miserable, but I had lots of company.

Anyway, the commute has certainly altered my lifestyle, (as well as lightened my wallet.) I have to go to sleep by 11 p.m. or I won’t be able wake up for the journey the next day. In fact it’s getting late now. You’ll excuse me but I have to get up tomorrow and “do it again.”

reprinted from Wayne TODAY September 1996

Passive Aggressive Christmas Fantasy, Circa 1996

[This was my 1996 Christmas column 14 years ago. Not sure what my problem was, but I was clearly f’d up. Maybe I have “holiday issues.” Strange year, 1996, like so many before and since.]

MrMrsClaus
Merry Christmas, Rob Errera! Now go fuck yourself! Happy New Year!

Dear Rob,

Santa has received the letters you’ve sent to him over the past several years. Every year you’re grouchy, grumpy, and grinchy, and I’m sure this year is no exception. In hopes of preventing your usual end-of-the-year gripe, I’ve decided to drop you a line personally, just so you know we’re still thinking of you.

I hear you got a new job this year, Rob, working for a men’s magazine in New York City. You may enjoy looking at pictures of naked ladies all day, Rob, but this has landed you on Santa’s “Naughty List.” It’s quite a shame, really—all your talent squandered on a porno rag. I guess you figured it was a step into the world of “big time” publishing. I’m not sure what you stepped in, Rob, but it’s stuck to the bottom of your shoe, and it’s beginning to stink.

Speaking of stepping in things, Rob, I understand you’ve been volunteering at the local animal shelter this year. This is a good thing (not enough to move you to the “Nice List,” but it’s a start). Santa got a big laugh when he heard you played “Santa” during a recent Get Your Pet’s Picture Taken With Santa event. Kind of strange, don’t you think, a Scrooge like yourself dressing up like jolly “Ol’ St. Nick.” A literary type like yourself must surely appreciate the irony of that situation.

There have been other moments of reprieve for you this year, Rob. Like that time the bag lady on the subway asked you for money because she was hungry, and you gave her a couple of bucks. But generally, Rob, you’ve been more naughty than nice this year. This is the case year after year. Santa’s beginning to think you might be a perennially naughty person, and you’re dangerously close to being added to his “No-Way List” (an unfortunate roster of non-believers who have been written off by Santa.)

This will be the second Christmas without your father, Rob, and I’m sure you miss him very much. But please don’t blame Santa for his death—Santa’s not God, after all, just a guy who distributes gifts every December 25. For a non-believer, you sure ask Santa for a lot. Don’t hold it against him when you can’t get everything you want. And take a little responsibility for your own actions, for a change.

In closing, I just wanted to wish you a good holiday, Rob. I’m sure you won’t appreciate the spirit of the season until it’s over, and then it will be too late. But keep up those good deeds next year, and you might just find yourself on that “Nice List” after all. It’s up to you.

Regards,

Mrs. Claus

PS—Santa really resented that comment about his weight in last year’s letter. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?

Reprinted courtesy of Wayne TODAY, December 1996

Why County Clerks Suck

[Here’s another classic rant from 1998. I’m pretty sure county clerks are still selling your name and phone number to telemarketers. And they still suck. Interesting, back in ’98 I was bitching about telemarketers disrupting my Saturday morning tea-and-writing sessions. Now weekends are packed with kids, chores, kids, errands, kids, home improvements, and kids. But I’m not bitching about it. It’s pretty awesome, actually.]

yell at phone
“Sorry to complain, Ms. Tomlin, but I wish the county clerk’s office wouldn’t sell my personal info to telemarketers!”

The phone is ringing, but I’m not going to answer it.

It’s a quiet Saturday morning. The dogs have been fed and walked. I’ve got a steaming mug of tea next to my computer, and I’m settling in, preparing to write a column. I’ve got a good, juicy topic —

There goes the phone again. Ignore it.

Anyway, the column is about Passaic County office workers selling the names, addresses, and phone numbers of local residents to junk mail companies. Evidently it’s a longstanding and lucrative side business for employees in the County Clerk’s office and the Register of Deeds. There’s nothing illegal about it — the records are public. Instead of hiring an outside researcher to gather the names, it’s quicker and easier for marketing firms to have people on the “inside” who can funnel the data to them as soon as it comes in.

Ugh, the phone again. This is the third time in 40 minutes. This time I answer it.

You’re Talking To An Idiot

“Hello?”

“Hello. Is this Robert … Ferrera?”

My middle initial is F (for Francis – hey, no laughing!). People who are reading my name off official documents often merge Robert F. Errera into Robert Ferrera. It’s a dead giveaway I’m talking to a salesman (or, as they say in the ’90s, “customer service representative“).

“Yeah, this is Robert,” I say, because I am an idiot.

“Mr. Ferrera, I’m calling today to offer you five cents per minute on all your weekend long distance calls …”

This continues for a full three minutes. The perky female on the other end of the line is good, barely pausing for breath as she chronicles the amazing deal she is offering. Finally, there is a lull in her diatribe and I see a chance to get a word in edgewise.

“Uh, thanks but I’m really not interested.”

“But Mr. Ferrera, with this select plan, you can save up to 50 percent on all your long distance calls…”

She goes on for another full minute, picking up momentum and showing no sign of slowing.

“Look, I’m really not interested,” I say, way past annoyed.

“But why, Mr. Ferrera? The service is free for 30 days and you can cancel at any time…”

These are the last words I hear before hanging up. Considered me canceled.

Cold Calls Make Me Hot

Back at my desk, the tea has cooled. I plow through the first two paragraphs of this column before the phone starts ringing again. I’m beginning to see the irony here. A glutton for punishment, I answer the phone.

complaining on phone
“I’m not Mr. Ferrera, you twit! Now stop calling me!”

“Hello, is this Mr. Ferrera?”

“He isn’t in right now, can I take a message?” I’m so clever.

“No, this is just a courtesy call. We’d like to offer Mr. Ferrera the opportunity to upgrade his windows before winter arrives. Do you think this is something he might be interested in?”

“I don’t know, and frankly it’s not my place to authorize any home improvements. You’ll have to call back some other time.”

You can see where I’m going with this. If county workers hadn’t sold my personal information to a bunch of marketing firms, maybe I could get some work done. I’ll never begrudge someone the opportunity to make extra money—lots of people, myself included, need it to make ends meet. But by doing their part-time job, these county employees have made my part-time job more difficult. The moonlighting county workers say they aren’t paid enough, and need extra income. I say quit disrupting the lives of the residents who employ you, and find a new part-time gig. (After this column, I’m sure there are plenty of county workers who’ll wish the same for me.)

The phone rang two more times since finishing this column. I didn’t answer it. The dogs bark at the postman, and I check to see what he’s brought. The mailbox is overflowing with junk — leaflets advertising aluminum siding, carpet cleaning, and discount pizzas.

In the distance I hear the demonic cackle of a county worker.

Ha-ha, Francis.

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Reprinted courtesy of WAYNE TODAY, December 1998.

Revisiting Fatherhood Boot Camp This Father’s Day!

[This is one of my wife’s favorites. Originally published in March 2002, and revised for Father’s Day 2013]

In honor of Father’s Day, June 16, I’d like to travel back to before I was Autism Dad, when I was just “a new dad.”

rocco belly time
Rocco enjoying belly time @ 5 months.

The moment my son was born, I realized I held the most precious gift in the world in my arms, a gift I was unworthy of, yet responsible for, nonetheless. I was in way over my head.

But I was eager to learn, and my son taught me a lot those first six weeks. Here’s how I saw it back in 2002:

>>>>>

Six weeks of fatherhood, and already I’m defining myself by the way my kid sees me. I am Thick, Hairy Arms that lift him up and down (which is different from Mom’s Soft, Smooth Arms). I am Smiling Moon Face with Glasses. I am Stinky Breath at 4 a.m. Beard Stubble Man. I am Waiter, Maid, Chauffeur, Personal Assistant, Wipe My Butt Guy.

Actually my wife is all of these things and more. I’m the Assistant Waiter, Assistant Maid, etc. But in the past six weeks I’ve gotten a good dose of fatherhood … and I like it!

Like any new job, everything’s fun and exciting right now. I’m sure there will be days ahead that won’t be so much fun. But after completing six weeks, I’d say fatherhood is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.

My son, Rocco, taught me many things in a short time. We already have much in common, like big meals and long naps. Rocco helped me rediscover the joy of life’s simple pleasures. A warm blanket is good. A wet bottom is bad. A big dog licking your face is startling at first … but funny!

Rocco taught me to appreciate sunrises, which I have seen more of in the last six weeks than in all of my 34 years prior. In fact, the whole sleep deprivation aspect of parenthood is something my wife and I severely underestimated. It’s brutal.

Most importantly, Rocco shared one of life’s great secrets with me. When I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder, “Why am I here? What’s my purpose in the universe?” all I have to do is peek in his bassinet and go, “Oh. Yeah.”

It’s not that my life didn’t have meaning or significance before my son was born. It’s that everything up until now seems like practice. I have seen the future, and it wears a onesie. And when I cradle tomorrow in my arms, it feels as light as a feather.

rocco @ 6 months
Rocco @ 6 months … I’m still enjoying the job as much as I did @ 6 weeks!

>>>>>

The future has gotten heavier, and wears jeans, t-shirts, and beat up sneakers now. The future also wears pretty dresses and Hello Kitty hair bows (my daughter, Francesca, was born in 2003). The future is also getting hairy legs.

But I feel the same now as I did in 2002. My children continue to inspire me, and give my life meaning and purpose. Their wonder and devotion enriches every moment of every day. If anything, my love for my children has grown stronger, more intense, over the past 11 years.

And I expect it always will.

Happy Father’s Day!

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Reprinted courtesy of WAYNE TODAY, March 2002

Proud parents await Millennium’s birth

[Being a columnist allows you to chronicle the way your opinion changes (or doesn’t) over time — sometimes drastically and embarrassingly so. Nowhere is this more evident than the column below. In February 1999 I was single, childless and carefree. Compare the column below with the next one I’ll post from 2002, six weeks after becoming a father. Yeah, I know I was sort of an arrogant a-hole in 1999. Even though my feelings toward children have changed, that hasn’t.]

stop making babies
“Stop making babies” — sound advice!

Last month we discussed the Y2K bug and how it might affect air travel around the turn of the millennium. Today we’ll look at another symptom of the Y2K bug: Baby Fever.

A recent study shows that more and more young couples are competing for the honor of having the first millennium baby. The belief is that a baby born at midnight, January 1, 2000 is doubly blessed. Currently these couples are checking their ovulation cycles and making plans to fornicate on cue. The ideal time to conceive a millennium baby is late March/early April of this year—in short, any time now.

Breeders Not Welcome

My advice to young couples planning to have children is: DON’T DO IT! There are enough people on this planet already. There are plenty of unloved children who need new Mommies and Daddies if you’re really feeling paternal. Everyone, please, STOP BREEDING!

Of course, my advice will fall on deaf ears, and the babies will keep on coming. Most babies are born not out of love, but out of vanity (“Oh honey, I hope our baby has your eyes and my nose” and/or “A baby boy will carry on the family name”). Yes, your child will have physical features similar to you and your spouse (at least, you hope so).

But your child will also inherit other traits from Mommy and Daddy, like neurotic behaviors and bad table manners. With apologies to all expectant parents out there, no matter how good of a parent you think you’ll be, chances are you’ll screw up somewhere along the line. Your child will grow up to be another flawed adult who will propagate the cycle all over again. You won’t give birth to next Albert Einstein. You won’t give birth to the next Jeffrey Dahmer. You’ll give birth to the next average Jane or Joe, only they’ll look a little like you and for the first ten years of their life they’ll look up to you and think you have all the answers until they realize you’re as clueless about life as they are. I commend young couples for wanting to bring a new, hopeful life into the world, but frankly, the gene pool does not need your contribution.

Vanity, Thy Name Is Mom and Dad

If the average couple breeds out of vanity, Millennium Fever Couples take it to a whole new level. Their New Years’ baby will be revered, and, as the child’s proud parents, they will be put up on the pedestal, too. They’re not thinking of the lifetime commitment or the emotional and financial obligations that come with child rearing. They’re thinking only of their 15 minutes of fame when “Good Morning America” and “Dateline NBC” come calling to run a feature on their bouncing baby. Vanity, thy name is Mommy and Daddy.

As you can see, the Y2K bug affects not only computers but human machines as well. It threatens to send them into an irrational state where nonsense and short-sightedness chase each other in an endless loop. I can tell you exactly when the best time to conceive a Millennium Baby is—April Fool’s Day.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 1999