July 3, 2022
In addition to this fuel for your funeral home visit tonight, as a reminder from the end of my last notebook write: remember (1) to write your email addresses in the guest book to help my mom out, and (2) help us get everyone to wear masks properly in honor of people like my dad whose immunosuppression means covid’s incredible stress never ended. Also, we really, really can’t afford to get sick right now while mourning him, so please, please, please help us out. Hypothetically, you could show up, wear a mask, and technically never even say a word to us, just hang out with other people talking about him, and we would be eternally grateful for you. Thank you.
20220703 511am childhood bedroom window, birds and ceiling fan
I picked up my computer to write just now because I was lying here awake too early, unable to go back to sleep (my trademark insomnia during rough times), and I started thinking about how I might be a morning person because when I lived in my childhood home, Dad was our alarm clock. He’d open the door slowly, standing in between my room and my sister’s, and with his lovely low, sing-song voice he'd say “Emily, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to get up for school.” Then, the good morning hug ritual, which is as warm, comforting, and flawless as it sounds.
Then there’s driving in his car and that thing where you go out into the world super early, and it feels like a cool secret because everyone’s still asleep. (I’ve asked around, I know this feeling of exciting secrecy is somewhat universal.) In the years we didn’t take the bus (or we missed it, luckily with no malice ever thrown our way by our parents, thank you) and instead he drove us to grade school at Assumption in Bellevue, St. A’s in West View, and finally North Hills Junior & Senior High School, his calm demeanor and fun nature always made for good morning memories.
In grade school, he made up a game for us to play about the things we passed by on our route every day. Questions like “what kind of donut is the cop parked at that intersection eating today?” to which his imagination knew the correct answer, and “how heavy will 279 traffic be underneath our overpass?”, and “will those shoes hanging on that telephone wire still be there today?” which was an easy free point. At one point he typed up and printed out the dozen or so questions and we tracked our answers and tallied up scores. I might be a good loser because of him – among other important losing experiences in which he offered wisdom in the aftermath, I don’t remember ever getting actually upset about my sister winning over me during our morning games in his truck.
If I’m remembering correctly, I think he made up the games to distract and ease my sister’s anxiety about going to school. I never had a problem like her though (sorry, Amanda). If I look at this through a lens of psychology, I bet my second-child status, inherited personality, and the way my parents gave us freedom and a secure base, allowed me to go off into school days and life in general without too much looking back nervously. (I like to think I give that to my dog when she runs off at the dog park as if I no longer exist. For a slightly nervous puppy when meeting people anywhere else, she’s an independent, bold, social dog at the park who doesn’t need my reassurance. She knows I’m there, I’ll always be there. It’s a feeling and an instinct and a gift I'm glad to pass down.)
It’s worth mentioning that once a week, I think Thursdays, we’d go extra early to grade school at Assumption for breakfast pizza. Crispy-edged, soft-bellied, orange octagons with tiny little cubes of pepperoni washed down with chocolate milk in the same church basement/cafeteria that housed dozens of other memories. This typical Midwestern Fish Fry hall in the Spring and Bingo Hall on the weekends was where he’d later take us in black and red plaid matching outfits (including his) to meet Santa and get Muppets Christmas Carol coloring books with plastic candy canes full of little Reese’s peanut butter cups, and where he’d construct and run the lighting for their community theater productions for years.
He had a bachelors in stage lighting and design. Later on, after I graduated North Hills High School, he went back and worked on their musicals and plays, too. I have pictures of him after a few of these shows when we went to watch his lighting, and there’s a true glint of post-show joy in his eyes. He loved working in theater. It was a big part of his life growing up, too – he met my mom when he was a wizard and she, a pregnant princess in “Once Upon a Mattress”.
I’m not doing his theater career justice by tossing it out so quickly, it was a deep love for him. Even in his final week at Shadyside Hospital, on a day where we talked about loose ends (“just to ease any stress, not because we’ve lost hope – dialectically, two opposites both true, you know” as I emphasized), he asked me to reach out to the directors of North Hills’ theater, to tell his most recent class of theater tech students “how important they are to him.” I’ve heard his stories about them, those students gave him the triple-whammy gift of (1) teaching (2) his beloved theater tech (3) in father-mode. Dad was so skilled at and proud of being a dad. I thought it was such a gift that he got to be a father-like figure in a teaching/mentorship way to those students after my parents empty-nested.
My mom didn’t exaggerate in the obituary: his “proudest achievement” was indeed being a father (although, Mom, I'd argue being a husband was tied for first). He always told me that ever since he was little he knew it was what he wanted to be the most. It was his most important thing in a way that always used to make me wonder what the big deal was, because although I’ve never been against it, I didn’t dream about it when I was a kid like he did. That's not to say I took my family for granted, I totally got how good love felt - but you know, after watching us all support him and each other in our own unique ways during those final hospital weeks, it finally clicked for me how right he was about the whole topic. We’re our own little universe, because of him and Mom. “There but for the grace of God go I”, one of his trademark phrases about empathy, is what I’m thinking about now; although it’s surely a lot of work, being a dad was so rewarding for him along the way anyway, and most importantly, in his final weeks he didn’t have to be alone at the end, simply because he had prioritized the profession of being a dad.
Skipping backwards a little here, speaking of his undergraduate degree, it was from the University of Pittsburgh, getting up this early reminds me of my own freshman year at Pitt, waking up to write and watch the sunrise every day. I’m thorough if anything, and I don’t like using over-generalizations lightly – it was an almost every day ritual for years, regardless of if I was even out late partying or something (god bless my roommate for never complaining even once). I lived in Tower A between Forbes and Fifth Ave in Oakland, on floor 13 with a view over Schenley Park (after which I’d later name my dog). I remember thinking I didn’t want to waste an opportunity to watch a sunrise out of such a phenomenal spot, like a hotel room that would cost a premium. Dad was scared of heights, but loved high views. At the hospital, when they do those alertness checks and ask "where are you?", he told nearly every single nurse he was on the top floor of that hospital. He was not. It was floor 5 and 6 (he got moved I think 5 times during that ordeal). The hospital went to 7 floors, I think. I think he's like me and that incredible view of the Cathedral of Learning outside his window was enough for him to believe he was indeed at the Top of the World.
The birds remind me of Dad, too, and how right below on the patio below my childhood bedroom window here, he’d feed his friends. Let me be clear: he had bird friends in our neighborhood. Regulars to Chef Joe at Patio Cafe that preferred certain seeds and nuts over others. He loved birds. We’re talking binoculars and books on the subject. Although I think he tried out a good deal of different bird calls he’d learn from an app on his phone, there’s this one in particular I can hear him in my head now, a three-times waterfall cascade of a call with a meaty lip and teeth whistle. But most importantly, I'd be amiss to not mention the blue jays he fed the peanuts. Last year, I took a video of it and shared it on my Instagram: the man puts out a peanut on the picnic table, waits, and the blue jays come on cue. Beautifully, but tragically, lately they’ve been lingering on the patio waiting for the peanut man, so I think I’ll start going out there with the nut tins I found in his room. Maybe after this write.
As I was saying before, Pitt. Just like I followed in Dad’s footsteps by attending the University of Pittsburgh, I also joined 92.1 WPTS radio, which was previously WPGH when he was there (see yellow shirt on left in picture) where he deejayed and performed comedy skits with his siblings. I deejayed my own Monday Morning Glory wakeup show from 5-7am, inspired by my morning writes, and named by him. I remember how I called him that day and he thought about it for a beat, then, feeling inspired himself, suggested it: "Monday Morning Glory."
I’d stop at the 7/11 under the quad on my way to the Union so I could grab a pack of mini powdered sugar donuts and black coffee to sneak in with me because they reminded me of Dad and since I was learning how to eat junk food at the time (long story), salience from a loving association always helped me. Also, if you caught that slip because you too worked at a radio station, yeah, we weren’t supposed to bring food in the studio. I ate across the room away from the console. I'm really not a natural rule-breaker so even sharing this fact right now is pretty risqué for me. Also, for what it's worth, unsurprisingly for college kids, I always had the whole station to myself in those stupid-early hours of the morning, so I wasn't fooling around, I stayed careful with those crumbs and drips. It meant a lot to me at that time to have him in the room with me metaphorically via little donuts. I printed purple and gold sunrise business cards for Monday Morning Glory and found some of them yesterday while cleaning out his bedroom. He kept them. That is so cute and endearing. Of course I cried a little, tenderly.
His dad was a chemistry professor at Pitt so Dad and all his siblings went there, too, carpooling with their father in the morning and sleeping in his office in between classes or deejaying radio shows, as the stories go. From what I heard, his Pitt years were full of radio, theater, coffee, cigarettes, fries from the Dirty O, and time with his siblings.
Joe Fones was Dad's nickname in his early radio days when he started climbing the ladder by answering the request line and developing marketing plans about what he learned from his callers' demographics. Joe Fones turned into Foe Jones, his on-air radio identity that he used across his career, a superhero’s moniker born of his wordplay. He even used Foe Jones recently when he helped me with placing my Millaze music on some radio across the country this past year (thanks again for that help, Dad!). His final radio moniker was Cap'n Andy for his syndicated "Pirate Radio" show created from his studio on the North Side during his 50's.
I’d heard the individual stories of his radio DJ career hundreds of times across my life, but I wanted to hear the timeline clearly and in order, so I recorded one voice memo of him explaining it during our dozens of hours at the hospital this past month. It’s titled “20220625 Dad Radio Timeline” and it was the tail end of an all-nighter we had, chatting in the ICU. The memo ends with me putting him back to sleep and us both saying I love you. (Not that I needed those three words recorded, but that was a nice extra little gift.) *UPDATE on November 1, 2022: I used this voice memo in the produced version of Pop Quiz.
My room is currently clothed in his collection of radio t-shirts from different jobs of his and my mom's over the years. They're air-drying in my attempt to preserve the ink. I found them yesterday in a bottom drawer and instantly remembered their screenprint designs because my sister and I wore some of them when we were little. Especially this one whacky purple one with a dancing man named “Joe Piano” from Pittsburgh’s 102.5 WDVE (see purple shirt on right in picture) – I think that might be my mom’s shirt actually. These writes are super Dad-heavy, but my mom is also a massive influence in my story, too, including what I’m about to say about the topic of going after dream careers:
Dad is a major reason I was able to start my dream music career and found MIC: Music Industry Connected. Here are the two reasons why:
First off, he was also an entrepreneur in many ways, starting with his carpentry career making Amish-style toy boxes and quilt racks customized with children’s names (his brilliant business mind figured out that there was a demand for them in JCPenny and the like in the off-season when the local Amish rested for the winter back in the 90's), memory clocks printed with names and dates to commemorate weddings and anniversaries (I have one for my wedding three years ago), fun stools made with legs of baseball bats and a baseball-seat or basketball nets hovering underneath basketball-seats, and endless amounts of custom furniture. Our house, and the lives of all our friends and family, is packed with his furniture. All of his products would last an apocalypse - quality and longevity mattered to Dad so everything he made is insanely sturdy, truly carpentry art.
Later on, he started other businesses like Nagrobek Memorials (wooden pet grave markers made of live edge cookies cut from black locust for which I helped him table at the Pittsburgh Pet Expo years ago), selling industrial machinery with his brother, and his piece de resistance: his “Pirate Radio” syndicated radio show package he sold to stations. The man was the original (but super loving, not judgemental version of a) hipster, and he passed it to me: we generally gravitate away from the mainstream, like in radio choices. (Yeah, although over the years I've garnered an appreciation for them for sheer requirement of my MIC Mountain music career work, I don't feel the same magnetic quality as other people and I believe it's because of my dad's genetics.) Instead, we dive in to find those valuable deep cuts on an album. And he loved the story of FM Pirate Radio, people who’d broadcast on ships perfectly out of reach of FCC regulation for the love of playing the full-length album cuts of songs that Top 40 radio got in the habit of chopping down. All of that is to say: he’s an entrepreneur that inspired me to be one, too. Actually, I didn’t even totally realize I’d incepted the belief that I could do anything I wanted until I was already doing it.
Second off, MIC exists to share a “Mountain” process manual (writing these is a shared specialty of my dad and myself, because it’s a combo deal of teaching and simplifying, two of his favorite things) teaching people how to simplify music careers to get to the art more often. It’s filled with business wisdoms he taught me, especially “K.I.S.S – Keep it Simple, Stupid.” And most importantly, the heart of MIC’s Mountain is the idea that the “Doing of the Thing is the Thing”, meaning it’s important to stay present in the moment, appreciating the thing you’re doing as you’re doing it so you feel satisfied regardless of random, arbitrary, toxic measures of “success.” He didn't sweat other peoples' opinions, he cared about his own.
He went after his dream radio career. Period, end of report. That dream was born from a childhood of falling asleep with a radio under his pillow, thinking about how he, too, wanted to one day be a DJ talking to one, single child miles away, giving them a beautiful world of music and talk. I used that advice in my WPTS radio show, during public speaking forensics tournaments, on stage during musicals and plays, and I use it now when I release or perform music: it’s all about a one-on-one relationship with a single listener. It’s simple, he'd tell me. He had a dream career, and he went after it, and although he had to make a choice to move back to Pittsburgh in order to have a family (his priority dream), he had still done the thing. Not everyone goes after their dream careers, and that’s okay, not even everyone has one – but when I incepted mine, analyzing the liner notes on CD cases with eyes of wonder on this same bed when I was in grade school, thinking “I’m going to do this one day” without a second thought of doubt, that was because of him and his influence on me: you’re allowed to dream and go after something. Again: It’s simple.
Speaking of my music: if you’ve listened to my music you’ll know that my Carnegie Stacks album starts with the sound of his voice, singing one of his (two) lullabies, and A Note on the Author has one of our morning fishing trips. The voice recordings I have of him are epic and I am so grateful that I live during this age of technology so I get to save them and use them in my music. He's his own instrument to me; his rich, low, warm voice reverberates in my chest and calms me down like music.
Family legend has it that when I was in Mom’s belly, I’d get all worked up at 9pm every night, which my mom definitely loved. They eventually figured out a magical solution and started a nightly ritual: when I started to kick, dad would talk to me through her pajamas and I’d calm down. When I was born, I stopped crying when I heard my dad say my name, and as long as he held me and talked to me, I was silent and calm in the hospital delivery room. The moment the nurse took me away from him? Wails.
My life would continue to be packed to the brim with music (dancing to records in the basement den, listening to albums in the truck, singing in my mom’s choirs and sitting on her organ bench next to her, and so much more), and I believe that it all started with his voice, sing-songing my name from another dimension while I floated in a womb. There’s some metaphor about the afterlife here, I’m sure. I’m still a sucker for a low manly voice, I melt.
It's 745 now and I have a lot to do today so I’m going to post this, and like I said in the italic intro, I hope this helps your small talk tonight at the funeral home and tomorrow at the wake - he really wants you all to come together happily in his memory, not depressed. Help us while we work on that, too. Please remember my request about guest book email addresses and helping everyone not forget to wear masks – dad appreciates you for respecting all the immunocompromised out there, and for keeping us, his family, healthy right now.
I’ll be back soon because I want to share our final conversation as he held my hand and passed away. It's the stuff of legends.