Category Archives: Fatherhood

‘Warde,’ old dad

“My dad is warde.”

That sentence was the first one my daughter, Anna, wrote in first grade. She started first grade last Wednesday and, a few days ago, she came home, we began to go through her folder, and she pulled out a piece of paper with several written sentences.

For those unfamiliar with early first grade handwriting/spelling, “warde” means weird. The first sentence Anna wrote as a first-grade meant to read, “My dad is weird.”

Anna was pumped for her first day of first grade. Sorry for the shadow.

Anna was pumped for her first day of first grade. Sorry for the shadow.

Well, Anna is right. I’m a little off. I must be having worked nights and weekends the past 18 years. Then again, I’m fairly certain I’ve never come across anyone normal. So, in my opinion, we’re all a little “warde.”

The sentence caught me off-guard, though. For years, I was Anna’s self-described “best friend.” She loved my music, pretended to pay attention to Pitt basketball and the Pirates and put me on a pedestal.

Things shifted during kindergarten and, by Father’s Day, I knew exactly where I ranked. The homemade card read,” Dad, you’re still my friend but you’re not my best friend.” On her list of best friends, I now rank eighth.

In reality, I probably rank a little lower and, while it’s a bruise to the ego, it’s also OK. Anna looks at me sometimes like I have an ear growing from my forehead, especially when I’m jamming in the car. She still goes to hold my hand but, once she realizes what she’s doing, Anna quickly pulls back. Rock music is no longer appreciated. It’s all Taylor Swift and Katy Perry all the time.

When I drop her off at Hutchinson Elementary, I tell her, “Love you, kiddo.” She replies, “OK, dad.” She shuts the door and heads up the stairs to school. I watch her walk up before I pull away. For a few seconds, I think about old times and where life may take her. To me, she’s still my little buddy. I’ll probably always think of her that way.

First-grader-to-be

Anna was dropped off at Amos K. Hutchinson Elementary School last Thursday just like nearly every other weekday morning the past nine months, but there were several differences.

  • Anna wore a pinkish-orange dress – something she picked out and purchased for herself while shopping with her mother. Given her propensity for making messes, wearing dresses to school was reserved for special occasions.
  • She went armed with a homemade card for Mr. Kepple – her kindergarten teacher.
  • Finally, Anna was dropped off just before 9 a.m. An hour later, she’d be leaving.
Anna Noel Kovak proudly holds her homemade card for her kindergarten teacher, Mr. Kepple, who Anna calls, "the best teacher ever."

Anna Noel Kovak proudly holds her homemade card for her kindergarten teacher, Mr. Kepple, who Anna calls, “the best teacher ever.”

Last Thursday was Anna’s last day in kindergarten. My bubbly, kind, caring, intelligent and funny 6-year-old is officially a first-grader-to-be.

Where did the time go?

It seems like only a few weeks ago when I walked Anna to school for her first day as an elementary student. She was excited beyond belief, and she sang a tune from Mary Poppins as we walked – hand-in-hand – toward the front entrance. And it didn’t seem like nearly 10 months passed since I took her to Kinder Camp, a weeklong program designed to get students acclimated to the new environment.

So many things about Anna made me believe she’d excel in a daily school setting and, so far, those premonitions have proven correct. She excels in mathematics. She reads books cover to cover with little need for help from mom or dad. Friends squeal with delight when they see Anna. Teachers like her. And she loves her teachers. (Mr. Kepple, if you end up reading this, Anna already misses you.)

Like I said months ago on this blog, she’s owning that school.

And I’m so proud of her.

Anna made tremendous strides in kindergarten, and she’s growing up more quickly than I could ever imagine. Her progress academically is amazing. She’s growing vertically, too. She still talks people’s ears off, but is learning there are times when it’s important to zip it shut. Anna will still walk hand-in-hand with me, just not for the long stretches I grew accustomed to.

And, it’s official. I now embarrass my daughter.

She best get used to it. We’ve got a long way to go together. Too bad it will pass in the blink of an eye.

Rest easy, old friend

I’ve always been a person who’s never been completely comfortable or confident, but I still remember the first time I actually felt cool.

I was a junior at Somerset Area High School and, at the time, a popular activity on the social calendar was keg parties at David Berman’s house. It was in Berman’s backyard where I first met Mike Hinton, and one of his younger brothers, Joe.

Now, I hadn’t met the Hintons before this party, but I sure did hear about them. The Hinton brothers were cool, or so was the word. After hanging with both in Berman’s backyard, those stories were validated. Actually, they were shattered. Mike and Joe were beyond cool.

And I left that party feeling better about myself, a rarity during my incredibly awkward teenage years. I wasn’t the only one. Brian Lizambri rode home with me. Like me, he didn’t know Mike and Joe before the party. And, like me, he left that party with a strong understanding of why we heard about the boys from Shanksville well before hanging out with them at Berman’s. I still remember B and I talking about how we hoped to hang out with them more often.

Over the next few years, I had the pleasure of spending time with Mike and Joe Hinton. From all those keg parties in the countryside of Somerset County to beach volleyball games at Seven Springs to sitting around parking lots looking for something to do, if they were there, I wanted to be there. The best part? They seemed as happy to see me as I was seeing them. Joe and I even formed a “gang” we dubbed, “The Vultures.” Membership was exclusive – a two-person crew that came about when we each noticed we were getting ready to hit on the same female at a keg party somewhere in Zehnersville. The last time I saw Joe in a social setting, he greeted me with our old Vultures signal. It made my night.

It’s never easy pinpointing characteristics or traits that make some people great, but that’s not the case here. Mike Hinton had a way of making you feel welcomed. He listened. He gave your words weight. You felt like you mattered. It doesn’t get any more genuine than that. If you’re looking for greatness, look no further.

My only contact with Mike in recent years came via Facebook and Twitter, but when word of his untimely death got to me in a text from P.J. Brown Saturday afternoon, a flood of memories came rushing back, including one I’m not sure I ever shared. The day before I moved into the University of Pittsburgh, the crew was at Seven Springs to play beach volleyball. I left early for another destination, but left my volleyball with the boys. Mike brought the ball back to my house, and when I returned home, it was sitting by the front door. As I approached, I noticed a piece of paper with the ball. It was a note from Mike. Now, when I return home from vacation in two days, I’ll dig through old photos to share, but the details of the note will remain private. Rest assured the note – worn and faded – still sits among those old memories, a wonderful reminder of an amazing time of my life.

Time made better by Mike Hinton – a husband, father, brother, son and friend to many.

Rest easy, old friend.

Growing old gracefully? Not exactly

That's me on the left. The hairline receded a little, and I'm pretty sure my nose actually got bigger over the years.

That’s me on the left. The hairline receded a little, and I’m pretty sure my nose actually got bigger over the years.

Guys, we can exercise, party, kid around and act young, but there’s no hiding an ugly truth.

We’re getting old.

Hairs are growing where they never did. Hangovers last so long, swearing off drinking entirely sounds reasonable. Joints creak. Muscles ache. Getting up at night to go to the bathroom isn’t an inconvenience; it’s simply part of the routine.

A couple doses of growing old truth serum were served to me recently. The first came last Tuesday evening when this 40-year-old challenged himself to hang with high school seniors trying out for the Washington-Greene High School Senior All-Star Basketball Game, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Washington, for an upcoming feature in the Observer-Reporter.

I consider myself to be in good shape. I run regularly for long distances and at faster-than-average speeds. I’ve placed in my age group at races. I lift weights five days a week. I play racquetball and walk our dog, Ringo, … ok, enough already, right?

The fact is, no matter how much I train, I can’t hang with the speed and energy of 17- and 18-year-old kids. That became evident during the layup line at tryouts. Granted, the line lasted for 12 minutes – 12 minutes! – but it wasn’t long before the breathing turned heavy. As for getting off the ground, a four-inch vertical leap was on full display – over and over. When it came time to get on the court, I was tired. The kids were just getting started.

The second dose hit the next morning in spin class. Normally, spin class is reserved for Friday morning but Erin wasn’t working and she wanted to do spin class. I originally balked. but relented. After all, spin class is an outstanding way to train for distance running. It strengthens legs, bolsters endurance and commands complete attention.

I’d like to blame her for what happened next, but, let’s face it, I’m getting old.

About 30 minutes into class, I rose from the seat for a climb when I felt something unusual in my right foot. On rare occasions, the pedal causes a slight discomfort – unlike many enthusiasts, I spin in sneakers. This, however, was different. It was actual pain.

So guess what?

Yep, I kept riding.

Who says people get smarter with age?

I finished class, but I knew something was off. As the day continued, I became convinced something was broken. Walking was excruciating. Shoes provided instant discomfort. Of course, I didn’t go to the doctor. Instead, I went to work.

After dropping Anna off at school Thursday morning, a visit to MedExpress was in order and, after a few x-rays, a diagnosis of a foot sprain was given.

It’s Monday afternoon and that right foot still hurts. A few people told me foot sprains are worse than breaks. I wouldn’t know, but I know foot sprains suck. I’m basically confined to the house with the exception of going to work. It’s making me a bit stir crazy, even if I downloaded Trivia Crack.

Getting old kinda sucks, too. I can’t do many of the things I used to accomplish, and I’m beginning to realize achieving certain goals I’ve set for myself may be better suited for less mature audiences.

Now, it’s time to try and get off the couch.

Happy birthday, old friend

Marley in his old age

Marley in his old age

Hadn’t been out of the University of Pittsburgh for a year when my roommate in a terribly low-grade, poorly located “townhouse” decided he wanted a golden retriever. He grew up with them.

So, the search began for a female golden retriever. For two guys – one a hardcore gambler (him), and the other an unmotivated, wannabe journalist (me) – it was a difficult search. Pure-bred dogs cost big bucks, something neither of us had.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, news broke. A female golden retriever living next door to the house where my future brother-in-law was living was impregnated by a roaming farm dog. The result?

My  Marley shrine in my man cave

My Marley shrine in my man cave

A litter of mixed-breed puppies that looked a lot like golden retrievers. Since they weren’t pure-bred, the puppies were being given away.

Up for adoption was a male puppy. I informed my roommate.

He hoped for a female but quickly agreed to take on the responsibilities. This dog was coming to Dormont, where we moved after an epic stay in South Oakland.

Neither of us knew what we were getting into, but Marley, a 7-pound butterball of cuteness was sharing our place.  Strangers swooned over him. Some going as far as saying he needed to be on television.

Yep, Marley (named for my love of Bob Marley after the original suggestion of Bob – Bob Marley, Bob Weir, Bob Dylan –  was shot down) was adorable, friendly and a picturesque puppy.

He was also an incredible handful with a voracious appetite.

Marley got into everything – garbage, cakes, empty beer bottles (he loved beer), food, the fridge. He’d stick his face into the bathtub during a shower and try to drink water. He’d stop to visit every person walking by, as he was certain every human found him impossibly adorable and wanted to pet him. He ate furniture and shoes. He stole food and beer from people at parties.  It took nearly a full year to house train him.

Marley also quickly attached himself to me.

It happened one sunny afternoon at a nearby park, where he once ran at a toddler, tackled him to the ground and proceeded to lick his face in glee. Marley was tiny and the grass was tall. He was unsure of my whereabouts, but when he found me, he couldn’t have been happier.

From that point onward, we were running partners.

Marley followed me everywhere. When he didn’t follow me, he was watching me. An incredible friendship was in its initial stages.

And to think, I almost gave up on him.

Marley was so ornery and exuded so much energy, I didn’t think I’d handle the important tasks of raising him. There were moments I was convinced I needed to help find Marley another owner.

But then that growing, adorable, wild man would look at me, and I knew I couldn’t.

Over time, Marley became a constant companion. We were a tag team, like the Rock and Roll Express, the Midnight Express or the Road Warriors, It was tough picturing one without the other. I’d walk or run him 3-5 times each day. I’d take him everywhere I could. He’d go hours without going inside the house while I was at work.

We moved all over the place – Dormont, South Side, South Park, Bethel Park, Dormont (again) and, finally, the Westwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Marley always adjusted quickly.

He forced me to be responsible when I wasn’t ready. Those extra drinks I’d normally have with friends, well, the dog hadn’t been out since 8 p.m.  Had to get home.

Without Marley, I doubt I’d be the family man I am now. Sure, I’m not perfect. But neither was Marley, and we needed to learn from each other.

Marley, who was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1998, slowly aged until he hit 12, when his hips began to weaken. He hung tough for a couple more years until he couldn’t go anymore. I knew it was time. He knew it was time. Everyone else knew it was time.

But June 27, 2012, remains the toughest day of my life.

Walking into the vet that evening, Marley said hello to another dog. We went to a room where they left us alone. I sobbed. I apologized for not being a better owner. I told him how much I loved him and how vital he was. I thanked him for being a great friend and incredible with Anna, who was three when Marley died. When an assistant entered the room for payment information, I got up. Marley shot up with one last burst of energy. I’m convinced he knew what was happening, and there was no way he wanted to left alone. Don’t worry. I didn’t leave. We had one last thing to do together.

He wasn’t perfect, but perfect dogs don’t have as much personality. And Marley had the latter in bunches.

There’s some funny parallels to the movie “Marley and Me.” I’m a newspaper man, just like John Grogan. I owned a golden retriever named Marley, and he was named for Bob Marley. (And no, my Marley was around long before the book became a household read.) My friends often said if my life were a movie, Owen Wilson would star in the lead role. The lead male in “Marley and Me”? You guessed it.

There’s so many stories about Marley, but he’ll never be immortalized on the silver screen or in a novel. It’s already been done.

He’d be 17 today, and I still miss him. Anna does too. She talks about him regularly though I’m not certain how she remembers him.

I know I’ll never forget him, from how he rough-housed with friends to how he sat with his head in my wife’s lap while she was fighting off going into labor during the Steelers’ Super Bowl win over Arizona to his last meal – a meatball hoagie.

Happy birthday, old friend. Long may you run.

photo (12)

The “joys” of home ownership

Old Man Winter is awfully cranky lately. Below-zero temperatures. Battering wind chills. And, lately, ice and snow joined the mix.

It’s enough to make a person want to stay inside with a crackling fire, thick socks and thicker blankets.

Inside the Kovak house, Old Man Winter (or maybe it’s just me) has been awfully cranky lately, too. There are thousands of reasons why.

New water heater, Check.

New furnace motor. Check.

New sewage pipes. Check.

It's not a pleasant smell after a cast-iron stack pipe is cut.

It’s not a pleasant smell after a cast-iron stack pipe is cut.

As for the thousands of reasons, it’s all monetary. These fixes, replacements and repairs run well into four figures.

Springtime can’t arrive soon enough.

If you’re a home owner, you can probably relate. Things always need fixed, upgraded or replaced. During fortunate times, light bulbs, furnace filters, door knobs and paint jobs are among the laundry list of chores. These, however, aren’t fortunate times.

The water heater and furnace motor were two things, the stack lines were entirely another.

The problem dates back to late fall, when Erin and I bought a washer and dryer as Christmas presents for each other. (I was only down for this if the dryer was gifted to me.) The hose drains into a double-tub basement sink, which shares a stack line with our second-floor bathroom.

The tubs were quick-filling and slow-draining, but the problem didn’t swell to the point of alarm until about a month ago. That’s when the water line rose awfully close to top of the sink. Well, it wasn’t long before those waters started overflowing, creating a mucky pond on the basement floor.

Now, I’m no MacGyver. I can’t build a house from match sticks and chewing gum,. but I’m a bit handy when it comes to plumbing.

So I went to work.

The sink was snaked. Lead pencils, ribbons and pens caps were pulled up (exactly what did the previous homeowner do with themselves!). Sadly, the waters still rose and overflowed.

Industrial strength pipe cleaner was purchased in bulk. It seemed to loosen things up, but the waters still rose and overflowed.

Finally, a shop-vac was used to pump gunk from the pipes. The gunk kept coming and coming and … get the idea?

Convinced a professional was needed, a call was placed to Try County Plumbing. The owner arrived, prepared for a quick repair.

No such luck.

The stack pipe, made of popular 1950s product terra-cotta, was broken. Sewage was basically sitting underneath the basement floor. The job required jackhammers, an unending supply of buckets to haul away debris, a healthy constitution to fight off the smell and patience. The second-floor bathroom, where the bathtub/shower is located was off-limits. The washer and dryer were rendered useless.

Ahhhhh, the joys of home ownership.

Yep, this winter had me reminiscing about life as a renter, when problems were an inconvenience but the financial responsibility of a landlord. Life can be simpler as a renter, but not necessarily fulfilling. Since moving into the Hillcrest neighborhood of Greensburg, we’ve undertaken a long list of projects, and there’s no end in sight. But this house is a home. And it’s hard to put a price on that.

Happy birthday, Anna

Erin began having serious labor pains sometime during the second half of Super Bowl XLIII. A call was placed to the doctor. Erin wanted to finish watching the game, so did the doctor. I was ready to roll.

Her breathing intensified as the great Larry Fitzgerald shredded the Steelers’ defense for a late touchdown and a lead for the Cardinals. Our old, faithful golden retriever, Marley, was right by Erin’s side, his head occasionally on her lap in a canine’s attempt to make everything better.

Not long after Ben Roethlisberger’s game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, we were in the car and on our way through Pittsburgh to Magee Women’s Hospital.

Between 1 and 2 a.m., Anna Noel Kovak was born, and my life was forever changed.

Anna spent Saturday in Elsa costume for a Frozen birthday party with 12 of her closest friends.

Anna spent Saturday in Elsa costume for a Frozen birthday party with 12 of her closest friends.

After cutting the umbilical cord, nurses cleaned and wrapped Anna and asked if I’d like to hold her. There she was, all 7 pounds and 6 ounces of her. Wrinkly face. Dark hair.

Completely beautiful.

Now, there have been some powerful moments in my life – getting married, the precise moment the Grateful Dead’s music became an eternal soundtrack and, heck, even the time former Observer-Reporter sports editor Tom Rose was arrested. (If you need the details, fire up the Google machine.)

But I’ll never forget what ran through my mind the second I held Anna in my arms and looked into her eyes.

“I don’t know a thing about you, but I know I’ll die for you.”

Crocodile tears poured from my eyes. I was instantly smitten. Six years later, I still am.

Anna rules.

Anna rules.

Today marks Anna’s sixth birthday. She’s at school and I’m about to get ready for work, but it doesn’t damper the mood. She’s an incredible friend, and Anna amazes me on a daily basis. I marvel at her enthusiasm (a mother once told me Anna makes a story about eating bananas for snack exciting). her quest for knowledge, her sweetness and her exuberant personality. There’s nothing I don’t love about her, from the way she says “Daddy” to the way her pants always find a way to drift below her waistline in public.

Happy birthday, Anna Banana.