A whisper of hope falls silent

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We last spoke on Father’s Day 2017.

I delayed calling in part because I never made the effort to send your card, and a small part of me felt guilty.

I didn’t want to explain myself to someone who wouldn’t understand. I tried that before, and my words never mattered. I’ve written countless such words, and heard no expression of regret.

No answers.

No apologies.

Why should I keep trying? Words only matter to people who want to hear them, and mine never seemed to matter.

I don’t know why I would feel guilty about not sending a Father’s Day card. It’s not as though Father’s Day holds any special meaning to me.

We set aside that day to honor our fathers, to thank the men who raised us and made us who we are today.

What would I say to you? Thank you for not being there?

I still have the card. Karen bought it a few days before Father’s Day so I could send it to you, but I never mailed it.

She knows what kind of card to buy. Nothing mushy or thankful. Nothing crude or juvenile. And nothing personal. Just a plain card that acknowledges Father’s Day, one I could simply sign my name and be done with it.

But I didn’t have your address. You had just moved into assisted living, and didn’t send it to me. Doesn’t the person who moves usually tell people their new address, especially their children?

I kept waiting for an email, card or phone call to tell me your new address, but it never came. I guess you couldn’t make the time, much like I hadn’t.

So I delayed calling you on Father’s Day, and felt a small sense of relief when I saw your name on the caller ID.

We didn’t speak long, but you were in a surprisingly good mood, a stark contrast from our other recent conversations. We wished each other a happy Father’s Day.

I updated you on your grandchildren’s lives, and you told me how you were adjusting to your new life in assisted living. Things seemed to be going well. You gave me your address and voiced no complaints.

We hung up after 10 or 15 minutes, just about the time we ran out of mundane topics to talk about. But it was a good conversation, as shallow as it was. I even told Karen as much.

Of course, I didn’t know that would be the last time we’d speak. You died six days later. But even if I had known, I’m not sure I could have said what I would want to say.

I’ve said it before, and you voiced no regret.

No sorrow.

No apology.

No acknowledgement of the hardship you caused by leaving us 40-some years ago for a younger woman. No sorrow for forcing us to grow up fatherless.

That’s all I wanted. A simple, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand what my absence would mean.”

It never came, and now it never can, even though I had no reason to believe it ever would.

History told me it would never come, but a piece of me, an ever-shrinking piece of me, still held out hope. Children always hope. Even as adults we hope.

Not anymore. The whisper of hope I once heard fell silent a year ago.

Children usually mourn a parent’s passing, and remember the good times they shared.

I have no such memories involving you, so how could I grieve your passing? I’ve never wished for more time together because we spent so little time with each other, and the time we did spend together felt like an obligation neither of us wanted.

What good is an occasional weekend together when the moments that matter most occur unscripted in the mundaneness of everyday life?

I don’t know how to mourn someone who went out of his way to exclude me from his life. I don’t know how to grieve for someone who only wanted to talk on the phone and exchange greeting cards.

But I do know how to mourn the loss of something that can never be.

Rest in peace.

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Farewell, ol’ friend

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I learned on Friday that an old friend is about to die.

She’s been sick for a long time, so her death comes as no surprise, but that doesn’t lift the veil of sadness when I think of her imminent death.

candle burningHow could it? I’ve known her for more than half my life, and gave her almost as much as she gave me.

She introduced me to some wonderful people, including the woman I married, and exposed me to several others whose names and faces make my skin crawl.

Our relationship was much like a cliched roller coaster, with peaks so high I thought I would never come down and valleys so low I felt ill. She made me laugh more times than I can count, but also made me lose more sleep than both my children did when they were babies.

She allowed me to make some of my worst mistakes, and forced me to improve in ways I hadn’t thought needed improvement.

I wouldn’t be who I am if she hadn’t entered my life. I like to think I had the same effect on her, but she’s never expressed her feelings well. She’s had her moments, but each one came with a caveat and an equally mixed message I often had trouble deciphering. With her, yesterday never seemed to matter as much as tomorrow, and tomorrow never arrived.

As I visited her on her deathbed this week, I thought of the early days of our relationship when everything was new and intoxicating. Every week brought a different adventure, and each adventure created memories I both cherish and dread even as they fade and I grey.

Through her I could persuade people to stand and cheer or shake their head in disbelief.

Through her people gave me more credit than I deserved and more blame than I should have shouldered.

And through her people looked at me with envy, but also questioned my humanity.

I don’t know why I feel this sense of loss. I left our relationship several years ago when she asked me, and several other of her old friends, to leave her alone. The world had changed, and she wanted to change with it. What better way to do that than shed your past?

She had been ill for several years by that time, and kept fighting off new symptoms as they arose. She would remove a limb when it atrophied or try a new therapy to see if it could restore blood flow, but nothing worked.

Some people might blame her for her own death, as though she were a smoker dying of lung cancer, a victim of her own naiveté. But that unfairly simplifies her illness, and she cherishes nothing if not fairness.

The world changed too much since her glory days, and she couldn’t change with it. She’s an iron horse in a world built for cars, a 500-page biography on a shelf with room for only 140 characters.

Who is she? She’s The Gazette, and she’s publishing her final editions next week. Farewell, ol’ friend. We had some good times together.

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A Little League team cheated? I’m not surprised.

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I wish I was surprised by the news that Little League® International stripped a Chicago-area youth baseball team of its 2014 World Series title after determining that the team included players who lived outside its boundaries.

home plateBut I can’t even pretend to be surprised. It’s merely the result of hyper-competitive parents who want their children to win so badly they bend the rules off the field while trying to teach their children the rules of the game on the field.

In the end, the children lose more than they otherwise would have if everyone just played fairly.

I may not be the most experienced dad in youth sports, but I’ve coached enough of Gavin’s baseball teams and sat through my share of Celeste’s basketball games to see competitiveness trump fairness.

It’s nothing short of ugly.

I saw a 14U girls’ basketball coach continue to put his best players on the court well into the third quarter, and tell them to run down the clock, even though his girls were up by 35 points.

So much for teaching mercy.

A few weeks earlier, I saw a different coach tell his girls to shout whenever their opponents (Celeste and her teammates) shot the ball in an attempt to distract them because they were losing the game.

So much for teaching fairness.

Gavin didn’t even want to play basketball this season because his coach from last year spent more time yelling at the players than coaching.

So much for teaching basic skills of the game.

Such behavior isn’t confined to the basketball court. I’m about to start my fourth spring as Gavin’s baseball coach, and have seen plenty of bad sportsmanship on the diamond.

I’ve seen coaches yell at their 9- and 10-year-old players for missing an easy grounder, chastise teenage umpires for calling a liberal strike zone, and ignore the pitch-count limit.

Until youth coaches see the members of their team as children and not potential professional athletes, someone will continue to bend the rules until our children break.

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Some guys yell at football, I yell during ‘Switched at Birth’

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Like most American men, I’ve been known to yell at the TV.

Some men scream at the quarterback for throwing an interception with two minutes left in the fourth while others passionately correct the cable-news talking heads with whom they disagree.

Switched at Birth

ABC Family/Andrew Eccles

Me? I yell at the characters in “Switched at Birth,” the ABC Family show about two teenage girls who were, you guessed it, switched at birth. Drama erupts every episode because the two families move in together (sort of, anyway) so they can get to know each other.

One family is fatherless and lives in a poor part of town while the other is well-to-do because the father is a retired Major League Baseball player who owns a local chain of car washes. All the characters make so many bad decisions I could wind up horse after each episode if I didn’t control myself.

Of course, I haven’t always yelled at “Switched at Birth.” In fact, I barely knew about the show until Karen watched a few episodes with Celeste, our 13-year-old daughter, on an otherwise boring day a month or so ago.

It hooked me from the start, probably because of its unusual storytelling. The show not only revolves around the rare occurrence of babies switched at birth, but one of the girls lost her hearing at age 3 after contracting meningitis. As a result, many of the characters are deaf, so the show prominently features American Sign Language.

But what I like most about the show is that it puts teenagers in real-life (or at least near-life) situations, and gives me the perfect excuse to talk with Celeste about those situations without having to lecture or feel awkward.

For example, one of the storylines in the first season revolves around Bay (the daughter who can hear) and her love of doing street art, which is just a euphemism for talented graffiti. She’s been at it for two years, and has hid it from her parents.

Her father learns of her passion only after she tags one of his car washes to impress a group of new friends (other street artists who want Bay to prove herself). He expresses his frustration at the graffiti despite Bay defending it as artists (including herself) expressing themselves.

Her father refuses to budge, belittles the graffiti, and considers it nothing more than “gang-bangers destroying private property.” Naturally, Bay takes it personally and is hurt by her father’s reaction.

It gave the perfect chance to yell at the TV how Bay should have been honest with her parents from the start.

“See, Celeste, that wouldn’t have happened had she been honest with her parents,” I said. Celeste nodded in agreement, or at least I think she did. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with a 13-year-old.

In a different storyline, Daphne (the deaf teenager) is infatuated with the chef (who is in his late 20s) at the restaurant where she works. He rebuffs her advances at first, but then gives in after a few episodes.

It gave me the perfect chance to yell at the TV how inappropriate Daphne was being, and how many laws the chef was breaking given that he was kissing a minor. I’m sure Celeste heard me, but I don’t remember if she had much of a reaction. Teenagers can be funny that way, no?

“Switched at Birth” is the first show I’ve seen as a father that has given me the chance to talk about real-life situations with Celeste. I’m not sure if TV has been void of such shows in the last 15 years, or if Celeste just grew into them.

Either way, I’m glad to have the days of animated singing animals and explorers behind me for one of my children. I still have a few years of talking pizza slices and walking gumball machines to live through with Gavin.

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A father’s lessons from Bethany Beach

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Break Free beachI tried not to learn anything during our week in Bethany Beach, Del. I tried to simply enjoy my time in the sun, relax, and enjoy some family time with Karen and the kids before the start of school today.

But as any father of school-age children knows, lessons inevitably seep into your brain no matter how hard you try to keep them out.

Of course, some are more practical than others, but they all have a place in our lives.

Lesson 1

Be thankful to be at the beach, regardless of the time it took you to drive there.

Yes, you live just 150 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, or what should be a three-hour car ride with some traffic and a short bathroom break for the kids. But you also drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and that can be unpredictable.

If a car crash closes one of the spans so a helicopter can fly someone to the emergency room, then your three-hour drive can easily turn into a six-hour haul.

Whatever you do, don’t complain. When your trip ends you’ll be at the beach. Someone else’s trip ended in the hospital, or worse.

Yes, be thankful to be at the beach, and say a blessing for the people in the crash.

Lesson 2

spiral staircase

Don’t let their cool appearance fool you: Spiral staircases are tricky.

Spiral staircases look cool and can save space in a small place, but looks aren’t nearly as important as function.

No doubt, the kid in you would love to slide down the railing and pretend it empties into a swimming pool of whipped cream, but the adult in you hates schlepping luggage up and down the narrow steps in a circular maze.

And the husband and father in you hates hearing your wife and kids miss a step tumble down. Your toes don’t like them much either. In fact, if your toes could choose between being jammed into a spiral staircase once a year or fighting a lifetime of nail fungus, they might choose the latter.

Lesson 3

sunburnedDeny it all you want, but you aren’t 22 anymore. Put sunscreen on the top of your head. You may not see your bald spot every day, but the sun sees it just fine and is looking for an excuse to add some color to your growing dome.

Isn’t growing old grand? Just wait until you’re 50, and the doctor orders a routine colonoscopy just to make sure everything is clear.

Lesson 4

Boudreax Butt PasteBuilding sand castles and digging holes in the surf is great fun with the kids, but watch out for all that sand.

It will creep its way into every wrinkle and crevice on your aging body, and turn the most delicate of body parts into bright red splotches of searing pain.

The cure? Boudreaux’s Butt Paste. It’s not just for babies or butts. Trust me. Don’t go to the beach without it.

Lesson 5

Little is as peaceful as catching a few winks on the beach while the sun warms your toes, a breeze blows gently across the sand, waves crash loudly into the surf a few yards away, and squawking seagulls punctuate the oceanic orchestra.

That, my friend, is tranquility.

Lesson 6

Little is as annoying as waking up from that peaceful nap to the sound of a short-tempered father berating his son for taking a bite out the wrong hot dog.

Lesson 7

A bad day on vacation is better than a good day at work.

Lesson 8

Celeste and Gavin at the beachCeleste and Gavin get on each other’s nerves about as much as other siblings, but they do love each other.

If you ever doubt it, just remember how they both worried that the current would sweep away the other as we were jumping the waves and trying to ride the boogie boards.

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‘Dads Behaving Dadly’ dispels fatherhood myths

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Dads Behaving Dadly

“Dads Behaving Dadly” is on sale now.

I don’t have to look far to find examples of, or read stories about, the absent or bumbling father.  Whether it’s in my social media feeds, the TV commercials that interrupt my favorite shows, or the pages of my local newspaper, the absent or clueless father has somehow become a cornerstone of American culture.

But some of us are out to change that image, and the latest attempt I’m aware of is “Dads Behaving Dadly: 67 Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood,” edited by Hogan Hilling and Al Watts.

The new book from Motivational Press is a collection of short essays (two to four pages) written mostly by fathers about the state of modern fatherhood, including yours truly.

These essays chronicle modern fatherhood in a real and honest fashion.  They don’t just tell the stories that make fathers sound like superheroes. The stories also include heartaches and failures. Taken as a whole, “Dads Behaving Dadly” is the story of fatherhood today, including the joys and frustrations, the warts and smiles.

If your days are like mine, you have little time for leisurely activities, like reading for pleasure. But since “Dads Behaving Dadly” is a collection of essays, you don’t need a lot of time to read an inspiring story of modern fatherhood.

Just pick up the book, open it to any essay, and in less than five minutes you will have read an inspiring story about fatherhood today. I’m sure you’ll find a story you can relate to, or a father you’d like to emulate.

And if you happen to land on page 92, you will find a remixed version of a story that remains a defining moment of my journey through fatherhood: the day my daughter Celeste learned to ride a bike.

Buy a copy today.

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This Father’s Day, pinky swear to be there

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“Field of Dreams” has to be one of my favorite movies of all time.

Pinky Swear

Pinky swear to be there for your children.

It manages to combine seemingly disparate themes (baseball, faith, redemption, persistence) in a great narrative that speaks to me on many levels.

I hadn’t thought of the movie in years, but as I brainstormed ideas to write about for a Father’s Day piece, one line from the movie popped into my head.

No, it isn’t any of the iconic messages that the mysterious voice whispered in Ray Kinsella’s (Kevin Costner’s) ear as he walked through his cornfield or sat in the grandstands of Fenway Park.

It was a line Ray said toward the end of the movie when Shoeless Joe Jackson invited Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) into the cornfield with the rest of the old-time baseball players instead of Ray — the man who risked everything listening to that mysterious voice.

He threw a fit, and said sharply, “What’s in it for me?”

In a way, that self-centered mentality seems to have become the focus of Father’s Day. It’s all about us as dads.

Television ads tell our family members that they need to buy us the newest tool or barbecue gadget to show what we mean to them. And if Dad isn’t into tools or barbecue, he must love golf, so why not buy him a new club or this polo shirt?

I’ll tell you why. That’s the wrong focus for Father’s Day.

Father’s Day shouldn’t be a day that we dads set aside for our children, wives and community to honor us. It should be a day we dads take a breather from the chaos of our everyday lives and rededicate ourselves to the people who need us most: our children.

But too many men allow the busyness of their lives to interfere with spending time with their children. We’re too busy on the weekend doing chores, running errands, or playing golf to spend quality time with our kids. Many dads even believe they have earned time away from their children because their jobs are so stressful. They need 18 holes to unwind.

What’s worse, many fathers have abandoned their children. In fact, 24 million kids live in a home without their biological father, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. One out of every three children in America today is growing up fatherless.

The results are devastating. Children who grow up in fatherless homes are more likely to live in poverty, abuse drugs and alcohol, end up in jail, and much more.

It’s an underreported and underappreciated epidemic, but we know the cure.

We just have to be there. That’s it. No need for billions of dollars of research.

Show up, and be the man your children need you to be.

You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be a hero. And you don’t need to be a superstar.

You just need to be there.

So on this Father’s Day, don’t wait for your children to honor you. Honor them by being the father they need you to be. Make a commitment, and be bold enough to show it to the world on your Facebook or Twitter profile with this Twibbon.

What’s a Twibbon? you ask. It’s a little graphic you superimpose onto our Facebook and Twitter profile to show your support for a cause. It’s a cyber-ribbon, if you will.

The one I created is of me making a pinky swear with Gavin at the park one day. As any kid will tell you, it’s one thing to promise you’ll be there. It’s another thing to pinky swear. They know you mean business if you pinky swear.

So, dads, follow this link to add the image to your profile picture as a way to promise to be there and play an active role in the lives of your children.

Moms, add the image to your profile picture to support the father of your children as he strives to play an active role in the lives of your children.

It’s never too late to promise your children you’ll be there. Just pinky swear.

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Losing the race, but still having fun

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One of the tougher challenges I face as a father is knowing when my children learn the lessons I teach or simply recite what I say so they can tell me what they think I want to hear.

Raingutter Regatta 2014

“I didn’t win a trophy, but that’s OK,” Gavin explains to his friend.

Take sportsmanship as an example. As the coach of Gavin’s 10U baseball team, I stress the importance of learning the skills as an individual player and downplay the value of winning as a team.

Sure, it’s nice to win, but I’d rather lose a game while teaching a young boy to field a grounder than win a game as he sits on the bench and watches his team play without him. When the game ends, I congratulate the boys for doing their best while reminding them not to boast if they came out ahead or hold their heads high if they lost.

I carry over this philosophy to other areas of Gavin’s life, including Cub Scouts. During his three years as a Scout, Gavin has yet to win a trophy for his Pinewood Derby cars or his Raingutter Regatta sailboats.

This year’s regatta was no different. As Gavin and I built his sailboat earlier this month, he dropped hints at how much he wanted to win a trophy.  Every time he did, I reminded him that winning a trophy wasn’t the point. That having fun and spending time together was more important than any piece of plastic.

“I know.  You always tell me that,” he’d say in response.

But do you believe me? I’d ask myself.

Part of me answered that question with a resounding yes. After all, he told me as much after last year’s regatta, but the echo of a doubt lingered. Was he just telling me what I wanted to hear?

I didn’t dwell on the question since I figured could never fully answer it.

I was wrong.

Anyone who had ever attended a Cub Scout Raingutter Regatta would tell you it’s falls somewhere between mile hysteria and controlled chaos.  Each boy anxiously waits for his turn to race, soaking in any last-minute tips from Mom, Dad or older brothers while simultaneously cheering on his friends.

When Gavin’s turn arrived, he placed his boat in the water, waited for “Go!” then blew his 9-year-old lungs out.  I snapped away with the camera as though I were the sole paparazzi chasing Kim and Kanye through Europe.  Before I knew it, Gavin won the first heat and inched closer to a trophy.

He slipped triumphantly back into the crowed, and waited for his next heat. Before long, his second heat was up and I was ready with the camera.  He won again, and inched still closer toward his first trophy.  The look on his face told me how much he wanted one, regardless of what I drilled into his head while we were making his boat.

As he stepped up for his third heat, one part of me hoped he would win while another prepared for him to lose.  I continued taking pictures, but the heat ended faster than I realized. He lost.

Gavin walked away defeated, but held his head high as he returned to the crowd and stood next to another boy from his den. I continued taking pictures, zooming in closely on his face. I wanted to see his reaction more than I wanted to capture it in pixels, but kept clicking away nonetheless.

His voice rose above the din as he held his dripping sailboat and talked to the boy next to him. “I didn’t win a trophy, but that’s OK,” Gavin told the boy. “I still had fun.”

I don’t know how I heard him. I’m sure I wouldn’t have had I been a wallflower instead of a shutterbug, but his words unmistakably broke through the boys chatting and cheering.

“I didn’t win a trophy, but that’s OK.”  I smiled.

He had no clue where I was standing in the crowd, and didn’t know I could hear him, so I know he didn’t say those words for my benefit. He believed them. That’s more valuable than any trophy.

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What I learned chaperoning a middle school field trip

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We all need to challenge ourselves. Some people learn a new language while others run a marathon. Some might learn to cook healthier while others set out to build their own deck or finish the basement on their own. The adventurous might go skydiving or take on Mount Everest.

Me? I chaperoned a middle school field trip. Climbing Mount Everest should be a breeze.

I didn’t set out the year intent on taking this little adventure. But Celeste came home a month or so ago with a permission slip for a field trip to The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Her sixth-grade class had been learning about Ancient Greece, and the trip would let them see first hand some of the art they had been learning about in class.

“They need chaperones, Daddy,” Celeste told me one night, her eyes welling up with hope. “You would get to ride the bus with us. Can you do it?”

I paused as images of Mr. Rooney climbing aboard the school bus during the credits of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” raced through my head.

The idea of chaperoning a middle school field trip did not thrill me, but I could tell Celeste wanted me to do it, so I ultimately agreed. A few days before the trip, I asked people on my Facebook page for any tips they might have:

  • Don’t look them directly in the eye they smell your fear.
  • The fetal position generally shields the vital organs. But at least protect your head and groin.
  • Ear plugs.
  • Start out tough. You can always ease up. If you start out weak, it’s already too late to get tough. First impression is will let them know what’s acceptable.
  • Have fun!

What am I getting myself into? I thought. Too late to back out now. And I’m glad I didn’t because if I had, I wouldn’t have learned these valuable lessons.

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The time has come to rethink sleepovers

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What kid doesn’t love a sleepover?

Whether it’s a slumber party to celebrate a birthday, the whim of best buddies who already spent a full day together at the pool, or even a night away with Grandma and Grandpa, sleepovers are staple of childhood.

But as my children grow up, I’m becoming wary of this youthful tradition, especially as my 12-year-old daughter meets new friends in middle school.

I have no reason to distrust her new friends or their families, but I also have to reason to trust them. I simply don’t know them, so I see no reason to put the welfare of my daughter in their care for an overnight excursion.

Even if we ask her new friends’ parents the basic questions about pets, siblings, adults in the house, movie ratings, guns, alcohol, among many others, we still wouldn’t know them. We would only know how they answered our questions.

We might as well allow our daughter to sleep over at the house of a girl she just met at the beach and with whom she spent the day building sandcastles. Good idea! 👍 👍

I’m growing just as wary of hosting sleepovers. I know I would never touch nor harm a child, but what’s stopping a misguided adolescent from claiming I did, even months or years after we hosted a sleepover? Nothing.

What defense could I mount? None.

I would deny it, of course, but if an adolescent girl claims to police that I did something to her during a sleepover at my house, they would knock on my door loaded with questions.

Who are they going to believe? A teenage girl who claims to be a victim of sexual abuse or the 45-year-old man at whom she’s pointing her finger?

I like to think police would believe me, especially since there would be no evidence of a crime that did not occur, but I don’t have that much faith in our criminal justice system.

In fact, I know of someone who is going through this exact scenario. A jury hasn’t heard his case, so no judgment has been handed down, but his life is ruined because a girl claims he touched her inappropriately during a sleepover with his daughter in his house several years ago.

Yes, the time has come to rethink the childhood staple of sleepovers.

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