This morning, when I let the dogs out, both Lo Khyi and Gyptse made a mad dash for the top corner of the yard where they had their encounter with the possum a few weeks ago. They do this every day, perhaps thinking that they will have another chance to demonstrate their prowess against the forest critters whose scent taunts them when we go for walks.
The pups are creatures of habit. Seeking out the same enemy to fight again and again. I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want to sit down to write and seek out the same old negative stories or complaints. But I open the news and am smacked in the face with a new bit of “crazy” and I can’t help but comment.
These issues aren’t just about insults to our dignity, like a possum invading their turf is for my dogs.
Each new bit of “crazy” puts people at risk. People like our son and his partner who are essential workers at their jobs in Minnesota… one of the nation’s hotbeds right now for COVID-19.
Or people like our daughter who may be back teaching “live” in her classroom in the fall. Or our grandkids as they go back to schools that might or might not be prepared to protect them and their families.
What is the latest bit of crazy? Well, first the administration first asked the CDC to formulate a set of guidelines for intelligent and safe reopening of businesses, schools, places of worship and more. That was good.
But then, after receiving the report prepared by some of our leading experts on infectious diseases and how to mitigate their risks, it has chosen to neither use it nor share it.
As a result will we have fifty states with fifty strategies with fifty different standards? Will there be no effort to provide a national vision, guidance, or direction on how to tackle these challenges?
That’s what it looks like. I won’t belabor the risks of premature and uncoordinated approaches that I’ve talked about in other posts. But I have to conclude that this is — in my opinion at least — an appalling abdication of leadership when courageous leadership is needed more than ever.. It is irresponsible and shocking and a failure we can ill afford.
Sadly, however, it is not surprising. All of our experience of the past few years would lead me to conclude that this decision is most likely because the President and those around him don’t like the science. They don’t want to let nasty irritating facts get in the way of their decision making about the economy.
The President wants to go back to how things were three months ago. He doesn’t want to have us accept a new normal that is… new. He wants it to be the way it was. Not different. That’s what he said and we should probably take him at his word..
And so, to get back to “before” he and his team will make decisions unburdened by facts or by science. Decisions that seem to value the level of the stock market far more than the lives and safety of the workers they are urging to return to workplaces unburdened by the nagging nudge of CDC guidelines on safety.
After a while, this starts to seem like it’s just a numbers game to the administration. One where we write off another 60,000 deaths as “just the cost” of doing business — a price we pay to reopen the economy. Each of those numbers though is a father, or mother, or sister, or brother, or child. Each has value that we have an obligation to consider.
This disease will take more lives, no matter what we do. I know that. And I know that not every death is about someone screwing up. Bad things are happening. But we don’t need to recklessly exacerbate the problem. That, however, is exactly what we seem to be doing in pursuit of “getting back to where we were” without carefully calibrated decision-making on how to most effectively restore the nation’s economic health while protecting our physical well-being.
From my perspective, the vision for the economic reopening seems is as clouded as the vision for the medical response has been. The administration’s preferred strategy seems to be a matter of lifting restrictions and hoping that jobs and sales miraculously reappear. (They might want to suggest as well that we invest in coffins… there may be a boom in sales).
Is it too much to hope for a plan? I guess so. And I guess it’s too much to hope that the CDC recommendations will be shared. And I guess it’s also too much to expect our President would have spoken out to decry folks being shot for asking others to wear masks. And I guess it’s too much to expect our leaders to set an example by wearing masks and keeping a distance when they venture into health facilities and factories to demonstrate their leadership. Obviously, I have wildly misplaced hopes and expectations.
It galls me though that at the same time the President wants men and women already struggling with the challenges before to us to be “warriors” risking themselves to reopen the economy. And he suggests we’ll all be okay, if only we are careful — if we wash our hands and keep at appropriate distances. We’ll be ok if we just do… well, if we just do all the things that our leaders apparently AREN’T willing to do. Go figure.
We don’t have a phalanx of doctors taking the temp of anyone who might enter our presence. We don’t have the luxury of testing at the drop of a hat. We don’t get to fly in our own plane, limos, etc. But we are told we should be the warriors. We should take the risks. And we should do so despite the lack of a vision, a plan, or even a chance to hear from the CDC experts our tax dollars support.
I’m sure that the administration will tell us that they have a plan. But if the disjointed, seemingly ad hoc choices they have offered so far are a plan, they have certainly failed in inspiring most of us to believe In it.
So, as long as there’s enough “crazy” out there, maybe I’ll be like the dogs and keep chasing that possum. It keeps me busy at least as I navigate in this brave new world.
The StoryWorth question that I got this week was: “What about being a child do you miss the most?” It’s Interesting question to receive and reflect on at a time when the COVID-19 virus makes many of us long for a simpler time.
I’m one of those folks who looks back upon their childhood from the vantage point of many decades, and smiles. It was the 1950s and the early 60s. It was a different time. My world was bound by Snelling Avenue — a very busy street to the east, St. Clair, marginally less busy to the north, and a warren of alleys and streets lined with single family homes extending for block after block in the other directions.
Those were the neighborhoods in which we played; through which we walked to get to school; and where I lived from 1953-1961. It was safe and it was inviting. It was where I learned independence — venturing farther afield each year on my bike. Exploring. Playing.
We lived at 1604 Berkely and that was the base from which I launched my explorations. There were no fences separating our back yards and we ran freely through them all. We picked and ate the green apples on the Anderson’s tree next door. We ran across the sloped hills that separated the Strehlow’s house from Mrs. White’s, and then again from ours (Mrs. White lived next door with her dog Bimmy). You could run across the yard, roll down the hills and come home grass-stained and dirty just in time for lunch or dinner.
Two doors down were the Mickos and their kids (Cynthia and I were in the same grade), and across the street, on the corner were the Armstrongs (they too had kids, including Bill — aka Bumper — also a classmate). Across the street were the Cassidy’s and the Brotts (one of the girls in that family was my sister Chris’ first nemesis). They weren’t classmates, however. They went to public school and and we were at Nativity Catholic grade school. Not that that mattered so much to us but that was the first time I realized that there were different “identities” that would define us in life.
One of our favorite “playgrounds” was the vacant lot up on the corner of our block that bordered Snelling. There we creating a variety of games. Nonsensical in retrospect but great fun at the time. “Trucks, cars and busses” was one. It had something to do with racing from the street side of the lot to the “safe” zone on the other side of the path that diagonally bisected the lot as designated vehicles raced by on Snelling. At home we played “7 steps around the house” which was a version of “freeze”…you were allowed seven free steps in an effort to circumnavigate the house but after that, if the person who was “it” saw you move (they’d stand with their back turned and spin around quickly to try and catch you motion) you had to go back to the beginning. We played “war” (it needs no explanation, I think). We combed the yards looking for four leafed clovers.
There was always something, it seemed. Maybe we offered the plaint I hear from our grandkids at times…”I’m bored”… but I don’t remember every really feeling bored. There was always something to do.
It’s funny how vivid some of the memories are now. I remember the lilac bushes blooming in the spring and the Lillies of the Valley that grew along side the house. I remember the huge leaf piles my dad would build in the fall as he raked, and the smell of the burning leaves (yes…we did open burning back then) on a late fall afternoon. And I remember the big trash barrels (large metal drums) in the backyard bordering the alley where Dad burned the trash too.
In the winter we’d shovel out the back yard (or my older brother would) and then he’d flood the flattened space surrounded by banks of snow to make a homemade ice rink. I wasn’t much of a skater but it was still very cool. And I remember the shacks he’d build in the spring with his buddies. I was always so excited when he’d allow me to explore his handiwork. I remember our garage…creepy and full of cobwebs. The car was parked on the street or in the yard alongside the garage while the structure itself was used for storage of anything and everything it seemed.
We had our freedom but weren’t totally without supervision — most all the adults in the neighborhood would offer “corrective guidance” if it was called for — and there was routine that provided a degree of comfort and stability. When I was small, in the mornings I’d watch the early morning cartoons and then Captain Kangaroo — my generation’s Mr. Rogers.
After, I’d go out to play but Mom would call me home a few minutes before noon every weekday during the summers so that I could watch “Lunchtime with Casey” (Casey Jones and Roundhouse Rodney, his sidekick) while I ate my lunch. Then, in the afternoons there was Axel and his Dog…a Twin Cities classic. Axel lived in his treehouse with Towser his dog and Tallulah his cat — all you’d ever see were their paws. And he had a magic “spyglass” that opened up the world and through which you could view Our Gang comedies and more cartoons. He and Nurse Carmen, who was regularly featured , also appeared in the morning on Saturdays keeping and we never tired of his goofy “Scandihoovian” accent and jokes. And every program ended with a terrible play on words starting with “Birdie with a yellow bill, hopped upon my windowsill, cocked his shining eye and said….” and it would be followed with things like. “how do you like your water Luke…warm?” or what is your boyfriend’s name, Jessie….James?” Somehow he made it work.
In the evening there were “wholesome” shows like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Lassie, or the Donna Reed Show. They reflected the perception, if not the reality, of that time.
It wasn’t all days of sunshine and childhood frolic. Like any time, there were challenges. I’ve mentioned before “fallout shelters” and the worries about nuclear holocaust (no small thing… lol), but it seemed far away, intruding on our childhood consciousness only sporadically at best. And, at least until JFK’s assassination and the turmoil of the mid-late 60’s, the days of childhood were, in many ways, golden.
It was different then. Simpler. And that’s what I miss. I miss the simplicity of a childhood where everything seemed more peaceful, gentler, and just…easier . I miss the days of innocence and freedom. Of rolling down hills, of catching grasshoppers, of watching the sunlight filtering through the trees.
Maybe the passage of the years has filtered how I see those days…perhaps time has softened the edges and memory retouched the blemishes… but I’ll treasure — and miss — those days nonetheless.
I’ve discovered in the past few years (after many seasons overseas interspersed with busy and demanding stints in the states), that I like gardening. I’m not obsessive or a competition gardener. I know the names of many of the flowers and flowering shrubs that went into the ground but some whose names I forgot minutes after I purchased them. I didn’t care. I bought them because I thought they were pretty and, if hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies liked them then so much the better.
The garden is a mishmash. And interspersed among the perennials I look forward to seeing rise anew each spring are wildflowers and other seed mixes that will produce unexpected delights into the autumn. It’s crazy and wild and not carefully tended but it is nonetheless nurtured with affection that, as time goes by, may blossom into love.
I enjoy, I find, putting my hands in dirt. Digging… preparing the soil… removing old growth if needed. There is a richness even in our less than stellar soil. Insects and earthworms. Life in abundance.
This year I’ve been antsy to do something in the garden. I think that as we confront the challenges of COVID-19 and the tragic losses it has brought, the sense of renewal that comes with spring seems even more important this year. I’m eager to be dealing with planting, nurturing, and witnessing the rebirth of the garden.
So, on Easter Sunday, on the way back from the grocery store, we also stopped at the Garden Center. Not for long… and we WERE masked and gloved. But we grabbed some of what we needed and yesterday, again masked and gloved, we got the rest… including king-sized (and very heavy) bags of organic soil.
New soil was spread yesterday in the back garden we created two summers back. It’s where the lemongrass, mint, basil, parsley, and cilantro grow these days… along one leg of the L-shaped patch. Those plants are now in the ground… strikingly green against the black soil that has been added to the garden. The other long leg of the L is awash in seeds… wildflower seeds… for pollinators… a mad mix from which the strong will flourish then we’ll be surprised to see a more delicate bloom push its way through in any event.
More seeds were spread across the top of the yard where butterfly bushes and the new (from last year) peony are promising to flower early, and where the honeysuckle is already out of control, and where the wild grasses are coming back as other flowering plants are also coming to life. The rhubarb, now in its fourth year, was transplanted from it’s huge pot to the garden as well. Dill seeds were sown in one corner… can we really attract swallowtail butterflies as they claim? The catmint is coming back along with other hummingbird attractors.
The white bleeding heart is flowering and has grown like crazy while the red flowering plant is making a comeback to )even though overzealous weeders from the lawn service had, we thought, murdered it last year).
Pots and planters are filled with marigolds and impatiens and pansies and more. Color is back. It’s good. More seeds were sown in other pots hoping for more flowers… and cilantro. Rosemary and basil are growing with the chives on the deck.
Even inside the plants have all been tended. The orchids are blooming, the Swedish Ivy (a clipping originally came from a plant in President Obama’s Oval Office), the shamrocks are huge and my grandma’s snake plant and it’s descendants are growing like crazy…as are the various Christmas and Easter cacti.
And, finally, today I replaced the prayer flags. It seemed the right day to do it. As I celebrate the start of another year — this is 67— and Nepal starts another year — 2077 — what better way to mark the new beginning than with fresh prayer flags.
It was a lot of work yesterday and today to help kickstart the garden’s annual rebirth. My back is a bit sore and it was tiring. But it was worth it. It felt right. Especially under the circumstances. It felt necessary.
This week I was asked to answer the question of whether I was well-behaved, or badly behaved as a child. SO…here goes.
The easy and quick answer is to just say, “I was well-behaved,” and that is true. I was. But it would, of course, defeat the purpose of this exercise if I just let it go with that. The idea of the whole “Storyworth” endeavor, I think, is to give our kids, grandkids, and others who may some day read our answers, a sense of who we are.
So let me expand a bit. Yes, I was well-behaved. I recall being a pretty easy kid. A bit sensitive… a bit shy… but I didn’t cause too much chaos or drama. I’ve talked before about being the kid who mom took shopping — perhaps in part because I was the baby for a number of years, but also because I’d sit patiently reading a book, while mom shopped, and just didn’t fuss much.
At home, I read (a lot), I played tons of solitaire card games and I had molded plastic soldiers and cowboys and Indians that I enjoyed playing with. I’d build card houses and then shoot them down with rubber bands. I’d line up soldiers and do the same. I got pretty good with those rubber bands. I also had Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, and lots of other things to keep me busy. The point is, I could play by myself peacefully and contentedly for hours on end.
My older sister Chris and I played together — and we fought too — but no worse than any other siblings separated by four years might. I was a good student, I followed rules, and I was not one to rock any boats. I wanted to be a “good boy.” I didn’t want to disappoint. I guess my sense of self was shaped in part by being seen positively by others… by adults.
That’s what made it hard for me to be a “bad boy” later on as I grew older. Not that I was SO bad. But I started to smoke when I was in high school. I’d tap into my Dad’s liquor cabinet, or we’d get someone to buy at the liquor store for us. Malt liquor, blackberry brandy, (I cringe at the memory), beer, bourbon, the usual stupid stuff that kids did.
I stayed out too late. I skipped school and forged notes from my mother. But although I saw myself as breaking out of my good boy mold, I was never really that bad. I was just a kid trying to fit in, to be somewhat cool — and though I never really succeeded, I wasn’t a total nerd either.
But even when I’d be less than perfect, I took great pains not to get caught. I still wanted to be perceived as a “good boy” — to be seen as meeting the expectations that everyone had of me. A good student, a good kid, and one who people just expected would do the right thing, would succeed, would get good grades, etc. And, to be honest, that IS who I wanted to be. I wanted to get it right… to be smart… to be an achiever… to win the prize.
I put more pressure on myself to maintain that image than I probably needed to. But I did. And, although it would have been nice if my parents or others I respected told me ”it’s okay if you fail, it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to not always get it right,” I was so busy living up to what I though others might expect that I didn’t let them see that a bit of reassurance would have been welcome.
That was then. This is now. Life is a great teacher. I’ve learned over the years since those days that we can’t live our lives to meet the expectations of others. I’ve learned that we have to be true to ourselves. We have to know what matters to US and not just what others think should matter. I’ve learned that being good isn’t about following all the rules. It’s about being doing what we know in our hearts is the right thing for us — no matter how others see it or judge us for our choices.
Being well-behaved as young kid was easy. It fit who I was. But over the years, I had to redefine what “well-behaved” looked like. And that’s OK. You can break a few rules. You can struggle. You can doubt. You can fail. The world won’t end. But be true to yourself. Know what is right and what is not. And make the choices that let you be proud of yourself.
That’s what being “well-behaved” looks like to me today. It doesn’t matter what others see. It’s what you see when you look at yourself, at your life and your choices, that matters.
Six decades have passed since I was that kid sitting quietly while his mom shopped. I’ll not judge if I still fall into the “well-behaved” category or not. Somehow that measure doesn’t mean much to me at my age. But, although there are things I regret… things I could have done better… moments when I could have been kinder, more thoughtful, or more giving, the journey from then until now has been rich with learning and growth. I am at peace with my choices and with the person I’ve become and, well-behaved or not, you can’t ask for more than that.
The original question for the week was about my favorite holiday memory but I have already shared a lot of those. So I asked for a new question. That’s one of the nice things about the whole StoryWorth concept. You have options. So I took advantage and got this question instead: “Do you have a favorite poem? What is it?”
Holy cow. That is almost worst. There are tons of poems over the years that have touched me. That have stayed with me. The poems my mother read me as child…and there were a lot of them. The poems of Robert Frost to which I was introduced in grade school. Of Carl Sandburg. There are so many. Poems that tell a story…Robert Service comes to mind…and poems that touch the heart.
In these days of the coronavirus we might find particular solace in poetry. We certainly have a bit more time to reflect. I pulled “Good Poems for Hard Times” off my bookshelf. An anthology curated by Garrison Keillor. I am inspired to selectively dip into it…picking and choosing…reflecting. Maybe I’ll share some of the ones that inspire me.
It’s hard to choose a favorite but there’s one poem that I have turned to again and again over the years. In the days after the death of Betsy, my first wife, I was sitting alone in the living room of our townhouse in Springfield. I’m not sure where the boys were…I think that a neighbor who had watched them often — Joan Murray — may have taken them for a while. I was thumbing somewhat mindlessly through the “Treasures of the Smithsonian” one of those coffee table books that looks good but that is seldom truly read.
Suddenly, however, something caught my eye. The word COURAGE. It was the title of a poem. By Amelia Earhart. I had no clue she had written poetry but apparently she did. And this was one of her poems.
I read it and it touched me. It gave me …something. That’s the thing about good poetry. It can trigger unexpected … it moves us, inspires us. It brings a smile, or a tear. It has an impact that each of us may feel differently.
“Courage” gave me hope. It reminded me that even in our darkest moments we can emerge stronger. And nothing in life comes without cost. We must look within to find the strength to pay it.
At that moment in time, at that crossroads in my life, the messages in the two stanzas of that poem brought me clarity. They gave me hope. They spoke to me. And they still do. Maybe, had I seen it at a different time, I would have responded differently — or not at all. But the words, the moment, and the need all converged. And I was touched. And changed. THAT’s what a good poem can do.
Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace, The soul that knows it not knows no release from little things; Knows not the livid loneliness of fear, Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living, Compensate for dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate, Unless we dare the soul’s dominion? Every time we make a choice, we pay with courage to behold the resistless day and count it fair. Amelia Earhart
It seems incredibly ironic to be thinking about this particular question this week given that we may be living through one of the most momentous events of our time even as I write this. Like all of us, I have lived through my share of major events. Some have had a tremendous impact on our world. None, however, has been as transformational as the onset of the coronavirus will likely be. For my grandchildren this will be tory, in the years ahead.
But today I’m supposed to focus on what I experienced in my childhood. And for me, and likely for most of my generation, there is only one answer — the assassination of President John Kennedy. That act of political violence gripped our nation and touched all in one way or another. But I have to add that the FIRST major news story that intruded on my consciousness was the Cuban Missile Crisis so I’ll give a moment of time to that one as well.
That crisis isn’t on a par with President Kennedy’s murder but in a historical context it was 13 days in October of 1962 that took us to the brink of war. I didn’t really know that at the time, but I do recall one Sunday night. We were watching the tv — CBS — and waiting for the Ed Sullivan show to begin. There was a special news bulletin…interrupting whatever was on.
In those days, it seems to me, a story had to be really momentous to break into network programming. But the missile crisis fit that bill. I don’t recall the exact content of the report — I think it may have been about Khrushchev accepting the terms for ending the crisis and agreeing to pull the Russian missiles from Cuba. As I said, the details are foggy but what registered for me was that something big… really big… was happening.
I realized that they were talking about the risk of war. Perhaps a risk narrowly averted by then but that war was real and that it could have happened. I heard the broadcaster talking of missiles and blockades and it all sounded very serious and more than a little frightening. This was, after all, the era where neighbors had fallout shelters in their basements or backyards and where there were weekly tests of warning sirens (1 PM every Wednesday) whose eery wail always was a bit frightening.
There were drills at school for the kids and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was one that even touched the consciousness of otherwise politically unaware nine-year-old kids.
We emerged from the crisis into calmer days, at least for a while. And I guess I’m glad that I didn’t fully appreciate just how close we came to war and the type of holocaust we feared. And President Kennedy and his advisors seemed to have the answers. It was all good…until it wasn’t.
Only a bit more than year later, on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 PM central time. Most of my generation and those older than us can tell you where they were. I had returned to my fifth grade classroom after lunch. I lived close enough that I could walk home for lunch and I did that day. It was a cloudy November day as I returned to our parish school — Nativity. Sister Shawn was my teacher.
I remember someone wheeling into the classroom the big TVs mounted on tall stands on which we usually watched our Spanish lessons on public television with Domigal (that was the instructor’s name — it’s amazing the funny things we recall half a century later). Sister Shawn turned on the TV…there must have been instructions from the principal…. but I don’t recall anything really except the TV’s sudden appearance.
It was, of course, the same story on every channel. The President had been shot. Assassinated.
The shock in the voices of the newscasters. The disbelief, the sorrow, the fear…all were palpable. It was numbing. Once again, you knew that something really big had happened. But it was too big to absorb. And we had never experienced something like this before. How were we supposed to feel?
Maybe the fact that he was the first (and only) Catholic President, added to the sense of loss for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet who led our school. All I know is that we were all devastated…at sea. We were dismissed early and made our way home.
Although a year had passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis I had not gained any significant degree of political awareness. So I wasn’t focused on the many issues of concern about transition and governance and the implications for our nation’s future — though there were many.
I was just lost. I remember feeling that this wasn’t right. That the world wasn’t right and it didn’t feel like things would be right again any time soon.
I remember spending a lot of time sitting on the bed in my parents’ room. They had a small black and white tv in there and somehow it seems fitting in retrospect to remember those images in black and white. I don’t remember details so much as images. The clip of the attack. Of Vice President Johnson taking the oath. Of Jackie Kennedy and the children.
I remember as well the caisson on which his flag draped casked was drawn by six gray horses and one, riderless, black horse as they made their way to the Capitol where he would lay in state. And I recall the endless lines of people waiting, silently, to pay their respects and the hushed voices of the commentators. And of course the funeral and the salute of little John at his father’s graveside.
Some of those memories I am sure have been reinforced by video clips seen again and again over the years. But I don’t need the clips to remember how I felt. I was just a kid but there was a feeling in our nation in those years in which he led us. We were reaching for the stars. We were transforming as a nation. It was a time of excitement and hope and for aspiration. It was Camelot.
I might not have understood it all, but I felt it. And President Kennedy was “our” president. And he was gone.
So this is the first major news story that I remember. There were more that would come in the years ahead. Stories about the struggles for racial equality. The riots, the demand for justice. And there were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. And then there was the Apollo program and man’s first steps on the moon. All momentous in their own way. All big things that were happening in our world.
And, although the world seemed duller and sadder, after JFK’s death, we went on. And, after the riots and discord, we went on. And after the deaths MLK and RFK we went on. And, after the global pandemic of COVID-19 has come and gone, we’ll go on.
These times of loss, of change, and of transition, are challenging and often frightening — but these are also the moments when we have the chance to learn, to grow. These are the times when we must make the right choices, do the right thing, and set the right example.
For the sake of my grandchildren, and the kids for whom this is THEIR first time when something “really big is happening,” I hope we act with wise deliberation and care for their future.
This is the sort of question that warrants thought and consideration. You can easily sound too full of yourself or — the other side of the coin — so self-effacing that it’s no answer at all.
Pride after all, is one of the seven deadly sins of Christian teaching and the Bible reminds us that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” In fact, although justifiable pride isn’t a bad thing, when misplaced it has a very bad reputation. it equates with arrogance, vainglory and conceit in some quarters. It makes me wonder if this is a trick question!
I certainly don’t want to be accused of having a haughty spirit or of vainglory and conceit. I’ll try nonetheless to tackle this question honestly while seeking to avoid the pitfalls of hubris.
The easy answer to the question of “what am I proudest of” is to say our children. Tjiama, Joe, Tony. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Their decency. Their compassion. Their heart, and strength, and courage in a difficult world.
And I hope that Leija and I helped to give them a foundation on which they built their values, found their paths and shaped their futures. I am full of joy when I see the lives that they have created and I am indeed proud of them and to be their father.
And I am proud of the choices I made AS their father. The choice to be engaged. To listen. To be patient. To love unconditionally. The choice to be conscious of the example I set. I want to believe I was (am) a good father. However I KNOW that I tried. I made the effort. And that is something I am proud of and always will be.
I am proud too of the choices I made during one of the most challenging times in my life. My first wife Betsy died of cancer when we were both far too young. We were younger than any of my children are now. It’s funny to reflect now on what it was like to confront those challenges with so little life experience to draw upon for reference points or for strength. But, even with much more experience of the world, it would not have been any easier, I think.
We managed those days with dignity and, I believe, grace. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that we continued to embrace life while also being able to talk to each other honestly about death. I’m proud that we faced the challenges with courage and with honesty. And I’m proud that we knew what mattered in our lives and that I chose to be “present” in every way. The lessons I learned over those years have kept me grounded ever since and they remind me, even now, to value the things that truly matter in life — family most of all.
What else gives me pride? I know it will sound corny but I’m proud of a lifetime of service. I didn’t set out to “serve” when I joined the diplomatic corps in 1981. I really had no clue what it was all about but I needed a job, they offered me one, and it all sounded pretty cool.
I learned quickly, however, that it was about service…service to our nation …and service in support of values that I believe in. And that idea of “service” came to matter more and more and it became a force that changed my perspective on how I could…how I should … engage the world. I’m proud that I have been able to serve—and that I still do—in pursuit of the values in which I believe.
I’m proud as well that, when called upon to lead, I took it seriously and gave to those who served with me my best efforts and support. And I’m so very proud that, with their support, we lost no one in our “family” despite the growing risks of representing our nation in a dangerous world.
Finally, I will be deeply proud if how I have chosen to relate to the world and to those I have met along the way, is an example that resonates with my children and grandchildren. If that is part of what I leave them, I’ll be content.
But, no matter what, I’m proud to have served and to have cared and to have at least tried to make a difference in the world.
I never expected it to matter to me so much. But it does.
“What is one of your fondest childhood memories?” Yet another query from our inquisitive daughter and Storyworth. Well…..
The challenge is that there are so many childhood memories I could choose to discuss that I’m hard pressed to decide which is the fondest. But there is one image…one moment…that often comes to mind.
I was probably six years old. Seven at the most. It was a December afternoon. Cloudy and a bit dark…threatening snow. A typical afternoon in St. Paul in December. I was in fist grade..walking home from school. We all went to Nativity Grade School. Our parish school.
In the course of that walk, someone (and in my mind I always think it was my sister Chris though that may not be right) decided to inform me that there was no Santa Claus. Well…you can imagine how disturbing THAT news was to a little boy who was still a believer. (LoL…that’s probably why I attributed it to Chris…she was a cold-eyed realist who wouldn’t mind busting her annoying little brother’s bubble. I love her dearly today, of course, but we DID have our moments in our childhood).
In any event, no matter who delivered the new devastating news, I remember arriving home near tears on that dreary December day. My Mom knew right away that something was wrong and I didn’t hesitate to tell her — hoping, she’d convince me it wasn’t true –though I think I knew in my heart that it was.
She called me to her and we sat together in an armchair tucked into the corner of the living room. The bank of windows looking out on the street were fogged at the corners thanks to the heat streaming from the radiator below them. The curtains further blocked the day’s uncertain light outside. Mom turned on the lamp. Maybe it was the shade on the lamp or maybe its just a trick of memory, but I remember distinctly feeling as if the corner in which we sat had become a small island bathed in a soft amber light, warm and safe and in sharp contrast to the oncoming twilight.
Mom pulled out a volume of the Book of Knowledge, the set of encyclopedias on the built-in bookcase behind our chair. I picture it all very clearly.
The piano was to our right as we looked out into the room. The windows on the left.The bookcase with the encyclopedias held some of my brother Dan’s sports trophies and Mom’s paint by numbers paintings — and odd pair featuring male and female ballerinas in harlequin style costumes and masks performing in an outdoor setting that included fallen columns and, I swear, a frosted cake in the foreground. Really.
Mom opened the book in her hands…and found what she was looking for. With the authority of the encyclopedia to lend weight to her words, she told me how Santa was real…but just a bit different than I thought. She told me how the magic of Christmas did exist. That the spirit of Santa was one that was shared by parents everywhere and that it was this magic…this spirit…that led them to want to give their children the joy and mystery of a Christmas in which a white-bearded saint of legend transformed the world for us all one night in a year.
I don’t remember her every word. But I remember the moment. The feeling. The comfort. And the sense that it was all OK. And it was.
My mother always loved Christmas. And she and my Dad always made it special, magical, and joyous. And I came to know it wasn’t about the gifts…or who delivered them…it was about the love of parents who cared and the love that we shared as a family. It’s a memory I treasure. And always will.
(This week my Storyworth tale is replete with screen shots taken from old home movies that have lost the little sharpness they once had –even when Dad didn’t cut off the heads of the subjects).
Was there a special vacation that your family took?
Every family has a story. A narrative. And like any story there are beginnings, endings, twists and turns. Births, graduations, jobs, marriages, and more can all mark new directions for the tale that makes a family’s story. And there are times when we miss the turning points at the time but, in retrospect, we can see the end of one chapter and the start of the next. This is the story of chapter’s ending — though we didn’t see it at the time. For us it was just a special summer; unlike any we had ever had.
It was the summer of ‘61. It was before the sixties got crazy. Before a President was assassinated….before MLK was too. It was before race riots and busing and Vietnam and growing generational divides dominated our national consciousness. It was a simpler time and, if the memories of an eight year old see true, it was a gentler time — despite injustices and inequalities that lay beneath the surface. Those can be discussed another day in another post if that is ok because, for me, that was the summer of a great adventure. And what eight year old can resist the call of adventure.
My mother was pregnant with my little brother, Andy. She was due in November and there had been a miscarriage(s) I think, in the years after my birth in 1953. We were planning on visiting her sister Joan McFarland and her family in Sacramento that summer but the cross-country drive was considered “too much” so she was flying round trip. That left dad…38 years old and quite possibly clueless about what lay ahead…to transport Debbie, 16; Dan 15; Christine 12 and me on a 4000+ mile round-trip journey of discovery.
I remember setting off in the family station wagon.
No AC in those days. It was early summer I think. I have no idea of how we got packed — I can only assume Mom must have overseen that before she left. The suitcases and all the assorted paraphernalia was loaded in the back and off we went.
I recall the trip began with my sister Debbie sobbing into a pillow in the back seat. It did not seem to bode well. She was distraught, you see, at leaving her boyfriend for the summer and, like any perfectly normal teenage girl, imbued her concerns with an extra touch of drama. But how long can you bury your face in a pillow as the world reveals itself to you on a road trip unlike any we’d taken before.
We’d been to Colorado before to visit my Mom’s sister Barb and that was our first official stop where Mom would be breaking her journey as well to see how we were faring. But, there was no mad dash to Denver. Instead, this trip, with Dad in command and on his own, revealed something new’. Was there the spirit of a wanderer we hadn’t yet met hiding inside him? Was he an explorer at heart wanting to share his discoveries with his children? Or was he just riding the line drawn on a AAA Trip Tik? I don’t know, but whatever drove him, we were thrilled to be along for the ride.
South from the Twin Cities, through Mankato, to Windom and then to Sioux City South Dakota and finally on to Pierre where we spent the first night. I’m not sure that Pierre was anything but a good stopping point for the first leg but we nonetheless have the State Capitol Dome prominently featured in the background of a video clip and I always know the capital of South Dakota when the question arises on Jeopardy!
The next day it was on to the Badlands with its sharp ridges, canyons, gullies, pyramids, and knobs that stretch as far as the eye can see. A wild landscape that made you think of the Indians of the plains, the huge herds of buffalo, and a young nation convinced this was part of its destiny. The films, and books and stories…they all came alive here against a backdrop that looked as it may have 100 years before.
Then it was on to Wall, South Dakota and Wall Drug — with the countless billboards reminding that you had covered yet another mile across the plains and that this incredible, not-to-be missed place awaited your arrival. Since 1931 it was that middle of nowhere spot with free ice water that lured travelers traveling across the east-west roads in the nation’s northern tier of states. 150 miles to Wall Drug…29 miles to Wall Drug….You Just Missed Wall Drug! How could you not stop. And the build-up matched the reality. There was a T-rex. Cowboys. Zoltar. As you wandered the labyrinth of aisles with everything from taffy to petrified wood to all the assorted paraphernalia that epitomized the cowboy and Indian stereotypes of the day. It was overwhelming.
Dad not only stopped —there and at countless other spots along the way — but he indulged our whims and let us choose our loot. I can’t say I remember exactly what I bought but it was enough to make my eight-year old heart sing.
Sure there were moments of impatience, times when everyone would be tired and cranky but I don’t recall them when I think of the trip. Magical is an overused word perhaps but it was prety cool as I recall it. I asked Chris and she remembers it much the same way. It was special. A memory worth preserving.
From Wall Drug it was on to Rapid City where the a dinosaur….yes…a dinosaur greeted us. Pretty impressive in the days before Jurassic Park.
A little research tells me today that it was one of several towering beasts from the Rapid City Dinosaur Park dating back to science of 1936 when what is now considered to be one of America’s quirkier parks was created. To us, it was just cool to see a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere without the forewarning that would have come from Google searches and the like today. It was unexpected. Fun.
The next day it was on to the Rushmore Cave It’s funny the things you remember. My sister Chris, with whom I had my moments when I was a kid (as any brother and sister separated by a few years in age might), was unhappy. She wasn’t thrilled about the cave, I think, and Dad was a bit put out with her. So, as we walked up the path the to the caves and Dad brushed my arm accidentally with his lit cigarette (unfiltered Lucky Strikes in those days), I was SO determined to not be a baby. Chris, after all, was in the doghouse, and that’s where I wanted to keep Dad’s focus! Like I said…funny what sticks in your head.
When we reached the entrance to the cave the tour had just left minutes before starting to descend in to the caves with stalagmites and stalactites and other limestone formations like I had never seen. They told us to head off to catch up to the group that they contacted by walkie-talkie, telling them to wait for the family with the pretty blond girl with the blue ribbon in her hair. (THAT, I seem to recall, perked Debbie up a bit).
The caves were cool — I thought. Chris hated them though — and not just in the anticipation but in the reality. Dad had to take her out partway through the tour. A bit of drama but it was all part of the adventure, . And, when it we done, we calmed down and carried on.
Mt. Rushmore was next. We were all suitably impressed. Those massive presidential portraits in stone. We were seeing America. It kind of hit you.
I’m pretty sure we spent the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Frontier State. Images of a cowboy on a bucking bronco silhouetted against the sky seemed commonplace. Nothing like the Twin Cities. And then it was on to Denver where Mom and Aunt Barb awaited. A taste of home en route. Not sure how long we stayed, but there was a lot that we did.
Chris remembers swimming in the pool at Barb’s house and friends was impressed by Barb’s friends who had a real arcade-style pinball machine in their house
We went to the Frontier Days Festival in Central City. I recall that there was a clown who chose Debbie to flirt with and there was the saloon with the Face on the Ballroom Floor — Mom used to read us that poem all the time. There were kids square dancing and a volunteer firefighter competition that got me sprayed with their firehose. (I may not have been particularly stoic about that incident, but I was, after all, still the baby of the family and Mom was with us and responded appropriately to my playing that card!)
Chris and I both remember we saw Buffalo Bill Cody’s grave on Lookout Mountain and we also saw Mother Cabrini’s shrine. Both were in the mountains outside of Denver and we stopped on the way home from Central City. We both remember the sky darkening, the temperature dropping and snow squalls that made a summer’s day turn icy and the roads back to Denver far trickier than we would have expected.
After Denver, on we went into the Rockies. It was Chris’s turn to bury her face in the pillow. She hated the narrow roads and the steep drops. She was quiet..sort of…having given up for the moment on her self-appointed roll as the chatty Cathy who would keep Dad awake on the road…no highway hypnosis for him if she was going to have her way! She must have been successful — we all survived. She may be lucky that SHE did, however, as Dad probably wearied of being asked if he was “OK?” All along the road.
On we went, nonetheless, as he led his brood across the country. I don’t recall how we passed all the long miles in the car — besides Chris keeping Dad awake — but I don’t remember much bickering. I was fascinated to see the changing landscape. We played the alphabet game, the license plate game, and Dad sang (he had quite a repertoire). I can still see him driving…window down, elbow resting on the door, cigarette in hand and the vent window adjusted just right to keep the air moving.
We saw Pikes Peak. Crossed the Continental Divide and then descended into Utah and Nevada.
We spent a night in Reno. Dad was intrigued I think by the idea. It was the era of the Rat Pack. Vegas was a sort of Mecca and Reno, not so far from Sacramento, was the next best thing.
The lights. The hype. The neon signs. It even made an impression on me. I remember my sister Debbie being the babysitter us while Dad tried his luck in the casinos. Chris remembers she and Debbie having their own room — the height of luxury — while Dad and Dan and I were destined to bunk together.. Hamburgers for dinner in the hotel room? Not sure why THAT is in my head or if it’s what we ate but, again, memory works in funny ways and that’s what I tell myself.
It was a different world. At the restaurant in the morning there were even slot machines at the booth. A few coins may have been slipped into those one-eyed bandits by a few underage gamblers but we avoided the long arm of the law and on we went, eventually making it to California.
In California Mom was waiting for us and it was great to see her and Aunt Joan and Uncle Ray and their family. My cousins Mike and Rick were older, closer to Debbie and Dan and Chris in age. I don’t recall that they had a lot of time for their youngest cousin but they really were nice kids.
It was very hot while we were there. And I of course sought relief and what better way than to enjoy the cold air of the stand-up freezer at the house. When I was discovered… eventually… enjoying my own air-conditioning I was informed that this was NOT the proper use of a freezer like this. Ah well. What did I know? I was only 8, after all. It seemed a good idea at the time. I was reminded for years after, however, of how Aunt Joan couldn’t figure out why the ice cream and other frozen items were so soft until my creative problem solving came to light.
While there Debbie dyed Aunt Joan’s hair blonde. That was quite the event. And Chris remembers that our cousin Mike was dating Linda — who later became his wife. Chris remembers visiting Linda’s family’s home and was impressed with both their kidney-shaped pool and their sunken living-room. Both exotic when compared to the houses we knew!
We weren’t just in Sacramento, though. We explored. We visited San Francisco. There was Alcatraz prison out in the bay. We wandered along Fisherman’s Wharf and even sampled frog legs — at least some did — I don’t recall being convinced to try them! We went to Disneyland too. What an adventure that was!
We sailed on the Nautilus —the submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — and while in the “depths” a giant squid eye pressed against the window in front of us. There was Davy Crockett’s FrontierLand, Mark Twain riverboats, and Mike Fink keelboats. And I seem to recall that a coonskin hat (tail and all) and a Davy Crockett-style tomahawk left the park with me.
We saw rockets to the moon in Tomorrowland and there was the Magic Kingdom with all the wonderfully iconic characters that are the heart of Disney. The castle was impressive to my eyes then and when visiting Disney World with the Tjiama and Joe and the grandkids this past November it was still as entrancing. Disney is woven into our lives in many ways and I’m so glad we saw it first when I was old enough to remember and young enough to be entranced.
We visited Lake Tahoe as well and I remember more than anything just being impressed by the beautiful setting and striking blue water. I think some of the older kids even did some water skiiing (though I think the water was cold even in summer) and Debbie buried me in the sand untill only my head was still exposed.
Eventually, of course, we had to head home. But even then there was a bit of adventure. We had to cross Death Valley. The name alone conjures up powerful images but there had also been a TV show — Death Valley Days — that left no doubt about the dangers of that stretch of inhospitable desert I seem to recall that we got up super early — we might have spent the night in Bakersfield — to set off before the heat became too intense. (How Dad wrangled all of us into the car before the sun was over the horizon is beyond me.)
The ride after that fell into a certain rhythm. I think that by then our thoughts had begun to turn to home. By now we were seasoned travelers content to let the miles pass us by, each one bringing us closer to the comfort of the familiar. I’m sure we made a few stops. They just don’t come to the front of mind as I write this.
I do recall as we got closer and closer Dad was picking up the pace. I think he too was eager to get home. One night as we drove and it was getting later II may have been urging…somewhat insistently and probably in a less than charming whine….that I was tired and wanted to stop. We were in Nebraska and I think Dad may have harbored illusions of driving on through to Minnesota. But that wasn’t going to be.
The encounter with the highway patrol didn’t help. Dad’s foot might have become just a bit too heavy. Dad tried valiantly to play the “dad traveling cross country with his kids and just trying to them home tonight” card and the officer took one look at all of us in the car and I’m sure we DID look pathetic. But not enough to keep him from issuing a ticket that did little to foster an upbeat mood
And, as I continued to make my own unhappiness know, and as — like a mini-Wall Drug-style campaign — small heart shaped signs kept announcing the ever-decreasing distance to Valentine, Nebraska, Dad folded. And we pulled in to the Valentine Inn…or some similarly named spot….for the night.
Now who among us hasn’t wanted to experience the delights of Valentine Nebraska. Right? I really couldn’t fathom the somewhat grudging — well, really grudging perhaps for some of our number — acceptance of what seemed a great idea.
I’ll just add here that sister Chris recalls the spot as somewhat charming (and of course I’d never argue with her memories of the night).. Perhaps it seemed to her to be a throwback to an earlier era. She remembered lamp shades with covered wagons and old west themes. I’m glad she remembers it that way.
I seem to recall, however, that it was not quite so charming and that at some of our group — Debbie perhaps? — seemed to be silently blaming me for lousy beds, a dingy room, a less than stellar bathroom and more. The food, I was told wasn’t too hot either, but I don’t recall that as I fell asleep before the food we ordered could even be collected. I really was tired!
In the light of a new day, however, we made a new beginning. We were only hours now from home and the less than perfect last night on the road couldn’t dim that excitement and I think every one of us was glad to be back in our own rooms and home at last even though it had been an incredibly adventure.
Andy came along a few months later and then Martha followed in 1964. Our family grew and changed and I realize now that that trip with Dad was, for my older siblings and me, in many ways the final chapter of a period in our lives. That summer was ours. It belonged to us. There would be other road trips but never again one involving the entire family like this. It had been something unique. Just us, and Dad, and the road.
It was a once in a lifetime journey that only Chris and I are now left to recall.
“Which musicians or bands have you most liked seeing live?” was the Storyworth question this week. The answer, for me, was easy.
The date was November 27, 1966. My brother Dan pulled up in front of our house at 2077 Jefferson Ave, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was driving his old 1950’s Cadillac. Not sure of the exact model but this picture comes close.
I remember that the engine was noisy and it was a stick shift — my Dad’s cars were always automatics. The inside was beat up a bit, but it still had a “feel.” It WAS, after all, a Caddie. And, from my perspective as a 13 year old kid-brother it was pretty darn cool.
Dan was 21 years old at the time. The eight-year difference in our age meant that we hadn’t been playmates or particularly close growing up — though we did share a bedroom for many years when I was small. And, in truth, at that point in our lives he was a bit of an unknown to me. I know he had had a rough few years after his best friend was killed in a biking accident while they were roommates at St John’s College. But, even if I didn’t really “know” Dan at that point in his journey, he was still my big brother.
And that was enough to make this day special. Just as it had been when I was smaller and he gave me a glimpse into the world that he he shared with his buddies — the big kids. Whether it was him letting me into one of the shacks he and his friends had built out of scrap lumber or tolerating my “help” when it came time to create the backyard skating rink in the winters, I treasured those moments of connection.
And now…my big brother had invited me to go with him to a concert. My first ever. The Lovin’ Spoonful were at the peak of their popularity and we were going to go see them play at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was a Sunday afternoon.
I couldn’t have been more excited. Not only to see the Lovin’ Spoonful play…but because my big brother was taking me. At thirteen that trip across the river to Minneapolis and the Convention Center seemed pretty magical and intimidating all at once; the crowd, the noise, the excitement. But Dan had it covered and I just followed his lead.
To this day, I don’t know what led him to ask me to come with him but, because he did, it made my first concert my most memorable, without a doubt. There have been better musicians and probably more dynamic performances that I’ve seen over the years but that doesn’t matter. It was me and my brother. And it was cool.
I don’t recall what we talked about. In those days, I talked a lot (and yes, I know, I still do). Dan less so. Certainly later in life he learned the art of asking questions…he was often non-stop. I think he was interested in hearing the answers, but also, the more questions you ask, the less you have to talk about yourself. Not sure if that was his strategy but it worked for him.
But that day as we sat in the Convention Center we didn’t have to talk — just listen. They played “Summer in the City,” “Do You Believe in Magic,” Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind,” “Other Side of This Life,” and “You Didn’t Have to be So Nice” to name just some of the set list. Oh….and they played “Daydream” too (a song I used to play on the guitar while our sister Chris sang and our Dad thought it was about the best thing he’d ever heard — but that’s another story).
In the music that day we began to find a certain common denominator that became an even stronger connection over the next few years. It opened doors for us to know each other in ways that I might not have expected but for which I’m grateful and that musical connection was important in giving us a way to build our relationship as I started to grow towards adulthood.
I remember Christmas 1968, for example, — the Beatles White Album had came out late in November and was one of the gifts waiting under the tree.And Dan and I sat down the basement later on Christmas Eve listening to it together, critiquing the songs and just enjoying the experience of sharing something special together.
It wouldn’t be the last time we compared musical notes or shared artists we liked. Chicago, Gypsy (from Minnesota), Blood Sweat and Tears, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills and Nash…so many new bands were coming on the scene.. It was an amazingly rich time musically and I can remember conversations about them all with Dan. The questions gave way to commentary and insight. His passion was clear.
As I grew older we found more ways to bond and to know each other better and, for all our differences, I like to believe we were close. And I miss him now very much. He passed away — far too young — in 2007. But I’ll always be grateful that he took the time to take his little brother to a concert over a half century ago. I’ll never forget it…or him.
(Dan is far left, I’m on the far right…our Dad and younger brother Andy are in the middle.)