Four whitewashed walls. Attached garage. A modest 1,375 square feet of living space. Roof thrown in for free!
No basement, no attic, no central air. No fence. No lawn, only sod in the front, seed in the back.
It wasn’t much to look at. But for us – a pair of new parents, two small kids, and a 10-pound Shi Tzu – it was perfect.
It was our first house. We planned to move in three to five years when the kids got bigger. After all, 1,375 square feet doesn’t leave much room to grow, and 3-year-old and 1-year-old daughters are all about growth.
Twenty-six years later, we are more salt than pepper. More aches than energy. Lasting memories outweigh likely adventures. The babies are now thriving young adults with families of their own.
We have survived a recession, a pandemic, several job changes, major health issues, bereavements, estrangements, separations, and innumerable life upheavals. And worked our figurative fannies off to beautify, improve, maintain, protect and extend our little corner of the world. Tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours spent picking and pulling and painting and pounding vegetables and weeds and walls and nails.
We never did move. And now, our first house is our forever home.
Thoughts of “home” – literal and metaphoric – come to mind as we watch our youngest daughter and future son-in-law take on the many challenges of home ownership.
They bought their first little house about two years ago. Showing us pictures the first time, almost glowing with pride and excitement, they said it needed a bit of work. The previous owner had quickly fixed up and flipped the property.
I am now sure someone coined the term “fixer-upper” specifically for this house.
And that the previous owner was a liar, cheat, and thief. If there is any real justice in this greed-infested world, he’ll get his share someday in a moldy, leaky, dank corner of hell reserved specially for people who look to make a quick buck selling moldy, leaky, dank houses to young, eager, unaware couples.
Still, they persevered.
Using the unwelcome extra time (and some of the welcome extra money) the pandemic produced, they fixed what they could. Friends, family, and very kind contractors not hell bent on turning every dime into a dollar helped finish what they couldn’t do alone.
Now, as they plan their wedding in October 2022, their first house is also their first home. Not because of what they got when they signed on the bottom line, but because of what they have created together, since.
Then, there was the dead tree.
Two of our very closest friends who have become family, planted an autumn blaze maple sapling at their then-first home, also about 26 years ago.
The tree bloomed and grew. Its branches literally and symbolically intertwining with every aspect of their young marriage and family. They welcomed and provided perches for myriad birds and innumerable squirrels – including the several that their dog successfully chased down and sent on to whatever follows tree life for squirrels.
It offered shade and shelter, beauty and inspiration, its thickening trunk a tangible anchor for the spirits that drifted under and around and into its arms.
Then, a vicious storm broke off a limb. Time and Mother Nature said the tree was damaged beyond saving, forcing our friends to cut it down recently. The loss was palpable and heartbreaking, as much for the giant presence lost as for all that it represented. (Full disclosure: one of our friends wrote a candid, sad, and beautiful blog about this experience.)
Like those who’ve never owned pets and are confused by the love humans have for their animals, some will be surprised to know how very seriously our friends took this loss. Until you understand that the tree was not just a tree, but a living, breathing element of their life – their home.
In the same way, those who have never lifted a hammer or slung a paint brush or dirtied their knees, hoping against hope that the picture balances the room, or the color matches the vision in one’s mind or the flowers/grass/veggies eventually sprout and survive the ever-hungry critters in service to a mortgage payment, may have a hard time understanding the idea of a home as anything other than a dwelling.
The difference is as simple as the deceptively profound lesson learned as a very young journalist about word choice: a house is a collection of wood and glass and metal. A home is what you make of it. A building, versus what is built.
A house is filled with things. Transient. Impermanent. Replaceable. A home is filled with the stuff of Life seen by the soul. Joy and sorrow. Gain and loss. Laughs and tears. Most importantly, the love that exists between those who share its space for a purpose greater than themselves.
The saying “Home is where the heart is,” is a cliché for a good reason: because it is true.
I have always wanted to be a rock star. (Indeed, I have been for a long time, if only on my ego’s giant stage.)
Finally, I really am – and believe it or not, no thanks to my good friend, KISS lead singer Paul Stanley. (We met a few years ago at a book signing – his, not mine.)
Rather, my stardom came because of “Doc” McStuffins.
“Doc” is a seven-year-old African American girl who likes to fix toys, dolls, and stuffed animals. (Doc’s real name is Maisha, like that of Dr. Myiesha Taylor, an emergency medicine physician in Sunnyvale, Texas.)
Doc is the latest of the long line of Disney Junior’s megastars.
But much more important, she is our 3-year-old granddaughter Riley’s current favorite television character and role model.
For those unaware, Doc’s toys come to life through her imagination (and a “magic” stethoscope) and present all manner of toy traumas needing her medical expertise. Doc and her assistants – a hippo, dinosaur, stuffed lamb, and a paranoid snowman, among others – then treat them, dutifully recording their diagnoses in Doc’s “Big Book of Boo-Boos.”
Recently a coworker mentioned her 10-year-old daughter had outgrown her Doc McStuffins diagnosis table and cabinet and offered it to me.
As a proud, card-carrying Papa, I had only one choice.
I graciously accepted the gift and set it up in our family room. Kellie, my wife (and the best Nana, ever) and I couldn’t wait to see the look on Riley’s face on her next weekend visit when she walked into that room.
Needless to say, 3-year-old smiles don’t come much bigger or brighter.
What I didn’t know – and Riley soon discovered – is that the cabinet was filled with toy medical implements: a stethoscope, giant syringe, a blood pressure cuff with a needle that spins wildly every you pump the air pressure. Every kind of tool that a “doctor” would need.
Riley spent the rest of the day – and hours on subsequent visits – poking and prodding us. Pounding our knees and elbows. Peering into our eyes and ears. Listening to our hearts. Monitoring our blood pressure and pulse. I can’t swear, but I am almost sure that she checked my blood pressure more that first day than has been done in my entire 55 years on earth.
Heck, if my real doctors paid this much attention, I wouldn’t mind paying the deductible nearly as much.
After dropping Riley off that Saturday evening, Kellie and I were both elated and amazed at the incredible joy this used toy brought our sweet girl, from whom joy already overflows.
Then, Kellie said something that hit me like electroshock therapy (which Doc does not perform, thank goodness.)
“You were the rock star today.”
Her simple, easy smile bespoke her sincerity. Knowing the strength of her own special and strong bond with our granddaughter, I knew she wasn’t being in any way sarcastic or envious. There’s no competition between us (only one of my wife’s countless qualities.) Just stating the fact: on that day Papa had brought the roof down.
Like many things in my advancing middle age, those words meant more to me than maybe were intended or understood.
To paraphrase a cliché, if I’d have known that being a grandpa was so awesome, I might have tried it before being a dad.
Don’t get me wrong: I was a decent dad. Not perfect. Who is? Parenting – like most “adulting” – can be very hard work. Mentally, physically, spiritually, and financially draining. But even decent dads do some “un-decent” deeds, now and again.
I had (have) a short, impatient fuse and a long, flaring temper. I am reluctant (trust me, that’s the fairest, most accurate word I can use) about change. I do not tolerate fools or foolishness, and I am the sole judge of both in my world.
I am eternally embarrassed to admit our kids saw all of that, and more than once.
(For the record: I think I’ve improved a smidge since our girls reached young adulthood. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say I’m now a solid 7. I love this stage of our relationship, being able to talk about everything with two intelligent, thoughtful, caring young people. It expands and energizes my mind and soul.)
Yet, as a grandparent, I can be a better Me.
Absent the parental pressures of providing housing, financial support, clothing, etc. the focus shifts completely to the purest interests of the heart: blowing bubbles, swimming, exploring the garden, taking long walks down a new path, visiting museums and parks, napping, tickling, snuggling, singing songs we’ve sung a million times at the tops of our voices.
And of course, sharing a bowl of ice cream on a warm Saturday afternoon.
My good friend Paul Stanley may pack in 25,000 screaming KISS fans, their faces made up in white and black and red Kabuki makeup to look like his or the other band members.
He may have sold 100 million records and helped pioneer arena rock.
He may be a talented songwriter, singer, and performer worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
He can keep it all.
Because, in the eyes of my favorite 3-year-old, baby I’m a star!
Or, at least, my likely response to something external — that being the whole wide world around me, and the continuing political and social lunacy incited and inflamed by He Who Shall Not Be Named.
No need to rehash the last four months, much less the last four years. He will do that himself, either in person, online, or from prison, repeating the same lie ad nauseum, until it no longer fattens his wallet.
The point is, like a rotting, stinking, zombie, every time we reasonably think that thing is dead, it pops back up.
Here we are, more than four months after one of the most divisive national elections ever, followed by weeks of discord, 60-plus failed court cases, and finally a terrifying, treasonous attack on the Capitol by insurrectionist trolls, and it still won’t die.
Each passing day of non-passage brought more worms of frustration and fear and concern for the lasting evil this one man wrought.
They burrowed so deep into my tired writer’s brain that I haven’t been able to write much of anything. Every attempt, no matter how innocent or unrelated the topic, veered off onto some trash-covered back road of angry abstraction.
So, rather than expose the dark spots on my soul, I just stopped writing.
And for that, I say, shame on me.
Now I don’t want to suggest I came to this point of self-correction purely due to my own intellect or intuition. Far from it.
This time, as with so many others, I saw the truth only through a friend’s eyes.
Just recently, I was kvetching to a dear and respected friend and fellow writer about my self-imposed writer’s block (I won’t name him here, to protect the innocent.) Turns out, he’d been suffering the same blockage.
Interestingly, we share many connections, but our politics differ. Yet, he too hasn’t been able to sort or sift, much less dispose of, his own anxiety over the impact of the recent presidential election.
He admitted he too, had “opted out” of the writing game rather than lose the intended message or open himself to potentially cruel criticism.
I’ve said it a million times if I’ve said it once: there is more that binds us than divides us.
This revelation – that it wasn’t just me – was just what I needed to clear my mental clog.
Knowing that someone else shares your struggle is often ennobling and emboldening. It brings strength like braiding cords into a rope. It brings courage like linking arms against an opponent.
Yet, knowing someone agrees with you isn’t enough.
One must also choose to act – and more importantly, accept responsibility for choosing.
I believe to the core of my burdened bones in the grace of giving. “Charity” is a soul function that both defines and measures our humanity.
But Giving and Getting are equal parts of the equation. Frankly, too many people ignore the “getting” part because they fear, or are too lazy to deal with, the responsibility that comes with accepting someone else’s reflection, nudging, guidance, or even criticism.
And for that I say, shame on them.
Look, it’s simple: if a gift horse appears and nips you on the nose while you dither around checking its teeth, don’t blame the horse.
So, with gratitude for my friend’s camaraderie, I hereby reclaim my God-given voice and promise to use it to say whatever I feel like saying, however I want to say it.
If you agree with me, fine. If not, fine. But you-know-who created problems that, we now know, won’t go away anytime soon – maybe by accident, maybe on purpose.
Either way, there’s so much to do to fix what is so clearly and awfully wrong right now, and the first step is to speak the words.
About the state of the world, or the state of my spirit.
About things that lift up or things that pull down.
About the flowers of spring or the flowers of death.
About everything terribly important and nothing terribly consequential.
Whatever the subject, I have a voice and I will use it.
A new friend regularly posts this question/challenge on her Facebook page. Already something of a community activist and good-hearted person, she’d been doing it for a while when, in July, she had to have emergency brain surgery.
As you’d expect, she was temporarily down but not for long. A few weeks later, she resumed her near-daily inquiry as she started her journey toward recovery.
What brought you joy today?
Amazing, if you ask me, that she continued asking, picking up the pieces of her life after such an ordeal.
That she even asks it at all is even more inspiring considering the nightmare that 2020, and, frankly, the last four years, has been for many.
Truthfully, the first couple of paragraphs of this blog sat on my computer desktop for several weeks.
I couldn’t bring myself to talk about “joy” as Donald Trump worked overtime in plain view to dismantle and destroy our entire American democratic system, while millions of fellow citizens encouraged his lunatic ravings.
I couldn’t see “joy” beyond the hundreds of thousands of deaths tied to a worldwide pandemic — not to mention the ancillary crush of collapsing economic, social, and governmental systems.
I couldn’t hear “joy” over the clanging of cynical, politically motivated indifference, and deliberate attempts to mislead, misinform, and ignore.
What brought you joy today?
A deceptively small and simple question with big and complex answers. Perhaps too big, I thought, as I kept trying without success to get past the start of this essay.
Then, this week, as I started to take a much-needed break, it dawned on me. Joy flickers softly at first, then soon burns so brightly that you cannot see past it. Still, like most important things, one must be open to it. Must want to see it. And in so wanting, must almost will it to life.
What better time then, to talk about joy, than Christmas week when a baby turned out to be the light of the world?
So, on Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve, here are some of the many small (yet big) things that bring me joy:
The shining eyes, silly laughs, and unfiltered love of a child – not that one, but our two-year-old granddaughter. Her natural exuberance and adventuresome spirit are a magical tonic to my tired soul.
The raft of memories of my dad, who passed away in January 1997 at the sad, young age of 51. They seem to pop up these days when I least expect — or perhaps, when I most need them – bringing a smile, a quiet laugh, or even a tear. He wasn’t a perfect human, but he was a great father. I miss him.
The courage of those fighting this pandemic. Yes, of course, I refer to all the essential medical workers, police, fire, etc. But I am thinking specifically of the four nurses in my family. They probably had some idea that something like this could happen. They likely had some training. But reality always overpowers anticipation and speculation.
The commitment of the teachers working through remote learning. In my other life, I have heard, seen, and shared dozens of stories of teachers leaving their contractually limited duties in the dirt and finding ways to connect with children who desperately need it, at a time of extreme disconnection.
Not to mention the thousands of families and students who likewise have made tremendous sacrifices to fit the very square peg of daily schooling into the very round hole of “regular” life in 2020.
The friends, spouses, significant others, etc. who stand by, ready to bolster our spirit, boost our energy, and sometimes even give us a much-needed kick in our spiritual backsides. “Support” and “encouragement” come in many shapes and sizes.
Adult children whose every success proves the value of love, discipline, respect, and faith, and erases my many parental failings.
The easy serenity, awareness, and acceptance that comes with long-term relationships.
The coworkers big-hearted enough to tolerate the occasional (but always unintended) outburst, as layers upon layers of calcified frazzlement explode.
The 81 million people who said, clearly, firmly, and beyond question, enough is enough.
Those willing to tolerate and forgive our external nonsense because they know our internal truth.
The peace brought by a quiet evening (or afternoon, or morning) spent reading.
The awe and humility that comes with admiring someone else’s talent and artistry.
The grace of holding another hand, hearing another voice, healing another heart.
And most especially, those who seek and find and celebrate joy itself, wherever, whenever, however they can.
They shine a light on, and into a world too easily and too often consumed by darkness. They remind me every day of my opportunity and obligation to do the same.
My anxiety is sky-high, my creativity ocean-floor low. All thanks to an invisible virus and the all-too-visible havoc it has wreaked on our world, our country, our state, our community, our families, our spirits.
This damn virus has killed more than 283,000 Americans and counting. It has crippled the economy and created a world of confusion, politically charged misinformation, and paranoia. (Hey, what do you know? It’s not fake, not a hoax, and didn’t disappear on November 4th …)
Many days, like many people feeling the same way, the stress caused by this emotional/spiritual dragnet has also pulled me down physically. I sleep. Eat right. Exercise when I can. Yet I often go through the day feeling like I’ve been through three rounds with Mike Tyson in his prime.
But I am never completely sunk. Because when all else fails, I always have my secret weapon: music.
Reading is relaxing. Writing is rewarding. But music is magical.
It soothes me, sapping away the angst, or filling my mental tank. Speaking to the crisis du jour or the eternal human condition (both usually having something to do with love and relationships of one kind or another) I listen to a wide and eclectic range of music.
My collection numbers tens of thousands of songs spanning everything from jazz to country to folk to rock to blues to R&B, soul, funk, classical, marching band, opera. You name it, I’ve probably got it somewhere, or had it at one time or another.
I am, literally, that guy who had hundreds of LP records (including some 78s from my grandmother) and 45 singles, replaced them all with cassettes, replaced those with CDs, only to replace them with thousands of digital songs on my iPod and now my phone.
(A few years ago, as CDs replaced vinyl, I carted hundreds of albums to one of those shops that buys used records and sold them for a couple hundred bucks. Now, vinyl is considered “vintage” and I no longer have a record player. Just my luck…)
So, with 2020 nearing its very welcome demise, Thanksgiving just behind us and Christmas just down the road, this is a good time to thank some of those who gave me my love of music.
Starting with my mother, who introduced me to jazz-influenced crooners like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett, romantic singers like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, and of course, Elvis. For her, nothing and no one surpassed Elvis. The day he died, it was like the earth had stopped turning.
Then there’s my junior high band director John Knudson, for the gift of Big Band jazz (Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller); and my two high school band directors Mike Fiske (funkier, more mature jazz like Spyro Gyra and Maynard Ferguson); and the iconic Ted Lega, who turned me on to classical music (“Carmina Burana”) and taught his students life-long life lessons about perseverance in the face of difficulty.
My high school buddy Anthony “Gook” Gray turned my whole life around when he lent me his cassette tape of this short, skinny African American musician who dressed weird and sang dirty lyrics. His name was Prince, and the album was “Controversy.”
Prince took (and continues to take) me in every possible direction down every musical street there is including funk (James Brown) and soul (Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin) and rock (Jimi Hendrix.)
Another high school buddy, John Quirk and I explored every piece of jazz and blues we could lay our hands on, especially when we worked together at Musicland in the Jefferson Square Mall, neither of which exist now.
John Coltrane, Miles Davis (who singlehandedly changed popular music three distinct times), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and the late, great, Walkin’, Talkin’ Stevie Ray Vaughn (and Prince too. John was as big a fan as me.) Our “erudite” conversations filled countless high school, college and post-college days and nights.
Early in our marriage, my wife, Kellie started listening to “modern country” – Shania Twain, Sarah Evans, and especially Kenny Chesney. I liked some of it, and soon gravitated more toward the more “traditional” sounding country artists like Alan Jackson, the Dixie Chicks, George Straight and Reba McEntire – you know, anything with a twang.
But of course, if you’re going to listen to country music, you need to listen to COUNTRY music: – Merle, Willie, Kris, Loretta, Dolly, Hank (Senior and Junior), Waylon, and the biggest big dog of them all, the Man in Black, Johnny Cash.
My best college buddy, Chuck Pelkie, opened the universe to me when he introduced me to Dylan and Springsteen. I will always remember the first time I heard “The River” by Bruce. I sobbed – I am not kidding, tears ran down my face — at the story of a young man who got his girlfriend pregnant, was forced into a life-sucking job, “and man that was all she wrote.”
And Dylan? Well, there aren’t words to describe Dylan. He is as significant as the Beatles in terms of his impact on popular music. A case can easily be made that he’s even more significant than the Beatles since they were trying to emulate him when they wrote “Sgt. Peppers.”
Chuck has kind of soured on both Bruce and Bob in recent years, and not without some justification. However, he’s continued to expand my musical horizons, introducing me to John Prine, Jason Isbell, The Avett Brothers.
I could go on and on – John Lennon’s solo work, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Each made a huge impact on me, opening my mind to new thoughts. New ideas. Experiences unique to one person or group, and experiences shared by all people and groups. What separates and unites us.
I turn 55 in January.
Still, whenever I stumble across a new artist – the Mavericks, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of Real, Lake Street Dive – I feel like a kid again. I want to share that joy and energy that comes only with discovery even as I revel in it.
I have shared my musical passions with both my daughters over the years. We may not always like the same things (Exhibit A, Your Honor: Jesse McCartney and The Backstreet Boys) but I am proud to say our girls have very well-rounded musical tastes.
These days, you’ll find me explaining the unique Lennon/McCartney dynamic or dissecting the differences and similarities between the Stones and Beatles or singing an Aretha song or dancing to “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire with my granddaughter.
You may think that’s a lot to lay on a two-year-old. You may be right; I may be crazy (Billy Joel.)
But in a world of talent-less garbage and profit-driven mimicry, I want her to understand the good stuff and where it comes from. I want her to know the magic of music, and to feel and trust in and rely on its essential life-altering, life-giving power, especially in dark times.
“Happy birthday, dear Dad/Grandpa/Uncle Joe, happy birthday, to youuuuuuu!”
The group of well-wishers hung on to the last word for what seemed like eons in Joe’s ears. The notes mixed with the antiseptic smell in the air that crept into his room at the assisted living facility where his family had parked him ten years ago. They’d expected him to die much sooner. And why wouldn’t they? After all he was 107 when they brought him here. Any reasonable person with any kind of respect for normal life would have died by now. Given up his spot in the daily bread line. Turned over his table in the Restaurant of Life.
But not Joe.
Here he sat. Still able to walk the halls. He didn’t even need the hand under the elbow from family or visitors that most of the residents, all much younger than him, needed if they could walk at all. Not that he saw much of his family. Except for “official” visits like today or a holiday when relatives were invited to have lunch with their resident (on his tab, mind you) he rarely saw, much less walked around the halls with many of them.
Still able (and very happy) to chat up and wink at the women, young and old, although he’d never done anything beyond flirting the few times when circumstances had led in that direction. Not for lack of ability or interest. Joe still had both. He might have been a little slower on the draw, but he was certain the old “love gun,” as that silly band KISS had sung a million years ago, could still fire a round or two. Rather, no woman, no matter her age, even looked at him, much less saw him as an interesting, capable, viable partner of any kind, much less physical.
And still sharp as a new tack fresh out of the box. That expansive family? He still called every one of his seventy-two kids, grandkids and great grandkids by their proper name, no hesitation at all. And don’t get Joe started on current affairs or politics or sports or culture or – most especially – music and movies. He could back just about anyone into an inescapable conversational corner, tongue-tied and feet tangled in their knotted, and often only half-tied rhetorical rope. Nothing worse than an ill-prepared or lazy adversary, Joe often chastised after winning another argument.
Still, most days, Joe Barker was not happy. Especially on his birthday.
“Hey there, Dad,” his son, Matty, said. “How are you feeling today? Doctor says you are doing great, for a man your age. Heck, you’re doing great for a man of any age!” Matty dropped the zinger loud enough for the room of relatives to hear. As planned, it drew the fawning, cooing, polite but insincere laughter he intended. It almost seemed like he was waiting for a drummer to add a rim shot. Ba-doom-doom. Csssss! Matty was the youngest of the four kids he had with his wife, Claire. He was far too old to still be called by the diminutive nickname, but it stuck, glued to him by eighty years of life. It was both ironic and sad, Joe thought, since the older kids – Joseph Junior, Monica, and Jean – had all died long ago. Matty, the “baby,” was now the adult. Had been for many years. Except when visiting Joe, Matty was usually the oldest person in the room. Heck, Joe’s youngest great grandchild was twenty-nine, and carped incessantly about turning thirty, like that was something worth complaining about. Joe appreciated Matty’s high spirit and good nature. He loved his son’s sincere, well-intentioned effort to inject some levity to counterbalance the wailing sobs from the old woman across the hall that hung in the air like smog. But Joe couldn’t look past the very old elephant in the room.
“Matty, you know how I am. I am here. I am awake. I am healthy. I am breathing. I am hearing, talking, eating, reading, listening to the radio when I can get Alexa to answer me, watching television when I can find something that interests me. But I don’t want to be.”
“Dad come on now,” Matty interjected. What was coming was inappropriate for the day and the room of guests who’d gathered, no matter how many times they’d all heard it before. “We have talked about this.”
“Yes, son, we have. So, you should know by now how I feel,” Joe said. Eyes turned toward his rising voice, still as clarion and crisp as that of a man half his son’s age. “I want to be dead. Like everyone else of my generation. I should be in the ground or in an urn on top of your fireplace. Instead, I am here.”
“But Uncle Joe, we all love you,” said one of his nieces, Catherine. “We don’t want to lose you any time soon.”
“Catherine, sweetheart, I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. And I love you for saying it,” Joe said, smiling at the beautiful middle-age woman. “I know you all mean well for me. But I want to be dead. I’m not sad, or depressed, or suicidal, I promise. It’s just the natural order of things. A man my age should be dead. And I would have been if not for that stupid COVID-19 vaccine.”
Few in the room had lived through that god-awful pandemic. Fifty years ago, an unknown virus gobbled up and shat out most of the world’s human and financial resources for nearly three years. They had not lived through the plague, yet not knowing its reality didn’t make its truth any less real.
“I did what I – what we were all – supposed to do,” Joe said, evenly, with the practiced flatness of tone of someone who’d told the story many times. “I wore my mask, I social-distanced, I stayed away from everyone I loved for months at a time. And then, the first vaccine came out, a month before election day that first year, just like you-know-who said.”
A glancing smile broke quickly across Matty’s face. To this day, his dad refused to speak the former president’s name as if in ongoing protest.
Joe looked around the room, filled with everyone with even a scintilla of concern or affection for him.
“To this day, I don’t know what was worse – him winning re-election, or the millions of people who died after taking that first vaccine. And not just died. But died horrible, painful, terrible deaths because they had been willing to believe anything anyone said, just to get it over with faster. So they could stop wearing masks and go out to dinner,” he said.
“I cannot even begin to put into words how angry and betrayed and guilty I felt, because I’d been ‘smart enough’ to not take that first vaccine.” Joe’s bony, knobby index fingers waved in front of his face, making air quotes. “I knew it wasn’t safe. How could it possibly be? They rushed it into production as soon as the government waved all the safety regulations. Any fool would have known it wasn’t safe.” Joe took a deep breath. “Except those that didn’t. Including your mother. She believed everything that man said. Boy, we fought so much that first term…” Joe’s voice trailed off, drowned under a wash of memories. “Look what her faith got her.”
A tear crept into the corner of Joe’s 117-year-old eye. He quickly turned in his chair toward the wall and wiped it away.
“Dad, I think it’s time for us to go,” Matty said softly. He and his father had had this conversation so many times over the last half-decade that it’d taken on a life of its own, breathing its own sorrow into the air around Joe. The loss of his mother was the real source of his dad’s bitterness, at least as much as the politics of a plague that killed many millions of people, including two younger cousins, Matty knew. “You need your rest.”
Joe’s head swiveled back like he’d been slapped. “Rest? Rest? Rest for what? To play another round of Old People Who Should Be Dead Bingo?” he yelled. “Matty, you cannot possibly understand what it means to be so old that the oldest people around me are considered youngsters by comparison, and yet I can’t die! I have absolutely nothing in common with anyone. I am utterly and literally alone on an island. It’s not that I have lost touch with the world, Matty. The world has lost touch with me”
“But Dad, you could have taken your chances with the next four vaccines. You chose not to,” Matty said smoothly, trying to calm his father.
“And it’s a good thing, too, seeing as how they all failed. It’s like the virus kept getting smarter every time and laughed at us with each new vaccine. Ah, but then they came out with a sixth one. And every scientist and doctor worth their lab coats said this was the one. This one would cure COVID forever — and not just the current strains. It would even prevent new strains that hadn’t even formed yet. Well sir, that sounded too good to be true, but I figured, what is there to lose? The sixth time must be the charm, right?”
Matty dropped his head. He’d heard the inevitable answer to this rhetorical question a thousand times before.
“It worked, all right,” Joe said. “Only too well! Now I am trapped by my own bad luck and some sick, twisted cosmic irony! Here I am, a living, breathing testament to the power of modern medicine!” Joe shouted. His vitriolic cynicism was as clear as the spittle now on his lips. His anger drew surprised glances from a few people floating around the edges of his room.
“Dad come on. You know there’s nothing to that. There is no proof that the vaccine caused you to live longer, or stop your natural aging, or whatever it is you think happened. It could have been a fluke. It could be that you’ve got incredibly good genes. Maybe God has a reason for keeping you alive so long. Who knows? Yes, there were problems with the first six vaccines, but the next one worked the way it was supposed to. Maybe not for everyone, but at least for a few people. The others who lived all had happy lives and eventually died just like we’re all going to do” Matty said. “Including you.” His voice carried just the faintest wisp of exhausted exasperation.
Joe shifted in chair. Several relatives had quietly slipped out of the room, lingering now outside the open door or down the hall near the dining room. Those remaining watched the ballgame on the television. “Bears are losing again,” Joe noted to no one in particular. “Some things never change.”
Matty lifted and gently held his father’s right hand. He spoke respectfully, but firmly, as if reprimanding a child whose countless good deeds far outweighed this one bad one. “Dad, all we know, all any of us care about – “ Matty waved his right hand over his shoulder toward the thinning herd as it now issued a collective groan at yet another Bears fumble – “is that you are still with us. For whatever reason. It doesn’t matter. Your life is a blessing. And we cherish it.”
Joe quieted for a few seconds, reflecting on the journey he’d taken, but would have never wished on anyone. A wistful chuckle escaped through a melancholic smile. “A blessing? Hmmm…fifty years of memories that no one else understands, of a colossal human disaster that we brought on ourselves.” He stared at his and his son’s hands, intertwined. “Somehow, this blessing feels more like a curse.” He raised his eyes to his Matty’s face. “Son, you are a caring and conscientious man. I have always been most proud of your heart. So, I know you understand when I say this: I love you, but I don’t want to see you ever again.”
A loud cheer erupted behind them – thankfully, loud enough to hide Matty’s gasp. The Bears had scored a rare touchdown.
“Now Matty, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just want to be left alone until I die. Lord knows when that will ever be, or how it will happen. I don’t want to bother you with all that.” Joe smiled and winked at his son. “Plus, at your age, you shouldn’t be driving anymore.” The attempted joke fell flat. Matty stared at his father, unsmiling.
“Matty, all I do anymore is sit around here and review my life. My freakishly long life. You know I’m not particularly religious. Never have put much stock in all that ‘Invisible Man’ stuff, but sometimes I think that if there is a God, He was using that virus to teach us a lesson in humility. You know, they called it a ‘novel’ virus because it was new. But really, there was nothing new about the situation. As usual, we humans saw something small and thought we could just crush it under our giant feet.” Joe said.
“Six times, we rushed. Sacrificing safety for speed and profit,” Joe said. “Six times, our arrogance told us our size and strength would win out. That our superior firepower would win the war because it always had. But none of that mattered to the virus.”
Matty had long been in awe of his father’s wit and intellect. But he was astounded by the words Joe now spoke.
“Dad,” he nearly whispered, “to be fair, the scientists and doctors finally got it right with the seventh vaccine.”
“Great!” Joe said, looking away. “Lucky Number Seven, I guess.”
Joe took a deep breath. For the first time in many years, he called his son by his adult name. Decades of kind, mature patience with his father had earned him this small token of his father’s respect.
“Matthew, here is what I have learned these last fifty years when I should have been dead and spending eternity with your mother,” Joe said, wryly.
“I won, I suppose, but we failed,” he said.
“Our leaders failed us, our doctors and scientists failed us, the media failed us. Heck, even that God of yours failed us. But mostly, we failed each other. As individuals, as a community, as a species. And why? Because doing the right thing took too long and was inconvenient.”
Now Joe stood, walked to the door, and stared down the hall. A man who looked older than Joe toddled down the corridor, clinging shakily to a sparkling, aluminum walker. He turned and reached back to his son, hugging him with all his might.
“I don’t believe in much these days, Matthew, but I have come to believe that God of yours gave us that virus to remind us that we’re supposed to find our strength by working together,” Joe said.
“But we didn’t. We never do. Instead, we died from something too big to kill. Our hubris and greed.” Joe exhaled deeply. He slumped into his chair like a deflated balloon.
A groan rose from the remaining visitors. The Bears had lost again.
“I guess God just gave us a taste of our own medicine.”
I have not written a single non-work-related word for nearly two months.
Not for lack of interest or inspiration, mind you.
In fact, I have fought the urge to write a poem that has been swimming lazy laps around my brain for a couple of weeks. It is highly critical of God and the current Oval Office Occupant, and I didn’t want to offend those friends who believe in either or both, all whom I otherwise admire and respect.
I have struggled to stay above the strife (or at least not add to it) as the entire world deals with the fallout – physical, emotional, spiritual, financial – of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, it’s been a difficult time, concrete-hard, for me as for many.
I felt like the undersized, but quick-cutting football team running back who has finally broken through the line, zigging this way, zagging that way, hips twisting, knees high, legs pumping, evading linebackers twice my size.
The goal line was in sight. The winning touchdown and all the attendant glory only yards away, nothing ahead of me but screaming fans.
I was blindsided and tackled by an unseen cornerback. No touchdown. No winning score. No glory. Only pain, turf and stars.
As I lay on the ground, the officials kept their yellow flags in their pockets as every defensive player on the field and, it seemed, a few from the sidelines piled on.
I struggled with sleep-stealing financial concerns for my two daughters and their families; not seeing our granddaughter for more than six weeks; my own blues from lack of socialization with friends and family; the murky, bottomless depths of uncertainty about and concern for the future.
Then it got worse.
Every jaw-droppingly stupid utterance from Donald Trump, a man with a narcissistic need to be in the spotlight. Blammo!
Every one of his gob-smacking, forehead-slapping denials of a comment despite video proof of their utterance. Pow!
Every ridiculous bit of his “cheerleading” to try to ignore and deflect and minimize the seriousness of the situation. Smash to the kisser!
Each of his childish fights picked with other leaders who dare to cross his constantly shifting, arbitrary political line in the sand. Gut punch!
Each of his attempts to blame everyone else, anyone else, for seventy days of misdirection, lies, obfuscation and political gamesmanship, while thousands died from a mystery virus. Another shot to the ribs.
(By the way, how many shades of cynical or paranoid does one have to be to suggest, much less think, that this pandemic is a political scheme or hoax?)
And worst of all, his calls to “Liberate” states, prompting people to take part in armed protests of his own administration’s health directives intended to keep people from dying. Proving yet again that he was most concerned with how he looked to his rabid cult — and even then, only when the stock market started to tumble. Because those are his only real priorities: money, and image. Especially his money, and his image.
Each one felt like another cleated foot on my throat. Another body jumping on my back, pinning me to the ground.
I was so anxious, so overwhelmed, so conflicted, that I literally could not catch my breath under the crushing weight of fear, confusion, frustration, anger and lack of human decency.
Then, I read a recent issue of Time magazine.
The special subject, “Finding Hope,” featured article after story after essay from writers, doctors, elected officials, religious leaders and social and cultural icons, each promoting a simple, essential premise:
We cannot recover from this pandemic alone.
We must work together as individuals, families, communities, professions, governments, faith systems, public and private sectors.
We must believe that we will return to “normal” – whatever that will look like – only when we share responsibility for each other, rather than thinking only about our singular interest.
Yes, it will be hard.
Yes, it will be painful
Yes, many will suffer financially, emotionally, psychically, spiritually.
And yes, many will die. Maybe, with any luck, not as many as various models and experts have predicted. But more than any rational person would dare call acceptable if any one of the suffering or dead belonged to them.
Interestingly, not one writer took or demanded credit for any idea, development, or policy (much less petulantly whined about not getting enough praise.) Not. One.
For the record, I do not hold Trump responsible for the pandemic. That’s silly. However, I do hold him responsible for his own actions, the same as I’d do with any adult or child.
His self-centered, “I! I! I! Me! Me! Me!” behavior is stultifying. It is such a shallow, pathetic, transparent cry for legitimacy in a world in which even he knows he doesn’t belong, that one might pity him under normal circumstances.
But nothing is normal these days, and his behavior affects the rest of us.
Trump’s callous, callow, even cruel example followed only too gladly by his minions has made a tremendously difficult situation exponentially worse.
Simply put, Trump has pitted the One against the Many.
Listen, I don’t pretend to be above self-interest. I want what’s best for me and mine the same as anyone else.
But the Time magazine issue reminded me there’s more than just “Me” to consider.
If “I” is my only focus, my only concern, my only priority, then others suffer.
“I” fuels fear. Anger. Greed. Hatred.
The power of “I” is its ability to divide. And in the darkness of that division to build walls between “Me” and “Them,” defined in any way that helps me keep whatever I think is mine. Race, religion, gender, wealth. Even health.
“We,” on the other hand, calls us to give. Love. Sacrifice. Even suffer.
The power of “We” is the life-sustaining energy that comes from combining whatever little bit I have with someone else’s, so that what we create together is not only more, but also better and stronger.
“We” in its purest essence cares most about Unity. “We” knows that Unity can be hard, but that hardness smooths the rough edges of division. That hardness is often its own best reward.
Of course, it goes without saying that everyone can follow who they want to follow and believe what they want to believe. As Americans, that is our right – even if we are wrong.
What does need to be said though, is that we as humans must be about more than our rights. We must be about our responsibilities, too. Rights are individualistic. Responsibilities are communal.
I am as scared, angry, frustrated, nervous, confused and concerned as anyone else with a functioning head and heart.
Still, right now, in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide crisis, I choose to believe in “We.” I must. It is the only way I will see clearer, sleep better, breathe easier.
The strength of “We.”
The dream of “We.”
The love of “We.”
Hmm…I guess I didn’t need to write that poem after all.
He’s a wonderful young man. Hard working, diligent, level-headed, thoughtful, bright, caring. A terrific father to our granddaughter, and great husband to our daughter, Emma.
But Jake doesn’t talk much. At least not to us.
To be fair, when he does talk, he has a sharp, bright, cutting wit that often leaves us laughing hysterically into our mashed potatoes around the dinner table, surprised to hear him utter such comments.
So, it was nothing less than an electric shock when my cellphone rang around 6 p.m. on March 23, 2018.
“Hello?” I answered.
“It’s me. We’re here,” Jake said plainly.
“At the hospital. Emma’s having the baby.”
Background: Our oldest daughter had called earlier that day to report on the status of her routine doctor’s visit and pregnancy. She was alright at first, but her normally strong demeanor quickly dissolved into puddles of sobs.
It seemed the baby, if carried to term (about another ten days or so) would likely top the scales at ten pounds. Jake is about six feet tall. Emma is barely four feet, nine inches. The immensity of it all – especially the prospect of birthing a basketball – simply overwhelmed our girl.
After sharing the same news and crying again to her mom (my wife), she went home for the afternoon.
Then, her water broke while Jake and she watched television. As many parents learn, babies have an irritating tendency to come when they darned well feel like it.
They rushed to the hospital and his phone call, paradoxically both small and huge, soon followed.
Jake urged us to stay home and come to the hospital the next day. Emma probably wouldn’t have the baby before 8 p.m. when visiting hours ended, he warned. We followed his sage guidance.
For about three minutes.
We dove into the car and rushed to the hospital, elated to just sit there and wait. We chatted with other families, situated as close physically, spiritually and emotionally to the birth as hospital rules and locked doors would allow.
Then, Jake emerged from the maternity ward.
Dressed in blue scrubs, looking understandably frazzled and exhausted, he changed our lives for the second time in three years.
Riley Jean Williams had arrived, all eight pounds, ten ounces healthy and raring to join the world. Oh, and Emma was fine too (although the birth had been rough on her.)
We hugged and congratulated our son-in-law. We were as proud of him and grateful for his calm demeanor as the day he married Emma. He proffered a few precious details then disappeared behind the electronic doors to be with his wife.
We met and held our grandbaby the next morning, as soon as security and respect for a new mom’s need for rest and privacy allowed. The earth…well, if it didn’t exactly turn backwards, it certainly wobbled a bit for my wife and me.
We, who ourselves had started our life together only twenty-seven short years ago, a young couple desperately in love, trying to figure out the world together, scared but a little more confident holding each other’s hands, suddenly were grandparents!
And we couldn’t have been happier, prouder or more excited for a future we were already planning only hours into Riley’s new life.
Did you know babies are magicians? It’s true.
They can change sorrow into laughter. Frowns into smiles. Blustery days into kite-filled skies.
They turn lifelong, slightly paranoid grumps into giggling optimists overflowing with sparkling faith for a suddenly brighter world.
They can twist time into priceless pretzels of amazement as minutes turn to hours turn to days turn to years faster than seems possible.
One second, Riley was laying in our arms able only to eat and sleep. The next, she was chasing and yelling at me to fly her around the house, or presenting the television remote to Nana, demanding to watch “Trolls” for the fourth time that day.
Most of all, they can fill a room heavy with gray, tired routine with the glittering air of adventure.
Unconcerned about what comes next, every turn, step, sight, sound and smell is a new journey, a quest, an escapade.
An innocent ignorance of anything that might impede, endanger or limit makes it a smidge easier to look past the uncertainties and qualms darkening the Real World’s corners.
Most astonishingly, their joy becomes our joy. Every discovery through their eyes re-opens our own to the grace and mystery around us. Truly amazing.
All children – but especially grandchildren – are revelations of humanity and holiness at their purest intersection.
A book I am reading about the Gospel of John described Jesus’ impact on those who met Him this way: “Life calls to life. Love calls to love.”
I’d respectfully say that, when it comes to grandchildren, “New life calls to new life. New love calls to new love.”
Speaking of Life, the real thing recently broke in.
I am writing this over the first weekend of the governor’s two-week (so far) “stay at home” order to help fight the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic.
And I hate it.
To be clear, I am sincerely concerned for everyone’s physical and financial health as people (including our daughters and their families) try to figure out how to survive.
As I’ve said many times over the last three years, the economy is indeed better. But it’s not better for everyone, and not better in the same way for everyone. So, two (or four, or who knows how many) weeks without a paycheck will devastate a lot of people who aren’t part of the one percent.
However, we haven’t seen Riley in two weeks.
We missed one weekend of “Nana and Papa” duty because I had a slight touch of the flu. Then, our daughter decided to not let us see Riley until the pandemic clears. She also postponed Riley’s second birthday party, scheduled for early April.
Of course, she is right. And, like her mom, wise beyond her years.
Riley won’t know or care about missing a party now, and she will be safer for not being around a bunch of people who’d undoubtedly spend an afternoon smothering her with kisses.
Still, it breaks our hearts to give up our time with her.
Yet, thanks to our little spitfire who loves “Trolls” and “Sing”, Mike the Mouse and Poppy and Elmo and Daniel Tiger, cooking and napping with Nana and reading and playing with Papa, and petting any dog within arm’s reach, I cannot be entirely sad.
Riley Jean Williams may miss out on a few birthday gifts this year – if only temporarily. But those who love her still got the best gift of all.
Not just to any church, but rather to every church.
This isn’t as radical as it might sound. After all, I was raised in (and remain a big fan of) the Catholic church. I attended Lewis University, a private Catholic school run by nuns, priests and De La Sallian Christian brothers.
And I (and my young family) converted to Lutheranism in 1997 when a still-wet-behind-the-ears, second-career pastor came knocking on our door as part of his and his wife’s plan to start a mission church in Plainfield, which was then experiencing its “Oh, My God!” growth period.
(I kid you not: the pastor came to our house three times before we attended our first service at the new church — insert your own Biblical symbolism here. Being a good Catholic, I initially pushed back, hard, against him and Lutheranism. But we soon became lifelong, close friends.)
Plus, studying how a first century movement around an itinerant Hebrew preacher became a worldwide religious/political/social/governmental system has long been a hobby of mine.
But truth be told, my wife Kellie had a personal falling out when that little mission church started the inevitable shrinkage and was eventually gobbled up by a larger church. (The bigger church “loved our energetic worship style” but loved the land we owned even more.)
No surprise. Kellie, after all was not raised in any church. Her connection to church of any kind was tenuous at best, based more on social and family rather than spiritual considerations. And in the interests of a strong marriage, I stopped going when she stopped going.
However, I have long maintained my churchly inclinations.
So, when Kellie’s work schedule changed early this winter to include Sundays, I decided to return to church. I figured, what else was I doing besides waiting at home alone for the mediocrity that was the Bears this season?
But if I was going to return to church, I didn’t want to just return to what I already knew. What fun would that be? If this church door was open again, I wanted to really see everything on the other side.
Since starting my personal church barnstorming tour I’ve visited churches of nearly every Christian denomination, size and worship style: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran (both Missouri Synod and ELCA), Congregationalist, Unitarian, a couple of non-denominational, and both predominantly white and predominantly African American.
I haven’t worshipped at a mosque yet as part of this adventure, though I did twice a few years ago. Nor have I gone to a Jewish synagogue. But who knows? It’s only March.
To be clear: As I’ve explained to numerous sincere-but-somewhat-overly-enthusiastic-greeters and pastors, I am very firm and comfortable in my Christian faith and my Lutheran religion.
I am not looking for anything but the experience of trying on some new shoes – or sandals, as the case may be.
Observing first-hand what I (and sadly, so many) have only heard about from a distance.
Dipping my theological toes into a different pool.
Running some new spiritual chords over my rusty vocal cords. I’ve mostly been able to muscle through the unfamiliar rhythms and lyrics. However, I sincerely apologize to anyone sitting close by those several times when I failed. (If she’d been there, my wife would’ve told you singing is not my strong suit.)
So, that begs the obvious, good and fair question:
If I’m not interested in changing teams, so to speak, then why go to the trouble of visiting different camps?
Not to mention going to any church at all given the myriad criticisms dogging organized religion of all stripes, most especially the many serious crimes committed by religious authorities and leaders against the weakest, most vulnerable among us.
The simplest (yet,paradoxically, the most complex) answer is, I believe in a higher power that somehow creates and organizes (if not directly choreographs) our lives.
You can call that power God.
I don’t really much care what you call it, or by what name.
Nor do I care what path you take to find it, what book you find it in, or how you understand its power in your life.
Frankly, I agree with the theologians who criticize us puny humans who try to slap any kind of a label on God, or speak for Him/Her/It, or mangle His/Her/Its spiritual role for political power and wealth in our all-too-mortal world. How dare we?
The point isn’t where or how we talk to God. The point is where and how God talks to us. That’s the beauty and mystery and grace of spiritual faith of every kind.
One of the pastors said, “You can talk to (God) anywhere.”
That is true. However, I believe you can talk to God best, gathered together with others who are also trying to talk to God.
It’s like the difference between singing alone in the shower and singing as part of a 200-person choir. Both may produce a beautiful sound, but the former only brings down a little more water. The latter brings down the roof.
Honestly, I don’t know what God is any more than the next person. I don’t know what God looks like. I don’t know what name God goes by, what language God speaks, or even – God forbid — what athletic teams God prefers.
But sussing out those mysteries has been a lifelong passion. (Except for the athletic team part. That’s just silliness of the worst sort.)
How better to do that than to explore all the options with others who are likewise looking? Who knows what I’ll find or learn? The fun is in the search.
So, the Holy Rolling Barnstorming Tour of 2020 continues. Look for me at a church near you.
I’ll be the guy near the front, singing (and probably tripping over a word or two) loudly and joyfully – if slightly off key.