I Feel You

empathy

You know that meme that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar?”

I’m that guy.

I’m not just talking about spelling or punctuation or usage. (Although I grit my teeth whenever I see someone misuse “Too, To and Two.” How in God’s green earth can someone not know the difference between those words and still be allowed to operate a motor vehicle?)

Rather, I am talking about choosing the right words and, most of all, accepting responsibility for what is said.

The power and weight and consequence of words is immense, especially in today’s world of social media when so many say so much that, ultimately means so little.

Words seem to have lost their inherent value, spewed aimlessly, reduced to so much acidic vomit, their truth twisted cynically into sour, burned pretzels of misinformation and deception.

These thoughts came to mind at a conference I recently attended about understanding poverty.

In that context I realized that we often confuse and therefore misuse “Sympathy” and “Empathy.”

First, to be clear, though their meanings overlap, they are not directly synonymous.

Empathy means acknowledging the validity of another’s experience. Without judgement. Without criticism.

Sympathy, on the other hand is the act of feeling badly for someone because of some unfortunate life circumstance. It sometimes smacks of (or at least can open the door to) judgement, criticism and pity.

For example, I feel badly that one of my brothers is suffering the residual effects of a vicious divorce. My heart hurts for him (though I have to say there’s a lot of karma behind what he’s going through.)

That may seem a subtle line in the linguistic sand. It’s not – neither in theory nor application.

It is literally the difference between saying “I feel for you,” and “I feel you.”

Sadly, like so many other aspects of our capitalistic, “I-Me-Mine” American society in which we think first (and sometimes only) of how something will impact us personally, we tend to favor sympathy over empathy.

Sympathy (without empathy) requires less of us — physically, emotionally or even financially.

Sympathy (without empathy) lets us stand off to the side and do nothing more than cluck our tongues, pitying someone for their hard knocks.

It allows us to feel superior.

However, Empathy demands more emotional maturity, philosophical flexibility and intellectual impartiality.

It is harder, and perhaps more dangerous to say, “I may not agree with your lifestyle/position/choice/perspective. I cannot understand it because it’s not my reality. But it is authentic for you. So, I respect it.”

Empathy forces us to recognize, acknowledge and understand that my life is not everyone’s life. And that others – just like me – didn’t and don’t always get to choose the circumstances of their life.

Most especially, empathy insists that we say (and this is the hardest part): “I want to help however I can, human being to human being.”  No judgement, no criticism.

So, for example, I am not poor (or African American, or female, or homosexual, or grieving the loss of a family member, etc.) Therefore, I cannot possibly understand what it means, or has meant, or will mean to be any of those things.

But I am willing and able – indeed, I am charged as a fellow life traveler – to trust that someone else’s experience, circumstances, challenges and obstacles are very much real.

They define us.

They define how the world sees and interacts with us – and potentially how we see and interact with the world around us in response.

I may not get “It” – whatever “It” is for someone else. But I don’t have to, in order to do the right thing.

A very good friend of mine notes that I write a lot about social justice issues.

She’s right.

Yet this isn’t about social justice per se. In a perverse way, making this concern that “big” makes it too big. Doing that somehow elevates empathy to a gilded place, making it harder to get at and therefore easier to ignore.

Rather, this is about something much simpler: basic human decency (speaking of important and misunderstood words…)

When it comes to understanding others different than us – no matter the difference — basic human decency dictates we should step down from our pedestal and help someone else step up.

Try to simply understand.

Open our minds and hearts.

Stretch out a helping hand as far as possible.

And remember that how we are different isn’t nearly as important as how we are the same.

 

The First Two Million Kisses

Riley thanksgiving 2018

Our oldest daughter Emma, all 4 feet, 9 inches of her is a New Mom.

She gives my wife and me detailed directions like the sun rising, every time we watch our eight-month-old granddaughter Riley:

Feed her at this time, bathe her at that time, play with those toys, use this to wipe her, sing to her to get her to eat, mix this food with that one, mush the bananas clockwise but not after 3 p.m., etc.

She always ends with, “Send me pictures and give her lots of kisses.”

Mostly, we accept and play along with this routine because we remember what it was like being new parents some 25 years ago. Worried about every little thing. Afraid that your brand-new baby is going to shatter into a gatrillion pieces in the evil grips of the first strong breeze. Terrified that every tiny birthmark is a harbinger of some awful childhood malady.

Which is exactly the point. We’ve been there, done that. As I have told Emma several times, tongue only partly in cheek, “Please note that you and your sister are still here and you’re both doing relatively OK.”

Still, whenever Emma issues her Maternal Mandate, I often respond with a favorite joke:

“I normally charge for that,” I say, “but since I like you so much, I’ll give you the Family Discount.”

Our kids, familiar with the gag, now just roll their eyes and ask how much discount they get. Ten percent? Twenty?

Truth be told, it is amusing to us as new grandparents because we (like all new parents) were the same way.

Now though, we have the unique pleasure of knowing full well what’s coming.

The bumps and bruises. The tears. The laughter. The exhilaration of that first flight on the playground swing. The thrill of learning to read. Showing off the new song she learned to play on the piano. “Teaching” Nana and Papa how to do her homework the “right way.” Sharing a newly-learned bit of knowledge.

And later, (no matter what my son-in-law says about her joining a convent) the excitement of her first kiss. The starry-eyed end of her first date. And maybe if we’re all very lucky, her first dance with her soulmate at her wedding.

It’s also heartening to know that our daughter and son-in-law are such caring parents that they wrap their child in blankets of protective love – even with two of the people who love her most in all the world.

Frankly, this grand-parenting this is just about the most awesome job we’ve ever had. My wife recently said, completely sincere, “I don’t know what I did before this.”

I reminded her about the 33 years of our life together, Pre-Grandchild.

She stared at me like I’d spoken ancient Aramaic.

In any case, we have fallen deeply in love with an eight-month-old girl baby for whom all of life is an adventure still unfolding, so full that we can’t even begin to imagine what tomorrow might bring.

So, we don’t even try.

We just thank God for this Now. For every smile that makes the room sparkle. Every joy-filled laugh. Every heart-breaking tear. Every endearing touch from her chubby little hands.

This newfound love, this extension and affirmation of our own parenting is so fulfilling that its value exceeds any “fee” I could charge.

Well, not the kisses. No discounts for those for anyone.

However, for Riley, the first two million are free.

 

 

 

 

The Biorhythm Blues

biorhthym

Every now and again, I get the blues. And, as the song says, “baby, that ain’t good.”

I don’t mean depression.

I know several people with true depression, duly diagnosed and appropriately treated. I don’t always understand depression. Sometimes (selfishly, I admit) its effects frustrate me. Still, I respect it (and them) enough to not diminish its reality by comparing it to what I feel.

Rather, in body, spirit and mind, sometimes I feel empty. Flat. Drained.

Strangely the feeling comes, like clockwork, every few months or so, reminding me of the pseudo-scientific concept of “biorhythms” from the late 1970s and 1980s.

That trend, for those too young to remember (and/or too smart to buy into) said that our bodies and spirits function in regular cycles.

The theory suggests that ones intellect, spirit and physical strength rises and falls every three weeks or so depending on the function. We enjoy peaks and endure troughs.

Most scientists agree that the concept is no more scientific or reliable for predicting emotional/physical/intellectual strength than simple chance.

I don’t know about the science of it all, but I know that what I feel is real.

When those changes come, I need some medicine. Not in the form of pills, but rather people. Important people. People who re-energize me.

I am in one of those “emotional troughs” even as I type this.

Luckily, my medicine is all around me, in a house in bucolic Galena, Illinois, rented with two other couples for a shared weekend away.

There’s Chuck, my best buddy for 30-some years, strumming away on his guitar. There’s his wife, Donna, my “sister in Liberal-hood,” laughing at a magazine story about people who tattoo their faces.

There’s Debbie in her Tweety Bird jammies snuggled under a blanket on the couch cuddling up to her husband, Jay. He’s reading a book about the history of baseball he found at the house.

They’re the youngest of the bunch. The metaphorical babies of our little band.  In fact, this shared weekend getaway is partly to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. The rest of us have been married for more than 20 years. Yet they fit wonderfully, magically adding their own special spice to this friendship stew.

And of course, there’s my wife/best friend/life mate Kellie, whipping up the kind of gourmet breakfast most people can’t imagine or must pay extra for. A chef by trade and a Mom by nature, she does it effortlessly and joyfully and we all benefit.

Just in case you’re fearing some kind of literary “Kumbaya” moment here, let me be clear:

We don’t always agree. We don’t always laugh. Rough edges have sometimes been exposed as they will whenever people gather and spend time together.

We are adult humans, after all. We think differently. Believe different things. Appreciate different kinds of music and books and politics and films and activities.

Sometimes we hit the occasional bump as Chuck did – literally – this weekend. Except it wasn’t a bump, but a ditch. And he didn’t hit it, but backed blindly into it, blowing out a tire. We drove to Iowa to replace it while our spouses and friends stomped grapes at a winery.

Or we get lost – as I did, several times. In my defense, I can’t find my way out of my own driveway most days without a copilot and a map. Plus, we were so low in the Mississippi River valley that the GPS on our phones wasn’t working.

Or someone will cross a line with a comment that’s funnier as a memory than it was in the moment.

Still, the friendship abides. And it is a gift.

These people, their laughter (and sometimes tears), fidelity, thoughts, camaraderie, integrity, passion, joy and love recharge my soul.

Some may say that such considerations as these are small things in the big picture.

I say, laughter (and sometimes tears), fidelity, thoughts, camaraderie, integrity, passion, joy and love – especially love – are Big Things. All the time, in any picture.

I don’t know what Science would call this recurring emotional/spiritual/physical depletion.

But whatever name they’d slap on it, whatever category they’d file it under, I only know that this hole I occasionally find myself in is real and deep.

So deep that, sometimes, only the hands of friendship can lift me up and pull me out.

 

The Camping Virgins

camping

The truest test of friendship?

A thin sheet of nylon. Specifically, one shaped like a tent.

Often, new experiences with close friends can reinforce bonds already steel-strong, building new bridges on shared touchstones, love, laughter and camaraderie.

Sometimes, not so much.

My wife, Kellie and I hoped for the former as we headed out the first week of June with two of our dearest friends, Deb and Jay for five days of camping in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

For Kellie and me, camping is our default for time away. Until they reached late adolescence, our kids knew no other form of vacation. That was on purpose.  We truly love its simplicity and all that comes (or doesn’t come) with that.

The tree-rustling breeze. The immense quiet. The long walks along the shore of an inland ocean, the waves lapping at your toes. The “forced” obligation to create your own recreation (until the damned Internet infested every corner of the world, including even the deepest deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.) The temporarily-close friendships struck with folks with kids the same age as yours. The seemingly-unending daylight crowned by campfires that burn holes into the pitch-black blanket of night. The occasional nocturnal visit by critters and bears. The food that tastes better than anything ever tasted that wasn’t cooked in the open air. Even the sinful mess of S’mores that our daughters couldn’t resist and refused to deny.

But we know camping is not for everyone. For some, those clichés about their idea of camping being “a Holiday Inn without a hair drier” are absolutely true. In fact, I knew  exactly nothing about camping the first time I went with Kellie and her family as a 19-year-old just wanting to spend every waking moment (and more) with my new girlfriend. An east-side Joliet boy, the closest I’d come to camping was sleeping outside under an Army blanket strung over my grandmother’s clothes line on their farm in Herscher. (And, I seem to recall we didn’t last the whole night outside.)

Even then, our first few excursions were inside a small RV crammed with relatives, pets and friends – which is to “camping” what a burger with the kids at McDonald’s is to family dinner. Kind of the same, but not really.

So frankly, we were a little surprised when Deb and Jay – her a camping virgin, him with some nominal experience — accepted our invitation to join us for a week.

(I still think that the invitation was made, and the acceptance given over several-too-many glasses of wine. Still, Your Honor, we gave them many chances to back out, and they didn’t, so…)

To be clear, Kellie and I are years past (and now too old for) sleeping on the ground. Rather, we have evolved to what I call “modified tent camping” complete with high, firm air mattresses and full electric inside the tents to power our phones, IPads and Kellie’s sleep apnea machine. (That last one is important. Kellie can’t breathe without the machine. Plus, you know, it’s easy to confuse a snoring spouse with a rumbling bear.)

Still, when it comes right down to it, only a tent wall (and the occasional tarp when circumstances warrant) stands between us and whatever Mother Nature throws our way.

Unfortunately, for our beloved buddies, Mother was especially bitchy on this, their inaugural excursion.

We arrived around dinner time after six hours on the road. Our site sat near the edge of a high bluff only 200 yards from Lake Michigan. Amid all that late-afternoon glory, we had to set up three tents in winds blowing so hard I thought maybe God was mad at us. And that was just the start.

Being early June, the weather was alternately gorgeous and glum.

Temps dipped into the low fifties and high forties at night – ideal snuggling and sleeping weather if you’re accustomed to and prepared for it. If not, well…that story often ends in blurry-eyed breakfasts. (We gave Jay and Deb an electric heater the next morning which seemed to help a bit.)

The second night, it rained. Again, not usually a crisis, unless one is used to sleeping in totally dry conditions sheltered by layers of drywall.

To preface: we have two spare tents belonging to each of our daughters. They used them individually when they got “too old” to occupy the same space (heaven forbid…only girls…)

One tent is smaller but has a full nylon ceiling and only a couple of windows. The other is bigger, but the entire top half is mesh, making for fabulous ventilation — if the weather is dry. Understandably, being full-grown adults, Deb and Jay favored the extra space and picked the bigger tent.

As all veteran campers do, I’d twice waterproofed all the seams in both our tents and the flies that cover the tents, anticipating the possibility of some precipitation.

Anyway, it rained. Water did what water does, finding a way around the fly and in between the otherwise-waterproofed seams and through the mesh tent ceiling.

Once again, Your Honor, I must give some context: it’s not like it rained “Noah’s Ark” rain (although, situated under a tree and amplified by the nearby lake, it sounded  worse than it really was.)

Still, they got wet.

And we felt terrible. (I put a tarp over their tent the next morning. Of course, it didn’t rain again, and why would it? Mother Nature’d already had her laugh at our expense.)

Then, the penultimate day of the trip was damp and chilly. No other way to say it. Even for Kellie and me who had packed for a wide range of late spring meteorological possibilities. I threw on every piece of clothing I had. No luck. It. Was. Friggin’. Cold.

At Kellie’s welcome suggestion, we day-tripped into town where, strangely, it was twenty degrees warmer. We saw a movie at a charming, volunteer-run local cinema, visited a couple of bookstores (always my favorite part), hit a great winery and had a terrific lunch.

(If Kellie was a closer in baseball – not that she even knows what a closer is –she’d be a ka-trillionaire for all the “Life Saves” she has earned!)

Just to be clear, not every moment was misery.

We had a great time playing mini-golf. Learned Jay has a God-given skill for building award-winning campfires. Enjoyed some wonderful whiskey and wine each night. Took a long, tension-relieving walk along a terrific trail. Laughed even as we shivered through layers of denim and sweatshirts. Pigged out on best bison burgers ever (because they were made over a campfire.) Trekked a great state park that rewarded us with some of the most magnificent views God ever saw fit to paint. Strolled the lake Michigan-soaked streets of a town that put one in mind of coastal Maine, both misty-gray and sunny-blue at the same time. And had some wondrous cherry pie from a restaurant specializing in everything cherry.

Still, by any measure, those five days felt like an eight-day week.

Over our last evening meal, I asked our friends about their impressions of camping.

“Five days might have been too many for the first time,” said Jay, ever the diplomat, his smile silently begged forgiveness for his candor.

Guys being guys – and Jay being an admirably-protective young husband — I knew he was speaking for Deb, who sat across the picnic table, shivering and shrinking into her sweatshirt, turtle-like, searching for every last iota of warmth.

That’s how the trip ended.

The next day, our two-car caravan left together. Kellie and I drove straight home. Jay and Deb veered off to hit a tourist spot, arrived at our house a few hours later, dumped their borrowed camping gear and left as fast as courtesy allowed.

“Oh well,” I thought. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. At least now we know how they feel about camping.”

Then, this week, Deb posted a picture on Facebook of a ginormous luxury tent that looks like a canvas-covered penthouse suite at the Ritz-Carlton. Her note, addressed to Kellie, me and Jay: “Next camping trip!”

Proving yet again that friendship, strong and real and true, is as thick as a six-foot wide limestone wall.

P.S. — Deb, we’re planning a weekend-long camping trip in October. Interested?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daize and the 2 a.m. Stroll

Daize

I share this as pet penance.

My wife, Kellie and I are the proud parents of two dogs – Ozzie, a 13-year-old male Shi Tzu, and Daize (pronounced Daisy), a 7-year-old Shi Tzu-Terrier mix.

We have owned two other Shi Tzus (our preferred breed because I am allergic to pet hair and dander, and they don’t shed) – Duncan, who passed after two wonderful years before we had our human babies; and Otto, who filled the first 14 years of our human parenthood with joy.

We got Daize one year ago, on August 13, 2017. A year later, we love her as much as any of our other dogs.

But, to be clear, I did not want her.

To explain: about 18 months ago, we noticed that Ozzie was bumping into things, not responding to our voices, and basically sleeping all day. In other words, he was going blind and deaf and getting old, as dogs (and their middle-age parents) will do.

Kellie — whose heart on its smallest, Grinchiest days is three sizes bigger than mine will ever be — suggested possibly getting another dog soon, maybe as a transition dog or a friend for Ozzie since we wouldn’t likely have him much longer –a year, maybe two.

I briefly thought about it, but, I told my wife, her argument made no sense.

First, Ozzie didn’t need or seem to want a companion. He sleeps twenty-two hours a day. Plus, he’s blind and deaf, so odds are he wouldn’t even know another dog was in the room unless he accidentally bumped into it searching for his water.

But more to the point, my (former) Catholic guilt wouldn’t let me even consider taking even one minute of attention from Ozzie, knowing his days are numbered. Every time I thought about it, I felt like a nun had caught me peaking at another kid’s math test.

So, for one of the exceptionally rare times in our 33 years together, I said “no.” I meant it and was prepared to stick to my guns.

Then Kellie got a strange phone call.

A man who had been a resident at the assisted living home where she works, was returning to Illinois in extreme poor health after a year living in Georgia. Alas, his days, too, were numbered. He needed someone to take his dog, Daize.

His family couldn’t help, but he knew Kellie had loved Daize when they lived here. (True – Kellie is a magnificent mother/grandmother/caretaker to just about everyone and everything she meets. She’d even brought Daize to our house once or twice when the man needed help.) If Kellie could not take Daize, he’d have to put the dog into a shelter.

Naturally, my wife came to me. This couldn’t be coincidence, she was sure. She made her case as powerfully and passionately and logically as any lawyer.

I said no.

She tried several more times.

Still, no.

Then she did the worst, most diabolical, most twisted thing possible: she secretly conspired with our girls.

Out of nowhere my girls started carpet bombing me for several days with pleas for mercy and kindness. Our youngest even sang that god-awful Sarah McLachlan song from the ASPCA commercial.

Now, that’s dirty pool in my book!

Finally, I relented. What else could I do? I was trapped. But that didn’t mean I had to like it. And I didn’t. Not one bit.

So, on a hot August Sunday afternoon, my guilt riding shotgun and sniping in my ear the whole way, we picked up Daize from her former owner and “adopted” her.

Significantly overweight, with a smile defined by a hilariously-pronounced underbite, heavily matted and unkempt fur, a bit confused in her new surroundings, looking kind of sad but otherwise OK, we brought her into our home.

She slowly filled one of the vacant spots in our newly-empty nest. And for no reason that I can discern or fathom even a year later, she attached herself to me.

Oh, she loves Kellie – who wouldn’t?

Yet Daize has become, absolutely, unquestionably, unequivocally, undisputedly, indubitably, my dog.

She will not leave my side. Even now as I write this, she lays two feet behind me on the rug in my office. She follows me everywhere like a 34-pound, four-pawed shadow. If I get up to do anything, she will follow. It’s exhausting just watching her!

When I get anywhere near her, she immediately rolls over for me to rub her fat, pink belly. And if I dare stop before she is contented, she bats at my hands until I resume.

Worst of all, it seems she is a night owl. (Perhaps she was a college kid in another life…)

Last winter, she started getting up and demanding to go outside at least once, often twice and occasionally three times a night. Usually around 2 a.m. she would bark from the bottom of the stairs until I get up.

At first, she would stroll around the yard, hunting for critters or frogs under the plants and decorative grasses.

“Hurry it up! Get in here!” I would yell at the top of my whispering voice from the kitchen in my pajamas, trying not wake every neighbor around.

She’d stare at me, dribble a token pee-pee, then saunter back, taking her sweet time. And then we’d enjoy a late-night snack together to celebrate her being a good girl.

Finally, in early spring, I got wise and put her on a leash so she couldn’t wander as far into the night shade. Now, she still gets me up several times a night, but at least it’s for a shorter period. That’s why I am the human! Superior brain power!

Remember, I didn’t want a dog at that time. Not this dog, not any dog.

Yet, there I am standing on the patio in my night duds, laughing at her shenanigans, joy filling my heart as sure as air fills my lungs.

What’s more – surprise! — she filled a void in my spirit and proved to be the “transition dog” that Kellie wanted. Not for Ozzie, who still ignores Daize as much as he can. But rather for me, bridging the gap between our daughters moving out, and our granddaughter’s birth.

All of which proves several points that have shaped my life:

  • wives hold all real power and wisdom;
  • human kids are excellent/evil conspirators;
  • pets of all kinds are members of the family as deserving of our love as any creature, human or otherwise;

And (as if the platypus weren’t proof enough) that God has a wicked sense of humor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Light

 

dinner This week, I wrote and published a poem titled “God Bless America.”

It’s my somewhat-cynical take on some of the legal, moral, ethical, philosophical, metaphorical and literal paradoxes of living in America today.

One of my best buddies, himself an exceptionally observant, talented, thoughtful (and often-dark) musician and writer, commented online: “Heavy stuff.”

I replied: “Heavy times.”

Sadly (for me, more than you) my brain swims a lot in the deep waters of the injustice that surrounds and threatens to drown many people in our world. Sometimes, it gets to be too much.

When that happens, when the world gets too heavy, the only thing to do is, go light.

That’s what happened this week. Hence, the poem. My head, heart and spirit shut down under the crushing weight of the political hijinks and media nonsense, repeated and pounded and repeated and pounded and repeated and pounded and…

I needed a break. Sometimes, the universe obliges.

My wife, Kellie and I had already made plans to see the new “Mission Impossible” entry Friday evening. Understand, our cinematic tastes run in different directions. Nor do we particularly enjoy going to the movies these days – the volume is too loud, the snacks too expensive and I can’t yell “Alexa, PAUSE” when I have to use the washroom like at home.

Still we both love the MI movies and have seen all of them on the big screen, usually on opening weekend. (Same with any James Bond film. Kellie loves both franchises. Go figure…)

We enjoyed a nice pre-movie dinner, found seats near the top of the theater, held hands, and really enjoyed the film – perhaps the best one yet.

That helped a bit.

Then, Saturday morning, I picked up my four-month-old granddaughter, Riley for the day. Our daughter Emma, like all modern young moms, returned to work a few weeks ago. We agreed to watch Riley on Saturdays. Agreed? What am I saying? We practically insisted!

Kellie spent most of the day with friends, saying goodbye to a member of their cross-stitching group who is moving to Florida. So, I had Riley all to myself. We – well, I — made a snap decision to take a long, leisurely walk on the Centennial Trail/I&M Canal path. Riley slept, I programmed my phone to “Blues” and hit shuffle. Three hours later, we both felt refreshed.

That helped a bit more.

Then, Saturday night, Kellie made a wonderful, light dinner – a Greek salad and a chilled bottle of deliciously-fruity and crisp Sauvignon Blanc. We ate outside, surrounded by flowers and vegetables in their full late-July glory, the soft breeze whispering around us.

Later, we broke out the Scrabble game. Please keep in mind that I make my living from words and am highly competitive about just about everything. Kellie is not competitive at all, and is a master of puzzles of every kind, including word games like Scrabble. I don’t like losing. She usually wins easily, and yet doesn’t seem to care either way. So, this is a big deal for us.

She routinely kicks my butt, often doing something ridiculous like using one letter to connect four words and earning a triple word bonus. It boggles my brain, but we have such a great time that I don’t mind losing. (Although, I will point out that in this case, we split the games.)

That helped a lot.

Now, on a beautiful late July Sunday afternoon, I feel a lot better.

I’d like to credit one thing or another as the definitive cause, but really, who knows or even cares?

Certainly, the long walk eased some physical tension. Communing over dinner out of doors calmed my spirit (cuddling up to nature is always important.) Definitely, hanging out with the sweetest four-month-old baby girl and the most intuitive life partner/chef/Scrabble champion I know, is key.

More important than what brought the peace, was that the peace was brought. When it was needed most.

In our human arrogance we try to wrest credit for every good thing that happens. To put a name to it, own it or capitalize on it. Shame on us.

Sometimes, it’s enough to just accept the Good when it comes, with sincere gratitude and awe for the mystery itself, understanding only what is most essential to understand:

That someone, somewhere, somehow, knew that you needed it.

Heavy stuff, indeed.

 

 

 

 

The “Principles” Principle

Freedom-of-Speech-united-states-of-america-21760995-960-720

I can vouch:

Running nose-first into one’s principles hurts like hell.

It literally caused me pain as I bit my tongue when a colleague recently shared a piece he’d written celebrating the current president’s inauguration.

I bit even harder when he spouted alternative “facts” and opinions so Right leaning about both the president and his opponent that I feared he’d topple out of his seat.

I tasted the metallic flavor of my blood when he talked about how America would be the better for the president’s election.

I wish I could say that I contained my Left-wing passion and stifled any outburst. Sadly, I didn’t. I instead urged him to send his piece to Fox News because it would fit perfectly with the other nonsense (actually, I think I said “BS”) it broadcasts on behalf of (and to) the president.

So, I fell off the beam of this essential principle – or worse, had been baited into jumping off.

Either way, I was embarrassed.

I believe to the core of my being in the uniquely-American right to free speech. My personal and professional existence depends on it.

Therefore, with an apologetic nod to my colleague, I reiterate a basic, essential truth: Freedom of Speech – indeed, all our American freedoms – must work for everyone (including, most crucially, the media) or it doesn’t work at all.

Everyone has a right to their opinion, no matter how much it might test, twist or tear actual facts, philosophical truths, logic, systemic norms, cultural protocols, morality, legality, ethics, common sense, basic human decency or social decorum.

Conversely (and equally important), free speech cannot be limited just because someone – anyone – does not like what’s being said. If someone can limit my Freedom of Speech, then someone can limit your Freedom of Speech. This is a key point often forgotten, misunderstood, ignored and politicized at every level.

Simply put, what you say may not be “right”, but that doesn’t negate your right to say it.

If your words don’t jeopardize my fundamental ability and privilege to pursue life, liberty and happiness then you are welcome to them. You are free to share your view to your heart’s desire (or, the extent to which anyone wants to listen.)

Side note: I did not say anything about being offended by someone’s views. In this regard, I agree with my right-wing friends. Most of the time, under most circumstances, “offense” is subjective. One chooses to “take offense,” and how to respond to said offense taken.

(Side-Side note: “being offended” is not the same as suffering emotional harm, which can and does result from using words as weapons.)

“Offense,” in America, is an interesting critter. There is such a thing as “offensive” language, ideas, actions, etc. However, the definition of “offensive” turns with the tides.

Our American system guarantees Freedom of Speech of all kinds (as long as you’re not yelling “fire” in a movie theater, etc.)

What constitutes “offensive” speech changes as our society changes. Heck, Lenny Bruce’s most “offensive” jokes are passé dialogue on prime-time television today.

More than the courts of law, more than politicians (or their followers), more than the media, “free speech” in America is largely decided and policed by the Marketplace of Ideas.

We can certainly discuss and debate, even disagree and dissent. That’s all great, and in fact encouraged. But in America, no one can take away my right to think my thoughts.

(Likewise, I am responsible for the consequences that my thoughts, words and actions might bring.)

To be blunt, my colleague’s essay deeply offended me. However, I should have done a better job of honoring his right to share his opinion (or, at least, bitten my tongue harder.)

Society, through its beliefs, philosophies, commitments and changing culture, defines and refines what is acceptable speech.

Which is really the point.

We are part of something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than any one person. We are a part of an ideal – the principle that our right to shape our views and share our minds is essential to the Greater Good of our country, society, and humanity.

The ideal of free speech – like so many other parts of our American system – is both blessing and curse. Beautiful and ugly. Seemingly easy in theory yet maddeningly hard in practice.

Yet that principle is worth protecting.

No matter how frustrating, confusing, self-contradicting — or painful.

 

 

 

 

 

Social Justice…and Vampires!

As promised here yesterday, I am pleased and proud to host the fourth installment of the Denise Baran-Unland 2018 Blog Tour. So, without further ado, here is Denise!

Please visit Denise’s “BryonySeries” blog for more information about her many literary projects.

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denise writeon

In all great literature, the truest, most powerful drama comes in the lonely longing for passion; the physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy that comes with new love; the personal validation and romantic affirmation to mature love brings; and the consolation that follows when love fails or abandons us.

            “Staked!” has all of this, and much more. (from the forward to “Staked!” by Tom Hernandez)

            Lofty words for the third book in my BryonySeries young adult vampire trilogy. Moreover, the series addresses an issue, the “much more,” which, in all the years I’ve known Tom Hernandez, is also an issue of which he’s most passionate and often speaks (and writes) against.

That issue is the oppression of others, especially oppression for personal gain. In Staked! this occurs in three key places, a necessary part of a story that features an unlikely hero.

One, teen protagonist John-Peter Simotes learns how three adults he’s trusted all his life have manipulated him for their benefit. Around the same time, he discovers what he thinks is his life’s mission: to rescue a trapped princess with whom he’s infatuated. To do so, he travels to a place inhabited by fairy creatures.

When he arrives, he meets two groups of people who have been kidnapped from the real world and used for specific purposes in the imaginary one.

The first group, to which his princess belongs, is a “herd” of blonde-haired girls, whom the fairies are keeping in basement cells for the purpose of breeding with fairies to strengthen fairy bloodlines.

The second group is composed of amateur writers with one task: to ghostwrite material for the ruthless dictator (who invented the fairyland) so he can stock his library with titles all “penned” by him.

Now John-Peter, like most reluctant heroes, really wants only to rescue the princess and go home, especially since his opportunity for helping her will literally soon expire. Yet he winds up getting involved in the other causes after two runaway girls and the spokesman for the makeshift writer’s mill beg for his assistance, which spurs him on to a fuller heroism.

Still, John-Peter doesn’t realize the extent of sacrifice required from him until the eleventh hour. Then he has a decision to make – and he must decide quickly.

Now, these situations at face value are obviously implausible. But the exploitation of one person by another is very real in many parts of the planet. And the way John-Peter ultimately agrees to participate in the solution is very (ironically, given the story’s premise and John-Peter’s essence) very human – first, outright refusal, then grudging participation, and finally a wholehearted giving of self.

You see, the thread running through all three books (and its prequel in progress) is one of free will and choice, along with its repercussions and rewards.

Sometimes we’re slow to make good and right choices because of the cost to us: ranging from simple inconvenience to our own lives. Ultimately, though, I hope we all make them. Ultimately.

That is the real inspiration behind the BryonySeries.

Although I do really like a good vampire story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends, Vampires, and Friendly Vampires

Staked! Offical Cover It’s not that I don’t like vampires per se.

I love Dracula, both in Bram Stoker’s original story and Bela Legosi’s iconic movie portrayal.

And I really liked Anne Rice’s “Lestat” series, right up through the fifth book, “Memnoch the Devil.” After that, Rice started writing full-blown backstory novels for every D-level side character — probably to fulfill her contract. The series became (for me) repetitious, predictable and — dare I say this about creatures who must drink blood to live? — dull.

But I absolutely loathed Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight”.

The book is terrible — a thin, unbelievable story (as if any vampire story is “believable”) about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. It is poorly written, filled with one-dimensional characters, and tedious. Blech!

The movie, if you can believe it,  is worse — fleshed out by the teen-age angst-y mouth-breathing Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, whose acting is so bad that, to call it “wooden” insults wood.

That was my frame of mind about six years ago when I first met Denise Baran-Unland.

She is the co-founder of the WriteOn Joliet writers group. I had just written the first chapter of an as-yet unfinished novel. Fiction is not my forte and I desperately needed some guidance. My wife read about this group and suggested I attend a meeting.

I went. Denise introduced herself as the author of “Bryony”. The book, she said (with others both in process and mapped out ready to be written) is about — wait for it — a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the thoughts that I thought…”Twilight” sells a gazillion copies, becomes a successful movie, and now everyone who can bang a keyboard is writing teen vampire love stories.

Boy, was I wrong!

This was not the first time I had (literally and metaphorically) misjudged a book by its cover. However it was, by far, one of the worst.

It’s funny, but wise women have often pulled me back from the edge of my own arrogance. Usually it’s my wife. Sometimes, one of my daughters.

In this case, it was Denise.

I share this to introduce Denise Baran-Unland, one of the best writers I have known. She has also become a good friend, editor, sounding board and creative confidant.

Her “Bryony” series shimmers with creative plotting, brilliant writing, fully-drawn, complex and interesting characters and true human (not to mention vampiric) emotion.

Denise’s voluminous writing — she is a cottage industry unto herself, with several series, spin-offs and side projects — evokes awe and admiration for its pure creativity, and envy for its amazing skill.

Yet another of her never-ending list of her promotional ideas is a “Blog Tour.” Simply put, several hosts will publish something that Denise has specially-written for the host, on their own blogs.

Look for the fourth installment of the Denise Baran-Unland 2018 Blog Tour here, on Tuesday, May 15, 2018.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I don’t know if Denise is a vampire herself. Could be…I mean, she really seems to know her stuff.

But whether she is or isn’t, she is one heck of a writer, and that’s all that matters — at least until the sun goes down…

Here’s a little more information to acquaint you with Denise Baran-Unland:

  • Favorite color? — Blue. As in royal or cobalt not sky or powder.
  • Least favorite kind of food? — Eggs. They’re completely disgusting in every way: texture, smell, taste…
  • What music do you listen to when writing? — No music when I’m actually writing, too distracting. But for mental writing, a certain song or musical selections will unlock my thoughts. In fact, not until a chapter has its theme song am I able to write it. The song often (and usually) has absolutely nothing to do with the chapter. But once I have it, I can listen to it thousands of times until the chapter is completed. Then I go off it and can’t stand to hear it anymore – until editing time. I’ll listen to it, and the entire chapter springs up.
  • Why vampires? — I’ve asked myself the same question, and I don’t know. It’s an interest that goes back to childhood, and it’s not all vampires, usually vampires who appear in literature before the 20th century. I’ve tried analyzing it. Perhaps it’s a combination of midnight, moonlight, and mysterious with a dash of vintage and erotica.
  • Favorite vampire in literature/cinema? — Literature: the tie goes to Carmilla and Dracula. Carmilla because of its shadowy uneasiness; Dracula because of its complexity, both in story construction and its roots in history and legend. Cinema, not so much. I do like Christopher Lee in “Horror of Dracula,” but I overall prefer reading about vampires to watching them in film. Mental pictures are generally more satisfying.
  • Finish this sentence: “If I ruled the world, the first thing I would change is…..” — Disrespect. Few things make me really angry, but disrespect always does. I mean, why can’t we all be nice to each other, even when disagreeing? The world would truly be a better place.
  • Biggest aggravation — Clutter of all kinds
  • How do you fight writer’s block? – I go around it.
  • Top three literary inspirations? – So many! However, for the Bryony Series, Ruth M. Arthur, Patricia Clapp, Daphne Du Maurier, and Taylor Caldwell. Yes, I know that’s four.
  • Three historical or literary figures you’d invite to a dinner party? — The above four. I’d love to share my admiration of their work and hear their feedback on mine.

 

 

A Moving Friendship

neighbor

Early Sunday morning, 7 a.m., maybe 8, returning from a long night of delivering newspapers for my wife (her part-time job which I did on weekends to give her a rest), bleary-eyed, thinking only about the bed whispering my name, I pulled slowly around the corner toward the house that we’d called home for only a few weeks.

Then I saw her.

A girl, about 2 years old, clothed in her nightgown, perched nonchalantly on the cul-de-sac curb across the street from our yard.

I parked. Walking cautiously toward her, I imagined the worst – she was lost, or was a tiny runaway escaping some horrible abuse. I asked where she lived. She pointed vaguely behind her. I took her hand and she walked me back to her house, which stood, conveniently, across the street from ours.

I knocked firmly but gently, hard enough to wake but not frighten. A woman, also in night clothes, answered. Strangely, she didn’t seem very surprised to see me holding the little girl’s hand.

Turns out the child was the woman’s daughter, and she (the little girl) had done this Houdini act before. She likes being outside but doesn’t like waiting for an adult to wake up and let her out, Mom explained, unlocking the still-locked door.

Mom, pointing down, said her daughter sometimes just pushes through the screen. Indeed, the screen was popped out. We exchanged names and the child, and I went home to catch as long a nap as the morning would allow.

And so it started…

Twenty-two years of across-the-fence (or in our case, the street) friendship encompassing our two kids and their three, shared newspaper delivery and catering jobs, a few family crises and mutual neighborhood interests.

Better yet, 22 years of the kind of common concern that builds bonds strong enough to survive adolescent disagreements (between the kids, not the adults), a few adult differences of opinion, the inevitable growing apart when the kids got older, even differing politics.

The friendship part continues. However, sadly, the neighbor part is ending.

They lost their house and now must move. (I will not name them here, knowing this is, understandably, a very sensitive subject.)

He, a truck driver, was hurt on the job a few years ago and finally missed more mortgage payments than the bank would let slide. The company wouldn’t let him work, the banks wouldn’t help with the debt.

Now, after countless doctor exams, insurance investigations, unemployment and workers compensation claims, legal to-and-fro-ing and all the other rigamarole that goes with trying to force a corporate entity to do right by its employees, they spent the weekend doing the arduous, sad work of leaving.

My heart broke watching them loading their life into cars and vans and trucks, knowing that they were also taking a part of our lives, too.

Not to mention that no one in the wealthiest nation in the world who is willing to work and earn a living (and they both were –and still are, company doctors and insurance companies be damned) should suffer the indignity of losing one’s home. There’s just an inherent unfairness to it all.

Which is not to say that I don’t understand.

I tried to point out, foregoing our usual political needling, the obvious to my conservative neighbor: in a capitalist world, the only thing that matters to The Company is profit. Employees are expenses. They help create profit. Until they don’t. A truck driver who cannot drive a truck is just a drag on the bottom line.

Plus, all of the benefits he’d received — unemployment, workers comp, and eventually a settlement that will help them move forward — are all the products of generations of liberal battles on behalf of the worker.

He did not seem to grasp the irony. Or maybe he was just too deflated to care.

I share this not to be sentimental.

Though we were neighbors and I will miss them, we didn’t always see eye to eye. Certainly, we were friends, but not the kind who broke bread together, other than the occasional summer barbecue.

More than once I selfishly wondered what it might be like with someone else living across the street. Someone not quite so noisy (especially on any holiday that presented even the flimsiest excuse for fireworks). Not quite so volatile. Not quite so opinionated – or, more to the point, someone with an opinion not quite so opposed to mine.

And then, inevitably, something would happen that demanded assistance or expertise that I didn’t have.

A household repair (especially anything involving electricity). Or a flat tire. Or a dead lawnmower. I’d dispatch one of our kids – “Go get Mr. ____.” Or I’d go over myself and knock on that very same door that I knocked on 1,100 or so Sundays ago. Knowing that they’d always say yes.

Then, in those moments of real and true need, the political disagreements, the Fourth of July thunder that would terrorize our dog, the eardrum-busting volume of music pouring from the garage would just blow away, like dandelion pods, whisked away on a breeze of deep-rooted understanding.

We would chat. Work. Down a few beers. Gossip. Bitch. Commiserate. Laugh (a lot).  Celebrate. Even cry every now and then.

Like family.

Like friends.

Like neighbors.

Because in the end, the only real thing between us was a street. And now, for them, that street will no longer lead to home, but rather to somewhere else.