Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Les Brown

We lost Les Brown on Monday night. Les was my wife’s uncle, and he died of pneumonia secondary to cancer at Rush North Shore Hospital in Skokie, Illinois. He was 64.

I’ve been trying to write about it for a day now, but haven’t gotten anywhere. I think it’s because in my little family we’ve been straddling two worlds for the past week: we’ve been simultaneously saying goodbye to Les and hello to the foster child who’s about to come live with us. The contrast was most stark on Sunday, when we left Les’s bedside and drove right over to the group home where the boy is currently living so that our kids could meet him. This sad/happy roller coaster is making a pulp of our thoughts and emotions this week. I guess that’s why I’m struggling to write about Les.

I want to say goodbye to him, though. If I can’t put together a clear narrative, I’d still like to tell you some things about him.

  • Les is best known around here for founding the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in 1980, and he continued to be its guiding light until he got too sick to continue. He was a creative, effective, and tireless activist on behalf of the homeless. I’d even say that Les’s persistent, confrontational, but never combative advocacy was part of the impetus for the heightened awareness of the problem of homelessness that spread throughout this country in the 1980s.

  • Les developed life-threatening heart disease as a comparatively young man, leading to his receiving a transplanted heart over 20 years ago. He was originally from Georgia, and by chance the heart he received came from a 19-year-old Georgian who died in an accident.

  • Les played a killer blues piano. At family gatherings he would often play a few songs, and his favorite seemed to be Mose Allison’s “I Don’t Worry About a Thing (’cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright.)” Clearly he passed along his love of piano to his son, who is now a professional keyboard player.

  • Les grew up on a farm. For him, living in the city was like wearing clothes that were just a little too small. When he saw the chance to buy some farmland cheaply, he organized some funding and founded Growing Home, a training/transitional employment program that helps homeless people grow and sell organic food. This was 10 years ago, and the organization is still flourishing, selling their produce to restaurants and farmer’s markets.

  • He was a hilarious person, but in a fairly dry way, and he never condescended to children with his humor. He would get a clutch of kids around him and remove the end of his thumb so convincingly that the younger ones would head straight for their mothers. He loved doing that. My 15- and 11-year-olds still remember him taking his thumb off.

  • He was my wife’s uncle by marriage—he married her aunt when they were young, and they divorced while raising their son. But they stayed close, and he remained a member of the family and was expected to come to family get-togethers. I love that when he remarried, his new wife quickly became close friends with his ex-wife. It just so happened that he married two smart, affectionate, generous women, and I guess they were drawn to each other. They’ve been close since, and spent the last few days helping each other through the hospital ordeals.

  • Les and I shared an interest in canoeing, but something always kept coming up to keep us from getting out on the water together. Right now this is tormenting me like an open sore.

  • Having undergone a heart transplant in the mid-80s, Les knew he might not get to live out his full tale of years. The life-long immunosuppressants he took put him at increased risk of continuing health problems, and he struggled with various cancers for the past few years. He wasn’t ready to go, though, and never accepted that the end was coming. Some of his last words were “I don’t want to die.” These are wrenching words coming from a dying man, especially one who got a new heart 20 years ago and made the most of it.

  • Though his name was Brown, Les was Green to the end. (We had a couple of spirited debates about his vote for Nader in 2000, a vote he never regretted. He couldn’t understand why I was so devoted to the Democratic party.) He hoped for a green burial, but it seems that there are only a couple of places in the country where you can get one. He wasn’t keen on cremation, so finally it was decided that his body would be donated for research at Loyola, where he got his transplant.

  • Last year my daughter interviewed Les for a school project. Here’s an excerpt from the report she wrote:
    “My great-uncle Les’s first job ever was mixing cement. His father believed in manual labor, so he got my great-uncle a job in town to help the construction workers.

    The cement mixing job was hard, hard work. He would mix the cement, and then bring it to the workers. He had to go fast, or the cement would dry. He could never go fast enough for the workers, and they were always yelling at him to hurry up.

    ‘At the end of the day, I would be so tired,’ he says. ‘But it was a good feeling, knowing I had a man’s job.’”

    Goodbye, Les. We’re missing you already.

  • Wednesday, April 06, 2005

    Evolution in an unblinking eye

    Two neighbor girls came over after school yesterday, hoping I had a key to the younger one’s garage. They wanted to ride bikes in the suddenly warm weather.

    One of these girls is 8, dark-haired and tall for her age. The other is 6, on the small side and impossibly cute, with red hair and a little voice. They live on either side of us, and they’ve both known me since they were born. Nonetheless, the younger one is a little intimidated by me, so when she came in the house she went with the most natural behavior choice: watch Older Girl and do everything she does.

    She walked up the short, awkward flight of steps to our kitchen right behind Older Girl, making sure to place her feet in the exact same spot on the step and hold the wall the same way. They stood in the kitchen to talk for a minute, and Younger Girl stood next to Older Girl, watching her every move. She placed her body in the same position as Older Girl, holding her right arm with her left, and her eyes shifted like a pendulum between me and Older Girl.

    Me: “So. Girls. Glad to be back in school after spring break?”
    Older Girl: “Not really.”
    Younger Girl: “Not really.”

    Me, to younger girl: “Are you sure it’s OK with your folks to be digging your bike out?”
    [Younger Girl looks at Older Girl.]
    Older Girl: [shrug, nod] “Yeah.”
    Younger Girl: [shrug, nod] “Yeah.”

    We found that I only have a key to Younger Girl’s house, not her garage. They turned to leave, Younger Girl watching and again imitating the “going down the stairs” technique. She even stopped and started over to make sure she used the same foot on the first step as her friend did.

    “Bye, girls.”

    (Even the nonstandard response to “Bye” was copied!)

    It was a pleasing encounter. I enjoyed how the younger girl so automatically, so thoughtlessly defaulted to imitating the older one’s motions and words when she found herself in my house without her parents or my wife being around. There’s nothing novel about this behavior, as any parent knows, and I guess its function is old news to anthropologists, too. Still, I felt like I was seeing natural selection at work, right out in the open, in one of its finest forms: imitation. Imitation is not flattery, it’s survival. The governing principle must be something like, “If you’re older and larger than me, then the more closely I imitate everything you say and do, the more likely it is that I will get to be as old and as large as you, and enjoy whatever social and survival benefits come with that position.”

    Despite the current ideologically manufactured “controversy,” the beauty of evolution is displayed everywhere you look. Even in the restless eyes of an impossibly cute child.

    Monday, April 04, 2005

    Would you like some temporizing with that?

    OK, that was a long visit with the in-laws. It went well, as such things are measured, but it was long (just in case I failed to mention that) and drained all of our energy. During the last week I started working on a couple of ideas for posting here but kept getting pulled away by family obligations, and helping out with campaigns for the local election we're having tomorrow, and with work. Lots and lots of work. All of a sudden I got insanely busy with two different clients. Thursday and Friday I ended up spending all day at one of their sites, and learned how out of shape I am for being in an office all day.

    One tends to forget how much energy goes into being presentable in an office environment. Here at home, no matter how busy I get, I still only need to look and act professional enough to suit the cat, and then the kids when they come home. I don't have to (1) wear decent (and therefore uncomfortable) clothing, (2) refrain from closing my eyes other than blinking for 8 to 10 hours, (3) smile and nod at acquaintances and perfect strangers alike ALL DAY LONG, face frozen into a mask of vapid congeniality, (4) keep away from the comics and off the internet (ever notice how offices these days are almost universally laid out in such a way that no matter where the computer is, the screen can be seen from the doorway?), or (5) talk about traffic, weather, or Michael Jackson. I did all of these things last week and was exhausted at the end of it. Not that I'm complaining--I was happy for the work, and it was my favorite client. It's just that the region of my brain that controls office demeanor has obviously atrophied. Not sure what other skills I've lost without noticing, but I was grateful to learn that I can still sit in a three-hour meeting and convincingly pretend that oh yes, I understand exactly what you're talking about, oh absolutely, we can take care of that with no trouble at all (sweat!).

    We are also back on track with the foster child placement I've discussed here, so that added to last week's excitement. Details to follow, but we are now into a transition plan that should culminate in a 6-year-old boy moving in during the last week of April. Lots to do between now and then, but we feel experienced enough that we don't need to quietly freak out every couple of days. Plus Daughter is not very enthusiastic this time around, so we're trying not to make a huge deal of it. She has a long history of being great with kids younger than her, though, so we hope that she'll warm to the idea and to him as she gets to know him.

    As I said, several posts are in the works. Just don't ask when they'll get done. They always seem so brilliant, compelling, and perfectly balanced in my head. Then I start to write them out and they look like deflated balloons on the screen. Does that happen to, you know, real bloggers?

    Oh, well. For now, must get back to work.

    Saturday, March 26, 2005

    Lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's . . .

    The in-laws came to visit yesterday. To be precise, Wife’s father and stepmother are staying with us for nine days. You may have misread that, so I’ll repeat: staying with us for nine days. Nine days.

    This is not an uncomplicated situation.

    On the one hand, they can be overwhelming guests. They are socially dominant people, highly intelligent, highly opinionated, and very likely to be at the helm of any conversation or social situation in which they find themselves. When they’re in the house, it’s kind of hard for anyone else to pay attention to anything but them. In addition, they require a great deal of logistical support. Things like daily trips to the dry cleaner required by Father-in-law, food cooked just so, and an almost comically exaggerated ice consumption. When they’re here, I lie in bed mentally counting the ice cubes in the freezer, hoping I can keep up with demand. Plus, they’re both highly accomplished family therapists. I feel like a bug under a microscope every time I say something to one of my kids. Nothing escapes their notice, and few things escape their comment. Finally, these people drink A LOT, so sometimes getting through the evening intact feels like navigating a large ship through the iceberg-rich waters of the North Atlantic. Tricky, and exhausting.

    But there is an other hand. These two people, who we will call Leonard and Joan, are endlessly fascinating. They have the two most agile, active intellects of anyone I know, and they are interested in everything. Old and cantankerous as they may be, their attention never fails to be engaged by whatever is going on around them. Just today, even though I worked pretty much all day, the conversations I heard or was part of included the following subjects: the Dreyfus affair in France at the turn of the century (with a digression into Emile Zola’s life), the character in one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays who claims to be able to summon the dead, the life and works of J. M. Barrie, the Normandy invasion during World War II, our daughter’s social situation at school, the methamphetamine addiction crisis in their corner of the Olympic peninsula in Washington, a talk they attended by Sherman Alexie (writer of the movie “Smoke Signals”), and the lingering effects, in our increasingly urban society, of the centuries of agricultural thinking and mythology that dominate so much of our cultural legacy.

    The chief pleasure I derive from these visits, however, is the chance to sit around telling family stories, both the old ones we all know and some new ones. A few old standards have already come up. Here’s one of my favorites.

    This episode involves Leonard’s brother Mike. Mike is a labor lawyer, a tireless champion of the disadvantaged. Look all you want, you won’t find a man with a more finely developed sense of social justice. He’s also a patient man, with loads and loads of classic Irish wit to him. When Mike’s daughter Susie was a little girl of about 7, she liked to amuse herself by seeing if she could get him riled up. One day while he was watching the news she needled him and harassed him so persistently that he finally lost his temper, jumped up from the couch, and chased her upstairs. Susie ran into her room and slammed the door. He went in right after her, but she said,

    “Hey, you can’t come in here.”

    “What do you mean I can’t come in here, I’m your father!”

    “Well, I have to knock before I can come into your room, why should you get to just walk in my room? You have to go outside and knock.”

    This logic worked on him sufficiently that he backed out, closed the door, and knocked. Hard.

    “Who is it?”

    “What do you mean, who is it, you know perfectly well who it is.”

    “Who is it?”

    “It’s your father! May I come in please?” [through gritted teeth, no doubt]

    “No, you may not!”

    At which point he took a deep breath, recognized that he was beaten, and went downstairs laughing.

    Monday, March 21, 2005

    This is NOT going to become a cat blog, I swear

    I have been swamped with work this past week—no time for any fun-type writing. Now that I have a moment to post, the inkwell seems to be dry. I guess a visual will have to do instead. So, meet my coworker:

    I am self-employed and work at home. I am here all day, all alone except for the cat, Rex. He spends his day as you see him, in his office behind my editor's desk thing. He generally doesn't stir until Wife gets home from teaching and gives him a snack. I refer to him as my coworker, but you see it's just a little joke on my part because in fact he does NO work AT ALL.

    Wednesday, March 16, 2005

    A cold scolding

    Our water heater died the death last night. Just as I was about to head up to bed I heard a loud sucking sound coming from the basement and headed down to check it out. Although the sound was obviously coming from the water heater, it was equally obvious that the heater was just fine if I tilted my head back enough so that I couldn’t see the water streaming from underneath it toward the drain in the floor. It was after 10:00, so there wasn’t much to do but alert the family and plan to make a phone call in the morning.

    Why do dads take a perverse pleasure in giving their kids, especially their sons, bad news? I don’t know, but I have that gene too. “Well, Son, looks like ice-cold water for showers tomorrow morning.” He looks at me in horror and groans. “Yup, that’ll wake you up in a hurry!” As though I shower under a snowmelt waterfall every day and he’s finally going to share in the magic. We dads always think our kids are too soft from all the coddlin’ and pamperin’, and they probably are, but so am I. It’s not like I grew up bathing in a washtub in the kitchen, after drawing the water from a well and heating it on a wood-burning stove. Like him, I have always had hot running water at my disposal. Nonetheless, a small part of me undeniably thinks this discomfiture will be good for him. Daughter was already asleep, but the news wouldn’t have affected her much since she doesn’t take morning showers.

    So this morning a plumber from a company I trust arrives, as promptly as I could have hoped. We initiate the ritual conversation in which the present contractor maligns the work of the previous one. What amuses me about this familiar step is that I get deftly maneuvered into defending the previous guy’s work even though (1) I am entirely unqualified to evaluate its quality, and (2) I have no reason to be loyal to him just because I once paid him to do a job. This time, though, it takes a more dire turn.

    “Who installed this heater? Not a plumber, that I am sure of.”

    “Well, he was a plumber, but I couldn’t say whether he--”

    “Look at this gas line. He used flex-pipe. Illegal. This man was not a plumber.”

    “Well, I'm not sure if he--”

    “And also look at the copper pipe he used. He used type M, you cannot use that in this town, must use type L, he must not have been used to working here.”

    “You’re right, he was from Chicago because we knew him from when we lived--”

    “If he was in Chicago we are in same union, but no plumber from my union would do this. This is why houses explode.”

    “Well I’m glad you’re here then. We’d like to skip the explosion.”

    He spends a little more time trying to figure out what he’s dealing with. Then:

    “Wait a minute, what is this extra pipe in here with all the sludge? This should not be here, and there shouldn’t be this mess inside of it . . . . Oh my god. Oh my god. This bad plumber switched the hot and cold sides so that he wouldn’t have to cut pipe. He put a copper pipe down into the heater. Must be plastic, and on the right side. No wonder it broke. I have never seen this. How long has this heater been here?”

    “It’s been about nine years but I remember wondering--”

    “You’re lucky it even worked for one year! Now I have to call and cancel next job and go get the pipe. Normally this is quick job, just switch the new heater in with three connections, but I have to replace the flex-pipe from the gas and lengthen the hot and water pipes, this is big job now. Expensive.”

    Last night, once it was obvious that the heater was dead, I had opened the drain at the bottom to drain all the water. Only a trickle came out, so I assumed all the water had leaked out down the floor drain. This was stupid, which I would have realized if I had thought about it for two seconds. The thing was of course still full of water, and the plumber quickly realized the drain was blocked, so he wrenched it off. Good idea except for the 30 or so gallons of lime-ridden water that came shooting out onto the washing machine, dryer, laundry, wall, etc. The plumber was unconcerned but I started thinking spirally about my rapidly approaching Tuesday deadline and how much time I don’t have to spend down there with a mop and bucket. He interrupted my reverie:

    “. . . more sediment than I have ever seen in a water heater, that’s because this bad plumber switched the sides and the magnesium tube couldn’t work, you never had sediment coming out of your faucets?”

    “No, not that we’ve noticed, but lately--”

    “It’s OK, I’ll bleed the pipes slowly so nothing gets in the new one.”

    He did so, and after a painful check-writing session our new heater is officiously heating up its first tank of water. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the guy was giving me a line at all. As he showed me everything it was obvious that the old plumber had cut every corner he could. Nonetheless I was thoroughly chastened, and impressed by his expert disdain. Then I thought, Hey, I’m a contractor of sorts too. Why can’t I use the same approach with my next client?

    “Who wrote this? You had another medical writer in here to work on this before me, didn’t you? How am I going to clean this up? Look at this: the argument is completely confused, the objectives aren’t even stated, plus the data are presented in the wrong order, so that your primary end point is buried in the middle of the supporting analyses! Oh, this is huge. It’s got to be rewritten from scratch. You’d better call your boss and get a bigger budget approved, because I have to clear my whole schedule for this. No telling how long it will take.”

    I’ve got to try that.

    Tuesday, March 15, 2005

    The homes, the homes, the homes to which it goes

    Yesterday, as we were initiating in earnest the complex process of accepting a foster child placement, everything screeched to a halt. Wife and I were about to attend a staffing meeting during which everyone involved in the case was going to sit around a table and discuss the child and plot the smoothest possible transition. Just beforehand, however, two people who are very closely involved threw a large wrench into the works. Their action was so unexpected and of such an unusual nature (sorry for the necessary vagueness!) that we have no idea whether it means merely a temporary setback or that the whole placement will be canceled. We’ll be learning more over the next few days. For now, we’re holding our breath and remaining calm. This obstacle has nothing to do with us, so all we can do is wait and see how the agencies sort it out.

    Three things come to mind:

    First, I was looking forward not just to getting going on the placement, but to the meeting itself. Staffing meetings are state-mandated procedural affairs, but I find them oddly comforting. On the one hand, any such meeting is founded on heartbreak--it wouldn’t be taking place at all if a kid hadn’t suffered some scale-tipping degree of abuse, neglect, or loss in his or her short life. On the other hand, that very heartbreak set in motion a mechanism that brought together a roomful of energetic, resourceful people committed to the single goal of solving this little person’s big problems with a minimum of further disruption. It’s kind of like all the unfairness has switched sides and now the odds are stacked in the kid’s favor rather than against. It’s good to be part of that.

    Second, I’m glad we haven’t met this child yet, and that he hasn’t heard anything about us. That was supposed to happen yesterday. If we were already into the transition it would be much more difficult, especially for him, to have it stopped unexpectedly, with no obvious resolution in the offing.

    Third, I’m surprised at how much less volatile our emotions have been this time compared to the first placement we had. In that case, we also roller-coastered through a couple of weeks of uncertainty. First, we heard about the girl, and got more excited the more we learned about her and the more it looked like she would fit well into our household. Then the agency (for legitimate reasons) made some conditions we couldn’t meet, and it looked almost definite that she wouldn’t be coming to live with us. I won’t use the word “devastated,” but I vividly remember how despondent I was. It probably isn’t surprising. Getting to the point of committing to bring a troubled child into your home requires a fair amount of adrenaline-fueled emotional support, so the letdown was precipitous. Then, it all came together and we learned that she was coming after all. We were elated once again.

    That experience was a little too much of a wild ride, so I will admit that I’m appreciating the relative calm we feel now. We feel a little wiser than we were then, a little better equipped to handle the uncertainties. After all, you’d never get into fostering in the first place if you were looking for neatness and predictability. It’s messy by definition, and almost anything can happen, so you have to be braced for the sudden turns. We understand that better now. Also, there’s no doubt that we’re a little more emotionally guarded than before, now that we’ve experienced the full spectrum of feelings associated with a finite foster child placement.

    We’re eager to meet this boy, but for now none of the decisions lie with us. We just have to wait patiently, hope for the best, and try to stay calm.

    Thursday, March 10, 2005

    The girl and the golden apple

    So begins another day . . . . .

    Wife and Son have already left for school. Daughter and I are eating breakfast and reading the paper. I check the weather.

    “It’s going to be snowing today, and in the low 30s. Please make sure you have your gloves with you.”
    “I don’t like wearing gloves.”
    “I know. I just want you to have them with you in your backpack.”

    This is my version of compromise. I have no interest in battling with her over clothing. It’s a battle that upsets us both, and nobody wins. Even if I prevail and make her wear something, reliable sources indicate that once she’s out of sight, she sheds the offending item and chalks one up for her side anyway. On cold days I know she isn’t going to get frostbite walking a block to the bus stop, so I feel that as long as she has the gloves with her, we can both be happy. She’s not wearing gloves she doesn’t want to wear, but she has options. If she gets cold, putting the gloves on is her choice, not my decree.

    But she has become a virtuoso of passive resistance, so the following conversation ensues not 10 minutes later, as she is heading for the door. It may be fresh to you, but to me it is depressingly, exhaustingly familiar.

    “Do you have your gloves?”
    “Why not?”
    “I don’t like to wear gloves.”
    “I know, I just want to make sure you have them with you.”
    “Never mind why, I just want you to have them. Where are they?”
    “In my backpack.”

    Please imagine the sounds in my head right then. One of them is a loud, agonized scream with a slightly syncopated oscillation because I am mentally hopping up and down in frustration. Another is a confused babble made up of several shrill versions of my voice saying things like “OhmyGOD why didn’t you just say that to begin with!!!” and “That’s what I was ASKING!!!!” and “Why does it have to be like this?! It didn’t USED to be like this!!!” and the old standby “What have you done with that beautiful sweet child who was my DAUGHTER??!!”

    I’m a pro, though. I’ve been doing this for years, so none of that stuff escapes from inside my head. My face assumes a Buddha-like serenity as I say:

    “OK, that’s all I was asking. Have a good day at school.”

    I doubt you guessed that Daughter is in sixth grade, but it would have helped if you did because that fact constitutes the segue into today’s next subject, to wit:

    My next-door neighbor, who teaches sixth grade science, won a Golden Apple award yesterday. This award is a Very Big Deal in our part of the country. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Golden Apple is a general excellence award given to 10 teachers each year in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Recipients get a paid fall sabbatical at Northwestern University, $2500, and a new Apple computer, along with all the local publicity and ancillary accolades they can handle.

    I love this award. I think it’s great for the teacher who gets it, great for the school in which he or she teaches, and great for the profession as a whole. It creates news stories in which kids and adults reflect on how they have been inspired by their best teachers, and what a powerful relationship it was. It also gives the lie to the lovely folks who always have a snide comment handy about those whiny teachers with their limited hours, summers off, and excessive pay.

    When I see my neighbor go off to school, I think of spending seven periods every day facing 25 kids who have learned how to create conversations like the one I had with my daughter. Nice kids, kids he has a good relationship with, but who have all become miniature preadolescent jailhouse lawyers. It can happen at any age, but I think it peaks in the sixth and seventh grades. At that age, they’re still closely engaged with their parents and teachers, still focused on what we say and do, but they are savvy and skeptical enough to want to question it, dispute it, or subvert it. Not all the time—it only seems that way. Later, as they get into eighth and ninth grades, they’re already starting to look past us for the first indistinct glimpses of their independent futures. Their attitude toward our once-Olympian pronouncements tends to become more like “yeah, OK . . . whatever.”

    For now, we’ve got sixth grade going on, and it’s rough on parents and teachers alike. At least we parents get to stick with our kids as they grow up, and if we’re at all lucky, see what kind of people they become. My next-door neighbor, though, doesn’t get to complete the circle. His students spend nine months with him while he does what he can, then they’re off living the next year of their lives somewhere else, and then the year after that, and he just has to guess what becomes of them.

    But not always. Sometimes they come back, and my neighbor has just experienced a stunning example of what that can be like: it was one of his former students, a kid he taught 11 years ago who is now a teacher herself, who nominated him for the award and got the snowball rolling.

    After learning he was a finalist a few weeks ago, my neighbor tried to forget about the whole thing so it wouldn’t drive him crazy waiting for the winners to be named. The Golden Apple folks originally told him that it would all happen the first week of March. As the week drew to a close, he began adjusting to the certainty that he was an also-ran. We spoke with him Saturday night around 10:00 (when, for the benefit of the teacher-doubters out there, he was grading papers. Grading papers! On Saturday night!), and he told us that his 4-year-old daughter had comforted him by saying “Maybe they got the day wrong.”

    Here’s how completely he had convinced himself that he had lost the award: yesterday morning, as his principal, some Golden Apple people, several newspaper reporters, two newspaper photographers, his wife, and his two daughters filed unexpectedly into his classroom, he said to himself: “I guess this is how they soften the blow when they tell you you didn’t make it.” Even as the person was HANDING HIM THE ACTUAL AWARD, he still thought some kind of consolation event was under way. This is a humble man having a moment he’ll never forget. I love that so much, and couldn’t possibly be happier for this friend and neighbor getting the kind of validation that so few people in any field ever get. (If you want to see part of the moment, there's a photo of him and his family in his classroom on the front page of the Metro section of today’s Chicago Tribune. The picture isn’t online, though.)

    I briefly thought of getting him some champagne, came to my senses, remembered one of our shared pleasures, and bought him a 12-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. We gave it to him with a big white ribbon on it to help him toast this sweet, sweet moment.

    So today’s post is dedicated to the sixth graders, both students and teachers. To you, Daughter, I say, You just keep doing what you’re doing. It can be trying, no doubt, but I can deal with it if you can, and we’ll come out the other side eventually, and together. And to you, neighbor, I say, Congratulations on a richly deserved reward. As the British used to say, I wish you joy of it!

    Saturday, March 05, 2005


    Seized by an impulse to post something, but no coherent thoughts present themselves . . .

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    We pulled into the driveway after eating lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, Frontera Grill in Chicago. My wife A. went to wheel the recycling bin out of the alley, thinking it was empty. Hearing glass rattle, she opened it and looked in.
    “Someone’s been putting beer bottles in our recycling bin.”
    I looked in.
    “Goldilocks drinks MGD?”
    We both started giggling. The kids gave each other a look, slunk into the house, and closed the door.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Early in the “The Sting,” Robert Redford’s character is flush with money after a successful con. He entices this showgirl he knows to leave work and come out on the town with him by saying “I’ll spend fifty on you.” This line always cracked me up, so whenever I’m proposing to A. that we go have a night out, I never fail to sweeten the deal by promising, “I’ll spend fifty on you.”
    I think it’s a pretty good line, because she hardly ever stands me up.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    Overheard this conversation while out having a drink with a friend:

    “Yeah, but we’ve been friends for like 3 years, right”
    “Yeah, something like that.”
    “I was just thinking that you’ve like, never told me how you got that scar on your neck.”
    “ [long pause] Does it matter?”
    “No, it doesn’t matter, but friends know things about each other.”

    I liked that last line a lot. It’s the only good answer to that question.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    If you commit three typos in the course of typing a single word that has four letters, it’s time to stop writing for a while.

    Tuesday, March 01, 2005

    Take a deep breath

    Today has a "plunging over the brink" feel to it. Within a couple of hours, I will make a phone call to someone who's waiting to hear from me. During our conversation I will say something like "We've decided to go ahead with it." And the first step toward bringing a foster child into our home will have been taken.

    We were licensed as a foster family in Illinois about 2 years ago. From that time, our understanding with the excellent agency through which we are licensed has consisted of two points: (1) we prefer temporary placements rather than those likely to result in adoption, as we do not wish to adopt a child, and (2) we do not wish to take any children the same age or older than our daughter, S. (who is now 11 & 1/2). It just seems like a bad idea to take in a child whose first act, albeit unintentional, would be to displace S. from her position in the family, or to compete with her for that position. Most of the children who come through the agency are under 10 anyway, so this isn't much of a restriction.

    I could write many pages about our first foster child, but that story will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that A. and I got the wish that we silently but fervently shared: "Shallow end for us, please." Even before our license came through the agency started matching us up with a girl who they thought would be a good fit for our family. We'll call her Catherine. She was a sweet, quiet, smart girl, just turning 5, who'd had a rough time in her short life, but had not been directly abused. She had been removed from her home because of abuse suffered by a sibling, not by her. As a result, her spirit had been bruised but not scarred.

    Catherine was with us for about nine months, and did well here. You could tell that at first she thought that she had landed on Mars. She was a black girl from the west side of Chicago and had never been in a white family's home before. She didn't know any white people except those at the agency, and it was clear that along the way she had heard some pretty unflattering talk about us in general. Well, let me tell you, here at the Fifth Decade house we're pretty white, and Catherine didn't know what to make of it. At dinner on one of her first visits here, she looked down at her baked fish, then at everyone else's, and said "This is yall's food?" She had a way of saying things like that with just the hint of a smile, so we all laughed, including her, and went ahead with our dinner. She had lots of humor in her, and some steel as well, and her experience had taught her to adapt. She did just that over the next months, as did we, and the five of us grew comfortable together.

    Catherine left almost exactly a year ago, and by all accounts she's doing well in the family that's adopting her. I am not going to talk about what it was like watching her go, except to say that it was cruelly hard on all of us. A. and I still sometimes lie awake nights wondering if we did the right thing. We don't doubt that taking her in was the right thing to do, but we're not so sure about letting her go.

    Sometimes A. even questions the morality of bringing a child into our home, treating her like a family member in every way, letting her learn to love and trust us, and then allowing her to be taken away to live somewhere else and go through it all again. It's a tough question. I struggle with it too, but I usually revert to pragmatism, and the reason we got into fostering in the first place. We didn't cause any of these kids to be taken from their homes. What we have done is say: "Here, here is a safe place to stay for a while. We will feed you, clothe you, nurture you, and encourage you. We will help you to deal with the losses you have suffered. We will subject you to our ridiculous tempers no more often than our birth kids (hey, we're working on it). Finally, when the time comes to move on, we will do everything we can to ease the transition, and to help it feel like a move forward."

    There's a fair amount of pain inherent in fostering, for the foster child as well as the foster family, but because of all the need out there, this is an arrangement I can live with.

    After Catherine left we asked not to be called for any long-term placements for a while. Aside from one short-term emergency placement, it's just been the four of us for a while. The timing has been good, as we have been able to focus on helping our son W. adjust to high school (a little rocky, that), our daughter S. to middle school (not so rocky--she's a confident one), and A. to teaching more or less full time.

    A few weeks ago the agency called us again, and here we are. There's a six-year-old boy needing a home while he and his mother work toward the court-mandated goal of reuniting within a year (a happily realistic goal in this case, so we hear). We've talked it around and around, but the trend of our conversations has been toward saying Yes. Our daughter S. has been less enthusiastic than the rest of us this time. This is a girl who threw herself without the slightest reserve into being Catherine's big sister, and when Catherine left, S. wrote a dedication to her that was so moving the agency read it from the podium at their annual fundraising event. So we have taken her reservations seriously (in large part the problem is that the child in question this time is a boy, not a girl), and given her time, and talked things over with her. The final message is that she's ready to do it again. I'm glad, because it feels right.

    The afternoon is starting to get away from me, and I have lots to do. I see how incomplete this post is, and wish I could write more, but I have a phone call to make.

    After I take a deep breath.

    Saturday, February 26, 2005

    Let's take a look in the old Poetry Corner

    A couple of weeks ago my son attended his first high school dance. He's a freshman, and the only reason he ended up going to the dance at all was that it was the type to which the girls invite the boys. He does not have a girlfriend, and at this age I just can't picture him picking up the phone and asking one of his female friends to be his date for a formal event. (I sure wasn't able to do it when I was 15; I guess that's why these "turnabout" dances are so common, and so well attended.) For this one, a girl from his class invited him, they went and had a moderately nice time, and all was well.

    No stories worth the telling emerged from the evening. I bring it up because of what happened later. One of the photos my wife had taken of our duded-up son with his duded-up date came out beautifully, showing those two kids just bursting with freshness and youth, so I cropped it and sent it off by e-mail to a bunch of folks, including my in-laws.

    In less than an hour, my father-in-law responded with the following:

    "O for a loop of something, whipped
    about and knotted,
    that in defiance of chance and
    change and wandering,
    could hold and heft and stablish
    all that is here and hoped for!"

    He saw the picture, picked up his (figurative) pen, and dashed that off. Damn. I was pretty amazed, and still am. My father-in-law has a rare and powerful gift for making me want to howl with frustration, and sometimes that's all I remember about him. This exchange reminded me of his other gifts, equally rare, and why we're so lucky to still have him around.

    I note that in its short history, this weblog has been heavy on the son, short on the daughter--an unintentional imbalance soon to be corrected.

    Sunday, February 20, 2005

    Up next, Ozzy Osbourne on the dangers of trans fats

    I'm about halfway through Johnny Cash's autobiography. It's a pleasure to read and catches his tone very nicely. The narrative isn't over-endowed with structure or any kind of thread, but it's what you would expect to read with Johnny Cash's name and a credited cowriter on the cover. No doubt most of it was dictated and run through the quick-edit hopper.

    He talks about how his older brother, who died at the age of 14, disapproved when Johnny would smoke a cigarette. A quote I particularly enjoyed was: “Even back then, no matter what older folks say now, everybody knew that smoking hurt you.” True! Of course they did! Folks in my parent's generation often justify their past smoking by saying "We didn't know it was bad for us, or for our kids." I've always found this hard to believe. It would be a whole lot more honest to say "Hey, we were addicted--we couldn't help ourselves."

    The simple fact is that cigarette smoking is an addiction, one of the fiercest ones you can develop. When you're addicted to something, you’ll turn a blind eye to just about anything that keeps you from getting your fix. Was it really necessary for anyone to see verified epidemiologic proof of the association between smoking and various fatal respiratory diseases to know that it was profoundly dangerous? Of course not. All you had to do was look around, or consider your own experience. You smoke for a while, and one day you realize that you can't run for any distance before you're wheezing and gasping. Then there are the sharp pains in your chest after climbing a couple of flights of stairs. And how about those exciting, protracted coughing fits? Consider the denial involved in experiencing these things and saying, Naaah, these cigarettes aren't doing ME any harm! Then consider the further denial of saying, decades later, We didn't know.

    By the time I was of smoking age, the data were in. Nonetheless, I smoked from the age of thirteen into my late twenties, knowing perfectly well it could kill me. Smoking had nothing to do with feeling invincible or the immortality of youth. I may not have been the happiest guy in the world, but I had a lot to live for and no wish to die. No, I smoked because I was addicted, pure and simple, and no amount of baby-having or lecture-getting or insurance-rate-up-going was going to stop me until I was ready to face the real problem: the addiction itself. Which I finally did, and it wasn't pretty, but I don't smoke anymore. I'm glad for that.

    No real point here, I guess. I'm not even an anti-smoker. That quote just brought to mind an old myth that always bothered me. Of course, I'm avoiding the real question: Why would someone read Johnny Cash's autobiography and focus on the cigarettes?

    Thursday, February 17, 2005

    To my son, on his 15th birthday

    I love it when you surprise me. Here's a little episode that I don't want to forget.

    Remember last summer, when we buried your Yiayia, mom's grandmother? She was 95, in good health, and she died suddenly, but not so suddenly that her daughters couldn't all be with her at the end. That's something to be grateful for, if you ask me, and I know she would agree. Do you remember how we spent the next few weeks looking at photos of her, digging up forgotten ones, passing them around, and talking about them?

    One day during all this you said to your grandmother, "Yiayia doesn't look very happy in the old pictures, does she?"

    Well, that puzzled your mom and me, and we went back over some of the pictures. There she was on her wedding day in Greece in 1937 . . . . then at her apartment next to Garfield Park in Chicago, with two of her four girls by her side . . . . and one with her husband in Michigan during the summer . . . . and a whole bunch more. In all of these pictures she's smiling. In fact she was very much disposed to be a cheerful person, but there's no getting around it: you were right. If you look closely, she doesn't look happy. And surely there's no wonder. By the time most of those photos were taken, she had left Greece with her new husband, expecting to return within a couple of years. Then World War II broke out, then the civil war, then her younger sister was murdered, and she was stuck here for good. Here in Chicago, she was raising four girls in a small home, cooking and cleaning for a revolving host of relatives and friends, while her husband worked himself ragged until he died of colon cancer when their oldest child was only 17. I know you're aware of a lot of that story, but I certainly don't think it was on your mind that day. What you did was look at those pictures and see something of your great-grandmother's struggles reflected in the tilt of her head, her posture, her gaze.

    You're a comfortable suburban boy who's never been uprooted or known untimely loss, but even in the middle of your adolescent haze you have left yourself open to seeing past the smile of an old lady who loved you. Well, birthdays are for wishes, so here's what I wish for you, my son and first child, on your 15th birthday: I wish that you will keep that part of you alive. Hold it, cherish it, don't ever lose that natural empathy, that focus, that interest, that lets you look at another person's face and really see it, see the pain, the joy, the actual spirit wavering before you. I wish that you will keep your eye clear, and never blind yourself to the struggles of others, or stop yourself from doing something about them when you can.

    You know what else I wish? I wish that sometime around the year 2090, your great-granddaughter will be looking at pictures, or holograms, or memory modules, or whatever they'll be called then, and she'll see one of you. Maybe you paddling a canoe, or laughing on a beach, or sitting around a table with some friends, or holding your first child for the first time (and I can tell you, right there, that's a moment you won't soon forget). And I wish she'll say "Hey look at Grandpa W when he was young . . . . he looks like he's got it all, doesn't he?" And I wish her dad will say, "Yeah, he's a pretty amazing guy."

    It's funny, and maybe a little sad, to think how little of this I will probably manage to say to you today. But these are the things I wish for you. Happy birthday, son.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2005

    Last writes

    Writing a list of things to do/buy on the white board in the kitchen. I find that I can't bring myself to write "dry-erase markers" using one of the current dry-erase markers, all of which are rapidly running out of ink. It's like asking someone to hire their own executioner.

    Monday, February 14, 2005


    Last year, the two Fannie May stores in our little town (a 5-square-mile rectangle) closed their doors for good. One wouldn't exactly call it a civic tragedy--it's not as though they were pumping millions into the local economy and keeping hundreds, or even dozens, of citizens employed. There were the usual newspaper articles and people talked about the closings a lot, but no one seemed very concerned. Consternation reigned in my house, though. My wife, who shall be referred to henceforth as Wife A. (the "A" represents an initial, not her designation as most favored of my many wives), is a little insane about Fannie May's dark-chocolate-covered almond clusters. Not a large woman, but she can burn through a one-pound box of them in a few hours. Her restraint in the presence of this particular confection is so laughably weak, in fact, that she only wants to see them twice a year: on Christmas morning, when a box from Santa magically appears under the tree, and on Valentine's Day. But on those two days, she REALLY wants them. So we had several stages of grief over this closing, principally denial ("there's no way they would just CLOSE the stores!"), anger ("so I guess the pencil pushers are running the show now") and bargaining (mostly with the hapless store employees over their dwindling stocks of chocolate).

    The final and best stage, acceptance, came with our discovery of my new favorite store, Old Fashioned Candies, in the next town south of us. I don't know how I could have lived here for 10 years without discovering this place. It's a gem, and it's got Fannie May beaten in every category. First, it looks like nothing in this store, not a single thing, has changed in 40 years. If you're of a certain age (I'm 41), you walk in and feel as if you've walked directly into your childhood. Second, in the center is a huge table covered with jars of every candy they sell, and you just scoop what you want into little white paper bags. Third, they make the candy right on the premises, in full view, so you can just stand there, getting in everyone's way, and watch them dipping strawberries in liquid chocolate, mixing vats of creamy goo, etc. Fourth, hanging on the wall they have chunks of chocolate molded into every shape you could possibly want, and some you don't want. Pelicans, dollar signs, babies, snowmen, pigs ("hogs and kisses"), sailboats, and one each of all the letters and numbers. You don't think my daughter wanted to buy chocolate house numbers to replace the boring old painted ones we have? ("Something on our house should be edible!") Fifth, and best of all, their dark chocolate clusters are THE BEST! The chocolate is rich, almost black, and twice as flavorful as that apologetic stuff they used to sell at Fannie May. (I guess that last sentence clues you in that one of the stages of grief was deciding that Fannie May was overrated.)

    I could go on about this place, but work beckons. The upshot is, we left with a box of the treasured item, Valentine's Day was saved, the family balance has been restored, and for the next few hours at least, there are dark-chocolate-covered almond clusters calling me from the next room.

    Saturday, February 12, 2005

    What was the question again?

    If I have come to believe that starting a weblog is the answer, I'm still not sure what the question is. Maybe it's, "Can I become more than I am?" I seem to be perpetually beset by the unfocused desire to be a more complete person, a more fully realized person, than the one I am. This desire is so familiar to me it's like a constant companion, yet I haven't the slightest idea what to do about it. Or maybe the question is more specific: "Can I become a better writer than I am?" I am a science writer by trade, so one might think I would be constantly honing my craft. In fact, I don't think my writing has improved in ages, and this bothers me. Another possibility is, "Can I become a better observer of my own life?" So much of what happens to me and of what I see day to day escapes me, or seems to be distorted in my apprehension of it, as though a filter of some kind has been imposed between me and the world I inhabit. I cherish the idea that I can sharpen my judgment and my understanding through describing my experiences in an organized way.

    Or maybe the question I'm trying to answer is as simple as, "Isn't there a better way to spend my time online than reading other people's blogs and playing poker for fake money?"

    That's probably it.

    I don't know how to start, so I'll just post this and see what happens next time I sit down here.