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.