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.