Legacy Achieved

The Thinker by Rodin

Exactly a month ago today, on Christmas Eve, my friend Frank Pierce passed away. I briefly eulogized Frank after I learned of his death. As I noted at the time, that entry hardly qualified as a proper tribute to him. Even though I knew Frank for sixteen years, no eulogy I could write would begin to do him justice. For Frank Pierce was a complex mosaic of a person. I could put together only a few of his puzzle pieces. It would probably take a couple dozen of us sitting around a bar for the better part of a day slowly sipping from some dark German beers to properly give broad perspective to this remarkable man.

Most people are content to live ordinary and comfortable lives. On the surface, Frank’s life was quite ordinary. He raised a small family and lived in modestly in the Maryland suburbs. His work for the Navy spanned many decades and involved activities that I never fully grasped. Apparently, part of it involved writing manuals so Navy pilots could land properly and using the correct protocol on foreign vessels. He was actively involved in the Washington area’s local German American society. Through it, he developed a network of friends outside of work.

Frank was the type to grasp at any opportunity offered him, no matter how small. His nature was to be incessantly curious. He was also a ruthlessly pragmatic person. He would allow no mysticism to cloud his clinical observations of the world. He knew humanity’s place in the universe, and in his view it was much lower than we thought. He saw us as lucky to be where we are and believed we would not be there for long. Humanity, he often told me, was not a naturally peaceful species. We are a warrior species and aggression is in our nature. We had to fight it by carefully teaching each new generation and by learning lessons from history. He could survey the world around him, see its terrible wars, genocides, and rampant cruelty, and realize that Americans live fortunate and almost gilded lives. Our liberty, he frequently observed, was purchased at the cost of millions of lives. Consequently, he had a deep respect for the military (perhaps in part because he spent so much time working for the Navy), its necessity, as well as the necessity at giving the Commander in Chief the benefit of the doubt. In our many discussions on the War on Terror, and the War in Iraq in particular, he was very deferential to the President. Remember, he frequently told us, he has access to intelligence you and I do not. It was with some reluctance that late last year he came to the same conclusion that I did on Iraq even before the war had started: that we were engaged in folly. The Iraq War may be the sole instance wherein I was more cognizant of reality than Frank Pierce was.

Frank was a deeply grounded man, with his eyes wide open, who was always trying to discern cause and effect. The tools that gave him such wisdom included a natural brilliance, acute curiosity, direct exposure to the real world in ways that most of us would avoid, but also consummate self-education. It could take the form of slogging through history books, newspapers and magazines or watching C-SPAN for hours on end. However, it also came from simply making connections and talking to people. Most of us are lucky to know the name of our Congressman or Senator. Frank was likely on a first named basis with many of them. He could send a thoughtful inquiry to his Congressman and he would receive a personal and thoughtful reply. He would often get a phone call from them too. Not only did he know his representatives by name, they knew him by name too. No doubt, his incisive letters to them stood out in the crowd. As a writer, he could communicate with great effectiveness and did so in a way that almost compelled the recipient to start a dialog.

In short, Frank was not just a neat older guy friend (he died at age 75), a mentor and a role model, but also an inspiration. All these wonderful aspects of Frank though pale in comparison to the ruthlessness with which he seized control of his life. He found nothing boring. Every day and every hour had potential. It seemed to me that he saw his mission was living intensely. In truth, I think he simply found life too engaging to be philosophical about how he chose to live it. His incessant itch was not just to enjoy life, but to draw in all the world’s energy, let it flow through him and use it to energize him some more. If he were a light bulb, he would have radiated 1000 watts.

I was not surprised then to find myself in Princess Anne, Maryland last Friday for his memorial service. The service occurred so belatedly because both he and his wife suffered terribly from the same terrible infection. Apparently, it contributed to his death. It took weeks for his wife Nancy to recover to the point where she could participate in a memorial service.

Frank grew up in Princess Anne and apparently was enchanted with the small town. He wrote a book about life there as a boy during the World War Two years. I have not yet read the book (although I do own another book of his, which I purchased from him), but I hope to read it some day. At the memorial service, I spoke with a number of people who mentioned the book on Princess Anne and said it was Frank’s best work.

Speaking with his daughter after the service, I learned that Frank was the last of his family to grow up in Princess Anne. About fifty people attended his memorial service. At first, I was disappointed. I expected the church to be overflowing. Then I realized that almost everyone had to come from out of town. (It was about a three-hour drive each way for me.) Princess Anne is not convenient to anything. It is about fifteen miles south of Salisbury, Maryland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (This area is now chicken country. It is where chicken magnate Frank Perdue made his millions.)

The service was held in Princess Anne on a cold, clear and blustery day at the Manokin Presbyterian Church, a church so old its brick walls go back to the 1700s. Even his son remarked on the oddity of his father being memorialized in a church. Frank believed in God, but he was not a Christian. Nonetheless, there was a time as a youth when he attended services regularly with his family at this historic church. The minister, who had never met Frank, did his best to eulogize him. Even so, it was hard to get many of the congregants to join him in The Lord’s Prayer. His son, Frank H. Pierce IV, eulogized him at the man we all knew, loved and admired: the ruthlessly skeptical and secular man with a boundless passionate nature for life.

I attended the service with my friend Angela. After we paid our respects to his family, we found ourselves in the cemetery behind the church. There we found the graves of the Pierce family, from the first Frank Pierce, through the Junior, then to the Senior then to our friend, Frank H. Pierce III. Frank cremains will be placed next to those of his family.

His grandson stood alone by the family graves after the service. Angela and I spoke with him. We spoke of the cynical, sectarian man we knew. “I last saw him on Thanksgiving,” he said, “and I had a feeling it might be the last time I would see him.” Angela and I expressed our utter shock at his death. We had no idea he was even sick. It was not something Frank chose to share with us. Frank kept up his regular conversations on my electronic forum, The Potomac Tavern, with his usual eloquence until the day before he died. He sent me a brief German translation I needed on that day too.

Whether grandson or friend, on one thing we could agree. As I noted in my first entry on Frank, Frank claimed he was not concerned about death. He was concerned about leaving a legacy. From his wonderful family (some of whom I met for the first time) to his many, many friends, all of us were deeply touched by Frank. We were simply blown over by his infectious spirit of life. As I spoke with his grandson, we agreed. If Frank’s mission was to leave a legacy, then he accomplished his mission in a singularly fantastic style.

I already know that when I pass out of this life that my life will be little more than a footnote to those other than my family. Frank’s seemingly ordinary life though will not be. He made quite a splash. Frank was simply unforgettable, which is why I am sure thirty years from now, if I am still alive, I will continue to treasure my time with Frank. I will think wistfully about our many conversations. Frank succeeded in getting every minute and every molecule of enjoyment out of life. I have never met anyone else who did this. I am certain he belongs to a small coterie of people who have ever lived who managed to do so.

Now that’s a legacy.

Continue reading “Legacy Achieved”

Thanks Frank

The Thinker by Rodin

My friend Frank Pierce died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve.

Frank is a friend who I initially “met” online. Meeting someone online nowadays is not a big deal, but around 1990 it was a weird thing to do or to even acknowledge. In those days, there was an Internet, but it was not accessible to the average person. I met Frank on The Back of the North Wind, an electronic bulletin board system that resided on the spare PC of a woman named Dawn Gibson who, if memory serves me right, lived in Arlington, Virginia. In those days, you used your 2400-baud modem to dial up these computers, play games, swap software and engage in electronic conversations with people in your community. I wrote more about those days a year or two back in this entry, if you are interested.

The Back of the North Wind drew an eclectic crowd. You had to know someone who knew someone to get on the board because it was not advertised on Mike Focke’s BBS list. My friend Debbie who I met on a board called Zonzr directed me there. I quickly spent almost all of my electronic social life on Dawn’s board. A good part of the reason was Frank Pierce. Frank was an older gentleman who was fifty something at the time. He was virtually unique among people in his age group for indulging in this online community thing. His passion was discussing politics and he quickly found that an online community allowed him to engage in his habit very easily. Somewhat to Dawn’s disgruntlement (for she hated politics) her board was nearly taken over by an inner ring of Washington area amateur policy wonks. Frank and I were two of the main contributors to those political discussions.

The thing about Frank though was unlike lots of amateur policy wonks, he knew about what he was talking. Frank had a depth of understanding that always amazed me. Our political discussions evolved on The Back of the North Wind and later on the message board I set up and which is still in business, The Potomac Tavern. (Frank was the co-host.) There was not much about the world that Frank had not studied in some depth. When the conversation moved from politics to other areas like religion, Frank was equally well informed.

Since I “met” Frank in 1990, I figure I have known him for sixteen years. Over those years, I figure I actually met him in person less than a dozen times. Our last meeting was about two years back when I met him at a Starbucks near his house. We spent about an hour discussing Potomac Tavern business and just chitchatting. I also had the privilege of being invited to his house a couple times. Once he hosted a Back of the North Wind get together in his backyard. We did these get togethers once or twice a year for a number of years. More recently, he invited me to stop by so I could take him for a test drive in my new hybrid.

Frank was tall, thin as a rail, bony, grey haired and both gregarious and scholarly at the same time. He and his wife Nancy had been married forever. If my memory serves me correctly, he is also survived by two sons and a daughter. He was active in the local German American community, spoke excellent German, and even wrote a newspaper column for a German newspaper called, no lie, The Potomac Tavern. It discussed current political topics happening in our nation’s capital in the context of a real tavern with a regular crew of erudite patrons. Frank recently related a story of a reader who came to Washington and was disappointed to discover that there was no Potomac Tavern in the city. Frank’s portrayal of this fictional tavern was so convincing he had some people fooled.

For among Frank’s many talents, he was an excellent writer. He wrote a number of books. None of them was a best seller, but he knew how to target the small markets. You can buy a number of them from online sources like Amazon.com. Writing alone would suffice as a creative outlet for most people. However, Frank was also a photographer. On The Potomac Tavern, if you dig for them, you will see many an amazing photograph taken by him, often carefully retouched with Adobe Photoshop. Frank’s photography occasionally dabbled on the risqué side. He spent some time doing figure photography, and a number of his models posed in the buff. I recall one trip to his house when he showed me his portfolio of nude photography. As with all his other art forms, he excelled here too.

Frank was also incredibly generous with both his time and money. While on The Back of the North Wind, he grew to know a woman named Judy. Judy lived in the backwoods of Virginia somewhere. Frank saw potential in Judy: a very smart woman who simply did not have the resources to go to college. For whatever reason, Frank decided that he would make an investment in Judy. I do not know to what extent he did it, but I know he helped pay her way through college. Frank could do these things, you see, because along with all his other talents he was a shrewd investor. This, plus his modest lifestyle, gave him the leeway to occasionally indulge in these acts of targeted charity.

I expect to blog more about Frank in the weeks ahead. I am getting details of his death second hand, but it sounds like Frank died from the complications of bronchitis. I can say that I was shocked to learn he had died, since I believe he was in the bottom half of his seventies. He always seemed in such abnormally good health. He was so skinny and his mind was always so sharp that I fully expected him to be pontificating on my forum into his nineties.

Among the many topics I explored with Frank over the years was aging. For me death was and still is a very scary thing. Frank was not scared. He was pragmatic: there is nothing you can do to stop death, so the only thing to do was to enjoy what life that is given to you to its fullest. From a man who did not seem the least bit religious, this was a both a very pragmatic and positive philosophy. He succeeded in walking his talk. He lived his final years as if he expected to live a hundred years more. He said he was not concerned about death, but he was concerned about leaving a legacy. At that, Frank clearly succeeded.

Frank taught me many life lessons I might never have grasped otherwise. I am trying to emulate his philosophy and to see every day as a gift full of boundless potential. If I can manage to do it, and I have a lot of work to do to achieve this, then perhaps Frank will have passed on to me his most treasured gift.

Frank, I am going to miss you like crazy. You have been such a positive presence in my life these last sixteen years. You are one of these people who, when you pass on, leave a large and beneficent wake. You touched and inspired many people. We in your online world were a small fraction of them. Thank you for your friendship, which has touched me in ways I still do not fully realize. I am hopeful that I will carry forward your positive spirit into the second half of my life. I hope that I can draw on your positive energy and pull some people into my wake too.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Twin Sons of Different Mothers

The Thinker by Rodin

When we parted in 1973 I was sixteen. Since fourth grade we had been best friends. But in 1972 my family moved to Florida. So we were reduced to sending each other occasional letters. In truth it was a bit traumatic for me to leave Tom and my life in upstate New York behind. But it was also a pleasure to get Tom down to Florida for a week or so in the summer of 1973 and let him check out my new subtropical digs. As I sent him back home on the Greyhound bus for a long journey back to the Triple Cities I wondered if I would ever see him again. He was my one remaining tenuous thread to that part of my past.

My fear was well founded. In those pre-Internet days it was easy for friends to lose touch. We were both rapidly turning into adults and being catapulted into a dubious future. I sent him a couple letters when he was in college but then he disappeared. After college I moved to the Washington area (where I still reside) and I effectively disappeared. But always in the back of my mind was the question “Where’s Tom?” Where was the guy who filled my youth with such creativity, enthusiasm and adventure? Would I ever see him again? The prospects looked bleak. On occasion I searched for him. When I went on business trips I looked for his name in the phone books. Once I spent a couple hours in the Martin Luther King Library in Washington D.C. going through their stacks of phone books from various cities looking for his name. No luck.

The situation finally changed in the mid 1990s when the World Wide Web emerged. Through the web I found online telephone listings. To my surprise I found his name in our home city of Binghamton, New York. The name turned out to be his father. Fortunately his father forwarded my letter to him.

We traded emails warily and sporadically. It was clear that the adult Tom was not quite the same teen I once knew. Nor was I quite the same person either. While we had a great youthful friendship, there were some unhealed and tender spots in our relationship. There were issues to be worked out between us. We groped our way through them, sometimes opening old wounds. Fortunately we did not lose touch with each other altogether. Over the course of many years and many emails we reconnected and worked through our issues. Despite the years we still appeared to have a lot in common.

Still 32 years is a very long time. When life finally took me to Portland, Oregon where he lived I knew that we could at last reconnect. But for me it was still an open question whether after so many years we could renew a friendship that was so rich during our youth. We are both middle aged now, with families, burdens and aging parents. I approached our reunion with both excitement and nervousness.

Tom’s flaming red hair is now white. My hair is peppered with gray. We are both not quite the skinny things we were in our teens. Life had scarred us and challenged us. Our youthful faces now have middle aged cares and concerns. I did not even recognize his voice on the phone. Who was this person? When we met in the lobby of my hotel I did a bit of a double take. I suspect he did the same thing with me. We both wear glasses now. Our hair is now shorter. But his infectious laugh and the lines around his eyes – those were instantly familiar.

The changes age had wreaked on us turned out to be superficial. Like two tuning forks struck at the same time we had spent 32 years apart on our own life adventures yet we were still remarkably similar people. Life challenged us in different ways. Yet here we were 32 years later with amazingly congruent interests, opinions and philosophies. One would expect that someone who spent his career living in the challenging and unforgiving advertising domain might naturally be a Republican. But Tom is not. Like me he is a flaming liberal. When we weren’t talking about times and people past, we were dallying in the present political situation. Once more I felt the harmony. We were still synchronized.

And we are both married with children. My daughter is older than his boys. (The older informed me over and over again he was “six and three quarters.”) His house in the burbs is comparable to mine. He drives a Toyota Prius. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. He expresses his creativity in art. I express mine in writing. We compared family histories. His family had their significant challenges as had mine. Our passion for the space program though remains undiminished. Even our taste in music is similar.

But most remarkable of all is that we connected on a new emotional level too. My wife sometimes remarks that I have few male friends. I say that is because so few of them are people of any depth. I have little patience for men whose conversation revolves largely around booze, broads and sports. Tom is a man deeply in touch with his feelings and who, like me, has learned to deeply care about other people. He knows how to express genuine empathy and warmth. Perhaps this is because we have so much history together or had shared some of our painful stories via email. But we know each other on a very deep level and could connect on that level too. It is a wonderful intimacy.

When tempted to generalize, which I do often, I see three general tracks in life for people. People either overcome adversity, are overcome by it, or float through life in a steady state, arguably alive but not growing in any meaningful direction, except possibly from side to side. Arguably both Tom and I had a lot of adversity to overcome, although I suspect Tom had more of it to deal with than I did. He has seen members of his own family unable to surmount (so far anyhow) their life challenges, as I have mine. To me it is quite remarkable when someone is dealt a tough hand in life yet manages to excel anyhow. Unquestionably though Tom has succeeded. As the pieces of Tom’s unique story fell into place I was filled with a sense of awe that he surmounted it all. And now here he is at midlife, incredibly busy and challenged but living a purpose driven life. The wonderful zoo of his life includes a lovely wife and two boys under age seven. Where many would have fallen into a lifelong depression or have given up, he managed to move through life’s landmines. Occasionally he stepped on them yet he survived his minefield scarred but ultimately triumphant. The result is a man who is a joy to know as an adult: full of complexity, richness, ideas, creativity, passion and eloquence. He is a privilege to know as an adult.

It still strikes me as odd that though thirty years and three thousand miles separate us we are still so alike. We truly are two tuning forks putting out nearly identical pitches after all these years. We both feel better for reconnecting. I think we both look forward to renewing a rich friendship that will hopefully carry us through the rest of our lives.

My Best Friend the Cat

The Thinker by Rodin

Maybe this will sound a little pathetic but my best friend is a cat.

Okay, I’m not the most sociable critter in the world but I am not entirely friendless. Nonetheless I think I can say without hesitation that the best friend I will have in this life is 11 pounds or so and is currently curled up on my lap. His head is partially buried in one paw. He lies where he always lies on my lap, with his head on my left thigh and his paws nestled up toward my belly.

His name is Sprite and he’s been my best friend for at least 16 of the 18 years he’s been alive. We bonded shortly after he and his sister Squeaky came home from the Doktor’s Pet Center in Tysons Corner, Virginia in January 1987. In the beginning our relationship was a bit challenging. He had claws and he used them instinctively. This frequently meant his jumping onto my lap and embedding them in my thigh. For about a year I would not let him on my lap until I had first a blanket on my lap.

So Sprite required a little training but he was as good a pupil as a young cat could be. I wanted a lap kitty but at first he was a bit skittish around people in general. So I petted and praised him all the time, and made sure I gave him extra affection when he was on my lap and not sticking his pincers into me. He still gets it wrong sometimes. Fortunately I am now better at keeping his nails trimmed so it is less of a problem. As a kitten he could not sit still for nail clippings.

In fact Sprite and I are now perfectly bonded. We understand each other intuitively. I know exactly where to stroke him to make him happiest. He knows instinctively when to sit on my lap and when to leave me alone. When he wants to sit on my lap he only rarely demands to be on my lap. Rather he petitions very politely. He comes next to me and I hear the roar of his purr motor. I look down and see his wide glass-like eyes petitioning me. I can hear him in my brain: “Can I please sit on your lap, Daddy?”

When he was younger and more agile I would slap my hand on my thighs a few times and he would normally understand the signal, jump on my lap and move into the lap position. At 18 though he has cataracts. Only occasionally can work up the courage to jump on my lap. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he doesn’t. When he misjudges he falls awkwardly back and I have to catch his fall. Fortunately he has me well trained. I look down and coo, “What’s the matter sweetheart?” and he gives me a silent meow. And I pick up his 11 pounds and awkwardly put him on my lap. He of course has to move into his special snuggle lap position. And there he settles in for a long couple hours of purring, sometimes sounding like a motorboat engine. At other times his purr is barely perceptible. His eyes open half wide most of the time. He gives me a look of complete and utter adoration. But after a while he seems content just to bask in my warmth and love and enters a dreamy sort of trance-like state, not quite asleep but not quite awake either. He seems hypnotized. The longer I stay on my chair (I am usually in front of the computer) the more he likes it. It breaks my heart (and his) sometimes to have to get up to attend to other things.

Sprite knows to trust me completely. I will never deliberately hurt him and when I stroke him I always stroke ever so gently. I stroke over his bat ears and they twitch with an autonomic response. He likes a scratch under his chin or along the side of his face. I can play with his paws and pull on his nails and he doesn’t mind. He just purrs louder.

On rare occasions he will let me give him a belly rub. He likes any form of affection but it is still difficult for him to be that vulnerable in that way. He doesn’t usually mind being picked up and dragged around. And he’s quite unusual in that he doesn’t mind being cuddled. I can pick him up like a baby and cradle him in my arms. It’s a bit uncomfortable for him but he does enjoy it, and his little purr motor cranks up to high volume.

We should let him sleep on the bed with us now that his sister is gone but we maintain the habit of having a cat free bedroom during our night hours. Nonetheless I often find him on the bed when I retire, waiting for some last minute petting and stroking. If I read in bed he will come right up in my face. Sometimes I have to push his rear down to tell him “That’s close enough, son”. And I do call him “son” all the time. I don’t have a son of my own. I have a daughter I love very much, but it’s too late to have a son. He will have to do.

And what a great son he is! He likes whatever I am into. But he also knows when I’ve OD’ed on his presence and will find a nice corner to go to sleep in.

Sprite has always been an indoor cat. He gets out on the screened in deck when the weather is nice, but is never let out to the wild. He was neutered young so he never lost his childhood voice. But he doesn’t speak much. He believes in the silent meow and the use of Bambi eyes to get his needs met.

He loves us all dearly but without a doubt I am his favorite. He misses me when I am gone. He waits for me to arise on the landing outside our bedroom in the morning, and lately has been greeting me with an almost anguished “Yeolp!” It’s a sort of “I missed you! You’ve been gone so long!” along with some confusion from being a senile 18-year-old cat.

And he may be 18 but he is doing wonderfully. You’d be hard pressed to find a cat his age in better health. His coat droops a bit but he is amazingly youthful. He is as soft as he was as a kitten. He has become a very mellow cat. He is not a complex creature. He does four things. He eats. (He doesn’t mind dry food, but likes wet food a couple times a week for variety.) He sleeps. He poops. And he sits on our laps. That’s it. Mostly these days he just sleeps. He’s an old but beloved kitty.

Still, he seems so completely bonded to me that he often feels like an extension of me, and I of him. It’s like we’re one unit, not two. I have read some books that suggest we don’t bring all of our soul energy with us into a life, and that some remains behind. I have heard that some souls actually spread their energy out into two or more lives at the same time. I don’t know if I take any of this seriously, but I am so completely bonded with Sprite that I have to wonder if there is something to this. Perhaps part of me came into this world as a cat simply to keep me company. Yes, it sounds nuts but at the moment this seems wholly plausible. It fits my Occam’s Razor test: it seems the simplest and most plausible explanation because, yes, we truly are that well integrated. It is sort of supernatural.

Sprite just got a checkup. I now worry at every checkup that they will find something dreadful that means his days as my soulmate and best friend are soon to be over. But the vet says he is doing fine. He can’t see too well but he sees better than most cats his age. I can’t think of anything, even the loss of a parent or sibling, that is likely to leave me more emotionally traumatized than when Sprite dies. Some part of myself will be gone.

But if there is an afterlife he will be waiting for me patiently and he will be back on my lap again. Something like death cannot keep us apart forever. I think on some level we have always been together and always will be together. All I know is I love him dearly and I am so grateful for the 18 years we’ve had together. Every day I have left with him is precious.

Grateful

The Thinker by Rodin

It is Christmas Eve: my favorite day of the year. Christmas is always something of a let down. As a child nothing received on Christmas could meet my wild expectations on Christmas Eve. So Christmas Eve is for me a day full of boundless expectation, wonder and hope. It doesn’t hurt that the whole Christmas season reaches its wild crescendo today. The days are very short, the nights are very long and the houses spend their long nights ablaze with colorful electric lights. The Christmas tree (artificial in our case) is up and perfectly decorated. Presents are heaped up beneath and around the tree. Except for my daughter’s room the house is clean.

All this ritual and ceremony and yet I can’t actually claim to be a Christian. It seems there is little of Christ left in Christmas in 2004. After all it doesn’t take much research to discover that Yule celebrations are about as old as mankind itself. Christmas was set up by the Christians to counter the Feast of Saturn, or Saternalia by the Romans. Before the Romans got around to inventing their gods it had many other names. Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and many others celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christianity is but one of the latest traditions to latch on to this special time of year, Kwanzaa being the latest.

There is no present I can receive anymore that is likely to delight me. I have everything I want and amazingly I am satisfied with life. It helps I suppose that my dreams are rather modest. I do not feel the need for a midlife sports car, nor an estate, nor do I secretly crave for to be an executive. I have so much to be grateful for that it is hard for me to think up anything that I truly want. Those things I want are things I cannot really have and which seem corny. For me terrific Christmas presents would include world peace, the end of hunger and respect for our environment. No, I am not kidding. Alas money can’t buy these sorts of presents. Money could not even put John Kerry in the White House. I suppose I could wish for immortality. If not immortality then I could perhaps wish for eternal youth. But I’m not sure I’d want these either. I’m not sure I’d want to inhabit this same body 1000 years from now. The earth as it will be then will be so changed from the one I know now that I suspect living in it would be unbearably sad. Nor do I want to necessarily look like I did at 20 when I am pushing 50, because I don’t want to be thought of as someone quite as naive, headstrong and impoverished as I was then. Nor does the idea of attracting women that young appeal to me because for the most part they shared my naivety and immaturity too. Been there, done that.

Instead I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am. In many households the loss of one income would be devastating. My wife lost her job at the end of October and it’s nice to know we don’t absolutely need her income. We can survive nicely on my income. I have perhaps the most precious gift of all: good health. Yesterday as a huge rainstorm moved through the area I counted my blessings that we have a roof. As the storm passed and cold wind followed in behind it I counted my blessing that I had indoor heat. Many in this world are not so fortunate. In Iraq families wait in line overnight to fill up their automobiles or for gas to heat their home. Our major “crisis” yesterday was having our Internet service go down for a couple hours. Poor us: we watched a DVD instead.

2004 was still full of personal struggles. Perhaps the most challenging was my parent’s relocation from Michigan to a retirement community in Maryland, all this while my mother’s health declined precipitously. Numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent in nursing homes eventually resulted in something resembling a real recovery. My Mom has been home in her apartment for a couple months now with no subsequent hospitalizations. Her mobility has improved, and with the aid of antidepressants, physical and mental therapy she is a much improved 84 year old lady. When she arrived from Michigan she exclaimed, “I made it! I actually made it!” She expected to die before she left Michigan. Now she gets around slowly, her congestive heart failure is being well treated and she can occasionally make visits. She will be at our house eating Christmas Eve dinner with us tonight. Most importantly some of her old spirit is back. No money can buy such a wonderful present. I had grieved it was gone for good.

I am grateful for my friends. While not large in number they are all dear to me. And I am grateful for my siblings. Though we are geographically separated we are all still very much one family. And I have had opportunities to see all of them over the last year, along with many of my nieces and nephews. I am grateful to have a wife who loves me, and a daughter who is very creative. I am especially grateful for my 18-year-old boy cat Sprite, my best companion in every sense of the word who wants nothing more than the pleasure of my lap and to look into my eyes while I stroke under his chin.

I am grateful for my job. While I could ask for a larger team, I could not ask for a better team, even if half of us are geographically separated. How unusual is it for any manager to have just one employee who gives 150% or more? I have a whole team of people who continuously go the extra mile and dig into the thorniest problems, during and after hours, with nary a complaint. And I am grateful for Susan, my wonderful boss, the best boss I ever had, who somehow manages to make her stressful position fun. But I am also grateful that my job, though often stressful, still gives me sufficient time off to do the things that are meaningful to me. I am grateful that it gives me time to take up my new hobby of bicycling. I am grateful for my many travels up and down the W&OD trail this year. I am grateful to have a job three miles away instead of thirty. I am thus grateful I have at least 90 minutes more on a workday to do with what I want, instead of commute to and from work.

I am grateful that for whatever reason I have left my midlife crisis behind at last. I am grateful that while there are major stresses in my life and there will doubtless be more that I can usually ride above them. I know that every year will have its ups and downs. But I am especially grateful that here, today, I am in a place of peace and contentment.

I hope your Yule time celebrations, in whatever forms they take, bring happiness and comfort to you and to all you love.

Old Friends

The Thinker by Rodin

They’re back: people I thought were out of my life years and years ago. In some cases I found them. In other cases they found me. In some cases they just showed up again.

I went and found Tom, my best friend from grades 4-9. It took the Internet for me to find him. We lost touch with each other a year or two after my family moved to Florida in 1972. Tom was a cool friend who loved the space program as much as I did, and together we collaborated on a number of things that made childhood really exciting and kept us from smoking dope or hanging out with loose women. We constructed model rockets and model spacecraft together (Tom was so good with the detailing!). We built interiors of simulated spacecraft and made pretend trips to the moon, or just went into a pretend orbit around the earth. We formed our own movie company and created Super 8 films that seemed brilliant to us. But there were tensions in our relationship. His family was pretty dysfunctional. Mine was dysfunctional too, but on a different sort of level. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found him many years later, living in Oregon, he had followed his creative bent and had done quite well for himself in the advertising business. But with the crash in the economy he was vastly underemployed and I believe he is still struggling. He now has two young sons and a lovely wife. But he is 3000 miles away. I’m hoping one day we will be able to share the same room again. It’s been 30 years! It’s so nice to find that when we email each other to find that we are still fundamentally the same people. We’re 15-year-old kids still on the inside. And his passion for the space program is undiminished, as is mine. Was it just coincidence that after so many years we would both be passionate liberals, even though we were faux Republicans in the early 70s?

Tim and I were young adults together. I was freshly relocated to Gaithersburg, Maryland. The year was 1980. It was recession in America. I had a degree in communications but no one wanted to hire me. I was working for not much more than dog food at a Montgomery Ward. Tim showed up one day and became one of our fence salesmen. Tim and I were ducks out of water in that place. We were both failures as salesmen. He had a wife and her income to fall back on, I had to eek out a living on wages averaging $4-$5 an hour. We conspired to turn the place into a union shop, but largely failed (retail workers are such weasels). I was drawn to Tim anyhow because he was a brilliant person. We were both so out of place at Wards, but we enjoyed analyzing the people who worked there. We had it all figured out. It was Tim who helped me get out of the retail business and into the federal government. Tim had somehow gotten a job doing clerical stuff at the Defense Mapping Agency. With his help I knew were to send applications. A GS-4 paid a lot better than a lawn and garden salesman. We worked together for DMA for a number of years, and even carpooled together. By the mid 80s though Tim had divorced his wife and had moved to Illinois to do graduate school. I was moving in with my live in girlfriend who would eventually become my wife. And he dropped off my radar until he found me last year on the Internet. Ah, the power of Google! Last year he was in town and we got together and looked at old haunts. The Wards store we worked at now as Toys R Us on the bottom floor and a Burlington Coat factory on the top floor. Tim worked a variety of jobs in the Midwest and recently completed a midlife PhD. Still brilliant he certainly could be doing better, but is home on the farm helping the family and his aging mother. He’s doing the right thing and stepping up to the plate where most sons wouldn’t. I hope the second half of his life allows him to put his considerable talents to more practical use. It’s funny how life turns out for people sometimes.

Stephanie was in my carpool during my early Pentagon days. She was there for six months, or maybe it was a year. I didn’t have too many fond feelings for Stephanie, but heck we were just riding a car together. It was a casual relationship. I liked the fact that she was young, and blonde, and had just gotten a degree, and was an environmentalist. But she didn’t know how to be on time. That drove the rest of us in the carpool crazy. So often we would wait for her to show up, or we would just leave without her. When it was her turn to drive we had no idea if she’d show up. Around 1993 she fell in love with an older man and was going to run off to Utah of all places to live with him while she did the grad school thing. She also wanted to be a Mom and envisioned herself carrying her kid in her knapsack while she did her field research. One lady in the carpool got a wedding invitation. I didn’t but I didn’t feel hurt. When she left I figured she was living happily every after somewhere, except I had a kind of gut instinct that her happily ever after marriage wouldn’t work. And I was right about that. It was over very quickly. Anyhow last year she shows up at the Unitarian Church I attend last year. Was I surprised when I got up to speak during Joys and Sorrows to see her face staring back at me. As I had suspected, real life had indeed wacked her around pretty hard. Her ideal marriage quickly crumbled, but she met the true love of her life on the rebound. She has three kids, all preschool age, and she plans to home school all of them. And we talk quite a bit after services. I like the new Stephanie much more than the old Stephanie. Whatever she has been through these last ten years it must have been tough. It’s taken a toll on her. I haven’t pried into her personal life. But she seems to be the model mother and Unitarian Universalist now. In a strange way I’m glad real life wacked her around a bit. Now she is imbued with a depth of character that I personally appreciate a lot more than the right out of college Stephanie.

It’s probably good that I am seeing people from my past. In particular both Tim and Tom are critical links to a past that seems increasingly distant. Yet both were essential characters in my story, and perhaps I am in their story as well.

Nervous Parents

The Thinker by Rodin

It can be tough being a parent of a 13-year-old daughter. It can be even tougher actually being a 13-year old girl in 2003. So far though I think we are doing okay as parents. As an only child my daughter Rosie has certain advantages, including a lot more parental attention than most kids get. She’s also got two parents who while we are involved in her life, neither of us are obsessed over her life. We try to give her as much freedom as we think appropriate for her age and maturity level. But it’s hard to know where the sliding bar of parental control should be set on a particular day. I find myself sliding it back and forth between wanting to have more control and wanting to be hands off and to trust to her. Sometimes I do it right, sometimes I mess up badly. Part of this parenting business is learning how to deal with my feelings when I screw up. Letting go is new to me too, and it doesn’t come easily, nor is it fun.

While we have it pretty good I’m not naive enough to think it will be smooth sailing through the teenage years. I can watch my daughter’s friends and cringe for their parents. One friend of Rosie’s up the street has tried to commit suicide. She reputedly swallowed most of a bottle of Tylenol. Stomach got pumped, kid was back on the street knocking on our door a day later. We were aghast. If Rosie had done this she would be seeing shrinks and she certainly wouldn’t be allowed out of the house except for school for a very, very long time. This is a sign of a major crisis, not something to be swept under the rug. Here is a girl out of control with perhaps too much freedom who really doesn’t want the freedom she has. But her parents and nonplussed by it all. Somehow I suspect she will try something similar again.

Another of her friends, a very bright and energetic gal, is also subject to violent mood swings, takes a fist full of antidepressants every day and regularly sees a shrink. We hear rumors of long fights with her mother, who is kind and caring. But it doesn’t seem to matter. This girl runs on emotion and mood swings. When in a bad mood words aren’t taken to heart. I guess it doesn’t help that her father appears to be a drunk and is unemployed. I can see this kid in therapy for most of her life, if she is smart enough to stay in therapy.

Both of these two charming young ladies are friends bound together by some sort of complex toxic relationship they can’t get out of. They have run away from home once together already. Fortunately they were found a couple miles away a few hours later. We watched one get felt up by a boy in the park across the street (Terri called her Mom right quick), and have heard rumors of the other hanging out with dangerous boys. Both girls seem to have this notion that if they find a guy who likes them they will love them and be happy. They don’t see that their real anger and struggle is with their parents, and that boys are a balm they think will solve the parental problem, or at least make it easier to deal with. It doesn’t take an abacus to see pregnancy and venereal diseases in their future. Fortunately Rosie is something of a stabilizing influence on both of them. They hang out at our house so often I think just to have a semblance of a normal life. Whatever they want they don’t seem to be getting it at home.

And yet all is not well with my daughter. She’s feeling her oats. Chat room conversations get minimized when we approach the computer. I find links to online dating services in our browser. She has lots of web mail accounts. It would be easy to ban her from the Internet and we certainly could monitor everything she does online. But there are costs to this obsessive parental nosiness too. It can feed resentment and rebellion and make it hard to be heard on other issues. And we can’t keep the real world away from her forever. We can, and do, spend a lot of time talking about the consequences of her choices. She has a good a sex education as I can give her. Not only did she hear it from us (we talk about the emotional consequences of intimate relationships), and from school, but she has taken the official Unitarian Universalist Church sex ed course too. Ignorance will not be an issue for her, but will she have the grounding and good sense to take things slow? It is hard to ignore the call of hormones. And I don’t think they have quite kicked in yet. I expect from 14-16 things will be much wilder.

In the end the choices she makes must be hers to make. She should not be monitored 24/7. Trust must be placed in her, even if the trust is tentative and not wholly earned. She must learn through experience too. All the education in the world will not teach her how to deal with her feelings when a boy expresses affection for her for the first time, or pushes her intimacy buttons. We think we laid a good groundwork for her during her childhood by being open, communicative, discussing hard issues. Hopefully her failures will be few and she will learn her lessons quickly and move on. But fail she must because it is only through failure that the complexities of the real world are fully understood and properly processed.

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