Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Brief Thoughts on Memorial Day

Congress designated May 30 as the official Memorial Day to honor the memory, originally, of the Civil War Dead. Eventually the idea expanded to honor living veterans as well as all dead. The day was changed to a Monday about 30 years ago so people could ignore the pain of war, particularly Viet Nam, by having a three day weekend to start the summer. And so retailers could market their products with sales.
I depart from my normal format to present a poem I wrote about my mother-in-law, a strong woman with, sadly, a broken soul. She died five years ago over Memorial Day weekend.

Please feel free to click on comments beneath each entry and share your thoughts. Or to petition to restore Memorial day at

The Casting Off, The Dying

(For the real Memorial Day, today)

The casting off, the dying
That begins at birth, she counts loss.
To start with, her childhood, standing

At wood stove at four to stir oatmeal
For too many brothers & too many sisters.
One brother missing in action in Korea,

Doubt like earwigs eating through her brain,
Waiting to hear, wondering.
& two brother’s heart attack much later.

Her father drowning in fluids of his lungs,
As he had drowned in alcohol
Life his heart couldn’t cope with.

Her sister, whose husband erased her mind
But kept her soul & body.
Her mother, whose mind fled first,

& soul, then body,
Which lay in the back of the car
While husband banged for fifteen minutes

On locked Emergency Room door
& she honked car horn
Hoping to wake anyone inside

Or her mother. & then older sister
Who suicided in millimeters
By injecting insulin to eat dessert,

Undertaker officiously waiting
Until everyone had gathered who
Was going to gather

To close the casket, & lock it
Guaranteed for fifty years to keep
Outsides out, insides in,

In full view with a Click,
A finality that turned her heart to prune
In contrast to her greatest loss,

Her only grandchild whose father, her son-in-law
Ordered him cremated after the accident
Of falling from roof onto pavement

Three stories hard below
Without seeing him & not really sure
He really died. Her heart was briefly sawdust

& that was the biggest
Casting off since three brother Lee
Whose appendix burst before the doctor.

Slow cutting off
Before casting off entirely
When husband had a stroke,

& amputation below the knee
& it didn’t heal & amputation above the knee.
& casting off entirely with casket closed

After visitation the night before the funeral.
& she didn’t see. But her heart
Was only a raisin then anyway.

& her breast. & modesty
For which she compensated
By wearing two shirts.

She sits filing fingernails,
Her best feature
After too many permanents

& too many castings off,
& inventories. Losses which
Begin at birth.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Retirement Lessons

When I retired from teaching, I knew that if I didn’t plan something productive, I’d turn not into a couch potato, but into the couch. I chose not to teach again, and I vowed never to grade another paper. I had taken adult ed classes in writing the short story at the University of Chicago (the most expensive adult ed around somehow), and Yvonne, my instructor, had earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts, not M-F-ing Articulate as my son and daughter seem to think) in Creative Writing from Vermont College.

An MFA in Creative Writing was the way to go, I thought. I explored a number of possibilities. Most programs required class attendance (imagine that!) and a two-year residence, to say nothing of the GRE. I didn’t want to move, even temporarily. I borrowed the GRE Prep book from the library and was immediately flummoxed by the math. Cardinal and Ordinal numbers. Hmmmmmm. I was retired, and had never needed to know the difference. I explored further. I found at that time three low-residency programs in the United States. I took a Personal Leave/ College Visit day from teaching to check out colleges in Vermont. I went partly as a model to my students, but mostly because I wanted to know what I was getting into.

Goddard College welcomed me. I applied, and they accepted me. Two years later I had my MFA in hand and a novel manuscript mostly completed on my computer. Since then I have written two more novels, started a fourth, and traveled a lot.

Every week day that I am at home I go to my office and write. I try to be there between nine and noon, but now we have two gorgeous dogs, Stella and Brando. I take them to the dog park and don’t get back until later. So I work most days from 9:30 till after 12. I still get my time in. Some days I revise. Some days I write and revise. I aim for 500 words a day and usually do better.

All that is well and good, probably too self-referential, but possibly an object lesson for those who plan to retire. Potential retirees must plan beyond the day of retirement for the life they hope to lead. That includes financial planning, but isn’t merely that. My in-laws did great financial planning, lived well below their means, and moved back to the little town they grew up in to be close to family. My mother-in-law was one of fifteen and she missed her siblings. They shrank in that little Southern Illinois town. By the time they died 25 years later, they had lots of family (too much family?) but no friends. My father-in-law read every book of interest to him in the local library – and some that weren’t too interesting. They expected everyone to have the flexibility they had and were surprised we couldn’t drop everything to visit them at their whim. A trip to Wal-Mart was a gigantic and exciting adventure – and about the biggest adventure they allowed themselves. I feel sad for them because they didn’t continue to grow.

When they retire, some people play golf. I don’t and can’t imagine the time and expense it takes. But most people don’t write, either. Lots of people move to retirement communities. We chose to stay where we are because our grandsons live nearby – it was hard for us to get grandchildren. We have friends close, and the thought of finding a new doctor, new dentist, new insurance agent, new friends, was daunting. A symptom, no doubt, of our insularity, our own shrinking.

A colleague who retired from teaching when I did substitute taught frequently her first year out, then went back to the school she retired from and started a computer math tutoring program. Each day, she says, it gets harder. Her husband, who is also retired, goes to the gym each morning for about an hour and then, I suspect, negates his workout during the rest of the day. They are active socially, make friends easily and meet them often for coffee or shopping or a walk. They go to movies and out for dinner. And it seems to me the only reason she continues to work is that she can’t think of much else to do and she doesn’t want to spend the day in the house with her husband. She married him for better or for worse, but not, as the saying goes, for lunch.

On the other hand, a friend who retired several years before I did is leading an exciting and glamorous life. Her partner travels all over the world on business. My friend goes along for the ride, meets new and interesting people, continues to grow, and is one of my all-time role models. She had plans for her life when she retired. The plans didn’t work out exactly the way she expected, but most plans don’t.

And whether our plans work out or not is immaterial. The point is to have a plan, to set a goal. Life, according to the trite adage, is not about the destination but the journey. We all meet the same fate, although not in the same way. But the trip we take getting there is what’s important. We can travel with grace and interest, or we can shut ourselves up in little boxes, never to emerge.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Blessed with Love

I have been blessed with love. My wife of 40 years, Ann. David and Jonathan, our grandsons, and their father Tim. Shannon and Derek, who chose me their dad. Bill, Shannon’s boyfriend, and his son C.P., who were close even before Bill and Shannon became involved. My cousin (third cousin on her mother’s side, just ask) Rochelle. Sandra, my late son’s girlfriend. My chosen sister Laurie in California. None of these people is a blood relation, but all are family. Family chosen by love.

Both my parents have died (or passed, passed on, beyond, over, whatever; the number of euphemisms for death is as big as the number for sex).

The big loss in my life, however, is my son Daniel who died in January of 1993. After Daniel’s death in an accident, we never saw him, never embraced him. We had his body cremated and kept the ashes (I loathe the word cremains, and spell check doesn’t even recognize it) for several years until we buried them with my father-in-law.

We have kept in close touch with Sandra, Daniel’s girlfriend when he died. At the time of Daniel’s death I was worried that she might be pregnant. Then I was sorry she wasn’t. But she has a new love, Mark, and we are happy for her because she’s happy and he’s a great guy.

We work to keep Daniel’s memory alive. We did not turn his room into a shrine. In fact, it was too painful to stay in the home where we lived together, and we moved from there. Both Ann and I kept a shirt in a plastic bag so we can smell him on them occasionally, probably pretty morbid and unhealthy, but everyone grieves differently and no one does it wrong. The boots he wore on a service trip to Appalachia we sent back with David to bury when he took the same service trip. Daniel’s friend Nick buried his high school ID on Mt. Olympus, much to our surprise because we didn’t know Nick had the ID.

When he died, Daniel was a fine arts photography student at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY, home of Kodak. He produced hundreds of photographs in his year and a half there. These photos show him in self portrait, show his friends, show Rochester landmarks, show even the dog we owned at the time. And we have photos that we and his friends took of him. All of them reveal Daniel in some way.

We also have audio and video tapes of Daniel doing things nineteen-year-olds did in the late 80’s and early 90’s: in his band, on his skateboard, at a New Year’s Eve party a week before he died. Things like that.

But technology is outpacing us. Photographs fade. We no longer own a VCR. The audio tape player is over 20 years old and beginning to tire. The tapes become fainter and more distorted. If the player eats a tape, we’ll be out of luck, never able to hear our son again. We’re working on transferring the tapes to another medium, perhaps CD’s and DVD’s. Then in a few years we will have them transferred again, and eventually yet again, no doubt, as technology advances. With each generation they will become less accurate, and we will be less directly connected to Daniel. Not that the tapes we have are anything but a feeble representation of him now, albeit a representation that is better than nothing.

Yet it occurs to me that the fading tapes and the advancing technology are perhaps not a bad thing. Their loss is painful, certainly, but less sharp than fourteen – or ten or four – years ago. We have tried not to turn our son into a saint (and failed, no doubt; read on), because we know the only place Daniel can truly live is in the hearts of the people who knew and loved him. Every contact with another person influences us in some way, no matter how miniscule. And Daniel influenced a lot of people. A couple of his friends finished their educations because he would have wanted them to. Some are kinder people, because he was kind and they want to honor him. No doubt some are ornerier because he could be pretty ornery when he wanted to be.

We have family of all ages, genders, and races. They do not replace Daniel – nothing can ever do that. And they do not dilute our love for him. They enhance it. Our capacity to love these people stems directly from Daniel. From his capacity to love us and us to love him.

The photographs will fade. The tapes will disintegrate. But his legacy continues.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


I am a man, an American, a husband, an erstwhile father, a senior citizen, a voter, a Christian, an Episcopalian, a homeowner, a writer, a some-time curmudgeon, a dog and cat owner, an Element driver, a liberal, a member of the middle class, a retiree. And a whole lot of other things, including occasional jerk.

At home it doesn’t matter too much how I act as long as I don’t hurt myself or anyone else – that is, Ann, my wife of 40 years. In public, however, people frequently perceive me – and everyone else they meet – as representative of a whole class of people. This is technically synecdoche (sin-ECK-da-key), a term that means the use of a part of something to represent the whole thing, as in “wheels” for the whole car, or “pad” for an entire home.

Unfortunately, we too often apply synecdoche to people. For example, in the 1988 presidential race against Michael Dukakis, George H.W. Bush’s campaign used the image of Willie Horton. Horton was a prisoner on weekend furlough who raped and robbed a woman when Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. Horton came to represent Dukakis’ “soft on crime” stance, and even more largely, the threat of African-Americans against the mainstream community. I understand that this example reveals me, too: What most other people think of as history, I still regard as current events.

In another example, a friend who is a devout Episcopalian refuses to have any Christian symbols on her car because, she says, if she makes a driving error, people will think she represents the way all Christians drive. And I can relate to this. I am often irritated by other drivers, and if they have a bumper sticker about the Rapture and the car being “unmanned,” I attribute their ineptness to other-worldliness.

Last night, when I was on the way to pick up a friend for dinner, I saw a woman on a cell phone had stopped about two car lengths from a viaduct, effectively creating a traffic jam for a mile behind her. I felt lucky to be traveling in the other direction on the two-lane road. A lesser person could well have attributed the gridlock to women drivers. I just muttered about stupid people in general and merrily drove on. I gave her enough grace to assume she was calling the cops or a tow truck – instead of chatting to a friend about her day and the rude people honking behind her.

One priest who abuses altar boys seems to create suspicion of all priests. One inept teacher often casts doubt on the competence of the whole profession.

Teenagers seem to bear the biggest brunt of emotional synecdoche. Many people fear teens, especially teenage boys. “They travel in groups and use jargon we don’t understand.” And things or people we don’t understand are the ones we fear most. A thousand teens volunteering in hospitals or tutoring grade school children somehow don’t make up for one teen who shoots another person – and gets all the publicity.

What to do, what to do? We can only be more conscious, more mindful, live thoughtfully in the moment. That means not judging all members of a group on the behavior of one. Teens, for example, are usually great people – and they grow up. It also means giving grace to people who fall. And all of us do that on a pretty regular basis.

Giving grace to others is not the end of it, however. We cannot behave as if we are always being watched and judged, even though we probably are. We must live with integrity. We must be our true selves, perhaps our best selves. We must give mercy to ourselves when we - frequently - fall short.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Comfort Rituals

Every child is born with congenital traits: the urge to suckle, a fear of falling, a reflexive smile, in addition to many others. I think another, often-missed trait in humans is a desperate need for ritual. Ritual is comforting.

We practice rituals in every aspect of our lives. Some rituals are based on superstition, like actors who wear their lucky cuff links whenever they appear on stage or people who perform bedtime rituals so they can sleep. Most obvious rituals appear in religion, of course. Weddings, whether they involve jumping over a broom or reciting elaborate vows are a form of joyous and comforting ritual.

Death, even from ancient times, has involved ritual. Some cultures built a pyre on a ship and sent the flaming vessel off into the ocean. Others chose to mummify their dead so they would be “whole” when they greeted the gods in their afterlives. Today, in what some have called a post-Christian society, we still use rituals of comfort in times of death.

When Princess Diana died several years ago, many Brits expressed their grief by leaving offerings of flowers, notes, stuffed animals, and other gifts outside Buckingham Palace. Eventually the offerings covered a huge space almost three feet deep.

When my son died in an accident, I met a woman who told me she wished she had known about his death because she would have left flowers at the site. In America today when a child is killed in whatever unthinkable manner, friends write notes and post them on his or her locker at school, leave flowers and other offerings at the site of the death, light candles in front of his or her home.

Not to negate these good wishes, but this ritual puts people at arm’s length from the event. Perhaps parents are comforted by the ritual of candles, notes, and flowers. At some point, however, most shrines must give way to continuing life. My son died a thousand miles from our home. If anyone put flowers out for him, I did not know, would not have known, was not comforted. The outpouring of love from friends and family comforted me. And I found enormous comfort in religious ritual.

In contemporary America, despite constant religious posing, the Bush administration seems to me to encourage the creation of random rituals – and abandon well-established, comforting ones. We are denied any public opportunity to mourn those who give their lives for our country. They remain numbers, except to the people who knew them. One hundred four American soldiers were killed last month in Iraq. Unless they were from your hometown, unless you are related to them, unless you were their friends, unless you attended their funerals, they remain statistics, seldom with a name attached.

On occasion, (probably on Memorial Day at the end of this month) newspapers and television stations will print the names and show the faces of those who have died in the past year or since the beginning of the conflict in Iraq. Doonesbury may list their names. The patriotic troops who lost their lives become real at that point. Real but ephemeral. And without significant ritual because for too many people Memorial Day is merely a long weekend holiday filled with end-of-spring sales, a different kind of comfort ritual.

During the Viet Nam conflict television news programs showed the flag-draped coffins of the military dead being returned to American soil. The Bush administration decided that such images are a public relations nightmare. The pictures would diminish support for the invasion – and the president. Consequently, the administration has forbidden the airing or printing of such pictures.

For most of us, the conflict in Iraq is real – but un-real. We can watch the news every evening and see bombings, attacks, troops. We can see visiting dignitaries march through Baghdad in their flack jackets. We can almost taste the chaos and fear of the Iraqis. And watching the news is a ritual; indeed, a comforting ritual in itself for some.

What we don’t see, however, is those who have given their lives in this conflict. We don’t see the overwhelming dignity or the comforting ritual surrounding the return of a deceased soldier. We don’t see a coffin covered in its pall of American Flag. We don’t see an honor guard unloading it from an airplane. We are denied this important ritual. We are denied this comfort.