Sunday, November 1, 2009

Candlesticks

After, figuratively, almost struggling to my demise making the grandfather clock case, I decided to take a woodworking interlude and work on my wood turning skills. I found a plan for a 7" candlestick on the Internet, glued-up some scrap oak and short 3/4" thick exotic wood boards I had in the shop and had at it. To the right are my my first two attempts.

The one dyed red is oak and is close to an accurate representation of the plan I purchased. I found it a little too ornate for my taste, so I freelanced a design for my second attempt.

The thing I like about wood is that it's forgiving. Attempt number two is a case in point. I was working on a flared top with an undercut on the bottom-side. Pretty ambitious and the wood let me know so. A big hunk of the top broke off and went flying across the room. So, I tapered instead of flared.

It looks OK anyway.

When I was buffing that piece for the final finish, the buffing wheel grabbed it out of my hands and shot it across the room. But, wood is forgiving and resilient. It survived pretty much undamaged. A little extra buffing healed the landing injury.

When I mentioned that I was turning candlesticks to my favorite oldest daughter, she said "Oh, I'd like a pair." Groan. It's one thing to make one of a kind, and entirely another thing to make two that look alike. I tried anyway. Here's the result.


Having done that, I was free to freelance a little. I tried another pair, but they're more like siblings than twins. Here they are along with an attempt inspired by a hand-made glass candlestick my daughter owns.


After the ornate one, I left the Baroque period (probably for good) and just played around with shapes. That was the most fun. It felt like I was sculpting the wood.


The middle one above was another gift from the woodworking gods. The top was originally the bottom before I tore a big hunk out of it with a catch. This one also survived the buffing wheel throw.

What's next on the woodworking front? Don't know. But for now, here's the candlestick line-up in evolutionary order.





Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Late Middle-Aged -- Earth and Me

So the Earth will die. It makes me sad -- like losing a good friend. Earth’s been good to me. Of course I may not be here for the memorial service – it looks to be a billion years out. As the sun brightens, average temperature will go up to 158 degrees, the oceans will evaporate and only a few microbes and bacteria will survive. It gets worse. Earth will then heat up to 842 degrees, wiping out all life on its way to melting. Ultimately, about five billion years from now, the sun will burn out – Earth exit stage left, curtain. So say Iain Stewart and John Lynch in “Earth The Biography” (page 224).

As far as a place to live, Earth is in its late middle age. Life began shortly after Earth was born about 4.5 billion years ago. So from a habitable perspective, translating into an 80-year human lifespan, the planet would be about 65 – just a little older than me.

But humans haven’t been around all that long. The authors cite three ways to put human existence into perspective (page 51). First, they reference Stephen Jay Gould’s translation of Earth’s history into a 24-hour day. Dinosaurs show up after 11:00 PM and are gone in 20 minutes. Modern humans show up two seconds before mid-night with civilization showing up in the last tenth of a second of the day. Second, they refer to John McPhee using the analogy of an old English yard – from the King’s nose to tip of the middle finger of his out-stretched hand. Human history is wiped out by one stroke of a nail file. Finally, Mark Twain, less mathematically precisely, equated man’s existence as the “skin of the paint on the pinnacle knob” of the Eiffel Tower and commented that “anyone would see that that skin is what the tower was built for.”

Obviously, the Tower wasn’t built for the skin of the paint and the Earth wasn’t made for human kind. But we act that way. We may not be able to avoid the sun brightening in a billion years, but let’s not do anything to accelerate the process, thank you.

Being a late middle-ager myself, I identify with the good old Planet Earth. I know that if I’m not careful, I won’t make it to the end of my optimal life span. Unlike me though, Earth will make it, somehow, to the end. Earth will be here, in some form, when the switch is flipped and sunlight goes off. Life forms will not be so lucky.

So, “Save the Earth” seems to be the wrong motto. I think it should be “Keep Earth Habitable.” Only by paying attention to and mitigating human impact on the atmosphere and the complex interactions of systems that affect it will we be able to take full advantage of the next billion years.

So, here’s to another five hours on the clock. Here’s to a foot-long fingernail. Here’s to some really thick paint. Here’s to a full life and a ripe old age – for me and for my good buddy Planet Earth.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Name Calling

Most of public discourse these days is conducted through labeling and name-calling. If you don’t agree with someone, just call them a name – socialist, right-wing nut, extremist, communist – and on.

It reminds me of when I was a kid. My brother and I found it too tedious use full words in the escalating war of name calling, so we resorted to initials. Of course, we had to have periodic rational discourse to negotiate the meaning of any initials added to the alphabet soup. Otherwise, the insult just wouldn’t have the intended punch.

The core insult got up to 14 letters something like: XXXXXXXSPCCRFX. The six letters before the last X stood for “spoiled privileged character crummy rat fink." The X'ed-out letters reflected our ignorance as children. I still remember them, as I’m sure my brother does, but I won’t repeat them. I now know better.

When I was in college, I was taught to have an open mind, to consider other perspectives on issues, to be tolerant of other viewpoints. If that’s still taught, we’re not learning it.

Why? Beyond making fame and fortune for the few, what’s the instrumentality for the perpetuation of society and civilization in staking out provocative and polarizing positions? Have we all forgotten how to think and talk to each other?

The debate over national health care continues. There are five bills in congress and the white house is poised to stake out a position this week. As an HR professional, I’ve been watching and dealing with escalating health-care premiums, cost shifting and employer medical plan benefit design for over 25 years. I’ve been listening to the debate and watching things get worse. In the 80’s there were 30 million uninsured now there are 47 million. Known in-efficiencies have not been addressed. People get locked into jobs they don’t want or can’t do because they can’t lose medical coverage. It really needs to be fixed. The problem is someone’s ox gets gored in the fixing process. But in the long run, our collective ox is gored by continuation of the status quo.

I don’t know what the solution is. In the 90’s I asked a Wharton professor who specialized in employer-provided benefit plans, “How should a private employer best position itself in the turbulent environment for employer-provided medical insurance.” His answer was, “I don’t know, and if I don’t know, nobody knows.” I think that’s still true.

So, let’s stop the name calling, let’s grow up, open our minds, have civil discourse and solve the problem without fatally goring anyone’s ox. Let’s take the long view and do what’s best for those who come after us. Not just for healthcare but for life, community and civilization. It’s a lot more productive than thinking up new insulting names or initials.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fading Memory

For some reason, my mom can’t view my blog. When she clicks on the link, she gets an “illegal operation” error of some sort. When she finally can get on and read this, I know it will be OK – she has a sense of humor – as does my wife, who, I think, is the punch-line of this story.

My wife and daughter recently made a trip to visit my mom. I had to work, so I couldn’t join them. As I was getting ready for bed that night, I asked my wife, “How was mom?”

“I’m worried,” she said. “She told me the same exact story within ten minutes.”

“Oh,” I said. “What was the story about?”

“I don’t remember,” she said.

We both got one of those too-rare belly laughs from the irony of this exchange. We could all use more. Life is pretty absurd, after all.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Not Worrying But Flourshing


“What worries you, masters you.” John Locke

What’s been mastering me over the last three months is building that darn grandfather clock. It was, as we used to say in the orchestra, “an octave above my salary” (or at least an octave above my skill level!). So, I worried it to completion:

• Are my measurements within 1/32 of an inch?
• Will the pieces go together?
• How will I get the glass made and installed?
• Will the door fit the opening?
• Crap, the door stiles are bowed,what’s going to happen when I install glass?
• Will the clock movement fit?
• If it fits will it run and actually tell time?

Just a small sample, but you get the picture.

There must be some instrumentality in worry, given its breadth of practice. I think it serves us best when it spurs us to take action and address a problem. It serves us badly when it turns into irrational rumination.

“Will the pieces, go together? This is really sloppy, amateurish work. It would be an awful waste to put and expensive clock mechanism in such a shabby case. What if it doesn’t even fit? What if it doesn’t work? What an awful excuse of a human being, I am. Why did I even try to do this...and on….”

Positive Psychology gives us tools to head off rumination before it starts. Positive Psychology is not positive thinking. It’s a new discipline that’s been around for about 10 years. Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with someone and fixing that, as prior psychological practice did, positive psychology focuses on helping humans flourish.

For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a specific tool from positive psychology to stop rumination and unproductive worrying. It teaches you to stop a negative stream of thought and consciously examine it for fit with reality. If the clock didn’t work, would that by itself really mean I was bad human being? Not really (but I’d probably still feel like one).

Stopping negative thought is important because negative thoughts lead to negative emotions which are twice as powerful as positive emotions. And to flourish, you need to experience positive emotion in the ratio of at least three to one. I learned this from Barbara Fredrickson’s Book, Positivity: http://www.positivityratio.com/index.php.

In her book and website, Fredrickson offers tools and practices to improve one's positive ratio to the three to one level (most people are two to one or lower) and, thereby, flourish.

Bad stuff happens. Bad stuff is real. Practing Fredrickson’s methods, is like making emotional bank deposits, so that one is equipped and resilient when faced with adversity.

While there’s nothing bad going on for me right now, I’m hoping that making these deposits will help me flourish and become a little bit better human being. At least, I’m hoping that I won’t ruminate and fixate on my next grandfather clock-like project (which turned out OK, after all).



Friday, July 31, 2009

Illusory Control

We humans think we can control things – we think we’re in charge. It probably goes back to about 12,000 years ago when we began to settle down, domesticate animals and grow our own food. But 12,000 years is not much of a track record for running things on a 4.6 billion year old planet with living organism going back 3 billion years. In that kind of a timeframe, we’re just a blip on the screen. So while we think we’re in charge now, we aren’t. It’s just illusory control.

That control is illusory is all too clear with the economic mess we’re living through. A lot of smart people thought that they had economic theory and financial risk management all figured out. But financial institutions tumbled like decks of cards and the economy isn’t behaving according to plan.

Mutual fund companies routinely disclose that “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” As Blanche used to say on The Bickersons, “You say it, but you don’t mean it.” Analyst foist prolific investment advice, all “back-tested” with how it would have turned out if a prescient person had scrupulously followed the advice over prior decades. And although all advice ends with the ubiquitous disclaimer, they don’t mean it (the disclaimer, that is).

The reality is that we’re perpetually in uncharted territory – not just in finances but in life. We look to history as a guide to the future – as if the world were a totally predictable place. It isn’t.

By nature I’m a controller and a planner. Although I’ve mellowed with age, I still suffer from the illusion that I can control my future. But, I know that, in spite of my plans and actions, my health, my lifespan, my finances, my employment are all at the control of a multitude of other influences, factors and people.

The thing I’m trying to plan and control right now is my employment – a year from now. I’m filling a temporary role and don’t know what lies beyond. In the face of this uncertainty, I want to hold onto what I have with a death-grip. (Compared to how things could be in these times and at this stage of my life, it’s not much of a problem, but it’s all that I’ve got. I’m grateful for that!)

While admitting relative powerlessness sounds depressing, it really isn’t. We humans are extremely adaptable and opportunistic, too. And the world is a dynamic place with twists, turns, adventure and synchronicity. So, my advice to me is to embrace uncertainty. Like a trapeze artist, lose the death grip, let go of the swing, fly through the air, and go for the catch. If you miss, though, it’s no big deal -- just bounce in the net, climb the ladder and give it another go.

I say it, but I don’t mean it.

This employment uncertainty is a metaphor for me at this stage of my life – looking to transition into a post-employment world (whenever and whatever that will be) -- and all the uncertainty this part of life brings. I’ve written myself a two line mantra to help remember how to live through these days and, perhaps, for the rest of my life. It morphed into a poem:


Laugh and live life above the fray,
Savor the gift of each moment and day.
The past is prologue but not a script,
The future’s unwritten, adventure encrypt.

So, be curious, be grateful, stay fluid and wonder
Throw fear, care and worry aside and asunder
Laugh and live life above the fray,
Savor the gift of each moment and day
.


Who knows, maybe someday, I’ll both say it and mean it!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

First Encounters

In the Spring 2009 issue of American Heritage, Colin Galloway wrote about New York Native Americans first encounter with Europeans. In the article, he has a side-bar reprint of a section of John Gottlieb Ernest Heckwelder’s book, Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Had Inhabited Pennsylvania. The excerpt recounts the Native American story of encountering Henry Hudson and his ship. Heckwelder’s book was published in 1819, but, according the article, the account was written in 1760, so it’s pretty contemporary. You can download a digital copy of the book if you like:

http://www.archive.org/details/histmannerscust00heckrich

Heckwelder (or maybe Heckewelder), was a Moravian missionary who spent much of his life with Native American tribes. The thing that impresses about this account is how contemporary it sounds. We tend to think that modern humans are somehow more intelligent than our ancestors. But I’ve read that humans have had the same basic level of intelligence for the last 5,000 plus years.

When I read contemporaneous writing, whether it’s Tacitus talking about the viciousness of Germanic Tribes around AD 100, or an Indian Tribe account of the first encounter with Europeans in 1609, I can almost hear a present day conversation. To show you what I mean, here’s how I think the story in Heckwelder’s excerpt would read today.


*******


“What the heck is that thing swimming (or is it floating) way out there -- straight out on the horizon?”

“Beats me! Let’s get some others and see if they know what the heck it is.”

So they ran back to the village as fast as they could and got others to come back with them and figure out what it could be. Once everyone saw it, though, they couldn’t agree. Some thought it was an extremely large fish or other animal. Some thought it was a large floating house. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. “We need to sound the alarm and bring up all the warriors.”

The now larger group gathered and watched the mysterious object approach. As it got closer, all agreed it was a large canoe or house upon which the Supreme Being, himself, was coming for a visit.

By this time the leaders of the different tribes were assembled, deliberating on how to receive the Supreme Being on his arrival. Plenty of meat was prepared, idols and images were inspected and put in good order and a grand dance was planned to entertain and, just in case he was angry, appease the Great Spirit.

The forecasters were also hard at work trying to figure out what this visit meant and what would come of it. Everyone, including the leaders, was looking to these wise folks -- both for advice and for protection.

Between hope, fear and confusion, the dance began. Fresh runners arrived confirming that it was a floating house and crowded with living creatures. It was now certain that the Supreme Being was bringing some kind of never-before-seen game to them. But wait! The second group of runners confirmed it’s a large house, all right, but not full of game. It’s full of funny colored people with a strange sense of fashion! One in particular looks totally red! This one must be the Supreme Being, himself.

The funny colored people, soon started yelling from the floating house, but no one could understand what they were saying. People got scared and ran for the woods, but the leaders got everyone back. No use offending the Supreme Being. “If he gets angry, he’ll just destroy us.”

Finally the floating house stopped and a small canoe came ashore with the red man and some others in it. The leaders had made a large circle into which the red man and two other entered.

The read man greeted the leaders in a friendly way and the leaders returned the gesture. The group was awed by the color of his skin and dress. “He must be the Great Sprit,” they thought, “but why is his skin so white?” “What does he want?”

At that moment one of his servants brought out a large gourd, poured a small glass of something and gave it to the Great Sprit. He drank it and had another glass poured. The Great Sprit then handed the glass to one of the leaders who smelled it and passed it around to the other leaders who all did that same. No one dared taste it!

Just as it was about to be returned to the Great Sprit, a brave member of the crowd jumped forward. “You idiots!” he says. “You’re supposed to drink it! If you don’t you may anger the Great Spirit and he’ll wipe us all out!”

“I may die, but I’ll drink it to save the rest of you.” He then took the glass, and saying his farewell to all, drank all of it. Every eye watched as he began to stagger and then drop to the ground. There he lay – very still. But, in a moment he was back up and declaring the stuff pretty darn good. In fact he said he never felt better! “I wonder if the Great Spirit would share a little more,” he says. The Great Spirit does. The whole assembly partakes and gets wasted.


******


Everyone knows how this turned out. Four hundred years later, a native population of 20 million is gone, along with a richness of cultures, stories, religious beliefs and knowledge. We have only fragments left.

Much of this loss was unintentional – the result of the susceptibility of Native Americans to European diseases. But much was intentional – concerted efforts to exterminate beliefs, culture and race. What a loss. And, in hindsight, incredibly ignorant.

Hindsight is the operative word, though. It’s always clearer looking back. The question for us is, what ignorant things are we now doing that our successors will find as incredulous as we find the extermination of such a rich vein of human experience. Time will tell.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Diesels and Tranquiltiy

“…I went out and ran the excavator with lights until the sun came up. To me, and I suspect no one else on earth, there is something wonderful about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the background, the tranquility that comes with being in a virtual wilderness of trees and marsh, the day breaking and vibrant pink coming alive in the morning clouds — and getting to build something with each scoop of dirt.”

This is part of an e-mail from Mark Sanford, the governor South Carolina, to his mistress. I find it interesting for several reasons.

First, why am I reading this personal communication and why does it surprise me that these Greek tragedies keep unfolding? Between Governor Mark Sanford, Senator John Ensign, Former Governor Elliot Spitzer and Quarterback Steve McNair, for example, marital infidelity, hypocrisy and disastrous outcomes among the politically powerful or famous are not exactly uncommon.

One answer to why I pay attention is cited in Eduardo Porter’s editorial in the July 3rd New York Times. It surprised me that a recent Gallup poll of adults reported 92% finds affairs morally wrong. Even more surprising was that the approval rating for adultery has not been greater than 9% over the last decade. These statistics just don’t seem to jive with behavior we read and hear about every day. I guess we think more conservatively than we act.

The jarring thing, though, from this distasteful venture in voyeurism, is not the affair and its consequences. That’s all too predictable and common. The jarring thing is the email excerpt quoted above. Just how disconnected from the natural world can we get, if we need an air conditioned cocoon, country music and the roar of a “huge diesel engine” to appreciate tranquility? The planet is doomed!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Building a Grandfather Clock


Sometimes, I’m not musing at all, just doing. When I tackle a project, it just won’t let me go until it gets to some stage of completion. With my woodworking projects that’s usually about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning after some marathon attempt. The latest example is my tall case (grandfather ) clock. It didn’t keep me up until 2:00 AM, but it did almost suck up my entire week of vacation.

Like Seinfeld says about his parents moving to Florida after retirement, “They didn’t want to do it, but it was the law,” I think it’s the law that old farts build grandfather clocks. Every picture I found of a home-built clock had a beaming old fart standing beside it. So, about mid-Spring I ordered the plans for the Harland clock from Klockit and held on for the ride.

The plans were complex. The required skill level for the project was well above mine. I don’t know how many hours I spent just trying to understand the drawings. Somehow, though I muddled through, with a little strategic help from my plan-reading wife and the extra hands and brain of my son-in-law. I made a lot of mistakes in making the case. I recovered from most of them and learned a lot from the project which I’ll apply to the grandfather clock I build next … well…never.

It’s not done yet. I still have finishing and installation to do. But the case is built, and I can see that it’s going to work. So, I’m out of the grip of obsession. Until the next project, anyway.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Confabulation, Meaning and My Limbic Brain

Sometimes I wonder why I feel less driven to achieve at this stage of my life than I was when I was younger. Achievements just don’t seem to be as important. I’m relieved to read that this is normal. More than one author talks about the first half of life being about achievement while the second half of life (if you can call 58 a half-way point) being about addressing meaning.

As to meaning, I read an interesting perspective on this in the August 13, 2008 issue of Positive Psychology News Daily (http://pos-psych.com/) written by George Vaillant. He talks about our limbic brains. Maybe you know what this means, but I had to look it up.

Our limbic brain is the primitive, reptilian part of the brain resting on top of the brain stem. It even looks like a reptile (or, better, a salamander) from the side view. It controls our emotions and our flight or fight response. Vaillant’s proposition is that meaning comes from this part of our brain, not the cognitive part. He says that most think that meaning comes from having purpose, values, efficacy (a belief you can make a difference) and self-worth. But, he also says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Meaning really comes from positive emotions – love, compassion, hope, awe, gratitude, trust and joy.

This is consistent with the analogy Jonathan Haidt uses in The Happiness Hypothesis. He says that our conscious minds are like the rider on an elephant. The elephant (our unconscious) makes all the decisions while the rider acts as the elephant’s attorney to confabulate conscious reasons for what the elephant does.

Kathryn Britton reported an illuminating perspective on this in the January 30, 2008 issue of Positive Psychology News Daily. Britton summarized Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi’s talk on the evolution of the mind:

· 2 million years BCE: Learning, liberation from genetically determined behavior
· 1 MY BCE: Shared experience, knowledge mediated by tools, memes shaping behavior, liberation from limitations of our own experience
· 50,000 BCE: Language, expanded transmission of memes, liberation from terror of death
· 10,000 BCE: Urban revolution, information shared across occupations and ethnic cultures, liberation from tribal determinism, start of individuality
· 5000 BCE: Encoded information, memes codified in writing, proto-science, liberation from limits of memory, start of idea of progress
· 1400 BCE: Appearance of great religions all over the world, bridges to supreme power, start of belief in human primacy
· 1900 CE: Apogee of belief in human primacy, liberation from restraints leading to sense of hubris and entitlement
· 1900-2000 CE: Two senseless world wars, irrational ideologies, liberation from self-serving illusions of superiority leading to nihilism and despair.

(I also had to look up “memes.” According to Dictionary.com, a meme is “a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”)

The point of all of this for me is to, first, trust my limbic brain more and my cognition less. Second it’s to cultivate positive emotions as a pathway to meaning versus, reasoning my way there. As Valliant says, “The essence of finding meaning is not to think more (or less) of ourselves but to think of ourselves less.” I’ll try not to think about that.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Our Town Momments

Most of the time, I’m oblivious to the magic moments of life. But every once and awhile, however briefly, I come to and appreciate the beauty of a moment. Rarely, I try to capture the moment. I think of them as “Our Town” moments – analogous to Emily’s experience in the Thornton Wilder play when she’s given the opportunity return from death to visit and really see the beauty and love packed into what just seems like an ordinary day.


*******


Written: September 9, 2000


At the football game last night, I realized this was Sarah’s first high school marching band experience. I don’t know why, but I got all choked up. Marcia asked me a question that, had I tried to do more than grunt an answer, I would have ended up blubbering. I don’t know why it affected me this way. Perhaps it’s because my little girl’s growing up. Or maybe it’s just the beauty of ordinary things like playing in a band at a football game. At the time you don’t realize how precious these moments are. I certainly didn’t realize it when it was me on the field. What’s happening now that’s just as precious and just as unnoticed? Whatever. All I know is my emotions were trying to tell me something important.


*******


Written: April 11, 2003


Sarah and Marcia went to Myrtle Beach for a band and chorus contest last week. Howard High bands and choruses came in 1st place in about every category. When I went to pick them up, I got choked up. Why?

It just seemed like one of those magical moments Thornton Wilder talks about in “Our Town.” An ordinary moment so beautiful you can’t stand it. The return of the conquering heroes -- oblivious to how proud they’ve made the hometown folks.

I also realized that I was the one on the bus 35 years ago. My parents and grandparents were the proud hometown folks and I was the oblivious one. Except for my mom, the hometown folks are gone. How sad we don’t appreciate these extraordinary ordinary moments.

Sarah, I’m so proud of you. You take your talent for granted and don’t realize how special you are. I hope I find the right moment to tell you this soon. A moment when you’re not oblivious, as I was. And a moment while I’m still here.


******


Written: May 30, 2003


Here I am in West Lebanon, New Hampshire sitting in Emily’s new apartment.

The move-in is tomorrow at 10:00. After packing the truck with two hired guns (high school boys friends of Sarah) last night, I left for the 500-mile trek at 6:00 A.M. this morning. I made good time and everything went well until I tried to park the car at Emily’s house. I dinged her (my) Stratus with the truck and busted out the taillight. Oh well, it could have been a lot worse. I’m just thankful that, my truck, my load and I made it up here with no major incidents or speeding tickets.

It may be a stretch, but there’s a rough parallel with my own graduation. My Grandfather Brown got into a fender bender trying to turn onto Green Street after my graduation. I wasn’t even around, but I felt guilty for “causing” it by graduating. I’m sure that thought never even occurred to Granddad Brown

The toughest part of the move was earlier though -- packing up Emily’s childhood. I had no idea she saved so much stuff. The treasures she saved brought back a flood of memories. For example, the fish stick. I had no idea she had saved it. It was a stick I carved when we camped out at Greentop with the Indian Princesses. Emily must have been six or seven. The stick ended up looking like an eel. Emily had painted it bright colors like a totem.

Besides the fish stick, there were special rocks, the plastic Halloween pumpkin (used to collect candy), stuffed animals, dolls, the heart shaped candle I brought back from California (with Sarah’s one-year-old teeth marks in it – she thought it was food), and books – tons of books.

The sad part is her childhood is gone forever. And so is mine. It seems only a short while ago that I was packing up my own childhood to move into an apartment with my brother, Dennis. I’m sad for the end of Emily’s beautiful childhood, of the passing of her little girl laughter and of my fleeting memories of it all. I’m sad for the accelerating passing of time. And I’m worried about Emily starting out in the world without her training wheels (but we’re still holding the back of the bike even if she doesn’t know it). I pray above all she will be happy.

The sadness will be there, but it won’t take center stage in the coming week. Tomorrow should be a blast unloading the truck with Emily and her friends and setting up her apartment with a truckload of furniture. And then, graduation next week. It’s family time, and time to be proud of Emily. She’s turned out to be a beautiful human being. What a joy for Marcia and me. Who could ask for anything more.


******


Written: June 9, 2004


There are times that I can’t talk. There are times that I get so overcome that I can’t say what I want to say without breaking up. So, I just don’t say it. What sets me off and what is this trying to tell me? Somewhere there’s a clue in these emotional triggers.

This happened to me twice recently. Last week I was talking to Emily about her visit to Grafton Vermont to the school where she will be teaching first grade. She talked about meeting the kindergarten class who will be her 1st grade class next year. She spoke of seeing her classroom for the first time. Most important she expressed her sense of awe in the realization that she has job and will really be teaching next year. I think the last part hit is what hit a nerve. It’s part pride in Emily that she’s got a great start in life. And I think it’s part remembering the experience of another 23-year-old -- me.

Talking about awe, 30 years later I’m still amazed that I got the BSO job. It was an incredible feat for an underdog to win a blind audition against experienced players. I guess Emily’s start brings back those memories and makes me realize just how special and life changing that time was.

Sunday, I was talking to my cousin, Tim Brown, at Uncle Earl’s viewing (he died last Friday at age 80). I related to him how Dad worshiped his big brother, Earl. This brought forth a flood of emotions. Simultaneously, I could hear my Dad’s voice telling me, when I was about five, how important it is for me to be a good big brother, to have my little brother look up to me.

I could hear my father tell his favorite uncle Early stories: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel. Warren, walk up to the store and buy me a package of cigarettes.” “Where do you want me to dig?” (Dad points with his foot, Earl shovels on the top of Dad’s foot resulting in a bloody foot soaking in a pail of water – Grandma Brown’s universal remedy.)

Most of all, I could feel what a good and simple man my Dad was, I could hear his laughter and I guess I missed him. Maybe this is a simplified and romanticized memory. But it tells me, I’m still mourning. All in all, I don’t think this makes me an unusually emotional person. And I don’t think these emotions are inappropriate. But it makes me realize that I do have them. And it’s not a bad thing.


*******


Written: May 28, 2007


We’re back from a visit north to hear a Sarah’s symphony concert and spend some time with Matt and Emily. It was a very nice weekend and a great thing to do a little more than a month prior to Matt and Emily’s wedding.

Related to the wedding, I feel I should try to capture some thoughts in a letter to Emily at this milestone in her and Marcia and my lives. But somehow, it doesn’t feel right. She’s had 26 years of me and I don’t think I could say anything except how proud we are of her and happy for her. Maybe that’s enough and worth writing. I’ll give that a try at some point prior to 7/7.

Thursday prior to the trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, I took a field trip to visit my company’s property in Monroe, NC. An interesting thing happened in the Charlotte airport. A group of young air force personnel returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq were on my flight. No one even noticed them at the BWI, the departing airport. But when we “deplaned” (boy, I hate that word) in Charlotte, it was a lot different.

I was in the last seat of the plane and they were right around me. As I left the plane and started walking down the terminal, I heard spontaneous applause break out. As we progressed toward the main terminal, it sounded like a quick moving spring shower following the small troop's progress. I couldn’t see them, but I knew where they were by the tracking applause.

How simple and how wonderful a display of appreciation. It takes me back to a, perhaps mythical, simpler time when people appreciated those who risked their lives on someone else’s behalf. It made me well-up. I don’t quite know why that got to me, but it did.


******


Other things like this move me:

• The graduating class at Dartmouth singing the school song, arms around each other’s shoulders and swinging side to side with the music
• The description of the spontaneous salute Lee’s troops gave him as he returned from surrendering to Grant.

There’s a common thread to explore here somewhere. Perhaps it’s simply the un-noticed, unappreciated and, sometimes, unbearable beauty and joy of the gift of life. Thornton Wilder got it right.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Slow is Good and Good is Fast

Written: March, 22 2005


Slow is good and good is fast.

The first time I heard this said, I had to stop and think. It’s a mind bender!

I was working with my glass-blowing partner, Robb, trying to make an incalmo piece for the first time. He brought me his side of the piece too hot. When I tried to join it to my side, his part sagged out of shape and made it impossible to get a seal. I heated the resulting mess several times and finally got a seal. (I think I primarily did this because Robb said it would be impossible.) The resulting piece was a mess.. I went on to put a foot on it, fold over the lip and spin it out. I learned a lot from it, but the most important lesson was after the piece was done.

Michael, a former sheet metal worker and amazing glass artist provided a little coaching. He relayed something someone had said to him in his prior profession. “Slow is good and good is fast.” By that he meant, if the piece is too hot, send it back and let it cool. If it's not the right shape or size, heat it up and tune it up. By being hasty, by rushing, by hurrying we make mistakes and lose time. That's more than a glass blowing lesson for me. My tendency is to try to do things fast. Too fast is half fast (if you get my drift).

Slow down, take the time, savor the moment. It reminds me of something Dr. Higgins, a music education professor used to encourage his students to do. “Waste paper,” he used to say. This was heresy after 12 years of public school teachers exhorting students to do just the opposite. But it made sense. The most important thing was the musical creation, not that it was done on a single sheet of paper.

Waste paper, waste time. Slow is good and good is fast. The dichotomy is that in slowing down, in wasting time you actually save it. You're fully present in the moment -- whether you're by yourself or with another. After all, what are we going to do with all the time we're saving, anyway?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Employability at 50

Written: September 17, 2000



Next week at this time I’ll hit the big 5-Oh. What does it mean? Really nothing. It’s just a number.

Having said that, I admit, I’ve spent a lot of time fretting over this “just a number” this year. Yesterday, I realized why. It’s not so much it’s meaningful to me, but that 50 (and beyond) has a connotation for others that affects me in the employment market. So, it’s not what I think about it, but what I think others think about it and how I think their thoughts can affect my employability.

Having said that, I have to realize that what others think is out of my control. My employability is affected by many things I can’t change -- height, race, sex, baldness -- and things I can change, but don’t want to -- my philosophy of treating people with dignity and respect and developing people in their jobs.

So, as long as I can find work in some capacity to meet the needs of my family, the age thing just doesn’t matter. 50, 60, 70 -- 90, 100 are just numbers. What matters is health, love, spirituality and intellectual curiosity. As long as you have these, you’re still living vigorously. Without any of them you’re dead regardless of the number of chronological miles on your odometer.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Patience

Written: November 4, 2003


A month or so ago, I forgot my headphones to plug into the TV monitors at the gym. It was interesting to watch the five monitors, each tuned to a different station, while I worked-out. The emptiness, and shallowness of program content was startling clear.

Most programming was simply advertisement. Even with 60 or so cable channels, there's no content worth its while. News channels are really just entertainment. The big story one morning on every news broadcast was Madonna giving a passionate lesbian kiss to Brittany Spears at some celebrity awards ceremony. Who cares! This is news?

The popular press, TV and radio are filled with sex (we'll I guess it's not all bad), formulaic quick fixes for every problem and blatant commercials. I know I sound like a really old fart, but it all seems pretty valueless. The popular culture is shallow and has no attention span.

Ten years or so ago, I used to go to the monthly men's breakfast at church to (even though I didn't know it at the time) soak up wisdom from the older guys. Mac Whittamore delivered one program that stuck with me. He talked about our impatient, instant, society. Instant coffee, instant breakfast...instant answers. That's what strikes me today. There's a (something less than 10-step) formula that offers a quick, simple solution for every complex problem under the sun.

I'm a product of my times. I lack patience and want instant results. Yet, in my saner moments, I know there are no short cuts, no quick fixes. In the long run, slow, patient tenacity produces durable results.

So, patience, Dan. Savor every day. A little less connection with mass media will help!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Irritants

Written: January 28, 2007


Irritants irritate. Right now it’s the plumbing system. We lost water pressure Saturday. It’s amazing how much that affects – heating, hot water, cleaning, bathing. It sure makes you appreciate the invisible convenience of good plumbing.

Oh well, I found a work around the problem (by bi-passing the water softening system where I think the problem is) and we’ve got a call into the plumber. Meanwhile, all I can do is to wait for things to be resolved.

Seems like there’s always something to worry about. Seems like there’s always something to fix. Seems like there’s always some complex problem. I guess that’s just life.

My illusion, is that there would be no plumbing problems, complex bureaucracies to deal with (medical insurance claims, building permit mazes, IRS, you name it). Life would just be a series of deep thoughts, relaxation and fun. That’s unrealistic, of course, yet there’s a part of it that isn’t.

Life is about encountering and solving problems. That’s the way it’s always been. The difference is today, the problems aren’t as life threatening as they were for our ancestors. Advances mean that we live longer and better than generations that came before. Our worries are typically, not a matter of survival, mostly, just inconvenience. For the most part, we deal with complexity and bureaucracy, not carnage and brutality. So, the false part of my illusion is there will be a time when there are no more irritants, no more trivial problems -- just peace, deep thoughts and joy.

But the true part of my illusion is that I can recognize irritants are inevitable. My insight is that I make them worse by failing to recognize this and by adding time pressure and by trying to resolve them as soon as possible – muscling them to resolution. There’s almost always more time to fix something than my mental model says there is.

So here’s the advice. Irritants happen. Give them time to fix themselves on their own schedule. Don’t rush your life. Meanwhile, don’t delay the peace, pondering and joy of daily life. It’s not when the irritants are gone that joy happens, but during all the irritants. It’s not sequential, but simultaneous. It’s not when – then, but right now. There is time.

Peace.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Life Stories

Written: January 31, 2001


I’ve been meaning to capture this observation for a while -- how we encumber ourselves with unnecessary stories. It came clear to me at the Clarity session I went to last November.

I was in a room with eight strangers for three-and-a-half days. The interviews didn’t start with “tell me about yourself.” I realize now that starting there just tees up all the well-rehearsed, justifications, rationalizations, explanations and excuses we make for ourselves to explain what is in many ways a random series of events leading up to today.

Instead, Michael, the seminar leader, just started with something like “I’m Santa Claus and can give you anything you want. If you could have anything you want, including all the money you need, what would you do.”

It cut through the crap. We didn’t dwell on the past or try to rationalize how we got to where we were. We took the self-imposed barriers off our dreams and looked at them freshly.

The ironic thing is, I probably got to know those folks faster and in more depth in a shorter time than I would have had we done the “personal history” bit. And they got to know me in that same way.

For me it’s freeing, knowing I don’t have to talk about my history, what I do for a living, how I got to where I am or any of that stuff. It’s nice to just be who I am in the moment. And it’s enough.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dad's Snowman

Written: 1/12/2007


Last Christmas, my nephew, Brian, pointed out a paper snowman hanging on the wall of my brother’s house. It was just a simple set of glued together circles that most of us probably made in kindergarten. The teacher would have cut out everything in advance, given the class instruction, and then (with a lot of adult supervision) let everyone at it to make their own customized creation.

Refrigerator art par excellence.

But this snowman was not built by a kindergartner; it was made by my father at age 74. At least we think it was.

At 74, Dad was pretty far along in his Alzheimer’s trip. He was getting up early (like 3:00 A.M., so he wouldn’t miss the bus), dressing himself (in two pairs of pants and two or three shirts) and spending the day in adult daycare. One day he came home with his shirt stuffed with paper snowmen. We don’t think he made them all. He just saw that they were available and took advantage of the situation.

Taking advantage of free stuff was in Dad’s nature and nourished by his job as a DC policeman. I don’t remember all the free stuff he brought home, but even though he was a teetotaler, we had bottles of hard liquor in the house. (And one time, a bottle under the front seat of the station wagon which inconveniently broke right before a church camping trip.)

So this paper snowman has value far beyond its function as a simple decoration for the season. It reminds us of Dad. It reminds us of his delight with bringing home free stuff to pass out. And it reminds us of his best moments – filled with humor, laughter and joy. So, we no longer have Dad, but his snowman lives on and with it our memories Dad and of times gone by.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Forgiveness

Written: June 14, 2004


Forgiveness. This was the topic of Beth’s sermon this week. She said an interesting thing: “In order to forgive others, you must first forgive yourself.” That got me thinking (again).

First, is there anyone that I have not forgiven? And, second, for what do I need to forgive myself?

I don’t believe that I harbor grudges. I believe I’ve gotten pretty good at forgiving people. In my conscious mind, I can’t think of anyone I need to forgive. If I probe a little, though, I can bring up people who may have “wronged” me, from a prior employer. I think I even have a little emotion around them and the fact that my career goals were thwarted there. The reality is that any roadblock they created launched me on to better things. I grew as an HR executive and have since, had the experience as the top HR executive in two different firms. Let it go, Dan.

But the bigger question is for what do I need to forgive myself? I didn’t have a clue a few minutes ago, but I think I know now.

I need to forgive myself for not being perfect. More, I need to forgive myself for not being perfect in every way. I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but on some level, it’s there. I need to be in perfect condition and at my ideal weight. I need to be a perfect executive, serve my community and the generations ahead. Nothing I do is good enough. I’m always driven to do better.

Being driven to do better is fine, but beating myself up for not being perfect is not. I forgive myself now, for being the imperfect man that I am. I don’t expect others to be perfect and I’m no different from others in my imperfections. I’m human.

There may be more, but this seems to be the crux of it. So, forgive. Live in joy and abundance, serving where you can and being content in your service.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Consequential Life

Written: September 3, 2007


Living a consequential life. That’s what George Washington was trying to do. (I think he did it.)

I read in a Smithsonian article today that that’s what honor and fame meant to 18th century gentlemen including Washington and Lafayette. But what does that mean for today’s human beings?

There are a lot more of us than there were in Washington’s day. How do you live a consequential life with more than 6 billion people on the planet today? Earlier in my life, I felt a drive to make a difference in the world. Now nearing my 57th year on the planet, I’m not so ambitious. I’m more content and complacent. And more appreciative.

I’m appreciative for the love of my family and the opportunity to work. I’m appreciative for my health and my new found creative outlet of woodworking. I’m appreciative of Emily and Matt finding each other and joining together on life’s journey. I’m appreciative of Sarah’s growing into a woman and finding her way in life. Life is good.

But what can I do to live a consequential life? I can “play the hand I’m dealt” and try to contribute to making my employer a better company. I can write a little – perhaps a blog with a monthly contribution to start. I can sing and entertain others – the quartet is starting again. And I can build things to leave behind.

Maybe that’s all you can ask. There are monumental problems to be solved, but somehow, at this point in my life, I’m not up to solving them. But for now, as I become aware of the finality of time, I want to just enjoy my life and each day. And by living each day, contribute where I can to making the world a little better place for future generations. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s consequential.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Transitions Part - II

Ever work for a company that’s being sold? It gets you to the bottom of Malov’s hierarchy pretty fast as the foundation of your economic security crumbles like sand.

In late December, 2005, we learned that the company was being sold. From then on, it was a day by day adventure (including a public bidding war) until the deal finally closed at the end of March 2006.

Here are a couple of examples of attempts to write myself off the window ledge during that time.


Written: February 5, 2006


Beth always gives good and thought-provoking sermons. I wonder how she can be so consistently inspired! Two phrases she used today caught my ear – “wounded healers” and “hard-won wisdom.”

The first phrase captures the fact that we have all suffered in life and recovered. Like a broken bone, an emotional, spiritual or even economic wound heals stronger. And we can use that strength to help others who are experiencing a loss or trial similar to one we have had and overcome. That ties into the phrase that really jumped out for me – “hard-won wisdom.”

I think almost all wisdom is hard-won. And the older we get, the more opportunities we’ve had to screw up and recover, and the more time we’ve had to heal open wounds. That’s why through the ages (in most cultures) wisdom has been associated with old age.

The ironic thing for me, as I arrive at my 55th year on the planet, is I’m starting to feel I have more, not less time. I can usually fit what I need to get done easily in the time I have for it. I’m living a pretty full and varied life. I have time to work-out, write a little, blow glass and quartet. With all of this, I can still handle a pretty complex job and serve on a couple of volunteer boards.

So why am I reflecting on this? It’s because I’m at another fork in the road in my working life. I had penciled in my calendar to evaluate my job and my career before I turned 55. I did that, and decided to be complacent with the status quo. Six months later circumstances outside my control are compelling me to re-examine that decision. And it’s a great time in my life to do this.

The company is for sale and the latest bid by another multi-family real estate operator says my job is toast. The bidding company already has all the functions we have in Baltimore, so they could squeeze about $9.0 million of payroll cost and $350k office rent out of operating expense by closing our office. This they surely would do – maybe not right away – but within a year the Baltimore office and most jobs are toast.

My job over the next 45 days or so is to do what I can to help others in the company sort out next steps and to facilitate his or her and the company’s transition. And it’s also to start winding down my affairs and looking to the future. It’s a little scary not knowing what the future holds, but it’s an opportunity – an opportunity to find something that really turns me on and that enables me to use my highest and best skills to give back to the world a little.


*******


Written: March 21, 2006


I only write when I’m feeling pain. When I’m feeling well, it’s just a strain.

Today, I’ve finally started to feel the sadness of winding down the company. I did a good thing today, by negotiating severance for the two project managers who had offers from the new employer but didn’t want to go. But I felt no jubilation. It was the right answer, but it came too late and with too much pain. The home office employees are despondent, angry and sad. And the field employees are scared but complacent. I think it will only get worse for them once the deal closes and they are employees of the new company.

So, I had a sense of ennui and sadness today. I just wasn’t excited about all the packing I needed to do to clear out my office. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like a productive task. Oh well, those are the cards I’m dealt. It’s natural to be sad under these circumstances.


*******


The deal closed, the company was sold and has since been liquidated. My colleagues and I went on to new employment. Interestingly, three years later, many of us are on our second post-purchase employer. We humans are a resilient bunch!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Loving Your Work

Written: Monday, June 14, 2004


At Uncle Earl’s viewing, my cousin Tim said to me that, Uncle Earl "loved his work." That’s not something everyone can say.

That got me thinking. My dad said something similar to Emily once. Emily had the mistaken notion for a homework assignment that she was to interview someone and write a bio. I suggested she talk to my dad. It was before his Alzheimer’s had been diagnosed and Dad was still pretty lucid. I listened in on the interview on another phone. Dad said, "he loved his work. Every day was different. It went by so fast." I took from the last statement that he was not just talking about his day, but his entire career.

The question is did they really love their work so much while they were doing it, or did it just look better in the rear view mirror? Did the perspective of retirement romanticize what they did every day and how they felt about it?

I think in both cases, they really loved their work. Uncle Earl was a train engineer for 47 years, after all. And Dad took another law enforcement related job after retiring from the police department. I know not every day was a fun day for him, but I think he liked going into work, socializing with the officers and just having a good time. He was a sociable guy.

So, here’s the question, do I love my work? As a musician, I certainly loved what I was doing. Initially, anyway. It didn’t feel like work to “play” my tuba. Eventually, this work got to be routine, though, so I left the orchestra for other challenges. In HR, I had a passion and a drive to do more, learn more and come up to speed. I liked the systems work and organizational culture challenges. I still do.

I guess what’s missing now is a passion for my work. I enjoy it, but don’t love it. My passion has shifted to glassblowing, which I do as often as I can. So, do I love my work? No. But it’s an integrated piece of my life. And life is pretty good right now -- nice work, a chance for artistic expression (barbershop singing and glassblowing), a chance to build something (the house and the new office space build-out), good friends and a loving family. Do I love my work? No, but I do love my life.

Isn’t that even better?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Transitions - Part I

Written: September 10, 2000


Mike’s sermon today was on transitions. He cited a book by William Bridges -- Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Bridges says transitions have 3 phases:

• Endings (disengagement, disidentification, disenchantment, disorientation)
• The Neutral Zone
• The New Beginning.

The neutral zone is a seeming unproductive time when we feel unfocused and undirected. It is a time to surrender, give in to the emptiness and trust in the eternal rhythm of the universe. I think this is another way of saying “let go.” It got me to thinking about other ways to say “let go” to put more meaning into this, for me, over-used thought and expression. So here goes:

Let go, surrender, give up, quit, relax, be, throw in the towel, detach, retreat, resign, release, move on, get a life, get real, whatever, watch and wait.

The final thing about transitions is that when we are ready to make a new beginning, we will shortly find an opportunity. How true this has been for me in the transitions in my life. I have to believe this is a universal law not subject to repeal any time soon.

How reassuring. How comforting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bob Lohr

Written: October 11, 2008

Bob Lohr died last Wednesday at 4:30 A.M. I went to his memorial service today. Why? I think it was out of a sense of duty. I was channeling my own Dad – doing my duty -- the right, civic thing.

I found myself moved several times during the service. I was moved by his son’s grief. I was moved by his “son-in-love’s” grief. I know the sense of loss, the hole in the heart feeling from experiencing the loss of my grandmother Huffman (whom I occasionally dream has come back to life -- it was not death, just a medical misunderstanding), my grandfather Brown, my grandfather Huffman, my Dad and, most recently, the loss of my father-in-law, Omar. I re-live that hole in the heart feeling at every memorial service and funeral. And lately there have been too many.

Through all of this, I can’t help but contemplate my own demise and legacy (or lack thereof). What have I contributed? What am I leaving behind? How can I make the future a little bit better for my descendants, in particular, and humanity, in general? Big questions and I don’t know the answers. But I do know that there’s no use waiting for situations, circumstances and events to be perfect before I start to figure this out. Time’s a tickin’.

Finally, I hope that when I go, no one is surprised at who I was. I hope that those who know me at work, home and hobby, all know the same, integrated person. I guess I won’t be around to know.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Omar

Written: December 3, 2007

How did I spend the weekend? In the hospital. Well not like it sounds, but with Marcia visiting her hospitalized father. He’s 89, active and has been in good health until this acute attack of an auto-immune blood problem.

He spoke of death, his father’s death and that it had been a good life, but I don’t think he’s really ready to go, yet. He was too intellectually engaged. But I do worry for him and I know Marcia, her brothers and sister and his wife, Dot, do as well. I think we’re all hoping that his body’s defenses kick back in. I imagine, either way, it won’t be a gradual thing, but sharp turn either for the better (I hope) or for the worse – his body just giving up.

Omar and his family have been good for me. They gave me Marcia who has helped me grow into a better person and showed me what a loving, well-functioning family looks like. It was a great model for raising my two daughters (versus the model I observed growing up in my house.)

In addition to his love, Omar is one of the most intellectually alive people I know. He reads widely and thinks about things. I love having conversations with him. We could always expect to get into a deep family (and in-law) conversation instigated and led by Omar at holiday family gatherings. And, although he’s been slowing down over the last few years, it hasn’t stopped.

It’s been great to know and learn from Omar over the last 37 years or so. I hope we can squeeze out a few more walks and talks before our time together comes to an end. And I hope for more high-quality of life years for Omar. He’s a great role model.

*******

Written: December 7, 2007

So, Omar is dying. I knew this would happen eventually, but not so soon. I was hoping for another 10 years and rooting for him to make it to his goal of living to 100. When I asked about this goal last Saturday at the hospital, he said that he “wasn’t so sure that it was still a goal for him.”

Omar has been a blessing to my life. He gave me Marcia (with a little help from Dot, of course). And he welcomed me into a loving, caring and functional family – not something I had much prior experience with. I have tried to live up to the example that Omar and Dot set for a loving family.

We inherited traditions from Marcia’s family from singing meal graces to vacations in state parks. Many times I thought we were re-living Marcia’s childhood. And I enjoyed it. It healed the open wounds left over from my growing up.

More important, we inherited the traditions of intellectual curiosity and love. Omar was a personification of life-long learning. He was always the first one to read the newest biography, history or political book. After visiting him last Saturday, I started reading his latest book on Eisenhower. On Sunday, we had a nice conversation about it. Omar was sharp as a tack. (And I noticed in reading the book, that he was picking up and correcting all the missed editorial mistakes in the book as he went along.) Omar’s the smartest man I know. I’ll miss these conversations.

Omar was love. Marcia just called me to tell me that Omar is now back at home to die. Once the social worker left, he called everyone into the bedroom. They didn’t know why. It was to sing happy birthday to Dot. Through tears, they sang all three verses (the extra verses are unique to the Buchwalter clan). Even in dying, he’s loving others.

Omar was a champion of social justice. This I know less about, but I do know he marched with Martin Luther King in DC in the 60’s and that he cared passionately about justice throughout his life. He was a dedicated democrat and liberal for as long as I’ve known him and long after it was fashionable to be either. I admire him for the strength of his convictions.

Omar had six lovely children, which is probably enough. And I had a father who loved me (although he wasn’t always so good at showing it). But I also claim Omar as father and I know I’m not the only in-law that has done that, nor the only in-law that has grown as a human for knowing him.

Peace and love, Omar. We will miss you, but not forget you, as long as we live.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

BART Brown: 2/11/06 – 1/30/2007, RIP

Written: February 4, 2007


So, less than a year ago I bought BART. He was a shinny, red 2004 Ford F-150 with an extended cab and extended bed. He stood about 6’3” and was wide and long – a Big Ass Red Truck (hence the name).

In the year that I had him, we loaded him with hay to mulch the road, loaded construction debris left behind by the contractor who abandoned my shop construction, trucked manure for the garden and trucked pallets left after moving six tons of stone. He got to take three trips to the dump – high heaven for pickup truck. Two were even necessary – one was just for fun. The fun one was ruined by the dump man making fun of the light load. “You could have just thrown that in your neighbor’s yard,” he said.

But BART was not always a good truck. In his brief life, he lost a side view mirror when he whacked it into a leaning road sign, scraped a car with his right running board trying to avoid rear-ending a car that suddenly stopped, turned and signaled (in that order), scraped his head on some low hanging pipes in the old office garage, backed into a guard rail trying to turn around in a tight dead-end road, backed into the Marketing VP’s car the first day in the new garage, and ground some more off the right side running board against a column the second day in the new garage.

He was also very thirsty, getting less than 14 miles per gallon in his 23,700 miles. I figure gas for the period cost about $4,200. That plus $1,000 for tires and the $9,000 difference between purchase price and sales price less than a year later made BART an expensive date. It comes out to $14,200 total, about $1,200 per month and $0.60 per mile. Yikes! I think I could have leased a Rolls Royce for that!

So, why did I need BART? We were in our new home and I thought we’d need a snow plow, for one reason. But I never could bring myself to purchase and store a snow plow just to plow the driveway. Having never plowed, it would have been a recipe for disaster to start with our tricky hill. Instead, I bought a snow blower (which I have yet to use).

I thought I’d be starting a glass blowing business for retirement. But that didn’t pan out. The energy cost (petroleum and personal) just didn’t make sense. And the retail end of the business has never lit me up.

I thought I needed something with leg room. But I bend my legs when I drive. If I need room to stretch them out (without going through firewall in most cars), I can always stop and get out of the car to stretch them.

So, why did I buy BART? For some unknowable, to me, emotional reason, no doubt. My Dad bought a blue truck in his late 40’s. I asked him why he bought it. He said, “Because I always wanted one.” Maybe that’s why I bought BART, not because I always wanted one, but because my Dad had one. (And mine was bigger, whatever that means.) Closer to the truth, though, is that I think I just wanted a truck at that time.

But that time has gone. I wasn’t driving into DC at that time. I wasn’t sitting in bumper to bumper traffic spewing pollution into the atmosphere as I idled, waiting to move forward. I wasn’t worrying about wiping out a small car or bicyclist as I changed lanes, hoping no one was in my blind spot. And I wasn’t trying to white-knuckle myself into and out of incredibly, tight, and over-parked DC parking garages.

So, it was time for BART to go and, probably as penance, I bought a Prius. It’s the most energy efficient and least polluting vehicle available. Do my legs fit? No, but they fold. Can I see over traffic? No but I can scoot right a little and look along it. Will it work on long trips? I guess that’s TBD. All and all, it’s the right car for the commute I have right now.

So, so long, BART, and to whatever you meant on an unknown level. And hello to the Prius, who may someday also have a name. If nothing else comes of it, at least now my daughters won’t personally blame me for global warming.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Dad’s Demise

Dad had Alzheimer’s disease. It was a slow and ugly death. I wrote my way through it – emails to family and letters to myself. After he died, I put all the correspondence back and forth in chronological order. 103 pages worth. Someday, that will see the light of day. Meanwhile these snippets will have to do.


Written: September 30, 2002


Dear Family,

All of us are struggling with Dad’s horrible disease. It consumes us emotionally as much as it consumes him physically. It certainly preoccupies me in my daily life. Given the events Saturday night of Dad’s violence, the police being called and Sandy’s 3:00 AM drive, I’m even more preoccupied with the difficulty of appropriate care for Dad. So, not really knowing where this is going as I start to write, I feel compelled to get some thoughts down in an effort to be as objective as it is possible for me to be.

Although I’m not sure where this will take me, I know I want to be as frank with myself and others as I can. In doing so, I don’t pass judgment or criticize anybody -- we’re all doing what we feel is best for Dad. And Sandy has had an especially difficult cross to bear over the last few years in personally caring for Dad. I hope to help the situation with one-person’s view of the data. These are my opinions only -- I’ve not discussed this with anyone else. So here is my read.

First Dad has been at Xxxxx Xxxxx almost two months now. I believe he’s adjusted to the fact that he needs to be in a Retirement Home. He doesn’t talk about getting out or getting a ride home anymore. Dennis, Don and I have each taken him out for extended periods and returned him “home” without struggle or incident. He definitely belongs in an assisted-living setting. But I no longer think he should remain at Xxxxx Xxxxx.

Since he’s been at Xxxxx Xxxxx, he’s been assaulted, over-drugged, under-nourished and under-cared for. As far as the night staff is concerned, anyway, I don’t feel he is welcome at Xxxxx Xxxxx. This could happen in almost any retirement home, but the difference is we are all so far away that we can’t adequately monitor his care. We’ve all tried to do what we can. Don has especially been there. But even Don has an hour round-trip to make.

We need to be in a position that someone can visit Dad daily. This can only happen if he were closer to Springfield. I say Springfield because Dennis is there. Dennis has the time, flexibility and, I perceive, the desire to take on a big part of this duty. If Dad were near Springfield, he would still be accessible to Don from his work in Reston and be much closer to Valerie as well. It would be a two hour trip for me versus the current four hour trip, so I could help more often. Sandy would, of course be closer too. But the burden of daily visits shouldn’t fall on Sandy. Sandy has more than done her part in this regard. It’s time for the brothers and sister to step up to the plate.

Related to that, perhaps it’s time for the siblings to take a larger role in Dad’s guardianship. Sandy shouldn’t have to be the only one to have to make the tough medical decisions or face problems alone at 3:00 AM. She should feel comfortable that she can travel and Dad will be in good hands if something goes wrong.

I realize that the reality of finances may be playing a large part in the selection of an assisted-living facility. We need to discuss this frankly. Can Dad’s retirement income finance a, more expensive, Northern Virginia facility without leaving Sandy destitute? If it can’t, can and will we brothers and sister help financially? Alternatively, is there a Xxxxx Xxxxx-like alternative in or near Springfield?

As I said before, no matter where Dad is he has the potential to be assaulted, over-drugged, under-nourished and under-cared for without the family’s vigilance.

I think I’m now at the end. And I hope no one has taken offense. All of us are primarily interested in doing what’s best for Dad. His disease will continue to progress and what was a good decision at one time will not be a good decision later. We need to be able to talk about his care at each cross-road and make the best decisions we can as a family.

I hope we can meet as a family to discuss this once everyone has had a chance to think about it. Please let me know by e-mail that you’re willing to get together and talk. Meanwhile, let’s all keep Dad in our prayers.

Love,

Dan


*******


Written: December 24, 2002


My dad is dying. As I write this he’s in the hospital deteriorating. Last week he made it to his 75th birthday, but due to the Alzheimer’s disease, not all of him made it.

When looked at through the lens of our ultimate death, it’s a miracle anything ever gets done. The reality of our demise means that much of what we do in our brief time on the planet is meaningless and impermanent. Mankind works under the illusion that things matter and an illusion of immortality. Only if we suffer from this collective delusion, can we get so wrapped up in petty annoyances, our small plans and achievements.

Yet, cutting through the haze, something matters. What is worthwhile doing? How should one invest one’s life? The only answer that makes sense is to invest your life in small and large ways that make sense for future generations – for your children and your children’s children.

That’s why we’re building the house (and why we’re trying to build it as “green” as we can). Not only for our enjoyment, but for the future. That’s why blowing glass is enjoyable. Not only for the process, but for the results that will survive. That’s why I work – to help people now and future.

So, here’s to the adventure of 2003. Here’s hoping I make my highest and best contribution to current and future generations and invest in a life worth living. The adventure continues.


*******


Written: February 16, 2003


Dad died early Wednesday morning. The call from Sandy came at 3:00 AM on the 12th. We had warning.

Monday afternoon, Marcia called; telling me that the nurse at Leewood said the time was near. Dad was “mottling” (fingernails and toenails were blue and his color was ashen) and he was laboring to breathe. He was near death but no one knew whether it would be hours or days.

Donald and Darren rushed to Leewood. I didn’t. I struggled with whether or not to go and decided I could do no good by going. Dad was unconscious and I didn’t want to have another ugly picture in my mind of his demise. Anyway that’s what I rationalized.

What did I do? I kept working. I went a quartet rehearsal that night and traveled to Charlotte on business the next day. I got home from Charlotte Tuesday ~ 8:00 PM and debated again whether or not to visit Dad. I came to the same conclusion as I did on Monday and went home instead. The call came at 3:00 AM. Dad had lasted 36 hours in this final stage. What did I do? I went to work. And I went to work the next day too.

Friday, I sang a quartet gig on the radio in the morning and spent the rest of the day at the funeral home. And Saturday, after getting Emily on a plane back to Hanover, we went to the funeral.

The continuing to work thing is a little extreme. I don’t know if I get this from Dad’s work ethic or have developed this neurosis on my own. In light of the reality of death, it seems a little bizarre.

I was surprised by the relatively small turnout for Dad’s viewing and funeral. He had worked and lived in the same area all his life. I expected neighbors and co-workers by the score. There were neighbors and co-workers but by the handful. Mostly, it was the immediate family, his surviving brother and sisters, Sandy’s brothers and sisters, a few neighbors and a few co-workers from Fairfax County.

I guess the older and the more removed from work relationships you get, the less people there are who knew you and feel the need to show respects or celebrate your life. To my knowledge, only one gentleman (besides Dennis) was there who knew Dad in his capacity as a DC police officer (about 28 years of his life). And he also worked with Dad in Fairfax County.

After the funeral, my brothers, sister and I were carrying Dad in his casket down the steps of the church to the hearse. It was snowing lightly. To our right, six Fairfax County police officers came to attention and saluted. That got me. Dad would have liked that – being saluted and honored by his own – on duty, standing in the snow.

To me this moment captured something about Dad - doing his duty. He did his duty as a policeman, magistrate, deacon, trustee, son, brother, husband and father. He worked shift-work almost all his life, yet he sacrificed sleep to be where he was needed. That’s not all Dad was, but duty was an important part of the equation. And it didn’t seem to be a burden. He almost always had a sense of humor.

Dad and I had 52 years on the planet together. It wasn’t always ducky. And sometimes, I was the parent. But on balance, he gave me life, humor, strong values and, definitely, a work ethic. I mourn my loss.

Peace, Dad.


******


I couldn’t speak at the funeral. I just couldn’t trust myself to hold it all together. So, instead, I offered this for the funeral service program.


*******



Warren Brady Brown

1927 - 2003


In 1996, when I was 45, I felt the need to write about Dad. I wrote for myself, so I’d remember. But when I was done (well done for a year and half – you don’t want to rush into these things), I decide to give a copy to Dad. (I think I edited out a few sentences -- Dad was a sensitive man and I didn’t want to offend him).

I’m glad I gave it to him. We’re not an overly demonstrative family. This was my way of saying “Thanks and I love you, Dad.” He later told me he read it over many times and it “choked him up” which was his way of saying, “I love you, too.”

While it doesn’t capture everything about the father, husband and man Dad was, it captures my limited perspective to the best of my recollection. Reading it over seven years later, I found I couldn’t improve it. So here it is.

Peace, Dad.

Love, Danny


*******

September 27, 1997


Dad,

Thanks for the card and the phone call on my birthday last week. The message you left on my machine, “that you’re proud of me” means a lot (you’ll see why later).

Did you ever think you’d have a middle-aged son? (OK, past middle age). Turning 47 hasn’t been so bad -- I think I had my mid-life crisis last year and am set for a while. For whatever reason, it drove me to reflect and write some personal stuff about people who’ve had a big impact on my life. Maybe it’s so the great-grand-kids can find it someday and know something about me and my family. I kind of wish some of my ancestors had done this.

Anyway, you are, of course, one of those influential people for me. After all, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. I thought you might want to see some of the thoughts I captured when I set down to remember you when I was growing up (that’s why it’s in past tense).

I haven’t shown this to anyone and don’t plan to anytime soon. It was just meant for me to try to work out my mid-life crisis. It’s also meant to be positive -- I hope nothing offends you.

Anyway, here it is and thanks for answering the question in the last line!


March 1996


My dad was strict with his first child. Being a policeman in DC, he daily saw many wayward children and some of the worst parts of life. I guess he feared this for his own child and did all he could to prevent juvenile delinquency at home. As time went on, he eased up on my brothers -- the oldest always paves the way.

He always wanted me to call him “sir” but I just couldn’t do it. I think it’s because he started too late. Just a week or so, after I was born, he was off to Korea having been called back into the service through a clerical mistake. The inactive reserves were called instead of the active reserves. It didn’t even matter that the Army knew this was a mistake -- once the orders were sent, there was no appeal. By the time he came back, I could learn to call everyone else “sir” but not him -- he was always Dad -- sir just was too distant. (I learned the sir lesson well for everyone else, though. When in high school, my tuba teacher told me I didn’t have to call him sir. What did I say in response? “Yes sir.”)

Dad had a work ethic. If it were threatening snow, he’d park the car a mile and a half away, and walk home. He’d leave four or five hours early for work to make sure he got there. I only remember him missing work one time -- he had pneumonia. Seeing him so weak really scared me. It was almost as bad as the daily worries I had when I was younger, waiting for him to come home from work. I just couldn’t keep track of his schedule and knew at some level his job was dangerous. I remember the minutes seemed like hours waiting for him to arrive home and fearing he wouldn’t. Thank goodness, I had my dog, Smokey, to talk to about my fears. She was a great listener.

Dad was a solid citizen. He was involved in the community -- JC’s, an occasional volunteer fireman, a Sunday School teacher and a deacon. He was a responsible son. Even though he was not the oldest, he took responsibility for the family and his mother after my grandfather died. He was always there when his youngest brother got in some kind of scrape and took care of his mother visiting her almost every day until she went into the hospital the last time at age 93.

On top of this, he took courses toward his bachelors’ degree (earned after 20 years part-time study) and at one point was working three jobs. He would work his main job as a policeman, pump gas (if anyone remembers those days) when he was off and sell Kirby vacuum cleaners in his spare time. It was about that time he fell asleep driving on the 14th street bridge coming home from work on the mid-night shift and totaled the car. Besides glass in his scalp, he was OK. I think he was a little embarrassed, though, since he had just balled me out the night before for denting the bumper of the car he had just totaled. (I thought it wise not to point out this fact.) Why was he so driven?

I don’t know if it was the three jobs or the shift work that caused the accident. Dad says that when he joined the police department, he was told, he’d get used to the shift work after a while. Thirty years later, he was still trying to get used to working a different eight-hour shift every two weeks.

Besides the occasional car wreck, shift work took a toll on our family life. Many times, we’d go for weeks without seeing Dad as he tried to sleep during the day after working all night. When we saw him, I don’t think we were seeing him at his best. The scary part was having to constantly poke him in the sides to keep waking him as he drove on a long trip. The fun part was guessing how long he could stay awake in church and how loud he would snore.

My dad has a sense of humor. Although he’d laugh uncontrollably at Laurel and Hardy, his humor wasn’t jokes per se, but quick conversational wit. And repetition! It was funny when you finally figured out (after the 100th time he said it) that he wasn’t saying catch it after he threw you the ball but “cat shit.” Most the time, though, the repetition just drove us nuts -- it’s only funny in retrospect. I wonder if my kids will one day wonder why I say “close the door, you think we’re trying to heat all of Franconia!” (We live in Columbia). My brothers and I caught the repetition thing, however. Dennis says after beginning the same story for the third time “have I told you lately?”

The dark side of repetition was when he was trying to teach us a lesson. It seemed the broken record technique was all they taught in parent school when he was enrolled. It brought out the stubbornness and rebellion in me. Eventually, though, I would give in and change whatever behavior he was trying to get me to stop.

The most lasting lesson from my dad was one that was not repeated. I have vivid memory from when I was about four. I was dressed in my best clothes, and we were going somewhere in the car. As we approached Springfield, I must have been acting up. Dad turned and said something to me to stop the behavior and then said something that, I later realized, motivated me for about 40 years. He said “you want us to be proud of you, don’t you?” I don’t recall answering, but I do recall thinking -- of course I want to make you proud of me. That statement and the realization that most of my strokes came from doing rather than being, pushed me to constantly try to do more.

I’ve read that we raise our kids in reaction to the way we were raised. I try to tell both of my daughters that I love them just the way they are. No doubt, I given them some complex that will take them 40 years to recognize and work through. Whatever. I’m doing the best I can at the parent thing and I realize my dad did too.

People describe me as being driven, having a sense of humor and being repetitious. I wonder where I get this from? (Dad, have I made you proud of me yet?)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kit Sfekas

Written: Tuesday, July 1, 2002


Last night Marcia, Sarah and I stopped by the funeral home to pay our respects to Kit Sfekas’ family. Kit was Sarah’s soccer coach for four or five years and a Howard County judge. At the family’s request, Sarah wore her soccer uniform shirt. He left behind two daughters (the oldest is 16) a wife, and probably thousands of people in the community whose lives he touched.

The line to get into the funeral home viewing parlor stretched outside for 300 feet. Cars were parked everywhere. A traffic cop was needed. We waited in line for more than an hour to make it into the viewing parlor. I can’t imagine how crowed today’s funeral was.

Kit touched a lot of lives and, from my acquaintance with him, seemed to be a wonderful person. Yet he’s gone at 49. And I can’t make sense of it. Rationalization doesn’t work. What’s more, there’s just blankness when I even try to think about it.

My last conversation with Kit was early winter at an indoor soccer match he was coaching. Kit mentioned he was fine except for the sore throat he just couldn’t seem to shake off and that he was going to have it looked at the next day. Thyroid gland cancer. He battled for four months and lost.

He won’t see his daughters graduate, and they won’t have her father there. I’m sure each milestone will be difficult for the family.

But death happens. It’s natural and it’s inevitable. Why is it such a shock, such a surprise and such a loss? What are we here for?

Kit lived his life fully. The girls on the teams he coached will carry a little of him with them the rest of their lives. I’m sure he had as great an impact on the people he worked with as well. But is that enough? Is having thousands of people pay tribute to you at your passing enough? Is that what life’s about?

Kit died quickly at the prime of life. Just four years ago he had achieved his life-long ambition to become a judge. He had graduations, marriages and grand kids ahead of him that he’ll never see. That’s the tragedy. That’s the loss. That’s the shock.

Death is inevitable but there’s no purpose or meaning in an untimely death. Just sadness and loss.

Rest in Peace, Kit. God bless your life and your family. You are missed.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pretending


Written: December 7, 2001


“Oh yes, we’re the great pretenders…” So goes the song.

We pretend that the things we do and say, and even our lives, themselves, have purpose and meaning. I’m sure that all melts away in the days and hours prior to death. What is one life in the scheme of eternity and the universe?

A work colleague recently learned his sister-in-law has been diagnosed with in-operable bronchial cancer. She’s in her mid-50s. Another colleague’s niece gave birth to a stillborn child. He had quintuple bi-pass surgery earlier this fall (at age 47). My mom is heading toward diabetes, my dad has Alzheimer’s, and my in-laws will be 83. It all makes me contemplate my personal mortality.

And when I go, what will I leave behind? I’m not a wealthy man who will leave endowments, a name on buildings and scholarships behind. I’m not a great scientist, artist or philosopher. I’m just an average Joe who is trying to provide for his family and contribute to the success of others whose lives touch mine.

Yet there are so many needs – hunger, environment, learning, health, violence…. How can I help in a way that benefits generations to come?

Who knows. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep pretending it matters – that my life matters – and stay in denial about the reality of my demise. I guess that’s what most folks do -- until they can do it no more.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Uncle Sonny

Written: September 13, 1999

Last week was a week of losses. In started off when Uncle Sonny died 6:00 a.m. Sunday and ended with Marcia and me leaving Emily at Dartmouth.

Leaving Emily, although a loss, didn’t feel so bad. It was a natural progression she and we have been preparing for her whole life. It’s a bitter sweet feeling -- we feel good for her, proud of her and we miss her. I guess mostly I miss the memories of Emily as a little girl and growing up. Moving to school underscores the fact that she is now an adult.

It’s different with Uncle Sonny. Although death is also a natural progression, it’s more final. We’ll never see him again. His death made me realize how much one person leaves a legacy in helping others. He gave me my first music lesson on the baritone he played. He modeled his musical talent for me in playing piano and singing. I think he was the spark that lit my career in music.

He left a non-musical legacy for me, as well. His fascination with space opened up this mystery for me. I remember walking down to the end of Tilbury Road to watch Sputnik go over. And I remember being under 10 and riding in the back seat of his car on an impossibly dark night with chills going up and down my spine as he talked about UFOs.

He also left his sense of humor. From making faces with his false teeth, to cars with hiccups to calling me “Uncle Danny,” he seemed to always have a humorous perspective on life. Even the discomfort of constant dialysis didn’t appear to dampen his spirits.

If this is his legacy to me, how much greater is it to all the lives he touched. And how much greater are all of our legacies than we imagine. Our everyday lives and the lives we touch are our greatest legacies. As I’m reading about in "Awakening the Buddha Within," right thinking, right speech and right actions – every day -- cannot be overdone.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jim Conklin

Written: January 11, 1997


Jim was one of the best managers I’ve known. I learned a lot about managing with compassion, clarity and courage in working for him. I learned by listening to what Jim had to say and, more important, by watching what he did. Unlike many, his words and actions were in sync. He lived his beliefs.

But Jim was not just a manager. He was a model for living. He lived life with gusto and seemed to enjoy and spread joy wherever he went. I especially remember a trip we took to New York together to attend a Conference Board session on benefits when we both moved to LCS. We got there the night before and Jim took me to some dark, neighborhood restaurant in the basement of a Brownstone. The neighborhood was not exactly a tourist trap. I doubt it had seen a tourist for a hundred years or so. He thought the cab driver was ripping us off, so he just told him to stop and let us out. We walked the last ten blocks even though it was bitter cold and we were only wearing sports coats (but Jim was never cold, anyway). The tables were packed into a cramped room and I’m not certain the health department knew this restaurant existed. But it had entertainment! While we ate, a local Yiddish comedian told incredibly old and corny jokes. I can still hear Jim laughing at each one. It was contagious, I laughed too and I can’t help but laugh again as I remember Jim laughing.

Jim lived life well. I hope that part of him lives on in me as I try to learn from Jim’s life. I remember his management lessons. But more important I remember his life’s lesson -- to live and spread happiness and joy no matter what the circumstance.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Smokey

Written: July 11, 1996


My best friend, ever, was Smoky.

I must have been three or four when I first saw her. Dad was coming home from work and I was playing in the yard two doors down from my house. I thought it was unusual when he stopped to drive me the short distance home.

When I got in the car, I noticed a round, furry, gray ball in a box at my feet. I thought it was a new kind of toy ball until it moved. It was a puppy. My mom immediately named it Smokey.

Smokey was a mutt. I’m a mutt. We grew up together.

Smokey would listen to me like I’ve never been listened to since. I could sing to her, talk to her, tell her my deepest fears and worries and she never tired of listening or gave me less than her full attention.

She guarded me. She’d follow me on my treks and adventures in the woods -- never more than a few feet away. When I fell on my back in the yard “dead,” she’d come running over and lick my face until I came back to life.

Smokey taught me (and my brother Dennis) to smile. When she was nervous, she’d show her teeth in a grin. My brother and I taught this to others.

When she was out exploring the neighborhood and I called her she’d come running from miles away.

All she asked for is an occasional stomach rub. She’d lie on her back, put her paws up in the air and stick out her tongue. This meant you were to rub your foot on her stomach.

She died when I was a high school junior. Her back legs went first. She’d drag herself around the house with her front paws to be near me.

She was my friend. She lives in my grin.