Up Front – Vol. 16, #13
It’s both great and chaotic to be home for the summer. I’m trying to cram a year’s worth of living into a few months. There’s the sweaty, dirty exhaustion of summertime farming, playing catch-up from missing the spring season. Evaluation and adjustments to the work that we’re doing at the coffee shop and this magazine. Trying to spend time with people I’ve missed. Figuring out the best way to help young people find their paths to rewarding lives, with Horizons Savannah as our platform.
Being around kids is inspiring and challenging and rewarding and – often – flat-out fun.
On my first day, I noticed a kindergartener crying uncontrollably. She didn’t want to separate from her older sister. I approached the little girl and her sister handed her to me. I sat her in a tiny cafeteria chair and dropped to my knees.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Police,” she answered through a whimper, barely audible.
“That is perfect,” I said. “Because I know you are brave.”
She looked at me quizzically. “I’ll tell you a secret,” I continued. “I’m a little scared today, too. I don’t know anybody here, either. But I’ll make you a deal. If you promise to look out for me, I’ll look out for you. You be brave for me; I’ll be brave for you. Deal?”
She nodded a big yes, her lip still pouty and puffed.
“Are you her daddy?” another girl asked.
Most Horizons students are African-American.
“Do we look alike?” I asked earnestly not sardonically, wishing I wouldn’t have said it as it was coming out of my mouth. Both my little protector and this new inquisitor were African-American, as were the rest of the kids at the table.
“Yes,” the second girl said simply and seriously.
In that moment, I felt hope.
Recently, I was looking through files in my home office, looking for documents related to a car. I found one of my wife’s folders. Inside – an assignment she completed for a college-level education class she took near the end of her life. Her words are more powerful than anything I could write here myself now, so I share them with you:
“Any child can be motivated to learn, and it’s the educator’s job to find a way to reach each child in a manner that is appropriate for him or her. Every child is entitled to a safe and stimulating environment, conducive to learning, in the classroom. While I cannot control the forces that influence a child outside the classroom, I can provide a positive and captivating experience inside it. An exceptional teacher can have a profound effect on a child’s life. Therefore, an educator carries tremendous responsibility and has the rare opportunity to positively influence another human being and society.
I believe that the process of learning is a ‘give-and-take.’ The instructor should provide structure, framework and guidance, but the student must also be a willing and active participant. Engaging the student in the learning process by making a personal connection, encouraging discussion, allowing opportunities to apply acquired knowledge, and rewarding both repetition and critical thinking…these are the components necessary to promote academic success. The instructor must be very clear as to his or her expectations of each student, and those expectations must be communicated often.
I plan to be approachable and accessible, to convey my genuine concern for each child’s scholastic achievement. I believe that most children are inherently ‘good,’ meaning that if the student is given concrete goals and guidelines and a supportive environment, he or she will not wish to disappoint.
As a person who has embraced lifelong learning, my greatest hope is to instill a passion for learning in others. The purpose of education is to empower students to live their best lives. I hope to demonstrate that knowledge provides the force and freedom that enable people to control the trajectories of their personal stories.” – Louise Vaughn Lauretti
Over the past several years, I have been drawn to work, with increasingly intensity, on education and related initiatives. It’s like a fresh voice has entered the conversation in my head. I think I know from where that voice is coming.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #12
You spend the first part of your life making memories. Then there’s a moment when you begin to reflect on those memories more often than creating new ones. I’m trying hard to keep that moment at bay.
Motion helps. I’m typing this at a coffee shop counter in a shopping center off one of the first North Carolina exits off southbound I-95. I drove up to D.C. yesterday; I’m heading home today. Last night, I met my older daughter at her office in Baltimore County to do something with her that I didn’t want her to have to do by herself. When we finally made it to her apartment in Washington, it was after midnight. We were both up and out by 7 today.
Friday, four days ago, I flew to New York with my younger girl, to help her get squared away for the summer with three friends in a Murray Hill Airbnb. Thanks to our dear friend, Cindy, Gabby has a two-month big-city PR job. Saturday, after walking my little one in a big orientation circle around Manhattan below 42nd Street, I flew home.
Sunday, I planted plants, cooked an all-day ragu, completed accumulated crosswords, edited most of the stories in this issue, climbed to nowhere for an hour on a step mill, and got too little sleep.
It’s not easy to sit still.
But that’s what you do for close to 10 hours when you drive from Savannah to Washington. And 10 more when you retrace your path in reverse.
The other day, someone asked me where I see myself in five years. My answer focused on achievements – the by-products of purposeful motion. Big, important, measurable kinds of things.
In New York over the weekend, in Washington yesterday, I made no progress towards any of those grandiose goals. But today, in my mind’s eye, I distinctly see each of my girls wearing a wide smile. The smiles just happened, the ancillary rewards of everyday life.
Moving forward is laudable, but sometimes you go just as far by remaining where you are. Some of the best memories don’t remotely resemble any of your plans. I hope to keep making them – simple, precious, irrevocable memories – so that when the moment comes that I stop to reflect in full, there are too many to get through before I run out of time.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #11
I’m not home yet – I’m in a Nashville hotel lobby, sipping coffee after an overnight stop with Gabby, on the way from Dallas, ready to hit the road for the final 500 miles of our trip. In less than two weeks, I’ve been back and forth to Boston twice, staying “up there” a couple of days each time; taken nine flights; and driven through a state (Arkansas) that I don’t think I’ve ever been to before. During the same span, I’ve managed to sleep in my Savannah bed four or five nights – some for no more than three hours, a hazard associated with scheduling the first departure of the day. While I am loving my time at Harvard, these recent – albeit brief – tastes of home-cooking have left me hungry for more. So tonight, I start a three-month run, sharing my beloved Perry Street house with Mushu, my both-affectionate-and-aloof Flame Point Siamese…and I can’t wait.
When I arrived in Boston in January, I was wide-eyed, energized, and a little scared. Whatever I had been imagining the experience might be, I quickly realized I had under-appraised it …in every way. The people I’ve met; the things I’ve learned; the city that continues to reveal itself to me – it’s amazing. Perhaps most exciting – the opportunities for crafting a fulfilling future seem to multiply minute by minute, day after day.
In Boston – Allston, more accurately – things are refreshingly unfamiliar. My apartment is roughly 8 percent the size of my Savannah home. I don’t have a car. I knew one guy when I arrived, and I hadn’t spoken to him since 1996. It’s cold: People were wearing coats and scarves Thursday, a week ago. You see famous people in Cambridge fairly often, as happens in Savannah, but they tend to be recognizable from business or political news, rather than action-adventure films and rom-coms. There’s a block near me – small and unspectacular, not a gaudy remnant of a contrived “Chinatown” – with more than a dozen Asian eateries, most with menus written only in character form. The Fenway Park lights are easily visible through my windows, so I always know when the Red Sox are in town.
It’s easy to construct a long and impressive list of things that I have there that I don’t have in Savannah. But – and it has been particularly evident recently – there is something here that won’t ever be there…this is HOME. When I walk down the street, people smile and say “hello,” and I do the same. Many of these people are known to me – some by name and some by face; others are tourists mesmerized by the surroundings that we enjoy in the normal course of everyday. Smiling, speaking, recognizing the beauty along every line-of-sight – these things have sustained me during my darkest times, and they are the precious, simple joys of home life today.
Home transcends place. Many of the people whom I love are here. And while two of the most important – Sofia and Gabby – are living along the Acela corridor at the moment, the former in D.C. and the latter in Manhattan, their rooms remain decorated in the styles that they have chosen, ready to accommodate them anytime they require a spiritual journey back in time.
People say, “God is everywhere,” and my beliefs align with this assertion. But He (She?) has a really nice place no more than two blocks from me. Last Sunday, I walked to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and found a spot, as I always do, in one of the first three rows. In front of me, behind me, across the aisle to my right – faces I see week after week. A few words into his first prayer, the priest – a friend – makes eye contact, and a feeling of connection to him, to something bigger than both of us, takes hold of me. I notice myself shifting my weight from one leg to the other - an involuntary act of affirmation, as is the compulsion to gaze at the glowing, colorful windows overhead.
I buy vegetables at the famers’ market, soft shell crabs at Russo’s, a biscuit at Back in the Day. I pick up the SMN at (fancy) Parker’s, so I can hold it in my hands. I walk around the park, sometimes 10 laps in a single afternoon and practice Yoga in Sandfly, my favorite place to sweat. I eat fried chicken at the Golf Club, a dish I wouldn’t order anywhere else.
These are the simple things that await me at the end of today’s drive. The things that I’ve missed more than I’ve realized. The things that I don’t have in Boston, or New York, or Rome, or anywhere other than HOME. I’ll see you soon.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #10
If you read this column regularly, you know that my submissions have originated from Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England) since January. And you might not know why. Basically, I’m studying and networking and sharpening my leadership skills so that I can do work towards meaningful social impact for the rest of my life.
As an adult, I have participated in a wide range of philanthropic pursuits, both actively and passively (effort versus money). This broad exposure has led me to conclude one thing (and this is just my personal opinion): So much of the focus of our generosity is on “band-aid” philanthropy, which fails to address root, systemic societal challenges that lead to an endless cycle of despair. Expanding every person’s opportunity set and chances at achieving personal success – it’s the only sustainable way to make positive change. And the only viable path to self-empowerment is via education.
Inadequate educational experiences doom entire generations to poverty. We must fight hard against that curse. I am dedicating my future to such work. I am not the first person in my family to get on the train. My parents preached the power of great education and sacrificed much to make it available to my sister and me. The same sister has dedicated her professional life to big-city public education. My wife returned to college and earned a second undergraduate degree, an unusual trajectory for someone with a masters, so that she could teach math to young people, particularly those from economically-challenged environments. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies associated with her death is that her time was too limited to reach as many kids as she would have liked. During their high school years, my daughters worked as summer assistants in the same program. Through the women in my home, I was introduced to Horizons Savannah.
Horizons Giving Day is May 16 (and the Giving Day donation period is open now). I am the Chairman of the Horizons Savannah Board, a member of the Horizons National Board, and I’ve dedicated my Harvard fellowship to perfecting the Horizons organization’s work and leveraging its resources to significantly extend its impact. Giving Day is our most significant fundraising endeavor, and each of our board members develops a webpage that communicates our visions and provides prospective supporters with an easy-to-use donations infrastructure. On my personal page, you will see that I am matching, dollar for dollar, gifts that come in through May 16.
Horizons serves at-risk youth from the public school system, through a series of comprehensive programs hosted on independent school campuses. The program is national in scope, with a long history and proven track record of results. Our local affiliate is among the national network’s most robust. This is a big year for us: We’re taking the program to a fourth campus – Savannah Christian. We are already live at Savannah Country Day, St. Andrews and Bethesda, and have been for quite some time. Our funding needs are growing along with our impact.
Bottom line: The program works. Measure our results, and by any reasonable metric – reading and math test scores, grad rates…etc – our kids (who aren’t hand-picked based on aptitude) – outperform the broad comparable cohort.
I don’t use this column to ask you for things, but I’m asking you for this: Click this link to go to my page. You will see program details, another message from me, and a great picture of my wife at work with enthusiastic and grateful young kids. If you donate through my page, we get the bonus of my match, which I am privileged to be able to promise.
I intend to work from the Horizons platform to build coalitions of stakeholders who share a common passion – to build the strongest, safest, healthiest, most opportunity-rich community we can collectively imagine – by working with generations of kids. Please join me. Please give what you can today. I can assure you that every penny will be used wisely.
If you’d like to see our programs in action or learn more about them, I’m happy to talk at your convenience. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll set something up.
Thank you for your consideration. Please give.
PS: Bring proof of your contribution to Cutters Point (take a pic of the donation page or confirm on your phone or bring a printout with you), and your drinks for the visit are on me.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #9
“My mom went out and bought every one of these she could get her hands on,” the professor said, alluding to the giant image triplicated on three screens behind him.
“These” refers to copies of an old US News & World Report, the cover photo a candid shot of two West Point cadets – a young man and a young woman – in parade dress. The woman is adjusting the chinstrap on the man’s ceremonial hat. The professor presses his clicker to reveal the extended caption printed on the table of contents page. “Cadet Captain Kathy Gerard, the top-ranking woman in West Point’s first class of females, helps unnamed cadet prepare for graduation ceremonies.”
Everyone in the room laughed as our professor, Scott Snook, self-deprecatingly relived his deflation. Not the “Unknown Soldier,” but the unnamed soldier, he was. He went on to say that this humbling story had a happy ending: Six months later, he and Lt. Gerard were married, and they have gone on have five children, four West Point grads themselves. The colonels, Scott and Kathy, are now both retired, and he is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and the only faculty member I’ve observed to reverentially work both God and the Stars-and-Stripes into a single class.
“I’m just a farm boy from Central Pennsylvania,” the other Scott revealed to the room. Which seemed too-much coincidence as the name, Kathy Gerard, bounced strangely familiar around in my head.
When it was my time to speak, I said, “I, too, am Scott, and from a small town in Central Pennsylvania – Carlisle,” and Scott-the-professor crafted a wide smile.
“Kathy’s from Carlisle; she graduated from Carlisle High,” he explained, and for a moment we were having a private conversation in the middle of a three-hour Advanced Leadership workshop, as people, former country presidents and corporate CEOs, for whom places like Carlisle or Ephrata (Snook’s hometown) might as well be Mars, looked on.
“So did I (graduated from Carlisle High),” I shot back.
“Go Herd!” Scott exclaimed, with reverence for the once-great Carlisle High School Thundering Herd.
The couple of hours that followed were riveting. Snook – with great aplomb – dazzled, provoked and inspired the crowd. He was extremely high-energy and unflinchingly upbeat. With a few minutes remaining, a smile still on his face, he offered a revelation, masked as an unimportant aside. He explained why “only” four of his five children had marched in Mom and Dad’s footsteps through the parade fields of the US Military Academy to their current places in among the Army’s officer corps. Number five – the only girl – born with special needs, had died a year ago. “We were devastated,” Snook said simply to the suddenly-silent group. “But, I think the worst thing has been watching Kathy lose her Faith. She was a devout Catholic, Saint Kathy, to us. And suddenly she couldn’t understand how a loving God could be so cruel.”
The God that Kathy can’t make sense of these days put Scott and me in the same room in Cambridge on a day when I was feeling somewhat isolated and alone. I approached Scott after class, and he helped me better remember the Gerard family – there were eight kids, including two boys my age, who were my friends, and Kathy’s parents lived around the corner from mine for many years. Hours later, I couldn’t stop thinking of Scott and his family’s heartbreak. Nor could I suppress my gratitude that he and Kathy had come into my life. So I wrote to him:
Three paragraphs in, I got to the point:
When you mentioned your profound sadness as a result of your wife's loss of faith, I identified completely. I lost my wife to cancer in 2014. I was 49 when she died and she was an amazing, talented, good-hearted, selfless (and very healthy and fit, despite a battle with melanoma) woman. As I watched her struggle for her last breath, our younger daughter crashed to the concrete floor beside me and screeched. The sound of that shriek still pierces my psyche every day.
My wife was a committed Catholic, never allowing her suffering to mute her love for God. However, my girls, a rising senior in high school and sophomore in college at the time, couldn't reconcile their mother's suffering (and their own) with the notion of a loving deity.
More than three years later, this Easter they both came home (we live in Savannah) and I met them there, leaving Boston for a few days. To my surprise, they woke each other early Easter morning – I could hear the clacks of their heels on the hardwoods above my room. "Daddy, are you ready?" Sofia, the more unforgiving of God of the two, asked. "It’s time to go." And they walked, one on each side of me, from our front steps to the cathedral doors.
I share this in the spirit of hope that you and your family can find peace in the wake of your loss. It is my experience that God has tremendous patience. He'll be there when we're ready for Him again. And...I think He has a particular soft spot in His infinite heart for Thundering Herd alums...
As I write this column, I’m on a train, pulling into New Haven station at this moment, on my way to New York. When we were young, Louise rode round trip between New Haven and New York every day for two years, while she earned her master’s degree at Yale. Maybe I’m a sucker or delusional, but I see God in the craziest places – like Scott Snook’s classroom or the third car of Amtrak’s train number 171.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #8
A wild turkey was wandering through the late-afternoon Harvard Square crowd, hopelessly pecking at the asphalt, and I was pecking at my phone when I nearly walked into him. “I know how you feel,” I said to myself.
I can relate to this wild animal in the middle of a busy, unfamiliar town. The environment can be inhospitable, at times, to the humans among us, too.
The dialect is different…more calculated than my own. A mate, of any kind, is a “partner,” even if he or she is a husband or wife. Actions – as seemingly trivial as choosing between a Coke or a coffee – are evaluated by their potential for “social change.” People appear compelled to add “ism” to the end of many of their nouns. Evidently, if you speak softly, perhaps a bit slowly (but not in the Southern way), you can tell individuals what’s best for them, and they are expected to assent gratefully and comply. Groups of older white guys who preach “inclusion” write memos to people who haven’t asked for them, casually employing phrases like “We strongly suggest…”
People are smart at Harvard. To write such an obvious thing seems a waste of ink. But among these soaring monuments to diversity, it can feel like there’s only room for one kind of smart. Attend enough classes, lectures, performances; read a critical mass of required literature; complete a semester’s-worth of assignments – even if your experiences are spread across seemingly disparate disciplines – and you begin to recognize oft-recurring themes.
I have opened my mind to new perspectives, and that’s healthy; but remaining true to one’s principles…that requires commitment, discomfort and old-fashioned hard work. Lots of your walking will be done alone.
Being the most senior guy in class – often by a generation – doesn’t always look like it did for Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School.” Sometimes, you’re just “the old guy” who has no idea how to use his laptop for all of the things that modern academia expects.
One book we were assigned relies repeatedly on the catch phrase “the myth of America,” a moniker I read as pejorative. Incongruously (to me), its author – presumably of free will – emigrated to this country and has stayed for decades, even though it (myth-America) is inherently unreal and insincere at its core.
There’s this shining ideal I’ve heard about: Free and open discourse. Consider me a fan. But, if you cleverly select the topics for discussion and adeptly anchor the starting point of the debate, you might not end up with thought-Woodstock (see: “free and open”)…or, actually, you might (see: mountains of residual trash).
Scholarly citations are seemingly sacred within the halls of higher learning, and they should be. I’m for “evidenced-based decision-making,” as long as you don’t disingenuously cherry-pick the evidence to suit your will. And sometimes, you EBDMers, there’s no substitute for the instinct that resides in your gut.
If you’re feeling isolated, there are antidotes to your malaise. I’ve found Uber drivers who wear Bruins jerseys can be very welcoming, and I don’t assume that it’s just because they are angling for tips. Kids – especially the really young ones – will (usually) smile back at you when you make a funny face. And there’s yoga, which is communal and non-judgmental, even if you’re the only one in the class who isn’t a too-young-to-legally-drink coed.
Oh, did I mention – it’s 35 degrees?
Here’s the plot twist: I love it here. I’m learning. I’m stretching. The experience is an incredible gift. But it ain’t always easy, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good.
The hungry turkey trying to find bugs in the pavement might not be dumb or foolish. He might just be a little lost.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #7
An April 2, 2013 article on History.com (the History Channel’s digital platform), written by Jesse Greenspan, inspired by the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of Florida declares: “On April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León (PDL) and his crew became the first recorded Europeans to set eyes on Florida. Legend holds that they made this discovery while searching for the Fountain of Youth, a magical water source supposedly capable of reversing the aging process and curing sickness.”
PDL wasn’t the first – and won’t be the last – human to seek an antidote to the woes of aging. Alexander the Great purportedly discovered a healing “river of paradise” in the fourth century BC. Islands, perhaps because their inhabitants are regularly confronted with the power and might of water, have been fertile grounds for such legends. Japan, Polynesia, the United Kingdom, the Canary Islands – each has its own version of the Fountain of Youth story. Mythical King Prester John, said to be a descendant of the Magi and Christian ruler in the “Far East, well beyond Persia and Armenia,” was believed, in medieval European circles, to preside over an empire that included a fountain of youth and a river of gold.
You only have to turn on your television to see modern day manifestations of the quest for eternal youth, in the forms of skin creams, exercise programs and “enhancement” pills. People want to defy nature and stay young, and this pursuit provides significant commercial opportunity for clever marketers. But what about PDL’s original search?
Fifteenth century Spanish sources asserted that the Taino Indians of the Caribbean spoke of a magic fountain and rejuvenating river that existed somewhere north of Cuba. These rumors conceivably influenced PDL, who likely accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. After helping to brutally crush a Taino rebellion on Hispaniola in 1504, PDL was granted a provincial governorship and hundreds of acres of land. In 1508, he was charged with colonizing San Juan Bautista, which is now known as Puerto Rico. He became the island’s first governor a year later, but soon lost a power struggle with Columbus’ son, Diego, and left the island to explore and settle Bimini. He again set sail in March of 1513, and anchored off the eastern coast of Florida. While St. Augustine claims to be his landing point, there are some historians who believe that the area around Melbourne is more accurate. Either way, he then headed south through the Keys before finding the Gulf Stream and riding it back to Europe.
This is where the story gets interesting. Recent archeological excavations along our area of the Atlantic coast, conducted by Georgia Southern University teams, have turned up fascinating documents and artifacts a few hundred yards inland from the ocean beach on Ossabaw Island. Although researchers are in the early phases of reconstructing the spoils of the finds, there appears to be clear reference to a bubbling spring in the island’s lush interior, surfacing into a shallow pool, well-protected by unfettered thick growth, an abundance of massive alligators, and an army of fierce feral hogs. Several markings on the collected items seem to indicate the provenance of PDL and his party.
While findings have yet to be published, reports leaking from the GSU team suggest that PDL believed he found the true Fountain of Youth on Ossabaw. To test his theory, he ordered a dozen of his most weary crewmembers to develop a camp around the perimeter of the spring’s pool, and he abandoned them to return - with the rest of his shipmates – to Spain. Eight years hence, following King Ferdinand’s decree to colonize southwest Florida, PDL navigated back to Ossabaw on the way. The archeologists working on the Ossabaw find are hinting that they have found journal evidence suggesting that PDL found eight of his dozen men in shockingly good health, looking (per buried landing party written records) “like the normal effects of aging have been reversed for these men.”
Evidence of life on Ossabaw dates back more than 4,000 years. Given the recent Fountain of Youth findings, researchers are beginning to reexamine DNA and carbon samples to explore the possibility that inhabitants have enjoyed unusually long life spans, perhaps due to the powers of the “magical” spring.
In 1926, Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West’s mother, an heir to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass fortune, bought Ossabaw, the third largest of Georgia’s barrier islands. Sandy was 11 at the time, and a lifelong love affair with the island was spawned. After inheriting Ossabaw in 1960, Sandy spendt much of her wealth underwriting retreats for artists, writers and scientists. When property taxes jeopardized her long-term ownership, she rebuffed wealthy developers. Instead, she and her family sold the island to the state for $8 million, half its assessed value. The sale ensured the island would be a heritage preserve used only for “natural, scientific and cultural study, research and education and environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management.” Any visitor to Ossabaw knows that she lived in relative isolation, virtually intertwined with the unbound natural beauty of the place.
Sandy was fiercely maternal and very private with respect to Ossabaw’s “secrets” that she, as its long-time inhabitant, witnessed firsthand over the course of a half century. Despite harsh conditions and few conveniences, due to the fact that the island is accessible only by boat, she did live on the island until she was 103. In January, she celebrated her 105th birthday.
Is it something in the water? St. Augustine might have the tourist trade, but we might have the real Fountain of Youth just across the sound.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #6
How often do you get to say, “I have the same spring break as my kid?” Fortuitously, this year, I do.
I’m “in school” (essentially) in Boston, and we’re off this week. Gabby is a college junior, studying in Dallas, and this is her week off, too. Imagine my delight when, a month ago, she told me she didn’t feel like joining her friends for a sun-soaked bacchanal. Rather, she might like to do something with Dad.
We chose Italy, where we are as I type. In a few minutes, she’ll awaken, and we’ll make for the Rome train station, bound for my ancestral village. I’m filled with excitement and nostalgia, and excited to see what we find.
It’s an amazing confluence of forces that have led us to this place, this day. That we are together is a priceless gift. I am careful to acknowledge my good fortune.
As if to further remind me of the universe’s mysterious powers: Yesterday, early afternoon, after a visit to the Vatican but before a long, leisurely lunch at one of my five favorite places on the planet – Salumeria Roscioli – Gabby and I were wandering among the produce stands in the Campo de’ Fiori, a market that reconstitutes itself and disappears daily, just as it has for hundreds of years. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a girl with a very familiar face. I urged Gabby to look in the same direction. My kids tell me, regularly, that I see people who aren’t really there. So, when Gabby confirmed the sighting of our Savannah neighbor from two doors down on Perry Street – we had no idea she was scheduled to travel to Rome – we were blown away. As was Grayson, whose smile and eyes both widened to their limits upon spotting us.
We chatted until a few more kids we know from home joined our circle. Sometimes, clichés say it best: It’s a small world.
Smaller each day, actually, under the power of digital connectivity. Which is why something as analog as taking a train with your young-adult daughter to see the place from which her great-grandfather dreamed of America is extra special.
She’s waking up. It’s time to go.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #4
Five minutes ago, I finished chatting with Ana over coffee. Ana wants to change the world. I think she might.
Ana is from McAllen, Texas. Or Reynosa, Mexico, depending upon how you think about being from somewhere. She was born in Reynosa, in the state of Tamaulipas, where her parents operate a logistics and transportation company. Tamaulipas is the physical heart of the Gulf Cartel, Mexico’s oldest organized narco-conglomerate, and one of its most ruthless. When Ana grew to school age, her parents enrolled her in a private institution across the suspension bridge that separates her native country from its neighbor to the north. As high school approached, she switched to the McAllen public school system in order to develop a more comprehensive across-the-spectrum perspective on American life. By that time, overwhelmed by unrelenting violence, the family had moved to the Texas side of the border, and Mom and Dad were making the daily drive back and forth through immigration checkpoints to manage their business while safely shielding their children from incessant threats of violence, death and despair.
Ana is smart. She did well in school. She earned admission to a premier university, where she studied architecture, which led to a job in the field. While drawing buildings, her mind wandered, leading to vague memories of the Mexico that she had left behind. Ana was living the American dream. Or the Mexican dream. Or the Mexican-American dream. Whatever it is, her version is available to few.
Ana informed her parents, who had worked and saved and found safety and security for their family, that she was going back to school. She would study education. She would find a way to serve the children of Tamaupilas. She hadn’t synthesized her ideas, but she had conceived a mission: Through education, she would open eyes to new opportunities, to realities that many of Tamaupilas’ children couldn’t imagine to exist. Ana would change the world by touching and teaching one blood-soaked city’s kids.
“I need to bring the two communities together – the people like me who have found a path to relative comfort with those who remain left behind,” she declared. Ana admitted to a mixed bag of feelings, including gratitude, guilt and obligation and apprehension that she might have no idea how to practically navigate from point A to point B. She was leading with her heart.
“Where will you locate your program?” I asked.
“Because of the border, it’s easier for people like me to go into Mexico than it is for the kids we want to reach to come to us,” she explained, and I came to realize as soon as the question came out of my mouth.
“So how will you deal with security? Bringing a bunch of affluent kids to crime-ridden neighborhoods in a foreign county seems like it comes with risks,” I said earnestly, careful not to seem unsympathetic or condescending, or both.
“I know. I’ve thought about that,” Ana admitted. “And I haven’t figured it out.”
Ana and I were talking because we share a fundamental belief: The road to social impact runs through empowerment; knowledge fuels the power of possibility. It’s an idea both simple and grandiose. It’s a challenge both easily recognized and wickedly complex.
For me – I’m largely done with band-aid philanthropy. Addressing societal symptoms – poverty, hunger, chronic under-employment, crime, unrest, animal abandonment - after the systemic cancers have metastasized is a low-leverage approach. I recognize the need for compassion in the short-term, but genuine change requires focus far beyond today. So how do we make sure every person – every child – has the tools and inspiration to pursue noble dreams? Give me a minute or two…I’m working on it. So is Ana.
Before we finished out coffees, I asked Ana – “I hope you don’t mind,” I prefaced – how old she is.
I told her that I admire her spirit, her aspirations. I said I have daughters roughly her age, and I’m counting on the 20-something women of the world to lead us out of darkness and towards something truly great. I hypothesized aloud that Ana would like my girls if she were to meet them, and they her. Proudly, I said what I often say, “They’re great kids.”
“I’m sure, as in my situation, it’s because of the great job you did,” Ana said kindly, with a big, sincere smile.
I thanked her, and told Ana about my daughters’ mother – how she was strong, and a special woman, so they are strong, and special, too. My eyes felt heavy, and Ana widened her smile in opposition to her welling tears.
Our projects are different enough that we probably won’t work together, we decided, but we thanked each other and promised to share updates and encouragement, then said goodbye.
Outside, in a cold, crisp Cambridge day filled with the golden glow from an unobscured sun, a phrase popped into my head: Cynicism is a self-conscious dream hiding behind an ugly mask. I’m not sure if I was recalling it or making it up.
This is my Harvard, I thought. I’m so lucky to be here.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #3
This is for Chuck.
At the end of my small section for Ed A132 – Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Education – a Toronto resident by way of Kenya stayed behind to ask our teaching fellow if her project idea seemed “appropriate for the class.” I hadn’t vacated my seat, well within earshot of the exchange, as the prospect of walking out into the snowy Cambridge streets in an air cast boot doesn’t inspire one to jump up from his desk chair.
“I advise you to try this,” the teaching fellow said in the low-register, sultry cadence of a stereotypical Soviet spy (think Natasha Fatale from Bullwinkle cartoons). “Sit in a dark, quiet room with your eyes closed. Ponder your question, and see if it upsets your stomach.”
“Really?!” I blurted, as I couldn’t help myself.
“Yes, it works,” the fellow said, and referenced a social psychology study, should I require proof.
Shaliza, from Toronto, did not respond. By this time, her friend, Sanija, from Sri Lanka, had come to grab Shaliza by the elbow and drag her out of the room.
“She already knows the answer,” the fellow said to me.
“And she also knows what she wants it to be,” I replied, awkwardly attempting to appear insightful.
A pause, and then I inquired, “Moldova, isn’t that like the poorest of the former SSRs?”
And so it went from there. I learned that Moldova has a population of roughly 2.5 million, an ever-increasing number of whom are choosing to identify as Romanian, for reasons till not completely clear. During the height of Soviet power, Moldova thrived as a manufacturing hub, feeding Mother Russia’s appetite for everything from soft goods to silicon chips. Human traffickers have found Moldova to be fertile ground from which to gather their raw materials (unsuspecting humans). There are 36 universities in a country with as many people as Maryland has.
My section is comprised of the following:
– a doctor from Indonesia (who graduated medical school at 20)
– a doctor from South Africa (who happens to be an identical twin)
– a software CEO from Houston, nee Pakistan
– a former government minister from Colombia
– a kid from Mexico City who backpacked from the top of South America to the southern tip
– the aforementioned Shaliza and Sanija
– and me.
“I’m from the South,” I said. “Which is probably more exotic and rare at Harvard than being Moldovan.”
“You’re probably right,” the Moldovan she-fellow said. “Last semester, we had a guy from Kentucky. We couldn’t believe it. Your perspective will be…interesting, no doubt.”
I don’t believe she meant it in a hostile way.
“I’ll look forward to discussing what you think of the ethos of the “Ed” School as we go along,” the fellow offered, seeming sincere.
“My impression so far – It’s very…international. So is the Kennedy School,” I said. “And both schools have been very welcoming to me.”
As if they would have a reason not to be. Did I sound ridiculous? I asked myself inside my head.
The Moldovan was heading to the airport, bound for Barcelona, where she’ll teach a seminar for the next 11 days. I recommended two restaurants and a neighborhood market, and grabbed my bag and turned towards the door and the snow.
Just then, I thought of Chuck. Chuck, who has raised failing foundations on little rental houses I’ve acquired. Who has gotten down and back up at least 1,000 times in the hot, unyielding South Georgia dirt to plant baby olive trees, one after the other, for days on end. Who has unclogged drain lines overflowing with coffee grounds and indeterminate sludge. Who has run complicated computer reports at the behest of impatient New Yorkers hoping to justify their existences to their self-interested bosses or undermine their frenemies for personal gain. Who has sold ad space and written stories and figured out who won our football pool, fall after fall. Who has silently suffered while hooking himself through the fat part of his thumb with a big, barbed hook meant for a marlin, just so my friends could keep their lines in the water without interruption. Who makes sure my storage units are full with stuff owned by people who reliably pay their rents.
When I (we) left Guggenheim Partners (in 2016), I wasn’t sure what was next. Neither was Chuck, though he said something to the effect of, “Whatever it is, I’m in.” And I breathed a big sigh of relief.
We bicker like a married couple. There are things he says he refuses to do; then, he does some of them anyway.
So why did I think about Chuck as soon as my conversation with the Moldovan came to an end? Because I trust him. I am here and he is there, and I truly believe things will be okay without me.
A couple of years ago, I began the process of pursuing a Harvard appointment, feeling in my gut that it was a longshot, at best. When the longshot turned into a likelihood, I withdrew from consideration. I had too much going on, so my fear declared. The following year, at the time of reckoning – go or no-go – I thought of Chuck. And, go I have. A little more than two weeks in, I declare the decision to do so among the top-five I’ve ever made (and two of the others are 22 and 21, respectively, now).
There are many people in my life who provide love and encouragement, the fuel that propels me to seek my dreams. But there is only one Chuck. Reliable – always. Recalcitrant – sometimes. And a really, really special friend.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #2
I can’t sleep.
I can’t sleep because my left foot is broken and swollen to twice its normal size. And I just arrived (today) in a new (to me) city (Boston) and I couldn’t begin to tell you which way is north (or south or east or west) or where the closest drug store is. And tomorrow (today, technically, I suppose), more boxes (there are 11 here already, a wide variety of bulky and big) will arrive at my cozy (a.k.a. really little) apartment, and I don’t have a box cutter (or shower curtain or drinking glass or soap dish or cutting board or lamps or hangers), and it’s hard to move stuff around without the use of both of your feet. And a delivery team is scheduled to arrive (hopefully, to assemble and position my new bed and other more-than-one-guy items, like a tiny couch) “between 11 and 1,” with a mattress man due “between 3:45 and 5:45,” while I must be half a mile a way on campus for meetings at 2 and 5. And I don’t have my Harvard ID yet, nor have I determined how or where to get it (I only know that wherever is incredibly far when you’re limping on an air-cast boot in New England snow), so I can’t get into the buildings in which I’m supposed to meet the people whom I shamefully can’t yet name by face. And when you break your foot, they tell you not to do things like 1) walk, 2) run, 3) yoga, 4) bike, 5) exercise maniacally some other way in addition to the aforementioned and daily items 1 through 4. And vigorous physical activity is such an essential component of my life that, without it for the foreseeable future, I might go crazy and/or get fat. And, in reviewing the Spring 2018 Course Catalog, something I’ve been doing for most of the past eight hours, I have come to accept that any schedule I am likely to concoct will be more restrictive than I had fooled myself into imagining, thereby further complicating the logistics regarding my “they-need-me-there” trips home. And, halfway through typing the previous sentence, I stopped to fully appreciate a series of unusually robust heart palpitations, which, according to a Harvard Medical School article, can be caused by panic, anxiety and stress.
So, it’s 5:41 (in the morning), and I can’t sleep, nor have I, since I awoke from a shallow, restless state of semi-consciousness exactly two hours ago.
Should I pursue classes that I already know something about? Then, maybe, the professors, many of whom are likely younger than I, might not be perceptibly annoyed by my audit. Or should I seek out subjects beyond my comfort zone (which is smaller than a phone book right now, in case you haven’t been paying attention)? Either way, once I decide, I’ll have to 1) complete online forms to request auditor status (forms that are different for each of the university’s schools) 2) email each professor, introducing myself and begging for consideration…two tasks that require sophisticated navigation of a labyrinthine computer system that was – clearly – designed with a much younger user in mind. (For the first time in my life, tonight I employed my phone to take a picture of a digital code box that popped up in my laptop browser, and the picture was processed with an app that I had – seconds before – downloaded, so that my “device” could sync with my browser, enabling me to not-have-any-idea-how-to-do-what-I-need-to on two platforms at once.
Thus, I can’t sleep. Just in time for first light. Which, if I were feeling less fatalistic, I might describe as “crimson,” in keeping with my new adventure’s color theme. But, for now, let’s just call it Yankee gray out there.
They say, “Take a deep breath.” Or “Put one foot in front of the other.” Which, is a lot easier to do with all of your metatarsals in tact. But I’ll try.
Up Front – Vol. 16, #1
In my previous column, I mentioned that I am “going back to school.” The phrasing is both intentionally and annoyingly vague. More precisely: On January 14, I fly to Boston to join the 10th (annual) Cohort of Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellows. I have made a habit of not-saying it out loud or writing it down, as I fear it might sound brag-y. That’s not the idea here, I promise. Rather, the program has been so amazing already – and I’ve done nothing more than pass through the selection process and attend a three-day intensive orientation – that I encourage anyone with an appetite for lifelong learning and desire to do public good to check it out. (advancedleadership.harvard.edu)
As Harvard describes the fellowship, it is “a new third stage in higher education designed to prepare experienced leaders to take on new challenges in the social sector where they potentially can make an even greater societal impact than they did in their careers.” The common thread among fellows, as I observe it, is a passion to help make the world a better place.
Another shared characteristic among the other 47 fellows in the class of 2018 – They all seem more qualified than I. We have a former Prime Minister of Peru (it’s a she – the first such-gendered person to lead a South American state); CEO of KFC, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Long John Silver’s (all one man); and UN Commissioner for Refugee Affairs; not to mention (small world) the guy who hired me at Morgan Stanley in 1992…and fired me in 1995. (I deserved it.) We have former financiers, founders, a member of Congress…and a guy with a little magazine and coffee shop.
Each fellow conceives and develops a comprehensive project intended to fill an unmet societal need. I have given much thought to my philanthropy and arrived at a basic idea: Education and opportunity are antidotes to many, if not most, systemic human problems. Poverty, hunger, crime, abandoned pets – These are challenges we need to face together, but I hope to stunt them at their roots rather than offer triage once it’s too late.
For this mission, I’ll be spending much of this year in a 547-square-foot studio apartment within sprinting distance of Harvard Stadium, home since 1903 to the Crimson’s gridiron squads. I’ll come back here as much as the rigors of the program allow.
Portending absence aside, I remain committed to The Skinnie, our advertisers and audience (you). I will edit every story, just like I always have, from the place in front of my laptop screen. This column will continue, with thudding regularity (as an old friend from the NY Times used to say), penned (metaphorically) with our print deadline fast approaching or just past.
It’s a New Skinnie Year, our 16th, believe it or not. I’m going to need a little help with a few things while I’m gone. If any of the items on this wish-list interests you, get in touch before it slips your mind.
1. We’re looking to launch a new, recurring column, with a single author and some fresh ideas. Do you want to write for us? Do you have a topic you want to explore over a span of time? If it makes sense and you’re reliable, you’re hired.
2. We’re a tiny business, with a single revenue stream. If I were more ambitious or energetic or desperate, we’d evolve – robust digital footprint, branded merchandise, complementary markets, and on and on. Alas, we’re likely to remain just as we are, which enables us to maintain a special bond with our readers. For your part, please consider the value of reaching an engaged, affluent audience…advertise with us, or suggest that your favorite businesses do.
3. Art – photos, paintings, whatever you’re inspired to create. It’s impossible to publish everything we receive, but your imagery is a vital piece of our story…send it in.
I’m going to Boston, but we’re not going anywhere. See you right here every other week.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #26
In January, I’m going back to school. I leave the same day as my daughter; we’re on the same Savannah-to-Atlanta flight. She connects for Dallas; while it’s Boston for me.
I began to consider this move more than three years ago, but I was scared. How could I leave what has become familiar to me? With no traditional income and the added expense of an apartment and semi-regular back-and-forth flights, how would my long-term financial health fare? Am I smart and diligent enough to do the work? For a year, I shelved the idea.
Every new issue of my alumni magazine reminded me – courtesy of a full-page ad – of the possible fellowship that I had forsaken. On an impulse, I dialed the number at the bottom of the page. The application process, as described during the call, gave me comfort – secure in the knowledge that I would never be selected. Free of expectations, I filled out forms, wrote essays, interviewed with faculty and former fellows, and filed the notion of additional advanced education in the back of my mind. On the day, about a year and a half ago, that the faculty committee was to convene and review finalist candidates (somehow my application was still alive and I had an inkling I might actually make the final cut), I talked for three hours straight to the admissions coordinator. Together, we determined it was best if I withdraw. I wasn’t ready…not 100 percent.
Early last spring, Mike, the aforementioned admissions official, emailed me “just to check in.” I waited a few days, then dialed. “Submit my material. I want to go.” A few weeks later, Mike confirmed the good news. I was in; I would start in nine months, plenty of time to put everything else in my world in its proper, self-regulating place.
For most of the next nine months, I told no one; for, to do so would make this abstract thing real. Find housing in Cambridge? Later. Consult with those closest to me? It’s better that they don’t know. Figure out what to do with Mushu (my companion-cat)? Cat’s are self-sufficient, and it’s only ONE year.
In an instant, nine months became a couple of weeks. I secured a round-trip ticket and left home for a three-day orientation, from which I am only two days back. I’ve signed a lease on a 547-foot studio apartment, chosen classes, prepared 11 cases for Socratic discussion, and prayed like mad.
On the first morning, I found myself seated next to woman who seemed quiet and shy. After awkward silence, I reminded myself I identify as a Southerner, conjured a smile, and broke the ice. She had an accent, Latin-American, I guessed to myself. “Beatriz Merino,” per her name card and nice-to-meet-you-introduction; the first female Prime Minister of Peru, Google and the bio in our binders said.
That’s when my fear faded completely. She was kind, unassuming, there for the same reasons as I: To become better and try to do some good in the world.
Yesterday, I emailed Mike, the admissions guy. This is what I said:
I consider myself to be a better-than-decent writer. Even so, I’m struggling to synthesize my feelings into a few sentences. Absent appropriate superlatives, I’ll say simply: I am blown away. I can’t recall feeling as excited and hopeful and humbled as I do today, as a result of my recent visit to Cambridge.
Starting with the cohort – WOW! It’s a tad intimidating to find myself surrounded with such an incredible group of accomplished and thoughtful people. As it was on my first day at Wharton in 1988, I was wondering how the heck I slipped past all of you and into such a rarified room. A bunch of really smart people with the maturity and experience to embrace the act of learning with reverence unavailable to one earlier in life – it’s magical. Similarly mystical – it’s inspiring to join a collection of extremely competitive individuals who seem genuinely joined in spirit to do important things. It’s as if the shared pursuit is as important as personal achievement…and that’s beautiful in its own way.
On to the faculty – I am in awe. Dr. Fill-in-the-blank is a world leader in X…the phrase seems useful again and again and again, every time we meet someone new. These preeminent scholars radiate sincere interest in helping us with our missions to positively impact the world. I’m 53, yet I feel a child-like desire to please and impress.
The staff – You guys are straight-up pros. Choreographing all of this is so much harder than you and your colleagues make it seem. I feel cared-for, practically and psychically. Thank you all for that.
From the start of the first session, I’ve been on an intellectual high. I’m a crossword puzzle guy – I work the Saturday NY Times puzzle (sort of the Ironman Triathlon of puzzles) every week, always solving it, but rarely without walking away and coming back a few times over the course of a long day. After leaving the program for the airport, I grabbed the paper and sat in the Sky Club, where I filled in every square in 30 minutes without looking up. I’m thinking that my cognitive energy has been noticeably multiplied from a few days in Cambridge, surrounded by the program and its promise.
Mostly, I’m immeasurably grateful. This is an opportunity that few have. Before last week, I remained trepidatious, uncertain about the long-term impact on my financial security that this year will have. My peers’ bios confirm that I’m probably the poorest (relative and insensitively flippant term, but you get the idea) guy in the room; yet, suddenly, I don’t care. This experience is a precious gift. I believe, in just a few days, that I have a real, fighting chance to help change the world for the better and for good. And I feel like my wife is with me, and pleased, and proud.
I type this without reading glasses or time to proofread, so please forgive typos and/or other errors, herein. Understand that I am euphoric and champing at the bit to return.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #25
Three days from now. I’m expecting results from some medical tests today or tomorrow, and tomorrow I fly to Boston, where I’ll be for four days. I’ve bought exactly zero gifts to date, and I have no more than a rough idea of whom is on my list and what I’d like to get for anyone, anyway. Perhaps, the sum of this mess explains why I’ve been staring at a blank computer screen, bankrupt of creative ideas and energy, for 30 minutes now.
Advent – the word behind the calendars with the little pop-out window boxes – derives from Latin language concerning the action “to come or happen soon.” The Christian observance of Advent season suggests joyous anticipation and reverent preparation for the coming of the Savior. Yet, the overwhelming confluence of year-end tasks can quickly transform joy to dread. In Mass, I connect with the promise of salvation. Much of the rest of time, I am paralyzed by the fear that I can’t possibly ready myself – practically or spiritually – for what lies less than two weeks ahead.
It’s impractical that we end a year and celebrate the birth of Christ with no more than a week in between. Closing the books is sort of the opposite of opening your heart. Remember back to your school days: Did you do your best work when you put the big things off until the very last minute? Does a rush to secure health insurance, make tax-deductible charitable contributions, bake cookies and buy consumer electronics properly prepare your soul for the promise of salvation? Probably not.
I’m for moving New Year’s Day to July 1. Changing our calendar system to a fiscal year.
Think about it from a holiday standpoint. Christmas is such a big deal that you’d probably still get most, if not all, of the week in which it falls, off. Then, combine the coming of the New Year and its symbolic blank slate with Independence Day, and there’s another full week. Champagne and fireworks - while I don’t advocate using the two in tandem - seem kindred in a way. And we’d put a little space between the Baby Jesus and Times Square, which seems appropriate and the right thing to do. Celebrating outside at midnight makes a lot more sense when it’s warm and the sun remains relevant until 9.
Christmas would be less hectic than it is now. It would be the undeniable star (of Bethlehem) of the season, absent the rush to get so many other chores done under the end-of-year gun.
You start overindulging at Thanksgiving. You’re plenty stuffed by December 25. Forget the resolutions, just stop gorging yourself on the 26th. Sober up and get to the gym a week earlier than you’d otherwise do. Your body will thank you. And July 4th barbecues feature lots of hangover food, good for your head on the days after my new, New Year.
Face it, you don’t get much done in June anyway, as you’ve kicked into summer mode. So there’s plenty of time for filling out benefit-election forms and gathering documents for your CPA.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s a song title, but it also represents the length of Christmastime celebrations beginning before the Middle Ages and continuing, in a more limited way, for some Christians today. Consider this: What did people have going on hundreds and hundreds of years ago? No TV. No social media. No 9 to 5. Grow stuff. Make stuff. Give stuff to your king. And fight for him when he gets ambitious and/or bored. Even with that limited schedule, it took them 12 days to handle the business of Christmas. We get one, and on that day most of the stores are closed.
My girls and I bought our tree and wreaths the day after Thanksgiving, and I’ll have finished all of my cards by the end of today. I’ve been lulled into a false sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but now the sprint to the finish begins. Yet, it’s not supposed to be a finish at all, but rather, a start. Instead of collapsing in a sigh of relief that it’s over, I hope to remember to inhale the winds of change and hope.
In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of shopping to do.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #24
If a picture paints a thousand words, consider the expressive value of an entire photo shoot.
Last year, we had a family crisis concerning our Christmas card. Basically, I wanted to produce one and my girls’ were considerably less enthusiastic about the idea. “Considerably” is far too nuanced, actually. They flat-out weren’t having it.
Clandestinely, I crafted a printed proof from the library of photos sitting on my phone. I took care to include pictures of each of the three of us – alone, in pairs, and together as a trio. Our cat got a place among the thumbnail array, as did a few local landmarks. Having learned through the years that young women are picky about their pics, I opted for a collection of little images, rather than a single, large shot.
I addressed and sent every last copy before my girls returned home for winter break. I didn’t dare speak of “the card,” and hoped that none of its recipients would acknowledge its existence aloud. Bad plan. We live in an annoyingly connected world. It seems that my kids know the details of every little thing that happens around this town before the protagonists in the fast-spreading stories themselves.
“Dad, you lied…you made a card.” And, “The pictures are horrible.” One more: “The card was Mom’s thing. You feel like you have to do it now. We don’t. You’ve ruined it.”
Their reactions hurt in several ways. The resultant mess set a sullen tone for a sometimes-uncomfortable holiday season. More than once, I worried that I had lost my girls, perhaps for good. One night, in a car at the curb outside our house, our world exploded. They yelled and cried, and I was defenseless, and they were mostly right. It was clear – there would be no quick-fixes for the things that were dividing us. And those things were now collectively represented by the ill-fated family card.
Slowly, welcome change. Subtle, but recognizable – the evolution came as unspectacular gestures rather than seismic shifts. The frequency of our phone calls increased. The conversations bathed in warmer tones. I can feel their contentment with their current lives from far away. But absence is easy – would our distant-closeness prove genuine, face-to-face, several days in a row?
I can’t remember the last time the three of us have seemed so united in spirit and purpose. We have come to affectionately accept each other’s quirks and imperfections, and our shared fate. Forgiveness continues to nudge resentment deeper into a dark corner. Loss feels different than it has for most of the last three years. We are conscious of it and quietly reverent, but we aren’t angry and empty, too. We have permitted ourselves to celebrate our hopes and ambitions. We have talked, and walked, and sat for long times together in the same room.
The week before Thanksgiving, they addressed, without prompting, the taboo issue: the card. Stunned, I was, by what I heard. Shocked and elated, at once. “Let’s do pictures in the square by our house. On Thanksgiving morning, so we don’t have to dress up twice. We’ll design and order the card before we go back on Sunday. Okay?”
So that’s what we did. I asked a friend of ours, a photographer in addition to other creative things, Shannon, if she was available…and she was. We each sought approval from the others before settling on our outfits. We posed standing, sitting, in several different rooms, forced indoors by holiday rain. On the way to our car, carrying a pie, bound for my parents’ house, Shannon suggested we turn toward her camera one last time. Two umbrellas, a freshly-baked dessert, and three big smiles, bordered by shimmering wet sidewalk bricks and overhanging holly branches and a receding line of vintage-1854 iron balconies to one side…the picture is unexpected perfection. I’d share it with you here, but I dare not risk upsetting the blissful family balance we’ve cultivated to replace our pain.
The next day we bought and hung wreaths – the three of us together, rather than one carrying most of the load. We decorated our tree and raved about the extra-cool lights their mother bought seven years ago that miraculously still work. Gabby wrestled with an angel that is meant to hover over one of our nativity scenes until she secured it safely above the Infant’s crib. We admired our work. I took pictures, and they didn’t turn away in disgust.
A thousand words per picture. It’s a lopsided trade. But I offer an alternative equation, based on our Thanksgiving photo shoot. Roughly a hundred pictures for 10 words. We were gathered close, smiling, saying without saying what we hadn’t said nearly enough in a long time: I love you, and we’re going to be okay.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #23
“Demerger.” Is that even a word? Actually, and surprisingly to me, it is. But just because it’s a legitimate component of our vast lexicon, is it, in the case of policing, a good idea?
So as to eliminate any uncertainty as to my answer to the question, let me be clear: Hell, no.
Fourteen years ago, parties agreed to the prudence of merging the Savannah and Chatham County Police Departments to form a single entity charged with the county’s public safety. In July, the city council, which includes the mayor, voted unanimously (8-0) to terminate the existing merger agreement and undo the consolidated entity into its previously separate parts.
I’m no reporter. This is an essay, not journalism. But I know some of the people charged with making these decisions. And I’ve listened to them, carefully. As yet, I’m not satisfied with much of what I’ve heard.
The City would tell you that it has repeatedly reached out to the county to resolve lingering issues of contention. City officials would also suggest that the county refuses to respond. So what then, give up?! One thing I’ve learned about leadership over the years: A big part of it is getting people to consider and ultimately do what they might be predisposed to adamantly resist. “I can’t get him to listen to me,” is the opposite of leadership. If the truth and sentiment are on your side and you can’t even get your adversary to take your call, that’s a you-problem. You lack strategy and tactics, and you are fundamentally weak.
The County’s hands aren’t clean in this matter, either. Not by a long shot. Here are some arguments in favor of demerger that county officials cite: 1) The whole thing was done poorly from the start. 2) People in the unincorporated areas don’t see enough patrol activity. 3) This one I can’t hope to begin to articulate as it’s been communicated to me…suffice it to say it’s some nuanced and unintelligible argument about who pays for what.
Let’s take these points one at a time.
1) Done poorly from the start: Um, it’s government. Do we expect seamless efficiency, superior performance and optimal cost control? So, yep, we could have probably done better. But who among us gets everything right the first time? Especially the hard and important things? When I messed up as a dad, did I decide it best to give my kids back? Again…this thinking is the opposite of leadership. If something in your charge is broken, find ways, work your butt off, to fix it. Doing anything less is cowardly, and dereliction of your leadership duty.
2) Not enough patrols in the unincorporated areas: Isn’t that one of the reasons you live in such a place? I’m no General Patton, but I have a basic sense of military science. You put the armies where the battles are. The same holds for policing. Fewer crimes, fewer cops. Celebrate your relative good fortune, rather than criticizing law enforcement officers for deciding to do much of their work in places where they are much more likely to get shot than down the street from you.
3) Who pays for what?: In short, figure it out. Here’s how this would go if it were a business. First, we would work hard to understand market needs. In this case, how do we optimally ensure public safety for all citizens? Then, we’d go backwards from there. We’d create a draft budget with detailed expense categories to enable us to achieve our determined goals. We’d push and pull and engineer costs as low as they could go. We’d recognize that our “company” has two primary revenue streams – city and county taxes. We’d get the “division heads” (city and county officials) together and negotiate how to most efficiently and fairly allocate our shared expenses between divisions. And none of the guys/gals at the top of the pyramid would consider or feel comfortable leaving the room until they arrived at a final product. That’s what leaders do.
Sometimes, more really is more. Back to the army metaphor, if I were a commander, I’d like to have as many soldiers and guns and other resources as I could muster. Policing is difficult. You (citizens) see uniforms in patrol cars. You don’t see training specialists, forensics experts, seasoned investigators, tactical operators. Do you think a little municipality with a five-man force is good at any of these things?
Savannah is a city with two major metastasizing cancers – poverty and crime. You can debate which is the chicken and which is the egg, but the survival of our community – and communities extend well beyond the boundaries established by gates; if America is afraid to come here, everyone of us loses – depends upon fighting as hard as we can to eradicate both. As I am not a journalist, I am also not a social scientist. But I’d advocate for one weapon above all others in each fight. Combat poverty with education, the seed of all opportunity. And fight crime with a robust law enforcement infrastructure. In that light, intentionally fracturing our police makes no sense.
Who among you deems the purposeful creation of duplicate public entities to be a good idea? Ever? And where does the madness end? Should every neighborhood have its own publicly-funded sewage treatment plant? Do the Historic and Victorian Districts need distinct sanitation units, each with its own uniforms and different-colored trucks? Of course not.
I choose to believe it’s not too late to compel our leaders to genuinely lead. It’s you whom are referenced as in support of the demerger. You don’t notice enough squad cars; you pay more than your fair share and all of the crime happens downtown. But we’re a society. Services aren’t offered a la carte. Be courageous. Be vocal. Tell your commissioners you expect more from them.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #22
It’s Halloween (as I type this) – I can tell by the costumes everybody but me seem to be wearing - but this page contains neither trick nor treat. Although I haven’t run out of ideas (at least I don’t think I have), I have run out of time. Despite intentions to craft something clever, I am faced with a deadline that has passed and a printer with an idle press. The truth is – I’ve been feeling a little listless and uninspired since Saturday afternoon when Penn State blew a 15-point fourth quarter lead and any chance of a special season. So I implore you to forgive this slip and return to see what I’ve written two weeks from now. In the meantime, enjoy the chill in the air and the last sips of pumpkin spice before it’s time for the cinnamon notes of Christmas Blend.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #21
It’s a milestone worth mention, insignificant as it might seem. Three of the four women working in my coffee shop this morning are wearing flannel shirts. It’s chilly. The steam rising from a pumpkin spice latte demands attention. The sky is a version of mid-morning grey, not ominous, but not likely to give way to a hot sun.
I see a man who has been consistently kind to me. He is older than I, a member of my father’s generation. We chat, and somehow the topic turns from finance to fishing, before the man refills his cup and leaves.
My father, himself, walks in. He carries a stuffed manila envelope, as men of his vintage do. Inside – DVDs, digital transcriptions of super-8 movies that have rested peacefully for decades in their tins. He’s hunting. My sister and I are opening Christmas presents. I’m playing baseball. My sister is tumbling through a gymnastics floor exercise. My mother waves reluctantly before she opens the station wagon door. I haven’t viewed them yet, but the scenes are suddenly fresh to me.
He – my dad – first mentioned the movies last week. Do I want to watch them? Good, so when? He asks such questions with an urgency that I don’t understand in the moment, but I do later when I play the conversation back in my head. Today, he leaves the envelope with me. It’s labeled conveniently: “DVDs from Dad.”
“Are you going to watch them on your computer?” he asks.
“Not now, I have to write my essay (this essay),” I answer, more abruptly than my better self would.
“Not now, but later,” he confirms, and I nod, and he turns and takes a seat a table straight behind my back.
Another man, five years my father’s senior and friend to both my dad and me, enters the shop. I haven’t seen him much since his buddy died. Together, they’d come for coffee nearly every morning. Without his morning mate, the man has changed his routine. He is with another man, whom I soon learn is his son. I am happy to meet his boy (who hasn’t been a boy for a long time). Soon the son will return to Alaska, and the father may or may not revert to dropping by here regularly again.
The two men join my father and I return to my work. When my dad hears “Alaska,” he comes especially alive. He tells stories of grizzlies and moose and men he hasn’t mentioned since I was living at home. The details are vivid, precise – a peculiar contrast to the way he now loses proper nouns on the pathways between his mind and mouth.
A woman with glasses and a face I know approaches. “You probably don’t want it, but I have some unsolicited advice.” Her instincts are spot-on.
I try, unsuccessfully, to construct a smile mask on my face. I settle for a neutral stare. She wants her comfortable chair back, nevermind that we have double the number that were here when she used to come. She wants her chair to be by the window, where I’ve built counter seating for 10 rather than two. It’s dark beneath the cozy seats, she says, even though I’ve added five strong overhead lights in the very spot she laments.
How about the cushioned seating over there, drowned in natural light? I point. It looks crowded over there, she protests. It’s wide open, give it a try, I implore. We eventually agree that some people like things the way they have “always been.” And I let her know that I understand and it’s okay. She decides she’s going to start coming back here anyway, and she’s going to propose the shop as a meeting place for a group she knows. After walking towards the door, she turns back to me. You could put my chair right there, and she points to a spot near the window where everyone stands to ponder the pastry case. I hope to see you soon, I say, and she leaves.
I’m in a light cashmere sweater. It’s both active and quiet in here. The music is low and my fingers are tapping the keys with minimal course-correction by my brain.
These unspectacular elements hint at a common theme: Comfort. A thing I’ve been working so hard to find that I’ve too often arrived at its opposite. It’s here. Right here. And if I sit still in front of my keyboard for long enough, it visits me. The trick is finding a way to make it stick.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #20
I’d characterize myself as a “pretty good” Catholic, whatever that means. But I’m not so dedicated as to regularly attend weekday Mass. On September 21, a Thursday, I was there, in the Cathedral, just before 7:30 in the morning, waiting for the priest. My mom was by my side and I was quietly bracing for a tough half hour ahead.
In the Faith, we have a mechanism for remembering and praying for the souls of the deceased. We “offer” mass in the person’s name, often on the anniversary of his or her death. Well into the service, the priest speaks the person’s name aloud. You know it’s coming, but when it’s your loved one, the words still have a stinging effect.
September 21 is the day my wife died, three years and a few days ago at the time of this read. On this iteration of the forever-unsettling 21st, I expected to see the familiar and comforting image of my priest, whom I also consider my friend, at mass. But he didn’t appear at the altar. Instead, three priests, two of whom I had never seen before, walked together to the front of the church.
Three priests is overkill for a weekday mass. On a busy day, 30 parishoners dot the vast vaulted interior of the diocesan treasure on Abercorn, just south of Liberty. One priest is plenty. So why three on this day?
To try to answer, I must look back a year. Rather than commemorating Anniversary 2016 in a wooden pew downtown, I sought refuge in the high Andes of southeastern Peru, where spiritual awareness is a regular element of indigenous life. The connection between the earthly and the divine is unbreakable there. The peaks have god-like names. The Sacred Valley welcomes pilgrims of all predispositions – believers and skeptics, alike. I dare you to climb there and not feel like there are inexplicable forces bigger than yourself at work.
I met a shaman. He guided me through a ceremony in his native tongue – Quechuan – of which I understood not a word. We burnt a collection of things. I thought of Louise. And then I climbed higher, for another grueling week.
Eventually, I reached a tiny village with a primitive Catholic church. I let myself in and prayed with an intensity I often find hard to maintain. I prayed for Louise’s peace. I prayed for Louise’s daughters (our kids). I prayed hardest for a sign that she is with us and we’ll be okay. I stayed on my knees for a long time, the simple interior around me mesmerizing. Finally, I rose, turned toward the dirt street on the other side of the heavy hand-carved door, and lit a candle on the way out.
Up and over the highest pass on the trek, I walked and walked, down through one microclimate after the next. I was acutely aware of the power in every breath I drew. I noticed things – little animals, cloud formations, faint songs on the wings of the wind.
A small “city” marked my final stop. In it, I found another Catholic church, this one a little bigger, brighter, more of a collection of modern conveniences than the one from a few days past. But my approach was the same. I knelt quietly, for a long time, and prayed hard, desperate for signs. “Please, God, keep her with me, now and always. Show me her eternal face.”
Two days later, I flew home.
Back at the cathedral, this September 21st, Father Migone, the man in the center of the robed troika, introduced the men by his sides. A pair of Italians, called to serve in the high mountains of Peru…the same mountains, the same parishes, where I beseeched God for a sign a year before. There they were, these two spiritual men, at the head of the sparse congregation, in Louise’s home church, on the anniversary of her death. They served exactly one mass at the cathedral…that one, on that random and unremarkable September day.
I long ago suspended my arguments in support of coincidence and reason in favor of mystical confluence too overwhelming to explain. I choose it, so it’s real to me. Two priests from the place in Peru where I prayed for a sign show up in my church to celebrate the anniversary of my wife’s death. You can’t make this stuff up. But God can.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #19
“Don’t you want to touch it?” a friend asked me as we stood a couple of feet from a big hulk of a metallic man.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but, yeah, I suppose I might. “We can’t, right?” I responded, already knowing what this well-mannered woman-of-a-certain-age would say.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said the voice of reason. An undeniable truth, given that every member of the museum staff was, at the same time, in the gallery room.
But the thing was right there – an authentic Rodin – unprotected. No Lucite box, no velvet rope.
I am – in a general sense – a rule-follower. Yet my next move was inspired by a peculiar mix of reverence and rebellion, and not consistent with my usual reserve: I extended my elbow rather than my hand, and brushed the sleeve of my sport jacket across the oversized torso’s shoulder blade. Of course I felt nothing, and still it felt kind of cool.
There are 32 Rodins right now at the Jepson Center – some sitting in the middle of the floor, vulnerable and exposed like my victim, some inside boxes of plastic glass. Depending on when you go visit them, it’s very possible that yours will be the 33rd and only non-bronze figure in sight.
I’ve been to the Rodin Museum in Paris, more than once…which sounds pretentious, I know. My intent, however, is to reinforce the notion of my fondness for the facility. It’s awesome – the building, the grounds, the art…the whole thing. Once, we hustled the kids across the Seine just in time to gain access for 15 minutes before they locked the doors at the end of the day. It was worth the sweat, even for such an abbreviated visit. We came; we saw; we went a few doors down and grabbed a baguette, satisfied and still hungry in more ways than one.
Given this devotion to the Left Bank repository of the French master’s work, imagine my surprise when I came away from a half hour at the Jepson feeling like I had learned more about Auguste Rodin, sculpture and art history than I had in the sum of my preceding 53 years.
As long as we’re addressing masterworks, did you catch the Savannah Symphony’s opening night? Not unlike Rodin on Telfair Square, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” from the sixth row in the Lucas feels as accessible as it does stirring, different from what you’d get in NYC’s David Geffen Hall. You can see the beads of sweat on conductor Peter Shannon’s shaved head; you can see the second violin’s genuine ear-to-ear smile, confirming that she, like you, is having a really good time.
Like a New Yorker who has never been to the Statue of Liberty, it’s easy to miss these moments. And it’s great when we don’t. The brides-to-be and their friends – matching t-shirts, drinks-in hand; the stifling smell of horse waste that traces the Bull Street spine from Johnson Square to Forsyth Park; ghosts, pirates and overused fryer oil – sometimes these things seem the essence of this place. They’re not. Amidst the difficult-to-describe mix of visual magnificence and decay that defines this city’s distinct beauty, culture sits and waits. It’s more friendly and democratic than its big city kin. Yet, like the unfortunate characters I see around my home square every day, it’s both tempting and easy to ignore.
Why bother? Why not? What’s an hour or two of your time? Some incredibly inspired stuff finds its way to this tertiary market. Take advantage of it. Rub elbows with a Rodin, like I did. Just don’t get caught.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #18
Wandering around Venice, I didn’t blink for two days. The city is a timeless masterpiece in patina, both elegant and worn. Eyes up, eyes down, darting in every direction – it’s mesmerizing.
A soft-then-soaring symphony, robust and receding again and again would make a fine soundtrack for such a walk. But the prevailing sound is something else – a baritone din – an unceasing, awkward chorus comprised of countless, clacking footfalls and voices in wide-ranging tongues. But the song lacks the richness of most city noise. There are no motors – real or metaphoric. Without cars and industry, Venice sounds like an expansive soundstage in between takes.
Venice is both gorgeous and in decline. Once a center of international trade, a prosperous port full of ambition and creativity, the city now sustains what’s left of itself by housing and feeding the likes of me, curious interlopers desperate for generous helpings of squid-ink risotto and the world’s sweetest eye candy. Behind the palazzo walls and closed shutters, some 55,000 Venetians still find a way to live, while 20 million tourists use up what’s left of the native majesty, one visit at a time.
If each of the 20 million spends $500, it adds up to $10 billion a year. This crude calculation doesn’t account for the fact that every tourist dollar generates (my guess) at least 20 cents in taxes. That’s more than $36,000 in government revenue per Venetian. Italy’s per capita income is a bit more than $38,000 a year, and the highest combined (federal, regional and local) income tax rate is approximately 45 percent. So applying the 45 percent rate to the per capita income figure (which overstates the true total), a resident generates approximately $17,000 in public revenue a year through income tax. If tourists generate more than twice that in per capita public revenue, what incentive exists to repopulate glorious canal-side flats with real people doing real work? And that’s just the public sector math. The other $8 billion that the government doesn’t get – the private-enterprise benefit associated with the transient throngs – nobody’s eager to say, “No thanks, we’ll find another way.”
From Venice, I took a train to a less glamorous northeastern Italian city, Udine. Yes, the trains are clean, fast, relatively inexpensive, and run on time. In Udine, I mounted a bicycle and began to make my way to the Slovenian border and, eventually, up and over the Julian Alps. Two days in the Slovenian capital (Ljubljana) and a day in Paris, and I began to realize a few common truths everywhere I went.
People are people. On an intimate, interpersonal level, most of us, regardless of philosophy or heritage, are predisposed to connect. Some encounters are uplifting, others perfectly pleasant, some no more than lukewarm indifference, a few don’t leave anybody feeling very good. Observing humanity in its various forms, I can narrate the life stories of people I’ve never met, projecting my own experiences onto others, at once imagining and understanding what it might be like to live one of the lives unfolding before my curious eyes.
Despite our advanced society, we live in relative isolation, both physical and effective, in the U.S. Separation can create comfort, both real and imagined. I was in three countries over that last two weeks, close to 40 so far during my life. We speak of racial tension here, but so much of the rest of the world deals with daily cultural collision on an even more pronounced scale. What if an American had to be fairly proficient in four languages to work in a coffee shop?
Our collective American story, told in the form of news, diverges greatly from the version that others tell of us. Everywhere I’ve gone, most people seem to respect, if not revere, the idea and ideal of America; but, absent the influence of our own internal politics, we look different to a distant eye than we do through a mirrored lens. To ignore this reality is self-destructive – there are 350 million of us and more than 7.5 billion “not-us’” out there.
These reflections are framed by the perspective of travel. Seeing, firsthand, ourselves in others, by definition, is empathy. And empathy is never a bad thing. The up-close lessons in world history – travel is like a grown-up field trip – can inform decisions at home. A beautiful, historic, quirky, surprisingly-underpopulated-and-overvisited city in elegant decay – am I talking about Venice or is this the unavoidable trajectory of my own home? I don’t know the answer. But I feel a little better equipped to do the analysis every time I wander and return.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #17
It’s “back-to” time. School is in session and neighbors who flee the summer heat are coming home. Editing this issue’s Island Hopping section confirms the change in our collective rhythms. Local organizations like New Neighbors and Landlovers are shifting back into high gear.
Another thing I noticed while editing – most of the material you’ll find on the following pages has come to us at the suggestion or through the efforts of readers. We like that. It’s key to the success of the magazine. We strive to provide high-quality content that is particularly interesting and relevant to you. When you help in the process, our work improves.
We have always believed we maintain a silent, implied dialogue with each of our readers. That connection makes this ongoing project work. Some of you have been with us since the beginning, which is a while, as this month we head into our 15th year. Others are newer to the community or more recently introduced to the magazine. Occasionally, I use this space to remind you all that we need your help. We appreciate your readership, but we also seek your ideas, suggestions, comments and submissions. We can’t use everything, but more makes it in than gets left out.
So as your Skidaway/school year begins as summer ends, consider what you’d like to see in the magazine. Maybe it’s a discussion of a hot topic or a profile of one of your friends. You might be aware of an organization that is doing great things and you want to share its story. Perhaps you’ve taken a special trip or an amazing photo. Tell us; show us.
Our contact info is always on our masthead, and my email address is email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you soon.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #16
One after another, in matching red, the boys and girls walk into the breaking waves a few feet south of Huntington Beach Pier. They number at least 200. In addition to scarlet swimsuits, they’re equipped with floating kickboards and hot pink bathing caps. Knocked back by the cresting swells, the kids regain their footing and march on, until the sandy bottom is too far below their feet for standing. Free to float, they stretch their boards westward toward the Pacific horizon, and their feet start to flutter. The long, red, dotted line parallels the pier before it bends left around the structure’s head and begins to draw a second line, growing in the other direction, back towards the beach. Out and back, fighting the current and the morning chill, close to half a mile by my rough reckoning. It looks hard. It looks fun.
As the Huntington Beach Junior Guard campers strain against the surf, I am struggling, too. Wondering if I’m ever going to feel completely okay again. Today, it’s an odd sensation around my breastplate, not pain in the typical sense, but noticeable. I have techniques – breathing exercises and other distractions – to combat these moments. Sometimes, they work.
Thinking about not-thinking-about-something is nuts. The Serenity Prayer is my last resort: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can: and the wisdom to know the difference.” For a minute, I don’t feel my chest at all.
Back down in the water, the kids are laughing, yelling, racing, splashing their neighbors when they think they’re out of the camp counselors’ lines-of-sight.
Suddenly, I am tiny, tow-headed, in a gigantic pool learning to swim again. It’s morning. The azure sky is uninterrupted by clouds, and the building sun seems to light the surrounding field from below. There are no engines or sirens to break the calm, only giggles and whispers and the repetitive rhythm of a skimmer basket breaking the surface as the lifeguard clears the water of bugs and leaves. The cinder block building is painted lime green, and the trim around the pull-up-screen concession windows are a darker shade of pine. Below the most distant window, the third from the entry breezeway, sits an unpainted block, a step the smaller kids use to order their snacks. Inside the building, behind the screens, a popsicle awaits. Root beer, or vanilla, I have plenty of time to decide. The lesson won’t be over for an hour and a half.
Summer is endless for a young boy. Until it isn’t, and school starts again. Yet, summer returns, with the smell of cut grass and the sting of a careless burn. In those days, everything and nothing are important, at once. When things get too hot, you jump in the headfirst, after running with abandon to the water’s edge. You’re fearless, invincible, able to float carefree all afternoon.
I’ve been daydreaming. I am reawakened by the scream of an unspooling fishing reel. As far as I can see, rods rest undisturbed along the rails up and down each side of Huntington Beach Pier. Among the mass of inaction, one guy has a fish. How will he bring it up through the air the hundred feet or so from the sea’s surface without the thing falling off the hook? Success seems unlikely. But I don’t stick around to observe. The fisherman believes, or he wouldn’t be there, as do the countless men and women watching slack, silent lines.
These people feel okay – the swimming kids, the hopeful anglers – completely okay, it appears. It’s early still, most of the day yet to be lived. The breeze off the ocean refreshes; the grey above has mostly disappeared. For a long time, I’ve believed I don’t care much for swimming. Now, the water – emerald, but clear enough that I can see the feet attached to a man who is treading water – calls me, and I’m inclined to answer and come in.
Summer is endless, until it’s over, but now I know it’s coming again.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #15
I got a new lawnmower, and it makes me as happy as a I imagine a Ferrari would. Bonus – it’s about 1 percent of a fancy car’s price.
As a boy, I had a paper route for a very short time. I wasn’t very good at it. I was too shy for the money-collection part.
I found my niche as the neighborhood lawn boy, cutting upwards of half a dozen yards a week, year after year. Some paid 5 bucks a pop. Others 10. For an extra-big job, I could get 15. I used a riding mower when I could, and a push mower to get the hard-to-reach spots. Except for my first customer. He was a stickler for hand-mowed turf. Most of my customers preferred that I trap the clippings and transfer them to plastic bags and then the curb. Sometimes, I’d use a hand rake. Occasionally, I pulled weeds.
I didn’t comprehend it at the time, but the solitary nature of the work suited me. There were plenty of days when I would have preferred to have had no responsibilities, but grass grows with or without my consent.
Mowing days were typically hot and bright. We had gnats – the singular, annoying and persistent type, rather than the biting hordes we face seasonally here. There were flies, too. The regular “house” variety and voracious horseflies once in a while. Cuttings often coated my sweaty arms and legs, and found their way up my nose.
It’s hard to say if I liked the work or not. I can’t remember a particular feeling. But knowing that I did it makes me proud today. And the fruits? I invested my earnings in zero-coupon corporate bonds, having seen ads in the local paper for same. Interest rates were very high in those days. I bought three-year notes for $500, five-years for $333, and sevens for $250. When they matured, I got $1,000 back in each case. The whole thing seemed pretty cool. When I graduated from college, about $15,000 suddenly showed up.
I learned things that I’ve only begun to grasp now.
Way out back, far from an elderly widow’s eye, you could miss a spot and nobody would ever know. Except for you. The moment that you finish your work, the relentless forces of nature begin to undermine your efforts. Why seek excellence if it is fundamentally impermanent and doomed to undo itself? And nihilistically: It’s just a yard – it has no impact on the trajectory of human events. So who cares and what’s the point?
My new mower compels me to reconsider all of the above, and more.
Now, the grass is mine. It covers acres. Cutting it correctly requires significant chunks of two (preferably consecutive) days. I’m paying for the gas, and a dull blade is on me.
Perhaps I learned to make good choices at the fringes of my neighbors’ yards. Because I refuse to allow even the narrowest band to remain untouched. If the results are substandard – maybe the grass is unusually thick and the results are rough – I’ll make a second pass. I’ve come to love the steady hum of the motor, hour after hour beneath the scorching sun. Each patch presents a new geometric equation to optimize. The work isn’t important; yet, in a way, it is.
I read a story about a former colleague who recently bought a house on the beach in Malibu for $85 million bucks. It’s not his primary home. Speaking of bucks, my first direct boss now owns the Milwaukee NBA team of the same name. I’m pretty sure neither guy mows any of his own grass. And I’m okay that I do. Thankful for the opportunity, actually. And very happy that my new mower runs fast and turns on a dime.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #14
This is not a typical Tuesday morning. Or, more specifically, not a typical every-other Tuesday morning, when I write this column a fortnight removed from the previous time.
Atypical because the clock ticks quickly towards a colossal reconfiguration of my universe, set for two days from now. Thursday morning, my older daughter and I hit the road to deliver her to the beginning of the rest of her life. A recent college grad, she’s moving to Washington, D.C. She begins the path to a laudable career with a terrific job, and Day One is July 28. In the meantime, there’s a U-Haul to rent, furniture to assemble, a bank account to open, utilities to secure, IDs to obtain, and various other chores that establishing oneself as a grownup requires.
Today, there are two procedures to tend to. Her car needs routine maintenance, as does her body, which entails a general anesthetic and temporarily surrendering the keys to the aforementioned car.
So I’m preoccupied, and ambivalent, and both unable and disinclined to do my usual 1,000ish words. I’m wildly excited by Sofia’s prospects for happiness and success. I’m nostalgic and melancholy, and angry at the passage of time. I’ve been battling the physical discomforts associated with anxiety for the better part of week, though a clear EKG has helped and I’ve enjoyed a pair of reasonably good days. Now, this morning, my stomach is cramping uncontrollably. Evidently, the mind has mysterious powers that, no matter how smart we think we are, manifest pain that mirrors the shredding of the soul.
Therefore, I’m stopping here. With a commitment to do more and better next time, and a hope that you’ll quietly wish Sofia good luck. I first wrote about her in these pages 14 years ago. To the delight of some of you and the disdain of others. But she matters to me, as does her sister. More than anything else. So I keep writing. No longer about the little girls in ballet tights, but the young women in the big cities who just might change the world.