Up Front – Vol. 15, #12
When the phone rings, it’s your kid, and she’s in Africa, you answer.
“Hey,” I say, with a little too much eagerness in my voice.
“Hey,” she says, with an unusual softness. Then, oddly, she says nothing else.
“Is everything okay?” I’m anxious, nearly hyperventilating. She’s in Durban, a city I suddenly realize I know far too little about.
I set astride, to nowhere, but fast.
“What’s wrong?” I’m composed enough to ask.
“Well…Kate and Sidney just got robbed, with a gun.”
Kate and Sidney are Gabby’s classmates, part of a small group of SMU students acting in West Side Story and studying Human Rights in KwaZulu-Natal. On the way home from rehearsal, at around 2 in the afternoon, in the middle of a prominent street, it happened. Four handgun-wielding guys jumped out of a black Mercedes, charged the girls, reached for Kate’s shoulder, and grabbed her backpack instead. Instinctively, improbably, Kate bolted free. Her backpack fell to the ground and she and Sidney sprinted away. Gabby was trailing a few seconds behind because of a fortuitous detour to a ladies’ room.
Over the course of the next several hours, I spoke with the man who owns the guest house where the girls were staying, the director of SMU Abroad, South African Provincial Police, my daughter (a bunch), and representatives from British Airways, Delta, and BA again. I planned for Gabby’s extraction, ensured interim security and safe transfers, and waited and prayed. My baby was terrified. Kate’s backpack contained room keys with discernable markings and a passport that would take a day to replace. Departure was a forever-seeming 30 hours hence. They were too wired to sleep – waiting for the men to burst into their room and finish the job.
“This never happens.” I received this assurance more than once. But the Internet has a different view. It happens. A lot.
My friend – I won’t name him but he’s a very smart and well-traveled guy – says, “I wish I would have known about the trip. South Africa’s a s#@*hole. It might be pretty in places, but it’s a disaster, in the main.”
Why did I assume – on blind faith – my daughter’s safety? I supplanted my own natural cynicism with confidence in institutional gravitas. SMU is a big, well-funded enterprise. They wouldn’t screw this up. Also, my dad would immediately think any program or idea like this to be dangerously ill-advised. And, as the next generation, we try to live in less dread than those before us – it’s some sort of compelled evolution. We bristle dismissively, “It’ll be fine.”
After reviewing surveillance camera recordings, the police offered a startling hypothesis: the incident didn’t look like a robbery, rather an aborted abduction. Tall, blonde 20-year-old girls are human-trafficking gold.
“We’re checked in. I’m at the gate.” The words, perhaps, the sweetest I have ever heard.
Durban to Johannesburg. Johannesburg to London. London to Houston. Houston to Atlanta. Atlanta to Savannah. That’s a lot of time in the air. I fielded that first call on Thursday at 1:30 in the afternoon. Midnight Saturday she was in my truck.
Everything changes – inexorably – in an instant. Or it almost does. Or it doesn’t at all. Gabby’s home. She seems okay. Kate and Sidney are with their parents, too. But there are parents who continue to search, holding onto hope, trying not to drown in despair.
It’s a tricky tug-of-war between fear and freedom.
It doesn’t happen to anyone you know, until it does.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #11
I’m asking for the day off. I’m in Dallas, moving my younger daughter into a new apartment before summer school begins. It’s 6 a.m. I’m heading to Target; afterward, I’ll try to figure out how to configure a “smart TV” and clean a carpet that appears to have collected years-worth of collegiate excesses in its fibers. With any luck, I’ll make a flight home this afternoon.
This is the third move in three weeks. Gabby – Dallas, out of a dorm room and into a storage space. Sofia – Lexington (Virginia), out of her off-campus house that was her school home for two years leading up to last week’s graduation, home to her room (for six weeks as she anticipates the beginning of her grown-up professional life while baking at our coffee shop). Gabby – Dallas, from the aforementioned storage space into an off-campus apartment with a really long, narrow, slightly-uphill walkway to the front door from the street.
One more. In July, we’ll move Sofia to an apartment in D.C.; a place we found on a recent first-house-hunting trip.
So, I’m tired. And preoccupied. And unlikely to craft anything interesting before deadline. Therefore, I ask your understanding as I defer the responsibilities of this column for a fortnight. I promise – in the next issue, I’ll do what I usually do in this space, for better or for worse.
Enjoy the beginning of summer.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #10
“John McEachern died?!” Teri, at once, declared and asked from the other room.
“Huh?!” I said.
“What?! Chuck shot back.
That’s not possible.
I know, it can’t be right.
Alice told me.
Was he sick?
He was young – what, probably, like 60?
He smoked too much.
I just saw him two days ago. Driving downtown.
And he was here.
Yep, and he called in yesterday.
But, indeed, John Fuller McEachern, 63, born – somewhat ironically, if you know John’s politics (and, if you know John, you know John’s politics)– in California, and raised – more appropriately – in Georgia, is dead. Which kinda sucks.
I liked John. At first, for selfish reasons. He was among the earliest people to tell me he appreciates the pieces I write. He liked my essays well enough to stop by my office and introduce himself, more than a decade and a half ago. Within seconds, during that initial visit, John made me laugh – an authentic, full laugh. And then he listened as I launched into a hyperbole-laden tirade, which became a thing for us. In response, that time and many times thereafter, he howled and roared. It was clear: John found me both smart and funny. So – without further deliberation that long-ago afternoon – I determined John to be a good guy.
Eventually, John advertised his construction business in this magazine. He employed members of my staff to produce his customer invoices and other job-specific paperwork. He dictated by voice, like a Mad Men-era boss. Thus, he called our office and my colleagues’ cell phones often. Very, very often. And almost always at the most inopportune times. Which became a running joke here. One that John was never in on – or was he? John was both clever and devilish (in a good way), so perhaps his calls constituted a gag with a perpetual punch line.
If there were a top-5 for name-mentions in The Skinnie office, John would be in it. Without being around much, he was, nevertheless, omnipresent. Such is the force and uniqueness of his personality. He spoke and wrote in a one-of-a-kind Victorian redneck dialect, evidence of both his sharp intellect and everyman common sense. He could be as shocking in his opinions as he was unafraid, unapologetic, unashamed. He was articulate and persuasive, and both jovial and gruff.
But the real John – behind the comedic caricature – is the one who let his softness slip during mentions of Lisa and his girls – Raleigh and Lauren. He often employed his insightful and unfiltered wry wit when detailing anecdotes associated with those relationships, his amusing musings camouflaged-yet-undeniable evidence of genuine love.
It’s odd to think that John is gone. Odd and jarring. Maybe our – my office mates and I – immediate reactions hint at something insightful about John, or maybe they speak to our own character defects. Either way, it’s interesting to me. Quickly, after the stinging shock and subsequent verification of John’s passing, we were teasing him in absentia, chuckling at his particular quirks. Our impromptu memorial was unfiltered and irreverent – a pair of adjectives I could safely use to illustrate the John I know.
I’m going to miss him. We’re going to miss him. The phone won’t ring as frequently at the moments we are least able to answer it, as it certainly would if John were here to dial. He won’t come bounding into the office when we’re in the middle of one of our very few meetings…ever again. In short, things won’t be quite as fun as they would be if John McEachern hadn’t died.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #09
Muscle memory is a powerful thing. Sometimes the body acts out of habit, without the mind’s consent. So it was for me a couple of Sundays ago.
It’s not normal for me to check my schedule on Sunday morning, as there is never anything on it. So when I awoke April 23rd, I did the usual – shower, dress, feed the cat, buy the Morning News and the Times, grab a scone, sip a coffee, and stroll to the Cathedral before the 10 o’clock bells ring. Comfortably on time and inside, I opened a missilette and found the day’s readings. I skimmed this mass’s pieces from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Gospels; then I looked around in every direction – I never tire of the splendor of God’s Lafayette Square house.
An hour later – maybe a few minutes more – walking west on Liberty Street, I restarted my phone. A text from a name I’m happy to see but rarely do, unless for a pragmatic cause. “Are you coming to St. Peter’s for the presentation? We are doing it at the offering and there is a baptism before.” Time stamp: 10:13 a.m. Which means the sender was being both gracious and rhetorical, to an extent, as I would have already been close to 15 minutes (and very conspicuously) late, at the moment it was sent. Given that it was now close to 11:15, the time to answer the query about my whereabouts had long passed.
It’s the same dread that accompanies the recurring dream we’ve all had – the one in which we sleep through a crucial test. A feeling so profoundly helpless and hopeless that it shakes you to your core. A manic compulsion to respond to my text’s sender in search of immediate absolution. An equally powerful impulse to avoid the matter altogether, to deny it into non-existence. Temptation to manufacture an excuse. Guilt for the impulse to lie 10 minutes after leaving Mass.
I typed, “I messed up and missed the ceremony. I am really sorry. How can I make it up?”
In short: I can’t. But I can share with you the purpose of the ceremony I missed.
Every year, the good people of St. Peter’s – and you really are a special congregation – organize and execute the several-days Market at 3 West Ridge. Select vendors descend on Skidaway Island from all corners of the country, and shoppers and celebrants eat, drink and buy nice things, for the benefit of local youth-focused organizations. This year, the St. Peter’s community selected two such groups to share the Market’s proceeds – the Frank Callen Boys and Girls Clubs, and Horizons Savannah. I am the chairman of the Horizons Savannah Board, only a year into my term, still learning about the position so faithfully and ably held by Skidaway resident Tom Oxnard for more than a decade before I came along.
There was to be a big check – both in size and amount. The kind an older gentleman in a blazer hands to the winner of a golf or tennis tournament being broadcast on TV. Although I didn’t make it to witness in person, I’m sure it read “Pay to the Order of…Horizons Savannah,” and farther to the right, “$29,000.00.”
That’s a lot of dough! In fact, $29,000 is the largest single donation our organization has received in its history.
Horizons Savannah is the local affiliate of a national network, providing supplemental education programs for at-risk youth, working year-round while our centerpiece is a six-week summer session combining academics, swimming instruction, recreation, exploration of culture and the arts, and interactive field trips each week. We serve more than 250 kids, ranging from kindergarten age through 12th grade. And we operate within the constraints of a budget of roughly $250,000 per year. So, $29,000 goes a long way to making our work possible in 2017. Doing the math, the mock check funds our work with 29 kids. We at Horizons, on behalf of the families who hope that educational opportunity will break poverty’s grip on their children, thank the people of St. Peter’s for your kindness and generosity. Your ongoing mission to support local youth provides light where it might not otherwise shine.
The folks at Frank Callen received a check for $29,000, too. Unfortunately, for reasons detailed above, I can’t report firsthand if their chairman made it to the church on time or not. But I’m guessing he or she did, making my absence all the more humiliating and apparent.
I’m sorry. I truly am.
But I am even more grateful. Thank you, St. Peter’s. If there’s a next time, I won’t miss it for the world.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #08
Today is my wife’s birthday. I don’t think she’d mind if I tell you – she would have been 58. This is the third time we’ve marked the occasion without her. April 18 will never be just another day.
It seems improbable, but a real thing happens that I can’t explain. Conscious or not of an impending special holiday – birthdays, Christmas, an anniversary – something hits me. My chest grows tight a week or two in advance of the day itself. Every twinge or bump or sneeze magnifies its impact on my psyche until I’m convinced I’m going to die. Last year, I went so far as to demand a complete cardiac workup, sure that a catastrophic attack was near. I’m fairly fit, so it took me close to 45 minutes to reach the treadmill test’s target heart rate. When the tech finally read the tape, he previewed what my doctor would confirm the next day, “You’re healthy as a horse.” As soon as the words escaped his mouth, my thoracic discomfort completely disappeared. The tingling sensation that had periodically run up and down my left arm became benign stillness. I had my death-row reprieve.
It’s difficult to know the thing to say. To my girls. To her family. To our friends. This year, I’ve spent a significant portion of the lead-up week writing and rewriting phrases in my head. Only to abandon each imperfect idea shortly after it crossed my mind.
I worked later than normal last night, crafting a feature for this magazine. Writing takes me away from myself, and the journey does me good. Eventually, I grew tired and, without notable resistance, found sleep. I awoke this morning early, vaguely aware of unsettling dreams. The room was quiet and calm, and my breathing easy and slow. Resisting temptation to retreat from the day, I sat up and looked straight ahead at nothing at all. In that moment, I thought of her. Then I asked her to share her strength with me. She and God responded. And I wrote down these words:
Honoring Louise’s birthday today by living with joy and purpose – now and each day hence. Wishing she were here to celebrate with us, but recognizing that she always is.
I texted the phrase to Sofia and Gabby (but I changed the wording to begin “Thinking of our family on Mom’s birthday…”), then to Louise’s siblings on the West Coast, followed by some of my friends, and some of her friends, and now here on this page. It feels good to synthesize it. It feels appropriate to give currency to the power of her legacy. It feels permanent to translate memories into recorded words.
Each of my girls has her own way. Gabby responded, “Loved ‘(the phrase I had typed)’” and “Love you!” Sofia followed a little later with a screenshot of her report card (the first collegiate version I have ever seen…and she graduates in May) and the declaration, “I got straight A’s.” We entered into a pleasant exchange about her overall GPA (it’s half a point higher than mine was) and she confirmed that it’s cloudy but not raining in the Dominican Republic, and, yes, spring break is really fun.
As for me, declaring the aforementioned intention has made it so. Today feels purposeful, and my sadness is flecked with golden bits of joy. My chest is mostly pain-free. The lousiest thing – the thing is relentlessly haunting: She doesn’t get to spend this day here, with the people who love her, with the people she loves. Doing unspectacular things. Maybe running. Maybe cooking dinner. Maybe doing something to help somebody else, as she so often did.
On the worst days, the earthbound version of me laments that I am sadly unworthy of the heavenly her. But today, on her birthday, she gives the ultimate gift. She sends hope and inspiration and constant reference to the best of humankind. She sees me. She understands me. And she is as strong today as she was as her corporeal self. So she gets more than one day a year to call her own. She has eternity, and you can’t blow out the candles there.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #07
“You should run for office.” I’ve heard it more than once. I’m narcissistic enough to take the words at face value, truth be told.
I admit that I have the itch. Scratching it would require me to suspend my disdain for shameless self-promotion, which I’ll do now. I’m active in the community; I have strong opinions and I’m able to articulate them pretty well; and you know my name, like me or not (even if some of you confuse me with my dad). So I probably have a shot.
But what office should I seek? City council? Way too much entrenched politicking for my tastes. School board? Fixing that mess seems beyond my reach. Sherriff? I don’t think they ride horses and shoot bad guys anymore (at least not often enough for me).
Imagine my delight when I started getting email updates suggesting that there’s a Skidaway City (see page 10 of this issue) in the works. Mayor feels exactly right.
I consider myself a man of the people. It just depends on which people we’re talking about. I’m just like you – only younger if you’re a retiree, or older if you’re currently raising your kids behind the gates. I’m from here – sort of – moving to Skidaway in 2001. But I’m from elsewhere, too, like you. A man – despite my organic use of “y’all” - called me a Yankee the other day to my face. I believe in both God and a woman’s opportunity to choose. I favor strong national defense and drug policy that emphasizes prevention and treatment over jail. I believe in personal freedoms and limited government influence, but I acknowledge that most people have no idea how to properly take care of themselves. I favor all forms of tax relief, hiring more cops and fixing streets. Despite my philosophic inconsistencies. I think I’m just what you need.
So, consider this the opposite of well-choreographed PR. I have no idea if and when Skidaway will become its own city nor what the nomination process entails. But I’m announcing today anyway. I want the big chair.
I promise nothing, except to show up, unless I’m traveling, which happens kind of a lot. I pledge to be at least as smart (give or take a few points) as anyone I will need to deal with. And - I assure you – our city will have a pithy motto and a pretty flag.
Lest you’re worried about immigration, I plan to build a bigger, more beautiful bar code system…er…RFID.
No, this isn’t a stepping stone for me. I don’t aspire to the Senate or the White House or a recurring role on cable news. I just want to serve you and yours, and have a little fun along the way.
Typically, you’d see something like Lauretti/Hendrix 2018 (the guy does everything for me…why not this, too?). But, given the state of uncertainty, I’m all in for 20??. Just don’t forget about me. I hope I get some credit for being first in the game.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #06
She was precious. Wavy dark hair and a smile dominating her face – the little girl across the aisle at Mass. She looked straight into my eyes and tilted her head coyly, like kids do with strange-but-friendly grownups. I made what felt from the inside like a warm, unthreatening face. She stepped sideways away from her parents and her pew, out onto the well-worn marble. I stood still where I was, opened my eyes wider and led with my nose, stretching my neck in the girl’s direction. I squinted to squish the middle of my face in a silly mess. The girl giggled and pulled something out from behind her back. She held the thing out to me, as happy and proud as a new-puppy owner. At first, I thought she had drawn me a picture – too small and colorless to make out from my position. Moments later, she reached higher with her prize still in hand, beaming her biggest grin. She dropped the paper – which I had come to recognize as an envelope rather than artwork – in a basket, as a man in a suit passed by. She laughed out loud then, and shook with a surge of energy, finally retreating back into her father’s arms.
Instantly, I was the same age as the girl. I was standing between my father and my mother, listening and not-listening to the priest. A long time after we (the childhood me and my family) arrived at the church, the time for Collection finally came. Music played as my father reached into his pocket and pulled out a sealed envelope that he placed in my miniature hand. When I was a boy, our basket-man used a rectangular pot lined with felt. I followed his every move as he made his way from front to back through the church. When it was my turn, I thrust my envelope hand towards the basket-man, the move firmer and faster than need be. The enveloped disappeared from view and my giving hand recoiled to cover my mouth, as I cocked my head and redirected my eyes upward for affirmation from Dad.
It went similarly, week after week. The scene, one from almost five decades ago, remains fresh and vivid. The little girl across the aisle led me straight back to those memories with the flash of her teeth.
Judgments about Catholicism or organized religion of any kind aside, this is my earliest clear recollection of the joy of a gift. Not getting a gift – We learn that very quickly, as soon as Santa comes around. Rather, the simple gratification that follows when you release an envelope from your hand.
I’ve observed the same vignette countless times over the years, since living it for myself as a crew-cut lad. The parent gives to the kid, so the kid can give it away. But it didn’t make much of an impression on me until this week, until the girl with the dark, wavy hair. We’re givers by nature. We seek opportunities to share. It brings us wide smiles. Our parents teach us, perhaps as unconsciously as learning the lesson is for us. It’s the strongest kind of education, exemplary rather than explained. As I quietly rejoiced at my stove, mid-morning St. Patrick’s Day, making a substantial lunch for my daughter and her friends from college who were wandering through the crowds outside, I smiled. My mother and father have given me the greatest gift – a boundless illustration of the redemptive power of selflessness. Parade or not, putting a plate in front of my not-so-little girl was the most perfect piece of the day.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #05
My process: Go to sleep Monday night with no idea what I’m going to write here Tuesday morning. Under pressure of imminent deadline, figure something out somewhere between the shower and the keyboard. Type for 90 minutes, maybe two hours if I’m either extra sluggish or unusually inspired. Walk away for a few minutes. Return and reread. Hit “save” and press “send.” Deep breath.
It’s like somebody flips a toggle switch. In the steady state, I’m in search of a subject, worrying that I have nothing to say. When the power is engaged, my fingers seem to be acting independently of my conscious self. The stuff just comes.
This week has been different. Ideas have flashed in my head, then faded away. Too many topics, rather than none at all.
There’s the Louise Lauretti Hoops for Horizons Tournament that attracted record participation and local media coverage, all for the benefit of hundreds of local at-risk youth. A great day of competition, celebration and community spirit that left me grateful and gratified and a little sad. Without Skidaway residents like Jim Dawson, Kelli Hilliard, Dana and Morgan Meyer, Sarah and Zoe Rehman, Tom Oxnard, Jerry and Susan Meyer, Al and Linda Torpie, John Holskin, Steve Derr, and a couple who wishes to remain anonymous, pushing the weight of the event uphill and providing generous financial support, we couldn’t hope to help as many kids as we will with the ongoing work Horizons does. My personal and heartfelt thanks to each of the people named above.
There’s Lent, self-reflection, and the agony associated with a chocoholic (me) giving up sweets altogether for nearly six weeks (I think I’m – like – six days in). Is there an antithesis to the concept of sugar shock? My mild chest pains suggest so.
There’s the handsomely printed invitation that I received to my older daughter’s college graduation. It’s jarring to see the proof of time’s passage in formal print.
There’s the explosion of color ignited by 70-degree days. The beauty that surrounds sometimes exceeds our ability to fully appreciate it. Stop and look.
All worthy topics. But none that I choose today to explore in greater depth. Rather, I point you to an interesting piece inside the magazine – a spread that details results from a very simple survey we’ve conducted regarding the idea of Skidaway becoming a city of its own. The issue is interesting to me, in that I can see clear merits to arguments on both sides, as well as challenges associated with both action and the status quo. I have no opinion on the matter, nor does the magazine, but I suspect you do. See what we discovered when we conducted our scientifically imperfect poll (sample size – approximately 3 percent of estimated population, selected at random, more or less). And then share your thoughts with us and your fellow readers, if you like. Discussion is a good thing. Instead of talking (or writing), I’m happy to listen this time.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #04
You know that salad you make? The one with the onions and the red wine vinegar. I want that…if it’s not too much trouble. Or we could just go out.”
“Of course. Perfect,” I said. “No problem at all.”
“It’s like school is a vegetable-free zone,” my daughter, the vegetarian, said. “So, simple as it is, that basic salad sounds really good to me. And broccoli. Roasted broccoli.”
“Got it,” I replied. “I’m excited for you to come home.”
“Me, too,” Sofia said.
“I was thinking of making homemade gnocchi, too,” I added as an afterthought. I had been inspired by my recent trip to Rome. Gnocchi with fontina – absolutely off the charts. I couldn’t stop returning to the image of that simple, perfect plate that sat before me, unmolested only for a moment, about a week before.
“I don’t really want that,” Sofia said flatly.
I was deflated, but not completely deterred.
Saturday morning, I dug through the lettuces at the market to determine which variety looked the best. Green leaf. I grabbed a bunch of organic radishes, a bag of carrots, and a yellow onion from the shelves. And broccoli, of course.
Back home, I washed and cut the salad components into perfect pieces and spun the torn lettuce dry. I threw everything, aside from the broccoli, into a pretty-yet-plain bowl and tossed the contents for longer than a normal person would. Under the influence of a fierce whisk, the red wine vinegar and the olive oil wed. A paper towel to top the greens and absorb any residual moisture, cling wrap to protect the newly-blended dressing, and nothing more to do but wait.
Roasted broccoli? I can do better than that. So, instead of breaking the stalks into pieces, I steamed them whole. Softened, I added the broccoli to a sauté pan already sizzling with garlic slices in red-pepper-flake-dotted hot olive oil.
“I’m five minutes away,” Sofia reported by phone.
So I dropped a pound of orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) into salted water already a boil, agitated the whole thing with a wooden spoon, and went to work with a box-grater on a chunk of pecorino cheese.
I had eaten earlier in the afternoon, so Sofia would dine solo, though she didn’t know that yet. I set her place at the kitchen table, finished the salad, introduced the cooked pasta to the broccoli sauce and the sauté pan, and smiled to myself, pleased and proud.
“What’s this?” she asked after she arrived, looking at a pound of pasta flecked a dull green with what could no longer be called florets. “You know I don’t really like pasta.”
Sure you do, I thought.
I excused myself. We were out of dishwashing detergent, so I walked to CVS. Before disappearing: “How’s the salad?” I inquired, the obvious answer already in my mind.
“Good,” she said, leaving me wanting a bit more.
Twenty minutes later, she was still at the table, the bowl of orecchiette virtually untouched. “Just try it,” I implored, feeding a three-in-one chemical package into the dishwasher’s plastic box. She took a small bite.
I took a bigger bite. “It’s really good,” I declared. Soon, we were spooning most of my creation into our biggest Tupperware.
Sofia had done most of the dishes during my detergent run, so we sat down at the table and talked. She showed me a macroeconomics exam. It was abstract and complicated. She made an A. I expressed my pride. We talked about schools and jobs and business, maybe for an hour, probably not more. I felt happy, content. I asked her to join me outside to watch a show we both like. She chose her room instead. Things seemed as they should be.
The night before she was leaving – this visit was only three nights – I knocked on her door. She hadn’t joined me at the gym or waited for me for dinner. I smelled the takeout pizza in her room. With muted excitement, I handed her a card that contained a card (gift inside of birthday, to be precise). I think – though quickly - she read the note I had penned four days in advance of the actual day (pretty good, I thought). She inspected the gift card. She smiled, but not effusively. She said, “Thank you.” Then she said something else: “Did you look at the list I sent?”
I remembered a list, but I thought it was meant for “Grammy,” so I had forwarded it to my mom, unread.
Just one day earlier, I was celebrating the quality of my relationships with my girls. Now, I was doubting the depth of this one. I think I heard something like “You’re generous, but on your terms.”
We’re an independent lot. Strong, capable, self-sufficient, seldom shaken to an observer’s eye. I am. Her mother was. She is. So, too, has her sister become. I live by myself, so I answer to one voice – the one in my head. I think I have confused being alone together in the same place with being connected to the people I love. I’ve coerced myself into believing it’s enough.
“Just because I don’t say I want to spend time with you, it doesn’t mean I want you to leave me alone,” or something like that, she said.
I heard her. I really heard her. “I understand,” I said. “I will try to listen better.” And something in her eyes suggested that she was hearing me.
In the morning, I asked if she’d like a coffee waiting for her when she got home from the gym. Actually, “café au lait, with almond milk,” I texted, because I do listen sometimes- enough to remember her drink-of-choice. She texted back, “Yes! Thanks!” Exclamation points are a good sign.
I carried her bags down the stairs and to the car. In the lexicon of the unspoken word, allowing me the privilege of the task is her version of “I love you, Dad.” I’m learning these things. Just like I’m learning there’s a world of difference between broccoli and broccoli sauce. Just stick to the basics, and dinner will turn out fine.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #03
Sometimes – not often – a dream so spectacular comes to you, it convinces your sleeping self it's real. You're famously heroic or recklessly, blissfully in love, or both. Stirring, you too soon recognize the imagery for what it is: cruel illusion, fickle and fleeting, and downright unreal.
Nevertheless, desperate to prolong your unusual joy, you squeeze your eyes shut and beg sleep to return. If it is a dream, perhaps you can reconnect to it. Or maybe, longshot odds, it's not a dream at all.
In the morning, you awaken ill-rested and a bit empty inside. The details of your temporary triumphs are sketchy. You curse yourself for neglecting to sit up hours earlier in the dead-quiet darkness to record the details of your good-fortune-that's-really-not. It's gone – the compelling autobiographical-fiction narrative; your life is back as it was.
I hate when that happens, so I'm taking to this paper with my metaphorical pen, as I'm not certain I'm awake right now.
This day began oddly, as I packed two small carry-on duffels for a week-long trip overseas. “You're going to Rome, sir?” the Delta agent inquired, with a skeptically rising tone. “Alone? With no bags to check?”
Who plans to travel, trans-Atlantic-ly, on Super Bowl Sunday, wheels-up and kickoff times perfectly synched? Me – evidently – and half an Airbus load of too-tan Italians and white-habited American nuns. But it's Delta, former official airline of the Falcons…surely we'll have the game live.
“How do we get the Super Bowl on our screens?” the lady down the row asked the flight attendant.
Said the FA flatly, “You don't.”
I spent the next 40 minutes suppressing disappointment, mentally minimizing the import of The Big Game. Super Bowl LI (Roman, for 51). I'm LII. I might live to get XXX more chances to watch.
Some distance east of the longitude line that runs through Reykjavik, wi-fi kicked in, sufficiently strong and steady to track the action through Twitter-like play-by-play. No moving pictures, just terse alerts like “(Q2 – 4:17) 3rd and 12 – Brady throws left to Edelman. Incomplete.” Refresh after refresh, with painfully long delays. At 28-3, I switched to a predictably-horrible movie. By the end of the opening credits, I was nodding off.
Was I still snoring, lost in subconscious imagination, crossing the Prime Meridian, or was my dream real-life? Without baggage delays or immigration lines, in no time I was wandering the streets of Rome. In an hour, I was biting down on a stuffed zucchini flower, molten cheese dripping from the point of my chin.
No map. No plan. No worries. No way the guy in the story I feel like I'm living is me. The rain came, first gently, then with purpose – for the next seven hours – all of which I spent in motion, on-foot.
Rome is tricky. Grids weren't urban-planning fashion a few thousand years ago. I got lost. I got my bearings. I got lost again. And so on, for roughly 15 miles, so my smart-watch says. I wasn't worried. I was floating freely through the ancient city. As I appraised my situation, safely out of earshot from my inner voice, this scene looked like nothing I had ever imagined for myself. Alone. Middle-aged. Aimless. Soaking wet. Was I dreaming, or was this unexpected life happening to me?
I ping-ponged from church to church, taking enough pictures to drain my phone battery's juice. Darkness came. I was lost again, this time on the wrong side of the Tiber River, shivering, spent and wrestling with the onset of despair.
This is where the dream gets good. Straight ahead, in the distance, but not unbearably far – a dome. Unmistakable, it was. My feet were pointing at St. Peter's front doors. My pace quickened as the space between the cathedral and me disappeared. I passed a long row of homeless men eating soup from Styrofoam bowls, sitting on filthy blankets layered atop travertine walks. Pairs of camo-clad soldiers gripping automatic rifles stood in front of their assault vehicles, parked by espresso bars and rosary shops. Spinning blue lights mounted on Carbinieri-car roofs painted my otherwise-grey visage with each revolution they made. Despite these minor distractions, the dome continued to call.
The dream takes a turn. Suddenly, there is nobody around. Just me and the Vatican. The soldiers and soup-men are behind me, out of sight. A barrier fence, not particularly sturdy, comes into focus. It rings the circle that is St. Peter's Square. It seems that in our crazy world, the birthplace of Christianity is off-limits to the Faithful, more target than tabernacle these days. I enter the first stages of a spiritual tailspin, but it's interrupted by the appearance of an opening in the makeshift fence. All remain welcome at God's house, even at 8 on a chilly, wet February Monday night.
All are welcome, but none have come. Truly, I am alone. It's so starkly empty that the vastness of the complex reads strangely small to my gaze. I breach the gate. The rain-slicked centuries-smoothed bricks glisten an elegant black. They are all that stand between me and the ground beneath Peter's killing-cross. Perhaps the world's most famous building, and not one of its other 8 billion inhabitants have come to visit tonight. The façade's glow seems to light the passing clouds from their insides. The base of the structure radiates amber, its upper reaches bathed in bright white gold. We two stand silently, reverentially face to face, St. Peter's and I.
The violent crash of an ancient bell startles me, as it does a single bird that rises alone from its earth-bound flock. I follow the bird with my eyes as it completes a wide orbit of me, then retraces its flight path and comes around again. The flying bird ignores the rain. Finally, it circles me a third time and flies away.
I can't move. Not yet. I may never be here again. Certainly, I'll never be here again completely alone. If I'm dreaming, I'm probably close to waking up.
Eventually, I begin the long walk back to my hotel. At the edge of the square, just inside the fence, I turn back – dramatically, like one would in a movie or a dream. I count eight columns out front, as if arriving at a tangible number guarantees this night is real. Atop ornate sculptural vignettes adorning each of the front two corners of the sanctuary – matching clocks. Oddly, though not if you know Italy, they're roughly three minutes out of phase.
Forty-five minutes later, I'm hopelessly lost, now in an eerily quiet and dark outskirt of Rome. This was a bad idea, or a bad dream. The only safe way is back from whence I came, but finding that path isn't as simple as it should be. After a while, I am relieved to see a vaguely familiar red-lettered “Ristorante Cinese” across bright white. To my 10 o'clock, St. Peter's dome pops up from behind a cluster of apartments. ‘I'm back on track again,' I think to myself and silently thank God, just as the bird swoops down toward me from the gathering light.
And now that I've written it, it will always be real. I can get some sleep.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #02
A few days after my kids left for their spring college semesters, it hit me. My older girl will never live under my roof again.
She graduates in May. She has accepted a strategic consulting job in Washington (D.C.). We looked at apartments in the Capitol city online when she was here in December. In March, we’re meeting there to zero in on her first place of her own.
Since my daughters have been gone, leaving the house to me and Muschu the Siamese cat, I’ve climbed the stairs to the fourth floor – their floor – several times. I stand still, thinking of nothing, with no purpose to my visits, next to their beds. I am proud of them both – beyond measure, and thrilled by their prospects. Yet I miss them like I would miss air if it were no longer available to me. Its absence – their absence – feels like suffering and death.
There’s an undeniable freedom attached to my solitude. And there’s an embedded emptiness that I am well-able to endure. But most conspicuously absent as a consequence of it – the noise the not-so-little-anymore-ones make. They each are both quiet and loud. Sofia, the one who is leaving for good, the less boisterous of the two. When she is here, it can seem like she’s not. She retreats to her room, the one on the fourth floor that I checked half an hour ago to ensure it was still in tact, and binge-watches streaming television under the covers. Some days, we are like a planet and its distant moon, locked in a pre-determined orbit, yet unreachably far apart. Others – these are the precious times – we find reasons to engage. Maybe it’s a trip to the gym together, in separate cars, as odd as that sounds. Usually, it’s on account of something that matters to her, some practical step in the execution of her life plan. Whatever the impetus or excuse, it’s plenty good enough for me. Once and a while, at amplified volume, we fight.
I intend to stay in this house for as long as I’m able. What do I do with their rooms? Do I keep them as-is forever? Will they have husbands someday, and will those men sleep in the beds my wife and I picked for our girls years ago? As women, will the design choices we made when they were children seem frivolous? Or will they wrap themselves in the comfort of nostalgia when they visit their old man?
It seems silly, maybe even self-indulgent, to dedicate two bedrooms and two full baths to memories. Like time, once the kids are gone, I’m never getting them back.
Gabby’s room is black and white and turquoise, modern and sleek and bold. Sofia’s is country French, calm and reserved. The styles suit the girls…er, young women, if I must. Or do I just imagine them that way? The versions of themselves that we helped them define, that they assumed dutifully, that they have played perfectly until now. By leaving their rooms untouched, do I hope to forever keep the girls in the boxes that I have grown accustomed to? Will my dreams be shattered if Gabby someday eschews the oversized zebra on her wall or Sofia decides that her dresser’s curves are off-putting and quaint? When they reject those images, will they be rejecting the vestiges of the lives that they once lived? Their one-time homes? Me?
When we have kids, we know, barring unthinkable tragedy, that they’re going to grow up. Everything we do with/for/to them is designed to make them happy and fully-realized adults, whatever that means. Yet there is nothing more jarring to a parent than letting a child go. Sofia’s heading to Washington. I’m sure she’ll want me to visit – occasionally. I like it there. It’s not too far. But I’m keeping the country French exactly as it is, for now.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #01
A part of me – perhaps the worst part – is tempted to devote this space to one or both of my most nagging pet peeves. In no particular order, they are – the City of Savannah Ambassador Program (and the current proposal to fund its extension/expansion with new tax revenue) and horse-drawn carriages. Trust me, as a guy who comes in contact with both daily, they are equally ridiculous elements of downtown life. But to dwell on the negative would be in opposition to the optimism generally associated with a New Year. So I won’t. I’ll save my resentments for…say February…when I’m lacking other original column ideas. For now, I’ll focus on more positive prospects.
You’ve come to expect certain items from us. He Served, health and wellness information, features on food and travel and local history (like the “X Marks…” series of which one appears herein). We like routine. But we also work to generate new and interesting ideas that will keep you, the reader, engaged with us as we age (we’re now in our 15th year of circulation).
Recurring features – series – are our content bread-and-butter. We have high hopes for a few concepts that we intend to roll out in 2017. Perhaps, if we tease you with the frameworks now, you’ll do one of two/three things (or both/all)…action(s) that we encourage. Maybe you’ll weigh in on the appeal of our proposals or, better yet, you’ll raise your hand as a potential contributor or, best yet, regular author of a particular series.
Food – a recurring essay on a single Southern classic each time, including some history of the dish, a recipe and an image. This would be the stuff that everyone from around these parts is familiar with and has an opinion about how to make.
Small Towns – short histories and anecdotes about a particular small town within a 50ish-mile radius of here, complete with charming photos. These little towns have stories, and many of our readers have never been to or heard of many of them.
Buildings – Each installment will feature a building in this town – complete with photos (current and archived), anecdotes, history. We wouldn’t simply highlight the famous properties, but rather focus on more obscure but equally interesting addresses.
Establishing and maintaining these features won’t be easy. Our existing staff resources are stretched thin. So, if you like what we do and you think you might like to be a part of it, talk to us about how you might participate in our creative process. You can email me directly – email@example.com – about this or any other thing.
Let’s resolve to – together – make this the best Skinnie year yet.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #26
“And there were, in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour (sic), which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” said Linus to his Peanuts pals, referencing the New Testament’s Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 8 to 14.
That, Linus, and Christmas cards, say I. Christmas cards, which, inexplicably, seem – for me – like a heavier lift than an Immaculate Conception. Boosted by Thanksgiving’s momentum, I silently vow to take the task on early, well in advance of the actual holiday itself.
It’s starts with an idea. This year – I’ll make a sketch. Getting young women (my daughters) to agree on a photograph of themselves that they both like…forget it. I’ll draw something. The basic idea: Our three faces, interpretative rather than realistic (it’s what people who can’t draw – like me – pass off as art) and some sort of distant star above and beyond us, a reference sufficiently ambiguous to suit the viewer’s imagination, but with obvious significance to us.
A few days pass before I summon the courage to put pencil to pad. Staring at a photo on my desk – one that I love but my girls ironically vetoed for a previous year’s card – I sketch. I am surprised with the precision coming from my hand. A near-exact re-creation of my older daughter’s head shape, hair, cheek definition, eye contours – it’s her, for sure. Then, the nose…things are starting to go awry. The mouth – my version is monster-like, cartoonish, the evil mouth of a villainous man.
Perhaps forcing persistence, that very evening, the night of the aborted first draft, I announce my plan to the girls by phone. “I’m drawing us. And above us is a star. It’s like a reference to the divine and also a metaphor for Mom.”
Cringing a little, I await their predictably annoyed and virtually singular response. To my amazement, neither balks. Rather the opposite: They both seem to like where I’m going with this card thing.
Except I’m hopeless. Writer’s block is a form of fear. Sketcher’s block marries that same fear to ineptitude. Face it: There’s no way I’m custom-crafting homemade cards.
“If you can’t get it done, we can take a picture outside of the coffee shop in Cutters Point aprons,” my ever-increasingly entrepreneurial elder offspring suggests, “and send it to people for New Year’s.” While I like the premise, a New Year’s card seems like a cardboard reminder that I’ve been embarrassingly lazy or thoughtless (You sent us a card but we left you off our list) or both. So it’s now or never, and never is not an option I’m willing to entertain…at least not quite yet.
It’s 2017. I’ve got an IPhone. One that holds 1,779 digital images, as of last count. Among those 1,779, surely I’ll find a pic of the three of us – one that captures their conspicuous loveliness and, at the same time, doesn’t make me look too old. The odds favor success. Reality does not. It’s been years since I’ve coerced them to join me in a single shot.
I have lots of images of me with Gabby – she loves the camera as much as it loves her. I have precious few with Sofia, my camera-shy firstborn. So many of the pictures in my digital library are composed of places or food. Most of the people portraits are action shots. If I go with them does it look like I’m saying, “Look at my awesome, exotic, active life. I hope you get to do something cool in the next 12 months, too?”
We’re three now, four if you count the cat. But we’re not four/five. How did we confirm through our card that we both miss Her terribly and yet we’re hopeful and doing okay? How does a photo or a saying or a drawing demonstrate that we hold fast to our history at the same time we choose to live in the moment to honor it today? What is too morbid? What is too cavalier?
It’s agony, the card decision. Never mind the act of writing, addressing and sending a stack that is likely to reach a dozen dozens or more. Like so much of the season, we replace its true spirit with overwhelming dread. So I come back to Linus and his scripture recitation and subsequent parting shot to his down-in-the-dumps friend, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
As it will continue to be until the end of time, with or without the help of my card.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #25
This might be the least entertaining but most substantive version of my column this year. I don’t anticipate much opportunity for pithy phrasing or clever metaphors. It’s likely to be a very vanilla recitation of facts. Please consider staying with me to the closing signature anyway.
Black Friday came and went, along with the requisite TV footage featuring crowds rushing Wal-Mart’s doors, elbows flying, X-Box bargains in their turkey-and-Budweiser-blurred sites. With less noise or drama but arguably as much or more societal import, Giving Tuesday followed on November 29. Giving Tuesday is a five-year-old initiative, designed to connect diverse groups of individuals, communities and organizations around the world for a common purpose – to celebrate and encourage charitable giving. Last year, 700,000 individuals made more than 1 million online gifts to philanthropically-focused organizations in 71 countries. With an average gift in excess of $100, the initiative launched from the 92nd Street Y on New York’s Upper East Side has, in half a decade, grown into a global giving bonanza that raises more than $100 million in a single day.
Positioning Giving Tuesday a few days after Thanksgiving, our national day of gratitude, is genius. We celebrate the gifts we enjoy and begin a season of anticipation and renewal with the coming of Christmas. Plus, end-of-the-year tax planning provides a pragmatic push. Perhaps you received email solicitations from local groups that perform public good. Maybe you clicked on the associated “donate now” tabs in response. As communities go, the residents of Skidaway Island are as generous as they come.
A week has passed since Giving Tuesday, but our collective generosity and the institutional needs of the organizations that do so much good in our community remain. To that end, indulge me as I highlight one such group in which I am personally involved.
Horizons Savannah is a local affiliate of a national organization (more than 50 such “chapters”) that provides low-income students with invaluable summer learning experiences. Programs are designed to maintain and advance the learning that kids do during the regular school year, while providing a safe, constructive, nurturing and fun environment for study, play and social development. Five days a week over a span of six weeks, students engage in a variety of activities, including project-based learning and traditional academics, college tours, cultural exploration, swimming lessons, art, music and weekly field trips. Young people, Pre-K through 12th grade, participate free of charge. Horizons Savannah currently serves more than 200 children. Evidence proves that the Horizons experience improves a young person’s chance for academic success during the subsequent school year, leading to a more productive and rewarding life down the road.
My job with Horizons is easy. I serve on the organization’s board. But I have a window to the quality of the real heavy-lifting behind the curtain. Christy Edwards, Horizons Savannah’s executive director, is a supremely committed and talented educator, honored for her impact on local youth. The unsung heroes are the teachers and volunteers – many of the latter local students themselves – who make the extensive menu of programming run smoothly and well. Trust me – I know how exceptional and exceptionally dedicated these people are. At night, tired from running around and ignoring the effects of one treatment or another, my wife sat in her office and studied advanced math so she could earn the privilege – in her 50s – of teaching young kids. The couple of years she enjoyed as a Horizons teacher were among the best and most fulfilling in her too-short life. Following their mother’s example, both of my children worked as program counselors during their summer breaks. As simple as it is profound, more than once I’ve heard the words in my house, “I love those (Horizons) kids.”
Horizons works. For all of us. For the kids, who get a learning leg-up. For the volunteers, who receive the gifts that come with performing noble service. For society, which benefits as together we work to help people extract themselves from the grips of poverty and despair. If you want to know more, help out, donate, whatever…check out horizonssavannah.org. Or email me – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for your generous spirit. Have a special holiday season.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #24
We lost a member of The Skinnie family, and a familiar face to many Skidaway residents, last week. Don Jeffrey McElveen passed away on November 15. Don was 76 at the time of his death.
You might know Don as the dapper man who helped you find the perfect tie to go with the sport coat you just bought. For 55 years, he manned the shop at John B. Rourke, dressed impeccably and accessorized with an unwavering smile. Don’s commitment to customer service was legendary, so much so that, with Don, you never felt like a customer, rather one of his many friends.
When we started this magazine without any previous media experience and nothing more than an idea to sell, Don was the first advertiser to sign with us. Since our debut issue in September of 2003, Don’s distinctive John B. Rourke ads have held a prominent place near the front of our book, detailing the best in local men’s wear, more than 300 times. Because folks like Don showed faith in our fledgling team, we have been able to deliver you this magazine, free of charge to you, for more than 13 years running, fortnight after fortnight, without fail.
Don was born in Savannah, and active and recognizable in the community, nurturing a variety of interests and countless precious relationships over the years. Not many years ago, he married Landings resident and leading local philanthropist, Carolyn Luck, and they lived happily together in our community as Don transitioned into retirement, albeit an active one.
Personally, I am forever grateful to Don for the loyalty and kindness he has shown me, characteristics I hope to emulate in my own life with a fraction of Don’s aplomb. Every two weeks, my parents drive around town, dropping copies of our newly-printed issue at advertisers’ doors. Typically, my dad chauffeurs and my mother runs in an out of stores and offices, carrying a bundle of Skinnies under her arm. Almost every two weeks, while Don was working at his haberdashery, my mother reported back some version of the same story: “Those men are SO nice.” She often relayed some generous compliment that Don offered about me or my family or my work. And, invariably, she confirmed that Don was grinning, laughing and generally lighting up the room. He had a natural gift for making people feel welcomed, whenever he was around.
We appreciate Don’s support, friendship and counsel over the years. We’ll miss him. But we won’t forget his contagious smile.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #23
It’s Election Day. I just voted a few minutes before sitting down to write. The feeling as I walked across Perry Street towards the Civic Center (my polling place) and back with a peach sticker on my chest – profoundly anticlimactic.
You’ve read, heard, talked about the presidential election every day for a year and a half. Public servants – up and down the ballot – campaign with an all-consuming fervor that leaves little time for governing. News people forsake the stories of what’s really going on in our neighborhoods and across the globe in favor of playing to our basest partisan instincts and love of a good game or fight. So Election Day is like the Super Bowl. It’s generally more interesting during the run-up than the few hours in which the pigskin is in play. When the final whistle blows, the slates go blank, and every team in the league gets to getting ready for next year. Next year…it’s going to be different…it’s going to be “the one.” Until it isn’t. Rinse. Repeat.
We have plenty of reasons to be cynical. But, at least for today, I’m choosing glass-half-full. Not because of blind stupidity, but rather faith in the genius of our founders. Remember grade school? Learning about “checks and balances?” For some reason, it’s one of the concepts that almost everyone retains from his or her early education years. Perhaps because it’s what saves us as a society. Looking over each other’s shoulders with the basic shared objective of ensuring the republic survives. So, whatever happens, I believe we’ll manage to keep ourselves from completely imploding. There are enough people who genuinely love the notion of what we can be to keep the rest of us from dragging us into the abyss. We don’t have a king (or queen), or dear-leader-for-life. Rather, we have institutions designed to supersede individual interests (it doesn’t always work, but the original intent is noble), so no one person can completely screw things up for us all.
Yet each of us one-persons can have a big impact on making things better well beyond a single touch of a screen on the second Tuesday in November every couple of years or so. Merriam-Webster, after devoting the first two definitions of “election” to political concepts, writes number 3 like this: “the right, power, or privilege of making a choice.” Therein lies the true importance of the word.
All day, every day, I have in-the-moment opportunities – privileges loaded with responsibilities – to choose one course of another. Do I walk towards a familiar face and say “hello,” or do I angle away in hopes he or she doesn’t notice me? Do I smile or scowl? Do I pick up the phone or ignore the call? Do I finish a task or put my work away? Do I say something nice or skewer with caustic aggression? Do I keep running or slow to a walk? Do I do what I know to be “the right thing,” or think, “screw it…maybe next time?”
This isn’t meant to be preach-y. More confessional, if anything. Because I am prone, just as we all are, to make more than my share of bad choices when faced with either/ors like the ones above. But what Webster tells me is that having the choices in the first place is a privilege. And with that privilege comes power. Power to make the world a little bit better or a little bit worse.
Politicians are interesting, entertaining, necessary…especially in a democratic republic as vibrant as ours. And we get caught up in their pursuits, largely as an exercise in giving life to our own hopes and fears. But the real elections that matter, the ones that shape the destiny of humanity, are the little decisions we each make hundreds of times each day. Get more of them right than wrong, and mankind will be fine.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #22
If you bred a mountain goat with a jackrabbit, you’d get Martha. Martha, whom I chased, dragging my tongue, from 14,200 feet to 15,300, in quest for the Chikana – Inka Cross – facing Humantay Peak in southern Peru. From 12,700 to the lake at 14,200, for the first two miles of the trip, Martha hung in the back of the pack, while my little crew of three bolted ahead. Several times, we stopped and waited – sometimes close to 10 minutes – practicing yoga poses, snapping triumphant photos and swapping stories of home (theirs being Toronto).
At the lake, the Canadians and I spread out on big, flat rocks, enjoying both the sun and our quarter-hour margin of victory. When Martha arrived, she ducked behind a boulder and reappeared in a bathing suit, an interesting visual counterpoint to the glacier rising up from the opposite bank. This was my first sign that something was up.
Martha toweled off, and the 12 of us – nine trekkers and three guides – formed a semicircle in front of two small men in traditional Quechuan dress. Shamans, the pair, we soon learned, led us through a spiritual ceremony honoring Pachamama, Mother Earth, asking her to bless us and the ones we love. We wore bright-colored hats and each of us committed a special intention to three coca leaves we held in our hands. One of the Quechuans, Celsto, I think it was, chanted over each of us in succession, using our names. The Toronto husband, Murray, is 6’ 5.” When it came time for Celsto to pat Murray’s head with an alpaca sac as part of the ritual, both Quechuans, neither taller than 5 feet, laughed out loud.
Aside from that moment of comedy, the ceremony felt unexpectedly profound. A cynic might see a pair of hired performers playing to an assembly of pampered, first-world fools. What I saw, what we saw, were human beings, different but the same, linked by reverence for the things they can’t completely explain.
You feel it in the mountains, more so than anywhere else – the presence of God, or Pachamama, or whatever you want to call the sum of your hopes and fears. The scale is staggering; you’re conspicuously small. The wind is the breath of the divine. Maybe that’s why I keep finding crosses in the most peculiar spots. At the top of a particularly hairy section of the Via Ferrata near San Cassiano in the Dolomites. On the spine of a steep gravel hill looking over the high Chilean desert. And at the apex of a grueling switchback ascent a few minutes before a freak hailstorm, three days by foot from Machu Picchu. The Italian one was a minimalist creation in stainless steel. The Chilean – stockier than its Italian cousin – a handsome, aging skin of peeling white paint on what-looked-like concrete in natural dull grey. And in Peru – something like a plus sign superimposed on a square with a big hole in the middle of both, crafted from wood that must have been lugged up from the valley far below.
Just like the spectacular Spanish Colonial Cathedrals where I hit my knees in Lima then Cusco a few days before, the Chikana took my breath away, literally, as I tried in vain to keep pace with Martha on the brutal trail leading to the non-Christian cross.
Martha let me and the Canadians scamper ahead all morning. Later, I overheard her say, not maliciously, to my ear, “Some people always need to be in front…”
Martha’s 64, and Alaskan, which I mention because it saves me from stringing together a bunch of other adjectives to describe her untamed spunk. Evidently, she goes slowly to be with Gayle, her partner, who has progressive MS. Compassion before ego. A living lesson in Gore-Tex and boots.
Hopelessly pursuing Martha and Javier (our local guide) for more than 1,000 vertical feet was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And among the most instructive. There will always be someone smarter, stronger, prettier, more successful, even when you’re feeling like you’re at the top of the heap. And there will always be those who are inspired to build crosses, in places that are easy to reach and places that are not. Trying to understand the latter truth makes the first one so much easier to bear.
At night, the Quechuans built a fire at base camp. They burnt the coca leaves upon which we had wished, in a paper package that included such disparate components as gummy bears, yarn and purple corn. Celsto prayed over each one of us again, this time using a bench when Murray’s turn came. As my intention floated on embers on the way to infinity, I suddenly had an unassailable belief that what I had wished for would certainly come true.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #21
The last few days have been the nicest of the year. Uninterrupted blue skies and a hint of autumn cool. Since Saturday, the city has been soothingly quiet. Not that the scope or scale are the same, but I sense similarities – minus the excruciating heartache - in our collective spirit to the days I wandered New York streets waiting to catch a train home after 9.11. People seem a little nicer than usual to one another. The normal rhythms of life thrown out of whack, folks are finding ways to help each other.
I find families spending their days picking up debris in the parks and squares. The team that runs Mate Factor – fortunate not to lose power – has kept the place open, even all through the night on the first days following the storm, to serve the community and first responders. My coffee shop colleagues showed up at the store, even as we had no electricity, to get things ready for when we would. At Savannah Power Yoga, classes were free and available up until and as soon as the worst of the winds and rain, so that people could have a place to convene, move and decompress.
On Sunday, despite a city on near-lockdown, I walked to 11:30 Mass at the Cathedral, to find a total of six other worshipers and the parish priest. It’s stunning how sacred and comforting such a grand space can feel when it’s nearly empty but still serving as an active sanctuary.
The human spirit finds the best version of itself when faced with unusual challenge and crisis. Institutions might struggle, but individuals rise to the occasion.
One of our most dear and loyal readers, emailed me this morning, and from her warm and simple message springs an idea for our next issue. Please help us highlight the heart of our community. Without power for close to five days, neighbors pulled together to help neighbors until the lights came back on (today). Please send us your photos of the storm and its impacts. But, along with such pictures, share with us uplifting anecdotes like the story of a couple clearing fallen trees from the other yards on their block. We need your input to make the issue the proper tribute that it should be. Email us, email@example.com, with any submission you think your fellow readers might like to see.
Thanks goes to the staffs at The Landings Association and The Landings Club for their obvious and tireless vigilance, diligence and advocacy on behalf of the whole of Skidaway Island. These organizations demonstrated that they are well prepared and proactively engaged for and during crises.
We look forward to a return to normalcy, while commending you all on your resiliency and compassion.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #20
Did I misremember the parking spot? I left it there Friday and it was now Monday night. At my age, things might not always be so retrospectively clear.
Think back: You flew to Dallas. You knew to move your truck for the weekend, lest a street-sweeping citation greet you upon your return. Liberty Street – it’s a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning sweep…so that’ll work. There’s a spot right in front of Soho South. Perfect. Pull in. Check the lock-confirmation horn twice, just to be sure.
I’m sure that’s right. I can see the replay in my head. But it’s Monday night, and the street in front of Soho is bare.
Calm down. Maybe you have it wrong. Walk around. A few blocks in each direction. All of my usual spots. It’s 10:30 at night. Why did I wait so late to check? Keep looking. Keep walking. Keep hope alive.
Nothing. Nowhere. It’s finally happened to me, I think to myself – urban crime.
“911, where’s your emergency?”
“It’s not really an emergency, actually, just a stolen car. Is this the right number to call?”
“Do you see them taking it now?”
“Um, no…and, sorry, it’s a truck.”
“Where are you?”
“Liberty Street, a block from my house.”
“So you returned to your house and saw that your car was stolen?”
“What do you mean?”
“I returned to my house from a weekend away on Sunday night. I used my other car today. I went to move my truck just now, and that’s when I realized it was gone.”
“So you returned to your house and noticed your truck gone…”
“(pause) Not exactly…okay, sure.”
“Where do you live?”
“Where are you now?”
“Liberty, remember?” I wished I hadn’t let that last bit slip.
“Is that near your house?”
“A block away.” This time I held my tongue and didn’t add ‘still.’
“Hold tight, help is on the way,” she expressed with urgency now.
“On the way where? Here on Liberty or to my house?”
“Where are you now?”
“Help is on the way to your house.”
A half an hour later, a young Metro officer came walking down my block. “Good evening, sir. Did you report a stolen car?”
“Yes, well, a truck.”
“What kind of truck?”
“A white Ford F-150, 2016, I think.”
“Do you know the tag number?” he asked.
“No, it’s registered to my farm and the paperwork is in my office,” I said, apologetically.
“What’s the name of the farm?”
Why? I thought to myself. “G and S,” I offered, anyway, shortening the name.
“I think I know where your truck is. It was found parked in a weird location and the responding officer had it towed.”
Visions of broken windows and ransacked seats. “What do you consider a ‘weird’ location?” and I pointed west, I’m not sure why.
He responded, “I don’t know the details, let me make a call.”
He tried to walk out of earshot, but I’m too curious for that. Imagine my shock to learn that the police ordered a tow – it hadn’t been stolen after all – even though I had parked in a perfectly legal spot.
Like Starsky and Hutch, we began to sift through the details of my misfortune. We requisitioned incident reports. He called the responding officer, then the towing desk, then he retreated to his car either to think or make some notes.
Here’s what we learned: On Saturday, the day after I had flown to Dallas to visit my daughter, a woman from one of the trolley companies put a bag on the meter governing my spot. Keep in mind, I don’t pay meters. As a downtown resident, my parking sticker sits proudly above the left-hand side of my dash. Later that same day, a trolley company rep noticed that my truck had not yet vacated its space (although the car in the next arbitrarily-bagged spot had, clearing considerable room in front of Soho South). The trolley lady called the cops and pushed for a tow. As she later described to me on the phone, just as her CFO did subsequently, “We had people paying good money to rent a trolley for a wedding reception…what did you want us to do?”
“Um…try to contact the vehicle owner. Use the other empty spaces. But since you didn’t do that, how about paying for the tow?”
I have a Georgia tag. It’s 2016. We have computers and phones and all kinds of fancy stuff. Oh, and there’s that sticker on my windshield that provides my address (one block north). Given there is no record of a phone call or a visit to my home, it seems the policeman decided that trying to reach me was too inconvenient for him at the time.
I learned from my investigative partner – Officer FK, I’ll call him to keep his full name out of print – that protocol suggests reaching out to a legally parked resident who is about to get towed. According to Parking Services, towing a resident’s vehicle that is sitting in a legal spot that was bagged after his arrival is not standard procedure. According to trolley company CFO, I’m flat out of luck.
“I’m not paying you a penny,” the trolley company CFO barked. Admittedly, he was off-put by the news that I publish a magazine. “You’re blackmailing me,” he protested, which seemed a little dramatic to me. “Anyway, I don’t know anything about downtown parking or traffic regulations and neither did (my colleague) who called the police. I don’t live downtown and neither does she.”
“You’re saying that your business is operating commercial vehicles downtown and your company has no institutional knowledge of downtown parking or traffic regulations??? What if your cardiologist told you he had never studied the human heart?” I think it went over his head.
“I owe you nothing. And we know people we can contact to ‘respond to’ you if you publish something in your magazine.” He must have been kidding, right?
What’s the point? This city just can’t seem to get out of it’s own way. When you do all of the little things poorly, you have no chance at doing the big things right. I’m out $300 to go along with the nearly 20 grand I’ve already paid in property taxes. For what? To get my own car that was legally parked back in my possession after spending more than 10 hours on the phone, at Precinct 2 headquarters, at some metro towing authority annex on Chatham Parkway, and in my own head. All so some wedding tourists don’t have to walk an extra five steps.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #19
I’m inclined towards solitude. Quiet is among my favorite sounds. But sometimes silence is piercing. So it was last night.
We’ve pushed hard to renovate our coffee shop (Cutters Point, in Sandfly, if you haven’t heard). Risking conceit: The place looks great. During the facelift, we had to close the doors for a couple of days. Concerned about disrupting our guests’ routines, we manned folding tables out front of the store and offered coffee and snacks on-the-house. Goodwill aside, would folks come back? And would they embrace the updated interior design?
One thing I’ve learned with age: People don’t like change. So even as I believe in our strategic decisions regarding enhancements to the business, I was biting my nails when we disengaged the locks.
The first morning brought hiccups. New design dictates changes to our work flow. We bumped into each other more than we normally do. As a human cluster formed around the service counter where folks pick up their drinks, I scanned the faces. What was probably the look of indifference or distance associated with a daydream seemed like a scowl of discontent. Face after face, I imagined disgust. Later, my staff veterans assured me that the flurry and wait times are de rigeur. “They’ll be back.” And I sighed relief.
We reopened (inside, as we offered drive-thru service after our two free giveaway days) on Friday the 9th. By the end of the day, we had served almost exactly the same number of people we would have on a typical Friday before I bought the place. I took this as a good sign, and we moved on to the next piece of our business plan.
For most of 13 years, Cutters Point has been open from 6:30 to 6, Monday through Saturday. With increased activity around Sandfly, we see an opportunity to create a place for people to congregate or quietly enjoy dessert and coffee before heading home for the night. Sunday, too, represents room for growth. So we’ll be here for our neighbors seven days a week.
But patience must accompany the best laid plans…
Monday, the 12th, some time after noon, we filled our pastry case with freshly baked cakes and pies. I puttered around the store, working on our updated price list (believe it or not – some are coming down), keeping one eye on our sweets selection, all the while. Around 3:30, a woman in scrubs bought a slice of key lime. The first. Perhaps not as momentous as the births of my children, but not far behind, or so it felt.
From 4 to 6, I was off-site, called to a meeting doubling as welcome distraction. My plan had been to go home after, and cook something for myself. Instead, contrary to my own wishes, I steered back towards Sandfly, curious as to the fates of my cakes and pies.
Muted ecstasy. Negative triangular space in both the chocolate and coconut rounds. Two pieces gone from the marble cheesecake. Another key lime had disappeared, too. Doing the math, the experiment is only about $100 to the bad so far.
I opened my computer and grabbed a stool near the front door, conveniently, if not coincidentally, as close to the cakes and pies as a person can sit. With zero advertising, no “open” sign, front windows devoid of “hours” postings, and a parking lot as empty as a federal building on Labor Day, I had nothing more than hope on which to rely. Our first night in business had arrived.
And nobody came.
Small business isn’t the domain of calm and measured response. If you’re not careful, each minor speed bump metastasizes into Mount Everest in your mind. My rational self argued with my internal cynic – “Just give it time.”
I called my daughter – the older one. She, the reasoned pragmatist, wise beyond her years. “Don’t worry, it will catch on,” she said. “Test it for a while and, if it doesn’t work, pull the plug…like, maybe, two weeks.”
Two weeks???!!! I’ve worn the same pair of socks for that long when in a bind. Should I abandon my lifelong ambition to own my own café for no more than a fortnight of unfortunate nights?
So I invite you, each and every one, to drop by. Anytime. Seven days a week. Check out our new digs. Have dessert. Come Monday, allow us to make you a sandwich for lunch. We’ll be there, on Skidaway Road, waiting for the opportunity to be a bright spot in your day (or night).
Up Front - Vol. 14, #18
As I type, I’m watching through a window as a small crew of men pluck Spanish mossfrom the tree limbs in Chippewa Square. Armed with long rods fitted with small grappling hooks, the men reach high and tug down hard, swiping grey-green clumps, dropping their quarry in piles growing on the brick paths below their feet. The men continue their strange dance, awkwardly extending, struggling to steady the poles that would dwarf a giraffe’s neck. Pull after pull after pull, the moss comes down, until the trees that inhabit the northwest corner of Forrest Gump’s square are stripped bare.
Nope. It’s the production crew for the cable TV series, “Underground.” Per one of several letters distributed to “area neighbors and businesses” and signed by “Laura Bryant, Location Manager/Underground; Beth Nelson, Executive Director – Savannah Film Office; and Susan Broker, Leisure Services Bureau,” Underground is “a scripted series about the Underground Railroad, set in 1857.” Purportedly, it’s the “first episodic television series filmed wholly in this area.” You’ll be happy to know you can catch it on iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu (if not an actual broadcast network).
As a Downtown devotee, I’ve made my peace with inconvenience. Do I enjoy inching along beyond a trolley every time I leave from or return to my house? No. But I get it. The engine of prosperity is rightfully far more powerful than my personal comfort meter. When I bought a house in the middle of the Historic District, I knew what I was signing up for. Life is filled with tradeoffs. You can’t live along a fairway and lament the stray balls that fly into your yard. Similarly, with the privilege of owning an amazing piece of history that looks out onto a vibrant urban green space comes the occasional frustration associated with parking blocks away from my front door. There’s an energy in my neighborhood that fuels me. I love my home, and I’m not likely to leave.
So, typically, I’m fine with notices like the one from Laura/Beth/Susan. Let the anti-everythings rant and rave. I’m a pragmatist, and a capitalist…things are going to be okay. But something about this note struck me differently from all of the others that have slid through my mail slot over the years. “In keeping with the period, we will put down a dirt/mulch composite on some of the asphalt roads around the square. We have permission from the City to remove some of the Spanish moss from the trees…”
Let’s take a second to consider the two sentences in quotes. Laying a composite seems reasonable, since the production team will remove the material when their work is done. The streets that surround the square will be closed, but we’ll find alternate routes. But removing Spanish moss from the trees? Given that they’re bagging it up and toting it away – there’s no replacing this natural guest that rests on our giant live oaks’ limbs.
Spanish moss is a live flowering plant, indigenous to this area and other hot, humid climes. It hangs from its hosts’ wooden arms, moodily dancing with the warm breeze. Its quiet existence provides visual icing on our city’s already delicious eye-candy cake. Spanish moss is arguably the most iconic flora feature in our picturesque cityscape. Chippewa Square i a centerpiece of the city we show to the visiting world (it was home to Gump’s bench; Oglethorpe presides over its center with his sword pointing south; nearly every tour leads on or around its red brick cross-grid). Destroy one of its organic components for a minute or two of film? I’m no tree-hugger, but it seems like a bad idea.
I called Beth, then Laura. To credit both, each took my call. And each listened patiently as I expressed my concerns. Admittedly, my response is largely emotional…the whole endeavor just feels mishandled and ill-conceived. When Beth and Laura assured me they have the blessing of a guy in city government who focuses on arbor issues and another guy who used to before he retired, I blanched, perhaps irrationally. And then I focused on process. The unilateral decision to eradicate a thriving natural organism that is central to our city’s visual identity, followed by a printed pronouncement without any explanation as to rationale: Amateur hour…I think I might have used those very words. Would you prune all the flowers from someone’s azaleas for the sake of your own commercial expedience and tell him not to worry because the plant is a perennial? You would if you wanted a fight.
“It’s just the low-hanging stuff,” Laura said as consolation.
“Yeah, just the part you can see.” Admittedly, I stole the lin from my buddy, but it provided me a perfect reply.
“I’m just the messenger,” said Laura, ready to get off the phone
Sometimes it feels to me like we, as a community (greater Savannah), suffer from an irrational inferiority complex. It compels us to believe that the world really, really likes us, enough to want to shower us with its (the world’s) largesse. And we seem desperate, like the child of an alcoholic, to please it (the rest of the world) and prove ourselves worthy of its (the world’s) love and adoration. We embrace grandiose fantasy without asking a single critical question. Do billion dollar, film industry mini-cities complete with monorail systems simply fall from the sky and land in places like Effingham County? If you read the headlines of our morning paper, they do. Does an economy seamlessly transform itself from one focused on tangible-if-unsexy pursuits – shipping, agriculture, manufacturing, national defense – to one where everyone is engaged in something fun and clever and inexorably tied to a MacBook Pro? If you listen to many of the voices in the air here, you might believe it so. Do high-rises and commercial centers and $10 million riverfront homes rise naturally from the coastal soil? Some folks seem to think so. What does all of this unfettered optimism yield? Big, empty tracts of oft-writ-about land, and other non-things.
Back to Chippewa Square. The Spanish moss must come down. Not because it’s period-inappropriate – presumably it hung from similar trees, albeit smaller then, in 1857. Rather, Ohio isn’t the plant’s natural home. And today’s Underground shot – it’s set in 1857, in Ohio, which is pretty far from here.
It’s pouring now. The cameras are covered with plastic, the crew taking cover inside First Baptist Church. Not a single frame of film (or the digital equivalent) has been shot. Working outside in Savannah in late August without a weather contingency (a one-day daylight-hours window?)…oops. Somebody forgot to tell the Ohio re-creators that it storms here this time of year, more or less every day. Oh well, at least that pesky moss won’t get in the way.
Up Front - Vol. 14, #17
Occasionally…rarely…I phone this column in, figuratively. This is one of those occasions. Time dictates it. My girls and I went to San Diego, Portland and Bend, Oregon for 8 days. As soon as we returned, we’ve gotten back to work preparing for our Cutters Point re-launch, which is scheduled for the Tuesday after Labor Day. We’re expanding our menu to include items like sandwiches, pies and cakes. We’ll be open longer hours than we are now. You’ll be able to drop by for a coffee drink, a sweet treat, or a savory snack until 9 o’clock Monday through Saturday. So, if you’re heading to Sandfly for dinner, we’ll be an easy and appealing second stop. We’ll also operate on Sundays, making us a seven-day-a-week small business. In addition to these operational changes, we’re remodeling…refreshing our décor and creating more comfortable seating and spaces to gather for our guests. Of course, we’re open now while we do all the necessary behind-the-scenes things required to ensure a smooth retooling period.
I’ve officially owned the coffee shop since July 7, and it’s been fun figuring this business out. To all of you who have supported us through our ownership transition – thank you, very sincerely. To those yet to discover us – give us a try. We’re on Skidaway Road in Sandfly, in the front cluster of stores at Norwood Plaza. Our mission: To serve as a bright spot in each of our guests’ days. Please allow us to demonstrate our commitment to this simple philosophy.
And thank you for your indulgence as I take a break from my normal essay writing this week. My kids both head back to college soon, so I’ll return to my keyboard with vigor next issue.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #16
My friend’s wife is very sick. She doesn’t have much time. She spends most of each day and night in a rented hospital bed in the living room of the big house she and her husband built together. They had planned to pass many happy years in their grand, empty nest. There, they would slowly drift together into old age, comfortable and content.
My friend is struggling. His home, the product of his life’s work, is more prison than palace now. But his is a sentence he’d gladly serve indefinitely, if it meant keeping his wife breathing in the institutional bed. He leaves almost never, venturing only as far as Publix, less than a two-mile drive. Their children visit. Grandchildren, too. But seeing the little ones is bittersweet, as he knows she’s heartbroken that she can’t do more than watch them from her bed.
They play Yahtzee, he says, though it’s tough for her to record her score. She gets up, slowly, to labor to the bathroom or the kitchen table, where the meals he makes await. He’s a skilled cook, Belgian by birth. These days he loads his dishes with extra butter and cream. He coaxes every latent bit of flavor from each creation, without concern for calorie counts. There’s no point in moderation now.
We had a hospital bed, too, for a week or so, nearly two years ago. Maybe it’s the same one my friend is renting today. By the time we had it delivered to our home, it was too late for Yahtzee. Past the point for cooking, too. One night, there was a movie. The bed was strategically placed in front of our basement big screen. But she wanted to try the couch, and she stretched out there head-to-head with her not-so-little-anymore girl. They leaned against one another as best they could manage. I heard them laugh. Gabby’s full-throated, Louise’s muted, sneaking out the side of her seizure-twisted mouth. I fed her half-spoonsful of sherbet, softened in the microwave. A microwave I hadn’t used before that week, and haven’t had the occasion to since. She swallowed a few. Most of the others dripped down her cheeks and fell to the sheets, wrinkled hopelessly atop the rented bed.
I remember thinking as I stood by the bed – no matter how small this new world of ours is, no matter how different from our expectations, I’d be happy to live in it forever. More time, that’s all I asked for it. I remember, then, being angry at the notion of “quality time.” How arrogant to grade a moment on its substance! Time, its existence alone, was plenty good enough.
My friend asked his hospice nurse for a prediction. Four weeks, maybe six. But things could change.
“Is there a chance she gets better?” I asked, and I’m not sure why I did.
“No,” my friend said, and he did something with his eyes that I can only describe as a shrug.
I tried to remember when I tossed the lottery ticket from my mind.
I always thought we had a chance. Someone gets better…why not her? She’s incredibly tough. If anyone can win this fight, she can. We said it. To each other. To ourselves in our heads. To our families. To our friends. Every day. Until the day I ordered the bed.
We bought a table that now sits where the bed once was. It separates the comfy couch from the oversized TV. My kids put bowls of popcorn and drinks and magazines on its rustic wood top when they hang out in that room, which is quite often when they’re home. I like it down there, too. So does our cat.
My friend’s living room is beautifully appointed. There’s nothing missing that should be there to make it complete. But when the hospital bed is gone, and he’s ready, I think I’d like to take him shopping for something to put in its place. Like I learned, he might be lonely, but he’s not alone.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #15
The news is bad one day, worse the next. Yet, pure joy reveals itself simply, subtly - when we need it most.
I visited my older daughter in New York. She’s living and working there for the summer, and she’s over the moon about it. Her wide-eyed excitement reminds me of her mother and me. We were similarly mesmerized by the Big Apple a few decades back.
For years, we ignored the sidewalk-stacked piles of garbage bags and the ever-present smell of urine in the air. Without protest, we paid hundreds of dollars a month for a parking space in a lot that was more than 15 minutes by foot from our front door – and firmly believed we had cut a sweet deal. Our kids attended school in a building that had once been a modest single-family home, until its conversion into a facility hosting pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. The girls called their teachers by their first names, per school policy. For this, we paid more than double their tuition here at Country Day. On Fridays, we crawled along the Long Island Expressway, sometimes burning four hours to move 100 miles, to escape the city we loved so dearly.
There’s a thing New Yorkers do – they convince themselves, subconsciously, that their perpetual discomfort is normal. Not only is it normal, but it warrants paying a premium at every turn. We – Louise and I – absolutely loved it there…until we left, unceremoniously, 14 years after we met on a Manhattan sidewalk. Although Louise kept a torch lit in her heart for the big urban life, we gladly made Georgia our home, and every time I flew back north I counted the hours until my return flight.
My hope has long been to keep my kids close. If Sofia becomes a doctor, she can practice anywhere – why not right here? Maybe I can build a family business, and Gabby can return triumphantly from college and work at my side.
And then I saw the magical Manhattan glow in Sofia’s face.
She lives on the sixth floor of a six-floor walk-up, at the top of 120 steps. She rides the summer subway to and from work, and reports that she regularly arrives at her office concealing a layer of sweat. She burnt her chin on frozen pizza, the kind of dinner that the limits of her kitchen and budget demands. She met with a guy for career advice, and he promptly told her she was too nice to make it in finance. When she told me about the conversation, she used mild profanity (which she never does in front of me) to properly describe the man, and neither of us blinked an eye. Her life happens mostly along three axes that link her apartment, her office and her gym…sort of small for the biggest city in the U.S., but that’s how it tends to work there. And she’s demonstrably the happiest she’s ever been.
Friday, she came to my hotel straight from work. In heels, she’s taller than I am. Wearing a proper jacket and pants, she was a newer version of the image of her mother that lives in my mind. We walked to dinner, negotiating the best route – she hasn’t yet completely mastered the appropriate usage of “up” and “down,” as in “town.” She tends to consider everything to be down. I corrected her, which resulted in the only tension during the two days. After we finished eating, I said I wanted to stroll down to Little Italy to a cigar store I know, fully expecting her to take her leave. “Cool, let’s go,” she said to my surprise, and we wandered around Lower Manhattan until after 11 o’clock.
The next morning, she showed up for breakfast promptly at 9. According to my Fitbit, we covered 18 miles on foot – visiting the Museum of Modern Art, Eataly, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Lego store along the way - by the time we called it a night after a long, decadent dinner. We gave each other a big hug outside her apartment, as the 120 steps would have been overkill for me at that point.
Not once, when we were together, did she seem to want to be anyplace else. Nothing could possibly feel better to a father than that.
Reliving every minute of the trip during the flight home, I realized and have come to accept that there’s nowhere else she wants to be a young woman than in the city where I was a young man. I recall my singular focus back then – New York or bust. She has it now, same as I did. And I’m good with it, to my own surprise. After all, I still have a guy who cuts my hair when I’m up there…so here’s to killing two birds with one stone.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #14
As of June 30, 2015, I report to nobody, professionally, that is. The mix of exhilaration, possibility, anxiety and uncertainty is awesome. No paycheck. No company-provided insurance. No performance reviews. No schedule. Just two metrics – Am I living up to my own expectations? And, am I properly providing – opportunity, challenge and security – for people who rely on me?
Declaring independence is the first step, but nothing more than that - a step. Making it work – standing alone, thriving…that’s the really hard part. But nothing is sweeter than the rewards you accrue when it does (work).
As a nation, we have made it work. Better and faster than any state before us. It’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Compare our list of innovations – contributions to the advancement of man – to the greatest societies. We look pretty good. Generosity – we have that covered, too. Genuine desire to do what’s right and just – it lives within our collective core. Nowadays, making such statements without qualification or apology is uncommon. Even those who love this country often preface their praise of her with, “While we’re not perfect…” Nobody is perfect. Nothing is perfect. Except a perfect deity, if you so believe. So the above-quoted conciliatory opener is redundant and unnecessary. Two hundred and forty years ago, our forefathers and mothers decided to take a shot at the self-governance thing, and they thrived, as have generations of their sons and daughters since. And the world is a better place, by a lot, than it would otherwise have been had the whole thing never happened.
My older daughter is living and working in New York this summer – between her junior and senior years of college. She telephones with an exuberance in her tone that I can’t remember hearing before. She loves her work, feels useful. There’s something about paying rent, meeting life’s daily responsibilities, finding your way from place to place, making choices (little and big ones) and living with the results…it’s the first taste of true freedom. There’s nothing like it. It’s great to be on your own – and even greater when you can be so and contribute meaningfully to something greater than yourself – company, community, country, mankind – at once.
Today, the day after the Fourth, I celebrate dependence. Constructive dependence, anyway. Fifty-three years ago – July 5, 1963 – my dad married my mom (they weren’t my dad and mom at the time). Like many couples, they have remained committed to their union for a very long time. They are a complementary team in nearly every way. They argue and annoy one another at times. But each has always genuinely valued the other. He appreciates her, and she him. One protects the other. They are at once loyal, kind and fierce.
Just as determined independence has fueled American exceptionalism, so has keeping promises that would be easier to ignore. My parents have been guided by their promises to each other for more than a half century. It’s an example I can’t hope to replicate, but I can pray for the character to continue to try.
Up Front – Vol. 14, #13
When you’re young, you have plans. The Skidaway Island Class of 2016 proves it. Starting on page 25, you’ll find your Skidaway neighbors who have graduated from high school this spring. These young adults share their what-comes-nexts with us, and you’ll see hints of bright futures behind big smiles.
When I was that age, I wanted to be a doctor. Until the uncertainty around medical school admission painted the prospect of college as less fun than it otherwise might be. So I studied engineering, without any inclination to become an engineer. I took a job in consulting, even though I was fascinated by stocks and bonds. Eventually, I found my way to business school, and 26 years on “Wall Street,” as people like to say. All this in preparation for my work now – editing magazine stories, pulling weeds in a farm field, renting de facto closets to people with excess junk, and serving coffee and scones. Which is a roundabout way of saying: “The best laid plans…”
If I were delivering a commencement speech, I’d need less than a minute to communicate what I’ve learned: Never stop imagining what might be, thinking about what could be. Be open. Hold the steering wheel firmly, but follow life’s roads with insatiable curiosity, wherever they lead. You’re unlikely to end up in the place you set out for, though you have a very good chance of getting exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Am I supposed to sell cappuccino? We’ll soon find out. Many mornings during the last 13 years, I’ve sipped an Americano and read the Savannah Morning News in the counter seat next to the wall just inside the door at Cutters Point Coffee in Sandfly. In a little more than a week, my team will assume the responsibility of building upon the legacy of community-focused service established by the shop’s founders, Bruce and Patti O’Donnell. It’s a privilege to have this opportunity.
Running a coffee shop was never part of my life plan. In fact, it was so far from front-of-mind that it took me a few months to realize Bruce was alluding to a prospective sale. But things happen, and I began to ponder what-might-be. It’s rare in commerce to find true alignment with respect to the motivations between two parties to a deal. Such, though, is the case with Cutters Point. Bruce and Patti care deeply about their guests, their team, their products, their core values, and the sense of place that they have established a few yards off the shoulder of Skidaway Road. I share their mission. At Cutters Point, we will continue to endeavor to “be a bright spot in the day of each or our guests.”
As a young teenager, my sites were set on a surgeon’s scrubs. At 51, I’ll try not spill smoothies on my apron, but it’s nearly impossible to keep my jeans clean when I’m digging in the dirt.
Be open. You’re going somewhere, it just might not be where you think.