Up Front – Vol. 16, #1
In my previous column, I mentioned that I am “going back to school.” The phrasing is both intentionally and annoyingly vague. More precisely: On January 14, I fly to Boston to join the 10th (annual) Cohort of Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellows. I have made a habit of not-saying it out loud or writing it down, as I fear it might sound brag-y. That’s not the idea here, I promise. Rather, the program has been so amazing already – and I’ve done nothing more than pass through the selection process and attend a three-day intensive orientation – that I encourage anyone with an appetite for lifelong learning and desire to do public good to check it out. (advancedleadership.harvard.edu)
As Harvard describes the fellowship, it is “a new third stage in higher education designed to prepare experienced leaders to take on new challenges in the social sector where they potentially can make an even greater societal impact than they did in their careers.” The common thread among fellows, as I observe it, is a passion to help make the world a better place.
Another shared characteristic among the other 47 fellows in the class of 2018 – They all seem more qualified than I. We have a former Prime Minister of Peru (it’s a she – the first such-gendered person to lead a South American state); CEO of KFC, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Long John Silver’s (all one man); and UN Commissioner for Refugee Affairs; not to mention (small world) the guy who hired me at Morgan Stanley in 1992…and fired me in 1995. (I deserved it.) We have former financiers, founders, a member of Congress…and a guy with a little magazine and coffee shop.
Each fellow conceives and develops a comprehensive project intended to fill an unmet societal need. I have given much thought to my philanthropy and arrived at a basic idea: Education and opportunity are antidotes to many, if not most, systemic human problems. Poverty, hunger, crime, abandoned pets – These are challenges we need to face together, but I hope to stunt them at their roots rather than offer triage once it’s too late.
For this mission, I’ll be spending much of this year in a 547-square-foot studio apartment within sprinting distance of Harvard Stadium, home since 1903 to the Crimson’s gridiron squads. I’ll come back here as much as the rigors of the program allow.
Portending absence aside, I remain committed to The Skinnie, our advertisers and audience (you). I will edit every story, just like I always have, from the place in front of my laptop screen. This column will continue, with thudding regularity (as an old friend from the NY Times used to say), penned (metaphorically) with our print deadline fast approaching or just past.
It’s a New Skinnie Year, our 16th, believe it or not. I’m going to need a little help with a few things while I’m gone. If any of the items on this wish-list interests you, get in touch before it slips your mind.
1. We’re looking to launch a new, recurring column, with a single author and some fresh ideas. Do you want to write for us? Do you have a topic you want to explore over a span of time? If it makes sense and you’re reliable, you’re hired.
2. We’re a tiny business, with a single revenue stream. If I were more ambitious or energetic or desperate, we’d evolve – robust digital footprint, branded merchandise, complementary markets, and on and on. Alas, we’re likely to remain just as we are, which enables us to maintain a special bond with our readers. For your part, please consider the value of reaching an engaged, affluent audience…advertise with us, or suggest that your favorite businesses do.
3. Art – photos, paintings, whatever you’re inspired to create. It’s impossible to publish everything we receive, but your imagery is a vital piece of our story…send it in.
I’m going to Boston, but we’re not going anywhere. See you right here every other week.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #26
In January, I’m going back to school. I leave the same day as my daughter; we’re on the same Savannah-to-Atlanta flight. She connects for Dallas; while it’s Boston for me.
I began to consider this move more than three years ago, but I was scared. How could I leave what has become familiar to me? With no traditional income and the added expense of an apartment and semi-regular back-and-forth flights, how would my long-term financial health fare? Am I smart and diligent enough to do the work? For a year, I shelved the idea.
Every new issue of my alumni magazine reminded me – courtesy of a full-page ad – of the possible fellowship that I had forsaken. On an impulse, I dialed the number at the bottom of the page. The application process, as described during the call, gave me comfort – secure in the knowledge that I would never be selected. Free of expectations, I filled out forms, wrote essays, interviewed with faculty and former fellows, and filed the notion of additional advanced education in the back of my mind. On the day, about a year and a half ago, that the faculty committee was to convene and review finalist candidates (somehow my application was still alive and I had an inkling I might actually make the final cut), I talked for three hours straight to the admissions coordinator. Together, we determined it was best if I withdraw. I wasn’t ready…not 100 percent.
Early last spring, Mike, the aforementioned admissions official, emailed me “just to check in.” I waited a few days, then dialed. “Submit my material. I want to go.” A few weeks later, Mike confirmed the good news. I was in; I would start in nine months, plenty of time to put everything else in my world in its proper, self-regulating place.
For most of the next nine months, I told no one; for, to do so would make this abstract thing real. Find housing in Cambridge? Later. Consult with those closest to me? It’s better that they don’t know. Figure out what to do with Mushu (my companion-cat)? Cat’s are self-sufficient, and it’s only ONE year.
In an instant, nine months became a couple of weeks. I secured a round-trip ticket and left home for a three-day orientation, from which I am only two days back. I’ve signed a lease on a 547-foot studio apartment, chosen classes, prepared 11 cases for Socratic discussion, and prayed like mad.
On the first morning, I found myself seated next to woman who seemed quiet and shy. After awkward silence, I reminded myself I identify as a Southerner, conjured a smile, and broke the ice. She had an accent, Latin-American, I guessed to myself. “Beatriz Merino,” per her name card and nice-to-meet-you-introduction; the first female Prime Minister of Peru, Google and the bio in our binders said.
That’s when my fear faded completely. She was kind, unassuming, there for the same reasons as I: To become better and try to do some good in the world.
Yesterday, I emailed Mike, the admissions guy. This is what I said:
I consider myself to be a better-than-decent writer. Even so, I’m struggling to synthesize my feelings into a few sentences. Absent appropriate superlatives, I’ll say simply: I am blown away. I can’t recall feeling as excited and hopeful and humbled as I do today, as a result of my recent visit to Cambridge.
Starting with the cohort – WOW! It’s a tad intimidating to find myself surrounded with such an incredible group of accomplished and thoughtful people. As it was on my first day at Wharton in 1988, I was wondering how the heck I slipped past all of you and into such a rarified room. A bunch of really smart people with the maturity and experience to embrace the act of learning with reverence unavailable to one earlier in life – it’s magical. Similarly mystical – it’s inspiring to join a collection of extremely competitive individuals who seem genuinely joined in spirit to do important things. It’s as if the shared pursuit is as important as personal achievement…and that’s beautiful in its own way.
On to the faculty – I am in awe. Dr. Fill-in-the-blank is a world leader in X…the phrase seems useful again and again and again, every time we meet someone new. These preeminent scholars radiate sincere interest in helping us with our missions to positively impact the world. I’m 53, yet I feel a child-like desire to please and impress.
The staff – You guys are straight-up pros. Choreographing all of this is so much harder than you and your colleagues make it seem. I feel cared-for, practically and psychically. Thank you all for that.
From the start of the first session, I’ve been on an intellectual high. I’m a crossword puzzle guy – I work the Saturday NY Times puzzle (sort of the Ironman Triathlon of puzzles) every week, always solving it, but rarely without walking away and coming back a few times over the course of a long day. After leaving the program for the airport, I grabbed the paper and sat in the Sky Club, where I filled in every square in 30 minutes without looking up. I’m thinking that my cognitive energy has been noticeably multiplied from a few days in Cambridge, surrounded by the program and its promise.
Mostly, I’m immeasurably grateful. This is an opportunity that few have. Before last week, I remained trepidatious, uncertain about the long-term impact on my financial security that this year will have. My peers’ bios confirm that I’m probably the poorest (relative and insensitively flippant term, but you get the idea) guy in the room; yet, suddenly, I don’t care. This experience is a precious gift. I believe, in just a few days, that I have a real, fighting chance to help change the world for the better and for good. And I feel like my wife is with me, and pleased, and proud.
I type this without reading glasses or time to proofread, so please forgive typos and/or other errors, herein. Understand that I am euphoric and champing at the bit to return.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #25
Three days from now. I’m expecting results from some medical tests today or tomorrow, and tomorrow I fly to Boston, where I’ll be for four days. I’ve bought exactly zero gifts to date, and I have no more than a rough idea of whom is on my list and what I’d like to get for anyone, anyway. Perhaps, the sum of this mess explains why I’ve been staring at a blank computer screen, bankrupt of creative ideas and energy, for 30 minutes now.
Advent – the word behind the calendars with the little pop-out window boxes – derives from Latin language concerning the action “to come or happen soon.” The Christian observance of Advent season suggests joyous anticipation and reverent preparation for the coming of the Savior. Yet, the overwhelming confluence of year-end tasks can quickly transform joy to dread. In Mass, I connect with the promise of salvation. Much of the rest of time, I am paralyzed by the fear that I can’t possibly ready myself – practically or spiritually – for what lies less than two weeks ahead.
It’s impractical that we end a year and celebrate the birth of Christ with no more than a week in between. Closing the books is sort of the opposite of opening your heart. Remember back to your school days: Did you do your best work when you put the big things off until the very last minute? Does a rush to secure health insurance, make tax-deductible charitable contributions, bake cookies and buy consumer electronics properly prepare your soul for the promise of salvation? Probably not.
I’m for moving New Year’s Day to July 1. Changing our calendar system to a fiscal year.
Think about it from a holiday standpoint. Christmas is such a big deal that you’d probably still get most, if not all, of the week in which it falls, off. Then, combine the coming of the New Year and its symbolic blank slate with Independence Day, and there’s another full week. Champagne and fireworks - while I don’t advocate using the two in tandem - seem kindred in a way. And we’d put a little space between the Baby Jesus and Times Square, which seems appropriate and the right thing to do. Celebrating outside at midnight makes a lot more sense when it’s warm and the sun remains relevant until 9.
Christmas would be less hectic than it is now. It would be the undeniable star (of Bethlehem) of the season, absent the rush to get so many other chores done under the end-of-year gun.
You start overindulging at Thanksgiving. You’re plenty stuffed by December 25. Forget the resolutions, just stop gorging yourself on the 26th. Sober up and get to the gym a week earlier than you’d otherwise do. Your body will thank you. And July 4th barbecues feature lots of hangover food, good for your head on the days after my new, New Year.
Face it, you don’t get much done in June anyway, as you’ve kicked into summer mode. So there’s plenty of time for filling out benefit-election forms and gathering documents for your CPA.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s a song title, but it also represents the length of Christmastime celebrations beginning before the Middle Ages and continuing, in a more limited way, for some Christians today. Consider this: What did people have going on hundreds and hundreds of years ago? No TV. No social media. No 9 to 5. Grow stuff. Make stuff. Give stuff to your king. And fight for him when he gets ambitious and/or bored. Even with that limited schedule, it took them 12 days to handle the business of Christmas. We get one, and on that day most of the stores are closed.
My girls and I bought our tree and wreaths the day after Thanksgiving, and I’ll have finished all of my cards by the end of today. I’ve been lulled into a false sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but now the sprint to the finish begins. Yet, it’s not supposed to be a finish at all, but rather, a start. Instead of collapsing in a sigh of relief that it’s over, I hope to remember to inhale the winds of change and hope.
In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of shopping to do.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #24
If a picture paints a thousand words, consider the expressive value of an entire photo shoot.
Last year, we had a family crisis concerning our Christmas card. Basically, I wanted to produce one and my girls’ were considerably less enthusiastic about the idea. “Considerably” is far too nuanced, actually. They flat-out weren’t having it.
Clandestinely, I crafted a printed proof from the library of photos sitting on my phone. I took care to include pictures of each of the three of us – alone, in pairs, and together as a trio. Our cat got a place among the thumbnail array, as did a few local landmarks. Having learned through the years that young women are picky about their pics, I opted for a collection of little images, rather than a single, large shot.
I addressed and sent every last copy before my girls returned home for winter break. I didn’t dare speak of “the card,” and hoped that none of its recipients would acknowledge its existence aloud. Bad plan. We live in an annoyingly connected world. It seems that my kids know the details of every little thing that happens around this town before the protagonists in the fast-spreading stories themselves.
“Dad, you lied…you made a card.” And, “The pictures are horrible.” One more: “The card was Mom’s thing. You feel like you have to do it now. We don’t. You’ve ruined it.”
Their reactions hurt in several ways. The resultant mess set a sullen tone for a sometimes-uncomfortable holiday season. More than once, I worried that I had lost my girls, perhaps for good. One night, in a car at the curb outside our house, our world exploded. They yelled and cried, and I was defenseless, and they were mostly right. It was clear – there would be no quick-fixes for the things that were dividing us. And those things were now collectively represented by the ill-fated family card.
Slowly, welcome change. Subtle, but recognizable – the evolution came as unspectacular gestures rather than seismic shifts. The frequency of our phone calls increased. The conversations bathed in warmer tones. I can feel their contentment with their current lives from far away. But absence is easy – would our distant-closeness prove genuine, face-to-face, several days in a row?
I can’t remember the last time the three of us have seemed so united in spirit and purpose. We have come to affectionately accept each other’s quirks and imperfections, and our shared fate. Forgiveness continues to nudge resentment deeper into a dark corner. Loss feels different than it has for most of the last three years. We are conscious of it and quietly reverent, but we aren’t angry and empty, too. We have permitted ourselves to celebrate our hopes and ambitions. We have talked, and walked, and sat for long times together in the same room.
The week before Thanksgiving, they addressed, without prompting, the taboo issue: the card. Stunned, I was, by what I heard. Shocked and elated, at once. “Let’s do pictures in the square by our house. On Thanksgiving morning, so we don’t have to dress up twice. We’ll design and order the card before we go back on Sunday. Okay?”
So that’s what we did. I asked a friend of ours, a photographer in addition to other creative things, Shannon, if she was available…and she was. We each sought approval from the others before settling on our outfits. We posed standing, sitting, in several different rooms, forced indoors by holiday rain. On the way to our car, carrying a pie, bound for my parents’ house, Shannon suggested we turn toward her camera one last time. Two umbrellas, a freshly-baked dessert, and three big smiles, bordered by shimmering wet sidewalk bricks and overhanging holly branches and a receding line of vintage-1854 iron balconies to one side…the picture is unexpected perfection. I’d share it with you here, but I dare not risk upsetting the blissful family balance we’ve cultivated to replace our pain.
The next day we bought and hung wreaths – the three of us together, rather than one carrying most of the load. We decorated our tree and raved about the extra-cool lights their mother bought seven years ago that miraculously still work. Gabby wrestled with an angel that is meant to hover over one of our nativity scenes until she secured it safely above the Infant’s crib. We admired our work. I took pictures, and they didn’t turn away in disgust.
A thousand words per picture. It’s a lopsided trade. But I offer an alternative equation, based on our Thanksgiving photo shoot. Roughly a hundred pictures for 10 words. We were gathered close, smiling, saying without saying what we hadn’t said nearly enough in a long time: I love you, and we’re going to be okay.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #23
“Demerger.” Is that even a word? Actually, and surprisingly to me, it is. But just because it’s a legitimate component of our vast lexicon, is it, in the case of policing, a good idea?
So as to eliminate any uncertainty as to my answer to the question, let me be clear: Hell, no.
Fourteen years ago, parties agreed to the prudence of merging the Savannah and Chatham County Police Departments to form a single entity charged with the county’s public safety. In July, the city council, which includes the mayor, voted unanimously (8-0) to terminate the existing merger agreement and undo the consolidated entity into its previously separate parts.
I’m no reporter. This is an essay, not journalism. But I know some of the people charged with making these decisions. And I’ve listened to them, carefully. As yet, I’m not satisfied with much of what I’ve heard.
The City would tell you that it has repeatedly reached out to the county to resolve lingering issues of contention. City officials would also suggest that the county refuses to respond. So what then, give up?! One thing I’ve learned about leadership over the years: A big part of it is getting people to consider and ultimately do what they might be predisposed to adamantly resist. “I can’t get him to listen to me,” is the opposite of leadership. If the truth and sentiment are on your side and you can’t even get your adversary to take your call, that’s a you-problem. You lack strategy and tactics, and you are fundamentally weak.
The County’s hands aren’t clean in this matter, either. Not by a long shot. Here are some arguments in favor of demerger that county officials cite: 1) The whole thing was done poorly from the start. 2) People in the unincorporated areas don’t see enough patrol activity. 3) This one I can’t hope to begin to articulate as it’s been communicated to me…suffice it to say it’s some nuanced and unintelligible argument about who pays for what.
Let’s take these points one at a time.
1) Done poorly from the start: Um, it’s government. Do we expect seamless efficiency, superior performance and optimal cost control? So, yep, we could have probably done better. But who among us gets everything right the first time? Especially the hard and important things? When I messed up as a dad, did I decide it best to give my kids back? Again…this thinking is the opposite of leadership. If something in your charge is broken, find ways, work your butt off, to fix it. Doing anything less is cowardly, and dereliction of your leadership duty.
2) Not enough patrols in the unincorporated areas: Isn’t that one of the reasons you live in such a place? I’m no General Patton, but I have a basic sense of military science. You put the armies where the battles are. The same holds for policing. Fewer crimes, fewer cops. Celebrate your relative good fortune, rather than criticizing law enforcement officers for deciding to do much of their work in places where they are much more likely to get shot than down the street from you.
3) Who pays for what?: In short, figure it out. Here’s how this would go if it were a business. First, we would work hard to understand market needs. In this case, how do we optimally ensure public safety for all citizens? Then, we’d go backwards from there. We’d create a draft budget with detailed expense categories to enable us to achieve our determined goals. We’d push and pull and engineer costs as low as they could go. We’d recognize that our “company” has two primary revenue streams – city and county taxes. We’d get the “division heads” (city and county officials) together and negotiate how to most efficiently and fairly allocate our shared expenses between divisions. And none of the guys/gals at the top of the pyramid would consider or feel comfortable leaving the room until they arrived at a final product. That’s what leaders do.
Sometimes, more really is more. Back to the army metaphor, if I were a commander, I’d like to have as many soldiers and guns and other resources as I could muster. Policing is difficult. You (citizens) see uniforms in patrol cars. You don’t see training specialists, forensics experts, seasoned investigators, tactical operators. Do you think a little municipality with a five-man force is good at any of these things?
Savannah is a city with two major metastasizing cancers – poverty and crime. You can debate which is the chicken and which is the egg, but the survival of our community – and communities extend well beyond the boundaries established by gates; if America is afraid to come here, everyone of us loses – depends upon fighting as hard as we can to eradicate both. As I am not a journalist, I am also not a social scientist. But I’d advocate for one weapon above all others in each fight. Combat poverty with education, the seed of all opportunity. And fight crime with a robust law enforcement infrastructure. In that light, intentionally fracturing our police makes no sense.
Who among you deems the purposeful creation of duplicate public entities to be a good idea? Ever? And where does the madness end? Should every neighborhood have its own publicly-funded sewage treatment plant? Do the Historic and Victorian Districts need distinct sanitation units, each with its own uniforms and different-colored trucks? Of course not.
I choose to believe it’s not too late to compel our leaders to genuinely lead. It’s you whom are referenced as in support of the demerger. You don’t notice enough squad cars; you pay more than your fair share and all of the crime happens downtown. But we’re a society. Services aren’t offered a la carte. Be courageous. Be vocal. Tell your commissioners you expect more from them.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #22
It’s Halloween (as I type this) – I can tell by the costumes everybody but me seem to be wearing - but this page contains neither trick nor treat. Although I haven’t run out of ideas (at least I don’t think I have), I have run out of time. Despite intentions to craft something clever, I am faced with a deadline that has passed and a printer with an idle press. The truth is – I’ve been feeling a little listless and uninspired since Saturday afternoon when Penn State blew a 15-point fourth quarter lead and any chance of a special season. So I implore you to forgive this slip and return to see what I’ve written two weeks from now. In the meantime, enjoy the chill in the air and the last sips of pumpkin spice before it’s time for the cinnamon notes of Christmas Blend.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #21
It’s a milestone worth mention, insignificant as it might seem. Three of the four women working in my coffee shop this morning are wearing flannel shirts. It’s chilly. The steam rising from a pumpkin spice latte demands attention. The sky is a version of mid-morning grey, not ominous, but not likely to give way to a hot sun.
I see a man who has been consistently kind to me. He is older than I, a member of my father’s generation. We chat, and somehow the topic turns from finance to fishing, before the man refills his cup and leaves.
My father, himself, walks in. He carries a stuffed manila envelope, as men of his vintage do. Inside – DVDs, digital transcriptions of super-8 movies that have rested peacefully for decades in their tins. He’s hunting. My sister and I are opening Christmas presents. I’m playing baseball. My sister is tumbling through a gymnastics floor exercise. My mother waves reluctantly before she opens the station wagon door. I haven’t viewed them yet, but the scenes are suddenly fresh to me.
He – my dad – first mentioned the movies last week. Do I want to watch them? Good, so when? He asks such questions with an urgency that I don’t understand in the moment, but I do later when I play the conversation back in my head. Today, he leaves the envelope with me. It’s labeled conveniently: “DVDs from Dad.”
“Are you going to watch them on your computer?” he asks.
“Not now, I have to write my essay (this essay),” I answer, more abruptly than my better self would.
“Not now, but later,” he confirms, and I nod, and he turns and takes a seat a table straight behind my back.
Another man, five years my father’s senior and friend to both my dad and me, enters the shop. I haven’t seen him much since his buddy died. Together, they’d come for coffee nearly every morning. Without his morning mate, the man has changed his routine. He is with another man, whom I soon learn is his son. I am happy to meet his boy (who hasn’t been a boy for a long time). Soon the son will return to Alaska, and the father may or may not revert to dropping by here regularly again.
The two men join my father and I return to my work. When my dad hears “Alaska,” he comes especially alive. He tells stories of grizzlies and moose and men he hasn’t mentioned since I was living at home. The details are vivid, precise – a peculiar contrast to the way he now loses proper nouns on the pathways between his mind and mouth.
A woman with glasses and a face I know approaches. “You probably don’t want it, but I have some unsolicited advice.” Her instincts are spot-on.
I try, unsuccessfully, to construct a smile mask on my face. I settle for a neutral stare. She wants her comfortable chair back, nevermind that we have double the number that were here when she used to come. She wants her chair to be by the window, where I’ve built counter seating for 10 rather than two. It’s dark beneath the cozy seats, she says, even though I’ve added five strong overhead lights in the very spot she laments.
How about the cushioned seating over there, drowned in natural light? I point. It looks crowded over there, she protests. It’s wide open, give it a try, I implore. We eventually agree that some people like things the way they have “always been.” And I let her know that I understand and it’s okay. She decides she’s going to start coming back here anyway, and she’s going to propose the shop as a meeting place for a group she knows. After walking towards the door, she turns back to me. You could put my chair right there, and she points to a spot near the window where everyone stands to ponder the pastry case. I hope to see you soon, I say, and she leaves.
I’m in a light cashmere sweater. It’s both active and quiet in here. The music is low and my fingers are tapping the keys with minimal course-correction by my brain.
These unspectacular elements hint at a common theme: Comfort. A thing I’ve been working so hard to find that I’ve too often arrived at its opposite. It’s here. Right here. And if I sit still in front of my keyboard for long enough, it visits me. The trick is finding a way to make it stick.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #20
I’d characterize myself as a “pretty good” Catholic, whatever that means. But I’m not so dedicated as to regularly attend weekday Mass. On September 21, a Thursday, I was there, in the Cathedral, just before 7:30 in the morning, waiting for the priest. My mom was by my side and I was quietly bracing for a tough half hour ahead.
In the Faith, we have a mechanism for remembering and praying for the souls of the deceased. We “offer” mass in the person’s name, often on the anniversary of his or her death. Well into the service, the priest speaks the person’s name aloud. You know it’s coming, but when it’s your loved one, the words still have a stinging effect.
September 21 is the day my wife died, three years and a few days ago at the time of this read. On this iteration of the forever-unsettling 21st, I expected to see the familiar and comforting image of my priest, whom I also consider my friend, at mass. But he didn’t appear at the altar. Instead, three priests, two of whom I had never seen before, walked together to the front of the church.
Three priests is overkill for a weekday mass. On a busy day, 30 parishoners dot the vast vaulted interior of the diocesan treasure on Abercorn, just south of Liberty. One priest is plenty. So why three on this day?
To try to answer, I must look back a year. Rather than commemorating Anniversary 2016 in a wooden pew downtown, I sought refuge in the high Andes of southeastern Peru, where spiritual awareness is a regular element of indigenous life. The connection between the earthly and the divine is unbreakable there. The peaks have god-like names. The Sacred Valley welcomes pilgrims of all predispositions – believers and skeptics, alike. I dare you to climb there and not feel like there are inexplicable forces bigger than yourself at work.
I met a shaman. He guided me through a ceremony in his native tongue – Quechuan – of which I understood not a word. We burnt a collection of things. I thought of Louise. And then I climbed higher, for another grueling week.
Eventually, I reached a tiny village with a primitive Catholic church. I let myself in and prayed with an intensity I often find hard to maintain. I prayed for Louise’s peace. I prayed for Louise’s daughters (our kids). I prayed hardest for a sign that she is with us and we’ll be okay. I stayed on my knees for a long time, the simple interior around me mesmerizing. Finally, I rose, turned toward the dirt street on the other side of the heavy hand-carved door, and lit a candle on the way out.
Up and over the highest pass on the trek, I walked and walked, down through one microclimate after the next. I was acutely aware of the power in every breath I drew. I noticed things – little animals, cloud formations, faint songs on the wings of the wind.
A small “city” marked my final stop. In it, I found another Catholic church, this one a little bigger, brighter, more of a collection of modern conveniences than the one from a few days past. But my approach was the same. I knelt quietly, for a long time, and prayed hard, desperate for signs. “Please, God, keep her with me, now and always. Show me her eternal face.”
Two days later, I flew home.
Back at the cathedral, this September 21st, Father Migone, the man in the center of the robed troika, introduced the men by his sides. A pair of Italians, called to serve in the high mountains of Peru…the same mountains, the same parishes, where I beseeched God for a sign a year before. There they were, these two spiritual men, at the head of the sparse congregation, in Louise’s home church, on the anniversary of her death. They served exactly one mass at the cathedral…that one, on that random and unremarkable September day.
I long ago suspended my arguments in support of coincidence and reason in favor of mystical confluence too overwhelming to explain. I choose it, so it’s real to me. Two priests from the place in Peru where I prayed for a sign show up in my church to celebrate the anniversary of my wife’s death. You can’t make this stuff up. But God can.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #19
“Don’t you want to touch it?” a friend asked me as we stood a couple of feet from a big hulk of a metallic man.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but, yeah, I suppose I might. “We can’t, right?” I responded, already knowing what this well-mannered woman-of-a-certain-age would say.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said the voice of reason. An undeniable truth, given that every member of the museum staff was, at the same time, in the gallery room.
But the thing was right there – an authentic Rodin – unprotected. No Lucite box, no velvet rope.
I am – in a general sense – a rule-follower. Yet my next move was inspired by a peculiar mix of reverence and rebellion, and not consistent with my usual reserve: I extended my elbow rather than my hand, and brushed the sleeve of my sport jacket across the oversized torso’s shoulder blade. Of course I felt nothing, and still it felt kind of cool.
There are 32 Rodins right now at the Jepson Center – some sitting in the middle of the floor, vulnerable and exposed like my victim, some inside boxes of plastic glass. Depending on when you go visit them, it’s very possible that yours will be the 33rd and only non-bronze figure in sight.
I’ve been to the Rodin Museum in Paris, more than once…which sounds pretentious, I know. My intent, however, is to reinforce the notion of my fondness for the facility. It’s awesome – the building, the grounds, the art…the whole thing. Once, we hustled the kids across the Seine just in time to gain access for 15 minutes before they locked the doors at the end of the day. It was worth the sweat, even for such an abbreviated visit. We came; we saw; we went a few doors down and grabbed a baguette, satisfied and still hungry in more ways than one.
Given this devotion to the Left Bank repository of the French master’s work, imagine my surprise when I came away from a half hour at the Jepson feeling like I had learned more about Auguste Rodin, sculpture and art history than I had in the sum of my preceding 53 years.
As long as we’re addressing masterworks, did you catch the Savannah Symphony’s opening night? Not unlike Rodin on Telfair Square, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” from the sixth row in the Lucas feels as accessible as it does stirring, different from what you’d get in NYC’s David Geffen Hall. You can see the beads of sweat on conductor Peter Shannon’s shaved head; you can see the second violin’s genuine ear-to-ear smile, confirming that she, like you, is having a really good time.
Like a New Yorker who has never been to the Statue of Liberty, it’s easy to miss these moments. And it’s great when we don’t. The brides-to-be and their friends – matching t-shirts, drinks-in hand; the stifling smell of horse waste that traces the Bull Street spine from Johnson Square to Forsyth Park; ghosts, pirates and overused fryer oil – sometimes these things seem the essence of this place. They’re not. Amidst the difficult-to-describe mix of visual magnificence and decay that defines this city’s distinct beauty, culture sits and waits. It’s more friendly and democratic than its big city kin. Yet, like the unfortunate characters I see around my home square every day, it’s both tempting and easy to ignore.
Why bother? Why not? What’s an hour or two of your time? Some incredibly inspired stuff finds its way to this tertiary market. Take advantage of it. Rub elbows with a Rodin, like I did. Just don’t get caught.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #18
Wandering around Venice, I didn’t blink for two days. The city is a timeless masterpiece in patina, both elegant and worn. Eyes up, eyes down, darting in every direction – it’s mesmerizing.
A soft-then-soaring symphony, robust and receding again and again would make a fine soundtrack for such a walk. But the prevailing sound is something else – a baritone din – an unceasing, awkward chorus comprised of countless, clacking footfalls and voices in wide-ranging tongues. But the song lacks the richness of most city noise. There are no motors – real or metaphoric. Without cars and industry, Venice sounds like an expansive soundstage in between takes.
Venice is both gorgeous and in decline. Once a center of international trade, a prosperous port full of ambition and creativity, the city now sustains what’s left of itself by housing and feeding the likes of me, curious interlopers desperate for generous helpings of squid-ink risotto and the world’s sweetest eye candy. Behind the palazzo walls and closed shutters, some 55,000 Venetians still find a way to live, while 20 million tourists use up what’s left of the native majesty, one visit at a time.
If each of the 20 million spends $500, it adds up to $10 billion a year. This crude calculation doesn’t account for the fact that every tourist dollar generates (my guess) at least 20 cents in taxes. That’s more than $36,000 in government revenue per Venetian. Italy’s per capita income is a bit more than $38,000 a year, and the highest combined (federal, regional and local) income tax rate is approximately 45 percent. So applying the 45 percent rate to the per capita income figure (which overstates the true total), a resident generates approximately $17,000 in public revenue a year through income tax. If tourists generate more than twice that in per capita public revenue, what incentive exists to repopulate glorious canal-side flats with real people doing real work? And that’s just the public sector math. The other $8 billion that the government doesn’t get – the private-enterprise benefit associated with the transient throngs – nobody’s eager to say, “No thanks, we’ll find another way.”
From Venice, I took a train to a less glamorous northeastern Italian city, Udine. Yes, the trains are clean, fast, relatively inexpensive, and run on time. In Udine, I mounted a bicycle and began to make my way to the Slovenian border and, eventually, up and over the Julian Alps. Two days in the Slovenian capital (Ljubljana) and a day in Paris, and I began to realize a few common truths everywhere I went.
People are people. On an intimate, interpersonal level, most of us, regardless of philosophy or heritage, are predisposed to connect. Some encounters are uplifting, others perfectly pleasant, some no more than lukewarm indifference, a few don’t leave anybody feeling very good. Observing humanity in its various forms, I can narrate the life stories of people I’ve never met, projecting my own experiences onto others, at once imagining and understanding what it might be like to live one of the lives unfolding before my curious eyes.
Despite our advanced society, we live in relative isolation, both physical and effective, in the U.S. Separation can create comfort, both real and imagined. I was in three countries over that last two weeks, close to 40 so far during my life. We speak of racial tension here, but so much of the rest of the world deals with daily cultural collision on an even more pronounced scale. What if an American had to be fairly proficient in four languages to work in a coffee shop?
Our collective American story, told in the form of news, diverges greatly from the version that others tell of us. Everywhere I’ve gone, most people seem to respect, if not revere, the idea and ideal of America; but, absent the influence of our own internal politics, we look different to a distant eye than we do through a mirrored lens. To ignore this reality is self-destructive – there are 350 million of us and more than 7.5 billion “not-us’” out there.
These reflections are framed by the perspective of travel. Seeing, firsthand, ourselves in others, by definition, is empathy. And empathy is never a bad thing. The up-close lessons in world history – travel is like a grown-up field trip – can inform decisions at home. A beautiful, historic, quirky, surprisingly-underpopulated-and-overvisited city in elegant decay – am I talking about Venice or is this the unavoidable trajectory of my own home? I don’t know the answer. But I feel a little better equipped to do the analysis every time I wander and return.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #17
It’s “back-to” time. School is in session and neighbors who flee the summer heat are coming home. Editing this issue’s Island Hopping section confirms the change in our collective rhythms. Local organizations like New Neighbors and Landlovers are shifting back into high gear.
Another thing I noticed while editing – most of the material you’ll find on the following pages has come to us at the suggestion or through the efforts of readers. We like that. It’s key to the success of the magazine. We strive to provide high-quality content that is particularly interesting and relevant to you. When you help in the process, our work improves.
We have always believed we maintain a silent, implied dialogue with each of our readers. That connection makes this ongoing project work. Some of you have been with us since the beginning, which is a while, as this month we head into our 15th year. Others are newer to the community or more recently introduced to the magazine. Occasionally, I use this space to remind you all that we need your help. We appreciate your readership, but we also seek your ideas, suggestions, comments and submissions. We can’t use everything, but more makes it in than gets left out.
So as your Skidaway/school year begins as summer ends, consider what you’d like to see in the magazine. Maybe it’s a discussion of a hot topic or a profile of one of your friends. You might be aware of an organization that is doing great things and you want to share its story. Perhaps you’ve taken a special trip or an amazing photo. Tell us; show us.
Our contact info is always on our masthead, and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you soon.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #16
One after another, in matching red, the boys and girls walk into the breaking waves a few feet south of Huntington Beach Pier. They number at least 200. In addition to scarlet swimsuits, they’re equipped with floating kickboards and hot pink bathing caps. Knocked back by the cresting swells, the kids regain their footing and march on, until the sandy bottom is too far below their feet for standing. Free to float, they stretch their boards westward toward the Pacific horizon, and their feet start to flutter. The long, red, dotted line parallels the pier before it bends left around the structure’s head and begins to draw a second line, growing in the other direction, back towards the beach. Out and back, fighting the current and the morning chill, close to half a mile by my rough reckoning. It looks hard. It looks fun.
As the Huntington Beach Junior Guard campers strain against the surf, I am struggling, too. Wondering if I’m ever going to feel completely okay again. Today, it’s an odd sensation around my breastplate, not pain in the typical sense, but noticeable. I have techniques – breathing exercises and other distractions – to combat these moments. Sometimes, they work.
Thinking about not-thinking-about-something is nuts. The Serenity Prayer is my last resort: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can: and the wisdom to know the difference.” For a minute, I don’t feel my chest at all.
Back down in the water, the kids are laughing, yelling, racing, splashing their neighbors when they think they’re out of the camp counselors’ lines-of-sight.
Suddenly, I am tiny, tow-headed, in a gigantic pool learning to swim again. It’s morning. The azure sky is uninterrupted by clouds, and the building sun seems to light the surrounding field from below. There are no engines or sirens to break the calm, only giggles and whispers and the repetitive rhythm of a skimmer basket breaking the surface as the lifeguard clears the water of bugs and leaves. The cinder block building is painted lime green, and the trim around the pull-up-screen concession windows are a darker shade of pine. Below the most distant window, the third from the entry breezeway, sits an unpainted block, a step the smaller kids use to order their snacks. Inside the building, behind the screens, a popsicle awaits. Root beer, or vanilla, I have plenty of time to decide. The lesson won’t be over for an hour and a half.
Summer is endless for a young boy. Until it isn’t, and school starts again. Yet, summer returns, with the smell of cut grass and the sting of a careless burn. In those days, everything and nothing are important, at once. When things get too hot, you jump in the headfirst, after running with abandon to the water’s edge. You’re fearless, invincible, able to float carefree all afternoon.
I’ve been daydreaming. I am reawakened by the scream of an unspooling fishing reel. As far as I can see, rods rest undisturbed along the rails up and down each side of Huntington Beach Pier. Among the mass of inaction, one guy has a fish. How will he bring it up through the air the hundred feet or so from the sea’s surface without the thing falling off the hook? Success seems unlikely. But I don’t stick around to observe. The fisherman believes, or he wouldn’t be there, as do the countless men and women watching slack, silent lines.
These people feel okay – the swimming kids, the hopeful anglers – completely okay, it appears. It’s early still, most of the day yet to be lived. The breeze off the ocean refreshes; the grey above has mostly disappeared. For a long time, I’ve believed I don’t care much for swimming. Now, the water – emerald, but clear enough that I can see the feet attached to a man who is treading water – calls me, and I’m inclined to answer and come in.
Summer is endless, until it’s over, but now I know it’s coming again.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #15
I got a new lawnmower, and it makes me as happy as a I imagine a Ferrari would. Bonus – it’s about 1 percent of a fancy car’s price.
As a boy, I had a paper route for a very short time. I wasn’t very good at it. I was too shy for the money-collection part.
I found my niche as the neighborhood lawn boy, cutting upwards of half a dozen yards a week, year after year. Some paid 5 bucks a pop. Others 10. For an extra-big job, I could get 15. I used a riding mower when I could, and a push mower to get the hard-to-reach spots. Except for my first customer. He was a stickler for hand-mowed turf. Most of my customers preferred that I trap the clippings and transfer them to plastic bags and then the curb. Sometimes, I’d use a hand rake. Occasionally, I pulled weeds.
I didn’t comprehend it at the time, but the solitary nature of the work suited me. There were plenty of days when I would have preferred to have had no responsibilities, but grass grows with or without my consent.
Mowing days were typically hot and bright. We had gnats – the singular, annoying and persistent type, rather than the biting hordes we face seasonally here. There were flies, too. The regular “house” variety and voracious horseflies once in a while. Cuttings often coated my sweaty arms and legs, and found their way up my nose.
It’s hard to say if I liked the work or not. I can’t remember a particular feeling. But knowing that I did it makes me proud today. And the fruits? I invested my earnings in zero-coupon corporate bonds, having seen ads in the local paper for same. Interest rates were very high in those days. I bought three-year notes for $500, five-years for $333, and sevens for $250. When they matured, I got $1,000 back in each case. The whole thing seemed pretty cool. When I graduated from college, about $15,000 suddenly showed up.
I learned things that I’ve only begun to grasp now.
Way out back, far from an elderly widow’s eye, you could miss a spot and nobody would ever know. Except for you. The moment that you finish your work, the relentless forces of nature begin to undermine your efforts. Why seek excellence if it is fundamentally impermanent and doomed to undo itself? And nihilistically: It’s just a yard – it has no impact on the trajectory of human events. So who cares and what’s the point?
My new mower compels me to reconsider all of the above, and more.
Now, the grass is mine. It covers acres. Cutting it correctly requires significant chunks of two (preferably consecutive) days. I’m paying for the gas, and a dull blade is on me.
Perhaps I learned to make good choices at the fringes of my neighbors’ yards. Because I refuse to allow even the narrowest band to remain untouched. If the results are substandard – maybe the grass is unusually thick and the results are rough – I’ll make a second pass. I’ve come to love the steady hum of the motor, hour after hour beneath the scorching sun. Each patch presents a new geometric equation to optimize. The work isn’t important; yet, in a way, it is.
I read a story about a former colleague who recently bought a house on the beach in Malibu for $85 million bucks. It’s not his primary home. Speaking of bucks, my first direct boss now owns the Milwaukee NBA team of the same name. I’m pretty sure neither guy mows any of his own grass. And I’m okay that I do. Thankful for the opportunity, actually. And very happy that my new mower runs fast and turns on a dime.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #14
This is not a typical Tuesday morning. Or, more specifically, not a typical every-other Tuesday morning, when I write this column a fortnight removed from the previous time.
Atypical because the clock ticks quickly towards a colossal reconfiguration of my universe, set for two days from now. Thursday morning, my older daughter and I hit the road to deliver her to the beginning of the rest of her life. A recent college grad, she’s moving to Washington, D.C. She begins the path to a laudable career with a terrific job, and Day One is July 28. In the meantime, there’s a U-Haul to rent, furniture to assemble, a bank account to open, utilities to secure, IDs to obtain, and various other chores that establishing oneself as a grownup requires.
Today, there are two procedures to tend to. Her car needs routine maintenance, as does her body, which entails a general anesthetic and temporarily surrendering the keys to the aforementioned car.
So I’m preoccupied, and ambivalent, and both unable and disinclined to do my usual 1,000ish words. I’m wildly excited by Sofia’s prospects for happiness and success. I’m nostalgic and melancholy, and angry at the passage of time. I’ve been battling the physical discomforts associated with anxiety for the better part of week, though a clear EKG has helped and I’ve enjoyed a pair of reasonably good days. Now, this morning, my stomach is cramping uncontrollably. Evidently, the mind has mysterious powers that, no matter how smart we think we are, manifest pain that mirrors the shredding of the soul.
Therefore, I’m stopping here. With a commitment to do more and better next time, and a hope that you’ll quietly wish Sofia good luck. I first wrote about her in these pages 14 years ago. To the delight of some of you and the disdain of others. But she matters to me, as does her sister. More than anything else. So I keep writing. No longer about the little girls in ballet tights, but the young women in the big cities who just might change the world.
Up Front – Vol. 15, #13
Farther back in this issue, you’ll find one of our most popular recurring features. We run it once a year, usually in June. It’s a tribute to the year’s high school graduates who live among our core constituency, the Skidaway Island community. We’ve tracked down 48 such young people from the Class of 2017, new alumni from 10 local schools – eight private and two public. Savannah Country Day School boasts the largest number of Skidaway grads this year, awarding 14 sheepskins. Enjoying a renaissance in its storied athletic program, Benedictine confers degrees upon 10 young men from our community. For families choosing public education, Savannah Arts Academy is the clear favorite among your neighbors, with eight graduates. Congratulations to each of the young people we’ve recognized in our feature, and to any who might have slipped past our researchers, too.
For parents, graduation season can be bittersweet. Degrees in hand, many no-longer-small kids leave home for an extended period – maybe forever – for the first time. As a mom or dad, you’re proud and excited, and a little sad. But you mask the sad part as you help to shop for dorm room or apartment furniture, rent U-Hauls, buy plane tickets, and smile (genuinely) as you listen to your children excitedly detail their hopes, ambitions and plans.
High school graduation is like separation-training for many parents. If your kid’s going away to college, you’ll have some rough days in late August or early September. But, before you blink, Parents’ Weekend is upon you. In another instant, your baby’s in her old bed – at least until noon – and you’ve got a turkey in the oven and the Macy’s parade on TV.
If high school commencement is Milk Chocolate on the Bittersweet Scale, college is 70 Percent Cocoa, at least. When they leave for a job in a distant city, they’re really gone. For good, oftentimes. I’ve got a college grad this year. She’s moving to DC in a few weeks. For reasons previously explored in this column, her graduation ceremony had the potential to reach the Pure Dark (100 percent cocoa) designation for me.
Almost as if scripted, driving rain and unseasonal cold blanketed the Shenandoah Valley for several days leading up to the big moment (or two, actually, as baccalaureate and commencement were scheduled 24 hours apart). Those in our group from California didn’t think to bring sweaters. My white pants didn’t do well in the outdoor-party mud.
Commencement morning broke the same way as the previous three or four. Gray. Wet. Uncomfortably chilly. A low, solid ceiling overhead, rather than distinguishable clouds. Festivities were set for 10 a.m. We made our way there, umbrellas at the ready, spirits soaring and soggy at the same time.
Maintenance men passed out clear plastic ponchos that soon covered all manner of fancy dress. Staff soaked towel after towel, wiping folding chairs. I secured a stand-up spot near the back of the main lawn, under a covered walkway at the perimeter of The Colonnade – farther than I’d like from the podium, but almost completely dry. The rest of my family braved the soggy seating, but I felt like being by myself.
Sofia was my baby, my firstborn. Our relationship has evolved – whether with my consent or not – from the days when she instinctively sought the comfort of my arms to a more complicated acceptance of each other as imperfect-but-love-worthy adults. “She’s amazing,” I thought. And then, “I’m going to miss her as much as I would miss air if it were to disappear.”
At that moment, missing Sofia in advance, lamenting the harsh truth that her mother doesn’t get to watch this unfold, I was, undeniably, very sad.
At 9:59, one minute before the graduates-to-be began their march, a tiny breach appeared in the gray ceiling overhead, directly above the stage. The empty seats awaiting the Class of 2017 sat in long, quiet, white rows in front of Lee Chapel. The opening in the sky seemed to be pierced like a pinhole by the steeple presiding over the scene. With haste, the hole opened uniformly, like a widening lens. Within the new circle, a perfect, brilliant sun shone, so bright that umbrellas remained deployed as shields from the hot rays.
It was then that I realized that – rushing at the last minute like always – she had found her seat and was with us to watch her girl. Actually, they were all with us, the ones whom otherwise couldn’t physically be there. As they always are. As they always will be.
Warmed by the unexpected sun, I was still a little sad and lonely, but definitely not alone.
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.