To What End?

12 10 2011

Last weekend was an awesome family experience.  Along with our youngest daughter and her husband, Linda a I were in Chicago to support/encourage/root for/care for our oldest daughter who was running her first full marathon.  For those who do not have distance runners or triathletes in your family it may be difficult to understand why it is so important for family members, friends and loved ones to be there when someone runs that distance, especially when it is the first full marathon, ultra-marathon or triathlon.

Without going into the details of the whole experience we did what you should do to support the runner(s) and had some quality family time in a great large city.  Of course, there was a lot of time for conversations ranging from IU basketball to politics to food to finaces and, of course, blogging.

As many of you are aware, our youngest, Cass, is a big-time blogger–I mean BIG TIME. It’s her second full-time job and she has millions and millions of readers (that is not hype/exaggeration–she really does have multi-million followers of her blog, Back To Her Roots).  She and her husband, Craig, are the ones I always go to when I have questions about blogging and photography.

Anyways, over the weekend, I told her that I have written quite a few drafts for my blog over the last couple of months but have only posted one or two.  It seems like all I am doing in these drafts is rambling on about my thoughts–not a big stream-of-consciousness kind of guy–and have no real direction with what I want my message to be.  I guess I figure that I need to take into consideration my audience, as small as it is, and not upload posts that are basically self-serving and offer very little, if any, insights into me or my downhill view of the world.  When I look back on my past, most of the things that have gone terribly wrong in my life can be traced by to me being myopic and ego-centric.  That idea is fodder for a never-to-be-written autobiography, but my point is that I am very cautious about doing something that is purely self-servicing. Doing that has usually ended up biting me in the ass someway that I never saw coming.  I guess that is one of the more common outcomes of being self-centered. I’m still self-centered, i.e. selfish, but I am aware of it and try to compensate for it in hopes a being a better person.  Some days go better than others.  Thank goodness I have a wife and family who love me for what I am and in spite of what I am.

My daughter told me that being self-serving is one of the major motivations for people to blog in the first place.  I got thinking about what she said and quickly concluded that she is correct.  In my case, I started blogging as a means to deal with the emotional difficulties involved with taking care of my mother in the last year of her life. I knew going in that it would be a taxing experience but what are you going to do.  I believe that people should do the right thing even if they don’t want to or it takes a toll on them–knowing what is the right thing to do seems to be the challenge for most of us. I wanted to have some sort of chronological record of my emotional evolution through those months in order to look back and, hopefully, learn something I could apply to my life as well as pass on some wisdom to my kids.  The blog seems to have served me well in that aspect.  The same thing could have been accomplished with a journal but, hey, why not share the insights; they might help someone else to exorcize his or her demons.

All of this brings me to the point of this post.  We are getting ready to go to Maine in the morning for a well-deserved vacation and many people have told me to make sure I post to my blog about our experiences.  I am not sure I will do that.  Not because I don’t want to share–well, maybe a little–but rather because I don’t think I will have anything worth sharing.  In other words, to what end?  I will be taking my laptop and camera but I don’t know if I will be posting next week or ever again.



Did You Read The Book?

24 09 2011

As a long-time English teacher I taught all kinds of literature, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Mark Twain and John Steinbeck to Stephen King and Dan Brown to Ingmar Bergman and Quentin Tarantino.  Over the years, I taught Film as Literature numerous times.  One of the biggest challenges in that class is getting students to understand that reading the original novel and seeing the film adaptation is a similar but not identical experience; each is a work in and of itself.

A prime example of this would be the film adaptation of the novel, Forrest Gump.  For those who have read the book and have seen the film, you know exactly what I am referring to.  As critically acclaimed and well done as the film was, the character of Gump, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, and his experiences fall short by quite a distance of the standard set by the character and storyline of the novel.  Both are outstanding pieces of literature but to think that you know the story of Forrest Gump after seeing the film is simply a false assumption.

However, in some cases, the film and the original novel are so similar that experiencing one is nearly synonymous with experiencing the other.  An example of this would be Dances With Wolves.  Outside on some sequencing changes and the deletion of one minor scene involving masterbation, the story lines and the characters are the same.

With all my experience in the comparison of the written word and its film adaptation, I accompanied my wife to see a newly released movie in a theater recently.  Linda and I have not been to a movie, other than taking the grandkids to see Kung Fu Panda 2, in several years.  Yes, we went on a date–dinner and a movie.  We went to see The Help.  We both absolutely fell in love with the novel and were not disappointed with the film as is normally the case once I read the book first.  Besides outstanding acting and particular attention being paid to the detail of the setting, the actors and actresses cast in the roles were, unlike Tom Hanks as Gump, nearly perfect in matching up with their counterparts from the novel.  It made for a truly enjoyable experience for both of us. I found it funny that we did not discuss the plot or setting of the film but the actors and actresses and how there surely had to be some Academy Award nominations for them in the near future.

I know that it can be difficult for a screenwriter and a director to adapt some novels to the big screen and maybe that is reason enough that they should not try.  Over and above that, I think a lot of people do themselves a real disservice by not reading the novel since it is the original work and only settle for the film version.  I cannot begin to count the number of people I know who read Forrest Gump after seeing the film and came away with an entirely different perspective on the story–nearly all of them saying they enjoyed the novel much more than the film.

I suppose that the lesson in life here is that a person should always try to go to the source, the origin, when determining if that thing is worth the time, money and effort.  I know that is not always possible but it does seem like a good philosophy to try and follow in life.  If the original is still in use/commerce, then there must be a reason. In our disposable society with new smart phones coming out every couple of months, it has to say something about a product, business, location or experience that can stand the test of time.  What makes a classic classic?  I think it has to do with appealing to people of different generations and to people at multiple times throughout their lives.

Perspective gained by experience allows a person to appreciate some experiences in different ways at different phases of life.  That might even help explain why so many of us “old folks” have evolved to what on the surface would appear to be a paradoxical view of life and other members of society.  Many of us (unfortunately, not enough though) have developed a low tolerance for fools while at the same time seeing the wisdom of a live-and-let-live attitude.  If the fools’ actions don’t impact me or my loved ones then hooray for the fools–of course, I have digressed but that is one of the advantages of being old; it’s expected.  After all, like Gump, I am an original.


Redheads, Corvettes and Gibson Guitars

8 08 2011

Some things in life defy explanation.  Of course, there is an explanation for everything but by ferreting it out, the magic is lost.  The spectral evolution of a sunrise or the Midwestern aroma of freshly-plowed ground in the spring are meant to be experienced and savored, not explained.

For me, red-headed women, Corvettes and Gibson Guitars are as alluring and captivating as any sensual experience I have had with nature.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that it is even possible and definitely not wise to compare the works of Mother Nature to anything even remotely associated with the human experience.  But still, there is beauty and appeal in the human form and in the form of human design.  I know that the human form evolves from nature and I suspect that much of the pleasing lines of a sports car and a well-made guitar are dictated and/or inspired by nature.

I am in awe when I look at, in an non-leering manner, a red-headed woman with alabaster skin, freckles and green eyes.  I was lucky enough to fall in love with just such a creature and she with me; we have been together for over 30 years.  Still, after all these years, I will just stare at her while she sleeps or while she works in the garden.  She is truly a creature of beauty.

A Corvette has always been part of the psyche of most young men who grew up listening to the music of The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.  Some of us have had the privilege of driving one of these American automotive wet dreams and still fewer of us have been in that stratified group to actually own one—if it is possible to own something of such beauty.  I have often said that you never see a Corvette street race.  Think about it and the reason is obvious.

I worked all summer back in high school to save enough money to buy my one and only Gibson guitar.  Like the redhead I married, this guitar was way out of my league but I had to have it.  For guitar eficionadoes, you will understand the lust that still exists in my heart for my 1966 Jumbo J45 with Cherry Sunburst Finish—Big Red as I call her.  I have hocked her many times to pay a utility bill or buy groceries but never thought of selling her.  It will be my son’s guitar when I am gone.

The point is that some things in life transcend mere physical beauty and take on an etherial status not to be questioned.  For me, I just enjoy and hang onto my child-like wonder of redheads, corvettes and Gibson guitars.


Dorothy Was Right

7 08 2011

Well, we’ve been back home for about a month now and I have a renewed appreciation for Broken Plow.  We are starting to come to an understanding with Mother Nature.  I learned a long time ago that the old gal allows man, as an individual and as a species, only a relatively short time period to make his temporary mark on her planet.  Any other view of man’s place in the natural world is arrogant and misinformed.

I really appreciate getting back into our routine of sitting by the fish pond in the morning as we drink coffee and watch the sunrise and then sipping our day-enders of gin-and-tonic in the evening.  I have often thought that many couples who struggle with communication issues need to have some place like our fish pond.  A place where peace and quiet can be found and the pressures of the outside world with family obligations and professional demands are put on a shelf at least for the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee or favorite adult beverage.  When something of consequence comes up during the day that does not demand an immediate decision, we will say, “We’ll figure it out in the morning/this evening.”  We both know where that discussion and decision will take place.  Some of the most important and best decisions we have ever made in our lives came about while sitting beside that pond.

The one thing that has surprised us is the fact that our nine-month stay in Princeton and the two and a half years prior to that have taken more of a toll on us physically, emotionally and intellectually than we realized when we first got home; we both have very little endurance on multiple levels.  Regardless, we know we are healing, slowly but surely.  And, yes, Dorothy was right.

We have known for years that we are home bodies much more than we like to admit and we are okay with that.  In fact, I think people should feel fortunate if they can draw strength and some degree of inner peace from the place they call home.  How many people in this world would choose to be somewhere other than where they are either short term or long term?  Ours is a place that is not only filled with memories but with promise of memories yet to be made.

When we first walked the lines of the property before we bought it back in 1981, we both seemed to sense that the brambles, weeds and fallen trees hid something special; we saw what it would become not what it was.  We have had a love affair with one another and with Broken Plow for over thirty years.  That love affair with our home place will make a second transition in early spring next year when we move into a newly-built retirement home on the other side of the lake as we look forward to our second set of Glory Days.

As I wrap up, I want to acknowledge the photographic work of our youngest son-in-law, Craig Johnston, whose pics are featured in this post.  Over and above his obvious talent as a photographer, I am constantly amazed how he seems to be able to capture the spirit that is Broken Plow. His eye for the details, both natural and man-made, has made me realize that our place is special not only to us but also to those who are fortunate to spend many happy hours here. Check out his eclectic blog,   and his amazing Etsy store,


CORRECTION: I just received an email from Craig informing me that the pictures included with this post were all taken by his wife and our youngest daughter, Cass.  Still ,check out his blog as well as hers,


Ambivalence and Closure

25 06 2011

I buried my mother today…

…I can now finish grieving for my dad.


Understanding the Present Through the Past

2 05 2011

May 2, 2011 may not be a date that many Americans will remember as historic but the event that took place yesterday will live in the psyches of millions for the rest of their lives.  On May 2, 2011, a group of US Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.  He has been on our radar since the late 1990s because his involvement in the bombings of U.S. embassies and the U.S.S. Cole.  To paraphrase what Shakespeare wrote in MacBeth, “Vengeance (and justice) is a dish best served cold.”

Being a student of history I thought about what parallel from the past might best be used to understand the significance of this event.  I believe the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane on April 18, 1943 would be the most similar.  Although, unlike the killing of OBL, the American people were not made aware of Yamamoto’s demise until much later in the war.  Our intelligence service cracked the Japanese code and learned of Yamamoto’s flight plan and schedule.  Had that information been made public at the time, the Japanese military would have known their code was compromised. Our military continued to eavesdrop on the Japanese undetected for a long time.

I think where the real similarities come into play is that December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 are the only two times in modern history that the United States has been attacked on its own soil.  Both attacks were surprise attacks and both events rallied Americans of all stripes to come together with a common purpose to defeat a common enemy. Yamamoto was the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor and OBL was the driving force behind the attacks on 9/11.

As is the case with most Americans, I remember clearly where I was on September 11, 2001.  I was proctoring an ISTEP test for a group of 9th graders.  Towards the end of the first session of testing on that morning, the Asst. Principal knocked on the classroom door and told me to keep the students in the room at the end of that testing session and only allow one student at a time to go to the restroom and then with an adult chaperone.  Obviously, I knew that some sort of security issue had come up but the Asst. Principal did not elaborate.

As the events of the morning of 9/11 were unfolding, the concern for our school was to make sure that nothing made the state-mandated testing invalid because of the distraction.  As it turned out, that was a wise decision.  Several schools across the state had to throw out their test results and start all over.

Those 9th graders in 2001 are now adults, many with children of their own.  Several of them are in the military or have spouses in the military.  For them, the War on Terrorism has been present for their entire adult lives.

Later that afternoon, in the American Studies class, we decided to scrap the approved curriculum and take advantage of the learning opportunity.  The learning curve for the teachers was as steep as the one facing the students.  Learning the correct pronunciation of words like Taliban, Al Qaeda and jihad as well as getting a rudimentary understanding of Islam was a challenge.  Also the challenge of helping 11th graders to understand that the world would never be the same while at the same time encouraging them to pay attention to what was going on seemed overwhelming.  We worked on trying to answer their questions; part of which were clearly based in honest curiosity while many of the questions were simply efforts to assure themselves that they were safe sitting in a Southern Indiana classroom.

If I was not in my current situation in Princeton I would make a point to return to that American Studies classroom and listen to the discussion today.  Over the last ten years it has been easy to lose sight of what is going on with the true War on Terrorism because for most Americans, myself included, outside a a bit of inconvenience at the airport, little has changed in our personal lives since 9/11.

Living through  the anti-Vietnam War era and watching the news this morning, I admit that it was good to see people come together as Americans, not partisans.  We bitch and moan at each other over domestic issues but it is times like this that many of us feel our unity of purpose most.  Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech also comes to mind today.  In a small way, the killing of OBL by our military seems to help, to a greater or lesser degree, our ability to have “freedom from fear.”

WWII went on for another eighteen months after the killing of Yamamoto and the War on Terrorism will continue long after the death of OBL.  Still, this is a milestone and it sends a message that should not be misunderstood by the world.  Even with the wide ideological gap between President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, there is solidarity in the resolve of our people, our military and our political leaders that there is no place where those who attack America can hide.

Just my thoughts.


Houses of Dreams

20 03 2011

Back in the day when I was a high school classroom teacher, one of my favorite classes was American Studies (AS); AS is an integration of American Literature and American History at the 11th grade level that students could also get college credit for if their grades were high enough.  Most major liberal arts universities and colleges offer a major in AS.

In the AS curriculum, one of my favorite assignments was an essay with a writing prompt something like this:

If it exists, what is the American Dream?  Include examples from the novels, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath, along with examples from American history between the years of 1914 and 1941 to support your answer.

We would assign this essay prior to reading of the two novels or a study of the time period.  I think what made me enjoy this assignment so much was watching the mental evolution of the students as they wrestled with developing a thesis statement that met the criteria necessary to answer the question.

Generally, most students would be quick to answer the question with something like, “A good job, a nice house, and a comfortable living.”  To which I would reply, “Oh? Are you sure?”  That was all the mental grease necessary to start the wheels turning for all but the most lazy of students.  They were not going to read the novels anyways or think any deeper than the their next post on Facebook.  They are probably the ones who today are sitting at home watching Jerry Springer along with all those damned “Judge” shows and thinking that is the way the world works.

Eventually, after several weeks, the lights would go on for most students and they came to an understanding that the American Dream has nothing to do with outcome but rather opportunity for outcome and the ability to re-create oneself and start over as often as one has the drive and determination to do it.


As I was driving around Princeton earlier this week, I drove down Hall Street.  There in the 400 block of Hall Street was the two-story house with the upstairs apartment that my parents and I occupied in the early 1950s.  The home has been well taken care of and, in fact, looks better than I remembered it.  That got me to thinking about the American Dream essay writing prompt and wondering how my parents might have answered it.

A quick perusal of American history will show that the housing boom and the baby boom in America were simultaneous occurrences. The fifteen to twenty years following the end of WWII were filled with a collective enthusiasm and desire to achieve a better life, a.k.a. The American Dream.  A large part of that American Dream was home ownership and purchasing new cars every two to three years facilitated by a robust manufacturing economy, effective television marketing and greater access to consumer credit.

In 1954, my parents bought their first house; a small frame structure with two bedrooms, a kitchen-dining area, living room, bathroom and a leaky basement on Stormont Street.  I don’t exactly remember but I assume they were very proud of that little white house with the brick porch on front.  For me, it was ideal; neighborhood kids to play ball with at the Little League park at the end of the block and my elementary school on the next block.  We lived on Stormont Street until 1960 at which time my parents decided to upgrade and bought a house three blocks away on Seminary Street.

Unlike the little house on Stormont that was built just a couple of years before we moved in, the house on Seminary was an older, solid-brick structure with a free-standing garage.  It was similar to my maternal grandparents’ home on Race Street in size and age, built during the late 1920s-early 1930s.  I was not happy to leave my neighborhood but that is another story for another time.  As a family, we were moving to a bigger and better house as we took another step in what my parents saw as their American Dream. The little house served our needs fine but, back in that era when it came to the blue-collar, middle class concept of success, bigger was better.  They did what they had to do–work hard and save money–to have the luxury of making a choice.

Four years after purchasing the house on Seminary Street and doing extensive innovations to it, my parents decided to build their dream home out in the country on the south side of Princeton.  Both my mom and my dad had very good jobs; my dad was a lineman for the electric company and my mother worked at a factory that made electrical parts for submarines and airplanes. They were definitely not overreaching as they moved up from the three-room apartment on Hall Street to the 2000 sq. ft. brick, ranch-style, custom-built house in the country within just a little less than ten years.

My dad worked on the design of their dream house as long as I could remember.  He was very good at drawing blueprint-quality plans and he kept scrap books full of pictures clipped from magazines and newspapers showing details of what he and mom wanted the interior and exterior to look like.  As the construction of the house progressed, my parents invested a lot of sweat equity into their dream.  That was a real learning experience for me that I put into practice between 1982 and 1992–the ten years before Linda and I built our dream home.

Fast forward almost fifty years to today and I am sitting in the bedroom that was mine when we moved into the dream home on Hight’s Chapel Road.  The room looks a lot different today than when I occupied it as a teenager in the 1960s.  It contains an impressive Victorian-era walnut bedroom suite and floral pictures encased in gilded frames hanging on the wall. Long gone are the posters of the Beatles and the Beach Boys along with the twin beds and area rugs in what was called a Bosa Nova design as well as my electric guitar and amp in the corner. However, the quality of the construction of the room and the house in general with the beautiful oak floors, stone fireplace and spacious rooms with large windows is still apparent. Sometime soon, I expect, we will sell this house as part of settling the estate.  I’m not sure how that will impact me emotionally.   Of course, as is the case with many dream homes of elderly people, the small things that need upkeep are showing some age and will have to be dealt with before we put it on the market; nothing a little paint and a new faucet or two won’t resolve.  Once my mom is gone, their house will be the last vestige of my life in Princeton except for my parents’ gravestone.  Again, I am not sure how I feel about that.

Linda and I have been here much longer than anyone involved in my mom’s end-of-life experience ever anticipated.  On both the long term emotional level and the everyday practical level, the strain on us, our children and their families cannot be overstated. That is just the way it is.  We have been willing to do this because that is what we are supposed to do, but there is more to it than just the obligation to take care of family when needed.  This house, for better or worse, was my parents’ declaration to themselves and, maybe, to the world that they had achieved the American Dream.  Because of that, my mom has stated on more than one occasion that she wants to be in this house when she dies, if possible.  Oh sure, it would be much easier on Linda, me and our children’s families if we could take care of her at our place but I figure maybe the real answer to the American Dream question is having a choice.  I guess that is what we are providing my mom.

On a related issue, this whole experience in Princeton has given Linda and me an insight towards our future and the choice we will make in a much clearer, more defined and family-friendly manner than it might have been six months ago.  We want to avoid putting our kids in this type of situation.  We plan to sell our dream home and build ourselves a small one-bedroom retirement house relatively close to several of our children and their families within the very near future. The thing that no one should ever forget about choices is that those choices have consequences for and impact on not only the person making the choice but also the friends and family of that person.  That will be our choice–our American Dream.