Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Loose Ends

A couple of days ago, someone on my Facebook feed posted that it had been 35 years since Devo made their first appearance on Saturday Night Live, playing a great cover of the Rolling Stones song "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." I smiled, remembering that I had seen that performance; I was watching it with my high school best friend Cindy. We were floored by it, and were inspired. With the help of her mother, we made approximations of the Devo anti-radiation suits in time for Halloween a couple of weeks later.



This was made even happier that Cindy and I had reconnected after ten years. It turned out that she and her partner had moved. My friend has a fairly common name, so my efforts to track her down were hampered by that. It occurred to me to pair the search with the name of her life partner, which gave me success, though I didn't realize it. I had left them a message, then missed when they called me, thanks to my insane work schedule. A couple of months ago, she finally reached me. Happily, it turns out that she's moving back to the area where we grew up in (I never left) with her partner and their baby daughter. We all got together, going to the zoo. I was amused that she is so much the same; she still overschedules, still overplans and is still a delight as a person.

I am, obviously, a person who doesn't like loose ends. I am one who keeps friendships up over years, decades. My three closest friends are people I met over 30 years ago. I used to write a lot of letters. Now Facebook and cheap long distance helps make up for the fact that I don't have as much time and energy to write letters.

My unease with loose ends does have its downside. Namely, loose ends.

In my mid-twenties, I roomed with a guy I worked with who with whom I had become good friends with. Chris and I could probably not have been more opposite. I'm straight, he was gay. He grew up in the same neighborhood on the south side that the President lived in when he was still here in Chicago; I grew up on the north side. He was racially mixed-- his dad was black, mom white (I'm white). Yet, after that stuff, we were still close friends. We loved to talk politics. We both loved to get out and party (until he stopped drinking). We kept in touch for a long time, and got together often, even after we weren't rooming together. When my son was born, it became harder for me to keep in touch. I was busy raising a kid and working, and eventually school, when I went back to school to become a teacher.

Over the last 7 or 8 years, I've tried to contact him. His sister is married to a pretty well-known political writer, and I've messaged both him and his sister trying to get in touch with him. My fear is that the news is bad; he was treated for depression at times-- he'd been the victim of a gay-bashing when he was in college that was horrific. He was pistol-whipped; the gun went off and grazed the back of his head. He was almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I fear for the worst, but keep hoping that like my searches for my friend Cindy, I'll get good news.

Another guy is Yomi Martin. I met him in the early nineties when he was dating a co-worker. He and her split up, but he was the one I stayed friends with. He was one of the most intelligent and interesting people I've had the pleasure to meet. He was only 21 or 22 when we met, but he and a couple of friends had already published an issue of a comic book. I always enjoyed talking to him about art, life, women, comic books, science fiction, and whatever else concerned us.

Searching for him is complicated by the fact that he shares a name with a popular clothing designer. I still search a few times a year, crossing his name with comic books and graphic novels, assuming that he's maintained an interest in that field. Still, I have fears with him too; Chicago is a dangerous place for a young African-American male. I choose to think that he just ended up in another geographic location and that I just haven't cracked the code for finding him.

I haven't given up on Chris and Yomi. At times, I considered giving up on Cindy, and another friend, Jamie, but finally connected with both of them. Because, you see, not only am I a person that doesn't like loose ends: I'm a person who values the people I've shared this life with and someone who's stubborn as hell.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Snows of Kilamanjaro

When I was a freshman in college, in 1979, I had to read Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilamanjaro" for an English class. To be honest, the book made no impact with me. The random flow of the narrator's memories as he dies didn't register with me.

A few months ago, I was revisiting the story in my head, and realized that I now get, at the age of 52, what I didn't get when I was 18.

Twenty years ago this summer, I got the news that I was going to become a parent. It was not expected-- I had broken off a relationship with the woman a few weeks before-- nor particularly desired. I felt like I would be a shitty parent, and I had other plans. In fact, I had planned to spent that summer, the summer of 1993, working only one job (I usually worked 2) and try to figure out the next couple of steps in my life.

Back in my younger days, I used to hang out at the Gingerman Tavern here in Chicago with a guy named Michael. He was one of the nicest and most interesting people I've met in my life. He used to have a tagline on his email, one that's been attributed to a number of people, "Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans." Truer words were never spoken. The following spring, in 1994, my son was born. I took to parenthood like a fish to water. I just fell in love with parenting, and in particular, this little pip of a guy who was now my responsibility for at least 18 years.

I ended up splitting with his mother, but shared custody of him. I was married and divorced twice, and finally tried marriage a third time, this time with a woman who already had a child. My stepdaughter and I hit it off pretty quickly, partly because her birth father doesn't seem to quite get the hang of parenting.


My son is home for his summer break from college for a few more days. My daughter is on a college tour today with my wife. It really hit me this morning-- our journey raising children is nearly done.

I had the realization recently that I now get Hemingway's book. There are a million little memories from a lifetime that come flooding back with a moment's reflection.

The picture to the right, of my kids riding bicycles together is one of them. I've done a lot of things in my life, good and bad. I've gotten four college degrees, loved some wonderful women, made some great friendships-- but one of the most important things I think I've ever done is taught two kids how to ride a bicycle.

I'll never forget seeing my son take his first steps. It was at a party we had for his first birthday. I was still living with his mother; both families were at the party. For a couple of weeks, he'd been walking holding onto furniture. He was sitting in the middle of the living room, when he suddenly stood up and walked over to one of his grandmothers (I cannot, for the life of me, remember if it was her mother or mine).

I got my stepdaughter when she was 8, so I missed the first words, first steps, etc. Our first moment, when we realized that we were going to get on just fine, was, ironically, when I was dropping her off for a visit with her birth father. I had my Ipod plugged into the car stereo, and the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" came on. She waited a minute before she went into her father's house in order to sing the song along with me; it was one of her favorites, and mine. Another time, when I was picking her up from school, Jim Carroll's song "People Who Died" came up on the shuffle. We sang along to it then, and always do when it comes up on either of our Ipods or on satellite radio. We're just sentimental that way...

Other moments from a couple of childhoods that are stored in my memory: my son walking around with an enormous stuffed "Jimmy Neutron."  My daughter asking about the possibility bats flying out of a lighting fixture in her bedroom. My son spending the better part of an afternoon looking for secret passageways in our home. Taking both of them to see Ursula Bielski, who writes about Chicago ghost stories. My son's Little League games. Every play I've seen my daughter perform in. Dozens of Monopoly and Settlers of Catan games.

But beyond the big stuff, there are a thousand little memories with each of them. As I've watched them grow into intelligent, capable and interesting adults, I've come to realize that they'll remember bits and pieces of their childhoods, but a lot of it will be locked up solely in the recesses of my memory. And when I take my leave, those memories will go away with me. Like with Hemingway's adventurer in the book, those memories will pass like ghosts before me until they and I fade. Such is the ephemeral, sad and beautiful truth of our existence. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Picky Ones At the Buffet

Back in April, my wife and I had a chance to take a weekend trip. Even after selling back a bunch of PTO time, I still had a lot of vacation time left (we accumulate it very quickly in my job). Since starting my nursing job, I have regularly worked 50, 60, even 70 hour weeks. The overtime has been great, helping us retire debts left over from when I was in school, and my wife was unexpectedly unemployed. It has allowed me to pay for my son's college, and to do some nice things for my family. But my wife realized that four years of school while maintaining a full time job, then two years of crazy hours at work had left our relationship fraying at the edges. We needed some time together.

My daughter went off to New York that weekend to spend some time with her birth father, who normally doesn't spend much time with her, and my son was away at college. My wife had been looking at our options. We both love wine (specifically red wine) and thought of a weekend at one of a number of B and B's in the midwest that are in vineyards. After considering a number of options, she came up with a very cool one: the South Pier Inn, in Duluth, Minnesota. It's a hotel that's right on the canal that leads from Lake Superior to the Duluth harbor.



The canal is traversed by a bridge that is one of only a few "lift" bridges still operating in the country; when one of the thousand-foot ore carriers or other ships enters the harbor, the bridges entire span goes up. It was all amazing-- a huge iron bridge going up in the air as a huge ship passed almost silently by our room-- close enough that I could have thrown a baseball to someone on the ship. I was surprised at how quiet the ships were.




We spent some time in the hotel room drinking wine, chatting and getting to know one another again. We got out, too. We walked over to the little maritime museum nearby, where we saw, among other things, an exhibit on the Edmund Fitzgerald, of the Gordon Lightfoot song fame; it was a frequently docked in the Duluth harbor. We went downtown and visited the Electric Fetus record store, and went to the Minnesota Wine Exchange (yes, even Minnesota has some wonderful wines!)

Later, I thought about how funny it was that we'd have such a good time in a hotel room watching ships and a bridge. I thought about our marriage, relationships in general and remembered an experience I had a couple of lifetimes ago.

Back in the late nineties, I was working at a restaurant owned by Larry T., a longtime friend whom I've worked for a few times over the years. He's a big black bear of a guy-- he grew up on the south side of Chicago, and has been involved in the restaurant business about 40 years. I've worked at three of the places he's owned or co-owned over a period of about 25 years. In this case, I was working at a barbecue place he owned. He had asked me to manage a catering gig. It was an event sponsored by the "Matches" section of the Chicago Reader-- the section for people to meet people. For a set amount, the participants got a "Match" ad, got to ride in a bike ride, then there was a buffet, our part of it, at the end, where folks could meet and greet.

I took Larry's van, with the food and a couple of other employees, out to a lakefront park, where we set up and awaited the riders. Soon, they arrived, and I watched a really interesting thing unfold.

The people dismounted their bicycles, then walked up to the buffet. They began to look over the buffet we were serving. Larry, a brilliant chef, had whipped up a nice assortment of food, mindful to his target crowd; he'd even taken care to make sure there were vegan options.

I'll never forget the fussy looks on the faces of the people as they picked at the food in the chafing dishes. A couple even said "Is this all you have?" I was dumbstruck.

Then, most of them, having found something they could stomach, walked over and sat alone. They made no attempt to talk to any other person at the event. They ate their meal, and wheeled off... alone.

Nearly a decade and a half later, I still think of that day.

Around that time, I married Cynthia, my second wife. We split a few years later over children issues; she wanted kids. I, being seven years older than she, didn't want any more (I had a son from a former girlfriend). I loved her, and sometimes miss her-- we were friends before we dated and married. She was a lovely and unique person. Our circumstances just weren't going to work.

I married again, my current marriage, a few years after that. Ironically, I met her through the Matches in the Chicago Reader. While we had enough things in common to meet-- we're both extroverts, our politics are liberal, we both love red wine, music, etc.-- in the end, we also have some serious differences.  For example, she's somebody who sweats the small stuff. I don't. She frets constantly about what other people think. I don't.

In the relationships I had when I was single, I there was no "type" I dated. The women I was involved with were all over the place-- ethnicity, career, personality. And they all fascinated me. In the end, I realized that there is no "perfect person" or "type" for you; it's all about learning to appreciate the uniqueness of the person you're with and working on the day to day details of making a marriage or relationship work.

Thinking back to the delightful time I had with my wife in Duluth, and looking forward to more good times with her, I also think about those people at that buffet so long ago. They had all that wonderful food, prepared by a genius chef, laid out for them, and it still wasn't good enough. They were surrounded by other people who were expressly looking for a relationship, yet nobody was good enough. I wonder how many of them are still out there, wondering when their custom-made lover is going to magically appear, when there are so many lovely and interesting people all around them.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

Johnny Yen's One-Hit Wonders: "Master Jack," By Four Jacks and a Jill


Four Jacks and a Jill were a South African folk group who had had a hit in their native land. They hit the US Top Forty with their song "Master Jack" in 1968, reaching #18 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was an international 
smash, hitting the charts in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and hit #1 in South Africa.

Their next song, "Mr. Nico," cracked the US Top 100, but they never charted in the U.S. They have continued to have hits in South Africa and have produced a number of educational and charity records there. 

Saturday, July 06, 2013

A Brief Breather

Tonight is a funny night. I'm on call at work, but haven't been called in. Chances are, if I'm not called in by 8 pm, I won't be called in. It's now 9:30 and I'm assuming I won't be. In fact, I'm counting on it-- just poured a glass of red wine.

My wife and my daughter are off at my brother-in-law's birthday party in Minnesota. My son, after having carry-out Chinese food with me for dinner, grabbed his basketball and ran off to hang with his buddies. It's just me and the cats, a glass of red wine and some good tunes.

There are a few anniversaries around this time. One was on July 4th. It was the 20th anniversary of my getting a call from the woman I'd been dating on and off around 1992-1993. She was pregnant. I was mortified. Flash forward, the kid who was on the way that day and scared me to death, hung out with me at my old friend Tim's house on the 4th, with Tim's wife and my and Tim's old friend Larry. It was wonderful. 20 years ago, Tim and Larry were guys who had been my friends for 10 years. My son was just someone I was trying to imagine. And it all worked out better than I could ever have imagined.

It had also been exactly 2 years before that I had finished moving into the place we all live in now. It was a scary time; I had just graduated nursing school, but did not yet have my nursing license (that would be earned 9 days later when I took the nursing boards and passed on the first try). I had my nursing school waitering job, but the place I had worked at for 11 years had just changed ownership and was foundering quickly. I was running out of money fast.

As it turned out, I got my nursing license, and then quickly got a nursing job, just days after I got my nursing license. Not all of my friends in nursing school got a job so quickly. It was a lifesaver. I also managed to get a job in a nursing unit that was, and still is, seriously understaffed. I make a lot of money, thanks to overtime. Which is a good thing when you've got a kid in college.

When the shit hit the financial fan, right after I finished nursing school, a couple of friends, as well as my family, helped me out. One of them was my friend Viktor Zeitgeist, who has helped out many times. I had been promising him, since getting my first nursing job, to come out and visit him in Seattle. I finally got to fulfill that promise last month.

He and his wife live right on Puget Sound-- see picture above. I took the picture while sitting on the futon I slept on, in their living room, while I visited. This is the view I woke to every day. I can't wait to go back.

I had a marvelous time. We had a chance to hang out, have coffee or a few beers and catch up. This was the first time neither of us had to worry much about money (he's an attorney now and I'm a nurse). We talked about a million things. He opened up, for the first time, about the bout of cancer he survived about 25 years ago. We talked about history, politics, economics, family. It was really, really good. And too short.

But it was just enough time to rejuvenate myself. I've got a lot to do in the next 7-8 years. Got two kids to put through college. Got some friends I need to spend more time hanging out with. And maybe a couple of other little projects here and there. And I need to start posting in this blog again more often. Miss that too. "I have promises to keep/And many miles before I sleep..."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Cost


Today (March 7) I was at a hospital that I work at frequently. There are some things I love about it: the view, for one-- it overlooks Lake Michigan and Lincoln Park. It was also a hospital I had clinicals at and my favorite clinical instructor was at this hospital. And four of my nursing school classmates work there. There are some things I hate about the place: their charting system sucks; it's particularly bad for dialysis people. And there are a few really stupid people that work there, though really every place has some of those. 

Today, though, after I arrived, it occurred to me that 19 years ago, to the day, my son was born just a few blocks down the street at another hospital that is now gone. It was, like today, an unusually cold day in March. 

My life at that point was a train wreck. I felt lost. I felt like this was just the icing on the cake; a child I was totally unprepared for.

I got a call late the night that he was born. I had a son. I was barely speaking to his mother at that point, but she called me to tell me I had a son.

I went the next day to the hospital and laid eyes on him for the first time. I'd never seen a newborn at that point in my life, and had certainly not held one. I was stunned to see how helpless he was. I felt fear rising. I was responsible for this little pip of a guy for the next eighteen years. I overcame my fear and picked him up.

The 19 years since then have been a wonderful journey. His mother and I reconciled, then split eventually. We had a horrible custody fight. I've had to deal with her infantile behavior, and until recently had a good portion of my income taken out for child support. The cost was high. But the rewards were higher. I got to see him grow from a helpless newborn to a young man who is ridiculously independent. I got to see his first steps-- so many firsts. We had so many good times-- movies, baseball, great talks. Seeing him develop his unique personality-- his humor, his intelligence, his kindness. Discovering that other parents on our block loved having him over playing with their kids because he was so intelligent, kind and respectful. Reading to him, then seeing him learn to read. Seeing him thrive in an internship, then seeing him succeed in his first job, persevering when a lot of co-workers quit at the door-to-door sales job after just a few days. And then, at the end of last summer, with my ex, driving him to college in New York. I remembered the drive home from the hospital with him, which I recounted in this post. I chuckled at the symmetry of it all-- that we drove him home together, then drove him away together nearly two decades later.

When his mother discovered she was pregnant, she told me she had decided to go through with the pregnancy, and offered me out. I couldn't stand the idea. I told her I would stick around to raise him. The costs, both materially, and otherwise, of this decision were high. But the rewards have been so much higher. 

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Decisions

About four years ago, I was taking an Anatomy-Physiology course and had made a decision that was to have a huge effect on my life.

I had left teaching a couple of years before with the intention of trying to get into pharmacy school. I had tired of the tight job market in my profession at the time, education, and wanted to get into the medical field. The aging of the baby boomers would guarantee me, I knew, of a job.

However, the prospect of getting into pharmacy school was daunting; there is now only one pharmacy school in Chicago, and only about 10% of candidates who apply get into the school. And even if I could get into pharmacy school, it was going to be two more years of prerequisites, and then four years of pharmacy school. I would be 56 when I finished, and my oldest kid would be done with college, and my younger one nearly done. The whole point was to be able to pay for most of their college.

I had been taking classes with my friend Leslie, who I also worked with; she was getting ready to go to nursing school, and the prerequisites for nursing school and pharmacy school were nearly identical, so we took classes together whenever we could. Leslie pointed out that it would make more sense for me to go to nursing school. First, with the Anatomy and Physiology class I was currently enrolled in, I would be finished with all the prerequisites for nursing school. Secondly, I could apply to the Chicago city college that I was already taking the prereqs at; a bonus was that the school was extremely affordable.

I had to make a run to my old high school to get my transcripts, but I got my application in on time. Two months later, I got the notice: I had been accepted.

Later I discovered just how fortunate I'd been. There were approximately five applications for every open slot in the school. Most people have to apply several times before they get accepted.

The month I started nursing school, my wife got laid off her job. The recession that had started the year before caught up with us. She searched for months for a job with no luck. We had a hard decision to make. She was getting unemployment benefits (which were extended thanks to the President's stimulus packages-- thank you President Obama!) but we were still struggling-- I no longer had a teacher's salary; I was working as a waiter. We were living on less than half of what we had been living on, and now I had to pay for school on top of our regular expenses.

We sat down and talked about it. Our kids were going to be in college in a few years. It was going to be a lot easier to pay for colllege on a nurse's salary than a teacher's. We knew it was going to be tough, but we had to have faith we'd work through it.

After six months of job-hunting, my wife finally went back to work, although for less than what she had been making. I had been hoping to drop down to part time at work in order to go to school, but that obviously wasn't going to happen. I continued to go to school full time and work full time. My next two years entailed very little sleep and lots of caffeine.

I graduated nursing school in May of 2011, the day I turned 50. In July of that year, I passed the state nursing exam and a few days later got a job. Since then, I have worked as much overtime as I can handle. When I got my W-2 a couple of weeks ago, my jaw just about hit the ground. I made a lot of money last year. A lot of bills got paid off. And a lot of school costs got paid for my son.

Today, when my wife got home, she told me of a conversation she had with a friend of ours. The couple, whose old home we got married in, is in a lot of trouble. They had been wealthy at one time; both of them come from wealthy families. It turned out that they had been living off of their inheritance and had finally hit the bottom of their well. They lost that home last year, and were evicted from the apartment they had been living in. They're staying in a temporary place, but they are on the verge of being homeless. We are trying to figure out how to help them.

In the meantime, I am glad about the decisions we made. I'm glad that I had an open mind, and listened to my friend about changing my plans. I'm glad that we decided to tough out my wife's unemployment, and for me to stay in school. I'm glad that I decided to jump at the job that was offered so quickly. I'm not thrilled with the job, but it pays well, and has allowed me to work a ton of overtime, which has allowed us to catch up financially. I'm glad that I made the decisions, day to day, to live within our means, and to do the things that assured we would be better off in the longer term. Tonight, my wife and I are going out for an early St. Valentine's Day dinner. Despite having a kid in college, we can afford to go out for a nice dinner (and though she doesn't know it, she's getting a couple of small pieces of jewelry). Thanks to decisions we made, all of it-- the kid in college, the dinner and the baubles-- are within our means. I feel pretty good about that.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Long Haul

Last night I had the pleasure of getting out with one of my oldest, closest friends. As we had a couple of beers and chatted, I was amused thinking that I had no idea 31 years ago, when we first became friends at the ages of 18 (him) and 20 (me), that we'd be a couple of middle aged guys, 49 and 51 now, talking about our kids, our wives, our careers and our retirement plans.

I thought about the handful of old friendships I have; most, like my friendship with him, are from the state college in central Illinois I got my bachelor's and master's degrees from in the mid eighties. There were times I lost touch for years at a time with some of those people, but eventually we reconnected, and as we head off into middle age and start getting ready for the last couple of acts of our lives, the friendships seem to be really strengthening.

I've told both of my kids that the friends they make in college will end up being the strongest one of their lives. I can tell that my son, in his freshman year of college, is beginning to understand this.

I remember that in my twenties, I dreaded getting older. I really thought that life would really suck as I get older, and that my youth would be the high point of my life. While I did have some great times then, I was totally wrong. I had no idea that I'd hit my fifties with gusto and joy in life. I had no idea that friendships I'd made when I was 22 or 23 would become so rich, or that I'd make a second wave of great friendships thanks to this blog (that's you Skyler's Dad and Bubs!) that would make life even richer. In my youthful naivete and stupidity, I thought that life really would be over after 30. I had no idea that it was only beginning then. In the long haul, my life's been rich and fascinating, and continues to be.