Monday, August 31, 2009

The Kennedy boys

I remember well that Friday afternoon civics club meeting I was chairing back in the eighth grade -- working out the details of one of the guys bringing his aquarium into the classroom -- when our principal, Sr. St. Augustine, came over the school-wide address system to advise everyone at Immaculate Conception School that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

We were Catholic kids. Trust me, we were very aware that he was the first and only one of us to be elected President. We loved the guy and his family. Our hearts broke when little Patrick died at birth in the hospital. The term hadn’t been coined yet by Mrs. Kennedy, but this was our Camelot. How much tragedy could we and the Kennedy family take?

My first thought after the initial shock was that President Kennedy couldn’t die. I mean, we needed him. We kids needed him, that’s for sure. Along with John Glenn and Alan Shepherd, he was a genuine, grade A, American hero -- the author, for pete’s sake, of Profiles in Courage. How could God take him from us?

Well, we all know what happened within the next hour. Our America was no more. It changed. Radically. And our innocence went with it. It’s part of the reason I like the movie Dirty Dancing: it’s summer story was to have taken place in 1963. Max, the proprietor, says at the end of the movie that he could feel something changing. Boy. Did it ever.

Even with the horror of losing our Presidential hero, however, there were still the other Kennedy brothers. We didn’t know attorney general Robert and Massachusetts senator Teddy as well, but I believed they were good men and when given their chance, surely they would make us proud Catholics as Jack did. I was in the eighth grade, after all. We hadn't heard the Marilyn Monroe stories yet.

And we all know how their stories turned out. Of four Kennedy boys, Jack was the only to serve in the highest office of our land, and then only for three years at that. Joe died over Europe in World War II, Bobby murdered the night he won the California Democratic primary in 1968, and though Teddy found his way out of his submerged car at Chappaquiddick a year later, his Presidential aspirations were not as fortunate. Neither was Mary Jo Kopechne.

So if the truth be told, I haven’t been a real Ted Kennedy fan over the years. I liked his progressive/liberal politics well enough, but I always thought he acted irresponsibly with Kopechne and pretty much got away with it.

Presidential material? Maybe not. But while listening to retellings of Ted’s life over this last weekend, the Kennedy story was dusted off and, for me, polished to a 1960s shine once again. I hoped a little bigger back then. I remember.

Perhaps a sinner, it was he, the Lion of the Senate, who made universal health care his self-proclaimed political cause of his life. He tried and failed with Clinton in 1994. Still, he sponsored lots of health care legislation over almost five decades in the Senate -- and was successful passing some. Medicare was one. Not bad.

The political cause of Ted Kennedy’s life and the substance of his legacy issue is now upon us. America gets to decide soon if we are big enough as a nation to guarantee that everybody can see a doctor and get treatment when they get sick. I know it galls some that somebody somewhere might get something they didn’t earn. But what of the moral issue of insuring that all Americans get medical care if they need it? Most, if not all, major industrial countries do it already. Except us.

What will the United States do?

Today’s elder idea: We’ll make health care what it should be in America: a fundamental right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

on the stump, somewhere, sometime

Monday, August 24, 2009


When I committed to writing this blog a few months ago, I promptly made a list of topics I could write about. I think the list went on for at least two pages. To be honest, I’m not even sure where the list is right now. So far, I’ve sorted through my week’s experiences waiting for one to pop up that had writing potential. And that’s what I’ve done so far. The list still waits.

Yesterday Cindy & I were talking about what her next car might be. She said she saw one recently she really liked, but didn’t get a make and model. She’ll be on the lookout. But that got me to thinking about my always buying new Fords. Why is that? Are Fords the best? In some cases, yes. I think we own two of them: her Taurus and my 4 cylinder Escape.

But, best? Surely not always. Just today, with only 65,000 miles on my little SUV, I felt what appears to be the clutch slipping while engaging first gear. I’m still under warranty, so no big deal, I guess. But a hydraulic clutch going out under 100,000 miles? Under 75,000? Surely Ford can do better.

I am loyal and that’s how I buy camera equipment, computers, cars, and groceries. I don’t feel it so much for my high school any more, though I still have good memories. It’s just that I don’t care too much if they win or lose in the gym, on the diamond, or on the pitch these days. I wish ‘em luck, but it doesn’t quite make my day like the Reds. Shoot, I’m only mildly interested in the successes of Wayne High School, the place I taught and loved kids for a career.

This blog really is about loyalty to stuff. To brands. Stuff you want to trust. Stuff you want to be, if not the best, at least dependable and, well, good. Reliable. Resilient to use. Near unbreakable. Stylish. Cool, even.

Nikon: My first one turned out to be an old manual 35mm FM. Great camera. Ended up with a macro lens that let me get so close to an object I could almost taste it. Lovely.

The first digital, a Nikon Coolpix 5000, came as a retirement gift from Cindy & friends. Again, amazing images using less than the 5 megapixel max. I’m not disappointed with what that little camera can still do. I’m now using a D50 SLR with the standard 18-55mm zoom. Good camera, but to be honest, way too much stuff on it. I’m still not comfortable running the thing manually. I always program. I’m not completely happy about that.

Apple Macintosh: In 1985 when I finished my masters, I treated myself by buying a brand new typewriter. Personal computers were new on the market, but besides scaring me to death, I hoped they would just go away. Not long after that my daughters’ mother & I decided a computer for the kids would be a good idea. I didn’t think I’d use it much, but you know: for the kids. It was an Apple IIc. I still have the monitor box in the closet next door. It’s currently housing old reel-to-reel tapes. Tells you how far we've come, doesn’t it? Within a month I loved the green monochrome Apple.

I’ve gone through a few Macs since then. Currently I’m relying on the iMac Intel 2 GHz Core 2 Duo processor for almost all of what I do. I’m still a desktop guy, though I do have a MacBook 1.83 GHz Intel with a recently maxxed out hard drive. I love my Macs and OS X. I just pre-ordered Snow Leopard (10.6) an hour ago. It ships this Friday. Brand new operating system. It’s going to be fun.

And I like to shop at Kroger’s, too. I like to buy Private Selection, their store premium brand, when I can. They are about as local a national chain as they come -- and my brother works for corporate in Cincinnati. And yes, I know Kroger’s muscled out plenty of local mom & pop neighborhood grocer/proprietors over decades to get their sizable niche in this market. But they are pretty much local, and well, there’s always family. I don't shop at WalMart.

I’m not too big on comparison shopping either. I listen for those brands that have reliable reputations, like Toyota. I’ve never shopped one, but maybe I should.

I mean, how important is loyalty re: stuff? It’s not a marriage, after all, even if it does feel kind of like a commitment.

Today’s elder idea: I find expression in Nikon, Mac, and Ford. It’s personal.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summer storms on the porch

One of the coolest things about living in the Midwest is experiencing summer thunderstorms. By July/August we have enough heat and energy in the air for forecasters to predict pop-up storms just about every day. I wrote about similar storms in Colorado’s San Luis valley last month, and as exciting as those events were, being present for summer storms around here is better on a different and more frequent scale.

As I write this entry late in the evening, with the cicadas starting to wind up for the night and crickets having begun their nocturnal chorus, thunder ripples across the southwest Ohio sky. It has rained off and on all day, with sunshine baking through now and then cooking the moisture off the pavement and returning it back into the storm system.

The back porch is a great place to be for these pyrotechnic and sound shows, sitting protected beneath the drum head of the canopy inside the arboreal theater of wind sounding through needle, leaf, and limb.

I sometimes wonder if some of the draw for my sitting out in the rain is the bad boy in me challenging fate and lightning to come get me. Maybe some, but I think it more akin to being at a live musical performance trying to discern the voice of each and every instrument as the orchestral dynamic develops. It is the chorus of rain’s tympani on leaves and canopy and the song of wind and six-legged critters playing together in a natural symphony unique to life on this planet that is such a special physical experience that I just want to sit outside and take it all in.

Just now, as I revise this entry in my office and prepare to post, another rumble of thunder and the crescendo of rain on leaves can be heard through closed windows. Beautiful! My California pals must be jealous.

Today’s elder idea: Listen to the sound of weather: It is Earth’s unique soundtrack.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Becoming the GPT

When I was a kid, I remember staying over at my grandparents’ houses over night. I can remember the great toy cubby on the basement landing at the Zimmer place. Grandma Schaefer had this cool little cash register-looking thing with three windows that was my first exposure to a slot machine. It really was cool -- especially sitting on grandma’s lap pushing the key and watching images of fruits and numbers spin to a stop. Grandpa Schaefer’s wood shop was also a wonder. I was enthralled watching him turn a little piece of pine on the lathe into a wheel for one of his famous wheelbarrow planters.

Even though I have good grandparent memories, I surely wouldn’t say I ever felt very close to my grandfolks. They were good people, for sure, but they were not my playmates and I never made the connection between them and the word friend. When I went to their houses I was taught to pretty much entertain myself.

Things are pretty different for me as a grandpa.

When I first became a grandfather twelve years ago, my daughter and grandson lived in another city. She was an hour or so away by car, but not close enough to allow for drop-in visits. Then again, I was still teaching and found myself plenty busy with planning and grading papers, along with the handful of volunteer stuff I found myself involved in.

By 2000, when grandboy #2 was born, grandparenting was starting to grow on me. And then there were the stories Cindy would retell about a student of hers who was in particular pain with the passing of his or her grandfather with whom the kid felt a strong attachment. I can remember that whenever a story like that would come up, I’d go back in memory to try to find anything similar in my heart for my own grandparents. I couldn’t.

Then I came to understand that grandparenting is different for everybody. Like so many of us, we have friends who have taken on the immense role of raising grandkids. Wow. That’s one extreme. And we know others whose kids live in Seattle or Chicago and they only get to see the little ones on holidays and maybe a week in the summer.

In my case, my younger daughter is the one most responsible for turning me into an active grandpa. Just as I was retiring from the classroom, she was inquiring about my helping with childcare for her two year-old, Noah. He had already been placed at Children’s World or something, so he was okay, but she was hoping I could do a few days a week to help ease her daycare costs. For my first year out, I avoided the commitment and found myself busy traveling some and doing lots of other stuff. It was that next summer when Noah, then 3, contracted a virus that kept him out of commercial daycare. Grammy and I stepped in for daily care -- and our lives were never the same.

The virus had the little guy feeling pretty energetic in the morning, but by after lunch he was draped on a shoulder all afternoon. We learned to play games in the morning and have quiet time after lunch.

And in that process my teacher-self who had always searched for that next great student-created project, started looking for neat stuff for Noah and me to do. Since that time we’ve become regulars at the Air Force Museum, built and flown lots of balsa airplanes, dug a pond in the backyard -- complete with fish that first year at Noah’s insistence, and split firewood in the backyard. At least once every couple of weeks these days Noah wants to head back and split more wood. And he makes it clear he wants to swing the ax. I can have the maul and wedges.

In that play and work, Noah and I have developed a relationship that I never knew myself as a kid. Love runs deep between us. I find myself calling him brother when congratulating him on a job well done.

I am mighty lucky to have been dubbed the GPT -- Grandpa Tom. It’s a real honor and source of energy in my life. Life is good. Grandkids are amazing.

Today’s elder idea: Make quality time with kids. What is more important than showing children they are loved?

Monday, August 10, 2009

More on birds

If you stick with me on this blog and come back now and then to see what I’m thinking about, you’ll probably notice a often-tapped topic: birds.

Are you a birder? I suppose I should claim that I am, even though I know lots of folks who are real birders and I know only a fraction of what they know. Last week a buddy observed a sharp-shinned hawk soaring over the golf course we were playing. I’m not very good at identifying hawks except red-tails. That wide red tail spread with the light color underneath are great field marks. The sharpie’s tail in flight is much tighter. Very different. I recognized that, but Andy said something about white markings that would set sharpies apart from the very similar Cooper’s hawk. Even after reading the description in the National Geographic bird book just now, I don’t think I could tell the two apart on my own. I’ll take Andy’s word on the sharp-shinned.

Even though I don’t know as much as I could -- as much as I will -- it doesn’t matter to me all that much. I just love watching birds do what they do.

It was a goal of mine to set up my back porch as a friendly place for birds. I usually have a couple different feeders hanging and just a summer or two ago I added a bird bath, complete with dripper that keeps adding water even after the robins come in and splash most of it out into the flower bed. I just love it. I even placed the bird bath in a strategic spot that we can see from the upstairs dining room window, too. The whole family has been known to stop what they are doing to watch bird bath antics now and then.

I recognize most of the yard birds around here: Carolina chickadee, white breasted nuthatch, ruby throated hummingbird, Carolina wren, American goldfinch, chimney swift, and of course American robin and Northern cardinal. Last winter I figured I had a hermit thrush who hung around the heated bath water. Pretty cool, indeed, for that lovely forest singer to winter with us.

And as much as I want to recognize as many of my feathered neighbors as I can, I don’t worry about it too much. A sharp-shinned hawk is as beautiful as a Cooper’s regardless of the name. I’m reminded, too, of Rachel Carson’s suggestion to those of us who hang out with kids: you don’t have to teach them all you know. Just enjoy nature’s presence -- and presents. Observe and experience. Feel. A barred owl call heard at sunset on the back porch by any other name is just as sweet.


Cindy and I had much fun watching for birds as we traveled across the country last month. Here’s the trip list of the birds we’re pretty sure about:

across Kansas et al

scissor-tail flycatcher

western meadowlark

barn swallow

red-tailed hawk

summer tanager

red-winged blackbird

black-billed magpie

new at Crestone/Nada

western tanager

pinyon jay

Say’s phoebe

western bluebird

violet-green swallow

green-tailed towhee



hermit thrush

broad-tailed hummingbird

mourning dove

northern flicker

turkey vulture

Today’s elder idea: I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so much important to know as to feel.... Once the emotions have been aroused -- the sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love -- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found it has lasting meaning.

Rachel Carson

from The Sense of Wonder