Friday, April 10, 2015

Let Me Help

“Here, let me give you a hand with that.”  “No thanks, I’ve got it.”  I hate to think how many times the second voice in that conversation has been mine.  Let you help me?  No way!  I’m independent, I’m strong, I’m self-reliant.  I’m stupid.

Not only am I too stupid to ask for help, I even turn it down when it is offered.  I tell myself that I do this because I don’t want to put anyone out; I don’t want to impose.  These are lies I tell myself.  It is really fear that makes me turn away every offer of help.  It may be a reluctance to be in anyone’s debt, but mostly it is fear of admitting weakness or admitting failure.  If I allow someone to help me, I’m telling my ego that I am not superman.  My ego doesn’t like that.

There are, of course, times when asking for help has been made necessary by bad choices I have made.  Those times are especially hard on the ego because the weakness and failure that they illustrate was real.  Many times though, asking for, or at least accepting, help is simply the smart thing to do.

For example, some years ago I went sailing on Lake Geneva.  I belonged to a sailing club and we had a number of boats there that day ranging from 14 to 24 feet long.  The wind was strong and the water was a little rough, but the first half of the day I was on one of the larger boats, enjoying the ride and snapping pictures with the fairly expensive camera I had brought along.  After we stopped for lunch, a woman who had been on one of the smaller boats was talking about not sailing back because of the roughness of the water.  I offered to trade places with her so she could ride in the larger, more comfortable boat.  She quickly accepted and then asked if I would like her to take my camera with her because it might get wet in the smaller craft.  For no good reason except that I always turn down help, I said no.  Well of course, halfway across the lake we capsized the little sailboat and my camera didn’t get wet, it got drowned.   All I needed to have done was accept the small favor she had offered, which would have not imposed on her at all, and I might still have that camera.

Sometimes refusing to ask for or accept help can have much more serious consequences than just a destroyed camera.  In my twelve step group it is vital.  We begin recovery by admitting we are powerless.  “Without help it is too much for us,” but by depending and leaning on each other we succeed.  Equally as important as receiving help, is giving it.  It is by helping others that we strengthen ourselves.  It is only by helping others that we are able to save ourselves.  I frequently admonish the young men I counsel to not reject help.  To help them overcome their reluctance I ask them if they like to help people; I ask them how they feel when they have helped someone.  Always they say that, yes, they do like helping, it feels good to help.  I then ask them to not deny the privilege of helping to others. When you ask for help, you are usually doing the one you ask a favor.  You are giving them an opportunity to do good, and it feels good to do good.  Hopefully, you will never need for that kind of helping to be part of your lives, but the lesson that helping and being helped are both good should be.

Be self reliant, that’s a good thing.  But don’t be afraid to ask for help or to accept it.  Remember, "We are all in this together,” and giving and getting help is how we succeed in life.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

"At The Movies"

"Which movies would you direct me to as 'MUST WATCH'??"

A friend, on learning that Grandma B and I own over 2000 movies on VHS or DVD recently asked me that question. I guess their assumption is that anyone who has so many movies must know something about them.  Never assume.  It did occur to me that knowing something of my taste in movies might help you, my grandchildren, to know me a little better.  This would be in keeping with your Dad’s initial request that inspired this blog. So here is my answer to the must watch question.  

I have an answer, but I must protest that the question is a little vague.  Movies come in all shapes and sizes and there are a variety of reasons why different ones should be on your viewing list.  Do you want warm and inspiring, with beloved Hollywood stars in the lead roles?  “It’s a Wonderful Life” has to be at the top of the list.  A three hanky tear jerker, “Love Story” or “An Affair to Remember.”  Big adventure movies litter the landscape, but you can’t go wrong with “Star Wars,” “Jaws” or just about any of the “franchise“ movies that have spawned multiple sequels.  Horror movies are not my thing but if you must have one the original “Halloween” would be my choice.

Comedies offer a whole subset of choices.  If you would have a rounded exposure, some of the classic oldies where the stars were the reason to see them are important (and they are classics because they are so good). I’m talking about the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, and others whose name on the marquee was all that was needed to sell tickets. Modern romantic comedies or “rom coms” provide a glut of forgettable movies, but a few stand out.  “While You Were Sleeping” is one we have watched many times.  Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan teamed up for some really good ones.  “When Harry Met Sally” is marvelous.  My personal favorite comedy across all the subsets is “Young Frankenstein” but it probably helps to see the original “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” first (They are worth seeing anyway, even though they are “horror” movies).

The Western movie at the top of my list would have to be, “The Magnificent Seven.”  Favorite war movie, “The Enemy Below” (not the best, whatever that means, just my favorites).

Musicals are not to everyone’s taste, but if you like them or just want to give one a try, “Singin’ In the Rain” would be my first choice.  It’s fun and funny, and great dancing and songs you will find yourself humming the next day.  Most musicals are adaptations from Broadway shows so if you want a taste of the Great White Way without going to New York and dropping a week’s pay on a ticket these can give you that.  “Camelot,”  “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady” are timeless and wonderful.  Some others are kind of dated and may seem to promote social attitudes that are no longer acceptable.

Dramas, dramatic movies, are a whole different thing. They move us emotionally and at their best help us grow as human beings.  They can help us see the world differently, through other people’s eyes.  They teach us. Sharing the triumphs and tragedies of screen characters is why we go to these movies.  Some allow us, for a few hours, to vicariously live lives that seem bigger than our own, and they don’t get any bigger than “Gone With The Wind.” 

Now I will end this essay by actually answering the question. There is one movie that I believe everyone on Earth SHOULD see.  I only watched it once, and can’t bring myself to watch it again, but I will never forget it.  The movie is Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler"s List.”  It shows us the darkest side of humanity in a way that can’t be forgotten, but also lets us aspire to be good men as Oskar Schindler was a good man. I don’t suppose many people would call it the best picture of all time, but it has my vote for most important.

So there are some of my thoughts on movies.  I love romantic movies and rom coms (aka chick flicks).  I don’t care for 99% of what are called horror.  I think movies can be socially important, but first and foremost they are entertainment.  Silly comedies and mindless action movies also deserve to be made and should not make us feel guilty for watching them.  Enjoy the movies, and as Siskel and Ebert used to say, “Save me the aisle seat.”


Monday, November 24, 2014

Barns Revisited

I haven't put up a new post for some time, mostly because I just haven't felt like I have anything more to say.  This picture that I took a week ago has made me want to at least try.
It's just an old abandoned barn, slowly crumbling away, but looking at it makes me think about life, and long ago; fond memories and melancholy recollections too.  I wrote about "The Old Barn" in one of my early posts, how it was the playground of our childhood.  That barn is long gone now, like most others of its kind.  The old has been torn down to make room for the new or just allowed to decay because it isn't needed anymore.  The value of these old buildings that can be measured in dollars and cents has dwindled to nothing, and sentimental value doesn't pay the bills on a working farm.  I can't fault the owners for getting rid of a tax liability and returning the land to productive use;  I am just saddened a little that the way of life that flourished around these structures is gone and that the memories of it are fading too.

Old things are preserved in museums so that we can catch a glimpse of the past.  Limited space and limited resources dictate what can be preserved.  There are a few "historic" farms that survive by selling tickets for that glimpse.  I'm not sure it works to visit these places unless they were once a part of your life.  That old barn is just a pile of boards unless it contains memories.

It was on my seventieth birthday that I took this picture and I suppose that that milestone has something to do with the mood of it.  The longer ago "long ago" becomes, the more precious (and more romanticized) the memories become.  "Three score and ten" was long considered a man's allotted time.  I feel grateful to have been given my full allotment and have a reasonable expectation that I have a decade or two left.  I do not intend to spend all of that time reminiscing about what has been;  I look forward to adding to my store of memories and to sharing some of them.  But, the memories are a warm place to visit and sometimes long ago doesn't seem very far away at all.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ROCKING (as in rock music) WITH YOUR DAD

When your dad was fifteen years old, his favorite music was heavy metal rock and at least for a time his favorite band was "Metallica."  One day he told us that the group was performing at the World Theater near Chicago and that he and his two best friends were going to the concert.  I had no problem with this, but when he said that his friend "D", who had just turned sixteen and gotten his driver's license was going to drive I balked.  No way was I going to trust my son's life to a novice driver in rock concert traffic.  Since they were determined to go, I told them I would take them there and wait for them in the parking lot.

A few days before the concert, they surprised me with the announcement that they didn't think I should just sit in the parking lot so they had bought a ticket for me as well.  I had no real idea what I was getting into, but I had grown up with rock and roll so I figured I would enjoy it and was pleased that they wanted to include me.  When we arrived at the World, an outdoor amphitheater holding thousands of fans, I found my fears of the traffic completely justified. It was bumper to bumper for at least a half mile leading into the parking lot, and I knew that the after concert traffic would be total madness.

The theater had seating under the pavilion roof, and standing room in the grass covered open air bowl.  In theory you could sit on the grass, but in fact no one did because the crowd was constantly moving and frequently "mosh pits" (more of them later) would spring randomly into existence.  The crowd was boisterous and happy, enjoying every minute while waiting for the show to start. 

My first revelation of what I was in for came when they began testing the sound system.  One of the technicians walked onto the stage and thumped the bass drum.  I didn't hear the thump, I FELT it. That thump, amplified through enormous speakers on the roof, hit me in the chest like the concussion from a Fourth of July aerial bomb.  THIS WAS GOING TO BE FUN!

Now back to the mosh pits.  This is a little like bumper cars without the cars.  People start good natured pushing and bumping and suddenly a circle opens in the crowd as non-participents back away and there you have a mosh pit. When one of these opened up right in front of us I was watching and enjoying when suddenly somebody pushed me from behind.  Since the ground sloped down from where we were standing, I couldn't stop but had to travel right across to the other side.  Once there, I had no way to return to the boys except to charge uphill bouncing off the other moshers.  I arrived back at the top to find the boys doubled over with laughter and just a little bit in awe of the old man mosher. Did I mention that at forty eight or nine I was probably the oldest person in the entire crowd?  None of the boys would admit to being the one who pushed me and still haven't to this day.  I too thought it was pretty funny and am actually grateful to whoever gave me that memorable experience.  I have Moshed!

The actual music of the event was something that I think I enjoyed just as much as the boys.  The opening act was trying too hard to be cool and not that great musically.  The second group was much better and for a time I thought they were Metallica.  When the headliners finally did take the stage, I was just as blown away as the die hard fans.  They were great!  There is something special that happens at a live performance by really talented people and these guys had what it takes to make it happen.  Of course, I couldn't actually hear any of the vocals, only the instruments, because it seemed that every member of the audience knew all the words to every song and sang right along with the band.  That didn't matter, because it was the shared experience that made it all so memorable.

Getting out after the concert was every bit the nightmare I had imagined, so I simply insisted that we sit in the parking lot not even trying to move until the madness had subsided.  Finally, four tired but happy fans were able to safely drive home, with memories I am sure we all still hold.

One more thing came out of the event.  Not long after, Grandma B was looking at a mail order catalog and found a T shirt with an image of the title character from Metallica's "Sandman" album on it.  She saw how much the picture looked like my dad so we got the shirt and gave it to him. Here is the result.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Misty Watercolor Memories

"The Way We Were" is the beautiful, melancholy title song from a movie that came out in 1973, the year Grandma B and I met.  "Memories light the corners of my mind; misty watercolor memories of the way we were."  Those are the opening lines of the song and describe the mood I often find myself in as I begin one of these essays.  Reminiscing lets me revisit the past with filters in place to block out the less pleasant parts.

Many of the art prints we have hanging on the walls of our house are literal "misty watercolors."   I don't know if there is really a connection there, but it seems that my way (and perhaps most people's way) of remembering the past is like the artist Paul Sawyier's way of capturing his beloved Kentucky River Valley in his paintings.  The rough edges are smoothed away by the fog of selective remembering and the glow of sentiment highlights the good times.  At times, even imagination plays a role in our remembering, in the same way his "Mile High Bridge" uses memory and fantasy to create an ethereal scene that never was.

There is no doubt that my childhood memories benefit from the filter of time.  Living in unheatable houses, wearing hand me down clothes, and having the same thing in my school lunch pail every day is not the stuff of idyllic childhood;  But  growing up in a loving family, part of an extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who all cared for one another was more than compensation, and I only wish that everyone's memories could be as happy as mine.

I have to admit to a certain enjoyment of the melancholy part of memory as well.  A little wistful longing for what once was, a dash of pondering what might have been, and maybe even a touch of regret all add to the flavor of memory.  Dabbling in melancholy is mostly a good way to "pinch myself awake;" to wake me up to recognizing how profoundly I have been blessed.  I don't need to look at my life through a veil of mist that hides the rough edges;  I can see very clearly that I am "The Richest Man I Know."


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"The World is so Full of Such Wondrous Things..."

When I was in grade school, I learned to square dance, the American folk dance where the couples and groups of couples perform steps like dosey-do and promenade as they are announced by a "caller."  It was fun.  When I was in junior high I was taken to a symphony orchestra concert that featured singers doing the arias from "Carmen," and it was fun.  I learned to bowl in high school, and it was fun.  I've been to a heavy metal concert, I've seen an exhibition of Monet paintings, and I've seen and acted in live theater.  I've shot guns, planted gardens and even earned a living by doing hard physical work, and it was all fun.  OK, the hard physical work wasn't as much fun all of the time;  The point is, I've tried lots of things and found something to enjoy in most of them.  I try hard to not decide I don't like something before I have tried it.

Who is more foolish, someone who enjoys what we consider a foolish pastime, or someone who dismisses as foolish a pastime which they have never tried?  The world is so full of things to try that we can never try them all.  If we don't have enough of an open mind to give things a shot when they present themselves we may miss out on the best thing ever.  If someone invites you to try curling don't decide not to go because "sliding rocks on ice is dumb."  Enough people enjoy it to make curling an Olympic sport so there must be something to it.

Of course, common sense tells us not to try things that are stupidly dangerous;  I'm not advocating playing in traffic because it might be a thrill.  Bull riding and auto racing are probably best left to the pros and enjoyed as spectator sports.  What I'm saying is that activities/experiences that you haven't yet tried should not be subject to "condemnation prior to investigation."

Everyone knows (and many of us have been) a child who is a picky eater.  If you take them to a restaurant that doesn't have mac 'n cheese, you had better bring along a pbj.  We laugh, but still we try to change them because we know they are missing out on some good things.  Shrimp in lobster sauce sounds kinda weird, but as served at Jimmy Wong's restaurant in Chicago back when I was in my twenties, it was one of the most delicious things I ever ate.  Taste all the things life offers.  You will not like all of them, but you won't miss out on the good ones.


Monday, February 3, 2014


One of the things your dad suggested as a possible topic for these scribblings was "things you are proud of."  Looking back, that seems a topic far too soon exhausted, but I do have a few candidates for it.  One of these is a title given to me by your dad's preschool teacher, Miss Polly, when he was four years old.

For several months in early 1983 I was laid off from my job because of  a long strike by the union workers at Caterpillar.  Grandma B was pregnant with your Uncle Ryan, and since I had time on my hands it was easier for me than for her to take your dad to school and pick him up after.  Some mornings I would just stay at the school and watch the kids instead of driving home and coming back.  At some point, I noticed that some of the wooden chairs that the kids sat on were loose and wobbly and asked the teacher if she would like me to repair them.  She was happy to have me do it so the next day I showed up with some tools, glue, and clamps and started in.  I didn't have enough clamps to do a lot of chairs at once and most of the chairs were needed each day anyway, so I came back day after day until I had finished all the chairs.  Many of the kids found what I was doing fascinating to watch and I would try to explain to them what I was doing, why the chairs had to be clamped or bound with rope while the glue dried, and so forth.  When the chairs were done I asked if there were other projects she would like me to do, mostly because I was having so much fun being around the little kids each day.  She found other work for me (one I remember was making a large bulletin board) and before I knew it the school year was drawing to a close and so was the strike that had given me the freedom to be there.

The "title" came about because when other parents came into the classroom, the teacher would explain to them who I was and why I was there.  Her explanation was, "This is Zak's dad who fixes things."  I doubt that she remembers saying that, but it always makes me feel good about myself when I think of it.

Because I had always enjoyed making things, when your Uncle Josh "graduated" from his baby crib  (and we were about to need it for your dad) I had made a bed for him modelled after the famous "Radio Flyer" wagon.  This bed was about to be retired because we were getting bunk beds for the boys to make room for the newest baby, so I asked Miss Polly if the school could use it.  She thought it would make a perfect spot for kids to use for "reading" picture books by themselves.  Here is a picture of the wagon when it was being used as a bed.  
That's your dad sitting on it.

I don't know how long the school used the bed or the bulletin board or how long it was before the chairs needed repaired again.  I do know I am proud of the small contribution I made and cherish the memory of the affection those little kids showed me while I was there.

One other memory of that time sticks with me.  It was a song that the children learned.  I can't recreate the tune in a blog and I can't credit the author because I have no idea where the song came from, but the words went like this:

"I'm something special,
I'm the only one of my kind.
God gave me a body
and a bright healthy mind.
He had a special purpose
that he wanted me to find.
That's why I'm something special,
I'm the only one of my kind."

It was just a cute little song that they sang for the parents on the last day of school, but I've never forgotten it and the promise of young lives that it celebrated.  If someone had been watching me that day they would have noticed my eyes looking a little wet as I watched them sing.  Except for your dad,I don't know where any of those kids are today, but they are still "something special" to me.