Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dispatch from Pennsylvania

Traveling from the hotel today...last night is still warm as we amble over to breakfast at Hank's Place on US Route One in Chadds Ford. Ah, last night: a spirited high school basketball game where Greg, our godson, was 'versing' (Robert's word) the team from Chester, the reigning state champs.

'We' lost by one point. I got to see Carl and Syd, my cousin and his wife, their youngest, Mike (accompanied by two of his friends), and Ashley and Lindsey (or is that Lindsay?). Short time in the parking lot passing the Christmas goodies that Sheila baked for them in the parking lot then Lee, his girls Grace and Rachel drove back here to Chadds Ford with Ashley and Esther, Robert, Sheila, and I drove back to Lee's with Lindsey, getting the lowdown on her time away at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

Robert played a game of chess with Rae, and won! I got to talk to Ashley. Oh, and before I forget, I got to spend time with Lee's girls too. Grace, continuing a long family tradition, told me that the middle of my remaining hair line is catching up to the sides in the race to my neck! (Lovey girl, her, and even lovelier tradition, huh?) Lindsey played with Esther, Sheila rested and watched the whole affair pleased to be with the Robbins/Cuyjet clan youngsters.

Lee and I did the proud papa and brother/cousins bit.

We hung out until I pooped out and declared that anybody going back to the hotel with me better pony up and come with me.

We had a major throwdown at Hank's for breakfast, I was reminded of what real scrapple tastes like and Esther reminded us again that her eyes are definitely bigger than her stomach. But here's what strikes me now as I reflect on Christmas break.

I love my cousins Carl and Lee like they were (are?) my brothers. I grew up admiring Lee and competing with Carl in a brotherly way. Lee helped give me the opportunity to pitch in this year with Habitat for Humanity there in Chester County. The Robbins boys' children are my children in a way. So's their sister's kid, Aaron. They helped me over the years of their growing up prepare for raising my own kids. Being with them was great. We missed Aaron this holiday but spent time with him and Cecily over Thanksgiving. Next time we plan on spending more time with Carl and his crew. It was a great trip...more after we get home

Monday, December 19, 2005

Have a Little Faith

Okay, today I got caught up in the whole shopping thing. The urge to forage, to find that dopamine rush wrapped up in the perfect thing to buy for...who? For me, for a friend, a family member, somebody to impress with my thoughtfulness?

It's about my patriotic duty to keep the economy afloat and strong isn't it. Pandered to by Madison and Pennsylvania avenues I am compelled to go out and be the 21st century version of the hunter-gatherer. My weapons: my keenly shaped sense of what's hip, cool, and appropriate, along with the various versions of plastic in my wallet.

Sarcasism aside, I really do like to acknowledge my loved ones and my friends (hmmm, aren't they one and the same?) with gifts. But, grinching aside as well, do I really need to go out and buy a buncha stuff to show my love and appreciation?

Okay, alla you guys that just said "Yes!" anywhere in your heart of hearts think about that for a moment. Really? Do you really feel that if I haven't gotten you a present that I either don't care or that Christmas (and you) means less to me?

Well, today I ended up buying something for Sheila and ink jet printer cartriges and then sprinting outta the store before I got a buncha stuff that would have made some people happy but would have been a real drain on my budget.

I was thinking how sad it was that some folks wouldn't have a brightly wrapped 'something' under their tree that said "From Chuck".

Well I got over it! I thought of some of my favorite Christmas memories. The top ten didn't include a single gift, either received or given. Number one was a bus ride to a Gothic chapel where the choir I was in sang for some senior folks who so warmly greeted us that even after decades I can still feel their heart felt thanks.

I'm thinking that warmth we gave to those strangers was sortta representative of the ultimate gift: God's love for alla us! So, regardless of the brand of religion you might sport around as a part of your personal relationship to a greater power I say Merry Christmas to you.

And when you next find yourself weighed down, like I was today, by worrying about what to buy for whom, just have a little faith.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


I have a great friend who has brain metastases, breast cancer that has spread to her brain. She is having a good day today according to her own report this morning. She said that she can see clearly. I was struck during our talk that many supposedly healthy folks do not. Certainly I know I do not always and feel very fortunate that I have friends like her who help ground me, help me see clearly.

Without going into detail (most of you know that I am not a detail oriented person, right?) I can tell you that she has had various forms of the disease. Courage escapes me to write about it but, I can write about what I feel about it and about her.

I have an immense sadness but it’s not for her. Actually it’s not for me either although I have to confess it does stem from a selfish impulse. I’m sad for the world, for the countless folks who may never come to know her wisdom and her joy in living. Her joy permeates each of us that have gotten to know her. I want her to survive and flourish as she walks in joy.

Even those who haven’t met her personally have felt the force of her happy way of being. She is a member of a support network and told me of comments she received in an email from a woman who praised her positive outlook.

I can tell you that there have been times just the thought of this woman in my life has given me immense satisfaction. If someone like her chooses to know me, to befriend me than I must be something and someone worthwhile.

No, it is not at all about my gratification or self image here but it is about how life presents us with gifts of example, of courage, of character. It’s just hard for me to express the level of gratitude I feel appropriate for her presence in my life. Sheila holds me and tells me how lucky I am as I cry. This woman told me that tears are cleansing but too many of them cause headaches.

This friend is teaching me again what my friend Lenny taught me years ago. Friends can suffer, some of them die but love lives on. Each day is precious and should be seen that way. I’m reading Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” to see if I should recommend it to a client. My friend is an exemplar of the truth contained therein that we can choose our attitude in the face of any circumstance.

She chooses to remain herself, to continue as always, joyful in her being and in her faith in God. She chooses to celebrate her life, each and every moment. She is a warrior of light, a standard bearer of love.

Her presence on this planet is a tribute to her dedication to her faith in God’s love and she is a gift of God to all who circle in her orbit or who brush past her in their life’s journey.

I can’t think of a better tribute to my friend than to live fully and love wholly and without reservation. She does so each and every moment.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Thank You 1955

The passing of Rosa Parks inspires a glance back to 1955. I was eight in July that year and until I understood what was really happening in Alabama I alternated between fear and joy in my own little corner of the world, fear of being black in a white world, joy in discovering things about myself, others, and baseball heroes.

1955 was a year of awakening for me. It was a year that helped define what being a baby-boomer was, of what being a growing child meant. And, in a very important way, it helped me understand how to survive.

Emmett Til was lynched that summer; I remember he died a bit later during summer break from school. I had moved from a relatively calm, middle class, integrated neighborhood into what became one of the country’s most notorious public housing projects. I met a white kid who is still a great friend to this day. I saw many baseball games at Connie Mack Stadium, my father’s way of softening the blow of losing our house and my group of long time friends in North Philly.

I saw the wonder of Roberto Clemente, El Magnifico, on the field of my dreams and lost the attachment every young black kid had for, first Jackie Robinson, then Willie Mays.

When school started I saw that the ugliness that black folks faced in the south was present here in the north too. It was rooted deeply in the hearts of my Catholic brothers and sisters. But there were those, like the Mouse, who stood up for me, stood by me and shielded me from the fists and hatred aimed at me.

Some may read this and pass it along as just a bit of history, something an old guy writes about a time existing long before their own births. That’s okay. There may be a time they look back and can say a year helped define them as that year helped define me. I hope they keep open to life and its wonders. Lessons come hard and are contained in painful moments as well as joyous ones.

The balance between the pictures of Til’s abused body and my first glimpse of Clemente running the bases is tenuous but completely self contained in my mind’s eye. The dignity of a seamstress in segregated Montgomery bolstered my young psyche against the taunts of Irish and Italian children as I entered their school and helps inform me as we guide our son and daughter as they enter new chapters of their lives.

Before this fiftieth anniversary year passes I want to offer my thanks to 1955 for helping me become the man I am today.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Friday With Frank

(It's a cold Friday night here, the children are in bed and Sheila's off to a weekend away with her mother and sisters. And I'm reminded of evenings in Philadelphia, Friday evenings after my sister stopped going to dance rehersals with our Aunt Marion and we hung out at home listening to the radio like it was the thirties or something. We had one of those humongous console numbers, with the record player and radio, plus storage for a refugee family in it. It was a great time, just me and my sister, floating on the music and enjoying the last moments of our childhood together.)

It was heavy metal and had several locks and it opened onto a small, box like vestibule with one door just like it about eight feet across from it. The door was gray on the outside, off white inside, and when you turned right after stepping out through it there was an even heavier door, gun metal gray with a small, wired crossed window about three inches across and a foot long about five and a half feet above the floor. It looked into an elevator shaft. Across from that was a plain wall, blank with an industrial color you can’t remember to this day. The floor was that industrial, mostly black with white marble-like swirls linoleum.

You were on the eleventh floor…with three floors above you, and all up and down this particular shaft each floor looked exactly the same. There were seven other elevators exactly like it and two that had one more gray door around it on the either end of the building where you lived. If you were across the river, say riding by on the Schuylkill Expressway, the building looked like something a child would have designed and built with an erector set or kids’ blocks. It was ugly by the time you left but when you moved in as a kid it was wide open with possibility, full of new kids to get to know and play with. You remember, don’t you?

It’s gone now, torn down with its twin building and the smaller garden apartments to make room for yet another housing project, but this one was designed for more middle class type living, something less institutional, less foreboding. No more high rises. You were there a little while ago with one of your old friends from those old days, wandering through, inspecting the new buildings, each no more than three stories tall. None of them have elevators, none with heavy metal doors locking out the world, locking in young bodies, supposedly protecting them from the evils of the outside world.

Standing across the river from the new buildings you could feel the memories washing over you, could hear voices echoing in your heart. You turned to drive home, but you couldn't stop looking at the place where you had grown up, couldn't stop thinking about what the good times were like there...

“C’mon, dance with me!” she’d ask you, almost pleading, wanting a human touch, a human response to her moves.

“Naw, you know I don’t dance”, you said to her countless times, as many times as she ever asked you.

During weekends and some nights when your father wasn’t there you and your sister played the stereo-that-looked-like-a-piece-of-furniture just across the small living room from that heavy door loudly and she'd throw the latch on the door onto the locked position and use the door knob to hand dance since you were not inclined to do something you thought looked so damn silly. Hand dancing was bad enough, but the thought of doing it with your sister was too much to even think about for you. So you sat and watched, marveled at her, and listened to the music. Sometimes you even sang with it. Remember?

She could do wonders dancing with that knob and you were secretly jealous but you couldn’t decide if it was with the knob for its stoic presence or of your sister’s dexterity with such an inanimate object. You watched as she danced with girl groups like The Shirelles or The Marvelettes, or with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke and others too bland to remember now but very important in that teenaged world you lived in then. You can remember, can’t you?

You can still see her twirl around and hit just the right move with the music. When she danced she was radiant and intense with the look of classical dancers on her face. She was so damn cool and so damn innocent. She was lost in the moment and movement the music inspired in her. She was captured by the steps she practiced, her body enslaved by style and sound. She couldn’t wait to get out on the dance floor. She practiced for when she could but you could tell she practiced just to be doing it right then and there; she was so complete, so herself, dancing with the metal door knob anchored so firmly by that front door.

But she didn’t always dance. Most of the time you both just listened. You listened to all kinds of music, catholic in your taste, so jazz and popular music, rock and roll, pop, yeah; you listened to all of that. But most of all it was just one voice that captivated the both of you.

Frank Sinatra.

Neither of you ever got enough of Sinatra and you never knew why ‘til lately when you came to the autumn of your own years. “Friday with Frank” found you in front of that old funky console stereo your father bought you even well after your friends started having things to do on Friday nights and you were old enough to actually go out with them without the old man going off on you when you snuck back into the apartment very late at night or very early the next morning.

No, you were in front of the radio, like some throwback to time before television, like a Norman Rockwell painting without mom or dad carving the turkey, sitting there listening to the master sing his visions of love, heartache, human folly and joy.

And you never told any of your friends, never invited them over to hear what you heard. Neither of you shared that time with anyone else…it was just the four of you; you, your sister, Sid Mark of WHAT FM in Philadelphia, and Sinatra; safe inside that door.

“Who’d you blow off to hang with me n’ Frank tonight?” She wanted to know if you had an answer when usually she knew that you made no plans other than to be right there with her and “Old Blue Eyes”. You were sitting there in your dad’s chair. It was dark in the apartment with just the table lamp switched to low. Mood setting, ready for the sonic journey.

“I couldda gone over to Haney’s with the Mouse. They wanted to watch the Friday night fights and sneak beer but…you know…”

“Teddy wanted to come over…”

“You told him?”

“No, he just wanted to come over. I think he’d like to do this with us someday, he seems cool.” She slowly moved across the floor to the couch, dropped her book bag and slouched down, reclining with her coat still on.

“So what? One day we won’t be able to do this, and we got a good long string going. Let’s not break it until we have to, until we go away to school or something like that, okay?”

“But he’s so nice to me…”

“A really long string, sis. Please let’s try to keep it just the three of us, you, me, and Frank, alright? We’ll be out of here soon enough on our own. Away from here and all of this.”

You remember, even now, so far away from all of that. You can remember how safe and warm it felt. Just the two of you and that fabulous storyteller and the DJ that brought him into your lives. It's Friday night. Go put on some Sinatra and remember.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Worth the Wait?

In our hurly-burly lives how much can we actually say is worth waiting for? I mean after all, if we can’t get it right away, is it really worth having?

The concept of delayed gratification has been lost, somewhere back in those traditional value days I keep hearing about. Come to think about it I have a lot to say about that expression but that’s for another entry!

There have been several things I discovered were worth the wait:

More than several years ago Sheila and I flew up to Massachusetts to tell my in-laws Sheila was pregnant with Robert. Anne, my mother-in-law, cracked wise with me about being a new dad at my age. She said something like,

“Why, at your age, would you want to father a child?”

Since she’s only nine years older than me I tend not to take the grief she sends my way. After all, she was crying and hugging Sheila with the initial report of baby-in-the-oven news. Why couldn’t she afford me the same weepy reception?

Regardless, I came up with a retort that still scores points, even if it’s only in my own mind. I said,

“Because I’ve always given Sheila what she’s asked, and this is the first time she asked me for a child!”

Scoring on my mother-in-law was certainly worth the years of aggravation I took from her. And it was something that wasn’t even intended! Plus now I was the one getting tears and hugs from the two of them!

The other day I was raking leaves, one of my least favorite activities with my allergies and all (really bad knees and worse lower back). Regardless, there I was, trying to beat the rain and cold. Being a good dad and husband, I was bagging the red, yellow, and rust colored reminders of fall so Sheila and the kids wouldn’t have to when they got home from having whatever fun they were enjoying. Wet leaves are a major pain to collect and bag.

I was using Robert’s technique for getting the leaves up into the yard bags: turning the rake over and using it as a shovel so I wouldn’t have to bend over that much to use my hand with the rake. He was about four or five when he showed me that trick! There I was in my fifties learning from a kid.

It was worth the wait.

I was thirty-six when I met Sheila. Definitely worth the wait! Probably the better timing too as I was a complete idiot when it came to the women I had loved before then. I learned some damn good lessons and had my heart broken a time or two (to say nothing of the hearts I busted up!). When I met her I had just broken up with a woman who had been a great friend for a number of years before we became romantically involved. She and I moved in together and I honestly thought I found ‘the one’.

Well six months later it was clear I hadn’t. I was convinced that I was going to be single forever.

Then I met this young, feisty (well, she was then!), intelligent, beautiful woman who seemed to like me. Twenty-two years later she still seems to like me. (And every once in a while she still shows flashes of her feistiness!)

Worth the wait, huh? No doubt.

While there may still be things I want (that forty foot RV will remain close to the top of my wish list!) I am very content right now. There are aspects of desire I hope I never lose but I’ve learned that being really attached to those desires only causes pain and suffering. Living with the openness I’ve learned has taught me that. (I still covet a lot of toys that I will collect, only I’ve learned that I can wait to pay cash instead of putting them on my credit card!) I am something more than my possessions. Way more.

I am a father, a husband, a friend, a colleague, a team mate, and a kid from the projects of Philly who has made a good, no, make that a great life for himself and his family. Yeah, I am a kid from the projects in Philadelphia. I still root for the Philly teams here in the heart of Washington, DC!

With things going the way they are though, I don’t think I’ll wait any longer this year for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl!

When they finally do though it’ll be well worth the wait. Just like when the Red Sox won it all last year. I remember when someone in Sheila’s family (they are all from the Boston area) asked my why I was rooting for the Sox I said I had been ever since ’67.

They said I was such a newbie! After all some of them had been rooting for them since the last time the Sox won the Series.

Worth the wait?

I think so.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

My friend, Fotoboy, took this some time ago. He is a confirmed urban guy, preferring to shoot city scapes and people (please check out the links section on this site to go visit his site!). While this is not something I do regularly (write very few words...) the shot says it all, don't you think?

Sunday, October 30, 2005


The ball was up and climbing higher. It got smaller as it came their way and they all rose. Hundreds of people, all of them wanting it, hoping to catch it. It kept climbing into the clear sky above Three Rivers Stadium. He was there for his last baseball game in the same place where his hero had played. Roberto Clemente had worked his magic there and he wanted to honor his memory by seeing a game before they tore it down.

As the ball left the bat his friend Victor bolted out of his seat and ran down the steps to the railing above left field.

“Dad thinks he’s getting’ the ball Uncle Chuck, but it’s comin’ here.”

“Yeah, it sure is buddy!”

He pounded his fist into his glove and saw his eight-year-old godson do the same out of the corner of his eye. His eyes and thousands more, tracked the ball as it climbed through its flight and began to tumble out of the sky.

“Christopher, it’s comin’ to you man, get ready!” he said, jealously wishing the ball into his own glove.

“Naw, Uncle Chuck, it’s over our heads, darn!”

He watched the ball and saw he needed to move to catch it. It was, like the boy said, over his head.

As he kept his eyes up and on the ball he heard another voice exclaim about another ball…

“Its way over his head, he’ll never get it!”

Then yet another voice…

“Cuyjet, you gotta get it man, you gotta do it!”

He could still hear Mouse now in the crescendo of voices; decades floated away and merged together in his head. Mouse, the Hart kid his new friend in a new place to live. Wanting him, willing him to catch the ball. Feet flying, running to stop what looked like a ground-rule home run, any ball that hit the sidewalk surrounding the outfield on the fly. Here he remembered it would have been a grand slam.

He could see the spin on the ball in the clear western Pennsylvania sky. He knew he had a good shot at it, but he had to move…

When he was eight, he had to move from his row house in North Philly into a public housing project in East Falls because his dad couldn't pay the rent. New place, new kids, new school; he had to find a way to prove himself, fit in. Time to go outside and face the music...

“Your dad works with my dad. Let me show you around, okay? You gotta glove?

Tommie Hart, “The Mouse” was holding a baseball bat in front of him as he came down-stairs that first morning.

“When do you start playing?”

“Soon’s a ball and a bat show up!”

“Hold on, I’ll be right back.”

He went upstairs and his dad asked him why he was back so soon. He was unpacking another box of kitchen stuff, plates, glasses, and flatware. He was taking his time, down on one knee and carefully unwrapping plates that were dear to him. This place was smaller and the three of them knew that some of their things were going to have to go. He watched his father carefully place some of the plates back into the box and then he looked up at him with what looked like a tear in his eye.

“Why are you back here, I thought you were going to go play with the new kids, make new friends?”

“I am daddy, I just came to get my baseball glove. I met Mr. Hart’s son, Tommie.”

“Oh, yeah, they call him Mouse, right?”

“Dunno daddy, he is small but he seems real nice.”

“Alright, you go have fun.”

He walked over to his closet and found his glove. He had to move his box of cards a little so they wouldn’t spill and he promised himself again that he’d do a better job of keeping them so they wouldn’t get bent or the corners and edges dulled. He wanted these boys to like him. He missed his gang over on Gratz Street, not that it was a real gang, they just called themselves that so the older kids would leave them alone. His heart began to race as he got on the elevator and went down to the ground floor.

The field was huge; he had seen it when his sister and he took a drive after his dad said they were moving. It had two diamonds on it and there were lots of kids playing when they drove by, two separate games. He remembered several kids waved at the car as they drove back past on their way out.

He had just a short walk to the end of his building then several flights of stairs to go down to a gentle slope that would take him to the field. Tommie was waiting for him right before the slope.

“Yer name’s Chuck, right?

“Yeah. You know cause of our dads, huh?

“Yeah, we have the same names as our dads, but people call me Tommie or The Mouse cause I’m so small. But I can play, man!”

“Okay, but can you say my last name right?

“Like the girl’s name ‘Sue’ and the bird ‘jay’. My dad told me. Your dad’s Jerry, not Charles, n’ you’re Chuck, not Charles.”

“Who picks teams?”

“Usually the older kids fight about that, but sometimes the ones with the ball or bat says who picks.”

“If you get to pick will you take me?”

“Oh yeah, don’t worry. You’ll be okay.”

He got on the same team with Mouse and after he got a hit and they saw how fast he could run they switched him from first base to center field. Their team had a nice lead on the others and then the other team started coming back. Several hits and several innings later his team was ahead by two. It was the bottom of the eighth and just one out. Some big kid he never really got to know hit the ball far to his right and way over his head. Potential grand slam.

He remembered just flying from where he stood quick strides covering ground vectoring off toward the part of the field that went down hill. He could tell by the spin on the ball that it was going to reach the sidewalk if he didn’t get to it.

This foul ball was going to some one else if he didn’t reach it either.

Two different balls, two different times, two different places, one thing to do: jump!

Stretching full out, reaching back over his head he couldn’t worry about where he was going to come down. He didn’t want to knock Christopher over; he didn’t want to come down on his seat back or the one in front of him.

Back in East Falls he remembered that he had grass to come down on. He remembered jumping up with the ball in the webbing of his glove for the second out of the inning and turning to throw the ball back into play. He fell down from the force of the throw and just heard cheering and trash talking. He got up and saw his catcher with the ball daring the runner to come down and try to score. His catcher, his ball, his throw had gotten there.

When he came down he wasn’t sure he had the ball. He felt something like the ball had just ticked off his glove and gone into the crowd. He missed the chairs and Christopher and brought the glove down in front of his face. There, caught in the webbing of his glove, was the ball that had fallen, star-like, out of the sky. That’s when he heard the noise of the cheers. Thousands of Pirates fans cheering louder as he raised his arms in triumph. As he turned around those roaring behind him they could see that he was wearing a Clemente T-shirt and the roar became even louder.

After all he had saved his team and helped them win the game and became known as a great ball player in the neighborhood.

As they went back up the slope later, he could hear the Hart kid say to another kid,

“That kid got some arm on him, don’t he?”
And the big kid had a ball to pound into his glove and a trophy declaring his catch at Three Rivers the “Catch of the Game” to show off to his son when he got back home to Virginia.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

True Costs/Real Questions

We bitch when we pay more than two-fifty for a gallon of gas! Yeah, I know its way higher than that now, but like Gene McDaniel asked a long time ago: “Compared to what?”

We never ask that question, do we? And if we do I wonder if we really consider the wide range of answers open to us.

You been to Europe lately? It seems to me that they are paying the true costs of using a rapidly dwindling and environmentally damaging fossil fuel. But the message of what true costs are never gets down to us does it? We see the world a different way than others.

After all, we’re American and what there is, is what we say it is, right?

We complain that we’re losing way too many American lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan! Hey, don’t get me wrong here, this is not a political screed against George Bush-that’s another piece I‘m putting together. But when we talk about this issue I never hear about the tens of thousands of ‘others’ that have died in the last couple of years because of our attempts to rid their countries of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.

Then ya gotta take a look closer to home, and I mean real close. When was the last time you took a look at your kid’s waist line? When was the last time you took the time to cook a good healthy meal? And no, checking into KFC or Mickey D’s and walking out with a couple of Happy Meals or buckets of chicken and cole slaw does not count.

When was the last time you looked at what you were putting into your mouth? I know, I know, who the hell has time to cook good food let alone shop for it, right? But I’ll betcha that somewhere on the KFC and Mc Donald’s payroll is somebody in a white coat and carrying a clip board telling us that their food is nutritionally sound and yummy good, right?

And we believe him ‘cause we’re American and what there is, is what we say it is, right?

Speaking of what we ingest when was the last time you saw a quality show on TV? General Hospital or CSI Miami do not count, neither does Fear Factor or the six o’clock news. If we judge the general intelligence of the public by the more popular shows on the tube (excuse me but I do not want to be a Hilton or work for ‘The Donald’) we're a nation of morons, but we’re American and what there is, is because we say it is, huh?

I am not a snob, I enjoy a good cold beer and I love to laze around in front of the tube watching a ball game just like Joe Six-pack. I can understand the need to save time by eating fast food and getting the world news pre-packaged by the spin machines out of Washington, DC, New York, and Los Angeles. What I can’t understand is how people in this age of the internet accept the crap shoved at them and believe that’s all there is to it. But then again, we’re American, right? And you know the drill, don’t you?

The oil business has us by the short hairs and is subsidizing our habit working hand in hand with the automotive industry aided and abetted by the US government. And please, don’t you dare try to tell me that it’s only the Republicans doing this shit. We’re American and if we don’t stand up and demand truth from our so-called leaders we’ll get what we deserve.

But then we only stand up for what is, right?

Cindy Sheehan stands up and whaddya know, some other folks have the gall to tell her that she’s undermining our troops in Iraq! Hey, they gotta right to do that don’t they? This is America after all and we all have a right to disagree, right?

So how come it feels like the people that want the war are the only ones allowed to say that they’re patriotic? People that want to return America to ‘traditional values’ are portrayed as true Americans (hmmm, traditional American values…genocide, slavery, repression of women…what values are they talking about anyway?).

Okay, I’m definitely off track here! But what are we really paying to have the life style we Americans enjoy? And, for that matter, who is really doing the paying?

I met someone over the last couple of days who tells me that there are better ways to look at wealth and health. She tells me of a philosophy and life style that, while I have absolutely no real details, intrigues me. We were in a retreat considering very weighty issues concerning our coaching work so we really didn’t have time to delve into these matters.

But it gave me comfort to know that there are people dealing with these issues. I have volunteered with Sheila’s church to provide food to the needy. I worked with Habitat for Humanity to give a home to a poor family in Pennsylvania with my cousin Lee. I’ve given over ten years of my professional career to helping disadvantaged people get access to education and training so that they can enter the workforce with more and better tools to succeed.

My work and volunteer efforts are drops in the bucket. A wise woman I once worked with said there are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with the suffering of the poor right here in America. I believe that a major paradigm shift needs to occur for us to even see the true problems facing us. My friend Jim Snow from the McLean Dialogue has been schooling me on Lakoff’s work on frames of reference.

When we can see how others see maybe then we can all ask real questions about the true costs of being the society we are.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Touching Clouds

“Hey dada, you can touch a cloud if you come out on the deck, c’mon out dad. You can write anytime, but when’s the last time you touched a cloud?”

There were many reasons to sit where I was when Robert shouted the cloud touching challenge to me. The main one was finishing the speech I was putting together for my retreat with Anne Gottlieb. I was determined to get it down because I still had to memorize it, put it on index cards and then make it sound as ‘natural’ as possible.


How the hell can you beat cloud touching for something natural?

I got my ass up and walked over to the door. Looking out I could see why he was so excited and I was warmed that he is still young enough to be so enchanted at something like a cloud.

The four of us stood out on the deck overlooking a long ski run here at Wintergreen Resort. The elevation is three thousand feet up. Driving down from Charlottesville we were enthralled by seeing mountain tops wreathed by clouds. Robert kept talking about how his buddy Andrew touched a cloud. Andrew’s dad is from Guatemala and his uncle’s house is high in the mountains there. Once on a visit there Andrew said he touched a cloud.

“I can’t touch it, why can’t I touch it? I’m not big enough!” Esther was watching us as we stood in the enveloping cloud that had rolled over the ski lift, obscuring what we had clearly seen less than thirty minutes before as we checked the condo out after dropping our bags in the doorway. The three of us were definitely touching the cloud. She walked around us, mystified by our happiness.

“Why can’t I touch it, dada? Almost crying now, frustrated as each of us were dancing around in the mist. The deck was vibrating from our stamping feet and the trees near us were becoming lost in the fog-like apparition descending over us.

“Here Polly, I’ll lift you up into the cloud and you can touch it. Hold your arms out. Do you feel the little wet kisses on them?

Esther reached her arms out, tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Sheila and Robert quietly walked over to her and watched, waiting for her reaction. She opened her eyes.

“Yea, daddy, the cloud’s kissing me all on my arms and face. I feel it touching me.” She smiled, happy to be a part of what was going on, happy to be touching the cloud. I suspect this will be the moment she remembers more than being at Monticello, more than seeing the many valleys on the drive along the ridge of the mountains. She may remember the pool at the hotel in Charlottesville; both children seem to fixate on hotel pools and can recite them when we talk about the places we’ve visited.

There’s not a lot about being away from ‘home’ that I really like. I guess the adventure of going to Copenhagen and my trips to San Francisco are exceptions. Until I bought a lap top and discovered the greatest invention of the internet age-WiFi-traveling was like being cut off from my life-line. I love the connections I have with people all over the world. I can move around the globe without leaving my room.

But I doubt I could ever touch a cloud there. I couldn’t even imagine it there. And I sure couldn’t see the look on Esther’s face when she felt the cloud kissing her. Maybe enchantment is contagious, I hope it is.

When we left Annandale the other day all of us were in a wicked mood, by the time we reached Charlottesville we were better as the rain that had been with us for the first hour of the trip had stopped and we could see the mountains running along the highway. We found the Children’s Discovery Museum in Charlottesville, explored it and part of Charlottesville, checked into our hotel, went to dinner ( I had a huge fillet at this place, screw the cholesterol concerns!), and hit the pool when we got back to the hotel.

Smiles were on our faces.

We met some interesting people in line for the tour of Monticello; saw some interesting things in the house. Our guide was pleased that I could answer her harder questions about Jefferson, his neighbor Madison, and John Adams.

I was pleased that the foundation that runs the place has finally acknowledged Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings and the fact that there was issue from that relationship. I love seeing the cracks in white folk’s hypocrisy.

Sheila thanked me for going on the tour with them. She has a strong sense of my feelings about the passing the buck the Founding Fathers pulled off by not dealing with the un-godly institution of slavery. Jefferson later wrote of how he trembled at the thought of a just God when he considered the issue of slavery…

Tomorrow we’ll find more interesting places to visit, more mountains to climb. We’ll meet people from around the country and many from right here in the hills of western Virginia. I remind myself that most of these locals are descended from people that didn’t own slaves. At the same time I’m appalled that their ancestors proudly fought for Virginia’s slave holding class.

America, forged by noble words written by landowning white men who extolled freedom for themselves but not women, blacks, or poor people, to say nothing of their lack of consideration for indigenous people, yet managed to put together a governing document that is open to growth. Ol’ Red probably has smiles on his face watching us today. He’d probably remind us that the Constitution only provides us a form for the freedoms accorded us. His Declaration of Independence outlines things inalienable to us. As a boy he probably touched clouds when he was growing up at the foot of Monticello and climbing it with his friends.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Back Home

After a trip, especially one where you find yourself in a very different environment, you can have a very eye opening experience when you come back home. In many ways it’s like going to the same spot on a river bank that you’ve visited many times and realizing that it isn’t the same river that you visited the last time you were there.

Well it’s been a week and I haven’t really slowed down to get to the journal to tell about what I saw in Denmark and what I’ve been dealing with back home. But I got some inspiration from readers and writers I know so I’m movin’ ahead.

Copenhagen was a real surprise. I thought living in DC gave me an understanding as to what ‘cosmopolitan’ meant. Well, that’s going up on the shelf somewhere. In Copenhagen I met a Chinese dude who spoke, well, Chinese (Mandarin), a little Cantonese, Vietnamese, French, Danish, English, Swedish, and German; he’s lived in Copenhagen since he was five.

Sheila and I had a cab driver from Palestine who lived there since 1969, one from Pakistan who moved there in ’75, and we walked around the city with a Swede who has made Copenhagen his home for eighteen years. While most of the people certainly look, well, Scandinavian, there are whole lots of different looking, and sounding, folks calling it home!

It is an amazing hang out city. On our way to a tour bus we passed a bar, at 10:45 AM Sunday morning that was jamming! I mean really jamming like it was 10:45 Saturday night.

Everybody we talked to was friendly. The only complaint I have was that when there was a line up for something, like getting into a place, it was like all of a sudden NYC and don’t even think of slowing down for fear of being stampeded. And the beer was great. There are so many breweries there, and many micro-breweries. In some places in the city neighborhoods take their identities from the beer made in them.

Oh yeah, the tour. We saw authentic Viking ships, lovingly restored through a twenty-five year process after they had been discovered. We visited a burial mound (Sheila went in, I climbed on top of it…way too claustrophobic to go in!), and dinned at an inn built in the 1600’s. The old part of the city has a charm that can only be found, I’m told, in Europe.

There is a year long celebration of Hans Christian Andersen’s 200th birthday and there many places that had white shoe prints outlining places where he was known to have walked. I passed on seeing the Little Mermaid as I found out that actually seeing it is a real let-down (its small and always crowded). Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” helped me get through a very rough childhood. While I wouldn’t necessarily call him my favorite storyteller, he ranks way close to the top!

But…home is still the best place. Look, I love meeting new people, fitting my energy into the wide open spaces of undiscovered territories. But coming home was soul stirringly great too. And I’m not just talking about seeing the children here. I’m just talking about being in your own nest, with your own stuff. Being in the place where you’ve chosen to roost. Being, hell, just being in a place where you are comfortable…

I’ve been noticing little things and how much I take them for granted. Like deodorant and full seized cars, three dollar a gallon gas being cheap compared to what they pay in Europe, how some Americans actually have an appreciation for line etiquette (“I think that guy’s been here longer than me, you should take his order first!”), the many different versions of English spoken within a five or six mile radius of my house, food I’m boringly familiar with, and, did I mention deodorant?

Vacations spent in far away places remind me of how differently time can flow. Days in Copenhagen were almost endless, back home here they fly by in a blur at times. (Like I’m some kinda travel expert here! This was the first time I ever had a passport kiddies!)

Next up: a family excursion to the Piedmont of Virginia…Charlottesville and Wintergreen. And I’ll be ever grateful to get back Monday night.

Back home where I come to spaces where I think I’m in a familiar place and like a river they’ve changed.

Go with the flow…

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Dispatch from 37,000

This is going to be a very short introduction as my laptop is practically in my chest and the screen is at a very awkward angle. I’m on an Airbus A-330-300 with one of those 2-4-2 seating setups with me and Sheila and me in a 2 on the port side of the plane. The seats are blue and gray, really narrow across the shoulders, at least for me, and kinda close together front to back too. As we passed through business class I noted the spaciousness and comfort of the section. I told Sheila that I knew she loved me as she was passing up being there to take me with her.

Sheila and I are on the way to a conference in Denmark…I should say she is on her way to a conference, I’m on my way to my first hop across the Atlantic to hang with the Danes. Soren, Hans, Hamlet…well, the first two anyway. I’m told Copenhagen is a good hangout city. My plan is to do as much walking around as possible, and we’ll see about the hanging.

The Danes I’m meeting on the flight are friendly enough. In a xenophobic sortta way I can’t help but notice that all of them seem to switch effortlessly between Danish and English. I’m still gonna brave the native tongue…while I can’t spell it I can say ‘bon mel’, which means breakfast. Listening to it, Danish sounds like a cross between German and French, or perhaps some other Romance language.

The coffee on the plane is great, so’s the food. As always I’ve been uncovered by one member of the flight crew as the passenger-you-can-mess-with-‘cause-he’s-got-a-sense-of-humor.

This gets posted when I get to the hotel and some sleep. I can’t sleep a bit on the plane. Seven hours, huh? Lights just went out, guess I’ll listen to some iTunes and watch some movies…

Monday, September 19, 2005

Ah, What a Lovely Fragrance

Everybody dies. And as William Wallace said, not everyone truly lives. From what I can gather Maxine R. Baker truly, wonderfully, and graciously lived. She has created ripples that move outward even now, touching others in ways that proponents of chaos theory would support. You know, like the butterfly whose wings end up creating the wind storm thousands of miles away. I attended her memorial service last week. Her daughter, ‘Little’ Maxine, is a dear friend of many decades. Her mom was an extraordinary presence on this planet for ninety years.

I met her the first time over thirty years ago. I was a young musician, recently dropped out of law school and substitute teaching to pay the rent and feed myself. I lived for my art, for sound, being connected to universal rhythm through my drum circles and band. Teaching was something easy to do, get the kids quiet through some ‘song and dance act’ and ‘beat’ some information into their heads.

The fact that I was very young, had an Afro-to-die-for and wore jeans to class helped me be popular with the kids. The fact that I actually knew some stuff about a variety of subjects and knew how to present it got me connected to a school near my house. The vice-principal told me after my first day that I had a permanent substitute position a twenty minute walk from my house. Couldn’t beat that with a stick, right? I planned on charming my way through the days, occasionally dropping some knowledge on classrooms full of junior high kids.

The third day I was there this fiery but very well mannered woman cornered me on a stairway and dressed me down for my comportment, my lack of professionalism. She demanded that I act responsibility and actually teach.

“I see you young man, acting all cool and being the children’s friend. You are not here to be popular, you are here to teach, to hand down knowledge, and, more importantly, to give the children an example. So, act your age and behave like you have some sense in that fine head of yours. You are smart, intelligent, and gifted. Show them the way like I’m sure others have shown you.”

She was scolding me like I was gonna be taken to the woodshed if I didn’t follow her instructions to the letter. I lowered my head and said, “Yes, ‘mam.”

In a sense I have been saying ‘yes ‘mam’ in some way to her ever since we crossed paths. Her service was memorable, emotional, joyous, a testament to a life well lived. I believe we only take that aspect of ourselves people call ‘integrity’ to our graves. The memories stay with those we leave behind. The impact of our lives can be, like the minister mentioned in Maxine’s eulogy, “like the scent of someone’s perfume, still in the room after that person has left the room!”

Like fine perfume, Big Max’s fragrance lingers, carried in the memories and actions of all who were lucky enough to have been influenced by her. She was, and always will be, an inspiration to always do your best. You never know who is following in your footsteps.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Looking Up

A few months ago my friend Jamillah urged me to take a broader perspective in my musings. She said I needed to look up. I’ve been attempting to do that but was overwhelmed by the images from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Looking up was painful and harsh. It caused a lot of anguish the past couple of weeks.

I have written and disposed of words that spelled out both my sadness and my anger at the appalling rescue effort and the abysmal political mealy-mouthing of our so-called leaders. I ranted about the hypocrisy of compassionate conservatism and the real ‘Jesus’ of our born-again president and his minions…tax cuts for the rich.

But I had only to look up to what was going on with my son to find what it was I needed to write about. He asked us many questions about each and every aspect of the disaster and its aftermath. Honestly speaking, I found my ability to answer stretched thin.

Answering Robert’s questions about both the hurricane and why there were so many people still in danger was difficult. I almost always ended up with an answer that sounded like, “It’s the will of God.”

Speaking with a Catholic priest I revealed my ‘faith’ when I shared an answer I had given Robert about why God allows such sadness and suffering in the world.

I said that questions like that were important to us while we lived but that the answers weren’t always available to us. Robert asked me about a couple of my good friends that have died and whether or not they knew the answers and would I get a chance to hear from them when I died.

I thought before I answered and said, “When we die and get to heaven we will either have the answers to those questions or they wouldn’t be of any concern to us at that point.”

My priest friend said that my answer was a good example of faith. Faith, for those of us professing to have it, must surely be tested right now. All of us must surely be wondering about things, whether we have an allegiance to any recognized religion or not. But something came to me today that tests my faith even more.

I got an email that informed her friends and family that Jamillah has brain cancer, or, more precisely, she has a mass on her occipital lobe located above the back of her neck. She has endured more cancers over the last two or three years than I care to enumerate here and she consistently exhibits a strong faith in the Creator and a boundless resolve to live to the fullest in spite of her trials.

Jamillah is an exemplar of Islam, a person standing strongly against the stereotyped images of Muslims a lot of us carry. She has been my touchstone and sounding board for many issues, social, political, and cultural, ever since we ended our coaching relationship about four years ago. Since then I am honored to call her friend.

After reading the email, I told Sheila the news and immediately went into a funk and sadness that lasted a few hours. I wondered how this could be happening to someone so gentle, so loving, and warm, giving, honorable, spiritual, etc.

“Insha-Allah” I hear her say, by the will of God. It works its way into my consciousness until I find that my questions about her condition matter little to me in the long run. What does matter is being connected to such a human being and sharing with her.

So…looking up I see that I have a wonderful life. A great mate and growing, full-of-life children, challenging work and a quest to be more of the artist I know I am are the prime elements of that life. Learning more and giving more are my goals. In the ancient Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, I found these words recently:

Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.

When I got my act together enough to call her Jamillah sounded more at peace and stronger than I would imagine myself to have been in were the situation reversed. She seemed more concerned with me at the time, and very much centered, grounded, and calm. She recounted from her email the efforts she had already planned to uncover, and fight, this new challenge. I listened with awe and reverence to this bright, strong spirit as she spoke with confidence, courage, and faith. I marveled at her strength.

She would probably have told me that she gets her strength from her belief in Allah and His will.

I sense her power coming from her mastery of herself. She would say this mastery comes from submitting to the will of Allah; here lies a small circle of words in my poor attempt to not only praise a friend but to also expose my own attempts to have faith. Regardless, I am learning that in looking up there are many stories to tell, many lives to be touched.

Alhumdulilah…Thank God.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Dispatch from Cape Cod

It’s the end of August, officially not of any real significance except to note that summer’s close to being over. The local weather guy on TV seems to make a point of saying that, meteorologically, fall starts the first of September. All of this to say that summers speed by much too quickly. I try to slow the process by focusing on how my children see it but, there too, the pace has picked up from how I remember my idle/idyll time of summers past.

They have camps, activities, places to go, people to look after them, everything seems so damn scripted and each moment filled. Sheila and I have talked about this every once in a while. They should have ‘down time’ we say, they should be able to invent things for themselves, use their imaginations and make up things. They should just do whatever they feel like doing.

Back in East Falls, my old neighborhood in Philly, and in Beckley, West Virginia, and Millsboro, Delaware I used to play with friends, real and imaginary, for hours with no adult supervision. Somehow I managed to survive summers wandering the West Virginia woods, the streets of Philadelphia, Fairmont Park, the flat country-side of southern Delaware without encountering any of the evils we imagine lurking about our children should they be unguarded today.

People have come up with multiple income streams by creating a multitude of services for children during the summer. There are as many camps as there are specific sports. And then there are camps for general activities and cup scouts, girl scouts, fun camps, arts camps, etc. We busy adults are all too happy to provide an ‘enriched’ experience for our kids. We’re happy to ensure that they are safe and protected during those months away from school.

When do my children have a chance to sit down and gaze upon the sky and see the shapes of the clouds? When do they drift off into the streams of imagination that sweep like currents through their minds, souls, and hearts? When do they encounter the majesty of nature in a way that is not restricted, not bounded by artificial or commercial concerns?

Today we spent four or five hours on the water off Cape Cod watching our nieces in sailing races. The children were fascinated by the whole scene and Robert said he wanted to spend time up here next summer sailing. While we certainly will see that he does find a way to do that I immediately saw it as a wonderful way for him to get to that sense of summer that I used to have.

We shared an observer’s boat during the races and spent a good deal of time just coasting on the current making sure race participants followed the rules and, if they needed it, being ready to give them help. I couldn’t help but notice that while on the boat the proportions of land, sky, and water were drastically changed. The land was but a ribbon stretched between vast reaches of sky and water.

The houses we could see were tiny, humans outside our boat and the sail boats almost non-existent. What was important, especially to those sailing, was the wind. Watching the children racing, the youngest were eight, we could see some of them being masterful with their rigging, tacking and plotting their moves over the course. Some were struggling, one actually flipped his boat. He stayed calm and eventually got it up righted and continued fighting his way up wind on the first leg.

Eight or nine year old boy against the wind and the sea…it was amazing to watch!

What could be better for these children than learning the lessons of wind and water? There probably are plenty of answers to that question but at the heart of parenting isn’t the core of our purpose to prepare our offspring to make their way in the world?

After learning to appreciate the wonder of nature, or maybe coincidental to that, is learning to partner with others as you learn to make your way through life. Watching all of this made Robert wistfully ask Sheila and me if he could come up here next summer to sail. We found out there is a three week ‘camp’ for beginners and, yup, both of us said yes.

I hoped quietly that I too could find a spot in that camp…

More from Chatham and Yarmouth next week!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Finding Haney

HANEY, ROBERT J., Aug. 8, 2005, suddenly. Retired Philadelphia Police Officer. Beloved husband of Clarita (nee McKeever); dear son of Alice Lowry; brother of Kathleen McNellis and Mary Riccobono-Martin; also survived by several nieces and nephews. Relatives and friends are invited to greet the family at THE McILVAINE FUNERAL HOME, 3711 Midvale Ave., East Falls, from 5 to 7 P.M. Friday eve Aug. 12th. Funeral Service 7 P.M. at the Funeral Home. Int. private. For those desiring, donations may be given in Bob's memory to: St. Bridget Memorial Fund, 3667 Midvale Ave., Phila. PA 19129; or PAL, 900 W. Hunting Park Ave., Philadelphia. PA 19132. Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News on 8/10/2005.

This was how I found out my best friend from high school died. A friend some of you have seen me write about before, Mouse, my buddy from the projects in East Falls, and still a close friend, sent this to me. Both Tommie and I (oh, Thomas is the Mouse's real name) had been searching for Bob for a number of years. Some time ago I found his phone number and left a voice message with all of my information. More importantly, I said that no matter what had happened, no matter what he had been through as a police officer I wanted to talk with him, meet with him. After all, he and I had some incredible experiences together and we became best friends in spite of the fact that initially, he had been one of those Irish kids that tormented me daily in Saint Bridget's school.

Seventh grade, first day, and our teacher was handing out seating assignments. There was little distance between our desks, maybe two or three inches. We were twelve and both very tall and large for our age. He was stocky, shorter by about four inches. I was taller and wiry; about ten pounds less in weight. He lived in the Abbottsford Homes projects. I lived in the notorious housing projects known as ‘Sin City’. He was Irish, as white and as angry as a kid could be. I was the outsider, the nigger kid. And there he was, forced to sit next to me for the year.

Each and every time the nun, Sister Frances, turned her back to us to write on the board or get something, he’d punch me as hard as he could. Seventh grade was hell for the longest time. It was a continuation of what elementary school at Saint Bridget’s school had been all along, only now I had to sit close to one of my tormentors, one who quietly tried to beat me to a pulp every opportunity he got.

By that time children had stopped calling me names during recess because it was taking five and six of them to call me nigger. One kid would do it and by the time he got to the second ‘g’ my fist was in his face. Then, of course, his friends would feel obligated to pull me off him and they too would fall prey to my outsized fury.

Like I said, Bob Haney and I were large kids. At twelve I was almost six feet and weighed about one-seventy. Haney, on the other hand, was about 5’ 8” but about 180 or so. He was a bruiser. And, like I said, he was angry all the time it seemed. Especially when he woke up one day and found out he had to sit next to me.

“Damn, nigger germs, I’m gonna be covered with nigger germs every day,” he hissed under his breath as he moved into his chair. I ignored this but the next thing I knew, as Sister Frances was involved with another seating placement, he hauled off and landed one right in my side, knocking the air out of me.

“Fuck you, nigger,” he hissed again. “Get used that as long as you sit there, nigger!” I resolved right there and then he was going to pay for that, no matter how long it took, regardless of how many punches I’d have to take.

“Fuck you right back, you ugly white motherfucker,” I said with my normal voice, not caring who heard me. I tried to sit up straight but the pain in my side still made me crumple over, listing to my right.

“Charles, there will be no talking while the seating chart is carried out. Just for that, you will start this semester with several demerits.” Sister Frances, prim, proper, and always martinet in her manner, was lecturing me while I sat there in physical and emotional agony. Like I gave a flying fuck what this woman said, like what any of the penguins said meant a damn thing after what happened to me in fifth grade. Fifth grade taught me all I needed to know about how duplicitous adult white people were…nuns and priests even…when it came to dealing with their children’s treatment of the ‘nigger kid’ in their school.

John Cashman snuck up behind me when our fifth grade nun left the room for a moment. He punched me in the side of my face while saying ‘nigger’ something to me. Of course the black cloaked avenger came back into the room catching me swinging back at him. She stood me up against the blackboard, placed her left hand firmly against my right cheek and swung her right hand from way behind her into my face.

I saw stars.

She never asked John Cashman why he was standing beside my desk during the incident.

And to make matters worse, one of the girls in the class room stood up and respectfully informed the Nazi Nun what had happened and she still never reprimanded Cashman. Yeah, we were all children of God alright.

So, seventh grade had one angry Creole nigger boy in it at Saint Bridget’s Elementary School that year. And poor angry Irish boy Robert J. Haney was gonna pay.

About a month into the semester I had learned to block his punches, another couple of weeks later I was hitting that pug faced son-of-a-bitch when Sister Frances turned around. And I kept on hitting him until I got tired of the game. Eighth grade he left me alone entirely and I got into a somewhat normal routine with my friend Tommie Hart, AKA the Mouse and our salt and pepper gang from Saint Bridget’s and our projects.

The two of us were tight since third grade and we had a nice little circle of friends and we had lots of fun. We played hooky from school and watched my hero Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series. By then the rest of the Italian and Irish kids had figured out that they had better not ever let me catch them calling me anything. They could make all the ugly faces they wanted, and they did. But the name calling had stopped. I wasn’t universally accepted, but my school life had reached a state of truce.

Then something very strange happened freshman year in high school. Haney started hanging around with us and acting like he wanted to be my friend. He was always over to my place, always asking me to come by his house. And, stranger still, I found myself liking him. He was still gruff and grumpy to other people. He was still angry in his manner. But with me he was open, honest, and, scary now that I write this over forty years later, he was poetic.

When we were fifteen I confessed to him that I wrote poetry, I showed him my journal. He wrote some poetry and showed it to me. By the end of sophomore year we were so tight that his white friends and my black friends had come to peace with our ebony and ivory act. We spent that summer in summer school at West Catholic, right in the heart of West Philly. There were plenty of black boys not at all accepting of my friendship with Haney. One day I completely dissed one of them over it and that afternoon, as I walked down a hallway at the end of the day I heard a major commotion behind me. I turned around and found Bob on the floor with two black guys. I threw one of them off him and we bolted out the door and flew up the street to the El station, just ahead of a pack of blood thirsty friends of these two guys. He never would answer my questions as to why he had jumped these dudes.

The next day, the guy I originally dissed came up to me before my class started and remarked that I was a lucky person to have such a loyal bodyguard. Haney had saved my ass from a sneak attack by two members of his crew. He was letting me know that while they were going to back off us, they were still going to keep their eyes open for an opportunity to blast either one, or both, of us.

The guy had gone from bashing me to defending me.

We had an interesting couple of years together. My sister, when I called to tell her that Bob had suddenly died remarked that we were always together. You never saw one of us without the other. We had a great night together before I left for college and he came down to school several times, becoming tight with two of my college friends. In fact, the three of us initiated him into our "Tres Club", not as an honorary member but as a full fledged 'Tres Brother'. The picture above on the right is Cliff Green and Kwame Freeman on the way to our graduation ceremony with Bob. The one on the left is Bob and me in New Jersey after my sister's graduation from Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York.

Bob and I stayed tight until our mid twenties when he had slipped back into what I thought as very racist thinking probably because he was surrounded by racist police officers on the Philly force. He made comments to me when I came home to hang with him that I found profoundly offensive and we argued about them for the length of my visits. I never stopped wanting to see him or never wanted to not be his friend, but he gradually faded from my life.

I knew a woman he had been seeing; she was introduced to him by one of my former girlfriends that was friends with Bob. I was visiting her while on a business trip when she informed me that she had broken off her relationship with Bob because of his actions on the force and how being a police officer had changed him so completely.

I can’t imagine the man Bob became, but while he is somewhat frozen in my heart as he was in our friendship I know I can surmise several things about him. He was dedicated and fierce in his beliefs that what he was doing was the right thing. He was passionate and loved strongly. I can only hope that he still remembered me and how much I loved him, faults and all. I pray that his soul has found peace and love and that some day in the far future I will get to see him and tell him how much I missed him over the years that we were apart. The love he gave me was certainly worth all of the punches he threw at me. I hope he feels the love I have for him.

September 14, 2005

Since I've written this I've found out that over the last decade or so Bob has expressd to his wife that he wanted to get together with me. His sister Mary and I have been connected through email after one of Bob's neices sent her the note I had written in the guest book on the web attached to the notice that starts this journal entry. While it made me sad all over again for our lost friendship this news made me realize that connections are never really lost...misplaced maybe, but once someone moves into a space in your heart its hard to move them out, regardless of time or circumstance.

Mary wrote that when she thinks of me she sees her brother and me in their kitchen when we were fourteen and she was seven. She says very warm and wonderful things about how she felt about me then. She also shared that their mother is very ill these days but that when she read the note I wrote for Bob she was both happy and sad.

Finding Haney might have come too late in most ways for me. But several of his survivors have found their way back together again. Life goes on, life ends. Love finds us and we find love.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Lost and Found

(For my children, Robert and Esther)

I want my god back, my soul requires it.

I lost him somewhere between my Catholic grade school “let’s beat up the nigger” days and the high school guidance counselor telling me I’d make a good butler.

I lost god when my New Year’s Eve hangover was ushering in 1973 with the news that my hero, Roberto Clemente, had died in Puerto Rico trying to bring help to earthquake victims.

I lost god but I know where to find him.

I want my people back, my heart demands it.

I lost them somewhere between feeling odd and out of place my first day of registration at an all black college then later having a corporate customer marvel at my being so articulate.

I lost them when I heard my Achilles snap so loud like a car backfire on the basketball court and I couldn’t bang under the boards or glide to open space and rain jumpers anymore.

I lost my people but I know where to find them.

I want my history back, my family needs it.

I lost it when my fist crashed into my father’s face knocking him down and out of my life.

I lost it when the furious heart beating in my chest was so loud after my aunt called to say my mother had died that I couldn’t hear her words over the roar of the blood in the vessels in my ears.

I lost it when I passed, but unlike my uncles, aunts, and older cousins who did it to put bread on the table, I did it passively, sitting quite and still after someone entered a sales presentation, looked around and said, “Sure glad there aren’t any niggers here!”

I lost my history but I know where to find it.

Where will I find my god?

I find him when Robert takes my hand in front of his friends, when he kisses me and says, “I love you dada!”

Where will I find my people?

I find them bouncing on my bed in the morning, pleading with me to get up.

Sometimes when I search for my history I sit in front of my computer, the page blank, cursor blinking. I feel Esther’s arms pressed against me like a heat pack on a damaged muscle and I feel my blood flow.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Dispatch from Hunlock Creek

Last week I wrote from The Air Conditioned City and the writers’ workshop sponsored by VONA (The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation). I can report that this entity (Hunlock Creek) in no way resembles The City, nor am I surrounded by the intellectual and spiritual questing that occurred at the workshop. I am, however, surrounded by an abundance of testosterone of the young teen and pre-teen variety and loving parenting by my sister-in-law and her husband as well as from Sheila and myself.

Tomorrow, Friday, I’ll get up early and get over to the soccer camp where Robert has been all week and watch the morning drills. He, along with about one hundred or so other children from seven to fifteen have been at this all week and apparently have become as one in their approach to drills and other coach directed activities. All of this in the exurban splendor of eastern Pennsylvania in the shadow of the Pocono Mountain range.

Quite a contrast to the sophistication and cosmopolitan feel of San Francisco.

But I gotta tell ya (pardon me while I slip into the vernacular of the natives here) it feels comfortable to me, while I have yet to spot my first person of color I feel welcomed here. For instance the guy next to me in line for coffee at the convenience store/gas station effusively thanked me for pouring his coffee and proceeded to tell me of the back roads back to Washington when, noticing my Virginia license plates, he asked if I were going back during the expected heavy traffic over this holiday weekend. Then there was the clerk at the local supermarket who gave me my sister-in-law’s discount for the ice cream I bought for desert for the kids because she recognized my nephew. That saved me three dollars on an eleven dollar purchase! I dunno where you’re reading this but that buys a gallon of gas in my neck of the woods!

To be honest I’d rather be in San Francisco, but one doesn’t always get to choose where his in-laws live. One could be said to have limited choice of in-laws period but why quibble, you pick your spouse and the rest comes along for the ride regardless of your preferences. Unless you come from one of those families that refuses to acknowledge those parts of their families they find disagreeable. Wow, I wonder what that’s like. I haven’t seen much of Hunlock Creek and I’ll suspend this report until I do. The next five hundred words, or so, will fill you in on what I find tomorrow.

Friday: Still in Hunlock Creek. And for the most part still ambivalent about how this area strikes me. I suppose fifteen year olds the world over would have the same reaction as my nephew, he who saved me three dollars yesterday, had when he asked what I was reading today (answer, “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani). He looked truly perplexed and asked, “Why?” Even with the answer (so I can be better informed about people who are much in the news these days) he still looked perplexed. Some fifteen year olds in the DC metro area would have already finished the book when I picked it up. But DC offers many more opportunities for our children to actually meet an Arab, which is not to say that proximity precludes prejudice. It certainly helps dispel some myths.

Speaking of myths, I’d like to get rid of one about rural, or exurban, areas. They aren’t all rednecks, and if they are, all rednecks aren’t narrow minded bigots. I met a good number of them at the soccer camp today, both in the morning for drills and this afternoon for scrimmages, and they were more than pleasant enough. I will confess to wondering how they would have treated me had I been in a large group of ‘colored’ folks, either black or Latino. But that’s pure speculation. Still, it’s a curiosity of mine. Maybe next time instead of a Ponce (P.R.) baseball shirt I’ll wear a Malcolm X shirt with a replica of a gun and the “by any means necessary” quote. And yes, I have been accused of looking Puerto Rican…

I’ll be hitting Pennsylvania again in September with Robert for a road trip to Roaring Spring and to gather up Victor and his son Christopher to wander over to Pittsburgh for Roberto Clemente Day at the ball park. Victor and I might have become friends without the two of us having had Clemente as our boyhood hero, but it’s doubtful I would have given that much of a chance at the time we first met almost twenty years ago. Perhaps I’ve learned a lot of compassion and tolerance in the years since as then I might have been the one screwing up my face at someone reading a book about ‘others’, like Arabs, or, for that matter, Pennsylvania ‘rednecks’.

Life can teach us valuable lessons when we are open to them.

From the book I’m reading: “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself.” (al-Kindi, c.801-66)

Well anyway, today’s my birthday and I’ve had enough of being a good dad, an inquisitive reader, and an aspiring writer. Chicken wings, pizza, and beer are in the offering, hopefully some birthday cake too.

I’m going to pack the laptop, the Hourani book and live the life of a blissfully ignorant fifty-eight year old who somewhere deep inside still remembers what if feels like to be fifteen. I’m happy with the incredible love of good friends, an expanding circle of compassion, the support of my wonderful wife and children bolstering my way through life.

Damn, but life can be good.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dispatch from San Francisco

Okay, to stop some of you from pestering me about keeping my blog updated here’s the latest.

I’m here in the City by the Bay for a week long writers’ workshop and I’m sitting in a dorm room waiting for a call from the incredible poetry workshop leader so I can have a session with her. The room is classically college-stark in its design and coloring. I’m sitting at one of those built into the wall desks with my new laptop and speakers (currently playing Cannonball Adderley’s version of “Once I Loved”). It’s been my home since last Sunday night and I’m nested and happy here, soon to take down my collage and pack my week’s worth of dirty clothes and head back to Virginia.

I carry a lot back with me. Memories, thoughts, visions, people that have invaded my heart and moved in making themselves at home will be packed and carried back with me. I have been striped searched and found whole and growing. My work this week has produced my first performance poetry and given me new directions for my work.

I worked with the great Jimmy Santiago Baca in the Master’s Seminar: Telling Your Story in Poetry, Novel, or Memoir. I thought I came here to learn about novel and memoir since that’s what I’ve been working on at home. But what I came here to do was actually to write a poem and perform it in front of my literary family and several guests.

I was blown away by the reception I got, and, hopefully, I’ll use it to further inspire myself.

Most of the people here have left. Suheir, that wonder woman I mentioned earlier, is here through tonight, like me, but I still feel the vibrations created here during the week. Although I’m alone here I don’t feel that way. The leftover energy is strong. Strong enough to last me another year perhaps, but one of the things I learned this year is that I can create my own energy, I can renew it too.

One way to do that is to post here more frequently; another is to create that damn web site I’ve been threatening to do. I promise to do both (to the consternation of some of you I imagine) and quickly.

Meanwhile I have to get back to writing and waiting for that call. I hear that the session will be about so much more than just my writing. After hearing and seeing her perform I can’t wait to see the person she helps birth out of this man typing these words.

Peace comes only through truth.

“My blood is a million stories”
Jean Grae

Saturday, April 23, 2005

My Last BLT

Wheat toast was my only concession to concerns about nutrition, otherwise I relish the mayo, lettuce, tomato, and, most importantly, crisp bacon that Sonny at Bob and Edith’s Diner has taken years in perfecting. He gets it just right. Bacon not too crisp that the flavor has been cooked out of it and yet, not at all showing soft signs of the fat that carries the deadly cholesterol I have now comes to grips with.

“Hey Chuck, where ya been lately, haven’t seen ya in a couple of months; still on that health kick, dude?” This all said over his shoulder. I hadn’t noticed him looking up or over to this side of the counter. But, like Radar in the story, movie, and television show M.A.S.H., Sonny, or even Erica, my other favorite short order cook, knows what’s going on in the world behind his back.

It’s been several years that I have ignored the other signal of my impending loss in the battle against mortality, the first being the asthma that almost did the touchdown dance of death’s victory a little more than two and a half years ago. As I used to joke about it,

“If my blood level number for high cholesterol were my weight, I could pass as a pro defensive end!” Ha ha, I think as I long to take a bite of the beautiful sandwich, catching a wad of mayo with my tongue from the corner of my mouth in my quick fantasy.

My neighbor across the street just died of cancer. It was a sudden thing, covering a few short months and while I was not that close to him his demise got me thinking. Ed was only six years older than I am. He was a widower, his wife having passed away of cancer some eight years ago. He leaves two daughters, both of them young, un-married and childless, and a host of other relatives, some of whom I’ve met over the last couple of weeks. He and I would talk at night or early in the morning, not about anything of real consequence, but good guy talk, honest and real. He consistently invited me to his poker games even after I told him of my gambling ‘issue’ in an effort to always make me feel welcomed.

I think of him often, usually when I’m taking the trash to the curb to be collected, or, sometimes, just looking at his house and remembering the stories he’d told me over the years of the neighborhood or his experiences in the navy…

Anyway, what I want to say is this. After getting considerable distance from my own close encounter with death I slipped badly in my attempts to stay open to life. I fell back asleep, as it were, and forgot the lessons of my wake up call: live freely and openly, be of service and love with courage and determination, and share the vision I have of life with an ever widening “circle of compassion”.

I knew it was time to start anew, refresh my practices for health, work, and play…all of them. I had to find a way to ritualize my commitment. Hmmm, one last BLT? Why not?

Sonny and the others I run into at the diner remind me that the world is broad and that ‘salt of the earth’ people like Sonny and Erica, Sam, Cookie, good honest people, are at the heart of my being. His comment about my health kick was laced with the sarcasm of the smack dealer spotting an old, soon-to-be-ex-junkie approaching for a fix. I told him with certainty and assurance,

“That’s my last BLT you’re about to cook for me my man, the last. I know my moment’s gonna come, but there’s no sense trying to get it here sooner than it has to, right?”

I do serious work with serious people. Coaching is part of who I am and I’m grateful to know both my clients and my colleagues. My art, this writing, my storytelling with words, music, and film is part of me as well. But the real part of me that calls me to action is my role in this family, father to my children and partner to my wife. Not being fully awake not only cheats me but cheats them too. Regardless, I still hungered for that grease, I still salivated watching the bacon sizzle on the grill, watched him pick the ripest and juiciest tomatoes. He toasted the bread just right, all this while also frying eggs, making French toast and cooking something disgusting (I’m sure) in the deep fryer.

“Here ya go man, the best BLT on the freakin’ planet! You sure you only want one?” He was grinning at me, sweat glistening on his forehead. “Does this mean we won’t be seeing you and the kids in here anymore?”

“Dude,” I told him, “you’ll be seeing me for a long time is the plan. Only after this I’ll be eating pancakes or waffles, or having a cup of that God-awful coffee!” I bit into the sandwich, savoring it all for the last time. I sat there slowly chewing as I planned a typical week, each day broken down into waking meditations and exercises for my body and mind, my music and writing; time for my coaching clients and marketing for more business. I swiveled on my stool on the counter and thought of how my children like to sit there and do the same. I planned time for me and each of my kids, individually and collectively, planned for ‘couples’ time with my wife. Planned for those longed for moments with my friends, phone calls, visits, emails, and instant messages…

I was lost in thought and fantasy. I looked up and Sonny had turned around, handing me a napkin.

“Dude, you’ve got mayo all over your face…”

I flicked my tongue out and over, catching every bit of it.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Fraternity Brother?

The first days of April 1968 were not very memorable on campus at my college except for the indignities visited upon me and my pledge line brother by the big brothers of the Pi Epsilon chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. In Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting with sanitation workers. I remember, if I can say so without getting into double secret probation, being covered with syrup and corn flakes, told to put my clothes back on and being made to run laps around the track in the brisk chill of one spring night that week. I have other memories but they’ll remain secret as they are precious and reserved for those who have shared the rituals of initiation into that fraternity.

But the day before I was to join my fraternity we got word on campus that Dr. King had been killed and currents hot and cold swept through Princess Anne, Maryland and the rest of America. On campus we felt shock and sorrow suffused with the knowledge that this day was pre-destined; we were shocked but not surprised. Men and women who had spoken out or acted against the condition and treatment of Blacks in America had been killed before. Regardless, some semblance of campus life went on. Dr. King died on April 4th, the next day I was to be initiated into Omega. We had a ceremony to conduct in spite of our sadness, grief, and anger.

The morning of April 5th dawned with rage and fire across America. On campus we wondered what the men who had defiled our school with a burning cross were thinking and planning for us. Joe, my pledge brother, and I were charged with several tasks to complete so that we could ‘go over’ that night. I was told to get some gasoline for the ceremony. If you can picture this, I am six feet one inch tall. I had a clean shaven head and wore a dog collar, a field jacket and combat boots. As I crossed the rail tracks on the road up to town I also carried a brick (even though it was painted purple and gold and had Greek letters on it, it was still a brick!) in one hand and an emergency can to be filled with gas in the other.

A Black man was dressed like that the day after King’s assassination, walking off a Black campus that had been targeted by people burning large crosses on the football practice field, while large and small cities across America were going up in flames. I was walking but I was numb with fear. I was also determined to fulfill my task and to go on with my completion of Hell Week. I was rebuffed at the first gas station I got to but kept walking. In my small way I was going to keep going regardless of what happened. I imagined all sorts of ugly plans for me being hatched by the laughing men in that first station. I was in my own demonstration, my own march.

The second gas station I got to was manned by a tall, skinny white boy of about nineteen or so. He saw me and ran out of the office and in a mock stage whisper urged me to get into the wrecker and keep my head down. He took the gas can from me and filled it, got back into the truck after ducking back into the office for a short time and started the engine. As he pulled out of the station he asked me, “Are you one of those Kays?”

“Kays?” I answered and immediately realized he meant the Kappas. I told him which fraternity I represented and told me it didn’t matter because I was crazy as hell for walking around with a brick and gas can that day. He said he’d drive me as close to the campus as possible and drop me off.

When I asked him why he was helping me he told me the story of the fraternity boys from the “colored college” who came around and helped his family fix their farm after a hurricane. He wanted to return the favor and figured this was his chance. As he drove past groups of men that I fantasized as craven, jubilant, racist Klan members rejoicing in the killing of Dr. King he talked of how the help his family received made him realize that the negative things he heard about Black people were wrong. He was glad to help me do what I needed to do to join a fraternity. I felt safe with him even though to many of us he looked like those men who jeered us whenever we held a demonstration or who harassed us when we walked into town. Yet here he offered me protection, driving me back to campus.

Later that night after being initiated we stepped out of Trigg Hall and gazed over to the tree where my fraternity gathered and sang. The night was clear and calm, stars sparkled like diamonds. On a huge rack were suspended cast iron letters, Omega Psi Phi. Wrapped in burlap and soaked in gasoline they were lighted as we sighted them. We were elated and for a moment, we forgot the tragic news from Memphis, we could ignore the riots across the country, we were brothers after all.

And somewhere that same night in Somerset County, a tall, thin, white teenager probably never thought that he’d remain one of the most enduring memories of my time in Princess Anne. I’m ashamed that I don’t remember his name but he’ll always be my brother too.