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Archive for the ‘The family life’ Category

Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)

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I love NPR. Every day, no matter when or how much I’m able to listen, I get a surprise. Like this story on Paul Thorn, a long-time favorite and an incredibly under-appreciated singer-songwriter. Or this one, about Facebook’s comparatively small advertising revenue (Planet Money rocks). Or, this morning, this one, about the media landscape in Afghanistan.

Buried in that report is this statistic — 60 percent of the Afghan population is under 20 years old. Think about that for a minute. Just imagine that generation as they come of age — what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, what they’ve seen, and what they know of us.

That thought hit me especially hard this morning because this weekend, my son will be graduating from the high school drama program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. My daughter, who dances with the Bossov Ballet at Maine Central Institute, has just started learning to drive. These are seminal moments in a child’s life, the kind of moments I’ve written about here before. And, if your parenting is anything like ours, you devote a tremendous amount of time, attention, and (often) money engineering your life and your children’s lives so that these kinds of moments come.

I look at it as leading my children down a passageway defined by our belief system and our worldview and our ideas about what is right and good … and what is not. And that passageway is lined with doors, each one representing an opportunity for growth and direction. Each one is an opportunity for forward motion, for taking the first steps toward rich, productive and — we hope — the happiest of lives.

We don’t push them through. We simply try to make sure that we open as many as we can, explain to our children what the landscape beyond that door might hold, and then let them choose whether or not they want to walk through it. For my son, this has meant a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the release of two CDs, including a complete solo project – words, music, instruments, recording, even clapping — and now some impressive acting chops to take with him to Drew University in the fall. My daughter spent nearly two years dancing with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC before switching to the Bossov. She’s an amazing and dedicated dancer, and shows incredible promise as a thinker and a writer. There are many, many doors yet to come for her, but I know they will open, and I know she will choose wisely.

And what of a similar generation in Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? Or rural Maine, for that matter? What doors are being opened for them? Or, perhaps more tellingly, what doors will remain forever and always closed?

It’s commencement season here at Colby College and at high schools and colleges across the country. And  whether or not we have participants in those ceremonies, we all have plenty of reasons to celebrate these new beginnings — all the things that are commencing. But this morning, at least for a moment, I had reason to think about other young lives, lives without open doors and new beginnings, and what my obligation might be to them.

Thanks, NPR.

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It’s about 11:30 when I finally make it upstairs  – a little later than my normal bedtime. So maybe I’m not as clearheaded as I might have been in the middle of the day. Maybe I’m hallucinating.

But what I see is this – the lake, silvery in the strong moonlight, pulses, subtly heaving up and down, as though it’s breathing. I move closer, standing close enough now for my breath to fog the floor-to-ceiling windows a bit, and I can see that maybe it’s not pulsing after all, but it’s in some sort of steady motion all the same.

After a moment, it’s clear that from somewhere to the west, down the length of the open water, an almost imperceptible force – not quite wind – is nudging the water eastward, bouncing it off the rocky shore in front of our house at an odd angle, and that combination of waves and wind and shore and moonlight is creating something I’ve never seen before.

Living here on the shore of Messalonskee Lake in Central Maine, it’s not unusual for me to see the water in a way I’ve never seen it before. In fact, it’s become commonplace, a source of almost daily fascination. Some days it might be a strange band of dark still water bisecting the otherwise variegated surface. Some days it might be a concentration of irregularly shaped rings scattered randomly across the surface in the lee of Blake’s Island. And some days, especially in the thick morning fog, the water is indistinguishable from the land or the sky on the horizon.

But here’s the deal: it’s always the same lake. The shore never shifts. Blake’s Island never moves. The treeline opposite me varies in color only. So given those parameters only, one might reasonably expect constancy. Not so.

Standing there before the window and the silvery breathing surface of the lake, it occurs to me that maybe life is like this, too. Most of the parameters of my days seem fixed — same routines, same job, same relationships. There’s not a lot of variance in them, and usually, I regard that constancy as a blessing.

But suppose my days demanded my attention the way the lake seems to do? Suppose I was powerfully drawn to stop and look – I mean really look – at any given moment? Would I see something I’ve never seen before?

Then I’d really be one lucky man.

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Like most parents, we’ve made the rounds of talent shows and recitals and such. So Sunday night, as we made our way to a talent show presented by my son’s church youth group, I felt like I knew pretty much what to expect: note-for-note renditions of some recital pieces on the piano, a few beautiful young voices (practically) perfectly pitched, maybe a couple of feats of strength or dexterity — all punctuated by some skits that only a teenage mind could craft … or appreciate.

And, for the most part, I got exactly what I expected. Someone played the theme from “The Lord of the Rings” on the piano. One girl played and sang “Misty,” a very cool surprise. A brother and sister did an admirable job with a pop song. One young woman was even bold enough to try dancing en pointe on the carpeted stage, an attempt that, while earnest enough, probably would have been better on a more appropriate surface. So when my son, a pretty talented kid, sat down at the piano to play and sing “Walls,” a song by The Rocket Summer, I figured he’d fit right in.

But I was wrong.

I should have known better. There were certainly clues. First, while he’s always — and I mean always — singing or playing the piano or the guitar or listening to his iPod, he’s going even further this summer, thanks to his new band, Suite 325. A product of the Music Lab at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Suite 325 is a group of six hand-picked young musicians who are getting taught — no kidding — how to be a rock band. It’s a very cool idea, and one that I think is going to have a big influence on those lucky enough to be a part of  it. (Their first show is June 5th at Kirk Avenue Music Hall in Roanoke.)

The other thing I should have considered is that we had spent the evening before in the front row at a Warren Barfield show. You probably don’t know Warren Barfield, though he gets a bit of airplay from time to time. He’s a Christian pop/folk artist, and we’ve been listening to him in our house for a few years now. A lot of his recorded music is quintessential hook-laden pop, pretty easy on the ears, but a far cry from the cookie-cutter praise music you often hear from Christian artists. But Warren Barfield live was something else. Lots of funky rhythm, a heavy backbeat, and a kind of Dave Matthews improv feel to it. Simon and I were both pretty spellbound.

So here he was, less than 24 hours after that experience, sitting down at the piano, adjusting the mike, fiddling around. I knew something was up when he leaned forward, then paused for a moment before beginning, his hands resting on the piano keys. He pulled in a deep breath, then blew it out off-mike. I’ve seen my son perform in all kinds of ways — in martial arts, singing, dancing, even playing the lead in Macbeth — but I’d never seen him do that before, and wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

But after the first couple of bars, I knew. He wasn’t there just to play the notes. He was there to perform.

I sat very still, stunned by what I was watching. I’m no stranger to his ability. I’ve seen it showcased before. But this wasn’t about ability. This was about passion. This was about watching him find another gear, one that required him to dig a little deeper and become more mindful of the music, and less mindful of the moment.

I’m not sure if he hit all the right notes. Frankly, my tin ear wouldn’t be able to discern if he was “pitchy” or not. And, unlike a Hollywood ending, the room did not erupt into thunderous applause that echoed off the walls for long moments after he stopped playing. (It did seem a bit more enthusiastic than just polite acknowledgment, but that could well be my bias.)

But I am sure that something else happened last night, something that maybe he’s not even aware of. I’m also sure that we’re both pretty excited to see what comes next.

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Virginia’s powerhouse NPR affiliate, WVTF, recently aired a version of one of my blog posts that I recorded for them. Have a listen, and let me know what you think.  You can find it here.

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Sitting here in my office in my starched shirt and shiny shoes, my head filled with decisions to make and copy to write and staff to manage, it’s pretty easy to forget that I am the grandson of a coal miner. Easy, that is, until I read that rescuers in Montcoal, West Virginia have once again been forced to return to the surface, leaving their colleagues somewhere far, far below.

More than five decades ago, back when he was a young man, my father joined a pilgrimage of his peers who left coal country and traveled up Route 23 as it snaked its way north out of the mountains through Pound, Jenkins, Pikeville and on. Many of them ended up in Gary, Indiana, where they traded in a miner’s life for a steel worker’s life. But they never stayed far from home. Not in their hearts anyway. As a kid, I remember making the trip back to Virginia at least three or four times a year, back to where the roads wound through narrow gaps and coal trains and trucks rumbled constantly.

I’ve never been to Montcoal, West Virginia, but that doesn’t mean I’d be a stranger. I’d recognize the tumbledown houses wedged together wherever there is enough room between the creek and the hillside. I’d recognize the coal tipples and rail yards that crowd the narrow two-lane highways. And I think I’d recognize the people — hardscrabble men in work clothes or camouflage, faces and hands creased and darkened by life underground; women on front porches or hanging clothes on a line, many of them heavier than they should be, the older ones in muted floral housedresses; kids everywhere, looking as though they could use a bath or a decent haircut or an outlet for their dreams.

I’m not trying to judge here, for I know firsthand that their lives are far more nuanced than we might imagine. I also know that their lives are inextricably bound to those coal seams miles underground or exposed at the top of decimated ridges above them. The danger, the dirt, the pollution — it is a part of their daily existence in the same way my starched shirts and shiny shoes are a part of mine. But they are not to be pitied. They are to be admired — for their grit, their determination, their bravery.

Of course, one can easily argue that their existence is not a noble one, that the industry that they serve and that supports them is as dark and foreboding as the tunnels they traverse. But it is their life. It is their way. And it is done not just for their own self-interest. It is done so that those of us with a seemingly insatiable appetite for all that coal produces can continue to live our lives as we choose.

So today, as anxious loved ones wait for confirmation of what they no doubt know to be the eventual outcome, I’m thinking of my grandfather, and my uncles, and of all the folks I’ve never met in Montcoal, West Virginia, and I’m offering up a prayer for solace.

I hope you’ll do the same.

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The house on Hazel MountainNot so many years ago, I found myself checking into a hotel in Lebanon, Virginia in the late evening. Lebanon is not exactly a rural place, but it’s close enough. I was there for a funeral; this time, for an aunt. The trip was just the latest in a pretty somber string of such events, as my father’s once large family slowly shrank, succumbing to time and age. My role, as it had been more often than I liked to think about, was pallbearer, a role I had played with such frequency that I was no longer taken aback by the surprising heft of a coffin, even when toted by six or eight strong men.

As I filled out the registration card and pushed back across the counter, the clerk — a kindly woman about my mother’s age — looked it over, then reached out and rested her age-speckled hand across my forearm.

“Are you one of Maudie’s?”

Here’s what you need to understand. First, I had never laid eyes on the night clerk in my life. Second, while I am indeed one of Maudie’s — Maudie being my grandmother — I have never lived in Lebanon. Never lived anywhere near Lebanon. And finally, Maudie — God rest her soul — passed away long before this encounter.

But this woman at the night desk  — this stranger — had noted my last name, sensed my muted grief , and instantly understood that I was connected to that place in some way, and that some small part of that connection had been severed. And she knew this in a way that surpassed even my own knowing.

“Yes,” I said. “Maudie was my grandmother. Aileen was my aunt.”

“Turrble,” she said, gliding over the embedded vowel. “So sad.” She extended my key — a solid brass affair on an oversized plastic fob — over the counter. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

This memory has been on my mind a lot lately and, believe it or not, it’s all because of Facebook.

It’s not so much that I feel a part of a similar community online. After all, while social media can do many things and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them, it can’t replicate that tangible and generational connection that I experienced that night.

But I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with a couple dozen friends from high school over the past few months (Portage High School, Class of 1975, if you really want to know) and from time to time, this same group of friends will post pictures of themselves together at a restaurant or some other venue not far from where we all grew up. Sometimes there will be three or four of them, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s all men, sometimes all women, sometimes families.

What strikes me about these photos is that these people — some of them my oldest friends — are all there. In that very same, very specific place. A place where they have grown up. Gotten married. Had kids. Lost jobs. Gotten other jobs. Enjoyed their grandkids. They are rooted there in a way that I sometimes believe that I — who have had more addresses than I can count, some of them on the other side of the globe — may never experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning my fate. I’ve seen much of the world, and more importantly, I am blessed to have a wife who is my home, my community, my connection — no matter where I am.

But some day, a man or a woman far younger than I am will walk into an establishment somewhere in northern Indiana and maybe — just maybe — someone will look them over and ask them — are you one of Rich and Gail’s? Or Doris and Chuck’s? Or Tom and Marlene’s?

And they will know where they belong.

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