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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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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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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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This is a yellow tang, I think.I had a great conversation with my daughter tonight. She’s now well into her fourth week at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, and by all measures, is thriving. Straight As in all her academic classes, getting lots of support and praise from some of the world’s best ballet instructors, making friends from around the world.

One of those friends is a boy her age from Russia who sits next to her in math class.

“I think he likes me, Dad,” she reports.

I stifle my first impulse which, as every father of every daughter knows, is to drive directly to D.C., seek the boy out, and have a little chat with him.

“How do you know that?” I ask, innocently enough.

“He told me today that I was pretty, but his English isn’t so good, so he told me I was pretty like a fish.”

How nice it is to laugh with her, my only girl, now growing in ways beyond measure and beyond my reach.

The costs of sending her away are high: the sharp pang of sadness when I pass her empty room in the morning; the absence that fills our house, nearly as tangible as her presence; the difficulty in trying to make our phone calls and texts pass for real face-to-face interaction; the financial burden her education has placed on us all. And yet …

It’s hard not to see how much the world is opening up before her. She’s on the path to becoming the dancer she has long dreamed of becoming. She has classmates and friends from Russia, Japan, China, and other far-flung spots around the world. Such opportunities are rare, and she has worked — and continues to work — hard to take full advantage of hers.

And in the end, isn’t that what we are supposed to do as parents — prepare our children for a world of possibilities and then turn them loose in it? We certainly never planned that we would be doing so with our youngest so soon, but there it is. She’s there. The world is opening up before her. I can only wonder at her promise and potential, catch her when she falls, and pray that she will forever be safe, smart, and pretty like a fish.

(As always, if you’d like to write Claire a note of encouragement or contribute to her scholarship fund, you can do so at One Dancer’s Dream, P. O. Box 11141, Blacksburg, VA 24062)

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Digging out

Okay, so let me just admit it right up front. I’m a bit of a freak when it comes to having a clean driveway in the winter. I’m not sure what that’s all about, though I like to tell people it’s because I want to be able to get out if I have to. You know, be prepared and all that. The truth is probably a bit more complicated and a bit less practical. I just like the thought of my driveway being clean and clear, even after — no, especially after — the biggest and messiest snowstorms. It’s like my small and pitiful stand against the elements, a sign of industriousness and purpose in the face of adversity.

So around 5:00 or so last Saturday, when the snow had finally stopped falling, topping off at about a foot or so, I couldn’t resist it any longer. My wife, my son, and I had spent the whole day in the house, a welcome respite from our normally demanding schedules. But as the credits rolled on the last movie of the day, I knew it was time.

It probably won’t surprise you that my teenage son, Simon, doesn’t share my compulsion for a clean driveway, but those of you who have the good fortune to know him will also not be surprised that after some brief perfunctory grumbling, he went upstairs to suit up to come out and help.

We tackled the hard part first, the only sensible thing to do. The driveway is about three cars wide at the base, great for shooting hoops in warmer weather, but not so great when you have to clear it of snow. There’s no easy way. You have to pick up a shovelful, walk to the edge, toss it, then walk back. Shovel. Walk. Toss. Repeat. It’s laborious, and for a time, we muttered under our breath, complained about our cold hands, yanked our hats down even further.

But after 20 minutes or so, we began working in rhythm, not speaking, not complaining — just working. We had formed a kind of silent pact — man to man — that we were bigger than the challenge before us. Even our movements were synchronized, the man with the empty shovel circling behind the man filling one up. We went on like this, without stopping, for some time until the driveway was nearly cleared. Then Simon spoke up.

“Dad, look at the sky.”

I looked up, and over the houses on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, the sky was a deep rich purple, almost iridescent, a color I don’t think I’ve ever seen. We took a breather for a few minutes, just looking, as the chill crept under our jackets and clutched at our damp shirts. Two partners really, leaning on their shovels with a clear blacktop driveway behind them and an impossibly beautiful sky overhead.

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The tears have begun, as I knew they would sooner or later.

Sunday afternoon, at the close of a big open house we hosted. Scores of folks — teens and adults in nearly equal measure — have dropped by to welcome the new year, and wish my daughter Claire well as she heads off to the Kirov Academy of Ballet to pursue her dream. The party is winding down, with only a few of Claire’s dearest friends remaining. She’s saying goodbye to one such friend while the parents watch, one set already in heavy coats hovering by the door, and my wife and I at the top of the stairs by the landing. I’ve been streaming cello music the entire afternoon — thank goodness for Pandora — and at what is possibly the worst (or best?) time, a mournful air from a string quartet swells from the speakers. It’s as though scene has suddenly been scored, and for a few moments we are all frozen there — our emotions amplified by the music in a way that it sometimes seems only music can do. The girls are holding one another and crying. It is nearly unbearably sad.

It’s not so much about loss, I don’t think. After all, they are standing here together, and as most hyper-connected teens do, they are sure to be in touch — perhaps even more than they are now.

But yet it is about loss in some way, for surely they understand that they will lose their relationship as they know it. From this moment forward, things will begin to change, and their lives — while still no doubt connected — will be on decidedly different paths.

Later, as I’m running through all the things I still need to do with Claire, I imagine that I can maybe get to some of them next week, and then a moment later I am struck dumb by the sudden notion that next week she will not be here. She will be living hundreds and hundreds of miles away from my outstretched arms, from my face-to-face counsel. She will be taking the first steps on her own path, a path that her mother and I can guide or alter perhaps, but a path that will also be decidedly different.

Thank goodness there was no cello music at that moment. I don’t think I could have managed it.

As always, I am grateful to all of you who have asked after her and wished her well. And, as always, if you’d like to send Claire a note of encouragement or make a gift to her scholarship fund, you can do so at One Dancer’s Dream, P.O. Box 11141, Blacksburg, VA 24062

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Claire dreaming.

My daughter, dreaming.

UPDATE: If you didn’t get a chance to hear Claire interviewed on Studio Virginia, you can find it here. Just look for the show that was broadcast on 11/01/09. Click on that link, skip to right around the halfway point of the show.

We keep a photo of our daughter on our fridge. I can’t recall how old she was exactly, but I know she had just begun walking. In it, she’s just pulled herself up with a wooden barre and is studying her reflection in the mirror. She’s wearing a practical flowered dress with tights, and her tousled hair is curly — as it still is — and red — as it was then. It’s hard to imagine what she might be examining so intently, though I like to think that she’s gazing at her future — more mirrors, more wooden barres.

If that’s the case, then it might explain another picture that accompanied a story in our local paper just last weekend. She’s in front of another mirror, studying her reflection just as intently as before. Her hair is still curly, though it’s pulled up off of her neck, and her practical flowered dress has been replaced by a simple black leotard and pink tights. All in all, it’s a style that’s for more suited for what she has become — a dancer.

If you have been reading this blog or if you know my family at all, this will not be surprising to you. I’ve written about it here before, most recently when she was invited to take part in a three-week intensive session this summer with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. That experience did more than open my daughter’s eyes to her potential. It opened a door to her dreams.

My daughter dreaming ... still

My daughter dreaming ... still

You see, not long after she returned home — still humming from the vibe of being around so many who shared those dreams — Claire received an invitation to join the academy’s selective year-round training program. It’s an opportunity that only a handful of dancers get each year, and one that has brought our entire family a constantly shifting stream of pride, fear, joy, anxiety, and more.

The pride part is easy. How could a parent not be proud of a daughter such as this? One that has such an innate grace? One that lights up a stage, whether she’s singing or acting or dancing? Or, especially, one that– even at such a young age — has such a clear-eyed focus and drive to live her dream, to become what she has always imagined becoming? It’s an amazing thing to behold, and I couldn’t be prouder.

Yet we are also faced with the hard fact that our young daughter, so much a part of our lives every day, will no longer be living here, that part of the cost of this opportunity for her is, in no small way, a loss for us. To be honest, there are times when I find myself surprised by the notion that our house will be without her, and it brings me up short — like the shock of cold water — and I find myself wondering what on earth we could be thinking. She, too, I think, has this same reaction from time to time, as she imagines how much she will miss her friends, her dog, her mom and dad, and her best friend — her brother. This parting — coming in January — unsettles us all.

There’s another cost to this opportunity, one that can be more readily quantified and measured. As it is a full-time residential academic and ballet academy — replete with not just some of the world’s best ballet instructors, but also accompanists, staff counselors, a nutritionist, a registered nurse, a physical therapist, teachers, classrooms, and more — the annual tuition exceeds what we might have expected to spend to send her to any number of private colleges. Such costs are not easily managed, at least not by a family like ours.

Yet dreams lead us where they will, and sometimes, if we choose to follow them, they lead us where we might not otherwise choose to go, and require us to make choices we otherwise would not make. This is what it is like for our family now. And while we are committed to this path and overjoyed at the opportunity our daughter has been given, we are also more than a little anxious about where it will lead us.

We have been blessed by many who have wished us well, and who have been moved by Claire’s drive, by one dancer’s dream. If you are so moved, we would greatly appreciate knowing that. And if you know someone else who you think might appreciate this story — someone who loves dance, or who believes in the power and potential of young girls, or who simply loves the idea of dreams coming true, please take a moment to share this post with them.

We’ve set up a scholarship fund for those who may be inclined to help Claire reach her dreams, or just would like to send her a note of encouragement.

One Dancer’s Dream

P.O. Box 11141

Blacksburg, VA 24062

Thanks again, and stay tuned. There will be much, much more to this story.

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