CYW/OB Accomplished

Homer

Last summer, I wrote a piece about being by myself in a house on Cape Cod. At one point in my life, that would also have meant consuming alcoholic beverages throughout the evening. I never considered myself to be an alcoholic, but I never passed up the chance to have a drink, either. Alcohol was a part of my life, and I thought that was never going to change.

And then, beginning in late 2010, it did change. I gave up drinking for good in the summer of 2011, and passed the one year point without any alcohol sometime last summer. I wish I had done it a decade or two earlier, but what’s done is done. May my liver not take it out on me at some point in the future.

Now that 2012 is over, I’ve just completed my first calendar year without booze (or CYW/OB, as I’m calling it), since either 1982 or 1983. That’s nearly 30 years which–I don’t think I have to tell anyone–is an awfully long time.

My goal at one point in life was to live somewhere–anywhere–longer than I had lived in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois. I passed that goal a few years ago, and I haven’t had a similar one since, until now. Since I once drank for almost 30 years, and now I don’t do it any more, I’d like to go at least 30 years without having a drink. That’s something that could very well take me to the end of my life, and I’m willing to commit to that if that turns out to be the case.

Going through a calendar year without having a drink isn’t such a big deal, when viewed through this lens. But I’m going to mark it anyway, in the hope that there are more years just like it in my future. And there certainly were enough years that went the other way for me.

Feels something like summertime

Today is the final day of Summer for my family and I. It doesn’t start on Memorial Day, like most people’s summer does, because my kids are in school until the middle of June. This year, it was almost as though summer began in March, when it hit 90 degrees on the day of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago. Welcome to the brave new post-glacier world we’re living in.

I had a blast this summer, and there are 100 pieces of it posted in this space for anyone who wants to know why. I took a trip to Cape Cod, a trip to Florida, and to a theme park, and to the race track, and, as always, to places in my life that no longer exist. Summer is the best season of all, and this year was certainly no exception.

So now, as fall returns and the school routine may or may not set in (depending of whether or not there’s a teacher’s strike in Chicago), I’m happy that I recorded some bits and pieces of it along the way. Those parts of the Summer will still continue on, long after its final sunset happens about four hours from now.

.

Remembering the places we’ve been

When we moved into our house many years ago, there were some corkboard squares on the wall in a corner of the basement. They seemed to be crying out for something to cover them up, and so I put up a world map on the left side, and a United States map on the right. And that was just the beginning of the decoration.

Our family travels have taken us far and wide over the years: Arizona, Virginia, South Dakota, New York City, and on and on. And whenever we’re on a trip, I like to pick up postcards from a gift shop at least once. But I don’t really send them to anyone. Instead, I take them home as souvenirs, and tack them up on the maps that are down in our basement. They’ve become something of a dynamic scrapbook, reminding anyone who should happen to come by of the places we’ve been over the years.

Before these postcards get tacked up in the basement, there’s one thing that must be done first. One of my daughters has to write “I love you Daddy” and sign their name, along with the year that we visited the place on the postcard. This serves two purposes: it allows my daughters to personalize the postcard themselves, and it clears up any future confusion about when the trip was made. I’d rather head off any controversy in advance.

One day these postcards will probably make me very sad, when I think about how young they once were. But doing this now, in the moment, is very important to me. Simply put, I won’t be able to recreate these after the fact, so it’s best to do this while I can still get them to fill the postcards out for me.

Our most recent trip was two wonderful summer weeks on Cape Cod. The extra week allowed us to do things we might not otherwise consider, such as taking the ferry over to Martha’s Vineyard. We rented convertibles and spent the day seeing the sights from a more interesting perspective than a tour bus would have afforded.

Cape Cod postcards are nothing new anymore, since we’ve gone there a few times previously, so I decided a postcard from the island would work instead. I scanned it after we returned home, and it appears at the top of  this post. My younger daughter has signed it and added the date, as requested.

With the formalities now out of the way, the card will be in the basement from later this evening, until a day hopefully far off in the future.  It will be an ongoing reminder of the island and the convertibles and the fun that we have together as a family. And there’s no better way of decorating some space in the basement.

Jake-on-the-spot

It’s now two months away from the Bruce Springsteen show at Wrigley Field. Now that my much-anticipated trip to Cape Cod is over, that’s the next big thing I have to look forward to.

The Cubs are usually how I mark my time in the summer, and that won’t work this year. The heat wave that we’re in the middle of makes all outdoor things seem unpleasant. And we’re without another holiday for the rest of July and all of August. Welcome to the dog days of Summer.

But when September rolls around, things will look up. My kids could be back in school (unless there’s a teachers’ strike, as I’m nearly certain there will be). Springsteen’s playing at Wrigley, and my Dad and brother and I are going to a Cubs game in Wrigley the week after that. So I’ll just use these things as the lights at the end of the tunnel.

Two of the very first posts I wrote in this space a year ago had to do with Clarence Clemons. The day I heard about his stroke, I put together a piece about how he might never again play with the E Street Band onstage. It was then that I realized I didn’t have to wait to be told about what events mean, but I could use my blog as a tool to get my own thoughts about the news out, in real time.

I’ve done a few other posts like that in the mean time, where I commented on something that had happened without first waiting for the media to tell me what had happened. I will say that’s an extraordinarily empowering feeling.

The media in this country wants to fill up our minds with their take on the events that happen. The “news” always comes from the same place, with the same perspective, and we’re just expected to wait for it, internalize it, and then consider ourselves to be “informed citizens” as a result. But I’d rather think for myself, especially when it comes to things that I care about.

Which is why I’m writing about Jake Clemons with this post. After Clarence Clemons passed away, just over a year ago, I wondered whether Springsteen and his band would ever play live again, and if they did it would never again be the same, for the band and its fans. But what I didn’t know at the time was that another Clemons–Clarence’s nephew, Jake Clemons–was waiting in the wings, ready to do what needed to be done. And I’m very excited to see what it’s like with him onstage in two months’ time.

Nobody is going to say that he has replaced “the Big Man.” That couldn’t be done. But the fact that he is related to Clarence, and is apparently a very fine musician in his own right, is a welcome development. He seems to fit in well with Bruce and the others, if the picture above is any indication. I’m sure that I’ll yell and holler when the Clarence tribute comes during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but for the rest of the show I’ll listen to Jake–and the other additions to the E Street Band–and remind myself that life does go on, just as it always has.

Jake Clemons hasn’t been profiled, that I’ve seen, in Rolling Stone or Newsweek or any of the other media outlets that are going to someday “announce” his presence to the rest of us. But, again, I’m going to get a jump on that process. When these stories finally are written, it won’t be news to me.

I’ve been reading online descriptions of Springsteen’s shows in Europe this summer, and it sounds like Jake has come into his own already, which is just remarkable, considering how everyone probably wants him to be the next Clarence Clemons. But he’s doing just fine, it appears, with becoming the first Jake Clemons. And that’s going to bring an added dimension to Springsteen’s stateside shows, beginning in Fenway Park next month.

September 7 can’t get here soon enough for me.

What I love about this place

Friday morning, Wellfleet, Mass.

I’ve been here on the Outer Cape for the past two weeks, and today is my last full day here. I’m not looking forward to getting back to my life in Chicago, but I have to do it. My home is there, my kids are in school there, and every tangible possession that I own is there, as well. And the credit cards have taken a pounding in the time I’ve been here, so that has to be paid for, somehow.

But still….

I’ve packed several months of living, at least, into the past two weeks here. I’ve written about some of it here, and will hold some of the stories in my memory and try to do them justice when I get back home. Summarizing this trip, in my limited time on the public computers of the Wellfleet Public Library, seems like a fool’s errand. Luckily, I’m just foolish enough to give it a try.

What I love about Cape Cod is the beauty of this place. Everywhere you look, there’s something where I tell myself “There’s a pretty sight. Someone could put this on a postcard with the words “CAPE COD” on it and I’d want to buy it for a souvenir.” I haven’t actually sent a single postcard on this trip, but I have bought a few postcards to take home and remind myself of this place.

I’ve also tried to take some pictures with my camera phone, but the memory on my SD card has long since been filled up. But pictures can’t do this place justice, anyway. I don’t have a picture of my own to share right now anyway, and I’ll probably just end up borrowing one from the internet to share with this post, anyway. But take my word for it, this is a truly lovely place.

And it’s not just the visuals that make this a special place. There are sounds that I hope will stay with me after I head out tomorrow morning. There’s the gentle lapping of the waves on Mayo Beach, or the crashing of the ocean waves on the ocean beaches, or even the ringing of the bells that are meant to indicate when its low tide or high tide.

There are also the smells of the ocean, and the unmistakable activity that takes place in the many shellbeds around town. It’s the smell of death, in a sense, but it also reminds me that the ocean and the bay aren’t like life on the land. The sand dunes that this town and all the others are built on are not “land” in the sense that I know it, and perhaps that you know it, but are just the place where the water runs out of space. Or maybe where the water occupies at high tide, and then flows away from at low tide. But the water leads around here, and humanity does what it can in the spaces in between.

And the sensory feelings in this place can’t be overlooked, either. The winds that blow in off of the water are unlike anything I’ll experience back in the Windy City that I call home. Taking the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard took about a half an hour on the water, but in that time I understood how life on a boat could seem so appealing. I have read the parts of Moby Dick where Herman Melville describes life on the sea better than I ever could, but feeling the breezes, on land or on the water, is something that defies an easy description. But we’d all be better off for experiencing it.

And the last of the senses, the one that comes through the tastebuds on our tongues, is also satisfied here. I’m not much for seafood, generally, but the taste of the sea that comes from oysters or lobsters or clams seems more intense here than it ever does back in Illinois. And, perhaps just as importantly, I’ve discovered the taste of linguica  on this trip. I realize it isn’t a seafood, but it’s a Portuguese staple, and the Portuguese community is one of the few that has never made inroads in Chicago. So come tomorrow, my chances of finding this spicy sausage variety back home will be approximately zero. I miss it already.

I hope that everybody reading this either has, or someday will, understand what I’m talking about when it comes to Cape Cod, and the outer Cape in particular. But for now, I’ll leave this place with lots of fond memories, and the sincere hope that I’ll be back again someday. And the sooner, the better.

My favorite founder, and a place that shares his name

Friday morning, Paine Hollow, Wellfleet, Mass.

No American ever had a better year than Thomas Paine did in 1776. That’s a pretty presumptuous thing to say, but I believe it, all the same. And since I’m the jury on this one, nobody’s going to change my mind about it, either.

Paine was plucked out of obscurity in England by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is someone I’ve always admired, simply because he was the most prominent American at the time of the Revolution. The king would have loved to make an example out of Franklin for his treason against the British crown. But Franklin added his name to the Revolutionary cause, and that took a lot of courage which I’ll never take for granted. But his suggestion that Paine should cross the Atlantic was an even greater gift to the cause of independence from Great Britain.

I’m on Cape Cod for another week, and even if it’s not where the battles of 1775 were fought, it’s hard not to feel the history in this place. And so, as I’ve driven by signs on Route 6 pointing motorists toward Paine Hollow, I knew I had to come and see it at some point. And this morning I finally did it.

I don’t know for certain that Paine Hollow is named after the author of Common Sense and the man who is thought to have coined the phrase ‘The United States of America.” I’m going to act on this assumption, though, because the name isn’t a very common one. So, as far as I know, someone once appreciated Paine’s contribution to the American cause–that of writing words that were traitorous and treasonous and could have resulted in his execution had the Revolution gone a different way–enough to name a shell bed on Cape Cod in his honor.

Old Paine Hollow Road resembles a driveway more than anything else. You drive along it, hoping that you haven’t wandered on to someone’s driveway by mistake. And eventually it just comes to a dead end, high up above a scene that I wish I could properly describe. I’ll do my best, but it won’t do it justice. Not even close.

The tides come in here on Cape Cod, and they go back out again. And when they do, they leave behind sandy beaches filled with hermit crabs. The crabs scurry away at the site of anyone coming, which gives them their name, I suppose. There’s a line of dead grasses to mark where the water was the night before, and as you walk on the beach you try to imagine what it must look like when the tide is in and there’s water everywhere.

Nature calls the tune at a place like this, and people just have to live with it. They build houses–very large houses, that I could see–up on bluffs, overlooking the hollow itself. But there’s no disturbing what nature does in this space. Not only are shellfish harvested and sold to markets and restaurants, but the cycle of life perpetuates itself, day after day, century after century, for as long as we’re all fortunate enough to be here.

I live in a city that raised itself up, literally, out of a swampy marsh. I also live near a place where the flow of a river was reversed, so that sewage could float away from the Great Lakes rather than into it. I work in an office building that defines urban sprawl, meaning that a parking lot sits where birds and other wildlife once roamed free. So this type of cooperation with nature, and even deference to it, is refreshing to me. And it just happens to be named for my favorite founding father, to boot. I like it.

Paine may or may not have ever seen this particular place, but he would probably identify with it if he had. Suburban sprawl around Houston or Phoenix or Las Vegas, he wouldn’t recognize. But this place he would. And I have to believe that’s the best tribute to him of all.

I love a good used bookstore

Lincoln never fails to inspire me. He’s more than just my middle name, although he is that as well. He’s the inspiration behind several things I’ve written in this space. And when I’m in a bookstore, as I was yesterday, I always know what subject to look for. And, fortunately, Lincoln books are always available to be had.

I was in a bookstore on Cape Cod yesterday. It’s the kind of place that couldn’t survive in too many places anymore. But, fortunately, a mix of locals with a literary bent, and an influx of tourists like me who want something to read at the beach, conspire to keep the place going. And that’s the sort of a world I want to be in, to be honest about it.

Wal-mart comes in and puts book chains out of business. Or Amazon comes along and gives readers a whole lot more choices than even the largest used bookstore can offer. Or, most disastrously of all, words printed on a page lose ground–slowly but steadily–to e-readers and other electronic devices. All of these factors put pressure on a book store like the one I was in yesterday. But they keep going, as if to thumb their nose at the forces arrayed against them. And I say good on them for doing so.

I had a range of perhaps five or six Lincoln books to choose from, and I wanted to get more than the one that I got. But I picked out Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson, and I’m working my way through it, whenever time at the beach or late nights in the summer cabin allow for it. I’ve already learned some things I didn’t know, such as that the version of Lincoln’s Farewell Address to Springfield in 1861 isn’t actually the way he delivered the speech to the people assembled on that day.

I have another week here on Cape Cod, which should be more than enough time to finish off the book. And, if possible, I’ll go back and pick up something else on my way out of town. It’s for a good cause, after all.

Life’s too short to be sorry

Wednesday morning, Wellfleet, Mass. Summer vacation stretches endlessly before me, even if I know that’s not the case. Summer is never endless, except in a few places that I wouldn’t want to live. And vacation, well, if it were endless I could never afford to take one. But it sure felt that way earlier this morning.

I drove to the beach–a pond beach, if anyone really wants to know–and parked under a shady tree. The afternoon was supposed to be hot, and anything that can be done to plan for it is a good thing. I crossed the street, careful to avoid the cyclists that were buzzing through the streets, and walked down a staircase toward the water.

At the bottom of the staircase, there was a narrow strip of sand maybe four feet wide. There were two blankets placed on the sand, one of which was unoccupied and one which was in use by a skinny boy of about nine or ten. He saw I was coming, got up and said “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t really in a hurry, and I could have walked around him without any trouble at all. In fact, that was just as I was planning to do.

I saw something of myself in this kid, even though I have no idea of who he was and what his story is. But I was once a kid who felt like everything was bad and I was doing something wrong. In the intervening years, I have learned that it’s no way to live.

And so I looked at the kid, gave him a not-to-worry smile, and said “Life’s too short to be sorry.” And I meant it, too. From the time I was his age, until this morning’s walk toward the pond beach, I’ve seen plenty of examples to support that premise. And whether or not this kid really felt bad, he had no reason to do that, and I wanted him to know this.

Was I saying that there’s never any reason for remorse? Not at all. When other people are hurt by our actions, then some genuine remorse is called for. But from my perspective, the sort of reflexive apology that this young kid offered to me this morning has no real meaning.

He smiled back at me as I was walking past, and that was the end of our encounter. Whether he ever thinks about it again, I can’t say. But as for me, and the experiences I’ve gained over the past decades of living, I wish someone would have pointed out how short life is. And how important it is to feel good about yourself while you’re here.

The truth is that you can spend as much of your life as you want to feeling bad about yourself and what you’re doing on this earth. Or, you can take a different approach altogether. You’re in your little part of the world, and I’m in mine. There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, most likely, and so offering up empty words like “I’m sorry” don’t really help either of us out very much.

I have come to the reasoned position that most apologies, whether sincere or not, are just a waste of breath. What’s worse, they cheapen the words for those times when they truly are called for.

If ever I write a book, which is about as likely as me swallowing this computer keyboard whole, I want it to have the same name as this post. Because I apologized to everyone and everyone, whether I needed to or not, for several decades over the course of my life. And not one of these apologies ever changed a thing.

So say whatever you’re going to say, young man on a beach in Cape Cod, but don’t say that you’re sorry. I don’t need to hear it, and you don’t need to say it. And for anyone else who may ever come upon this, please do likewise. We’ll both be better off for it.

Finding some magic in the kitchen

Sometimes parenting takes patience, or creativity, or understanding. Sometimes it requires a combination of all these things, and sometimes it requires something else altogether. It’s an ever-changing puzzle, trying to get a handle on what a child needs. And once in a while, it makes for a good story. Such was the case with my eight-year old this morning.

She and her cousins and a friend were playing outside, in a wooded area on Cape Cod. They were putting out food that fairies would want to eat. Somehow, the rule was that things people would eat wouldn’t be appealing to the fairies. My daughter was getting frustrated that she didn’t have anything to offer the fairies, and I knew that she needed a little help.

I was in the process of making french toast for the fairy food providers, and I had a full array of foods at my disposal. The problem was that if we could eat it, it was off limits to the fairies. But, uncertain of how it would all play out, I called my daughter into the house.

“What’s the matter, Sweetheart?” I asked, having some idea of the issue, but still curious to hear what she would say.

“I don’t have anything that the fairies want to eat,” she said, on the verge of tears.

“Well, let’s see what we have in the kitchen.”

“OK.”

I knew that  I was on the clock. I scanned the food cupboard and focused, like a laser, on some beef bouillon cubes inside a glass jar. I decided that was going to have to do.

“Oh, look at this, all wrapped up in pretty red foil,” I offered, confidently. “The fairies will love this.”

“What is that?”

“It’s bouillon, sweetie.” I left out the beef part, because humans eat beef, and we couldn’t have that.

“Can you eat it?” she asked, clearly unaware of what the cubes were for, but willing to consider what I was going to say.

“I wouldn’t eat that if you gave me all the money in the world.”

The tears had stopped falling, and her mood brightened considerably.

After breaking through the inner seal and extracting a red cube of fairy food, I placed it in her hand and she was on her way back outside. The crisis was over, and in a few minutes’ time everyone assembled on the patio for a breakfast of french toast and lemonade. And there was no need to worry about the fairies wanting any of that.

The kids moved on to something else after breakfast. For all I know, the fairies may never be spoken of again. But if they should happen to come back again, I’ll know just what food to offer them.