Category Archives: life

Lessons from the last world war

I’ve hardly been out of the condo for three weeks. Except for my wife, my last offline human interaction was five days ago with a grocery clerk. Every time I wash my hands, which is often, I feel like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” But I know I’m one of the lucky ones and hope everyone understands that yes, we are in this together.

The notion of a common enemy and shared sacrifice is simply foreign to most people in this country. Though the Cold War could have wiped out the world if it turned hot, and a few hard-core preppers even built their own fallout shelters, it generally didn’t affect daily life. Vietnam turned us against each other. Some compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, but except for the armed forces and their families, most people didn’t need to do much except take their shoes off at the airport. (Watching “Rescue Me” was optional.)

A collective effort of this magnitude hasn’t been asked of us since World War II. I know some of y’all are about to click away from yet another tribute to the Greatest Generation by one of its boomer children. History is made up of small stories, not big names. My dad’s story offers a few examples for today.

He joined the Army in the spring of 1942 and was assigned to the Air Corps, which was part of the Army then. At the age of twenty-nine he was considered too old to fly, so he was sent to clerical / administrative training in Colorado, then to an air base in Salt Lake City.

When he wrote to his family back in Elgin, Illinois, he always emphasized that he was fine and, “there are a lot of worse jobs in the Army.” He used his great sense of humor to ease the strain of separation, telling his sister how the Colorado post was built in 1888 and still had a regulation that said, “…it was positively against all rules and stuff to shoot buffalo from the barracks window.” He added, “Being in the Army isn’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think, though I wouldn’t be mad if I could get into my blue double-breasted pin stripe suit again.”

What he wanted most was for my mother to join him in Salt Lake City, even if it wasn’t like their old home. “It will be swell having her out here, or wherever I am, and although it won’t be like the place we had, anything will do until this thing is over. Practically everything we have is in cold storage, furniture, car, boat, everything except dreams…if we can keep those out we’ll be okay, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble doing that.”

A couple of weeks later he wrote to his parents, “There is an awful big show going on, and I’m glad to be a very very small part of it…All of this, like everything else, will come to an end some day, and if sitting here in this office pounding a typewriter all day and part of the night will help to bring that end about, this is where I belong, and I wouldn’t get out for anything, even if they’d let me.”

There’s not much I can add to that. Be safe and look out for each other even if you can’t hug each other. Don’t forget to laugh. This will pass. Take care.

Do not operate heavy equipment while reading this post

Being a writer takes purpose, a thick skin, and not least, concentration. To produce pages, I need to tune out the world and stay in the moment, focused on the story and absolutely nothing else. It makes me appreciate my grandmother’s favorite saying: “One thing at a time, and that done well, is a very good rule, as many can tell.”

I can’t imagine what she’d think of today’s vortex of tweets, texts, multitasking, and general chaos. She’d survive by drawing on the inner strength that carried her through the Depression and other very tough times. She certainly would not give a darn (her word) for self-care snake oil like this video on how to optimize your life.

After watching the thing several times, I’m still not sure if it’s a serious manifesto or a modest proposal but I’ll assume it’s real. Claiming the average person wastes 21.8 hours a week, it gushes, “This six minute video could add years to your life,” and offers various cures. Example: “If you order your coffee while you’re still at the gym, you can pick it up on your way to work practically without having to stop.” What if the place is busy or the barista accidentally gives you—shudder—decaf? You might lose five or ten whole minutes that you could’ve spent learning Ukrainian.

“Read a book while you cook, but not the whole book. There are services now that actually just give you the short version of the book. Same info, way less time.” Try reading a dictionary, pal. “Shorter” ≠ “Same.” It’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” not “A Tale of Two Townships.”

Finally, there’s this, which reads like the writer is on diet pills: “At the gym, check your emails on the bike while drinking a meal replacement shake with an added shot of MCT oil to stabilize the glucose in your bloodstream and prevent you from getting hungry until dinner or maybe ever again. You’re saving time and feeling great. And when you save time and feel great, you’re going to have more time and energy to plan out how to save more time and feel even better.”

This isn’t just snake oil, it’s a pyramid scheme. You multitask and keep one step ahead and plan how to multitask better and keep two steps ahead and plan more efficiently and get three steps ahead and cram more activity into each day and and optimize every last second. The treadmill never stops, let alone takes you to the top of the pyramid.

I’m not saying we should be slackers. All my life, I’ve tried to do each job a little better every day. I worked at being healthier too, because my family has a history of heart attack and stroke. But when I’m off the clock, whether at 5:00 or 9:00 or 3:00 the next morning, I’m done, son. My idea of optimizing is sitting on the porch with friends, listening to music, and drinking beer. What good is adding years to your lifespan if you’ve forgotten how to spend them?

It’s a safe bet that when your optimized life nears its end, you won’t pine for videos and MCT. You will slowly turn your head toward the window and notice the colors of the new grass and the morning sky. You’ll hear a whole gang of birds, each with its own cheerful call, and watch some kids zipping by on bikes, laughing and hooting for no particular reason. You’ll decide this would be a fine time to sit under that big tree with a real full-length book and….

“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy” – Simon and Garfunkel

Un visiteur grincheux dans le grand pas si facile, or A grumpy visitor in the big not-so-easy

My wife and I just returned from a jazz education conference in the city where jazz was born, the one that greets the suckers tourists with the slogan “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” or “let the good times roll.” However, after a few days in the conference hotel, les bon temps became le mauvais moment* instead. Here’s the scoop.

  1. After driving for two days, we unpack a little, lie down to rest — and find that our bed is like cement. The front desk offers us another room, but we have to trek around to find a decent bed, then repack and schlepp our stuff. When we try to take a shower in room number two, we have…
  2. No hot water! The desk claims, “the engineers are working on the boiler,” which was probably built when Louis Armstrong was a baby and definitely should’ve been patched up before.
  3. There’s no place to hang hand towels, and we can’t reach them without bending down and riling up our backs. Worse, the shower lacks a grab bar for anyone who’s a little unsteady. Note to hotel: not all guests are young and physically flawless.
  4. We grab some chips and get slapped with an outrageous markup, even by New Orleans standards: jacked up from $4.69 to $8.99. Did I mention that the people at the conference are jazz musicians, educators, and students, none of whom have extra cash?
  5. We lie down for the night and have – wait for it – No heat either! Which we need, because despite the sweltering summers, NOLA gets chilly in winter. We pile on some blankets and try to sleep, but…
  6. In the room right above ours, two young sax players are blowing, in both senses of the word. It takes two calls to the desk before security can quiet them down.
  7. Still no hot water or air next morning. Desk says “noon” for a fix. Guess what?
  8. The lobby and common areas are drenched in some noxious freshener / scent / perfume. Just because it’s New Orleans doesn’t mean it should smell like a cheap cathouse, though of course that’s the best kind. (NOT that I have any firsthand knowledge of such a place. Truly. Really! Just a bit of literary license here. Okay??)

In the end, the hotel owned up to the problems and gave us a free night, which we greatly appreciated. Also, the buffet had world-class bread pudding and grits. (And we found the best king cake in town right up the street.)

I’m not as touchy as I sound. I just don’t like having to struggle with the details of life, especially when it puts the damper on something I love, like music. Forget the bon temps: from now on, my personal slogan is, “Go Ahead and Complain. It Might Be Good for You.”

*A bad time (which you probably figured out).

The kindness of non-strangers

So you made it through the holiday. Congrats, but don’t stay happy for long! Seeing as how you’re a Real American, it’s time to shed the mindset of celebration and take up the mantle of guilt and self-improvement. New Year’s resolutions? Dude, like soooo last millennium! According to the poohbahs of pop-psych, what you need to do in 2020 is be kinder to yourself.

I’ve always thought of myself as the kind kind (and modest about it), but this one has thrown a whole set of wrenches into my gearbox. Here’s how the ideas in the article shake out for me.

Take more time for yourself. I’m retired. I’ve taken a whole life for myself. Not that it’s all chocolates and violins, because reaching retirement age means the spirit often makes promises the body can’t keep. I’ve become very familiar with “Pill Hill,” the part of Atlanta overrun by medicos and hospitals. I’ll probably be dead to the world long before the ball drops in Times Square. But I can’t figure out how to retire from retirement.

Take time to do nothing at all. See above. Besides, what’s “nothing?” Does that mean sitting in my recliner reading the good books I got for Christmas? That’s “something.”

Cultivate more casual, low-stakes friendships. The article hints, “Think of the parents you see in the drop-off line at school. Your favorite bartender. The other dog owners at the park.” I’m way too old for kids, don’t have a dog, and haven’t had a favorite bar or tender in years. And “casual, low-stakes” sounds like “friends with benefits,” which is NOT on my horizon.

Learn to enjoy things when they’re good because, “Worrying about when ‘the other shoe will drop’ will only steal your current joy.” Well, maybe. But this runs up against the fundamental nature that’s gotten me this far in life, summed up by John Cale in “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” The other size nine is always out there, like an asteroid that could blast our world right into the cosmic corner pocket. I will remain my own toughest critic and like a boxer will protect myself at all times. So sue me.

Learn to accept a compliment—even if it’s from yourself. “Dave, if I say so yourself, this is truly one of your best posts. It’s witty, timely, and not too long. It should yield a bounty of likes, hits, and clicks to start the New Year.”

Yield a bounty? Who the hell taught you to write? Go back to the recliner and let me finish this before you kill what’s left of our reputation. My advice to me is to recall what James Thurber wrote in response to the self-improvement loonies of the 1930s: “Let Your Mind Alone!” Okay, we’re done. That’s still not too long, is it?”

Fords and Ferraris, forever

Dear Dad,

I hope you enjoyed the movie as much as I did. You weren’t sitting in the theater, but you were with me the way you’ve been for fifty-plus years now, and especially since I heard about the film “Ford v Ferrari” a few weeks ago.

That title could’ve been taken straight from our lives. After all, our Ford and Ferrari battled it out on the racetrack many times. We also had a Mustang, a Corvette, and a Jag, but the Cobra and the bright red Ferrari were our favorites. And racing was racing. It didn’t matter that the track was plastic, laid out on a table in the basement, and the electric “slot cars” were only a few inches long.

We sure had fun down there. I remember hitting full power at the starting line, fighting to get around the loop without spinning out, tearing down the back stretch, and blasting through the last turn to the finish. I also recall when we saw a real race at the state fair, sitting in bleachers with those monster Indy 500 cars of the ‘60s screaming past us on a dirt track, the noise deafening and the dirt flying.

I didn’t care who won. Just being there was enough. We never kept score in the basement either, because there was always time for one more heat. Until that day in February when I was fourteen and suddenly there was no more time for anything.

For a long time afterward, I felt like I was driving on an endless course at night, running blind in the darkness. But as you taught me, I kept going and came out intact in the demolition derby that was high school. My career as a journalist and wordsmith required me to race plenty of deadlines, and I’m proud to say they haven’t beaten me yet.

I hope you’d be proud too. I doubt that I could ever match your integrity, your big heart, and especially your gift for salesmanship, which I need now that I’m peddling a novel. But I can tell you that both of us married loving, intelligent, funny, wonderful women.

I’d give anything on earth if we could all be together in our old living room with you playing the piano and my wife singing something like “Moon River.” And if somehow we ever did see each other again, I’ll bet the track would be there waiting. Let’s go. You can have the Ferrari.

40 shades of Dave

I recently ran across one of those “copy and paste and play along” posts on Facebook, a list of questions to answer and share. This one was called “40 things about me,” but I’m too busy to wade through the whole bunch, and I’m betting a lot of y’all would tune me out somewhere around 13. So here’s the short list, or for those in my approximate age range, the Cliffs Notes / Reader’s Digest version of my life.

  1. Do you own a gun? No, I just sort of borrowed it from the sporting goods store.
  2. What do you drink in the morning? This question has a typo. It should be, “What, do you drink in the morning?” and the answer is “Usually.”
  3. Can you do 100 pushups? Maybe, but why would I want to?
  4. Age? I sure do, and brother, it’s a bear. Forget being 21 again; I’d settle for 59.
  5. Nick names? My only names are “David, “Dave,” and “Swan.” I am not called by “St. Nick,” “Nick the Greek,” “Nick Danger, Third Eye,” etc.*  
  6. Employed? I’m retired, self-employed, and freelance. Figure it out.
  7. Biggest downfall? I took a header off the porch at a rather young age after wrapping a red towel around my shoulders and deciding I was Superman.
  8. Worst pain ever? Writer’s block. That’s why I’m writing this instead of my novel. (Blogger’s block is a whole nother mess.)
  9. Do you like to dance? Love it, but I’m banned from doing so in seventeen states because I do it like this.
  10. Three drinks you drink? Sometimes. Other times four or five.
  11. Favorite color? Blue – no, yellow AAAAAAHHHHHHH!**
  12. Summer, winter, spring, or fall? I prefer Carole King and James Taylor’s version: “Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there / You’ve got a friend.” You do. Right here. 😊

*As a kid I was known as “Tito,” not for the Jackson brother or the Yugoslav dictator but Tito Francona, then with the Cleveland Indians and whose signature adorned my baseball mitt.
**The obligatory Monty Python reference.

Scooting through life

My wife and I recently drove from Atlanta to Detroit, a two-day interstate slog that covers several hundred miles and gets even longer when you try to avoid the endless work zone known as Ohio. Despite all that time on the road, the most enlightening part of the trip for me was a ride on the mean sidewalks of the Motor City, aboard a mobility scooter.

You’ve probably seen these at the big-box or the grocery store. Most often used by victims of stroke, arthritis, lung disease, and heart trouble, scooters can transform the quality of life for those with severe disabilities. My wife’s arthritis isn’t that bad but it makes long walks difficult, so her scooter was ideal for a jazz festival in Detroit, with four stages spread over several blocks.

A scooter like the one I rode

A few snarky commentators, especially in England, think some scooter users are lazy sods who just don’t feel like walking. This, as they say in the UK, is bollocks. As I learned the day I retrieved the scooter from the hotel, no one would climb on these things if they had any choice.

First of all, scooters don’t have shocks. Every little crack and rough spot in the pavement goes straight to the seat, and big holes really rattle your teeth. I felt like I was bouncing all the way to the festival. Second, your carefree way of walking is over. You can’t just cross the street; you have to look for the cutout curb. And good luck getting through a non-automatic door.

Navigating a crowd is a struggle because of all the nubs* with their eyes glued to screens and their earbuds in so they won’t even hear your bell. You’re constantly slowing down, speeding up, and shifting left or right to keep from bumping somebody. On top of that, you have to watch for little kids running loose and big ones breezing past you on those dumb two-wheel scooters, which they later drop in the middle of the sidewalk and block your path. The speed control allows you to putter along at a good clip, but between crowds and bad concrete, I could’ve gone faster on foot.

All of this can be stressful, even if you’re not already coping with a serious disability. I’ll never take mobility for granted again.

The next time you see someone on a scooter, please understand that it’s a necessity, not an indulgence. Open the door for them. Ask if you can help with their bags. And all of us should insist that people with disabilities receive accommodations. We were told the jazz festival didn’t reserve space at concerts for fans who use wheelchairs or scooters. Think we’ll make that long drive to Detroit again?


*A dense, spectacularly clueless person. Derived from Navy jargon: “non-usable body.”