Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Do yourself a favor and watch.  So much of our lives seem to be about the opposite.  Looking our for number one, working against the other guy to get ahead.  If we spent just a little more effort giving, we would receive so much more.  My class is working on a fundraiser for Harvest Hope Food Bank.  While preparing our presentation for a conference last week, my students and I pored through our writings and they condensed thoughts about giving, thankfulness, caring;  their thoughts to me about what they think of the project.  I am so humbled to work with littles.  

"The day people stop looking out for themselves first will be the end of the world. "
author unknown

If that's true, then the end won't be so bad as we may think.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

For Jack

For Jack

When we got to the hospital, my dad was in a coma. I heard the news before I left home that day, making my way to the Chicago hospital where he lay dying. I reached his room around 9:30. My mom and most of my brothers and sisters were already there and even some nieces and nephews, most of whom were too young to understand what was going on, that their grandpa was dying. I knew that he was going soon. It was inevitable. Soon.

In my mind I knew that a quick end would be better for him and for my mom and for all of us who loved him. In my heart I wanted to see him just one last time, to look into his eyes and make contact, to tell him just once more how much he meant to me. To tell him once again that I loved him. I hadn’t said that often enough.

As I pushed open the door of the hospital room, my family’s sadness hit me like a wave. I cried. The man I knew as my dad was no longer there, or if he was, he was so deep inside that communication wasn’t possible. I cried – more for myself than him. I cried. He was no longer in pain, no more aware of the body that had betrayed him after just a little more than 64 years. He’d never hear me say that I loved him ever again. I never told him that enough. I cried for all those times I never told him. I cried the selfish tears of one who realizes too late the power of words never spoken. I cried at the realization of how fleeting life is. I cried for opportunities lost, for conversations cut short, for him never seeing the family that Heidi and I would have some day.

I sat by his bed and my tears fell into the sheets. I stroked his soft brown hair, something I had never done before. I looked into his eyes that were open, but didn’t look back.

Memories emerged as they still do, all these years later. Images of my childhood and young adulthood. Pictures of my parents as the younger, energetic couple they were when I was a kid. I remembered.

My two older brothers and me wrestling with my dad on his warm Saturday morning bed. He was the biggest, strongest man in the world. If he could take us on, he could beat an army. Shrieks of laugher as one of the “Three Stooges” fell out of bed.

“You snore like a lion!”

“I’ve never heard myself snore.”

“How could you?”

My father driving the boat with my little brother Danny skiing behind. “Hang on, Danny!” Dan couldn’t have more than five or six that summer he learned to ski. He had the most incredible mixture of fear and joy on his face. That old yellow boat rode low in the water. My dad’s back and arms were hairy and freckled. Dan, whose nose was covered in summertime freckles did hang on. For miles. My dad beamed with pride. I was a little jealous.

My dad drove the boat like a crazy man at times. We loved it if someone else was skiing. We were a little afraid when we were the ones behind the boat. The sun sparkled on those Lake Michigan waves and the sun was hot on our feet on the beach. My dad’s sunglasses were horn-rimmed. The hair on his arms was golden, I remember. His hair was wavy when it was long. His hair was brown and never really turned gray. His eyes were pale, watery blue.

One summer when I was about 11 my father and I built a porch on that old summerhouse. It was pretty amazing. We used scraps of wood and some used windows he had scavenged somewhere. He could have asked my brothers to help. It would have made the project go much faster. But that didn’t bother us. He was on vacation and he was spending it with me building a porch on that old wet basement. We took plenty of breaks and drank cold root beer on those sweltering summer days. I pretended it was real beer like he used to drink.  He made me feel like a man doing a man's work.

That porch looked a little rough. None of the lines were straight and the angles were far from ninety degrees but it was functional and when we painted it, the little walled off porch didn’t look half bad. It was my dad’s vacation project and I was proud that he had spent so much time with me. I should have told him how I felt about that time; how happy I was and how much I enjoyed laughing with him and watching him measure and draw lines with the flat red carpenter’s pencil. I should have told him that it was the best part of that summer for me. But I never did. Maybe when he thought back on that time, he remembered it the way I did and wished that he had told me how much it meant to him.

When I was in junior high, my family gave my dad a beat up Model A Ford for his birthday. We thought that restoring that it would make another nice project for him. He seemed pleased with the car and began restoring it right away. We hauled it to the summerhouse and stored it in the garage. That old timey garage was too small to hold a real car anyway. It had a wooden floor and I was always a bit afraid that the car would fall through. It never did.

I remember going with my dad to pick up an engine that someone had rebuilt. He paid the man $35 for it. My dad pinched the bills as he plucked them from his wallet. He always did that to make sure that there weren’t any bills stuck together. He never did get around to completely finishing the Model A project. We kept it for a few years but he did finally get it to run. I don’t think I ever saw him more pleased than when he finally got it going. It sputtered, backfired and shook as he drove it around the block. I can still see him in a grungy old t-shirt, gray-blue smoke billowing out the back, that big old Irish grin on his ruddy face, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

One time I went on a business trip with my father when I was a junior in high school. It was during my spring break. My dad did a lot of driving for his job. He was really good at it. He was a representative for a big steel mill in northwest Indiana, Inland Steel Company. He made lot of calls to deal with concerns about the steel. When I was younger I thought my dad drove for a living. In a way I guess he did. He had the most amazing sense of direction. He rarely looked at a map and seemed to feel his way around new places. He was one of those guys who never asked for directions, even if it was probably just the right thing to do. A matter of pride I suppose.

We were on a dusty Indiana country road in LaPort County when my dad recognized the area. I’m not sure why we were country roading, surely there was a more direct way home. Maybe he just wanted to spend more time with me. I like to think that’s what it was. I was bored from riding in the car all day. But it had been fun – just the two of us. He took me out to lunch at some greasy spoon out in the country. I felt very adult, very special. As we left the restaurant, he put some dinner mints in his pocket for my brothers. He often did that.

I perked up a little and looked away from my book when I saw him becoming enthusiastic. “Somewhere around here,” he mumbled as we drove by farmhouses in the hazy Indiana evening. “There!” he said with excitement. “I knew I’d been here before. That’s where my father was born. This is the farm where he grew up!”

I didn’t realize at the time just how important that moment was. I didn’t know all these years later that I would remember that sunset, that dusty road, his ruddy face and wind blown hair. It was one of the few times he ever talked about his family. But he did talk that evening. It was as if a door to some part of him had been opened. He told me about his grandfather who was killed on that farm, kicked in the head by a mule. He told me about going there when he was a kid. He hadn’t been that way for so many years that he couldn’t even remember. There was a light in his eyes, a sparkle. I wish I had tapped into his energy more, asked him more questions.

My father dropped me off at college my freshman year. I was exited about leaving home. And more than a little scared. One of my best friends from high school was living in the same dorm. So was my girlfriend. It was the independence I had dreamed of. But I was frightened as well. I grew up in a big family. Seven kids. There was always someone to hang around with, someone to tease. I was used to being surrounded by siblings and my boys from the neighborhood. It was scary to think of living hours away from home. To talk to my mom and my little brother it would be long distance.  Long distance.

We talked about the old days on the four-hour trip. It’s funny how there could even be “old days” when you’re 18 and starting out on your own. I sensed that he was sad at seeing me leave home. I would be back of course. I planned on working in his steel mill the next summer, but this was the first real step toward my being on my own. He helped me move my few possessions to the sweaty dormitory room.

“You’ve got your meal ticket, right?”

“Sure,” I said, starting to get choked up.

“You’ve got some spending money?”

“A little. I don’t need much.” I was trying to act brave but on the inside I was falling apart. I was missing my dad already.

“Here.” He pinched out two twenties. “Don’t tell your mother I gave you this.” It was funny. My mom was by far the more generous one. “And call us if you need anything. Anything at all. Person-to-person for yourself and we’ll call you back.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I wasn’t going to cry in front of him. It was hard.

“C’mon, Bub,” he said. Then he hugged me. Tight. He wasn’t a very hugging guy. I didn’t ever remember him hugging me. Maybe that’s why it meant so much. Maybe that’s why I still remember it. I walked him back to his car. When his car turned the corner I cried.

A few months before he was diagnosed with cancer, my mom and dad visited the first grade classroom at R. Earle Davis Elementary in Cayce, SC where I taught. He was very sick and didn’t know it yet. His hips were sore and his appetite was down. He was looking thin but his color was good. “Just feeling my age,” he said, almost apologetically.

I can see him now, sitting in one of the tiny first grade chairs with the children gathered around my mom and him asking questions. “What kind of naughty things did Mr. O’Keefe do when he was little?”

“Mr. O’Keefe was a pretty good little boy,” my dad answered. “He’s a good son.” There were times I had not been such a good son, such a good little boy.  I knew. By then we had grown to love each other in the quiet way that grown-ups do. In the way that fathers and sons do when they can forget the arguments and the angst, the disobedience and the lack of respect.

I am so thankful that he forgave me for my teenage transgressions. When I think of him in that little tiny chair, I am so proud of him. He had just retired from the mill and looking ahead to a long and happy retirement.

At Christmastime we knew that my dad had cancer. We knew that he didn’t have much more time with us. We knew that the end would not be pleasant. He came home from the hospital for Christmas. It might have been because my sister Ruthie would be there and that she was a doctor and could deal with the IV that he had to keep in the whole time. Or his doctor might just have had the good sense to see that what this man needed most was his last few days at home surrounded by his family. We played cards. We laughed precious laughs. We exchanged gifts. We looked into each other’s eyes.

He and I watched a movie together in his bedroom. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And we laughed. My big brother Pat was asleep in my dad’s leather easy chair. He was snoring lightly.  I was on the floor at the foot of the bed. My dad was in his bed, the IV on a pole next to the bed. We laughed. I’m glad that it was just the two of us awake. For a while, reality was suspended and we gave ourselves up to the movie. When it was over reality came crashing back over us. We didn’t have much time left.

That night I told my dad that I loved him. It was probably the first time since I was a little kid. I said that I was sorry for the ugly way I had treated him when I was younger and that he had to know how I felt. He said he was sorry for some things too. I think it was then that we admitted to ourselves that the end was close.

The evening before my dad went into the final coma I spoke with him on the phone. We talked of all the tests he had to have and he joked weakly about the awful hospital food. He had no appetite. My mom told me that he wasn’t eating. He sounded tired. The last thing I said to him before we hung up the phone was, “I really love you, Dad.”

“You too, Bub.”

I still picture him on that rickety old porch, a glass of wine in his hand. I remember sneaking into the house as a teenager and walking up the stairs in the dead of night. My father in his leather easy chair, asleep, snoring like a lion. Now when I look at my hands I see my father’s hands and in the mirror my father’s eyes. I am so blessed to have known this big, gentle man. I hope that some of his goodness has been passed down to me.

He died with relative peace and dignity. His pain was blessedly short. Most of his family was at his side. He never gave up. He was a strong man.

My dad was a simple guy. I think he had realistic expectations for us. Though he never said them quite this way, I think they were these: Do the best you can with what you have. Be honest. Earn your pay. Be as happy as you can be. I hope that I have lived up to his expectations.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

This I Believe

For the past couple of weeks my students and I have been working on persuasive essays.   This was partly to prepare for the writing test all third graders must take this time of year.  But another reason was to help them get in touch with what they believe.  We are calling them our Passion Pieces or our This I Believe pieces because we should all write something we are passionate about.  We should all believe in something.

Deciding on a passion doesn’t come easy for some young ones.  I mean everyone has a favorite toy, movie or video game.  My expectations for this project were a little higher.  So when I explained the project, I front loaded it with, “Let’s not do toys, movies or video games…”  We all took a week to consider. 

While I showed them the old 5 paragraph theme – PARAGRAPH 1) This is what I’m going to tell you,  PARAGRAPH 2-4) Here I am telling you,  PARAGRAPH 5) This is what I’ve just told you – I encouraged my young writers to go beyond that.  These pieces aren’t for the standardized test readers, we are writing for each other.  And in my mind we are writing for ourselves.  It is important for everyone to be passionate about something, to be stimulated by a topic, to feel the need to convince someone of something we feel strongly about. 

And so we wrote.  Here is my little piece about the importance of getting outdoors.

It was a rainy evening as Heidi and I pulled into the driveway of her colleague.  When we went inside people were drying off and socializing, putting away their soggy umbrellas and hugging.  One woman I had never met, a new faculty member, was holding forth about how miserable the hot, wet weather is in South Carolina.  She was just moving down from the North.  After we were introduced, she told me that she never goes outside except when she has to. 

“Really?” I asked, sure that she must have meant that she doesn’t like to go out in the rain, or when it is too hot or there is too much pollen.

“Nope, I don’t go outside at all.  I’m an indoors-kind-of-person.”  She said it so matter-of-factly.  She said it as if most people felt that way.  It rolled off her tongue as easily as if she were saying, “I don’t like brussel sprouts,” or “I never wear plaid.” 

“And I don’t open my windows either.  I stick to heating and air conditioning,” she went on.

While I was intrigued, I ended up sliding into a conversation with someone else I probably had more in common with.  I felt a few things at once.  First, “I’m not a _______ person,” never worked for me.  I am not a morning person, for example, means that you don’t like getting out of bed early.   Who does?  But it isn’t as though one comes hard wired that way. It doesn’t mean that one can’t change into a morning person if one wants to.  We have choices about who we are and who we want to become.  When people say, “I’m not a ________ person,” it’s as though they are boxing themselves into a character trait unnecessarily.   Go ahead, be a _______ person!

Another feeling I had was that this young woman was choosing to miss so much real life, so much adventure, beauty and excitement.  How crazy artificial it is to stay inside all the time.  The air she breathes comes from a vent in the floor or ceiling.  It is heated or air conditioned, filtered and blown by a fan.

What she is missing is air that is blown through leaves or over grassy meadows, or across a lake. She is missing the misty ocean breeze in her face, and the sunlight filtered through low clouds. 

What she smells is the perfumed smell of air “fresheners” and the leftover smells of her own cooking.  What she is missing is the real air freshened by flowers or leaf litter from a forest floor.  She is missing the muggy wetness of a humid summer day, moistening her skin along with her own natural perspiration. 

The temperature she feels all day long, winter, spring, summer or fall is always constant.  No matter what the weather in the real world, she is the same temperature all day and all night long.   What she doesn’t feel is the rain on her skin – or when she does it irritates her.  She doesn’t feel ice crystals bouncing off her jacket, or her hair blowing naturally in a stiff wind.   

What she hears is the sound of the TV or music from her stereo speakers or ear buds.  She hears YouTube on her computer or conversations on her cell phone.  And what she is missing by only staying indoors is the sound of real life, life beyond that created by humans.  She is missing real music: chorus frogs, leaves, crickets, cicadas, mocking birds and mourning doves, the breeze through bare branches, the crashing of waves, the buzz of bees. 

And the sights she chooses to miss by avoiding the real world?  She may see a televised science special on the cosmos, but she doesn’t look up at the night sky.  She might see a sunset at a film in a theater, but that would pale in comparison to being on a sand dune at the end of the day and watching the sun dip below the horizon as the earth turns away in its natural rotation. 

After the party was over it was still raining soft and warm.  And when we left that indoors party, I paused for a moment before getting into the car.  I put my face up to the sky and let that rain silk my skin.  Because I believe in being outside.  I believe in being a part of the real world.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014


How easy would it be to write a piece about Ted Nugent? 

I wonder if the guy has ever said anything that makes sense? 

When I heard about his recent rant where he called Barack Obama a “subhuman mongrel”, I wondered who could listen to him and take him seriously.  I mean doesn’t he have a TV show?  Isn’t he interviewed every day?  Doesn’t he have a devoted following?  Isn’t he rich and famous?

OK, I remember “Cat Scratch Fever” fondly.  The guy had some riffs.  I remember that he was a conservative rocker, kind of rare.  But how have so many Americans followed him into madness?  Seriously. 

Here are a few of his greatest hits…

In 2007 Nugent suggest that (then senator) Barack Obama should “suck my machine gun”.  He called Hillary Clinton a “worthless b%$ch”.

He thought that George Bush mishandled the Iraq war.  He said that, “Our failure was not to Nagasaki them.” 

In 2010 Nugent wrote in the Washington Times about Islam.  Who could consider him prejudiced when he declared, “Not all Muslims are religious whacks who deserve a bullet.”

After Obamacare was declared constitutional by the US Supreme Court, Nugent ranted in the Washington Times, “I’m beginning to wonder if it had been best if the South had won the Civil War.”

In 2012, at the NRA convention, Nugent suggested that conservatives “ride onto that battlefield and chop [Democrats’] heads off in November.”  After these remarks, in a radio interview he said that he was being targeted for his hateful remarks like, “a Black Jew at a Nazi Klan rally… [by] power-abusing, corrupt monsters in our federal government that despise me because I have the audacity to speak the truth."

Yes, the truth.  I do agree with him about the audacious part.

All that was nothing compared to his Twitter implosion after Barack Obama was re-elected. 

Ted Nugent on Obama re election: Pimps, whores and welfare brats have a president politics ted nugent tweets

If you don't have the stomach to watch/listen to Nugent's self-serving entire rant, just start at about 2 minutes and 45 seconds to get the really good stuff in this guns.com interview.  If you weren't sure before of how psycho this guy is, you will be after watching this.  He is so delirious that even many Republicans have been backing away from him.  

  • Texas Governor Rick Perry, who Abbott hopes to succeed, said on CNN that Nugent "shouldn't have said that about the President of the United States ... I got a problem calling the president a mongrel. I do have a problem with that. That is an inappropriate thing to say." When CNN host Wolf Blitzer suggested that Nugent should apologize, Perry said, "I'll recommend that he do that."
  • During an interview with CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) repeatedly dodged questions about the Nugent-Abbott controversy, but did acknowledge, "Look, those sentiments there, of course I don't agree with them. You've never heard me say such a thing, nor would I." Cruz alsosaid, "I don't hang out with Ted Nugent," although Nugent has claimed otherwise.
  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on CNN's Piers Morgan Live, "It's a free country but that kind of language really doesn't have any place in our political dialogue. It harms the Republican Party. I'm sure that it harmed that candidate there. And it should be obviously repudiated ... That kind of thing is beyond the pale, and I hope that our candidate down there learned a lesson." McCain said that if he were Abbott he would distance himself completely from Nugent because "I am a severe critic of President Obama particularly on national security, but that kind of language -- he is the President of the United States, he has been elected and reelected, and I believe we should treat him respectfully."
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) tweeted, "Ted Nugent's derogatory description of President Obama is offensive and has no place in politics. He should apologize.
  • CNN host Newt Gingrich disagreed with Wolf Blitzer that Nugent's "subhuman mongrel" comment should cause controversy for Abbott on the February 18 edition of The Situation Room. While Gingrich complained that the media ignores supposedly similar comments from liberal celebrities, he said, "What Ted Nugent said was stupid, I don't support it," and, "I'm not defending Ted Nugent, I think what he said was wrong and he shouldn't have said it."
OK, even the US Army thinks Nugent is unbalanced.  “After learning of opening act Ted Nugent’s recent public comments about the president of the United States, Fort Knox leadership decided to cancel his performance on the installation,” says a message on the Fort Knox Facebook page.

Personally, I can't think of any single individual who does more harm to our country than this guy.  If he still had half a brain, Ted would go back to making music and thank God he lives in a country that allows him the freedom to open his yap and spew any kind of hatred he can think of and get away with it.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Laughing Through Tears

I remember when my dad was dying; my family and I were just about all there at Christmas time.  He only had a few weeks to live.  While we all were terribly sad, in the depths of despair really, we continued to make each other laugh.  I know it sounds weird, but we did.  He was in on it too. 

There was this card game at the dining room table.  He was there with that silly Irish grin on his face, wearing this frumpy looking Irish hat with a floppy brim.  We poked fun at each other, and outdid each other’s jokes, one-upping to the point of hysteria. 

Next to him, attached with an intravenous tube, was a cart with fluids dripping constantly into his arm.

One of the last nights I ever saw him, we watched a funny movie together.  “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with John Candy and Steve Martin.  My big brother Pat was snoozing loudly in my dad’s easy chair – where my father would have normally been, but he was in bed.  I lay on the floor next to him, close enough to hear every laugh and snigger. 

We lost ourselves to the silly movie.  We laughed more than we would have in other circumstances I think.  We needed to laugh.  We needed normal right then.  Reality came crashing back in soon after.  But those laughs were so right, so real, just what the doctor should have ordered.

When my mom was languishing at my sister Ruthie’s in New Mexico a couple years ago, we played a word game together, just a few nights before she passed on.  And we laughed until our faces hurt.  All of us did.  And when she was too weak to walk to the dinner table we wheeled her in a desk chair for her last few meals.  And at those dinners we laughed.  It’s not like we avoided the inevitable.  We just laughed because that what we do.  And we needed those laughs, for those moments of levity helped us to endure the sadness that was upon us.  The grief that lie ahead.

Today I read Leonard Pitts latest piece in the Miami Herald.  I’ll put a link here so you can read the whole thing.  In it he talked of comic Laurie Kilmartin who tweeted all these funny bits as her dad lay dying in a hospital bed next to her.  So I checked our her tweets.  And they are hilarious.  And I cried like a baby. 

I’ll copy a few. 

Good luck getting an answer to the question, "Did I give you too much morphine?"

And yet, life goes on. Mom just began a sentence (whose 2nd half we all ignored) with her fav clause, "I don't mean to be critical, but..."

"OH LOOK HE'S FINALLY SLEEPING," my mom says, waking him up.

Heads up, new followers. After my Dad passes on, I'm going on a dick joke cleanse.

Mom just told Dad, "I love you, hon" while stepping on and cutting off his oxygen supply. This is their marriage in a nutshell.

More unfortunate phrasing. Mom to Dad, re: the reclining hospice bed, "Should we put you down?"

Unnamed family FARTER thinks Dad's flowers and lavender will cover her tracks. Despicable.

Three visitors in a row left Dad's bedside in tears. Pussies.

HAPPENING NOW: Dad doesn't like the way I hold the glass of water to his mouth; I don't like the way he spills the water all over himself.

Mom just told me to put on a bra because the priest will be here in 5 minutes.

The priest is an hour late. I'm going to beat his knuckles with a ruler.

Told Dad it is an honor to tend to his needs these final days. Told mom to invest in long term care.

Fear my Dad will die if I leave his bedside, fear my mother will die if I don't.* *I might murder her.

Pretending to Dad right now that I believe in the afterlife. But I think he knows I'm lying and appreciates my effort. We're cool like that.

This pain my Dad is in I would totally wish on my worst enemy.

After Dad took his last breath, I looked up. Either I gave Dad's soul a final heartfelt message, or the ceiling now thinks that I love it.

After he passed, Mom laid next to his body and gave him one final, "Ron, make these girls stop being mean to me."

Some people think that we may laugh in stressful situations because of adrenaline - some kind of pre-flight or fight situation. Or we laugh to change our stress into an artificial euphoria or to mask our emotions. It seems to me that we laugh to embrace our emotions. Laughing is just so human. When it's my time to check out, I want people around to help me to find the humor in the situation. I want to watch a funny movie, read a funny book, listen to some good jokes. I want to poke fun and riff on people and one-up jokes until they become ridiculous. I want people to riff on me. I want to laugh and smile until my face hurts. Does that sound weird?

A day after her dad died, Laurie Kilmartin tweeted "Do they fact check obits? I want to say my dad played bass for the Stones."

At the end of the Leonard Pitts piece he wrote, "Yes, sometimes things hurt too much for laughing. But sometimes they hurt too much not to." I am not going to have a tomb stone. But if I did... that would be a pretty cool epitaph.