Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dream

My father, Jack O’Keefe, died about 20 years ago. Too young in my mind. He was 64 and just recently retired. We think of a person who has just retired as having a lot of years ahead to kick back, to enjoy their newfound freedom from the daily grind. Certainly when I thought of my dad when he was getting close to retirement, I imagined him swinging a golf club; spending a lot of time in Mexico where he and my mom managed to spend several lengthy vacations among expatriated Americans. I imagined him really growing old (although 64 was quite old to me at the time). I imagined him awkwardly holding my children, not yet born. I thought he would read a ton of books, as he was just becoming a reader before he died. I imagined him growing out his beard and perhaps his redbrown hair finally turning gray.

I loved that big man, although I never told him early enough in our lives, or often enough.When I would call home after moving away, he would hastily give the phone to my mom or tell me quickly that she was not there and expect that to pretty much be the end of the conversation. It’s not like we were scared to talk to each other, more like we were comfortable with the silence that stretched between us, comfortable with the distance. It’s hard to describe.But I still miss that those watery blue Irish eyes, that ruddy face, that wavy brown hair that he was so proud of. I still miss my dad.

A lot of my family was there when my dad passed on. It was tearful, but we got the chance to say goodbye and to tell him that we loved him. We had recently spent Christmas vacation at our parents’ home in Indiana. His doctors had the good sense to let my dad go home to spend those last precious days with his family. After the farewell at the end of the vacation when Heidi and I were heading back to our home in South Carolina I never saw him again until he lay dying in the hospital. At that point he was too far gone to respond. We stroked his hair, held his hand, held each other, cried. It was not a bad way to send off Jack O’Keefe. I hope that I can get out of here with that much dignity.

The following Christmas, Heidi and I poured through many family photographs, old and recent, and pulled together one of those video photo albums that were popular back in the day. It was a videotape about 45 or 50 minutes long, almost 600 photographs. We worked hard at selecting songs for the soundtrack that seemed to fit the chronology. There were elementary and high school photos of my folks when they were kids, photos of them with those big old round cars in the background from when they were dating. There were pictures of my dad in his navy uniform, wedding photos, pictures of my grandparents with my folks, pictures of my Mom when she was pregnant, baby pictures of all of us through the years, pictures of our old neighbors, our old neighborhood, girlfriends, boyfriends, school pictures, vacations pictures, graduations, weddings, babies of our own, our early homes when we were adults and on our own. It was about 50 years of history condensed into less than an hour.

We made copies of the video back in 1990 and gave them to all of my siblings. It was cathartic, and bittersweet. It seemed right.

So, 20 years later I found that old VHS tape with all that music and all those pictures and decided to make a DVD out of it for all my siblings and my mom again. This time I made enough copies for those nieces and nephews who remembered Jack. No one had seen it for most of those years. The time seemed right again.

Dubbing it over from VHS to DVD had to be done in real time. So I watched it. I was alone, nearly in the dark, sitting on the living room floor, sifting through all of those memories from before my childhood, those old songs pouring into me, my parents as kids, my brothers and sisters growing up, my Heidi as a college coed, our wedding. My dad. I missed him so bad. And I was doing all right too, until Heidi walked into the room. She sensed my quiet intensity and didn’t say anything. She just ran her hand through my hair on her way through and it was enough to start the tears. For the next 20 minutes as the images of my long ago past flew by, I had to blink back tears.

I made about a dozen of the DVDs and gave them out at Christmas but I never got the chance to watch it with my family. Our time together was short this year.

But when we got back from our lengthy adventures on the Christmas road, I had a dream. Probably because I had seen all those pictures of Jack O’Keefe, probably because I spent a long time one morning over the holiday reminiscing with my mom about how she and my dad met during the war, about how shy he was, and how she was not going to let that shy man out of that kitchen at her parents' house, before he headed out for war, without kissing him on the mouth. Probably because my sister Ruthie gave me a family calendar with this picture dated 1945 of may parents creeping out of the USO club where they first met, my dad looking scared and sneaky and my mom looking so young and pretty in her formal clothes and a flower in her hair. Probably because I had been thinking about Jack O’Keefe and missing him and thinking how great it would have been for him to have met my boys and for him to see our home in the South Carolina country woods. But I had this little dream.

It was a soft dream. Nothing alarming, no big deal. In it, my dad came into our bedroom. I was feeling awake. I sat up in bed. He walked in as I remember him from about the mid 1970’s. He was trim and ruddy and his hair was longish as were his sideburns. He came into my early morning room and told me simply that he was all right. That I wasn’t to worry about him. That he was just fine. And that he missed me.

That was all. I woke up feeling like I just talked to him. I was left with this lonely feeling, this feeling that it had been far too long. At the same time, I felt like he had just touched base with me. There was comfort in that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Long Day

A while back I had insomnia. I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep. It happens from time to time. The good news = I can get a few hours of reading and prayer/meditation before the alarm goes off and I get into the work-a-day mode. I am totally alone for a time. Bad news = by the end of the day my energy flags and things get a little jangly.

This was one of those long days. I stopped at the grocery store on my way home. This after being stuck in traffic for a while making my commute even longer. I do most of the grocery shopping and I have been to this grocery store hundreds of times. I could do it with my eyes closed. And I was close to it.

When I first got there I noticed this little triad of a family coming into Publix with me. Young mom, beautiful curly-blond boy child, burly, buzz-cut dad. Good looking folks. Dad was about to hoist the little guy into the shopping cart when Mom said to wait. She got one of those anti-bacterial wipes offered near the door to wipe off the push bar of the grocery cart.

“What the HELL are you doing?” Dad asked sharply.

“Just cleaning it off. He’s going to have his hands all over it.”

“What’s your problem,” he mumbled loud enough so I could hear him. He held the boy until Mom was done and she tossed away the wipe. They went in just ahead of me. What was that all about?

It was just a little thing. One shouldn’t read too much into a single interaction. Everyone gets cranky from time to time. I do for sure. Maybe it was the effects of the insomnia, but seeing that little exchange, that long 20-second moment, really stung. It wasn’t just the words; it was the physical part as well, the gestures, the body language.

Stock photos: speed shopping Royalty Free

As I shopped I could mostly see Mom. She was racing ahead of her family slipping between carts, grabbing two or three things per aisle. It was a pretty crowded evening. Once she sort of squeezed between my cart and another going the opposite direction. “Excuse me. I’m sorry.” No eye contact.

“You’re fine,” I said, getting out of her way.

She was young. Early 20’s probably. Really thin. And while I can’t remember her face, there were dark circles under her eyes. Maybe I looked like that too since I had only gotten about three hours of sleep. But it seemed like one of her eyes had a darker patch beneath it than the other. And she really seemed nervous. She was obviously in a hurry dashing up and down the aisles. My guess was that they were doing some speed shopping; divide and conquer and rendezvous up front.

After checking out and pushing the cart into the parking lot I ran into them again. Turns out they were parked right behind me. It would be too mild to say that they were fussing at each other. And it wasn’t what they said, but rather how they said it that spooked me.

“Guess what, Mama,” the little one said as they were loading the groceries into the back of their SUV. “’Cat’ and ‘rat’ rhyme.” Of course that made me smile. The boy was full of life and curiosity.

I didn’t hear all of what they said. I didn’t really want to. I am a people watcher by nature, but not a peeping Tom. The parts I did hear were a little disturbing though.

“You’d better watch your mouth…”

“I went as fast I could…”

“Just shut your trap…”

The child kept chattering. Could he feel the tension? Did he understand the thinly veiled threats? Was this normal for him?

Image ID:PAD1898, Stock Photo titled:mother with little child, Please click to see image details

We were finished packing our groceries into our vehicles at the same time. As I unlocked the driver’s side of my car I glanced over to Mom and the boy as she was getting ready to load him into his car seat in the back. She opened the door and he put his hands to the sides of her face and turned her toward him. He looked right into her face, directly into her eyes and then kissed her. It was the sweetest little moment. Just what was necessary.

There are no great truths here. People are interesting. Complex. No big life lessons. Just questions.

What about that little one? What will he be like as a grown-up? Are these demonstrations constant? Was this just a bad night? Will that couple grow old together? Will they have more kids?

You know, maybe they are really very happy. Maybe that’s just their way. A lot of folks bicker all the time and still truly love each other.

The image of the child turning his mama’s face to his and his sweet kiss… It almost seems like despite his youth and inexperience with relationships, he was the wise one.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I like guns. I like for the police to have guns. It is essential for soldiers to have guns. Security guards? Sure. Hunters? Absolutely! Skeet shooting? Target shooting? Well you can’t very likely shoot a target without one!

When I was little I played army and cops-and-robbers with toy guns with my brothers and neighborhood homeboys. I had an air rifle that I would occasionally fill with dirt to blast my enemies. I had a Red Ryder BB gun. I shot at cans. Once, in a moment of major stupidity, I shot my best friend Pat Owens in the ear thinking my brother’s BB pistol wasn’t loaded. That’s the thing about guns. They don’t go well with stupidity.

They also go terribly with hatred.

That was the first thought that occurred to me the other day when I heard that, right here in South Carolina, there was an assault rifle being manufactured with the words, “You Lie” printed on one of the main components. I am not joking.

Because it isn’t funny.

Joe Wilson You Lie Assault Rifle

For those of you who may not know, the words, “You Lie!” were sort of yelled out by congressman Joe Wilson during a health care speech by President Obama back in September of 2009. Mr. Obama just finished saying that the proposed health care legislation would not provide coverage for illegal aliens when Congressman Wilson spontaneously shouted out those words. It was embarrassing for a lot of South Carolinians. Not all, by any means. To his credit, Joe Wilson later apologized for his outburst. It seems he just couldn’t help himself.

So, someone at the Palmetto State Armory had the brainchild to manufacture an assault rifle with Joe’s famous words printed on it. On the manufacturer’s web site it proudly promoted its new limited edition, Palmetto State Armory would like to honor our esteemed congressman Joe Wilson with the release of our new "You Lie" AR-15 lower receiver. These lowers are the same great quality you have come to expect from Palmetto State Armory and feature "You Lie" as the first six digits of the serial number. Only 999 of these will be produced, get yours before they are gone!” Why not cash in on Mr. Wilson’s newfound fame? Why not cater to potential gun owners who despise the president of our country?

However, I remain unclear why anyone would own an AR-15 assault rifle.

The AR-15 (ArmaLite Model 15[8]) is a widely owned[9] semi-automatic rifle, of which the most famous derivative is the selective fire M16-series assault rifle used by the United States military.

Standard AR-15 rifles accept detachable magazines of widely varying capacities (including 10, 20, or 30 round magazines, or 100 round drums), and have a pistol grip that protrudes beneath the stock. AR-15 rifles are highly configurable and customizable. They are commonly fitted with several accessories such as bipods, collapsing stocks, threaded barrels for the attachment of a flash suppressor, and a rail system for the attachment of vertical grips, flashlights, laser sights, telescopic sights and other accessories. The most common bipod is the folding bipod, but there is also a vertical grip with a bipod release. Barrels can come in chrome and stainless steel. The steel barrel tends to be more accurate while the chrome tends to be more durable. It is also possible to use barrels of various rates of twist. AR-15s can also be assembled with a suppressor. (

OK, other than soldiers, I can see police with such a weapon. I’m guessing the Palmetto State Armory peeps had a different clientele in mind. Security guards? Doubtful. Hunters? Not very sporting it seems to me.

Here is some food for thought. In Australia all semiautomatic rifles are banned. “The ban on semi-automatic rifles was introduced in 1996 in response to the Port Arthur massacre, in which 35 people were killed. One of the weapons used in the attack was an AR-15.” (

In Canada, where many people hunt, the AR-15 is a restricted firearm. There are very rigid tests and background checks made before ownership is allowed. They can only be fired at certified firing ranges. They are not sanctioned for killing bear or moose or anything else.

To many Japanese, and to many Americans, it is simply incomprehensible that the United States has not implemented strict gun controls or prohibitions along the Japanese model. Gun control in Japan is the most stringent in the democratic world. The weapons law begins by stating 'No-one shall possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords', and very few exceptions are allowed.[3] Gun ownership is minuscule, and so is gun crime. As gun crime in other nations increases, many advocates of gun control urge that Japan's gun control policy be imitated.[4] (

There are no restrictions on the ownership of AR-15 rifles in the United States.

So what were the good folks at the Palmetto State Armory thinking when they dreamed of commemorating Joe Wilson’s famous words? Who were their target customers (so to speak)? Well… obviously Joe Wilson supporters. Seems to me that they must have sided with Mr. Wilson’s sentiments and admire his nerve for shouting out his thoughts (fighting words in many people’s minds) in such a public and otherwise respectful forum.

In a nutshell, they so admire the man who called the president of the United States of America a liar to his face, in a joint meeting of congress being watched by people all across America and, indeed, the world, that they stamped his words on a weapon very good for killing people. Is this supposed to be a call to patriotism? Is it a stretch to think that it is hatred?

I understand that Mr. Wilson did not endorse the product, although a picture of the congressman holding a rifle and standing in the company’s gun shop did appear on the company’s website. Since the shooting in Arizona it has been removed.

You know what would be the right thing for Congressman Wilson to do? Perhaps he should come out with a statement condemning the idiocy of stamping those words on an assault rifle. Maybe he should say that it was un-American and unpatriotic of the Palmetto State Armory to use his words – words for which he has sincerely apologized – to further fuel the hatred of our president. Maybe he could take the high road.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I'll give you my gun...

Food for thought.

In America an average of 34 people are killed every day by guns. In 2010 9,369 people were murdered with a firearm ( The U.S. rate for gun deaths in 1994 was 14.24 per 100,000 people. Japan had the lowest rate, at .05 per 100,000. Know the difference? In Japan people are not allowed to own handguns.

Jared Lee Loughner mugshot

Who thinks it is ridiculous that the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, was able to carry a .45 semiautomatic pistol? Who thinks it is nuts that he was able to buy all of the ammunition he needed for his mission at a nearby Walmart? Who thinks it is insane that he had a clip for his gun that held 30 bullets and that with the bullet in the chamber of his gun that he could shoot 31 bullets as fast as he could pull the trigger without reloading? Why would anyone ever legitimately need such a large number of bullets in a single magazine?

Why did sales of the same Glock handgun (THE WORKHORSE) used in the shooting spike across the country just after the type of weapon was announced? Was it fear of future gun restrictions? (Arizona gun dealers say among the biggest sellers over the past two days is the Glock 19 - the model used in the shooting. One-day sales of handguns in Arizona jumped 60 per cent to 263 on Monday compared with 164 a year ago, the second-biggest increase of any state in the country, according to FBI data. Handgun sales rose 65 per cent to 395 in Ohio; 16 per cent to 672 in California; 38 per cent to 348 in Illinois; and 33 per cent to 206 in New York. Sales increased nationally by about 5 per cent, to 7906 guns.

From “Shooting prompts surge in gun sales across America”

Isn’t it pathetic that only car crashes and cancer claim more lives among children in our country than guns?

Why is it that only since the killings in Arizona has Sarah Palin come under intense criticism for having a “target list” on her SarahPAC website that included an image of crosshairs over Gabrielle Gifford’s district. Why would anyone think it is incendiary that Sarah Palin would tweet, “Don’t retreat, reload”?

How is it that gun advocates have assumed the political/patriotic advantage, the moral high ground when police are often outgunned and killed by weapons superior to their own? (Criminologists point to a wide range of contributing factors to the sudden spike in cop killings. The continuing proliferation of military-grade firearms often leaves police outgunned, while some gang initiations now include the express targeting of police. From “A Surge in Cop Killings”,8599,1666750,00.html)

I'll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Better Than a Hallelujah

I was raised Catholic. I went to a Catholic school. Between 1st and 8th grade I went to mass six times a week during the school year. I had some great experiences with this school, made some wonderful friends. My next-door-neighbors went to Saints Peter and Paul School and we walked to school for all eight years of our elementary school and two years of high school (The public school kids went to Junior High in those days. The Catholics went from first through eighth in the same buildings). I had some mean teachers, some crazy times, but overall – no complaints. It was what it was.

One thing about the way I was taught to pray, and we prayed a LOT, is that the prayers were all pretty much rote. There is the rosary with all of its Hail Marys and Our Fathers. There was the Act of Contrition and the Apostles Creed. All fine prayers. All duly memorized and recited at the right times. It was a way of life. I can still say them all. I still do from time to time. Of course we still say the Our Father at church at special occasions.

I know it’s me, but I ended up saying all of those prayers kind of like most of us say the Pledge of Allegiance, on autopilot. If I was given a heavy penance after going to confession, I said those prayers all right. I’d even say extras for extra forgiveness. I could say the Hail Mary in about seven seconds. So, if I was given 5 Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition, I could say 10 in just over a minute. Why not double up on the Hail Marys? That way if I sinned a little bit before my next confession I’d have a little insurance, a little in the bank so to speak.

I am NOT putting down Catholicism. When I looked the other way it was my fault for not getting as much as I could have from all of that teaching, all of those devout people, all of those hours in mass and prayer.

As a kid, when I broke out of the mold and said real prayers from my heart, they were always asking for stuff… Please God, let me find my library books or my folks will kill me… I know I haven’t studied enough for this social studies test, I promise to next time if you’ll only… I really like this girl, if you will only let her look at me a little differently… That kind of stuff. Shallow. I know.

I was quite content not going to church for a LONG TIME. Years. Oh, I went when I had to and almost always enjoyed it. I went at the in-law-days-of-obligation. There was a little time when we lived in Michigan when we found a church that was really to our liking. But mostly I was on cruise control. Mostly I was happy with no real thoughts toward creation and things outside of my sphere.

Then, when the boys were little, we decided to actively seek out a church home. I was pretty open. I wasn’t planning on investing much anyway. I am, by nature, an early riser so getting up on Sunday morning was no big thing to me. It was going to be good for the boys and Heidi was a little restless not having a regular church so, sure, I was on board.

We shopped around for a while visiting several different kinds of churches all over Columbia. Finally we visited a small Methodist church about three miles from our home. We lucked into the contemporary service and I fell in love. It was purely the music at first. There were people so into worship. With eyes closed they would often raise their hands, clap along with the music, and sing. Really sing. And the music was cool. There was a modern folk/rock quality to the band. They were worshipping and leading worship with harmonies and guitars and drums and keyboards. They were so sincere and humble and sweet.

I frankly admit that I was happy to go back to church the next week and the next week and the next week – for the music. The preacher, he was OK too. But that music and those people leading worship, they were magnetic and energized and they helped me to feel so good about being there. After a couple of weeks I had to introduce myself to the band and tell them how great the sound was and how cool the songs were.

Daniel, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, was so modest. But he looked me in the eye and joked and was grateful for my encouragement. He asked if I played and I said that I did. He introduced me to George the bass player, Ben on electric, Barney on drums and Suzanne on keyboards and harmonies. I was infatuated with these guys.

In a few weeks they asked me to sit in and then I never left. I was never inducted, I just kept coming back. There was no pay involved so I didn’t feel like I was imposing.

This was something so different for me. For one thing, I didn’t know how a Christian was supposed to act. I mean, I did know – but I wasn’t sure of the protocol. Could we joke around, tease, mock and otherwise be irreverent? Would we talk politics, current events, social justice? Could we be honest, even if we disagreed? The answer to all of these was, of course! And we did. While I never technically belonged to a “small group”, the praise band was my small group.

The most important thing I think I learned from this wonderful group of people was how to pray. Beyond the Our Father. When we met together to practice and before actually playing in the church services, someone would pray. Out loud. It was personal and comfortable. I had never prayed that way. So many of these spontaneous prayers were of thanks. For the day, for the ability to make music, for the people coming to the services, for our children and families and for each other. They were simple prayers but elegant in their simplicity. There were asking prayers too, of course (prayers of petition I was to learn), but what I loved and what truly stuck with me was how to say thank you.

It made me aware of just how much I have to be grateful for. And it is a LOT. Even when times were tough, my prayers were thankfulness. When I had a cancer scare last spring, I was thankful for all of the years I have been healthy, and for the time I have been able to spend with Heidi and my boys. It was life changing, this praying my thankfulness.

Once, when I was out in the world (after a church gig) with my friend George, and a new friend Stan who joined us with his wonderful lead guitar, we were at a restaurant together. I was already to dig in – maybe I even had begun to eat- when George closed his eyes and reached out a hand to Stan and me. And he prayed over our food. It was simple and beautiful, the way a prayer should be I suppose. He prayed out loud. In public. He wasn’t the least self-conscious. I was humbled and a little awed by his faith. It seems like a little thing, blessing your food. But it was big to me then.

Our paths have parted. Heidi and the boys and I have been going to a new church for the last year and a half. I play in the praise band over there now. But I have been missing my old band friends. And I owe them so much. After all, they taught me to pray. What could be bigger than that?

Prayer : Memorial candles burning inside dark temple Nepal

A few weeks ago, tragedy struck the family of one of my old bandies. It was devastating. This is not the place for the details, but it was one of the saddest things imaginable. I did not know how to help, what to do. I can’t even begin to think how I would be in the same position. It is the kind of sadness that will never go away, the kind of memory that will never fade.

So, I pray. I am not sure that the power of my thoughts and prayers will make a difference for my friend or her family. I don’t know how God works. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God. But I think it helps. If I could make a difference with anything material I would. I have left messages. I went to the funeral home. I have written a letter. Maybe they helped too.

So I pray for her the way she taught me to pray. My prayers are for her comfort, her healing, for her memories to become happy ones and for the tragic memories to fade. My prayers are for her to know what a good parent she is and what a difference she makes in this world.

I am thankful too. For the years she got to spend with her son, for the laughs and the tears they shared, for the meals and the vacations and the family times. I am grateful for his birth, his learning to walk, to ride a bike, to read, to hunt and lift weights. For the times he teased his sister and his love of nature. For his love of sports and cars and girls. I am grateful for his life and the happy memories he leaves with his family.

To my mind God doesn’t care so much about being Hallelujahed as a lot of people think. I think God mainly just wants the communication, the relationship. My friend has the relationship and the ability to keep looking ahead to better times.