Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Beatles Effect ...

The Beatles didn't change my life.

Don't get me wrong, I love the boys. But I was born – and more precisely, became fully aware of music – after the hysteria had waned.

But I know that they had a profound impact on many. And this is a sweet recollection.

Thanks to Terry for leading me to it.

Change Of Heart ...

Our lives, of course, change every day.

Every moment different than the one that came before.

But some moments are spent waiting for a light to change.

And other moments change us forever.

A year ago today, two hours passed that transformed a part of my life, of me.

And it wasn't until moments ago that I realized it was exactly one year ago today.

Realized consciously, that is. Clearly, my subconscious remembered all along.

So the "sudden" onslaught of tears wasn't really sudden after all. It was an overdue expression, one year hence.

It's strange to me how fervently so many cling to the past, even when the past is very clearly in its place, even when maintaining that connection keeps us rooted, stymied. Reaching for the future but tethered to a moment that leaves us essentially standing still, while the seasons change around us, like an effect in a movie to denote the passage of time.

But what we don't realize about change, while we feel like we're standing still, is that time continues, and that the stasis we surmise isn't really stasis at all. Change does not stop.

It is only sometimes the changes writ large that register, that make us understand that change was happening all along.

I am not the same person I was when I began this post. I am many moments older. I am, in the most immeasurable of ways, wiser.

And I am tired.

So I will go to bed, and wake up to a new day.

As I once wrote, "a world where beginnings sometimes have ends or linger or grow until they are unaware they have begun and simply are."

Every moment, the new sum total of my life.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Taciturnabout ...

Lately, I haven't had a lot to say.

Or perhaps I just haven't had the motivation to say it.

But I'm feeling more talkative again these days.

So to those who have written to ask if I was OK, those who were worried that my lack of posting might point toward some sort of ominous issue, I thank you for your kind concern and assure you that my blogging voice will return.

And I thank Rick for providing insight from the most unexpected of sources.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Baffled ...

We spent hours on the phone. Often within a single day.

We talked about everything and nothing, moments ranging from indelible to fleeting. Silliness and gravitas and everything in between.

We made plans, both present and future. Lists grew. Offers.

So much in common, yet so different. Fascinating that way.

And then, suddenly, silence. E-mails unreturned.

And then obliteration. Unfriended on Facebook. Unfollowed on Twitter. Blocked?

Phone numbers that rang through to busy signals.

One final e-mail from me that simply said, "Would you kindly reply to this and let me know that you're OK? I don't understand what's happened but I'll respect your decision."


I deserve an explanation. But I doubt an explanation will ever come.

My girlfriends got angry. Male friends offered theories.

"He's met someone."

"He's married."

"He doesn't want someone to find out about you."

But one friend, a female friend, as wise as the ages, said it all: "Someone already found out about you. Men don't stop until they get caught."

Weeks later, an e-mail arrived: "I don't want to be rude, so thank you very much for the iTunes gift."

Really? He was concerned that I'd think him rude for not thanking me for a 99-cent song?

"He's trying to re-establish contact," one girlfriend announced.


But I didn't reply.

There was nothing to say.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Thank You ...

I hated Twilight.

Which is why I love this image!

Thanks, Doreen!

'Rain' ...

Some days more than others, some lyrics seem especially poignant.

With appreciation to Patty Griffin.

It's hard to listen to a hard hard heart
Beating close to mine
Pounding up against the stone and steel
Walls that I won't climb
Sometimes a hurt is so deep deep deep
You think that you're gonna drown
Sometimes all I can do is weep weep weep
With all this rain falling down

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
But I'm holding on underneath this shroud

It's hard to know when to give up the fight
Some things you want will just never be right
It's never rained like it has tonight before
Now I don't wanna beg you baby
For something maybe you could never give
I'm not looking for the rest of your life
I just want another chance to live

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
But I'm holding on underneath this shroud

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
But I'm still alive underneath this shroud

Monday, August 17, 2009

'Cassandra's Dream' ...

Not only was this my least-favorite Woody Allen movie ever, it was one of my least-favorite movies, period.

Sure, there are worse movies in the world – "Cabin Boy" comes to mind, followed by "Surf Ninjas" – but I wasn't prepared for how much I would not like this movie.

The score by Philip Glass – which didn't really fit the film – is beautiful, but then I'm a big fan of Philip Glass.

Then again, I also used to be a big fan of Woody Allen. I hope I still am.

Excuse me while I pop in "Annie Hall" in an attempt to free my mind of "Cassandra's Dream."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Writing ...

I subscribe to O, The Oprah Magazine. Each month, I share it with my neighbor and when she's done, she passes it back.

This morning, something told me to leaf through the issue again. And I happened upon a piece entitled "Castles In The Mind." Huh. I hadn't noticed it the first time around. Or maybe I saw the accompanying art of a little girl making a sand castle and presumed it was about taking kids to the beach.

But no. It's a feature about three writers talking about the craft of writing. And this piece, by Jim Shepard, elicited in me a huge sigh of relief.

I'm not the only one who often thinks, "What the hell am I doing? Why do I think I have anything of value to say much less the talent to say it?"

For my writer friends, I hope you find in this piece some measure of relief and reassurance. And for my non-writer friends, I hope this gives you a bit of insight into the process we go through, and will help you to understand why some days, writing just doesn't happen for us.

The very first year I started teaching, back in the middle Triassic, I had the startling good fortune to stumble across one of the most talented writers with whom I've ever worked. I celebrated her ability with an (I'm sure) unsettling zealotry, and seemed to be urging her every 30 minutes toward a career in fiction writing. (She was, of course, good at everything, and already planning a career in medicine.) Finally, at one point when I was teasing her about some foot-dragging on a revision, she made a remark that changed forever the extent to which I would proselytize the writer's life, no matter how much talent I thought I had discovered. "I don't think you realize," she complained plaintively, "how hard this is for me."

At that point, no, I hadn't realized. The same way when I looked at the Empire State Building, I thought, "What a beautiful building," and not, "Whoa. I bet that was a pain in the butt to build."

When writing is going well, it's hard, and for most of us, most of the time it's not going all that well. When students ask, "When did you know you might be a writer? How did you know?," one of the things I tell them is that they may be designed for that life if (a) they need to do it in order to feel good about themselves, even though (b) doing it almost never makes them feel good about themselves.

And that's before we get to writer's block. All of us, beginners and veterans, run head-on into those despair-inducing stretches when the blank page just peers back at us and even the dog looks over in pity while we sit there, exposed and empty-headed, our mouths ajar. What made us think that we had anything to express? Or any facility with language with which to express it?

What are we supposed to do when the analytic voices on our shoulders intervene too quickly and start attacking every impulse or idea in its cradle by announcing that it's simply not original enough, not arresting enough, not good enough? Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's not just, as a famous writer once famously suggested, a matter of lowering our standards. It's also a matter of remembering that we need to reconnect with the notion of this sort of creation as play.

We don't know, exactly, what we're doing when we're starting something. We have a vague and skeletal and oafish idea that we articulate to ourselves as a justification for beginning, but that's about it. It turns out, thank God, that what we end up with is more intricate and subtle than that. Mostly because it turns out that our intuition is a greater genius than we are. And mostly, too, because we're not declaiming when we write fiction; we're exploring. We're turning characters that we're getting to understand with more intimacy and confidence loose in certain situations, and observing their behavior, and what we believe and feel is then being mimed back to us. We're in the process of teaching ourselves, and allowing the reader to follow along. Grace Paley's nice way of putting it is that we don't write about what we know; we write about what we don't know about what we know. Tobias Wolff's version is that every time you write you're stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light.

If that's true, and we don't know what we're doing at first, then at least for a little while when we're trying to compose something, we need to remember to cut ourselves some slack. There'll be plenty of time for brutality later, when revising the mess we made. But we need to be allowed to make that mess in the first place. When we shut ourselves down prematurely, it's as if we came across a child happily playing in the sandbox and asked what she was making, and when she said she didn't know, we told her, "Then get out of the sandbox. If you don't know what you're making, you have no business in there." Or if she answered, "I'm making a castle," we responded, "Oh, a castle. That's original. No one's ever made a castle before."

That girl in the sandbox has every right to respond, "I don't know if it's original. I won't know until I've made it."

We need to do everything we can, when writing, to stay in touch with pleasure. With fun. With the passionate engagement that we all manage, as children. Not only because that will keep us going but also because it will generate the freedom and the energy that allow us to exhilarate ourselves, and so exhilarate others.

Or here's another way of putting it: At one point I was writing in my family's hometown in rural Italy and thereby flummoxing my relatives, who had no idea why a healthy man would stay inside the house for hours on end on a sunny day. One afternoon I heard one relative outside my window ask another, "Is Jim working or playing?" And the other said, "I don't know." And it's occurred to me since that that's an indeterminacy to which I should be aspiring. Because as far as we're concerned, when we're doing what we love most, there no longer should be any distinction.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The 3-Day: The Day After Chicago ...

Each year, after each 3-Day, I write a letter that I then send to each of my contributors, recapping the event. Those of you who so very generously contributed to this year's fundraising will be receiving a copy of this in the mail in the next day or two. But I post it here, too, for my blog family. Every year, I wonder how I can possibly write another one of these letters and not sound as though I'm repeating myself. But every year, each event has new moments and new memories. Grab a beverage. And maybe a blanket and pillow. You might be here a while.

August 10, 2009

Family and friends:

Another year, another 3-Day done.

Friday, it rained. Waiting for Opening Ceremonies to begin, we felt a few foreshadowing drops. As we kicked off the 2009 Chicago Breast Cancer 3-Day, it was cloudy and not too hot – perfect weather for walking 60 miles, or 21 miles, anyway, which was the mileage of the day’s route.

I was walking with Amy, whom I met on last year’s event, and her friend Ronnie, who was walking for the first time. Amy was part of Opening Ceremonies this year. She carried the My Father flag, as her father is a breast-cancer survivor. Many people don’t know that it affects men, too.

This was my sixth 3-Day, so at this point, crying is an involuntary response the minute I hear the swelling strings of the event’s stirring music. Amy did a terrific job, looking tall and beautiful and proud. Later, I had to laugh when she said, “I’m just glad I didn’t fall down the stairs.” When I was part of Opening Ceremonies a couple of years ago, that was my reaction, too.

And as we have in years past, we entered the route to U2’s “Beautiful Day” and the cheers and applause of the crew and gathered family and friends, there to wish us well.

But not far into the route, I had a sensation I’d never before experienced on the 3-Day: I wanted to leave. I wanted to call Doreen, who had my car, and ask her to come and pick me up. It was a startling sensation. I love the 3-Day. I love the spirit of the event, the sense of community. As my friend Devereaux once said, “I want to live in the 3-Day universe.”

Except that, this year, I didn’t. As I walked, I thought about where my 3-Day zeal had gone. Was I feeling bored, having done the event so many years in a row? Was I feeling drained, having had an emotional year to date? I wasn’t entirely sure. But I did know this: I’d made a commitment. And if I left, I’d feel like a quitter.

In February, when I went to L.A. Dave’s memorial service, his family very generously gave me one of his Cubs hats. I wore it on the event this year. Dave was – and is, I’m sure – one of my biggest cheerleaders. Every year, after every event, he told me that I was his hero. And while that word does not apply to me, it was always very kind of him to say.

And so I kept walking. For all those women and men who have survived breast cancer. And all those we’ve lost. And for Dave.

The first persistent drops of rain arrived just as Amy and Ronnie and I arrived at lunch. We nabbed some cardboard – boxes broken down behind the food tents – and sat on it as the rain grew more steady. We donned our thin plastic ponchos and ate. Normally, disposable plastic ponchos are big enough for a couple of people, but mine was rather wee. And essentially sleeveless. I wondered if I’d somehow bought ponchos made for kids. As I walked the remainder of the route, I got pretty wet.

As we arrived at camp, it continued to rain. It rained while we ate dinner – at 4:37 in the afternoon. Thankfully, though, the rain abated long enough for me to get set up in camp. A local Girl Scout troop (or the parents of the girls of a local Girl Scout troop – I didn’t see any Girl Scouts) were at Oakton Community College, our annual host, setting up tents for walkers.

Amy and Ronnie and I met up in the dining tent (which is basically a circus tent – it’s ginormous) to hear the day’s announcements and watch a video message from Nancy Brinker. Nancy is Susan G. Komen’s sister. When Susan died in 1980, Nancy promised her sister that she would do everything in her power to find a cure for breast cancer, which is how the Susan G. Komen Foundation came to be in 1982. To date, the foundation has raised more than $1.5 billion dollars in the fight against breast cancer.

The video also featured Nancy’s (and Susan’s) mother as well as Nancy’s son, Eric, who took the stage after the video to speak to us. He’s officially participating in the Washington D.C. event this year, but he’s visiting other cities on the schedule and walking with us in order to train. He was there to thank us, but also to tell us a story.

Recently, he was traveling with his mom when she received a phone call in their hotel room. And as she listened, she started sobbing uncontrollably. Eric did his best to console her, concerned that something had happened to his grandmother. And then he heard her say, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

This Wednesday, Nancy Brinker will receive the National Medal of Freedom from President Obama in recognition of her efforts on behalf of her sister.

At that moment, being there to hear that news, I was really glad that I didn’t leave the event.

Thankfully, the rain made itself scarce overnight. My tent was swathed in plastic, but sleeping in dry conditions is always preferable to sleeping in wet conditions.

Saturday morning, however, just as I headed for the dining tent to meet up with Amy and Ronnie and have breakfast, the rain returned. (Side note: The food crew is amazing, supplying hot meals to thousands of people, but someone really needs to teach them how to make decent coffee.)

And so we started the day’s mileage, 19.3 miles, officially, in the rain. Thankfully, the crew handed out ponchos as we headed out onto the route. Amy, the love, retrieved one for me while I stayed under the tent so I didn’t have to get wet in order to stay dry.

Day 1’s route took us through Northbrook and Winnetka and Kenilworth, among other towns, which afforded all of us the opportunity to gawk at insanely gorgeous homes and gardens.

But Day 2’s route is always the best, because it takes us through Mt. Prospect. Mt. Prospect is AWESOME! The town’s motto is “Where Friendliness Is A Way of Life.” Truer words were never spoken. Not only are the Cheering Stations in Mt. Prospect always the best, but residents turn out in droves in front of their homes to offer water and lemonade and candy and freezy pops. They set out their sprinklers. They decorate their front yards with ribbons and balloons. They write messages on the sidewalks in colorful chalk. The whole town is one enormous cheering station.

And then there are the Mt. Prospect police. They help us cross as busy intersections. They have a squad car with a pink hood. They hand out pink sheriff-badge stickers. They are all ridiculously handsome.

And they wear pink shirts!

We also walked through Des Plaines. One of the cops who helped us cross looked an awful lot like Vince Vaughn. I asked him if everyone tells him that. He doffed his hat to me and said, “Yes, ma’am, they do.” (Patty, that anecdote is for you!)

Happily, the rain ended before we arrived at lunch. But the clouds had given way to clear skies and the temperatures soared. A group of folks set up a tent along the route and offered grab-and-go slices of cold, rind-free watermelon. Perfect. Later, a couple of women offered baby wipes. Genius.

Many kids turned out to cheer for us, gorgeous little girls proudly wearing pink dresses, a Boy Scout troop with more enthusiasm than I’d ever seen. One young Scout stood along the route with a fused chunk of ice cubes in his hand yelling, “Ice! It’s cold! It’s free!” He was the best ice salesman ever. I approached him and then stopped. He looked at me a bit quizzically. I said, “I want ice, dude!” And he said, “Yes!” and he and his fellow Scouts went wild. I guess he hadn’t had many takers on the ice. I continued on, laughing. A few paces later, one of the troop dads said, amused, “I think they’ve had too many freeze pops. The sugar is really getting to them!”

But I was thrilled to hold onto ice. My hands had swollen in the heat. The ice felt great. And it melted quickly.

Day 2 wore on. Day 2 is always the hardest. And the heat wasn’t helping the cause. Amy and Ronnie hopped a coach back to camp at the last pit stop of the day. They were both walking with plentiful blisters. And Amy’s knee was giving her grief as was Ronnie’s ankle. They were both walking in their spare pairs of shoes because their shoes from Day 1 had gotten so wet. So I walked the last leg to camp on my own.

I ate dinner and made some notes in my little notebook (which help jog my memory as I write this letter) then headed for my tent and fell asleep for a little while. I managed to rouse myself and head for the showers, where there was no waiting. Excellent!

A shower during the 3-Day is the best shower ever. I was literally gritty going in, but emerged cooled and clean. I returned to the dining tent to watch a few minutes of 3-Day Rock Star (think “American Idol”) but soon headed to my tent in the gloaming. The lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me.

On Thursday night, at the hotel in Northbrook, I had requested a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call and set the three alarms on my cell phone. I was worried I’d oversleep. I turned off the TV about 9:30 p.m. and slept for what I assumed was many hours. I woke up and thought, “It must be close to 4.” I looked at the clock. It was 11:47 p.m. Yep, I was in for a long night of waking up and checking the clock.

And Friday night, I hadn’t slept well. So by Saturday evening, I had walked more than 40 miles without the benefit of solid sleep for two nights. I slept long enough to dream, though. I had a very strange dream about Bill Kurtis, the second such time I’ve dreamt about him during a 3-Day. (Bill, I’ll relay the whole thing the next time I see you. But it involved a nefarious-looking cab driver with a Russian accent. And your own brand of stationery. Go figure.)

Day 3 arrived early. We were up about 5 a.m., packing and breaking down our tents. With tent packed and gear schlepped to the gear truck, I headed to breakfast. Amy and Ronnie were just finishing their food and coffee. They headed to the medical tent to get taped up for the day. When they were ready, we boarded a bus to take us to the beginning of the day’s route, which was listed as 16.7 miles.

(The mileage on the route cards never adds up to exactly 60. The mileage differs from year to year based on the route. But once you factor in walking all over camp, which is HUGE, for three days, I’m sure we surpass the 60-mile mark. I also think that 3-Day mileage varies from actual mileage. I can’t tell you how many times it felt as though we had walked far enough to get to the next pit stop only to happen upon a sign informing us that the next pit stop was one mile away.)

At the starting point of the Day 3 route, I saw Trever McGhee, a walker who for the past two days had offered encouragement to all the other walkers. Trever is walking every event this year, 900 miles, carrying a 12-foot banner to help raise awareness. He’s walking for his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Isis-Angellica, to save her from ever having to face the possibility of breast cancer. Amy and Ronnie asked him to pose with them for a picture. I snapped the shot and then handed him the $20 in my wallet.

I encourage everyone to consider making a contribution to his enormous effort. I’m so grateful for all the support you’ve given me to date. But typically, walkers have 4 weeks after each event to meet their minimum fundraising requirement. Trever just learned that he has to meet his minimum within four DAYS of the conclusion of each event or contribute the balance himself.

You can read about his journey and contribute at

On the bus on the way to the starting point that morning, I noticed a digital sign on a bank that read, “84 at 7:34”. Oh boy. We were in for a hot one. Walking through Chicago is markedly less shady than walking through the suburbs. And once we hit the lakefront, there were vast stretches of nothing but sun.

Along the route, I found myself walking alongside Barb. (Amy and Ronnie were a bit slower on the route on Day 3, thanks to their impairments.) Barb’s daughters were on the event, too, but were at different points on the route. Barb and I stopped under a tree along the lake for a shade-and-breeze break. Another walker came along and asked if we’d watch her things while she went and dipped herself in the water, shoes and all. Even by the azure lake, it was scorching.

At each stop, I considered boarding a bus to closing. Two years ago, my knee insisted that I stop walking and I took the bus to the end of the route, but I was so disappointed to have to do it. After walking for nearly three days, it’s very anti-climactic to take a bus for the final stretch.
This year, though, with the extreme heat, I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I didn’t have any blisters. I wasn’t in any pain. I was just ... so ... tired.

But at each stop, I’d check my route card and think, “I can do 2.7 more miles” or “I can do 2.5 more miles.”

And I was glad I did. After walking along the lagoon in Lincoln Park, I followed the route underneath an overpass and emerged to see two of Mt. Propect’s finest standing in front of their pink-hooded squad car, wearing their pink shirts. I nearly started sobbing. As I walked toward them, I smiled and said, “I didn’t think I’d see you guys until next year!” and one of them replied, “We missed you already.” They high-fived me as I passed.

Have I mentioned how much we LOVE Mt. Prospect?!

I arrived at the last pit stop, just south of the Chicago River and within earshot of Lollapalooza. At that point, I was 2 miles from Soldier Field and the end of the route. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish the event, being so close. So I returned to the route. I walked past the Shedd Aquarium and then toward Soldier Field. Then ... into Soldier Field! The very last leg of the route was through a concourse of the arena with a great view of the field, and then down a ramp where friends and family and walkers cheered us as we took our final steps.

And at the very end of the route were the Mt. Prospect police I’d seen in Lincoln Park, hugging every walker.

I headed for the bathroom – a real bathroom! – then joined the crowd to cheer the last walkers as they arrived. The crew – the amazing crew – took a quick jaunt through the throng to massive cheers.

And then, with friends and family dispatched outside to take their places for Closing Ceremonies, we lined up for our victory walk, the last leg of the 3-Day journey, along a path lined with our beloved crew, offering one more round of applause and high-fives.

We took our place by the stage and cheered as the other walkers filed in, an impossibly long stream of walkers, about 2,000 of us. And then we cheered the crew as they filed into the circle we’d created.

And then, as we do every year, each walker held one shoe aloft in salute to the survivors who walked into the circle created by us and the crew, a collective embrace, thousands strong. A group of eight survivors took the small stage in the center of the circle and joined hands as we raised the final flag of the 3-Day, our commitment to creating a world without breast cancer.

Lastly, we turned our attention to the main stage where Amy and other walkers walked in once again with their flags and were joined by children and mothers and sisters and grandmothers and aunts, all those for whom we walk.

My heart is full of gratitude for each of you and your unending support. I truly could not do this without you.

My love to you all.

P.S. A special thank you to Doreen for being there at the end and for being my chauffeur! And to Jeetu, for his parking space this weekend. Thank-you brownies are forthcoming! And to my parents, for delivering dinner last night!

P.P.S. This year’s Chicago event raised more than $5 million. Thank you for being a part of that very impressive total!

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