Category Archives: Baby Boomers

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.

Most.

Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Alec Guiness, Baby Boomers, Cemetaries, Citizen Soldiers, David Lean, Donald Trump, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, June 2012, Legacy, Small town America, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Pyramid of Giza, The Movies, Tombstones, William Holden, World War II, WWII America

Empty Nesters

It was two years ago, September. My wife, Yolanda, and I lay in bed talking before going to sleep. Our oldest child, Michael, was in his first weeks of college. He was out of the house and, to a certain degree, out of mind.

“You know,” Yolanda said, “this hasn’t been as tough as I thought. I mean, I miss Michael, but actually I’m OK. I feel guilty that I don’t feel worse.”

Now this is coming from a woman who, after we left Michael in his dorm (I’ll never forget my last image of Michael that day as he sat alone, fingers drumming the dorm desk, gazing out the window at the campus below) broke down in tears minutes later in a booth at a nearby restaurant.

“We should’ve made him come to lunch with us,” she said between sobs, “he has to be hungry.”

“Mom,” our daughter, Anissa, said sliding an arm over her shoulder, “he’ll find food. Look, you can see the dorm from here. He’s only a hundred yards away from a restaurant.”

Yolanda dabbed her tears. The three of us smiled, then laughed, reassured that with the school cafeteria and a number of restaurants and grocery stores within a mile of campus that Michael would find food and survive the day.

Of course Yolanda was not worried about Michael getting fed.  Nor was she, that night weeks later, saying she no longer thought about her son on a daily basis. She was just expressing the contradictory feelings that most parents encounter as our children leave home. In our case, the transition was eased by the fact that Anissa was with us for another two years before she scampered off to college. So it has only been the last ten weeks that Yolanda and I, along with our Sheltie, Sammy, have had the house to ourselves.

“How’s it going, you empty nesters?” folks say, eyebrows arched.

“Pretty good, overall,” I respond,  with a wink, “although Sammy misses the kids. Yolanda’s paying more attention to him since they left.  Plus, she’s speaking in Spanish to him. That’s never a good sign. Heck, in human years, the guy’s fifty some year’s old, I think he’d like his space.”

A bitter pill to swallow, but yes, even our dog wants some separation from us.

Some people deal with the empty nest transition better than others, with a few sinking into depression, experiencing a lost sense of purpose. There are miles of articles, advice columns, academic studies and even support groups available for parents to utilize in assisting them to navigate through this period of life.

I do not foresee such circumstances for Yolanda and I because we have raised our children to leave. That is, after all, one of the main objectives of this whole parenthood exercise. Sure, we miss them and sometimes wax nostalgic. But we know it is time for them to venture forth and for us as well.

“Honey,” I said to Yolanda that fall night two years ago, “you don’t feel bad because you know Michael is where he’s supposed to be, doing what he should be doing. He’s happy, you’re happy.”

Years ago, before the kids arrived on the scene, I watched reruns of the Andy Griffith Show on a regular basis. I particularly like the black and white version with Don Knotts. There are many hilarious scenes that come to mind. But one moment that has stayed with me occurs when Andy tells Aunt Bee that she should not feel compelled to marry a man she does not love because she thinks it will be best for Andy.  In Aunt Bee’s mind she is freeing Andy from what she sees as a burden: her presence.

Andy tells her: “Among folks that love each other, like we do, nothing can be best for us unless it’s best for you.”

Yolanda and I are empty nesters. Sometimes the house seems deserted.  Sammy may need therapy, or at least Spanish lessons, but he’ll survive. Our kids are content, so we are content. What’s best for them is best for us.

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Filed under 21st Century America, August 2011, Baby Boomers, Don Knotts, Empty Nesters, Family, November 2011, Sheltie Dogs, Situation Comedies, Small town America

Of Minivans and Memories

“Dad,” my eight year old daughter, Anissa, said, “are we ever going to return to civilization?”

It was August, 2001, a month before the world as Americans knew it changed forever. My wife, Yolanda, and I along with our two kids, Michael and Anissa, were speeding along in our tan Ford Windstar minivan on a two lane highway in North Dakota. On either side of us were endless miles of wheat and bright yellow sunflowers. Our only company farmers harvesting wheat, air-conditioned combines cruising effortlessly up and down the rolling hills. Their grain truck drivers, beds brimming with the golden harvest , tooted horns and gave us a wave.  I was grateful for their presence, knowing that if we broke down help would be quick in coming.

“Yep,” I reassured Anissa,  Yolanda and I smiling, “soon enough. So enjoy the view.”

I do not consider myself a car guy. I’ve never dreaded trading a car or longed for a certain type. We bought the Windstar new in 1998, but since then we’ve spent our money on a solid, if unexciting used Buick Century and a leg-room loving Lincoln Continental with 70,000 miles.  None of these cars evoke “zoom, zoom” excitement, yet get us from point A to point B relatively hassle free.

But it’s the Windstar that has stood us best. Over the years we’ve strapped a bulging canvas carrier to the top, loaded the back with suitcases, wedged a cooler in between the seats and taken off to see America.  Twice to the aforementioned Dakotas, the second time a few weeks before Michael went off to college. There was the summer we spent a week in Minnesota, one of the nicest family vacations ever, with a friend of mine whose father built a cabin for us to stay in. There was the trip to the Carolina’s with a couple of families, rolling the van off and on ferry’s, the kids thrilled to be “In a car, on a boat!” as we skipped the interstate and island hopped up the outer banks to Kitty Hawk, Jamestown, and into Washington D.C.

We trekked to Niagara Falls via Michigan and across Canada. Michael, new driver’s permit in his pocket, lead in his right foot, causing his nervous old man to shout: “It’s go time. HOLD ON!” as we barreled toward the back bumper of a car which had slowed to a crawl on a congested highway outside of Detroit.  One spring break we traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Windstar stalling out on a steep grade, coasting into a driveway where we cranked her up and went on our way.   The longest journey we took was to South Padre Island, Texas, 3,000 miles roundtrip, the passage through a deserted King’s Ranch the desolate flip side of the fertile Dakotas.  Add to this soccer games, swim meets, football games, birthday parties, piano recitals, band concerts, weddings, first communions and graduations where we filled the Windstar with family and friends, enjoying their company and the ride as much as the events themselves.  With the kids in college, the Windstar has slipped into semi-retirement, rolled out for tailgating at Illinois games or hauling stuff home from the hardware store. Back seat removed, it’s like a pickup truck with a roof.

A week ago, Yolanda and I drove to Anissa’s college to bring her home for fall break. She asked us to bring a futon with us, so we bought one at Walmart, hoisted it into the back of the Windstar and headed out. On the way, however, the “Service Engine Light” glowed an ominous orange on the dashboard.

Yolanda and I exchanged uncertain looks.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my van,” she said. “Take it in as soon as we get home.”

The local shop we’ve used for years ran a diagnostic test and determined that in order to stop that orange light from shining we needed a part that would cost $500 plus labor.

“What happens if we don’t install it?” I asked. “The car has 153,000 miles on it and is probably worth $1,500. Will the engine be damaged? The orange light stay on?”

“You’re not gonna hurt anything except gas mileage. She may start rough, sometimes. That light’ll stay on, though. Lots of cars have been driven lots of miles with that light on. But, well, you know, it’s an old car.”

“That it is,” I said.

The next morning was Saturday. We were scheduled to drive to Normal for parents weekend with our son, do some tailgating, see a football game. A tailor-made trip for the Windstar, so we loaded her up and took off.

It was a sunny, crisp, college brochure picture of a day. We pulled the van into the last spot of a crowded lot, hauled out the grill, table, coolers and canvas chairs and left the hatchback open.  We met Michael’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time, grilled fajitas and drank beer. A buddy of mine from high school dropped by. We leaned against the Windstar and caught up with one another. It was a perfect day in every way. The home team even won. After the game we piled into the Winsdstar.

I glanced into the rear view mirror as we drove along the two lane highway that leads to our little town.  A now eighteen year old Anissa was asleep in the back, her face as untroubled as if she were still eight, snug and secure in the reclined seat.

Empty, harvested fields stretched across the horizon on either side. Winter approaching, the farmers are tending to their equipment in  machine sheds, already preparing for spring planting.

I patted Yolanda’s knee and we swapped smiles. I turned my attention to the open road and nudged the Windstar up to cruising speed, doing my best to ignore the orange light glowing from the dashboard.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Baby Boomers, Canada, Carolina Outer Bank, Family, Favorite Cars, Football, Friends, National Parks, Niagara Falls, November 2011, Road Trips, Small town America, South Padre Island

Fifty-Fifty

“When you turn fifty,” one of my friends told me on my birthday two weeks ago, “you have more days behind you than ahead. That’s the reality, not fifty-fifty like some people like to think.”

And “Happy Birthday” to you too.

While he might have saved that Eeyore like insight for another day, my friend is correct.  The odds of a 50-year-old living to 100 are 1 in 37.  Although my paternal grandmother made it to ninety-seven and my father might have lived just as long were it not for a three pack a day smoking habit (the genes on that side of the family are stout) it is doubtful I will see my 100th birthday.  Although I share those genes and my mother lived into her early 80’s, from an actuarial perspective, it’s unlikely. That’s nothing to beat myself up about.  Not too many folks become centenarians.  Certainly I try to take care of myself. I am no longer much of a drinker, but I’ve had more than my share of booze over the years, like to smoke a cigar a couple times a month and other than a bowl of oatmeal each morning I eat whatever I feel like.  Not thinking that adds up to a 100 year life span.

So I concede my friend’s point. The end is closer than the beginning. Perhaps that is why, at fifty, we tend to take stock of ourselves more than other milestone birthdays.

On the plus side, I am very much in love with my wife, have two great kids, enjoy my day job and the people I work with and am able to express my creativity through writing. I enjoy good relations with my brothers, sisters, in-laws and have a wealth of friends, fellow parishioners and neighbors.  I live in a small town that allows me to not have to get in a car every time I want to do something. I walk to work, church, the post office and the American Legion for the occasional whiskey shot and cold beer. Once in a while after Saturday night Mass I combine my taste for booze, ability to walk and the practicing of my faith and stop at the Legion for a drink on the way home. How nice is that?

Physically, I’m in good shape.  At 6-2 and 180, I’m where I need to be height and weight wise. However, I have a cranky back as the result of an injury in my mid-thirties which caused two bulging discs to press on my sciatic nerve and caused considerable pain. Through physical therapy I avoided surgery and have had minimal problems since.  Last  year I was diagnosed with early stages of hip impingement (the ball joint of my leg is rubbing against the socket and will likely require surgery in the future.) It causes stiffness, not pain, and I do exercises every day to strengthen my abdominal and upper leg muscles, thus relieving the stress on the joints.  Every third day, I run three miles at an eight and a half-minute per mile pace. Certainly not fast enough to win my age group in a 5k, but better than most 50-year-old males I suspect.

As for stress, I confess to a lesser amount now that both kids are in college. Out of sight, out of mind in regard to worrying about them certainly holds true.  That, and the fact that my wife, Yolanda, and I know they are where they should be at this stage of their lives and are happy, makes for content parents. Probably my biggest concern is in regard to this country’s economic future. A concern that many folks carry these days.  While I’m employed with an income that provides for my family’s needs, I come in contact with hard-working people every day who cannot say the same. Economic well-being is not something I ever, or have ever, taken for granted, but what disturbs me about our current state of affairs is the lack of confidence in the future.  I have not encountered this among folks from so many walks of life as I have the last few years.

I wonder myself what life may be like when Yolanda and I can no longer work and our bodies start to fail us.  It seems that every time you pick up the paper another societal institution is crumbling down upon the individuals who supported it. Our national psyche is unsettled, too many Americans are living in fear, and without a dramatic change in the near future this may become what some economic forecasters call the “new normal.” If so, who wants to live to be 100 anyway?

That all said, I sleep well at night. Perhaps it’s because I was raised by two people who survived the Great Depression and WWII and they taught me to take care of what I can, turn the rest over to God and do my best to enjoy the day.  Let’s face it, life is a crapshoot.  How we all happened to be here to begin with still a subject of debate.

So, in response to my friend, yeah, I’m no actuary, but  I get it.  Sure, it’s unlikely that I will make 100  But as I sit  here on my screen porch with our Sheltie, Sammy, I’m OK with that.  The sun is shining and a soft breeze is blowing as I write. With rustling fall leaves signalling their approach, a friend and his three-year-old son, our God son, walk by and wave.  They’ll be over for supper later. I’ve got a pork roast in the smoker and Yolanda is making potato salad.  We’ll visit, eat, have a couple of beers, Yolanda will play in the leaves with our God son and we’ll watch the sunset on the screen porch.

Like everybody else, I have no idea what the future holds or whether I’ve lived more days on this earth than not. But in this moment, in this place,  I do know the odds that today is going to be a great day are better than fifty-fifty.  That’s good enough for me.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 50th Birthday, 5K Races, Baby Boomers, Economics, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Institutions, October 2011, Running