Monday, November 23, 2015

Goodbye, my friend.

Dear Gillian:

When a dog gives you her love, it is without reservation. No matter that you are at times grumpy or a slob or simply oblivious to what she offers – her warm nose and wagging tail revive your heart.

And when she is gone, she leaves a hole in your soul.

Saffron, the beautiful white whippet that shared our lives for 15 years, died Sunday morning this Nov. 20, her head lovingly cradled by your brother. She could outrun the wind, turn on a rabbit’s footprint and jump like an Olympian. But she couldn’t beat the cancer that wore her away.

Saffron wasn’t my dog; she was very much the dog of my son Garrett. But she and I had a special relationship based on unspoken words. I’m a professional communicator, a journalist, a man of words. But I’m in awe how another species can tell me exactly what she wants, guide my footsteps or tell me I’m better than I think merely with a wag, a glittering eye or a warm nose laid in my lap.

We bought Saffron in Oregon as a present to a boy who had put up with the indignities of student housing while I worked on my degree. You had grown up with Maggie, that beautiful English springer spaniel. Garrett deserved his own chance to feel the love of a good dog.

At the kennel, Saffron was the little white puppy who left the litter to come cuddle him. There was never a doubt about their bond.

She owes her name not to a spice, but to Tom Cruise. Hot cars and “Days of Thunder” were the rage of junior high school boys at the time. “I’m just mad about Saffron,” was an ode to high speed.

And Lord was she fast. She delighted in running down a cottontail or squirrel. She would embarrass sweating joggers by flying past them at a gentle lope. She was once attacked by a mean cur at the dog park. She let it chase her, slowing to let him near her tail and then jetting ahead again. Eventually, the bully dropped to its belly panting and whimpering. His good ol’ boy owner ran over the help him, muttering “Damn, no one has ever done that to him before.” I swear that Saffron grinned.

When Garrett finished school and move to his new career, Saffron went with him. Greta, a pretty little brindle whippet, became the new warm spot on my lap. On her frequent visits, Saffron never let Greta forget who was the queen hound. The two were my fishing buddies at the creek behind our house. Greta tiptoed around the edges of the water or splashed across the shallows at high speed. But Saffron loved to swim. She would slip into a deep pool without a splash and glide around in long loops in her doggy version of water ballet. When she had enough, she would find a sunny spot to bask until her fine short hair dried.

That hair was so fine that you could see freckles on her skin through it. It was closer to fur than dog hair, so silky it would startle people who petted
her. And she love to be petted. A walk downtown with her was a parade – she posing for adoring fans and they clamoring to stroke her back. You were never short of company with Saffron on a leash.

As she grew older, she just watched the rabbits bound away and spent more time in a sunny spot near the window. Her eyes were still bright and still eloquent, but we all could see she was slipping away. When Garrett and Brittany moved to Knoxville, I watched her age, text-messaged photo by text-messaged photo.

Last week the vet said the time was near. But yesterday, she perked up as if to take one last tour of her world. She ate, she cuddled and even trotted a few feet on a walk of the neighborhood. Then she quietly said goodbye.

Pet your dog Nigella tonight, Gillian  Look into her eyes for those words that only a dog can say. Be loved.

Thank you, Saffron. You, too, were loved.

-- Dad

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sunday Evenings with Edward Gorey


Dear Dad,

I don't really think of myself as a creature of habit. I don't eat the same lunch every day. I don't take the same route when I walk the dog in the evening. I don't want to go to the same vacation spot year in and year out. I like new things. I enjoy different.

There's an exception, of course (as there is to every rule), and that is Sunday evenings. I think, even if I was lost in the wilderness or trapped on an island and I'd totally lost track of days and months and even years, I would know when Sunday evening rolled around. Because almost without fail, as the day fades into evening and the weekend draws to a close, the urge to watch Masterpiece bubbles up inside me, and I find myself craving a cup of tea and a good episode of Inspector Lewis or a nice costume drama. And it's totally your fault.

I'm sure there was a point in my life when I did NOT love a good BBC/WGBH mystery and/or lengthy period saga, although I can't really remember it. Masterpiece Theater and Mystery are, along with my accidental viewing of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the earliest memories I have of watching TV. Names like Morse and Forsyth and Jeeves seem to have always been in my scope of understanding. I don't even remember when I started actually watching Masterpiece and Mystery (although I remember that it was BEFORE they became one show) but I have very vivid memories of my evenings ending right about the time that either Vincent Price or Alistair Cook came on the screen to give a few hints about what events were about to unfold. I was allowed to stay up and watch the introduction long before I could understand the show that followed. I liked Mystery best. The travelling shot of what I supposed was meant to look like an old fashioned gentleman's library (Alistair's?) was ok, it had a catchy tune, but it had nothing on Edward Gorey's art, or for that matter, Vincent Price's creepy voice, still audible as I lingered on the stairs on my way to bed. I loved the fainting lady best of all, but the spiderweb fan in the ballroom seen was pretty awesome as well.

I still find myself a little shocked when the old, longer introduction doesn't play before mystery. It's been shortened and shortened again I know, but I always expect to hear the whole thing because that's how it plays in my head round about the time the kids go to bed on a Sunday night. It's like an internal alarm. Sunday evening has arrived!! Cue the Masterpiece! Make the tea!

More frightening still is that this disease seems to be catching. Last weekend Will suggested we rewatch an episode of Lewis "Because it's Sunday." I wonder how long it will be before the kids catch it? Evelyn is most likely to fall first, being, already, a fan of Miss Fisher and Jane Austen. It's contagious, or possibly genetic. Either way....

Bah Bah bum bum bum bum ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bum bum bum ba-bum bum bum

Who's making the tea?


Friday, September 4, 2015

A Masterpiece of memories

Dear Gillian,

In a round-about way, Masterpiece Theater gave you to the world.

My history with television was much different from that of your mother. You professor grandfather insisted his five children limit watching to an hour a day and then only to “quality” shows without violence.

At my house, we glued ourselves to the television for every slapstick humor or macho action series the three networks offered. I could sing the entire theme song to both The Beverly Hillbillies and Rawhide and knew every dogface serving with Sgt. Saunders in Combat.

One of my earliest memories was going to the appliance store in Los Angeles to pick out our first TV – a huge mahogany-doored, black-and-white sporting the Victrola dog on its base. We must have put it on layaway, because I can remember being bundled up for a walk where we stood outside the closed appliance store and stared at “our” television through the window. I could not have been more than 4 years old at the time.

(You still have a piece of that TV, by the way. Dad later made it into locker boxes for Mark and I. I passed mine along to you.)

By the time I got to college and met Cecile, I was a die-hard fan of junk TV. Then that beautiful coed with the dimples said we could cuddle on their couch while watching a new show on Educational Television.

I didn’t really care what was on the old black-and-white set in the Gibbs’ family room as long as I could have my arm around Cecile as we sat on the Naugahyde couch on a Sunday night.

But I was absolutely enthralled when a silver-haired English gentleman eloquently explained that there was so much more to Churchill than “Never in the field of human conflict…” My mom was one of the so few in RAF blue to whom so much was owed by many.

And thus began Episode 1, Season I of Masterpiece Theatre: The First Churchills. Throughout the winter of 1971, Sunday was my day of joy. Not only did I get to cuddle up to my sweetheart on a winter night, but I got to watch how John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, fend off his 17th Century political rivals as skillfully as he did the French invading Ireland.

I was hooked. We haven’t always spent our Sundays with a Masterpiece, but there were many memorable ones. As young marrieds, Poldark was almost a shared vice. We were, of course, swept up in the global excitement of Upstairs, Downstairs and we could not get enough of Lord Peter Wimsey in The Nine Tailors.

You should be able to speak Latin for all the hours Mom and I rocked you while watching I, Claudius.

There were other favorites, of course. Danger UXB is still, for my money, the most gripping wartime drama ever filmed. Jeeves and Wooster is among the funniest. Prime Suspect defined the woman detective genre.

We now get most of our British dramas on Netflix and have a Masterpiece-like addiction to the Swedish mysteries on Mhz network. Masterpiece is now split between Mystery and the dramas, so we dive in and out to taste what we like.

In my mind, though, there is only one Masterpiece Theatre. I can close my eyes now and feel the warmth of your mom’s head on my shoulder as the melodious voice of Alistair Cooke bids me “Good Evening. I know in an instant he will tell me some bit of history that I never knew I would want to know so much.

-- Dad

Friday, August 28, 2015

Back in Action


Dear Dad,

The end of summer was, I’m not going to lie, a little anticlimactic at our house. This whole Mom-is-a-full-time-teacher thing is a whole new world for us. All sorts of things are different. There’s no one to pick up groceries in the middle of the day or make sure the laundry gets put in the dryer right away so that it doesn’t get stinky on hot days sitting in the wash. Calenders are fuller, dinner is later, and the first day of school came after two weeks of getting up and going into school during school hours, only instead of spending the day with me in the library, they actually went to class, which was probably a nice change for them. So it’s been a little bit of a weird week, for all of us. Maybe me most especially.

It’s been a long (long, long) time since I started the first day of school as a teacher. Last year about now I was accidentally signing up for grad school. And for the decade plus before that I was one of the moms dropping kids off with a sigh of mixed relief and anxiety. In fact, the last time I started the school year as a teacher I wasn’t yet a mother. I thought my life was full to the brim then. Little did I know how much crazier it could get.

I didn’t know then that the evenings would be full of extra kids over for dinner and homework and chores and golf lessons and swimming nights and did-anyone-take-out-the-trash/walk-the-dog/remember-to-turn-on-the-crockpot-oh-crap-I-forgot-that-thing-at-school-I-needed-to-do-tonight. (Thank goodness for GoogleDrive) It’s a satisfying kind of busy. I’m tired in that way where your arms feel heavier than normal and your eyes are blurry even with glasses on. But it feels good to be back in the library, to get hugs and notes and hear my favorite question, “Gillian, do you have any ideas for a good book?”

We’re back. School is in. Life is good. And now? A glass of wine and a good night’s sleep.


Back to school and the University blues


Dear Gillian,

Why is it that no matter how much I plan through the summer, I’m never ready for the start of school?

It’s Friday as I write, and the first week of classes just ended at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. I’m sorting through the debris now and trying to decide what I will teach next week.

I know there is no need for concern: I have a Ph.D., 25 years of journalism experience and a big mouth. I could talk for an hour on astrophysics if I had a few PowerPoint slides and a darkened classroom.

Every year, however, I panic that the magic is gone. I’m over the nightmare that I will go to school without my pants on, but I still wonder if anything sane will come out of my mouth as those students stare me down.

Sane I was and gracious the students were – even when the AV equipment followed tradition and broke down. That was actually a great kick start for me because I had to wing it while the technicians tinkered in the background.

The first week of school at a university is a wonderful cacophony of expectations, surprises, posturing and hiding. The parade of new clothes is entertaining – especially the fashion fails that will disappear next week. Hormones rage among the freshmen, who three months ago were high school students but are now living away from home for the first time.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the doctoral students knit their eyebrows, dash head-down from classroom to library and wistfully recall when there actually was a summer break.

And there is me. I always start the term with a bright tie, a snappy dress shirt and a sports coat (even though it is invariably hot). It’s a power play, sure, but the students get the impression I’m a pro and I get to reassure myself that I’ve lived through this before. By next week the jacket will be back on a hanger and the tie will come and go.

Once I get going, I enjoy the first lecture. I scan the arc of chairs for the usual suspects: the big guy in a reversed baseball cap who may doze off, the intense young lady bent to her desk and taking notes on everything (including my jokes), the dazed international student blankly looking at me like I’m speaking gibberish. Which to him, I am.

Some professors speculate that they could give a grade to their students on the first day and it would hold true at the end of the term. I’ve thought of that, but it’s really just an admission of failure. The A student in, A student out is a classroom pleasure. But the students who start totally lost but whom you coach to at least a B is a button-bursting victory. They are the ones who will pop up on your Facebook five years later to thank you. Even if you don’t remember their names.

So my jitters are gone, I have notes for next week in one of these piles and I’ve already had one student I vaguely recognize stop me in the hall to say “hello.” Why did I ever worry about the first day of school? It’s going to be a great semester.


-- Dad

Friday, July 17, 2015

Small Town Girl

Dear Dad,

Last weekend was, as you know, my 20th High School Reunion. We'll just skip over the unbelievable fact that high school for me was 20 years ago, though -- it tends to remind me that I'm old. But in the midst of the inevitable "So where are you living these days?" and "Where are you working now?" I overheard Will commenting to somebody that while yes, we live in Portland, that I was still a small town girl at heart. Actually, I think what he said was that I had a split personality- part of me loved the city, the rest of me craves a small town.

He's totally right. I appreciate living in a city. I like the access to culture, the choice of shopping and parks and activities, I enjoy the diversity, but I'm really a small town girl. I want to know everybody, I want familiar and cozy and predictable. I loved being a part of village plays and town hall meetings.

In a small town you have to participate. Because unless everyone participates, there aren't enough people to make anything happen. Cities afford a sort of anonymity that makes it too easy to just not participate. Because someone else will organize the festival or the blood drive or the clean up days.
If I could wave a magic wand and create the perfect place for us, it would be a small, vibrant, bikeable village where I could still walk to work and the grocery store and the park but where I knew everybody. My family would all live nearby and, hey, this is a dream town, right? I could easily hop on a train and get to a larger city and several other countries within a few hours. So basically I need to be living in a pre-war, pre-border check English village.

The reality is that being married to an urban designer does not go hand in hand with rural village living. And, as I realized after a few hours back in my small home town, the politics of small town life can seem close-minded to me after years in big and small cities (not to mentions wildly liberal New England villages). And so my solution is to live in the parts of cities that feel village-like.

 Neighborhoods that are dense and well defined, where almost everything you need on a daily basis is within a few minutes bike ride or walk, or in a stretch a quick drive. in Dublin it was Rathgar, in New York it was Morningside Heights, in Portland its Hawthorne, an identity beyond the city. A homemade village. I love Portland precisely because living in the part of town that we do is as close to small town life as you can get in a city, so it satisfies both sides of that split personality of mine.

            -- Gillian

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Small town life in the heartland of America

Dear Gillian,

Garrison Keeler would have been proud. Prairie Home, MO, has everything Lake Woebegone has only in dreams.

Saturday, Mom and I took a winding ride to the 100th annual Prairie Home Fair – an event unlike most of us have seen for decades. It’s not one of those cows, pigs and jelly jars fairs.

This is community celebration of games, songs and good times. And it is all the better for what it doesn’t have.

Like mobile phones. The grandstand was full and there were the requisite number of bored teenagers. But not a one was texting, not one was playing a game. And none of the adults were checking email. Their eyes were on the arena.

We arrived just as the kids bicycle races were hitting their mark. About 75 kids from 5 to 12 raced by the handful around four orange cones on a bare-dirt lot. First peddler to make two circuits ahead of the crowd could coast over to a wooden shed and collect $5, cash.

A few more things were notably missing: Bicycle helmets, clinging parents, knee pads – and lawyers. When kids spun out at that tricky first turn, they rubbed their knees got back on their bikes and peddled like crazy.
But one of those wipe-outs left me a spectacular memory. Two 12-year-old boys who were obviously friends jockeyed for the pole (or cone) on their small-wheeled bikes. Inevitably, one tumbled and tumbled hard. He got up, but spilled at yet another corner.

His friend coasted to the booth for his five $1 bills. But as he walked away, he stuffed the bills into his fallen friend’s pocket.

Ain’t that America?

                            -- Dad

Sunday, June 21, 2015

My Own Personal Superhero

Dear Dad,

You probably don't know this, but when I was little, I thought you were magic.

Ok. It's not terribly surprising. I had, as you know, what might be termed an "overactive" imagination. I was sure there was something that lived behind the woodpile in the basement that would jump out and grab my ankles if I had to go down the stairs in the dark. I thought that Lucille Ball was actually Grandma Diane, and that everyone else had just forgotten to mention that to me. And I knew, just knew that you had magical powers.

I suppose lots of kids think their parents are in some way, magical (mom could definitely see through the back of her head, for instance) but this was different. This went beyond the preschool belief that the coin dad pulled out from behind my ear really came from my ear.  This was not blind belief that my father could solve any problem. You could, of course. But there was more. Because you, dad were not far off from Superman.

Not only could you do amazing things like ride you bike with no hands and fix broken toys and find my missing, precious, blanket when it went missing. There were several indicators at your work that you were, in fact, a superhero.

For example, the fat, waxy pencils that magically sharpened themselves when you pulled on the string that protruded off the side, causing layers of....something that was not wood...fall away to reveal bright red or deep black lead. Or there were the machines that turned a full sized, pasted up version of the newspaper into a tiny metal version of the newspaper which were then turned, somehow, into the newspaper. You could type on a typewriter with a cat balanced on your shoulders. I had seen the photo! And the line tape, although not really magical, was really cool. I'm not sure if you ever noticed, but I plastered the underside of your desk with it every time I spent visited you at the paper.

And then there was the magic portal. A tiny round room into which people (sometimes you!) walked, sliding the door shut behind them and then they were gone! It was better than a magician's trick to see you evaporate into the darkroom, especially before I knew it was just a light block to keep the photos from being exposed during processing. Although even after I realized what was beyond the magic door, I still thought you had superhero like powers. After all. YOU COULD TURN A PIECE OF WHITE PAPER INTO A PHOTOGRAPH DAD! No matter how hard I tried, I could never replicate the spell in the sink of my toy kitchen. (That is how, you might recall, I almost torched the house, trying to recreate the powers of the darkroom by draping Strawberry Shortcake's red dress over the bare bulb in my closet. The red light, after all, might have been the missing ingredient to make the spell work.)

There came a point, inevitably, when I realized that these mysterious and wondrous things were standard newspaper procedures. That the door revolved, developers and negatives were responsible for photographs and those awesome peel-away marking pencils were, well they were still pretty awesome, but not magic.

It didn't change the fact, however, that you still had superhero-like qualities. That you still DO have superhero qualities. I mean, you should listen to your grandson tell other people about the GIGANTIC fish his poppa can catch or how you once rode in a car with that guy who made chili and fast engines and he drove so fast that your face nearly peeled off (except it didn't, because, duh, even Carroll Shelby couldn't peel the face off a superhero. By the way, did you tell him that story? Because he tells it to EVERYONE).

So Happy Father's Day, Super-Dad (aka Super-Poppa) Not everyone get's to have a superhero for a dad. We all love you so much, me most of all.