Estrangement, defined

My brother John estranged himself from our family years ago.

We don’t talk about this much, not because it’s some awful story but because we really don’t understand it.  Oh, we’ve pieced it together over the years– we’re clever enough for that– but even now the why is so much less important than the what.  Why?  That’s insignificant next to the fact that my brother could have died and I wouldn’t even know it.  It’s easy to say that—to think “he’s as good as dead to me” or to treat him as such, but the cavalier nature of such a throwaway phrase has become glaringly evident to me lately.  Death?  That’s far too final a word, and frankly too kind a word for my brother’s choice.  That’s what estrangement is.

This spring I met a friend, a good and genuine person, whose own brother died in his arms.  Last night I watched a colleague tearfully walk away from a job, a career and a community that he loved because his own brother is dying of a terminal wasting illness, the kind of thing that leaves a strong man bereft of so much as the ability to eat solid food.  I met these men recently.  Learned of the one’s impending loss on the same day, in the same place, that I heard John had been in town last weekend.  The irony of these moments crossing threw my brother’s behavior into stark relief, forced me to open up about it before it’s a real loss brought about through divine agency, as opposed to one merely engineered via (misguided) human agency.

That’s what estrangement is.

When I talk to people who’ve been through that real loss and hold the measure of my false, imposed loss—an arbitrary loss, enforced by a grown man and his wife who somehow think the best way he can relate to his parents and older brother is by giving them “the silent treatment”—it pales by comparison.  It’s fake, it’s unreal, it’s nothing, because there’s always a hope for a change.  And still, it’s something.  The sorrow is real.  People who’ve lost their loved ones in truth can never get them back.  That finality is worse, I’m sure, and yet that knowledge does nothing to fill the emptiness of absence.  I’m fairly sure my brother doesn’t understand this.

That’s what estrangement is.

I don’t know what that sort of otherness is like for him.  For myself, for a long time it felt like a part of my childhood, my life, my identity was stolen.  Brothers play and fight and everything else because they’re close.  Ours was rarely the best relationship, even as little tykes, but growing up we always had one another.  That sort of thing stays with you, even as you get older.  How much worse must it be for a parent?brothers

As a brother, the whole scenario just leaves me feeling empty at best.  As a parent myself, I can only imagine the range of emotions he’s put my own mother and father through.  I love my children and can’t even envision the pain I would feel if I lost touch with any one of them.  I hate watching my folks suffer.  I hate hearing the anger in my Dad’s voice when the subject comes up, hate seeing what the sorrow has done to my Mom.  Hate the mistrust when people they know and love have been spending time with John, and those people buy into his code of silence, keeping his secrets, not even having the decency to tell my parents that “I saw your son, and he’s in good health.”  Not understanding that their complicity in this ludicrous silence is really just another means of twisting a knife.  Qui tacet consentire videtur.

All of these things happen, because he isn’t really gone.

That’s what estrangement is.

Me?  I can’t play basketball with my kids without thinking of our one-on-one half-court battles in the alley behind the house.  I can’t tell them funny stories from my own childhood without mentioning his role– he always had one.  I can’t teach them about brotherhood without musing on the one we shared.  It’s reached the point where I relate these tales with a fondness, a warmth for someone I no longer know or see, someone once here and now gone; it seems right but at the same time it’s wrong, because I speak the same way about family who’ve passed.  John hasn’t passed.  He’s still out there somewhere, doing his thing, just willfully not a part of our lives.

That’s what estrangement is.

I’ll never understand that, never understand the person he’s chosen to become, the person he is.  At the same time, I’m done mourning the person he was.  I remember that boy, all our ups and downs, and I celebrate him.  I wouldn’t be me without him. I can do that, because to do anything else would be to make myself complicit with the silence too.  I’m not buying in.  I don’t play those games.  I’ll remember the child he was to anyone who asks.

But life itself is so much more than memory.  The truth remains that in this state of affairs, we won’t share our kids’ football games, soccer matches or tae kwon do tourneys.  We won’t talk on the phone during heartbreaking Packer losses and throw our remote controls through the walls of our respective houses at the same time. We won’t fight and argue and debate either, but I’d take that back in a heartbeat to see this burden lifted from my parents before it’s too late.

My brother is gone now, possibly for good, far away.  But not far enough to stop hurting people, nor far enough to be entirely beyond the hope of healing.

That’s what estrangement is.

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On Storytelling (or “I can finally see you there, Forest. Yes, you. Behind those Trees.”)

My father is a storyteller. He always has been. Some of my favorite memories of Dad are the stories he’d tell of growing up in the old Italian neighborhood, of attending his all-boys Catholic high school, or the different knuckle-dusters he and his pals got into back in the pre-gun-lobby days before anyone could easily bring a gun to a knife-fight (or really, even knives to a fistfight). The stories thrilled me as a kid, and the way my dad could spin them is still evident to this day, when he reels my sons in with the same polished tales and has them hanging on every word just like I must have been.

Me, I’ve always been a writer, and a frustrated one at that. One capable of highly polished fragments, essays and album reviews and technology strategies but never stories, when stories were all that I ever really wanted to write.

There is a meaningful connection between these talents that it’s taken me forty years to understand, but I feel like I’m starting to get it.

It has finally occurred to me that if I want to create something lasting, if I want to create a story worth reading, then I need to actually begin with the story aspect and only after that give rein to the writing.

These two things, storytelling and writing, they’re related but they’re really quite different. The best writers, of course, must by nature also be good storytellers. This should be simple common sense but as I sit down and try to begin weaving a common shape and form from the various threads and ideas I’ve constructed over the last six months, it hits me rather more like a revelation. Forest, you can come out from behind those Trees; I’ve found you at last.

For years now I’ve been told by friends, peers, colleagues, and even an overly-kind editor or three that I’m a talented writer. That I have a way with words—with assembling them not so much in an order as in a fluid, shifting alignment that lends itself to illuminated description. That with a turn of phrase I can in turn strike comic, tragic, pithy and powerful notes alike with a certain skill that sets itself apart. And maybe all of this is true, but for it to amount to much more than a talent I sometimes apply in the course of my professional life, I need to learn to create frameworks.

Outlines, for essays of nonfiction—-these I can do readily enough.

But plots, for fiction, for stories—-those have always been challenging. More frustratingly so because fiction is what I’ve always hoped to write. The long-term planning that it takes to flesh out a plot, a believable beginning and ending certainly but all of that rising and falling action in between, the little climaxes up through the final denouement? This has always eluded me, and of course the frustration of that builds upon itself in a never-ending mountain-from-molehill process that threatens at times to make it all seem an entirely pointless cause.

Of late there’s been glimmerings, though; lights of hope and faith where, if they’re properly seized and acted upon, can lead me to tunnel through or wind around that old mountain.

Firstly, there’s the inspiration, the external examples. Good ones. In the last two years, I’ve seen four different friends and peers publish their own books. It’s exciting to see, and not simply because I’m happy for all of them, but because of what they represent—-different routes to perseverance and, eventually, publication. Every one of their tales has taught me something worth knowing, something helpful.

There’s a variety of reasons I can’t follow in the footsteps of my friend the Famous Young Author, but his massive advance and the attendant publicity are a great story all by themselves. Plus, he’s a fantastic writer and reading his well-constructed (and in places, well-familiar) first novel was a rare treat. On the other end of the spectrum in more ways than one, a second friend has successfully self-published a sci-fi saga and beyond that, become an advocate for the very process of self-publishing. A third went the small press route for a recently-published piece of nonfiction that I’m expecting from Amazon any day, and the fourth (actually two co-authors) parlayed their longtime fandom for a certain industry superstar into a collaboration with said superstar.

All different routes, each one involving hard work and years of dedication, but all with an artistic payoff at the end of it. Again-—inspiring. Thanks to all of you for that; you know who you are.

The second is less a matter of inspiration and more a case of self-realization. My struggle with fiction, as I’ve noted, is with crafting plots—-but strangely, I realize, I love to tell stories. Aloud. With friends, with family, often to colleagues and most especially in front of hundreds of people when I’m presenting some work-related topic. These stories flow freely, are almost always comic in nature, and inevitably amuse my audience. (Sure, it might just be polite laughter, but none of these people stand much to gain from indulging plain old me for any old reason, so let’s assume the stories really are legitimately entertaining.)

Shouldn’t it stand to reason that if I can spin the necessary elements of a tale into oral storytelling, I should be able to do the same thing when I’m writing them down?

Typing that in just now, it seems even more mind-numbingly obvious than it did a dozen paragraphs ago.

I’ve always been a storyteller. I just hadn’t figured it out ‘til today. Maybe it’s in the genes.

Why Prep Football Matters

South Milwaukee versus Cudahy.  It’s rivalry night.

I know that to some people it seems odd when guys my age still care about prep football, but honestly, I’m glad that I do. It’s the guys who played for years, and/or coached– the guys who really get football as a sport, not a spectacle– who understand this.

The NFL is basically two offensive schemes and two defensive schemes, everyone’s a great athlete, and the refs call nearly everything. Yawn.  Even without the whole player discipline fiasco, I was bored with pro football years ago.  Don’t get me started on the know-it-all “fans” either.  There’s nothing more annoying than watching a football game with people who never even played at the youth level, but feel like their “fantasy team” makes them an expert.  Sigh.

A good college game is far more fun, but I don’t have a connection to any big-time football schools, so unless Notre Dame is on it’s hard to get too excited.

Prep football is fascinating schematically– where else can you see a wishbone team, or a school still running the single wing, go up against a spread option team (and even win)? Not even the college game offers this kind of variety anymore– nearly everyone in D-I runs some variation of spread, spread, spread and the defenses of course follow suit to contain it.

At a good high school game, you can see that the kids on the field really care; they play their hearts out.  For so many of them, this is their big chance to shine in front of the crowd, and they play like it.  For us in the stands, my little guys can be right up close to the action when we catch a game. They never get sick of that.

High school football teams represent their communities in ways college and professional teams haven’t in decades.  They’re tied to who lives in a given geography, or shares a certain faith, and the common values, hopes and dreams of those people.  They variously can represent blue-collar values, white-collar elitism, and the driven aspirations of lower-income neighborhoods.  They can (and often do) inspire.  They are our brothers and sons and grandsons, or they are equally powerful memories of those brothers and sons and grandsons.

There’s an argument waiting to be made that maybe football isn’t a thing for grown men; maybe it should be done for everyone at eighteen, the way it is for the vast majority of kids who go home in November and get themselves ready for wrestling or basketball season.  Not just because of concussion risks and the way we as a society shower massive and undeserved adulation on college and professional athletes, exacerbating narcissism and growing bad apples– but maybe just because it’s better that way.  A game.  For kids.  They might not be on TV (when they are, it’s too much) but they already do it better.

Sorry, Roger Goodell.  My apologies, fantasy football players everywhere.  Give me the Friday Night Lights every time.

Inheritance (Lost and Found)

“Right here,” my father says, setting his feet in a spot on the gym floor, just outside the Columbia blue basketball lane where one of my five uncles likely spent hours making layups, looking down at the waxed floorboards and then up, up into the shadow of the rafters. Up there among the lights, kept dim now to avoid shedding unwanted heat below but doubtless all bright fluorescence in that moment, that place where your eyes go when you’re pinned to the mat, through no choice of their own. Dad’s grinning at my two little boys, the oldest of whom is two now, having turned not long before this day in the summer of 2007, and my son, he’s listening raptly. “This is right about where I pinned the guy from St. Nazianz JFK Prep at the state tournament senior year.”

They’re listening, the kids, but so am I and even though Dad’s not looking at me I’m probably more drawn in by this story than they are. Through all my thirty-two years, through the ups and downs and ups again of our relationship, I have never been here in this gymnasium before. I should have been. Would have been. This gym, where they held the state private-schools wrestling tournament in 1969 and it wasn’t Dad’s school then, but it is now, and if that doesn’t confuse you then you must be as familiar as I am with the consolidations and name changes and co-opted traditions of Catholic high schools as they struggled to remain relevant in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Which is to say: You are probably confused, and that’s okay. Most people would be. dsc00056

It is summer and school is out, the cavernous chamber redolent with the scents and sounds of the offseason high-school field house: floor wax, stale air kept not cool but never quite hot, the occasional squeak of an explorer’s sneaker on the hardwood in seemingly eternal half-light and shadow. The place is empty except for our family. I say again: I have not been here before, and I say it once and now again because I’m compelled to savor the irony. Because I have only come here now, at last, with my wife and our two little boys and my mom and him, my father, my Dad; now after all of these years where I should have spent four of them, the peak of adolescence.

Could have, should have, and would have. Maybe I did spend four years here, the way I was supposed to, the way they promised me I would when I was a little boy and that was what you did after eight years at St. John’s in South Milwaukee, not the public school with its shop classes and sewing machines where everyone else’s dads and moms and uncles and aunts went but the Catholic school, the undeniably college-prep school, the school where your Dad met another of your five uncles (sort of—- again, consolidations) and said uncle (the oldest) introduced him to your Mom at the all-girls school just across the wooded campus and next to Lake Michigan. Just maybe, in some parallel universe where there was no great economic downturn in the early 80s, where things went on the way they’d done for our parents in the postwar boom years. A parallel universe where Catholic school tuition didn’t spike at the same time working Catholic families’ income dropped through the floor.

This was our tradition, then, something my father could pass down to his sons beyond and above the wonderful stories he’d spin: Latin and debates and wrestling championships, yes, but also pranks and loyal, crazy friends that had your back in a back-alley brawl. There were lots of those, seemingly, in the days when only hoodlums brought knives to a fistfight and kids didn’t shoot kids in the streets of urban ghettos. A chance to step into those stories of simpler times and not just inherit them, but make them your own. This was our inheritance, mine and my brothers, if only we’d had the good fortune to live in that parallel world.

But here in the real world, our postwar booms end. Our centuries close. A factory job isn’t enough to pay for rising tuition after 1980 and going back for a degree is even harder when you have three kids, never mind the National Honor Society or how smart you really are.  Institutions that last generations change almost beyond measure if they stubbornly refuse to just fade and die. The best ones do refuse; they embrace that refusal and drink deep of it. They hear the stories they’re told in spite of it all and they cling to that half-remembered hope of the brighter world that might have been.

Inspired, they fight on like a wrestler staring up at those lights through no will of his own, knowing he has to clear his shoulder and turn his hips and fight, fight, fight back to his belly, then push to his knees, one, the other, both arms posted now, up, up to his feet inexorably and pop his hips and clear that arm again, down, down, breaking defiantly through his rival’s grasping hand to turn and face him. Face that opponent down. Look him dead in the eye, that beast who nearly had you beaten, and show him with your determination and your grit and the flint in your chip-off-the-old-block gaze that you’re not going to be kept down there, no, you didn’t put all those hours of training in just to let it end here, to this chump of all people….

These are our Catholic high schools now. They’ve been beaten down, so many of them stuck to the mat, some still fighting their way back to their feet. But the ones who are left? They stand, hard-eyed and strong and ready for more. My lost inheritance, here in the real world, and a small, silent part of me will mourn that forever but I do have sons. The sons of sons. My oldest, listening wide-eyed as my father talks him through the story of that penultimate match against the big guy from JFK Prep, barely understanding but delighted that his Opa is telling him a story. My second boy, a round little fella sat happily in his stroller, content just to see his Mama and Daddy nearby.

They deserve this. They deserve to not have to fight for their own way of life (though at some point they will, I suspect, and one of my jobs is to arm them for it). They deserve to have something of value handed down to them, not ripped unwittingly from their hands by macroeconomic forces they won’t even understand until sometime in their twenties. They deserve the chance to come here one day, to this school or some other school like it, and make their own stories, content in the knowledge that this is who their family is and this is one great part of the weave, part of the fabric of what makes us who we are: Catholic, hard-working, Midwestern Americans.

I can give them that. In this moment, I know that much at least, standing here.

Right here, here where my father pinned that kid back in 1969.

They’re listening, the kids, but so am I.

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Edelweiss

It’s been a while since I sang “Edelweiss” to my two oldest boys at bedtime, but I did it again tonight.  And no matter how long it’s been, just like every other time, my eyes teared up and I fought off a choking of emotion in my throat. edelweiss I can’t sing that song without remembering my Grandma Joy, because– and I can’t recall if I had this from Grandma herself or my mom– the story goes that her father, my great-grandfather, would pick those flowers in the Bavarian Alps as a child.

Grandma was full of stories and full of songs, and I can’t help remembering her when I sing.  I suppose it’s only appropriate.  It’s one gift I know that I have from her.  Singing is more than your voice; it’s your memory of emotions.

“One day,” I told the boys tonight, “when you’re older, you’ll understand this: Nothing brings a memory back so fast as a smell, and nothing brings an emotion back more truly than a song.”

My Grandma Joy was filled with stories and songs and happiness.  It seems right that when I remember her, it’s not tears of sadness but joy that fill my eyes.  I’m grateful I can share that so openly with my sons.

The Last Long Drive: A Farewell to Saint Rita’s

This morning was a bittersweet one.  I dropped our two older boys off at our Catholic school for the last time.  Obviously, we’re excited about our switch to virtual schooling– it has a lot of advantages specific to our kids and their individualized learning paces, styles, and capabilities– but it’s not something you can do without a hint of trepidation and melancholy.  Well, not something I can do, anyway.

We’ve been at Saint Rita’s for the last seven years, and in that time we’ve been welcomed by the greater part of that community, and that feeling almost always seemed genuine.  I’ll miss the warmth of that experience and the chance for the kids to feel part of something greater.  This was where our oldest had his First Communion, where our youngest was baptized, where we attended countless concerts and Cub Scout meetings and preschool picnics and tech committee meetings and Market Day sessions, et cetera, et cetera. 

The staff of both the school and the preschool were always kind and thoughtful, usually very concerned for our kids, and many of them became friends of the family.  It was a chance to see one of my own favorite elementary teachers run my kids’ school every day, and that was special in itself.  Despite the unusual distance we drove to get there every day, in many ways we felt part of things at that church and school, and it was a wonderful feeling.  

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Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it was that distance that drove us away.  We always meant to sell our house and move closer to school, but the housing market and our life choices made that a tougher step to take than anyone could have anticipated.  For a long time, we felt that the daily sacrifice of time and energy (not to mention all those tanks of gas) to drive our kids to a fantastic school was worth it. 

As time goes on, though, the minor issues you can tolerate for a year or two become major ones as the months and years stack up without change.  You get tired of your little ones spending two hours (or more) every day in a carseat.  You get tired of getting up early, getting home late, and watching the kids miss out on extracurricular opportunities they want to pursue.  You get tired of the gas bill.  And personally, I get tired of people continually asking not just when we’re moving but why we’re bothering to drive every day. We do it because for a long time, we felt it was best for our kids. 

That’s no longer the case.  We think we’ve found something better.  We’ll miss the community, and the ease our kids had in connecting with friends, yes.  We’re all excited to get our lives back from the drive, though.  Excited to spend that time learning, reading, acting, singing, playing piano, playing football, playing soccer, and just plain playing in general.  Excited to meet and make new friends, not just through school but through sports and activities the kids truly enjoy and maybe, just maybe, can connect with a larger number of children who share more of their interests.  Excited to learn about our Catholic faith together, as a family, and not rely so much on what’s covered in the classroom.

We are turning not just a page, but an exciting new chapter.  In the long run, we’re quite sure it’s for the best– but for this morning, I’ll allow myself a sad little smile for the fun we all had.  It’s been a long ride.

Literally!

How a Multi-Ethnic American Family Watches the World Cup

In the dark ages of the 1990s, it struck some people (read: my immediate family) as strange that a kid who grew up playing an entirely different sort of football could be so enamored of international soccer. Happily, that sort of ignorance has been more or less driven underground by now, so it’s far less dramatic when I can openly admit that I’m fired up for World Cup 2014!

The fun of the World Cup for the casual American sports fan is its international flavor and flair. You have to be a little more of a soccer diehard to get seriously into European club (ahem) football, but anyone with a little bit of global awareness can jump into the World Cup and feel at home. This is especially true in my family, where our four kids can trace their lineage to half the countries in Europe. There’s always someone to root for when you’re a mutt.

After great deliberation, then, here is our quadrennial list of national teams supported (in order of favoritism, with expected result) behind the multi-ethnic doors of Wood Manor:

(1) USA – Civic duty versus Group of Death. This can’t end well.

(2) England – Britpop, British lit, beans, and a mysteriously-sourced last name mean poor Christian will once again shed tears when the Three Lions inevitably go out on penalties in the quarters.

(3) Germany – They play as one, they score bunches of goals, and we’ll back them right up until they lose a big one to Brazil or Argentina. Plus, the boys love that wishing someone safe travels auf Deutsch translates as “Gute Fahrt”.  Which I’m sure I’ll be hearing every time Die Mannschaft (again, with typical German creativity, the direct translation is “The Team”) eliminate someone.

(4) Italy – Growing up, I always felt more Italian than anything else because my Sicilian grandma was so full of ethnic pride and identity. She was easily the least “assimilated” of my immediate ancestors… but weighed against boring, defensive soccer and all of that flopping? I’m so sorry, Grandma, I wish these Azzurri were as easy to cheer for as your chicken parm was to eat.

In the final analysis, our hearts might lie more with the USA and England, but once again it’s a safe bet that Germany’s the last one standing around Wood Manor… or perhaps I should just call it Das Woodhaus.

On reading habits

Our time on this earth is precious and our time on this earth is, by our very nature, finite.  Wiser minds than mine have made the point that we shouldn’t waste it.

With that in mind, it’s time to admit that I’ve never been one for Business Books.  Nor have I ever been particularly fond of their first cousin, Self-Improvement Books.  This isn’t to say that I don’t think books can teach me anything– quite the contrary.  I’ve just never had the experience of reading any given chapter in books like these and, finished, setting it down with the feeling that I just made good use of an hour.

I get that some people, including many whom I respect or call friends, get a lot of mileage from reading that sort of thing.  I don’t want to take anything away from them– I’m a big fan of ‘to each his own’.  But for my own sake, I guess I see these books as the literary equivalent of the Motivational Speaker, which in itself is the modern personification of hucksterism.  (Since it seems that both convicted felons and marginally successful football coaches can be paid huge sums to do the job, I rest my case there.)

Some of this is admittedly personal prejudice.  My first truly corporate experience introduced me to the Cult of the Executive and the odd phenomenon of Everyone In The Office Reading The Book the C-X-O Told Them To.  With my natural contrarian streak, the idea of being told what to read in my spare time… that was like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard of my soul.  I studied English lit, for crying out loud– I could make up my own mind on what to read and why I read it.

Being a big fan of keeping my soul in order, then, I’ve always taken my own lessons from biographies.  They’re hardly the only thing I read, but from a personal improvement perspective, I’m fairly convinced that the life stories of successful people have more to teach me than the dime-a-dozen self-help books and flavor-of-the-month leadership screeds that so many seem so fond of pushing.  In the last year alone, I’ve found gold in the following bios:

Each of these stories left me with something more than I started, making me a better person either at home, in my professional life or both.  They also taught me more about recent history and/or pop culture along the way, which is never a bad thing.

We’re all better off when we learn from our betters, I think.  I’m just more likely to accept the founder and CEO of Apple as one of my betters than I am the faceless masses of MBAs and self-improvement gurus.  To each his own, after all.