How I Write and What I Write About

Anyone considering hiring a writer or an editor for anything has a right to know how they write, and the things about which they can, want to, and/or about which they are willing to write.  The passages in here are designed to reflect how I write, a very small sample of the things in which I am interested, and just a little of the variety of things about which I can, and/or am willing, to write.

I will not pretend this is particularly well-organized; my purpose in this section is not to demonstrate organizational skills.  My intention is to show variety, and a broad range of topics.  I necessarily jump around a little more than I would were I writing about one or two things, so please understand when I go from one topic to a second that is not related to the former one.  These passages will give you an idea of how I express myself on what (I hope) are a broad range of topics.  Some of the subjects are of my own choosing, others were done by request.

Additionally: a number of people have asked for “writing samples”, “how exactly do you write, what can you write about….[“all manner of things”].  So here they are: all manner of things.  I hope they show you I can write.  And if you think I can write, chances are very good you’ll think I’m a good editor.

Here’s one: I was once asked to write about what (unearned) characteristics represented the greatest natural advantage.  What gave one individual the best shot over anyone else by virtue of birth, DNA, etc., rather than effort?  This is what I said:

PRIVILEGE

I was asked to provide some observations on the topic: what are the greatest unearned advantages an individual can have in life?  I almost surely will not hit more than a few of them, but here are a few observations:

It seems to me that things that apply universally are (1) where you were born (for example, if you are born in, say, rural India or Afghanistan, there’s at least a 99% chance that, no matter your brains, or looks as a child, the intelligence of your parents, or anything else, you have very little chance at all, not zero but in that area, to ever have anything other the poorest circumstance than we in this country imagine. I’ve not been to Afghanistan, but have been all over India and South Africa (which is not as bad as India, though large portions are), and I am certain of this.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but one estimate (and this site gives sources) tells that 50% of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 80% live on less than $10 a day.  22,000 children die from starvation every day.

These numbers have the ring of truth.  So, being born to, say, at least a lower-middle class income is certainly the greatest advantage someone can have.  And since you can’t choose it, it’s arbitrary. Next is, to what set of parents are you born?  About six things come to mind:

(1) are they nurturing? (i.e., will they support you positively, care for you properly, etc.);

2. Will they stay together? (new studies indicate that, almost no matter how troubled the marriage is (and of course there are exceptions), a 2-parent household is a positive good);

3) are they healthy? So much of our health is genetically-driven, it’s almost silly;

(4) Do they have at least a middle-class income? You will have incalculable advantages over most people in the world if they do; (5) are they college graduates? (or) is one a college graduate? (or at least) have they had some years in college? For decades, the best single predictor of educational attainment has been that of the parents.

That’s changing a bit, but is still true; (6) (And talk about unfair) were you born to parents who were Black or Hispanic? Some may think discrimination is gone, but not so.  It’s dying, but very slowly.  If you want tons of numbers, I advise you to go to Census Bureau Homepage.

But for % of college grads in 2010, the numbers for Caucasian, Black, and Hispanic are 30%-30%-40%.  Income, 62K-38K-40K.  (an aside: if you happen to be born to Asian or Pacific Islander parents, you graduated and made much more than anyone else (7) Gender is still an advantage, folks.
Not in terms of college graduation any more, but income—and I think everyone knows that. Go tohttp://Census.gov if you want more numbers, TONS of them.

I’ve worked with Census officials, and they get all excited about numbers.  Apart from these things—it’s well-known that an attractive appearance is quite an advantage.

High intelligence will help a lot in a great many fields, but not all.  Physical height is actually quite a significant advantage.  And these three things are nothing you should brag about—they’re all accidents of birth. Oddly, these are things people DO brag about—a great deal.

I can testify to some of these things personally.  When I think of how reasonably easy my professional life—not personal, professional—has been, I thank the God I believe in [not saying, not here, no proselytizer I]. I was born to college graduates, I am Caucasian, male, 6’8″, know my IQ and it’s high enough [not saying THAT here, either].

You can tell even from this little picture that I’m not physically gorgeous, but maybe—MAYBE—in the 40th percentile, and don’t have a ton of hair. I didn’t do a damn thing to earn ANY of this. Was it fair?

Of course not.  I think it’s the obligation of everyone to make sure that what we DO—work hard, be kind, be forgiving, etc.—count FAR more than what we are given by God or the fates.  I am beginning to babble, best to stop.

[I just thought of one more thing.  An exceptional sense of humor.  Everyone thinks they have one, but almost no one does.  If you have one—and it VERY often comes from something that made you feel very sad and/or lonely as a child—you’d be amazed at the meetings/events/parties you get invited to, at which you have NO right to be.

And exponentially increased access to knowledge and connections.  But the person has to be able to ‘read’ the other person fairly quickly, because the wrong funny line can put you right out in the cold in a hurry.]  THERE, that’s the end.

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Here’s the one answer for which I’ll say that I have an earned doctorate and a number of years of experience in postsecondary education research. I won’t say that again.  But this is a practical answer, and I want it to get attention.

And…Here’s one I can answer with at least a little authority: go to a community college for your first two years.  There are many compelling reasons.  The cost per credit hour can be as little as one-tenth that of a major university. And your degree does not have an asterisk that says “took first two years of classes at a community college.”
I have worked at both community colleges and and universities, and although there are surely exceptions, I can say that overall, you’ll get more individual attention, and teachers who can put more time into teaching, than anywhere else.  They don’t have the same kinds of pressure on them to publish or bring in money through grants.  Additionally, they’re on campus.  You can find them. Ever try to find your prof. who has 4 office hours a week at a major university?  I’m not knocking universities, I’m not that dumb, but teachers just are not required to be around much. Many community colleges require their faculty to put in a full day at the office, a requirement that would make university professors yowl like cats in the night.
But if it matters to you, you can check, and you’ll notice that teachers from a nearby university frequently also teach as adjuncts at the community college.  If it’s that important to you, you can usually arrange your schedule to take courses from them.  And it’ll be the same course they teach at the university.
The state of Illinois (I participated in some of these) has done an extensive examination of the performance of community college transfers vs. those who attended the university for 4 years. You might be surprised to learn that the GPA of transfers is almost always higher than others. Lose the image, if you have it, that CC students are “just dumbos”.   These are serious students who don’t live on campus, don’t have any frat parties, and are often working lomg hours to put themselves through.  It’s a good learning environment.  And you can (I’m estimating) cut your 4-year costs by maybe 40%.

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Here’s another someone else asked me to do.  This may have been the most difficult of all, and is certainly the most personal:

WHAT I BELIEVE

I think the following things are important—first, two things that I try to apply in business.
—The first was a rule I had for myself (in only slightly different words), and then I saw it on Star Wars, spoken by Yoda, of all creatures (His first rule is from a movie??):
“Do or not do; there is no ‘try‘”.
The second—well, there have been times, off and on, when I have managed other people. I didn’t love doing it, and won’t love it if I have to do it again, but I tried to remember this from “The Art of War” by Sun-Tzu:
—-“Regard your soldiers [employees] as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”  Said another way, the support of people who work for you is about 1000 times as important as the support of your official superiors.

And, more important to me than the above, a few things I try to live by personally (although I am pretty bruised from all the times I have tripped and fallen and broken these rules):

Be kind and gentle.
—Be a good parent, friend, and partner (if you have one).  Sometimes it’s
demanding, but friends and family are all we have that matter.
Pay attention. Whether it is a situation, or a person or people you are with,
        learn something from it.  If you are with someone, listen more than you
         talk.  There’s some Buddhism in this.  I like Buddhism; there’s room in it for nearly every faith.

Ask as many questions as politeness allows.  The person you cannot learn from does not exist.
Want to learn how to love unconditionally?  Go get a dog.  Best, rescue a dog
from a shelter.  Dogs love unconditionally, and what do they ask in return?

Not…one…thing.  Please, please watch this:
And this,  Stay with this, please:

Google Groups

—Laugh often. If you can help someone laugh, you have almost a moral obligation to do just that. Paul Hogan said that, my only life’s principle adopted from “Crocodile Dundee”.  Paul Hogan may have never said anything else that was profound in his life, I wouldn’t know, but he said that.
Personally? I used to have a little money.  The greatest source of pleasure (and every good person out there know exactly what I mean: the greatest pleasure that comes from money is being generous, giving it away.  Don’t believe me? ask Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or even Oprah (even if she does have to announce it  on TV specials, she still does it).
—Give what you can to people who have less than you do.  If you don’t have an extra dollar, maybe you can give them a little time and a smile.  One of the best mornings I ever had was spending $10 on 3/$1.00 Burger King breakfast sandwiches, then walking around Atlanta, giving them to every street beggar I encountered. An aside: check this out:
—Don’t stop trying to be better, not ever.  If you feel completely satisfied you’ve probably overlooked something, because you’re not perfect.  If you can help people around you be better, do that, too.
—Until you are proven wrong, assume the best about someone (well, unless they’re asking for $10,000 or your credit card number).
—Try to keep in mind the thought of Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
If you see injustice, speak up. Don’t look the other way. Someone did that for me, and helped me avert serious injury, call 911, and take action yourself, if you possibly can.
—If you want people to remember you for good reasons: keep your word, be on time, don’t promise more than you can deliver, do deliver what you promise, and learn how to say ‘no’ politely when asked to do something you just cannot do.
—If you are kind, gentle, generous within your means, and keep your word, believe me, you will be remembered.

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I did the following for an in-college seminar.  It was paired up with an overlapping paper on “How to Lie with Statistics”, a topic that has been addressed by hundreds of people (at least).

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN NUMBERS (AND STATISTICIANS) ARE TELLING YOU THE TRUTH?

It’s often hard to tell.  In fact, it’s hard enough to tell when you are BEING DECEIVED UNINTENTIONALLY.

There’s a sorry old joke about lying with statistics.  But here it is, and I’ve done this all my life…it’s often harder to tell the TRUTH with statistics than it is to lie. Here are a couple of examples:
Two groups of 19-year-old developmentally disabled students were given two different instructional methods.  The first group read at the first-grade level afterward, the second group at the third-grade level (this is a study I actually participated in).  Some statisticians got all excited about the “highly significant” differences.  Two grade levels!  You should have seen the p values….But hang on a minute….was this EDUCATIONALLY significant?  Hardly.  Both groups still read VERY poorly for 19 year olds.  Did the stats people see this?  Well….some.  But to call this result “significant” AND PUBLISH IT (and they did)…well, that was a (maybe unintentional) untruth.
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Let’s say a brand of toothpaste sold 1000 tubes nationally in 2008 and 3000 tubes in 2009.  Some statisticians would practically wet themselves saying “Sales have tripled!”  “Wow!”  But come on….3000 tubes amounts to what, .0001% of the market?

This is an oversimplified example. But the above data could be presented, if someone is convinced of their significance and has a way with words, as highly significant.  And they’re just not.  No intention to convey misinformation (maybe), but truth not really told.

And to evaluate the INTENTIONS of the person reporting the data is very nearly impossible.

Of course, most analyses do not yield incredibly obvious results.  So it takes a pretty skilled researcher to glean the truth from the numbers.
I don’t always like tests of statistical significance.  One of my graduate faculty said that the “Intra-Ocular Trauma Test of Significance” is sometimes best.  If you look at two groups of numbers, and the difference hits you right between the eyes, the groups are different.  🙂

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This one is personal, too, and was written as an editorial.  I was raised in a family in which feminism was very, very important, and I was responding to a writer who had different feelings:

WHY DO WE NEED FEMINISM?

It seems so obvious—-why do I need to even say it?  We need feminism because women needed to be treated as equals to men in every possible way, education, job opportunities, earnings, voices in politics…look, the list is long, and you all know it.  No need to list it AGAIN.  And we need feminists because they influence other people to be feminists, and produce feminists themselves.  And true feminism does not erase the difference between men and women, but recognizes the different contributions of each, and recognizes the absolute equality of those groups.

On a more personal note, my grandfather, who was born in the very early part of the 20th century, a time during which women “found men and got married, and that was THAT, thank you” had seven daughters.  Fortunately for them, he was one in 10,000 who really believed that his daughters should be able earn a degree and support themselves, and not depend on a man. He did not want his daughters to be scurrying around acting like—and he actually used this metaphor—“hermit crabs”. Since we were lucky enough to live in a town with an outstanding college [It was one of the 3 best women’s colleges in the country (Mount Holyoke), if you could qualify for admission (not easy), you could go tuition-free.  And my granddad supported them, pushed (gently) them to go, and SIX of them were able to, two (maybe three?) of them summa cum laude graduates.  My mother went, too, and she was the only one who got married (at 40), and had me in 11 months.  (that’s her, below, as a young woman, with my granddad’s ancient…Packard, I think it was.) Just exactly what kind of family would that have been if my grandfather had not been a feminist?  Three of my aunts were teachers and three nurses.  They were surrounded by books and by learning, and able to talk to each other, and to friends, about ideas.  One of my aunts was (and this was unheard of) (the name may make you do a double face-slap) elected as a “Selectman”.  The friends they had, the life they had…not many women had that in the 1930s, 40s, 50s…

And you think feminism has no impact on men?  I grew up with strong, smart, educated people all around me, most of them women.  (I had a great dad, too, a Villanova graduate; I think he felt a bit outgunned at times, but we had a good life).  I learned to respect women, I never came within a mile of a chauvinistic attitude for the first 6 years of my life.  If I did, I’d have been beaten within an inch of my life :-).  I learned to prefer women as friends and not automatically think of “sex” when I met them.  I still much prefer them as friends.  Anyone exposed to a significant group of strong feminists (and whose mind is not sealed as tightly as the tomb of Tutankahmun)

They all said they never married because they could not find the equal of my grandfather (it probably had a bit to do with the fact that my mom was 6′, my aunts were 5’11”, 6′, 6’3″, 6’3″, and the other two, less tall.  Tall, strong college-graduated women were not too popular with men those days.  But a lot of it probably really was that they could not find the equal of my grandfather.

But I wandered pretty far.  Sorry.  The world would have been poorer without these feminists, and we need more like them.  A few million more.  Maybe a few hundred million more.

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This one is pretty different:  It was written for a newsletter at a community college, and every couple of weeks one of the staff was asked to offer advice on some personal matter or other.  I had a lot of trouble with this, but I put it in to show that I can venture a little from very serious:

HOW TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO A WOMAN

Well…this is quite a question for me to address, certainly way outside my professional expertise, I’m sure everyone would agree, and perhaps outside my personal expertise, too.

It depends ENTIRELY where you are.  I’m painfully shy, so I have to try something a little less aggressive first. Let’s take a couple of scenarios.  I’ll begin with the type of thing easiest for me: (1) You’re at a large meeting where you have to wear one of those, “Hello, my name is….” things.  A LOT of people have seen “The Princess Bride”.  So I write “Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”  If they crack up, and many do, you have your introduction. Sometimes I write my name VERY lightly on the tag so people (and, surprisingly, they do this) have to get very close to read it.  Their normal reaction is to look up and laugh after they catch themselves.  Or you can write nothing, and a surprising number will stop and ask you why you did that.  You’re on your own with those, I can’t help you with steps 2,3,4.

If you’re at a bar, and don’t want to try the approach given by the previous writer (which I think is a very good one), you can try to deliberately botch a pickup line.  One from Stephen Wright is “Do you live around here often?” If they don’t laugh, just drift off.

At a bookstore, see what they’re examining, and say “I read that.”  They’ll at least look at you curiously, and you can say, “Wait, I didn’t.  But I know someone who’s been meaning to.  I actually never heard of it.”  But I have a hard time just saying ‘Hello'”.  It’ll actually work less often than “Hello”, but if it does, they’ll laugh, which is a good start.  You might want to have a ridiculously popular book in your hand and ask her if she’s ever heard anything about it.  These things work, granted it’s a minority (30% ?) of the time, but if they do, you can start  conversation with a laugh, and that’s a very good thing.

If you’re at a small party, you sort of have to go with the “Hello, I’m….” approach.  But if you just can’t, if you’re just too shy and are willing to try anything,  try saying something outrageous, like…I don’t know, I’m going to make something up here, “They have a pet goat upstairs. It’s really little, but it has long ears, and looks a little like a dog.  Is that even legal?” 75% chance she’ll just think you’re nuts, but if you don’t approach her in any way, the odds are 100% you won’t meet her.

I honestly have never met any woman—and sustained a relationship any length of time—in a conventional way.  Sometimes people think I’ve escaped from someplace, but some don’t.

So do something outrageous.  At the very least, you’ll have fun thinking up ways to do it.

And honest, I’m very, very ordinary-looking (except for being pretty tall), and I’ve met a lot of women doing exactly the above things.

And honest, I’m very, very ordinary-looking (except for being pretty tall), and I’ve met a lot of women doing exactly the above things.

Of course, I’m no longer eligible.

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I’m putting this in here to show the reader that I do (I certainly hope) have a sense of humor.  Perhaps it doesn’t belong here.  If you don’t think so, ignore it. I wanted as much of a range of difference as I could get, and this certainly helps with that.  

 

WHAT’S YOUR ALL-TIME FAVORITE JOKE?

A private opinion:  It is possible for someone to be quite brilliant and not have much of a sense of humor (I haven’t seen a lot of this, but enough to convince me that it’s true.  It is not really possible for someone to have a great sense of humor without being quite intelligent.  So, I thought I’d include a funny story in here.  I first saw it as a 4-5 line story, but worked on it and worked on it.  I embellished it a LOT, to the point where some think it’s actually better:

I was in a bar the other night.  This really seedy-looking guy came in, I mean this guy was a disaster.  Hair a mess, holes in his clothes, smelled awful.  His odor was visible. The place was a couple of notches below ‘dive’, but he looked bad even considering that.  For some reason, I felt compelled to say, “Buy you a drink, sir?”  He said, “Thank you so much.  And no need for the ‘sir’.  You can call me ‘Al’.  I smiled, and said  “You’re welcome.  You don’t look like an ‘Al’.  He said, very slowly,  with a faint British accent, “Actually, my name is Barrington.  I was born and raised in London.  But my name was always problemestical….” he frowned…”that’s not it”  I offered, “Problematic”?  “That’s….correct.  There was never any way to shorten it.  You try.  ‘Bar’?  ‘Barrin’?  ‘Barring’?  Might as well say the whole thing. Then I saw this….thing on TV, ‘You can call me’Al’, and I just stole it to use.”  I didn’t know how to respond, so I just smiled.  He drank all of it in one gulp..

He turned a bit away from me, and asked the bartender for another drink, again surprisingly politely, as though in another life he’d been refined. The bartender was a big, fearsome fellow, 6 feet 6 and perhaps 240 pounds, with a beard just this side of ZZ Top, and uglier than Mickey Rourke.  His hair and beard were the blackest black I’d ever seen.  He looked like a professional wrestler. His voice was deep and intimidating, vaguely reminiscent of a small chain saw.  Everyone in the place called him “Red”.  No one will explain it to me. He tells the drunk “I don’t think you can pay for it, mister”.

The souse says, slowly and carefully, “Well…you are correct, sir.  But if I can show you something you’ve never seen before, can I have that drink?”   And the bartender gives him a little smile, not much warmth in it, and says “Pal, you can’t.  I was a bartender in New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Vegas before this.  But if you can, you can have a double of anything from the top  shelf.”  The seedy-looking guy smiles, too broadly as drunks do, nods, almost bows (or else he was so drunk the force of the bow pulled him forward), pulls a hamster out of his pocket, and puts it on the keyboard of the old piano. Whispers in the hamster‘s ear (not an easy thing to do, even if you’re sober), “Don’t forget to use both the black and the white keys, Larry.”  (He turned and winked at us and whispered, “The black keys are smaller, and sometimes he misses  them.  Dummy.”) The hamster jumps around from one key to another to another, and actually plays an impressive piece of classical music.  The bartender’s eyes just bug out, thyroid eyes we used to call ’em, and he said “Wow…you  win.  Name it.”  The guy orders a double Manhattan, and says, “Thank you very much.” And he drinks it, the way anyone else would drink orange juice in the morning.  “May…..I…..haveanother?”  The bartender said, “I still don’t think you have any money.  You have something else from the Guinness Book of Records to show me?’  The guy doesn’t say anything, he just pulls this bullfrog, a big, ugly thing, out of his other pocket, and puts it on the bar.  All dried out, and a bit cranky about it.  Pours a little water over it.  Bartender moves toward it, but the guy says ,”Wait……………justaminute’.  And the bullfrog proceeds to sing the Star Spangled Banner .  Beautiful, clear tenor voice.  Mandy Patinkin voice.  Impressive as anything anyone in the bar could remember.  The bartender says ‘I’m going to give you all the drinks you want if you’ll sell me that frog for $500.’  The bum agreed, drank until closing, and sold the frog.  On the way out, a group of us stopped  the guy, and said “What were you thinking, selling a singing bullfrog for $500?’  He just smiled and said, “I didn’t do that, don’t you fellers be silly.  See, the hamster is also a ventriloquist.”

** Wait. That’s not possible. Uglier than Jack Elam.

 

BACK TO VERY SERIOUS:  WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU CAN’T HAVE YOUR OWN BIOLOGICAL CHILDREN?

Being unable to ever have your own biological child rocks a great many people way back on their heels, it’s very difficult for them, but it need not be the end—and I nearly said “the end of the world”, but it need not be the end of anything.   I’ll make this one personal right away: I could not have my own biological children[1]. It didn’t bother me, but only because of what my parents had already experienced.

There is more than one way to have children.  My mother was 41 when I was born, and my mom and dad did not wish for me the life of an only child; they also just plain loved children, and wanted more than one.  So they went to the state of Massachusetts and set about becoming foster children; as it happened, my foster child brother had the remainder of his life as my parents’ son[2].  No child could have received more love.  And he responded; he was 3+ when he came to us.  He was the child of a prostitute who left him alone ALL DAY, EVERY DAY.  And it took some time—well, it was gradual, and took years—but change, he did.  We loved him, and when he enlisted in the Marines we had our fears, but we were proud that he wanted to do something he saw as extremely positive.  And he ended up a real hero, winning medal after medal, the highest of which is the Bronze Cross, the Silver Star for Valor, and more Purple Hearts than I can remember.  He even spent a year or two on the taxi squad of the Buffalo Bills. He married and had two great boys. He died too young. Agent Orange.

When it came my turn, my wife was devastated.  I had seen the process, and it was easier for me. I helped her through it some. And we had a friend: everyone should have this friend. This good friend sat us down and showed me big sheets of pictures of orphans. Many of them infants, but certainly not all. There are probably hundreds of millions of beautiful, wonderful children out there who have nobody. And almost, or literally, nothing.   They will not end up looking like their adoptive parents (in my case, a blessing), and they will not have exactly the same DNA.  My attitude, and I do not say this lightly or flippantly, I assure you, is “So what”

When you say, “it’s not the same”, my question is, “How?” But when the adoption agency people put my little infant daughter in my arms, and she looked up with those eyes just full of, “Will you love me? Will you?” [3] And I had maybe already answered. I would take a bullet for her, and I knew it instantly, or walk into a burning building, and I knew it instantly. It has never changed one iota. My daughter was born in Bangkok, and she is deep-down shy, preferring to talk about others than about herself. A better listener you will not find, though, and anyone who loves more deeply—you won’t find them, either. But because her profession demands it, she can almost magically “flip a switch”, and become an extravert and a half, and take care of” the most demanding situations.

And does she have the innards? Well…you tell me. Since she was about six, she studied flute. She was an excellent music student, and a cum laude graduate of Simmons College in Boston.  She made herself outstanding, good enough to seriously consider it as a profession, and when she graduated college, the whole family pitched in and gave her a silver flute. Two weeks later…two weeks later…she developed a case of TMJ. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it meant some fourteen (!) surgeries if she were to consider being a flutist. I’ll leave it to you to tell me how many people could have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and use some incredible organizational skills she also learned in college to get herself a job as an Events Coordinator at Harvard. She stayed a few years, and found something bigger, better (and warmer).

She now the absolute and unquestioned backbone of her family, is property manager for a H U G E  oceanfront property development (houses, condos, apartments, tennis and golf courses, etc.) And she has a baby of her own, who, given 20 seconds, can have you wrapping YOURSELF around her little finger. (A gift she leaned from her mother; I have lived my whole life around my daughter’s little finger since I first saw her, as I said). Here she is, with her daughter:

Photo on 1-25-13 at 7.31 PM 4.jpg

My son was rescued as a newborn (imminent death was certain; he was found in a gutter) by two nuns from St. Joseph’s home in Mumbai.  When he came (and this one took a Loooooooong time) he was 28 months and only 14 pounds.  He had nearly died many times, doctors told us.  But thanks to a lot of love (and a mother and father who weighed in excess of 200 pounds, he grew to a muscular 5’5″. He graduated Magna cum laude from American University in D.C., and got his MBA from the London School of Business, thought by many to be the #1 MBA program in the world.  He has a wonderful job, and is married to a strong, smart, lovely woman; they have, together, produced two of the five most beautiful children in the world.  He has given 10% of EVERY DIME HE EVER MADE to St. Joseph’s.

Immediately after graduation from American, he turned down lucrative offers in order that he might to go to India and learn of his heritage, and repay the orphanage by teaching there on a volunteer basis. He also helped settle homeless people in Nepal, and volunteered time at Mother Theresa’s hospital in Calcutta, holding the hands of dying patients and emptying bedpans without benefit of vinyl gloves. Here he is; if you are connected to the internet, you can see a little film he made here:

[you have to type it into your url, unfortunately]

I had not thought of them as my “adopted” children, not even once, for many, many years (25?) until I saw this question.  Neither their mother nor I could have loved them more.  From the time they were put in our arms and looked up at us with, both of them, eyes the size of Bambi’s, they had all of our hearts—as I said, instantly. Do I think I missed anything by not having my own biological children?  No, and neither does their mother.

It’s not for me to say in your personal case, but maybe—maybe—this need not be a tragedy. When I think of what my children have become, and how much love there is in the family, each for the other…and how close they came to simply dying in the streets…it makes me want to somehow abandon my career and just go out in the street, and say to everyone “PLEASE consider adopting a child or two”.

If your position is different, I respect it, but for me having these kids is the same as having kids my wife biologically gave birth to (it’s better—they don’t look like me J ).   Thanks for reading this.

[1] Surely, there’s a more politically correct way to say this, but this is important, and personal, and I am not massing with political correctness on this one. I hate “PC” more than most, but recognize that sometimes it serves a purpose.

[2] His biological parents would never sign the papers to allow mom and dad to adopt him, but the day he turned 21, he went to the town hall, adopted us, and changed his name. This time, the cliché is perfect: there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

[3] In what I can only label “quite a coincidence”, I saw an interview of the actor, Jim Caviezel, who with his wife adopted two disabled Chinese girls. He said that, when he looked at them, he saw exactly the same thing. He puts some people off because he is willing to talk about his faith, but this isn’t about that at all. For the record, I have been a fan of his since I saw “Frequency” a number of years ago. He’s terrific. I don’t listen to the religious stuff, but he’s terrific.

===============================================

I reread this, and I am hoping that it does not seem that this is primarily about me.  A little, sure;  what am I, a hypocrite?  I did something I was proud of, absolutely, and maybe got back at a few bullies.  But this posting is all about the last paragraph.  Please, please, it’s not about me.  It’s about the people I grew up with. And I’ve had many more important times since then—getting my children, my first real job, grown-up things like that. But this was my youth, and that was the question.

I wish I could express what this night meant to me. I hope everyone has had a couple of hours like this. I never quite matched it to that point; I’d had some great times, but not like this. And hardly anyone who sees this (if anyone does) knows me, and I hope you will believe that I am not embellishing this at all. And this is not about me, and what I did that night. The last paragraph is the important one. The others just set it up. I will try hard to keep it short.

A couple of things you need to know so this means anything: I’m choosing this because my whole childhood family was there, along with (playing for the other team and in the small crowd) a few men who had bullied me severely as a child (from maybe ages 8-14 or so) (it was pretty bad, I was a fat kid, and very obviously overprotected). And we did not have money for great clothes, so I dressed just a little[1] like a dork (we were not poor, we had a house, we each had a bicycle, a good baseball glove, plenty of food).

This evening ended up being pretty cathartic, but that’s not why it was great.

(A little prelude: I could, big maybe, have been a baseball player. A real one, a pro. MAYBE. My father taught me how to throw a mean curve when I was 12 (he didn’t know, that generation didn’t know, that it was ruinous to young arms to do that, and my arm lost a lot at 21-22 or so). I even had a little knuckleball (which made up for the humiliation of being 6’8” and not having a fastball. It was so bad, people would chuckle.) And I never got too much of a shot in college, the coach had his team set and I was a walk-on. But my brother, the great organizer, put together a team of good players for a league in which of mostly college ballplayers, My arm was already on the way out, but I was still “local OK”, and once in a blue moon, it didn’t hurt.)

 

And one other thing:…my father N E V E R went out of the house at night. He was a traveling salesman and that, by God, was that. When he got home, he was home. He gave us every night of his life, every night, but he by-God stayed home. I got him to go to see precisely ONE of my games. EVER. This one. My mom came, too, and that helped (they were close most of their lives). I told him I was 22, and might never pitch another game (close to true, as it happened).

Hey, I guess the prelude was longer than the story. On that night, a 7-inning game (that’s what they were), my 17-year-old body reappeared, no bad shoulder, no stinging elbow, and I pitched a 1-hitter (a bunt in the last inning, by one of my former bullies no less, and I still swear I threw him out) and struck out 19 guys. My brother was my catcher (large, strong, and fresh out of the Marines) hit a home run that night, and (this may have been the best part of the game) threw out the guy who bunted his way on when he tried to steal second.

Afterward, my mom and dad and brother and I, and 3 of my aunts even came, all hugged and cried, and said we loved each other (and my Irish-New England-reserved family never did that. And we got along well as a family, but we had issues like any other; but not that night. That’s the reason this was my greatest night up to then. For two hours, we were all there, my much-older parents and three of my aunts, and they were cheering like mad. My brother and my father…had the biggest issues. My mom and dad showed up in not-such-great clothes. Maybe embarrassed, at first. But after the game, we all hugged. And we said we loved each other. We were happy, proud, loving and unified. It wasn’t always like that, but it was that night. All the memories are so clear. I can still smell my dad’s Old Spice and my mom’s inexpensive perfume, they had both put on way too much. I never had two hours like that.

[1] Who knew this was to be a lifelong habit?

 

This was in response to “Please describe a time in your life when your family felt most like a family.”

 

I reread this, and I am hoping that it does not seem that this is primarily about me.  A little, sure;  what am I, a hypocrite?  I did something I was proud of, absolutely, and maybe got back at a few bullies.  But this posting is all about the last paragraph.  Please, please, it’s not about me.  It’s about the people I grew up with. And I’ve had many more important times since then—getting my children, my first real job, grown-up things like that. But this was my youth, and that was the question.

I wish I could express what this night meant to me. I hope everyone has had a couple of hours like this. I never quite matched it to that point; I’d had some great times, but not like this. And hardly anyone who sees this (if anyone does) knows me, and I hope you will believe that I am not embellishing this at all. And this is not about me, and what I did that night. The last paragraph is the important one. The others just set it up. I will try hard to keep it short.

A couple of things you need to know so this means anything: I’m choosing this because my whole childhood family was there, along with (playing for the other team and in the small crowd) a few men who had bullied me severely as a child (from maybe ages 8-14 or so) (it was pretty bad, I was a fat kid, and very obviously overprotected). And we did not have money for great clothes, so I dressed just a little[1] like a dork (we were not poor, we had a house, we each had a bicycle, a good baseball glove, plenty of food).

This evening ended up being pretty cathartic, but that’s not why it was great.

(A little prelude: I could, big maybe, have been a baseball player. A real one, a pro. MAYBE. My father taught me how to throw a mean curve when I was 12 (he didn’t know, that generation didn’t know, that it was ruinous to young arms to do that, and my arm lost a lot at 21-22 or so). I even had a little knuckleball (which made up for the humiliation of being 6’8” and not having a fastball. It was so bad, people would chuckle.) And I never got too much of a shot in college, the coach had his team set and I was a walk-on. But my brother, the great organizer, put together a team of good players for a league in which of mostly college ballplayers, My arm was already on the way out, but I was still “local OK”, and once in a blue moon, it didn’t hurt.)

 

And one other thing:…my father N E V E R went out of the house at night. He was a traveling salesman and that, by God, was that. When he got home, he was home. He gave us every night of his life, every night, but he by-God stayed home. I got him to go to see precisely ONE of my games. EVER. This one. My mom came, too, and that helped (they were close most of their lives). I told him I was 22, and might never pitch another game (close to true, as it happened).

Hey, I guess the prelude was longer than the story. On that night, a 7-inning game (that’s what they were), my 17-year-old body reappeared, no bad shoulder, no stinging elbow, and I pitched a 1-hitter (a bunt in the last inning, by one of my former bullies no less, and I still swear I threw him out) and struck out 19 guys. My brother was my catcher (large, strong, and fresh out of the Marines) hit a home run that night, and (this may have been the best part of the game) threw out the guy who bunted his way on when he tried to steal second.

Afterward, my mom and dad and brother and I, and 3 of my aunts even came, all hugged and cried, and said we loved each other (and my Irish-New England-reserved family never did that. And we got along well as a family, but we had issues like any other; but not that night. That’s the reason this was my greatest night up to then. For two hours, we were all there, my much-older parents and three of my aunts, and they were cheering like mad. My brother and my father…had the biggest issues. My mom and dad showed up in not-such-great clothes. Maybe embarrassed, at first. But after the game, we all hugged. And we said we loved each other. We were happy, proud, loving and unified. It wasn’t always like that, but it was that night. All the memories are so clear. I can still smell my dad’s Old Spice and my mom’s inexpensive perfume, they had both put on way too much. I never had two hours like that.

This is in response to a question, “What is the manliest thing you’ve ever seen?” If you’ve been reading along, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of overlap with a previous little essay about “what to do if you can’t have biological children”.

Well….FIRST OF ALL, I don’t like the word “manly” here one bit.  I think the questioner was trying to convey “brave, honorable, decent, courageous, showing integrity”, and other things like that.

THESE THINGS ARE NOT THE PROPERTY OF MEN.  THEY’RE JUST NOT.   In fact, two of the four “manliest” people I ever knew were women.
——————-

But I will say something about a man. This man is my son.  A better man than most, surely a better man than his father. When he graduated college (Magna Cum Laude) in the early 1990s, he turned down a job paying in excess of $50,000 to spend his own money—money he had saved by working 2 and 3 jobs as a student—to fly to India (the country of his birth—we adopted him at age 2 years, 4 months) in order to repay the orphanage, and to perhaps learn something of his heritage along the way.

He deserves a long, detailed answer, but long answers are not always read, and his story, more than anything, deserves to be read.  He taught ESL and basic computer courses at St. Joseph’s in Mumbai for 4 months, and was then encouraged by the nuns there to explore his native country.  He traveled to Nepal, and helped settle homeless people in Nepal for several months.  He then moved on to Mother Theresa’s hospital (really more of a hospice), where he daily held the hand of sick and dying people, mostly elderly.  He emptied bedpans and did other not only menial, but very dangerous, jobs, usually without even the benefit of vinyl gloves.  He did other things, but I need to keep this answer within readable limits.

He accepted menial paid labor on several occasions in order that he might be able to extend his visit.

He has become a successful businessman, graduating a few years later from one of the two or three best MBA programs in the world (London Business School).  He has plans in motion to start a company that, if successful (and I wouldn’t bet against him), will help hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who were orphans just as he was.
If ever there was a more selfless act—to pass on a very good job in order to spend his own money to help people, not one of whom could return the favor—I have never seen it.  He does things like this—in smaller ways, in his everyday life—all the time.  Since the question involved “manly things”, I guess I’ll have to call what he did “manly”.  I’d rather call it extraordinary.  I hope my answer is seen by at least a few, not for my sake, not one bit, but because nobody deserves it more than my son.  Period.  Or, as he might say, “Full stop.”

This is very short, and in response to the question, “What’s the worst idea you ever heard of?”

This may be out-of-category, but I’ll try it….I will be a little vague, because it was a while ago, and I don’t remember names. But I DO know it really happened.  Once, less than 20 years ago, all the congressional pages got together and voted for the dumbest person in all of Congress (House and Senate). Incredibly, the vote was UNANIMOUS.  And—here’s the dumbest idea I ever hears of coming from anyone—THE CONGRESSMAN HELD A NEWS CONFERENCE TO DENY IT.

=============

Every father out there will contest me on this, and certainly he should.  But I have the best kids on earth.  Their mother and I “outsourced labor”, in a manner of speaking, and we adopted them.  We told the agency “anyone from anywhere, doesn’t matter”, and two separate agencies found our daughter in Thailand and our son in Mumbai (then Bombay), India. The biggest thrills of my life were when they were brought to us.  Anyway, this is not about that.
I need to preface this a little…and I’m afraid I have three separate stories.
First one:  My son had a prodigy’s talent for painting when he was seven years old. This is not a father’s severely biased opinion, I worked at Rochester Institute of Technology, which housed what was then called the “School for American Craftsmen” (undoubtedly the name has changed now), but artists with worldwide reputations worked there.  They were unanimous in their assessment.  I wish I knew how to post these paintings. They are, literally, phenomenal.
One day, my son decided he didn’t like painting any more. I believe so much in not pushing their interest in my direction—this one time I may have begged a little, but still, not much.  And my son pursued other things.
[I guess I need to put in here that, most unfortunately, their mom and I separated, and she chose to take the children out near Boston, where her father could see to it that the only work she needed to do was to manage (an) apartment building(s)? (I never knew) he gave her, and she could be a stay-at-home mom, and she was a great mother.  I had no complaints about her move.  It did mean I had to drive from Rochester to Boston every couple of weekends to see them, but there was a very good cost-benefit ratio there.]
Anyway…after years went by, he did one more painting.  His birthday  happens to be very near Father’s Day, and for his 16th birthday, a very big  deal to him, I gave him $200, which at the time was a very big deal to  me, too ( I was paying very substantial child support at the time, in addition to the biweekly trip to see  them, about 1000 miles, plus motels, meals, etc.).  This particular week, though, I had flown them (I have an equally wondrous daughter) up to be with me for part of their vacation, and Father’s day, and his birthday.  He said he might want to paint again, and could we go to RIT  and get paint supplies?  Of course, I agreed.  I was pretty excited.  He spent all $200 on  supplies, and painted me a picture for Father’s Day.  But what I didn’t know at the time was, he didn’t want to  paint anything else, just that Father’s Day gift. I found out a bit  later. Shot his whole wad to paint me a picture.  That’s the kind of son he is.
I mentioned my daughter—she also had a prodigy’s talent, but not painting, as a flutist.  One Sunday, she told me that she had a recital after school on Wednesday, and could I please come?  Of course I could, I’ve always gotten up early anyway. I just did make it, and got there for the performance of the person ahead of her.  She was in the seventh grade, and very, VERY poised for her age.
I had no idea what was coming….she got up to play, and said “This is a piece I wrote for my dad.  He drove all the way from Rochester today just to see me play.  He’s the big guy in the middle, and he just started to cry, I’m pretty sure.”  And she looked at me, and said, “Yup. That was an easy guess. Behappy, dad, this song is for you.”  We drove to Lexington for dinner, the three of us, to her then-favorite place, the Lemon Grass, and I had to go back to Rochester. I was so happy and so proud of her, I didn’t even think of being tired.
Sorry this is so long, but this is the third and last story (I have so many others, it’s killing me to cut it here).  One  Sunday night after a trip, I was unpacking and found a little gift,  wrapped in gift wrap, under the seat.  I think they were maybe 12, and  got a little allowance from me and from their mother, and that was all the money they had.  I had  contemplated, on that trip, buying myself a “Big Dogs” T-shirt and the  “Rain Man” sound track.  But I picked them up and put them back down.  I didn’t even know  the kids were watching me.  I found them both in that package under the  seat with a little note that said something very close to, “We know how  hard you work to see us.  We think you’re probably the only dad there is  who would do that much.  We love you.”  I still have that note, of course, and my son’s paintings and my daughter’s sheet music,  One day, they’re going to bury me in that shirt, open casket.  I am very, very fortunate to  be the father of those two wondrous children.  I know how sappy this sounds, but I really think I am the luckiest man alive.
============================
A little follow-up….the best way for a father (or mother, certainly) to show love to their children, is to spend not just “Quality time”, but with big, old-fashioned, sometimes just-sit-there-and-watch-their-movie-with-them quantity time, a vastly underrated commodity. My father (and mother) spent so much time with us…it was wonderful.  I think there’s an argument to be made that the child should be able to take the parent for granted, or at least their presence and availability.
I said that so that not too much will be made of what follows, because it was just one incident, one time.  It seemed to mean a lot to my children, and it certainly was heartfelt, but it was just one incident.  Love needs to be shown and expressed every day.
Anyway…a couple of Christmases ago, I bought a couple of small, rather inexpensive flashlights. I labeled them “Christmas, David, from Dad, 2010.  Not for use by anyone else, ever.” And the same thing for my daughter, Emily Rose. After they had opened all their other gifts, I took them aside, individually, and said, and I never meant anything more in my life, something close to this: “This is a symbol. You’ve actually always had it, from the very first time I held you. This symbolizes the light you have that reaches a place in my heart that no one else can reach.  Not ever. And it’s a pretty big place, too.  Please, always, always remember that.”
The next Christmas, they each got me the biggest flashlight imaginable, the kind that has the battery hanging down from it, it would shine a light on Jupiter or something. I knew exactly what it meant before they told me, of course. In fact, the several minutes after that were wordless, absolutely silent.  No one needed to say anything.  If anything has ever meant more to me, I can’t remember it.
I’m sorry this answer was so long.  Thanks for staying with me.

Things I Find Enchanting

I don’t know if “enchanted” is the right word for all of these, but here goes:

1.  Kindness.

1. My children are adopted.  When they were first put in my arms their eyes said, “Will you love me?” That was completely enchanting.  I say “Yes” to them every day.

1. Generosity, especially to poor people

1. People who forgive

I cannot put the rest in order:

People who love friends and family and show it by their actions

People who love you and tell you.

Children’s laughter

Children’s curiosity

The love and loyalty given to us by dogs and (usually) cats (I happen to like both equally).

People who adopt orphans or animals in need of rescue

People who tell the truth, short of being unnecessarily hurtful

Kind of a corollary: people whose actions match their words

People who keep their word, always

People who can and do control their temper; when there must be a ‘fight’, they ‘fight fair’.

People who pay attention to others when they are talking. Personally, if someone begins texting to others when they are talking, I walk away.

People who say they have a “really warped (or strange, or good) sense of humor and actually have one

People who are humble.  This rules out most people who would answer “What does it feel like to be the (smartest, handsomest, funniest) person in the room?”

When a long-lost friend reaches out to connect with me.  It always inspires me to try it myself with someone.

Perfect strangers who smile at me

The last ten minutes of “Field of Dreams” (this is very personal)

How do I become a good father?

The best way would have been to watch my dad, and then do what he did…but he’s gone, so I don’t know.  But here’s a little of what he did:

My father and mother did not get married until they were 38 and 39, respectively, and my mother was 41 (and dad 40) when I was born (hey, I was the longest baby in the history of St. Joseph’s hospital, Holyoke, MA, at the time. 8 pounds, 8 ounces, 24 inches (the last time I was ever thin).  My mom, who thought it was too late for her, and my dad were both thrilled to have me, and it showed itself in different ways.  My mother spent a lifetime being manically (and maniacally) over-protective (we weren’t ever allowed to go play in other peoples’ yards, not ever.  Not once.  Until we were 15 and 14 (“we” includes my adopted brother), and both over 6’ tall and over 200 pounds, and we (gently, we did love her a lot) put our feet down, and said ‘enough’.  She continued to secretly go through our drawers, ‘mistakenly’ opened what little mail we got (and sent, until we caught on what we sent)… she was nothing if not thorough.  It drove us nuts, but deep down we knew her intention was good, and we always did love her, though some of what she did was very misguided, so we let it go.  I loved her dearly, but always thought of my aunt Florence, who lived next door with her 5 other sisters) as more of a….I don’t have a word…. she loved us just as much, but she respected us more.  I know she and my dad teamed up sometimes, but there was no budging or changing my mom’s mind….anyway, this isn’t about my mother.
We had a very large back yard, big enough for softball games with 6-7 on a side, that size, and my dad built us basketball backboards using old telephone poles.  And from the time we were around five years old, my father would come out in our yard and play sports with us, in season, every single night until I left for college and my brother left for the Marines.  He would also include any neighborhood friends, and this could range up over a dozen, in whatever we were doing.  If it rained or snowed (in the winter, we obviously did other things, but we often shoveled the yard and aimed flashlights at the basketball hoops), we did other things.  We played pool, or we’d throw darts, or play pitch, it was always something.  One week a month he had to travel a couple of nights, he sold o-rings and gaskets to factories all over New England, and we’d be just lost.  But every night he was home, and I mean every night, he’d come out after dinner and do something with us until dark.
We were the envy and focal point of the neighborhood, because none of the other fathers in the neighborhood did this.  WE had the only father who would give his sons every night.  Can you imagine how that made us feel?  Actually, maybe you can.  And my father was 10-15 years older than the rest of them.  He was an intensely shy man, almost as much as I am—I am almost cripplingly shy, it takes me forever to make a friend—and he wasn’t overly talkative with us, but he gave us time, attention, and it was a labor of love, absolutely, but it was a labor, because he was a bit old to be doing this all the time.  But if he ever missed, I don’t remember it.  He was never really sick, not until the end of his life. Even when we were older, and my brother kind of drifted away evenings (he was extraverted, the good-looking, popular football hero) my dad and I would play catch every night, with a baseball or football, or shoot hoops (he was a college basketball player in another era).  I played catch with him whenever I came home from college, or wherever I happened to be working, until he was about 75.  He still could throw a bit of a curve ball!  Oh my God, how I worshipped that man, and how crushed I was when emphysema got him.
I mentioned shyness—another thing it took us way too long to appreciate that this painfully shy man—who had begun a business with two partners and made it work—went out and sold things, about the most difficult possible job for an introvert that I can imagine.
And he supported us; we did not live high on the hog, but we ate well, we were warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and we each had a baseball glove, a bicycle, and a dog (a 149-pound German Shepherd, the size was freakish, named Poseidon (I was a total dork.  I was reading about Greek Mythology when I was seven)).  And he’d get up at 5:30 every morning, and you know, it had to be very hard for him to come out in the yard at 5:45 or 6:00 every night.  We wondered why he ate a little slower than we did, but I figured it out much later.
And he gave up Saturdays to take us fishing.  And something happened to him out on the water, and he’d open up and talk to us.  Really talk, about courting my mom, and little things like growing  a mustache to annoy her, and it grew in bright red; singing “Paddlin’ Madeleine Home”  to her when he’d take her out in a rowboat, and his brothers, and what they did as kids.  All kinds of things.  The shyness somehow left him.  And when we had to come in off the lake, because of a thunderstorm, he’d make up jumbles for us to solve, or tell us stories, or we’d play 20 questions…it was the best time in my childhood.  Maybe you’d dispute me, but I think had the greatest dad who ever lived.
Did you ever see “Field of Dreams”?  I am taking the chance you have.  It was a lifelong dream of mine to have a house on the water, and a boat—and one day, I got that, on Lake Ontario.  And one day, I was out on the lake by myself, and this little voice said “Bill, you know, he’s not coming back.”  And I sat there and cried for an hour.  I realized I was trying somehow, totally subconsciously, to bring my dad back so he could fish with me a little.  And I never realized that was really why I wanted all this as much as I did.  And eventually, my former wife’s real estate business went  bankrupt, and I lost the house anyway. I’ve gone on too long.  There’s so much more….but this is too much already.

 

 

 

[1] Who knew this was to be a lifelong habit?

 

 

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