The challenges of being a first-generation college student toughened me emotionally; I wonder if they caused me to overcompensate for our kids when they were in school.
October 17, 2014
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1965. I stood atop the steps on the front porch of Abbot Hall, in front of its old oak doors, and watched my parents drive away down Bogue Street in their ‘63 Pontiac Bonneville. They had just finished helping me move my things into room 271 on the first day of my freshman year at Michigan State University.
It would be the last time they ever set foot on campus.
I was the first person on either side of my family to attend college. My Dad had an eleventh-grade education. And my Mom was in the tenth grade when she dropped out of school to help her immigrant parents support the family during the Great Depression. So my pursuit of a college degree was foreign territory to my folks.
Although they (well, my Mom) wrote me letters when I was away at school, I’m not entirely sure it ever actually occurred to them to visit me while I was there. Without saying it, perhaps without even thinking about it, they seemed to be sending me the following message: “You gotta figure this thing out for yourself, son.”
Now, press the FF button and stop somewhere in the mid-to-late 2000s, a time when all four of our kids were enrolled at MSU. During that period Debbie and I helped them move into—and out of—their respective dorms and apartments every year. From time to time we visited them on campus, brought them things from home (toiletries, cleaning products, cookies, etc.) and took them out to dinner. Moreover, I don’t think we missed a single football Saturday tailgating with them during all the time that they were in school. Plus, when they sought advice on how to research a paper or prepare for a job interview, dear old Dad was always there for them.
But sometimes I wonder whether we were there for them a little too often.
I’ve long felt that my go-it-alone situation in college resulted in a resiliency that a couple of my kids were late in acquiring. I was more like a “Jersey Boy” than a “Beach Boy” when I arrived on the campus of Michigan State. I was into soul music while the kids on my floor were into groups like the Hondells or Chad and Jeremy. My swept-back hair and Italian shoes said I was “street.” And one night, when six of my bad-ass pals from home, all wearing three-quarter-length black leather jackets, marched down the hall to my room to visit me, there were whispers in the cafeteria the next day that “Lenny’s ‘gang’ is up from Detroit.”
I’ll never forget the day when a popular “frat boy” who lived across the hall from me called me out for having a jar of Dixie Peach Pomade (greasy stuff for styling hair) on my dresser. The derision in his voice felt like a kick to the stomach, an attack on my identity. That sort of thing happened regularly during my freshman year, and it was bewildering to me. I had come from a small Catholic high school where everything—sports, school, girls—came easy for me, but I felt like an outcast on the Michigan State campus well into my sophomore year. And it hurt more than anyone knew.
During that time, most of my friends back in Dearborn were going off to boot camp or mosquito-infested bunkers on the other side of the planet, firing M16s at the Viet Cong while bombs exploded all around them. Knowing the hell they were going through, I felt I had no right to show even a hint of emotional weakness in my situation. So I kept the things that were eating at me inside. Eventually, of course, I adjusted to campus life, got truly comfortable with my circle of college friends and transitioned into an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
When my children were in school, any time they had academic issues, physical ailments, conflicts with dorm mates, emotional problems or difficulties with expectations, Debbie and I were either on the phone with them or drove to campus to advise, consult and console them. But even then I would ask myself, are we giving them answers to questions they should be figuring out for themselves? I’ve never been quite sure about that. As my friend Tony Adams used to say, “Kids don’t come with a ‘how to’ manual.”
It wasn’t until much later in life that my Dad and I were able to sit down and talk about these sort of things. For some reason, however, I never broached this particular subject with him. I wish I had. But I think I know how he would have reacted. The muscles in his neck would have constricted, he’d have looked at me as though I had “rocks in my head” and said, “What the hell have you ever known about toughness? My family was on welfare…I rode a bike with rims, no tires…I used to scavenge coal off of boxcars to keep the house warm. You and your kids? You don’t know shit about being tough.”
Different times. Different generations. Different experiences. Different pressures. The answers to some questions are all a matter of perspective.
Differences in how quickly I can recall street names, lyrics and Tiger uniform numbers—then versus now—causes me to wonder how the brain works as it does.
September 10, 2014
I grew up on Tireman Ave., a fairly busy street and the borderline between Dearborn and Detroit. Most of the side streets that ran north-south in my neighborhood changed names when you crossed to the Detroit side. For example, Reuter, the side street to the east of my house, became Ward on the other side of Tireman. Morrow Circle, the first side street to the west, became Cheyenne.
By the time I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I could recite the name of every side street on the Dearborn side—and most of the ones on the Detroit side—in order from Wyoming Ave. to Greenfield Rd., a distance of about two miles. I learned them pretty quickly, too—the result of hundreds of adventures on my bicycle.
On the other hand, I’ve lived in Grand Haven going on three years, and between walking my dog or riding my bike a couple of miles to the health club every morning, I travel through the neighborhood practically every day. Yet I have difficulty remembering the correct order of the names of the first few streets on either side of the block where I live.
Why is that? And what about this?
I was listening to satellite radio in my car the other day when I heard an obscure tune that I purchased as a 45 when I was a ten-year-old—“Little By Little” by Nappy Brown. I was able to sing right along with it as I drove, recalling practically every word and nuance of the song. In fact, I can do that with dozens and dozens of tunes that were favorites of mine over 50 years ago.
And yet, a few years ago, when I had to learn the background vocals for ten songs in order to sing one night with a doo wop group formed by one of my old college roommates, I was able to learn them cold (with several hours of practice every day for two weeks) but had trouble recalling some of them a month later. Granted, they came back to me pretty quickly with a little repetition, but it wasn’t automatic.
And when I think back to the first Detroit Tigers teams that I followed as a kid in the mid ’50s, I can easily remember the numbers of practically every player: Frank House, 2; Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell, 4; Al Kaline, 6; Harvey Kueen, 7; Ray Boone (my favorite player at the time), 8; Frank Lary, 17; and on and on and on.
I watch a lot of Tigers games on TV these days. As a result, Justin Verlander’s 35 and Miguel Cabrera’s 24 are imprinted on my brain. And yet, why is it that I have to stop and think twice to accurately recall the numbers of Matt Sherzer (37), Rick Porcello (21) and other regulars in the lineup? After all, I’ve been familiar with the nucleus of the current club for several years.
So shouldn’t I be able to remember their uniform numbers in the way I did as a kid?
I’ve heard it said many times that it’s easier to learn a foreign language as a kid than it is as an adult. That’s probably true of a lot of things. And certainly there’s a lot more data loaded onto the hard drive of my brain than there was 50 or 60 years ago. So things probably get crowded up there in that cortex of mine.
I’ve always been intrigued by how the mind works. And perhaps there’s a small part of me that worries that my brain is slowly “gumming up” in the way that eventually results in dementia. More than anything, however, I continue to have this feeling that our brains are capable of so much more than what we demand of them—perhaps even telepathy. Who knows? I can only say that I “think” about these things a lot.
A random tune. A beautiful day. And a rush of emotions while reflecting on the ups and downs of life.
August 27, 2014
I was in the garage hammering a block of ice I had made by freezing a plastic milk jug filled with water. Tiny, snow-cone-sized chips fell perfectly between the cans of beer I had loaded into a cooler on the floor in anticipation of the arrival of my in-laws from southeast Ohio.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon—79 or 80 degrees, a cloudless blue sky, low humidity and a gentle breeze blowing in off the lake. The volume was high on the tunes I had going all over the house, dialed into a country station from Pandora that I thought my father-in-law would enjoy after eight or nine hours on the road.
I was about to toss the plastic from the jug into the recycling bin when the unmistakable voice of Willie Nelson came through the speakers in the garage. He was singing an old song, “You Don’t Know Me,” popularized by Ray Charles in the early ’60s when “Brotha’ Ray” shocked the music world by making a left-hand turn away from his unique brand of jazz-soul and recording a country album.
Willie’s interpretation of the tune hit me immediately. It stunned me, actually, because for a split second it caused me to me feel like a 15-year-old again, suffering the pain of unrequited love.
Then, in an instant, I envisioned myself walking to school in the morning near the playground at St. Al’s, with a couple of books and a loose-leaf binder pinned between my hand and hip. The image was so clear in my mind that I could see the frayed corners of the cloth covered binder in my grasp.
In a nanosecond I started thinking about my childhood friend Butchie who grew up a couple of blocks around the corner from me, a lifelong friend who I met before I even started kindergarten. He’s duking it out with stage-four pancreatic cancer these days.
Willie kept on singing as a rush of different emotions flushed through my body. Thoughts and images crashed around the inside of my head like subatomic particles: from a close friend’s seemingly hopeless battle with alcohol; to Debbie and I sitting on the grass near the channel in town, watching the boats go by; to walking down the steps from the second floor of my old college dorm, Abbot Hall, to the cafeteria for a plate of Johnny Marzetti; to my son Nick as a 12-year-old, hitting a shot to right and taking an extra base.
I had to sit down on the steps at the side door of the house to let what was happening happen to me as the tune played on. I just stared through the opening of the garage door, mesmerized by a shadowy pattern I noticed on the driveway, caused by sunlight piercing through the leaves of the big sycamore in front of the garage.
As I looked up and gazed blankly toward the street, I felt alternating feelings of sadness…confusion…joy…regret…enthusiasm…resignation. And more. All because of some thoughts triggered by a tune that others might consider sappy—the kind I’ve always been a sucker for.
Or was it that, really?
Music or not, I sometimes feel as though I’ve been climbing a ladder for a long time and that the ceiling is slowly closing in on me. Thoughts of family and friends in ill health is what usually triggers it. I find myself praying for them one moment, then giving thanks that a bum knee is the only physical ailment that I have to deal with. In the next moment I usually start looking back on my life, a life filled with thousands of blessings and great memories, as well as some difficult times and a few regrets.
A sense of melancholy is the emotion I typically feel during such moments. The few times I’ve mentioned this in conversation with close friends I’ve received the following advice: “You just gotta let yourself enjoy the moment, Len.” Well, I do. Most days. In fact, I love my life. Always have. But when you’ve been on this planet for almost seven decades, how can you not look back on it from time to time and take a serious assessment of it all.
Sometimes, when I “go deep,” I start asking myself the really big questions, you know, like “How the hell did we get here in the first place?
But not this time.
As soon as Willie was done singing I jumped up, grabbed the cooler and lugged it over to the other side of the house in anticipation of some serious porch-sitting time with the people I love. After all, you gotta enjoy the moment, right?
It’s not easy being an “almost-adult” twentysomething.
August 1, 2014
In the last few months, Debbie and I have seen three films where the central character is a woman in her late 20s, filled with anxiety caused by the kind of career and love issues young people often encounter.
Some of my kids, nieces, nephews and their friends—most of whom are in their mid 20s to early 30s—seem to experience similar frustrations. Sometimes I can almost feel their nerves constrict when people ask them the same tiresome questions: So when do you think you’ll find a job in your field? Do you have health insurance? Is there a special someone in your life…are you thinking about getting married?
I remember those days well.
Career-wise, I caught a break when I was a twentysomething during the early ’70s. About a year after I was graduated from college, I found a job as a copywriter for AAA. So I didn’t have to deal with those kind of questions for very long.
But while some of my closest friends at the time were already contemplating marriage to their college sweethearts, I wasn’t even close to being ready to do the same. Although I had a girlfriend, a wonderful person, I remember thinking to myself: I’m just a kid. I can’t walk down the aisle. I don’t feel like a man yet!
We eventually went our separate ways and I rocked the decade as a young bachelor in Detroit. But as the ’70s came to a close I recall how uncomfortable it made me feel when a relative or older work colleague would ask me for the umteenth time, “Is there someone special in your life?” Or, “Do you ever worry that you won’t find someone to marry?”
Usually I brushed aside such querries. But inside I’d get all knotted up and want to scream, F#@&%n’ ’A’ right I worry about it…”
Because I was sensitive about those things during my almost-adult years, I try to avoid asking my nieces and nephews the career-and-love questions I suspect they tire of hearing. That’s not so easy to do with my own kids. I’m sure I’ve caused them to nerve up many times.
Everyone doesn’t magically grow up at the same age in life, of course. I have friends, for example, who tied the knot at 22 or 23 and were more than ready for the responsibilities of marriage. Some people, on the other hand, never grow up. As for me, I was in my early 30s before I was emotionally mature enough for the commitment, compromises and hard work required of a successful marriage.
Most people assert that the teenage years are the most trying ones during the first third or so of life. Perhaps so. But for a twentysomething in today’s world, getting the kind of job one really wants—sometimes any kind of job at all—is more challenging than ever. Meanwhile, becoming the right person en route to finding the right person remains one of life’s great challenges—probably as much an emotional struggle as at any other time in life.
On the concept of “It seems as though there’s something going on even when it’s not.”
July 12, 2014
It was Len Barnes, editor and department manager of AAA’s Motor News, who wrote that line in one of his monthly “dining out” columns to describe a new Detroit area restaurant when I was working at the Auto Club during the ’70s. It really hit me at the time because he put into words a feeling I could never quite verbalize, one that I had often felt in certain bars, on college campuses and the streets of cool cities.
I was reminded of it in a recent conversation with my father-in-law who was telling me how much he enjoys sitting out in front of the mobile home in the Ft. Myers RV park where he spends his winters. People there are constantly walking by, riding bikes and driving cars or golf carts on their way to the things they do every day.
He can’t actually see anyone swimming or playing tennis or hitting a golf ball from his usual vantage point, but I think he can feel their energy and anticipation during their walk-up on the street. In other words, he seems to enjoy that there’s something’s going on even when it’s not.
Several years ago I came to truly understand the feeling—in reverse fashion—and finally realized something about myself that should have been self-evident.
During the mid ’90s, Debbie and I bought a sliver of property on the shore of Lake Huron in Harrisville, thinking that we’d build a house on it one day and retire there. It was an incredibly beautiful site. The final quarter-mile of the drive to it was a winding, single-lane road under a canopy of trees. The lot had thick woods; a sugar-sand beach; and two properties to the north were 1,500 feet of shoreline with nothing on it but an old log home that the locals said Henry Ford and his buddies once used for a weekend retreat. We purchased a couple of tents, and every summer we’d take our four children there to camp out on the beach.
We felt wonderfully secluded as we watched the kids charge into Lake Huron’s waves or while sitting around the campfire at night looking up at a thousand stars in the sky. Many times, however, in the middle of a beautiful, sunny afternoon, I’d perch my chair on the sand, set a cooler of ice-cold beer at my side and sit. And sit. And sit. After a while I’d think to myself, shoot, I wish someone would cruise by so I could just say hello or have some conversation.
Then one day “the fire” took our Clarkston home, and we were forced to make a decision about our next move in life. Rebuild? Persue the Harrisville dream? Or go with Plan C—relocate to Grand Haven, a Lake Michigan community mid way between Detroit and Chicago that comes alive during the warmer months?
We eventually decided to sell the Harrisville property and make the move to West Micigan. We haven’t looked back since. And that something’s-going-on-even-when-it’s-not feeling has had a lot to do with it.
Our new home is situated on a neighborhood corner, a few blocks from the waterfront, where we like to sit on the porch, listen to tunes and watch the tourists schlep their things to the beach, push baby strollers down the street, haul their boats through town and pedal by the house on their bikes. We love every minute of it.
It’s because of that feeling I speak of, the one I’ve felt so many times during my life, even in the oft-bustling lobbies of the corporate headquarters of the Auto Club and Ross Roy where I had my best working years.
I can certainly understand how some people prefer seclusion, even isolation, be it at a camp on a hidden point that juts out into Lake Superior, in the hay fields of a southeast Ohio family farm, or working alone in a home office down in the basement. I, however, have always been energized by lots of people doing their thing around me. I need that. Thank God my wife understands.
Next winter, Debbie and I will spend three months in Florida with my in-laws in Ft. Myers. We look forward to the warm temperatures, of course, and being active outside. But as much as anything, I think I’ll enjoy sitting in a chair, just reading a book when nothing much seems to be going on, because, in reality, I’ll know that there actually is, thanks in large measure to an awareness triggered by that old Len Barnes line I carry around inside of me every day.
I love my toothbrush…and other favorite things.
June 30, 2014
I suppose we all own, or have owned, “products” that we love and endorse. The rugged chain saw that hasn’t failed in 20 years. Or the old car that plowed through snow every winter and racked up 200,000 miles.
But what about the “personal things” that just feel right in your hand? Or the way they fit when you pull them on to wear? Here are my top five. Ever thought about yours?
- Wooden toothbrush—Last Christmas, my sister Mary gave me a “Smiles For The People” toothbrush (for every one sold the equivalent of one toothbrush is given to a person in need) with a handle made of bamboo. It does the job of cleaning my teeth, but more than anything I love the feel of its wooden handle and how it never slips in my hand.
- Fur-lined slippers—A few years ago, my daughters, Erin and Lindsay, chipped in to buy dear ol’ Dad a pair of UGG leather slippers, lined with lamb’s wooI. They’re so damn comfortable that I wear them every day. All year round.
- Bath robe—After our house fire in 2010, we received a bunch of Bed, Bath & Beyond gift certificates from various friends. I used one to buy a robe made of heavy cotton. After I shower in the morning and towel myself dry, I put it on to soak up the last drops of moisture on my back. It feels so damn good, especially on cold mornings.
- Handmade afghan—My mother-in-law’s crocheting skills are legendary. She made me a blanket—in Michigan State green, with a bold white stripe—for snuggling on the couch. I love my “blanky.”
- Adjustable mechanic’s seat on wheels—My daughter Lindsay gave me this one for Father’s Day, and I absolutely love it. Perfect for rolling from tire to tire to clean the wheels on my car or staining a piece of furniture in the garage. Best of all, there’s no wear and tear on my knees. It’s just a matter of time before I race my son on his.
I think of the old work boots my brother-in-law Terry wore to summer jobs during his high school years and still loves to wear on family hikes today. Or the “warmed” towels my late brother-in-law Charlie enjoyed after his daily shower. I have no idea why these things strike me, but they do.
Two cities—one big, one small—with remarkably similar problems and in need of remarkable leadership.
June 18, 2014
I love cities. I’ve always been energized by “walkable” towns with people on the street—shopping, dining, jogging, hoofing it to work, etc. So it has long bothered me to witness the deterioration of the two cities I know best—big, bad Detroit and tiny, little Woodsfield, Ohio.
Most people know all about the rise and fall of the Motor City.
After World War II, Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million. Three hundred thousand people went to work every day in “Big Three” factory jobs within its city limits. And the downtown area bustled with activity.
Today, Detroit’s population is half of what it once was. The city is fighting its way out of municipal bankruptcy. And after 70 years of auto jobs moving to the suburbs and faraway places, the only ones left in Detroit are those at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant and at the headquarters of General Motors in the Renaissance Center.
I’m far less knowledgeable about Woodsfield, population 2,300, but I’ve been observing its backward slide during visits for the last 35 years since I first met my wife who grew up there.
Isolated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, about 30 minutes from the closest freeway, Woodsfield is located in Monroe County, Ohio’s largest geographically, but the smallest in terms of population.
A few years ago, when a big aluminum plant in the area closed down, one that had employed close to 1,000 workers, it was a huge blow to Woodsfield and the small towns of economically depressed southeast Ohio.
The complaints I hear about Woodsfield from the people who live there sound uncannily similar to the issues Detroiters have grappled with for decades: inferior schools, drugs, welfare dependence, lack of jobs, insufficient tax base, loss of historically significant architecture, a dwindling middle class and more.
Yet there are signs of hope for both cities.
Assuming that creditors don’t stall the bankruptcy process in court and the city’s unions vote to accept a better deal on their pensions and benefits than thought possible a year ago—still a bitter pill to swallow for my friends who are retired Detroit policemen or firefighters—the city will have an opportunity to pick itself up off the mat. Meanwhile, Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans Inc. and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is rehabilitating over 50 downtown properties in his quest to attract private business and diversify the city’s economy. At the same time, young people with no memory of the ‘67 riots continue to flock to the lofts and apartments being created in and around the city’s center.
In the case of Woodsfield, a boom in drilling for shale oil and natural gas in the area may ease the loss of the region’s coal plants, although the hunters and fishermen I talk to are highly skeptical of what “fracking” could do to disrupt the land and contaminate the ground water.
The question I have is whether Detroit and Woodsfield have the right kind of government leadership needed to capitalize on these opportunities and turn their respective cities around.
I like what I see so far from Mike Duggan, successor to former Detroit mayor Kwame “Slime Bag” Kilpatrick who lied, embezzled and defrauded the city into “Kilpatrick Incorporated” and is now doing 28 years in the slammer for it. I can’t even remember the name of Woodsfield’s mayor, but I just don’t get the sense that city and Monroe County officials have a long range plan for the future.
Perhaps that’s unfair of me to say since I don’t read the Woodsfield papers or talk to a representative sample of people. But I know this: that any time I’ve witnessed a successful turnaround of a large enterprise—be it Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, my old hometown, or the athletics program at Michigan State University, my alma mater—there has been a dynamic leader at the top, surrounded by a great team, with a strategic plan, who gets “buy-in” from all constituencies and executes the plan with everyone’s help.
I think it may be happening in Detroit. I hope it will be happening in Woodsfield.
Walter feared no man. He didn’t fear death, either.
May 19, 2012
Tales about old neighborhoods often include stories about guys who were local legends. When they’re told about the old multi-ethnic, working-class East Dearborn neighborhood where I grew up, the conversation invariably gets around to Walter Lamb.
How many hundreds of times did old friends and I knock back a few beers and recount the exploits of the mighty “Thor”? Like the time that he took down local bully Frank Butler on a side street and pinned his head to the curb in a matter of seconds. Or when he went toe-to-toe with bad boy Rocky Alkazoff (who years later would be sentenced to “life” in prison for dealing drugs and being a habitual offender) in a bloody three-round match, illuminated by headlights in a parking lot near the site of the old Ford Rotunda. Or when as a 14-year-old he kicked 17-year-old Mitt Romney in the balls (yes, that Mitt Romney) and pounded on the rich boy’s face after Mitt made fun of Walter’s freckles at the DAC where his FBI-agent father was a championship handball player.
Oh, yes, Walter could handle himself. And he came in an explosive package for those who made the mistake of mixing it up with him. After all, he possessed a Kirk-Gibson-Iike-I-will-beat-you confidence. And as a young man he retained the cat-like quickness of his high school point guard playing days at St Al’s. Of course, he was always addicted to weight lifting, and even into his 50’s set a U.S. record in “the curl” for “senior athletes” in his age and weight division.
But what the unsuspecting didn’t know about “Wally” was this: He spent virtually his entire life on judo mats, starting at age six, and along with brother Billy, became a Big Ten judo champ at MSU. He also coached teams of young men to four consecutive Great Lakes judo championships. So if you were a “bad person” who had a bone to pick with Walter, you were picking it with the wrong guy—a human hurricane who came at you with a devastating combination of speed, strength, grappling skill and supreme knowledge about leverage.
But if that’s all you knew about Walter Lamb, then you didn’t really know Walter.
I was one such person until the late ’90s when he and I began trading long e-mail communications. First about the old neighborhood. Then about our beloved Spartans. And eventually about the things we felt most deeply about in life.
It was then that I learned how Walter got into trouble with administrators at Henry Ford Community College, when as a sports columnist for the school newspaper he wrote a piece criticizing the HFCC head basketball coach by writing words to this effect: “I could guide this team to more wins just by playing the black guys who are sitting on the bench and are better than the white guys who make up the starting five.” Then I learned this about him: that he had spent years studying all the great religions of the world in the effort to go as far as reason would take him, before ultimately concluding that it was better to simply “have faith.”
Although he was famous to the end for forwarding mass e-mails with “politically incorrect” jokes, the “real” Walter could articulate his amazing insight into how things got to be the way they are in the world today and what he felt must happen for positive change to occur.
I could go on and on about Walter Lamb’s astute political views, his creative writing ability, his well-rounded knowledge about music, sports and more, but I must emphasize this: Walter Lamb was the most fiercely loyal person I ever met in my life—to old St. Al’s High, to the old ‘hood, to his best buddies, to all the kids he mentored, to his Spartans and, above all, to his wife Jill and daughters Jody and Brooke of whom he was so proud and for whom he often said, “I would fight to my last breath…”
Ah, the concept of “death.” We would sometimes talk about it. And Walter would say to me, barking into the phone, “Why should I worry, ‘Bucket’? I’m a noble, fair-haired Viking warrior. Valhalla is my destiny.”
No doubt, Bruz. And I suspect you’re presiding over things there right now with a turkey leg in one hand and a goblet in the other.
While updating my phone book, I couldn’t bring myself to delete the names and numbers of friends who have died.
April 28, 2014
It’s about 475 miles from Woodsfield, Debbie’s hometown in southeast Ohio, to Grand Haven where we live in West Michigan—a distance that takes about eight hours to drive. With Deb at the wheel during the trip home after our Easter visit there—featuring the annual “Rensi Walk”—I decided to pass the time by updating the contact information on my cell phone.
I began by fixing the first listing under the A’s where there was a home phone number and street address under “Anthony Adams.” His cell number, however, was listed under “Tony.” So I consolidated the information and continued to fix other listings that required updating.
I had only gotten to the B’s when I stopped at the one for my old friend “Bernie” who died due to liver cancer about two years ago. I tapped his name on the screen and noticed numbers recorded for both his cell phone and work phone. I decided to call them both. When I touched the listing for his cell I heard a recording say, “The subscriber you have dialed is not in service…” And when I called his work number the voice at the other end said the number “has been disconnected.”
And yet, I could not bring myself to touch the red letters at the bottom of the screen that said “Delete Contact.” Same for when I came across the listings for “Friendly Frank,” “Big Jim,” Gary “The Bear,” Jeff, my brother-in-law Charlie and “Walker”—five friends from my old neighborhood, one from college and one from our days living in Clarkston.
Each one of them…gone.
I couldn’t bring myself to delete their names, and I doubt that I ever will. It would be an affront to the memory of who they were and what each one of them meant to me.
I was a fifth-grade bench warmer on Jim’s sixth-grade basketball team in 1958, until mid season when I replaced him as a starter. I never let him forget about it, either. We spent the rest of our lives in friendly (most of the time) arguments over politics, economics and Michigan-Michigan State stuff. And during the prime of life, first Walker, then a decade later Charlie, accompanied some of my family members and me on trips to Poland and parts of Europe. It is amazing how close you can get to someone sitting around a table in a cafe in a foreign land, discussing feelings about how people from another culture live their lives compared to the one you know back home.
I can’t help but wonder how many more times I’ll glance at my phone and encounter names and numbers that I may never call again. Or whether friends will have to make decisions about tapping “Delete Contact” when they come to mine.
More than sixty years later, Peggy is still “Margaret,” Tony is still “Anth,” and, man, did I learn a lot from the kids at St. Al’s.
April 15, 2014
I went to a planning meeting in the Detroit area last week for the 50-year reunion of my high school graduation class, the Class of ‘65 at Dearborn St. Alphonsus.The meeting was at the home of my long-time friends, Noel and Peggy MacKinnon who were high school sweethearts.
There were eight people at the meeting. Seven of us attended “St. Al’s” together for 12 years, dating back to the first grade over 60 years ago. One person in attendance joined our class as a high school freshman when her family moved into the neighborhood in 1960 or ‘61.
I was the first to arrive for the meeting, and when Peggy greeted me at the door, I hugged her and said, “Hi, Margaret,” addressing her by her “given” name without even thinking about it. After all, that’s what the nuns called her during all the years we went to school together.
Day dreamer that I am, I kept getting grade school and high school flashbacks of the people sitting around the dining room table as we discussed dates and venues for the big event.
There sat Noel at the other end, and I thought about the afternoon back in ‘62 as one of the nuns led a discussion about black stereotypes when Noel raised his hand, stood up and answered a question with a question: “Well, have you ever watched the nightly news and observed how articulate Martin Luther King is when he speaks?”
Bam. Linebacker moment. In that instant I learned that it would be a good thing to start paying more attention to world events…and that if at least one person from a group demonstrates a certain level of excellence, then others among them may have the same potential.
Down the table to my left sat Ron Rosalik, with whom I played in a bunch of big-time (for Detroit area kids) CYO grade school basketball games. But on the afternoon of the meeting I was thinking about a classic photo from the St. Al’s 1963 yearbook where Ron, hair slicked back, fist pounding the lectern, and with a snarl on his face, dramatically emphasized a point during English class. That was the day I learned it was okay to stand on one’s two feet in front of a group and be passionate about what one feels inside.
To my immediate left sat Tony Adams who brought an old “memory book” with individual graduation photos of class members stapled to the pages. I glanced at some of the handwritten messages on the back. Not one person wrote “Tony.” Each one scribbled “Anthony,” or “Anth.” Later, he told me that one day in the first grade, Sister Ellen Richard called him “Tony,” and that he corrected her by insisting, “My name is Anthony.”
It was some college buddies who started calling him “Tony” during his days at Western Michigan, and he eventually went with it. But to me, he’s still “Anthony” in my heart of hearts, the kid who taught me by example the meaning of conviction and countless other valuable things during the twelve years we walked to school together, played sports, chased girls, shared dreams.
When the meeting was over, Peggy uttered a short prayer for one of our classmates and closest friends who was recently diagnosed with cancer. It was vintage “Margaret,” always one to be concerned about the welfare of others.
No one had more influence on me during my life than my parents. And over the years I was undoubtedly shaped by lessons learned from coaches, college buddies, work friends, bosses and many others. But there’s always been something special about those 119 kids from that small Catholic school in that tightly knit East Dearborn neighborhood I came from. I’ve long contended that there’s a little bit of every one of them inside of me.
Yup, I took accordion lessons as a kid…and hated every minute of it. But I’d kill to be able to play the squeezebox today.
April 1, 2014
Most years, Debbie and I take a break from our severe Michigan winters to visit her folks in Ft. Myers, Florida. While there, we usually visit a bar and restaurant on the beach called Junkanoo to hear a 12-piece accordion band, the Polka Playmates, that performs there on Tuesday afternoons during February and March.
Accordions and beer on the beach. What a concept!
The group plays a “Slovenian style” of polka music which is more “oom pah pah” than the “git down” Polish style that I prefer. Nevertheless, I’m always mesmerized by the musicians on stage who tap out melodies on a keyboard with their right hand while simultaneously pressing buttons for bass notes and chords with their left hand—as they compress or expand the instrument’s bellows.
What they do ain’t easy. Trust me, I know. After all, like a lot of young Polish-American kids during the ’50s, I took accordian lessons from about the time that I was in the fourth grade until I was in the sixth grade. My sister Mary took lessons, too.
It wasn’t something we asked to do. My Mom and Dad simply informed us one day that we’d be taking lessons from an instructor who would visit our home once a week. We did as we were told.
The accordion was always my Dad’s favorite instrument. When he was a kid, he found one that had been thrown out in the alley behind his house. As the story goes, he took it to an accordion instructor who laughed when he saw the sorry state of the thing. There would be no accordion lessons for my Dad. His folks didn’t have the money to buy him a decent instrument.
Oh, how he loved it, years later, when Uncle Buckley, who could play the accordion by ear, would raucously perform his repertoire of polkas and obereks at my grandparents’ house on Sunday afternoons—my Dad and Uncle Joey invariably singing along—in the presence of my various aunts, uncles and young cousins.
It was my Dad’s dream that Mary and I would be able to create the same sort of excitement with our instruments in the living room of our home.
But it was not to be.
I remember the night when my sister and I were instructed to set up our music stands in the “TV room” and play for some friends of my parents who were visiting one Saturday night. I dutifully strapped on my black Rondelli and played…with tears streaming from my eyes.
I was into being “cool,” and the accordion was not cool. I was also totally into rock ‘n’ roll, owning every 45 released by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers by the time I was 11. Picking up on my lack of interest, Mr. Errol, my instructor, worked out the melodies of some “hit tunes” of the day, put them down on paper and “mimeographed” copies of them for both Mary and me.
But one day, when I attempted to play the Elegants’ “Little Star” for Tony Adams and Mickey Bonkowski, friends and teammates on my C.Y.O basketball team, it was a disaster of laughter. I can still see Mickey doubled up on the hardwood of my bedroom floor—tears in his eyes, spit drooling from the sides of his mouth—as I attempted to peck out the song.
That was it. I’d had enough of the accordion. A few weeks later both my sister and I quit taking lessons.
Looking back, I have little doubt that I benefited from the experience. It gave me an understanding of the music scale. I know how certain keys played together create the sound of a chord. And there was the discipline of it all—I practiced every day, even if it was only for 20 or 25 minutes.
Mary still has her “sparkly” orange and grey accordion, as well as her “Sedlon Method” music books. My Dad sold my accordion to one of his friends.Truth be told, I’d love to be able play that thing today. If I could, I’d pack it into the car like a suitcase and play at my in-laws’ home in Ohio when we visit there at Easter time. I’d probably lug it into neighborhood bars and play for beer. And I’d certainly tickle the keys on the porch every summer during Coast Guard Festival when tourists fill our town.
Many friends have suggested that I should take lessons once again. But in my experience, those who can play—really play—an instrument are people who have at least a little bit of natural “feel” for it—that “ear” that Uncle Buckley had. Now, when you layer some instruction over that, the music can touch people’s hearts, whether it’s played on a piano, a guitar or even an accordion.
What I woudn’t give to be able to do that.
Back to Detroit, a drive down Oakman Boulevard and memories of better days for the city.
February 17, 2014
When I was growing up during the ’50s and ’60s, Oakman Blvd. was considered a special street in my mostly working class Dearborn neighborhood. That’s where the big homes—in English Tudor, Italianate, Dutch colonial and Spanish architecture—stood.
Doctors, dentists, businessmen, even an FBI agent lived on Oakman in those days. Legend has it that Mafia types connected a couple of the older homes with underground tunnels. And I recall one house where the owners invited us into their kitchen on Halloween night and served us hot dogs.
Divided by a landscaped island that at one time boasted unusual plants and trees from foreign countries, Oakman runs north and south from Michigan Ave. to Tireman in Dearborn, turns into a winding road as it crosses the border into Detroit, until it ends—or begins, depending upon one’s perspective—in Highland Park near Henry Ford’s old Model T plant, which still stands today.
My house on Tireman was three blocks west of Oakman. Next door lived Mickey and Billy Phillips. Billy was five years older than me, and when I was a gung-ho grade school basketball player, he was kind enough to let me tag along when he and a friend would drive Oakman Blvd. en route to the University of Detroit Memorial Building (now called Calahan Hall) for some big-time hoops.
Bursting with excitement as we made the trip, I would stare out the window of the Phillips’ family car, wondering who lived in those magnificent Oakman Blvd. homes, while anticipating the amazing college or high school basketball I would see that night in the building I still consider to be the best for watching games because of its intimacy and great sight lines.
Those were the days of U-D’s Dave DeBusschere who went on to play for the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and in 1996 was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. But it was the city championship games between the best of the Public School League and the best of the Catholic League that really turned me on.
Billy took me to see two of those championship games, in 1959 and 1960, both pitting Detroit Eastern with 7’0” center Reggie Harding, who would become the first player drafted into the NBA without playing college basketball, against Detroit Holy Redeemer with 6’10” Bill Chmielewski, who went on to play at Dayton and was named MVP of the 1962 National Invitational Tournament.
Those were also some of the last great days of the post-World War ll era for the city of Detroit—before the ‘67 riots, resentment caused by school bussing, deindustrialization, white flight, urban sprawl and a host of other problems that conspired to drain the city of its middle class.
I was in the Detroit area to compete in a bench press competition recently, and as I approached the city in my car I decided to get off the freeway and drive the old route we used to take home from U-D, via Oakman Blvd., back to Dearborn. As I passed the university on Livernois, it struck me that the street was devoid of students and that there were few retailers or bars that catered to them. A little further south of the campus I approached Oakman and made the right-hand turn onto it that I had made so many times during my adolescent years.
As I slowly drove its winding route, Oakman looked “tired” to me. I began to note aloud the security doors on many homes: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, no, yes, yes, yes…” I said as I drove the boulevard. Their prevalence was no surprise to me in a city that for decades has grappled with a persistent crime problem. When I reached the intersection of Grand River and Oakman, a thriving retail strip until the early ’70s when there was a Federal’s department store, Sears, Cunningham Drugs and more, I noticed boarded-up stores and the crumbling walls of urban decay. A few minutes down the road, when I crossed Wyoming Ave., I looked south and gazed upon acres of open land where Mackenzie High School, with its once distinctive blue and yellow Pewabic tile around the main entrance, stood until it was demolished in 2012.
Finally, when I crossed into Dearborn at the city’s border, Oakman Blvd. looked much as it did when I was a child, although there are fewer trees and shrubs growing on the island now and the area has undergone demographic changes in terms of ethnic composition, average household income, etc.
Some Detroit streets are in better shape than the Oakman Blvd. that winds through the city today. Many others are in far worse condition. And while both the city’s downtown and midtown areas continue to make forward progress as young people seeking an “urban experience” and who have no memory of “the riots” continue to move into lofts and apartments, Detroit’s neighborhoods are a different story. I suspect we’ll know they’ve made a comeback when Oakman Blvd. shows signs of energy once again and the number of security doors on its homes gives way to the beautiful wood doors hidden behind them.
I doubt that I’ll live long enough to see that happen. I hope I’m wrong.
There’s no secret to “The Secret.” As the nuns at St. Al’s used to say, “Have goals, work hard, think positively and good things will happen.”
January 29, 2014
Somewhere amid a recent flurry of e-mails between members of my extended family, my son Gordon wrote that he attributed getting his new job to the message in The Secret, the New York Times best seller by Rhonda Byrne. Essentially, the book’s message is this:
When you think positively and continuously envision the things you really want in life, the “law of natural attraction” eventually kicks in as you surround yourself with people, experiences, situations, etc. that help turn dreams into reality.
Fact is, Gordie’s sister, Lindsay, gave him a tip about an opening at the company where she works. He applied. He interviewed. He had the right background. He got the job.
And yet, one could argue that “the secret” did indeed work for him. He constantly envisioned the kind of position he wanted. He thought positively about it, day and night. He went after it. He engaged with people who could make it happen, his sister among them. And in the end, he got what he wanted.
I read The Secret when it was first published a few years ago. When I finished it, my reaction was, “Hell, I’ve known this all my life…this is what the nuns at St. Al’s were always preaching…this is what Coach Mackey was saying every day at basketball practice.”
I totally bought into their advice as a kid. By the time I was in the seventh grade I constantly dreamed about becoming a writer. I kept writing during grade school and high school. And in college, when my journalism professors edited my stuff and gave me Cs, I was convinced that “they didn’t get what I do.” So I took essay writing classes through the English department…and aced them. I read books about writing. I talked to writers about writing, including the editor of the Detroit Free Press. And then one day I got a job writing copy for the Auto Club of Michigan.
Similarly, when I was in high school, I began to think that I would not get married until I was 30 or more. Then, as a young adult, I started to envision that I would meet a woman who would have a frame of reference different from my own, someone who would be from a different place and change my life. I never told anyone these things, but they were always on my mind. Then one day at the age of 31, in a cab, in Guadaloupe, I met this nurse from Cleveland who grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. A year later she became my wife.
I could cite example after example of how outcomes I’ve envisioned and thought positively about have come true for me.
Coincidences? Self-fulfilling prophecies? ”The secret”? Who can say?
Certainly there’s no way that a goal and any amount of positive thinking was ever going to make up for my lack of skills and transform me into a major league baseball player. And “the secret” won’t cure someone diagnosed with cancer, although I suspect that it may be part of the solution.
I just know that a long time ago I bought into the idea of having goals and eliminating what motivational speakers call “stinkin’ thinkin’.” As I’ve always tried to make my kids understand, “If you think you can, maybe you will. If you think you can’t, you won’t.” That, for me, is the secret.
Everyone changes over time, but to what degree does a part of us remain the same?
January 20, 2014
I’m not the same person I was 10 or 15 years ago. During the last decade and a half I was fired twice. My home burned down. My children grew up. I became a house husband. And I moved across the state to west Michigan.
I’m sure that all those things changed me a bit.
And yet, I wonder to what degree I remain the same person I have always been.
I think that I still have a good sense of fair play. I still try to be inclusive of people who are different from me. And I’ve always felt extremely loyal to my family and friends.
Yet I’m sure I’m different in certain ways.
I’m not quite as patient as I used to be. I probably have a lower boiling point than I once had. And there are many things that interest me today that never interested me before.
I collect pudding stones, for example. And I go to cooking classes. I even took a shot at acting in a community play last fall. Who’d a thunk any of those things?
As the years have rolled by I have observed changes that have taken place in others, too.
When I think about some of my long-time friends, those from the neighborhood where I grew up, as well as some of my pals from college, I see former beer guzzlers who are now wine connoisseurs. Risk-takers who now seem cautious. And some who once leaned left who now lean right.
The more I think about it, I suspect that I sometimes confuse change with growth or development, processes that continue—or should continue, I think—until the day we die
The way I see it, we are all born with a certain essence. At some point in life we acquire a sense of self. At that point, we start becoming aware of our strengths and weaknesses, building upon the former while working on the latter. Thus we evolve over time, becoming the person we are capable of becoming.
A few years ago I got into a heated discussion with a friend from way back. I’ve long forgotten what we argued about, but it has stuck in my mind ever since when he vehemently disagreed with me about something and said, “I know you, Lenny…” as he lit into me, certain about his point of view.
I was rather stunned when he said that because, yes, I’m sure he understood me at the core, but at the same time I realized that he hadn’t really noticed how getting married, raising four children, the struggles of a career, etc.had changed some of my perspectives over time.
I’m convinced that I still have many of the same sensibilities that I had when I was a young person, perhaps even as a child, but I’d like to think that I’ve changed a tiny bit almost every day in the never ending quest to become a little more, a little better than I was the day before.
Five things I saw, heard or experienced on Christmas Eve that caused me to feel thankful for a wonderful life.
January 2, 2014
During the weeks leading up to Christmas, there was an open, emotional and enlightening internet discussion about depression among the cousins, aunts and uncles of my extended family. It made me realize how difficult the daily challenges of life can be for some people. It made me wish that I could help them.
The very least that I could do, I reasoned, was to empathize. And to be thankful that the “ups” have far outnumbered the “downs” in my own life. That’s when I decided to take 24 hours to be extra alert to the struggles that some people endure every day. Here are just five that I observed from the afternoon of December 23 through the afternoon of Christmas Eve:
- While driving across the state to the Detroit area, Debbie and I called Terry and Jane, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Delaware. That’s when we learned that it had been necessary for our niece, Leslie, to do Jane’s Christmas shopping since Jane, who has multiple myeloma, is recovering from a transplant of her own stem cells and must avoid crowds because her immune system has been weakened. Jane loves shopping. It’s one of her favorite things to do in life. I tried to imagine having her illness and how frustrating it must feel to be deprived of a simple pleasure such as shopping.
- The next morning, we had to make a quick trip to the office of a family friend who is an attorney. Along the way I stopped for a red light on the Telegraph Road service drive, before turning left onto I-96. That’s when I spotted a grizzled old man in raggedy clothes holding one of those hand-lettered cardboard signs that says “HOMELESS ANYTHING WILL HELP GOD BLESS” Now, I understand that a lot of street-corner people are winos scamming the public for their next bottle of muscatel. Even so, I wondered what events had transpired in the man’s life to bring him to that forsaken corner near the freeway that morning. Later, it bothered me that I hadn’t slipped him a dollar bill or some change. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
- During conversation at the office of our trust attorney, Debbie and I listened to a story about his nephew in Boston who has MS, three young children and a whacked-out ex-wife. Rather than allow the young man to pick up the kids early for the long drive to Detroit so the kids could spend time with their grandparents at Christmas time, the ex-wife held him to the letter of the court’s decision and would not release the children a minute earlier than the appointed 4 o’clock hour. Imagine having MS, having to endure 12 hours behind the wheel on a wintry drive to Detroit, while attending to the needs of three small children in the backseat…and finally arriving at your destination at 4 o’clock in the morning. Talk about the struggles of daily life.
- Back at my sister’s house, family members began to arrive for cocktails and conversation at mid afternoon, before the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. It’s a time when old friends also drop by to say “Merry Christmas.” Among them that day was one who has battled an addiction to alcohol for decades. He was certainly “appropriate” during the entire time of his visit, but it was obvious to all that he was “lit” when he exited out the back door. As I looked through the front window and watched him drive away in his truck, I thought about the loneliness he feels and his frustration at the inability to cope with the alcoholism that kicks his ass every day.
- Toward the end of the night, after dinner and the exchange of “white elephant” gifts, some singing and such, I sat relaxed in a chair pointed toward the basement steps. That’s when I observed my brother’s wife, Lisa, who has MS and her left leg in a brace, carefully negotiate the steps—one at a time—until she reached the bottom. Then, she slowly lowered herself to the floor, stretched out to pet our dog…and smiled. I wondered how many more steps she would have to carefully negotiate at home that night and on Christmas morning.
In the days when our traditional family Christmas Eve celebration was held at my parents’ house, at the end of the night my Dad would invariably kick back with a Manhattan in hand, contort his face for emphasis and proclaim, “I’ve had a wonderful life, and if I could do it all over again I wouldn’t change a damn thing.” I knew better. I knew he would change a lot of things, if he could. But I also knew what he was really trying to say—that in the main, he was thankful for what he had in life and for the way it had played out. Me too.