Take Me to the River

I’ve done quite a bit of reading over the past 16 months (thanks pandemic!), but no book has moved me more than this one:

I’m late to the game. The book came out in 2019. Brian Doyle died of brain cancer in 2017, at the age of 60. But better late than never, right?

One Long River of Song is a collection of essays – some happy, some heartbreaking… and all with a spiritual sense of wonder about the world we inhabit.

“Brian Doyle lived the pleasure of bearing daily witness to the glories hidden in people, places and creatures of little or no size or renown, and brought inimitably playful or soaring or aching or heartfelt language to his tellings.”

David James Duncan in the introduction to One Long River of Song

Some books are enjoyable on a surface level but soon forgotten. This one soaks into your skin and burrows into your heart and soul. Simple gorgeous prose.

Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter put this book on my radar. If you haven’t already read it, do so now and thank me (and Austin) later.

The Border Crisis is really a Climate Crisis

There are many reasons why folks from Central America are trying to migrate to the U.S. Some are fleeing violence and/or persecution in their home country. But an overarching reason that thousands make the arduous and perilous trek from their homes is poverty.

“I want a better future for my kids. Like our parents wanted a better future for us. That’s why we’re forced to take steps and leave our own country and risk our lives here, because necessity forces us.”

Honduras migrant Irmana Morado, as quoted in this ABC News story

And an underlying cause for that poverty is climate change. Check out this excerpt from a March 31st piece in The New Yorker, written by Bill McKibben:

To give an example: owing in part to climate change, there was a record hurricane season last year, with the last two storms, Eta and Iota, striking Central America. As Nicole Narea explained in a recent article in Vox, the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have been afflicted by climate-induced drought for a decade, leaving 3.5 million people facing food insecurity, but the floods from those two storms produced even more savage damage. Twelve hundred schools were damaged or destroyed; forty per cent of corn crops and sixty-five per cent of the bean harvest were lost. As a percentage of G.D.P., the damage is greater than that done by the worst storms ever to hit the United States, yet the people of these countries did comparatively little to cause the climate crisis—whereas the four per cent of us who live in this country have produced more greenhouse gases than the population of almost any other nation. So there’s really no way to pretend that migrants arriving at our southern border have no claim on America. Honduras could have built the biggest, most beautiful wall on its northern border, and our CO2 would still have sailed right across it.

Interesting, ain’t it? So if we want to help alleviate the border crisis, we should worry less about building walls, and focus more on reducing our oversized carbon footprint. The rising tide of border crossers is caused by the rising tide of the oceans. Illegal immigration is a symptom, not the disease. And the disease is spreading rapidly.

And it’s not as if this is an isolated case. As early as 2017, according to the organizers at climate-refugees.org, sixty per cent of displaced people around the world were on the move because of “natural” disasters, not civil conflict. In the past six months, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, about eighty per cent of displacements have been the result of disasters, “most of which are triggered by climate and weather extremes.” As Axios reported last week, using a projection model created by the Times, ProPublica, and the Pulitzer Center, “migration from Central America will rise every year regardless of climate change,” but, “in the most extreme warming scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the next 30 years.”

From the same March 31st Bill McKibben’s piece in The New Yorker cited above

VP Kamala Harris can say “do not come, do not come” all she wants. But let’s pretend the shoe is on the other foot for a second (ignoring the fact that shoes might be considered a luxury in the tiny villages of Central America). If your schools were destroyed, your food sources were wiped out and your livelihood was lost, you’d still come. No matter the cost, no matter the odds.

you only leave home when home won’t let you stay

From the achingly beautiful poem “Home” by Warsan Shire… Hat tip to Rickey Dobbs of Hitting the Trifecta for bringing it to my attention in his great post about immigration during the Trump era.

“I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home.”

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, at a joint press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei

If we want to help our friends to the south find hope at home, we also have to change how we treat the planet. And that starts in our home.

Hey, hey, come on, I need you more than ever
Hey hey, come on, we’re running for our lives
Hey, hey, come on, there’s refuge in your heartbeat
They’re closing in
They’re closing in

from the song “Footsteps in the Shadows” by Alejandro Escovedo, from his brilliant album The Crossing.

[HT to my friend Phil for leading me to The Climate Crisis email newsletter from The New Yorker. It’s written by Bill McKibben, and you can sign up here. ]

Out with the New

This was my horoscope a couple of weeks ago:

Capricorn = I truly am the GOAT!

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all new-agey on you. I just happened to see this horoscope while I was working on the sudoku next to it in the newspaper. I’m not into astrology. I’m more into Astro from The Jetsons.

But that horoscope is all wrong. I don’t want new friends. I just want to see my old friends more often. To share a laugh or three… and perhaps a beer or three. To swap stories of happiness… mixed the occasional tale of woe.

I don’t really think there’s such a thing as “new friends.” When they’re new to you, they’re just acquaintances. They haven’t earned their friendship stripes yet.

The bonds of true friendship can only be forged over time. Through thick and thin. Old friends know where you got your scars, and they know how to keep a secret. They’ve learned to accept your foibles and flaws… or at least overlook them. They reach out. They show up when you need them most.

With old friends, you can go months, even years, without seeing them, and still not miss a beat when you finally do catch up. Now that the pandemic is finally – blessedly – subsiding (masks off, but fingers crossed), I’m looking forward to reconnecting with some old friends.

Super Scholars

“The 2021 Presidential Scholars represent extraordinary achievements for our extraordinary times,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release. “I am delighted to join President Biden in saluting these outstanding young people for their achievements, service, character and continued pursuit of excellence. Their examples make me proud and hopeful about the future. Honoring them can remind us all of the great potential in each new generation and renew our commitment to helping them achieve their dreams.”

Like the Secretary of Education, I’m proud and hopeful about the future too. I’m also proud that half of the Presidential Scholars semifinalists in the entire state of Ohio — 11 kids — hail from the Cincinnati area. Two of these scholars (Aidan Finn and Anna Rahner) started their scholarly journey in the same Montessori classrooms as my kids. Three of the semifinalists attended Walnut Hills High School, where all four of our kids attended junior high, and three attended (or are still attending) high school. Another semifinalist went to McNicholas High School, also the alma mater of our oldest child and my lovely bride.

I’m not claiming any sort of transitive property that makes my kids super-scholars by association. But I do think grade schools like Sands Montessori lay a strong foundation for all the kids going to school there, and high schools like Walnut Hills and McNicholas help them blossom. The kids get the awards, but the teachers deserve a ton of credit for bringing out the best in their students.

“Our chief want in life is someone who shall make us do what we can.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

You can read more about the semifinalists in this story from Cincinnati.com. And you can read about the two area Presidential Scholars in this article. Aidan Finn, who started at Sands Montessori, is one of them. We know his family well, and couldn’t be happier for them. The qualities cited by the Secretary of Education include “service” and “character” and Aidan and his younger sister have that in spades.

Aidan founded Tutor Teens with his sister, Erin, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The volunteer tutoring program matches Cincinnati area high school tutors to students across the region. There are tutors from more than a dozen local high schools in the program tutoring students from more than 70 local schools. The program is virtual and free. 

From this Cincinnati.com story
Aidan Finn – Lisa Binns Photograpy

A few years from now, no one will care what these Presidential Scholars got on their ACT or SAT… but “service” and “character” will matter for the rest of their lives.

The Father and Child reunion

That’s our neighbors, Aron and Ben Levin, up on stage last night, doing their thing. Playing the blues.

Ben Levin is a piano prodigy. He’s only 21, but he’s been playing gigs since he was 13. (You can check out his chops here.) Pre-pandemic (“The Before Times”), Ben and Aron had quite a few gigs around town every week. When coronavirus hit, it shut down most of the venues they played. Then it hit a lot closer to home – Aron got COVID-19 last November. Playing live took a back seat to staying alive. Aron was in the hospital for a month… he came way too close to being yet another coronavirus fatality. Then he endured a long stint of in-patient rehab. He’s not 100%, but he’s working his way back.

I’ve always loved seeing live music. I’ve always admired the special bond that Aron and his son have. But I’ve never appreciated their gigs as much as I did when I saw them last night.

Blues a healer, all over the world

Blues a healer, healer, all over the world, all over the world

It healed me, it can heal you

The blues can heal you, early one morning

It can heal you

The blues can heal you

Yeah, yeah

John Lee Hooker, “The Healer”

Every Day should be Earth Day

We are called to assist the Earth to heal…indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

Wangari Maathai

How much better would our coronavirus response have been if we approached it as part of a larger family of life? How many wars over borders wouldn’t happen if we realized that we are all brothers and sisters? How many species would’ve been saved from extinction?

We can make the earth a better place… accent on the “We.”

I’m kind of a Big Dill

My wife and I play pickleball on Tuesday nights, in a couples league. No, we’re not 80 years old, we just like to act like it.

There’s another league that plays on the courts next to us, and one of the guys in that league heads up the Cincinnati Pickleball Club (yes, such a thing exists). A few weeks ago, he gave us some promo swag (carabiners to hang our pickleball bags on the fence… now if only we had pickleball bags). The carabiners had the CPC website listed, so I checked it out and decided to join. It’s a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the sport in this area, and I’m all about groups that promote positive activities (hence my 20 year membership in the Arbor Day Foundation… and my decades-long love affair with Up with People).

Smells Like Teen Spirit… the good kind

Unbeknownst to me, my $20 annual fee made me Member #700 in the CPC. And that’s the only 700 Club I want to be a member of.

They’d never play pickleball… it even sounds sinful.

In Cincinnati Pickleball circles, I’m kind of a big deal.

I didn’t get a tickertape parade, but I did get a Q&A slot in the weekly email newsletter.

Free publicity in a newsletter that goes out to at least 699 other members. It’s almost as good as being in the new phone book!

Autograph line forms on the left. One item per customer…

Happy Other’s Day!

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, which really cheats moms out of 364 days per year of the respect they deserve. But it’s better than nothing.

My mom died young (she was 33 – I was 3), so I’d like to start my own little annual celebration called “Other’s Day” to honor all the folks who stepped into the Grand-Canyon-sized breach after my mom passed away.

The list is mostly women, yet it starts with a dude… but not because I’m trying to reinforce any sort of patriarchy. My dad had to take on both parental roles starting when his kids were ages 6, 5, 3 and 2. No easy task. He worked sporadically (at best) but was mostly a stay-at-home dad back in the day when “stay-at-home dad” didn’t really exist as a role, and certainly didn’t have the street cred it has now. God bless him.

We spent several childhood summers living with my Aunt Virginia and her family in Houston, Texas. She and her husband (Uncle Don) had five kids of her own, yet somehow managed to add my three siblings and me to the mix for three months of the year without missing a beat. God bless ’em.

We were as well-behaved as the kids in this clip…

My other Aunts – Pat on my dad’s side, Inez and Rosetta on my mom’s side (the Italian part of the family, in case you couldn’t tell by the names) also provided room and board (which included heaping helpings of love) whenever we’d head back to New Jersey for a visit. God bless ’em.

My sister Jeanne had to take on a lot of extra responsibilities as the oldest child (and oldest female) in a motherless home. Heck, she drove my older brother and me to high school every day for two years… which may not seem like that big a deal until I mention the fact that our Catholic high school was 60 miles away from our house. I’m no math whiz, but that’s a 120-mile round trip. Every. Friggin. Day. In a hooptie car, no less, like an ancient Chevy Bel-Air with the rusted floorboards and no heat. God bless her.

In grade school, the school “lunch lady,” Mrs. Rinke, used to surreptitiously slip us the peanut butter sandwiches that were leftover from lunch as we were heading to the public library after school. It was an unspoken acknowledgement that she knew cash was tight at our house. In hindsight, I’m not sure those sandwiches were really “leftover” at all… she probably made them specifically for us out of the kindness of her heart. God bless her.

In high school, I spent a ton of time at my best friend Mark’s house, often staying there for the weekend instead of making the 60 mile trek back to our house. Mark’s mom Dixie (if that isn’t an Arkansas name, I don’t know what is) put up with our high school shenanigans, offered wise counsel (which we usually promptly ignored) and treated me like a member of the family. God bless her.

After college, when I was living on my own in my sparsely furnished studio apartment (ah, the benefits of a meager radio station salary), there was Billie Jean (not the Michael Jackson one). She was (and still is) heavily involved in outreach for the church where I attended Sunday services. She quickly picked up on the fact that I was a “stray” in Cincinnati (my nearest relative was 600 miles away) and started inviting me over to join her and her family, not just for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but also for random family outings. God bless her.

Later, when I went from on-air DJ at a tiny station in Oxford, Ohio to glorified errand boy for a cluster of corporate conglomerate radio stations in Cincinnati, I needed a cheap place to stay (ah, the benefits of trading one meager radio station salary for another). My friend and co-worker Kate let me stay at her townhouse. In exchange for watching her dogs when she went out of town (she was in national sales ), I got my own bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, home-cooked meals, and my “rent” was so dirt cheap it was laughable. The townhouse was a half-mile from the stations too, so I could ride my bike to work. I was able to pay off my college loans and credit card debt and finally get on decent financial footing, all thanks to Kate’s kindness. God bless her.

There are several other “Other’s” who should be celebrated… the myriad folks who were kind to our family over the years. But I’ll wrap up here because my memory ain’t what it used to be.

Yes, Mothers deserve more kudos than they get… but for me, so do the Others.

Art for Art’s Sake

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut, in his book A Man Without a Country

May we skip this month?

Spring is supposed to be the season of hope.

But May has been a real Mother of a month. And last year was a bear… heck, the pandemic was just the cherry on top of the crap sundae.

One of my best friends from college had a stroke a year ago. He’s made great progress since then, but he’s still not 100%.

The same day my buddy’s wife told me about his stroke, John Erhardt, a guitarist/pedal steel player in two bands whom I adore (Ass Ponys and Wussy), passed away at age 58 after battling mental health issues. Four days later, the 18-year-old son of a friend from my radio days passed away after battling depression and anxiety. And Scott Hutchison, lead singer/songwriter for the brilliant band Frightened Rabbit, took his own life on May 9th of 2018 after battling… you guessed it… depression and anxiety.

It seems a cruel twist of fate that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Then again, maybe not. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but mental health challenges are a reality for millions of people.

The more we talk about it, the easier it is to break the stigma, and the easier it becomes for those in need to reach out.

A year-plus of pandemic isolation certainly doesn’t make it easier to deal with underlying mental health issues. But spring is a season of hope, right? So if you’ve got some hope to spare, please share it. And if things seem hopeless, please reach out.

(The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a wonderful resource for families.)

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