When the Machine Eats Your Stuff

I first learned about word processing at a local newspaper, where, every day or so, some overcaffeinated future Pulitzer winner would push his or her chair back, pound the innocuous beige plastic of a terminal (this was before slim, flat-screen single computers could do it all) and yell, “NO! NO!”

What had previously lived on a green screen with yellow letters had vanished forever, and the response from human beings was not good. Representatives of the species howled, cursed, kicked inanimate objects (metal trash cans were a favorite of the assistant editorial page editor) and swore that no amount of new technology could replace the typewriter. After about two minutes, one of the people would saunter in from their severely air conditioned lair–casually, blissfully, as if he just came out of a yoga class and wait strategically until the profanity ebbed and say, “Next time, hit the save button.”

Contemporary word processors are supposed to save what you do automatically. You find the latest version, pull it up and see that it’s all there EXCEPT for the great string of prose that you had labored upon for the last hour because, last night, before going to bed, you had just read a schpritz from one of those fancy prose stylists and you wanted to show the world that you can swim with the big fishes. That’s gone. Forever.

I’ve been through this so many times now and I no longer go quite so crazy. Yesterday when a post for this blog vanished a few seconds after I had finished it (and was not saved, for reasons I’ll never know), I sighed wistfully, remembering so many piles of text that had similarly vaporized, and how the only practical response is “it wasn’t meant to be.”

From a philosophical point of view, that’s a rather weak rationalization. It presumes that things happen for reasons, that some outside, presumably supernatural force is in charge, this force only wants good things for everybody (despite the observance that what happens you may not be so good for me, and vice versa) and that what could have been a mere goof, or a mistakenly tapped key, or, a causally causal connection that Charles Dickens’ Scrooge would explain as “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” was, in truth, a divinely sanctioned act whose ultimate benefit may not be immediately apparent but would, in time, present itself as a greater good.

Until then, it’s best to do something different and, maybe, when emotions return to the midpoint, you can attempt to repeat what you know you cannot duplicate fully. Or not.

I think life is more about chances than choices. A chance for a writer starts with that scary thing: a blank page–digital or actual. You also need something that will make a mark on that page that, you hope, will remain consistent for a while. I say this because I have had too many broken pencil points (and no sharpener anywhere), dry pens, and typewriters that break in ways that can’t be fixed with a ribbon change or a bent paperclip.

Finally, you must recognize the time you have to fill the page. That usually means you must endure distraction, an inspiration that isn’t fully understood, an urge to do research that you must stifle or you’ll find out all these cool facts about delft china or plant-based toxins common to Central America without writing the scene that uses them, and forget about checking e-mail, letting your social media pals know you’re about to craft the greatest work of art the world will ever know, or going to the kitchen and opening the fridge.

You just have to start, knowing that you’re not ready, the writing conditions could be better, you may not be feeling as healthy as you should be, at any moment the phone could summon you to the shop where what you thought was basic maintenance is now a major auto repair, or you just had a publishing industry gatekeeper reject your last work with one of those blandly cordial notes that indicate to you that the person in whom you had put all your hopes didn’t bother to look at what you’ve sent.

You have to start.

Now.

 

 

 

 

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The View

Orange paint like bad graffiti marks the thick trunk of tree that has grown for many years on public land outside my house. Soon the home-owners’-association landscapers will fill the day with the noise of saws and cut the tree down.

The tree commands the center of the view I have of our breakfast table. Its fading needles and graying bark mask some of the cars parked along the development’s main road. The large houses across the road seem farther away. I see other trees as I drink my morning coffee, but this one defines the space.

Though the tree was planted intentionally, only two acceptable explanations account for its role in shaping how I see the world each morning: its branching shape is either an act of God–evidence that, despite what I see on the front pages of the newspapers that are two big for the breakfast table, all is going according to divine plan–or that it is one more example of the unpredictable, indeterminable interaction of force and happenstance on a living thing that, by surviving, has attained a state of sublime beauty.

Thinking about such beauty saves me from the shrill voices and genuinely bad news I read and, for a few minutes before my wife leaves for work, see on television. Even the cheery network morning shows can’t help but report of ghastly weather, government venality, famous people misbehaving in public and the occasional academic study that tells us that eating this, or buying that will change everything, or help us avoid the danger of this, the risk of that, the inherent idea that we are little more than living things interacting with force and happenstance and have yet to achieve the steadfast dignity of the tree outside my window.

Are the brown needles (which are fewer than the green ones) and graying bark due to a painful, embarrassing, lifestyle-diminishing ailment that, like those mentioned in so many, many television commercials can be fought with a drug whose side effects–mentioned hurriedly we see people frolicking happily in places with views–may be worse than the cure? Or, as is the case with so many things we acquire, has it merely grown old and ugly in a place in which youth and beauty are a major selling point? I can only guess why the tree is marked for extinction.

The ancient Greeks explained beauty as a form of truth, a glimpse at proportion, balance, ratios of width to height. They discovered that ratios of three to two, are especially pleasing, and have an architectural function. The so-called “Golden Mean” of similar ratios was used in the construction of buildings. Renaissance landscape painters used the same ratios in arranging details in paintings that were so beautiful that they were used models by the first landscape architects, especially in Britain, where country house owners, fresh from the Grand Tour, would point to a painting of the Italian countryside with skinny trees and artfully positioned grottoes and clumps of ruined buildings, and insist that the sight of such a thing should greet them from their bedroom window.

How often what appears to be natural to us, is the opposite. You can see this in Japanese bonsai, where little plants are tortured meticulously until they resemble miniature trees. You also find it in attempts to preserve “view sheds,” that is, protect by law what people in a certain place may see at certain times. In addition to cutting down the tree (and, most likely, replacing it with a younger one), my home-owners’-association also enforces the appearance of every house in the development. Those Williamsburg, VA colors of beige, brown, gray and dark green are supposed to maintain the values of our property and the overall appeal of our homestead. What they really do is freeze the developer’s original vision, as if it were an historical event on par with the founding of our nation.

Go to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and you’ll understand how two of our Founding Fathers were careful to plan how their great houses should be seen. Mount Vernon appears usually modest as you approach it. The interior rooms are small and the sleeping areas are unadorned. Then, you go out on to the back porch and feel like the king of the world as you take in a spectacular view of the Potomac River.

Monticello, like Hadrian’s Villa, is a temple to a man’s idea of himself, with numerous areas to look down on the landscape, with one special place for the telescope that Jefferson used to monitor the construction of the University of Virginia. This view has now been obscured by trees.

Both houses have underground passages that hide the movement of slaves. The places where slaves lived are also hidden from the views of the main houses, and it is to the credit of those who maintain these great landmarks that this fact is pointed out to visitors.

Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home no longer exists. The place in which it stood is marked by a full-size steel outline. What has a densely crowded street on a bluff above Philadelphia’s harbor is now an open plaza. Whatever view Franklin may have had is unknown. What is known is that he was fascinated with nature, as a scientist, inventor, philosopher and politician.

The whole idea of “nature” as a mystical presence distinct from ourselves, but necessary for health and happiness, is a fantasy that we indulge in an effort not to think about death, decay, ignoble rot, incurable disease, terrible storms and the bad stuff that our newspapers tell us keeps happening and won’t go away.

Every morning, after making breakfast and feeding the dog, I sit with my wife and my eyes go from the newspaper, to the tree, and back. Having written for several newspapers, I can imagine the reporters and editors working so very hard on these few inches of text, believing with utmost certainty of the importance of providing me with information that is, by definition, “new.” They know they live in a world of short attention spans, so they must struggle to “hook” the reader with the headline, photo, and the who-what-when-how-where-why of the classic newspaper lede.

And yet, on just about every morning, my eyes grow tired of the anger, urgency, violence, injustice and violation that is so unnaturally new. I look, instead, on this view, and the old tree in its center, and the morning light streaming down on a scene that is also new. The sky, the tree, the parked cars behind it, the school buses and the kids who ride them, reveal changes subtle and dramatic.

I’ll miss that tree when its gone.

 

 

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Eating the Blues

Can you eat your way out of depression? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cites research that says…maybe. Here’s a link to the article:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-food-that-helps-battle-depression-1522678367

The article suggests that gobbling the good old Mediterranean diet of fresh fruit, raw or minimally cooked vegetables, beans and legumes, olive oil, fish and lean sources of protein will not merely blow the blues away, but act as a corrective and make it less likely for depression to bring you down.

On the whole, I like the Med Diet when it was first flogged as a heart disease cure in the 1980s. Back then, a glass of wine was added to the daily repast as a sure-fire health enhancer, and, like most eager dieters, I found that what some people consider to be a glass of wine was not what I preferred. By the time I decided I had quaffed a merely adequate serving, I found myself in a sunny, if slightly soggy, mood that ended in a snooze.

That, and I discovered that cheap wines taste REALLY great with pizza and pasta (or is it the other way around?) and pizza and pasta are about as Med as you can get, even when you make sauces and use cheese with a lower-than-typical fat content. Low-fat sauces and cheeses not only have low-taste, but they make you eat more, bringing on that characteristically Mediterranean gut.

You can’t help but notice it when you visit any Med nation. The swanky Med types may look good on bicycles and scooters, or hiking up the Alps, but, after they reach an uncertain age, they develop the round faces, rounder guts and bigger bums and who didn’t appear to be any healthier than the we calorie-clogged Americans. And, though healthcare maybe theoretically “free” in some Med countries, American healthcare is much better in terms of delivery, technology, physician competence, wait times, outpatient therapies and access to prescription medicine. Last I checked, Med people had just as many problems with heart disease and diabetes as we did.

Add to that the fact that, in the late 1990s, the major study that identified dietary fat as the primary cause of arteriosclerosis was proved to have been based on spurious data. We now know that there is good fat (that shuts off our hunger when we feel “full”), not-so-good fat and really bad fat that contributes to arteriosclerosis, and that our bodies make that really bad fat all by themselves. Statins, which are supposed to interfere with really bad fat production, are now the world’s most common prescription drugs.

Our love of the Med diet coincided with two other major dining trends, the return of Big Meat (prime grade steak houses, fancy burgers) and the reinvention of comfort food: fatty, salty, cheesy, saucy, gooey, greasy, starchy intensely delicious meals that “feel good” going down, before they put you to sleep.

I have often wandered into places reeking of sizzling meet, and, after consuming a pile of artfully cooked protein, and the requisite spuds, I behold my mood…elevated. There really is something to comfort food that the Med diet does not deliver.

Finally, a few days after my wife and I viewed a documentary devoted to regional American pie shops, we found ourselves returning from a funeral and, in a fit of life-affirming consumerism, we enriched the local economy by purchasing a strawberry rhubarb pie, the first taste of which set off in my mouth a spectacular, sugary, butter-crust-crumbling fruit explosion also elevated my mood.

And, no, I did not experience the deflating let-down a few hours later. This pie delivered no mere “sugar high.”  Eating it was a peak experience, a life-affirming feat to counter the all thoughts of diets and deprivation which, far too often, amount to the same thing: you do this because you believe, against all lust and logic, that somehow it will be good for you.

With such memories I returned to the Wall Street Journal article and the study on which it was based. That foods influence our moods is obvious. That some kinds of influence may be better than others is worth exploring.

But, if given a choice between a lean, colorful, oil-and-vinegary Med salad (with slivers of grilled chicken on top), and strawberry rhubarb pie, I would not hesitate to send that study back to the kitchen.

 

 

 

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Poem Number One

This is not the first poem you have seen

This is not the first poem I have written

It is more like a locomotive, the first acquired, silent in a shed, replaced by machines with bigger numbers.

When the big steam-puffing thing chugged into view, people thought

This is going to take us places!

What if it goes nowhere?

If we were supposed to have locomotives, we would have been given locomotives in the same way we’ve been given legs, feet, toes (but not shoes and socks) and the holes in our heads.

It smells funny, like the hot, rusty iron odor of blood.

If it breaks, who is going to fix it?

This is going to make us a big pile of money!

This is going to do what others never did!

This is the first of many!

Remember how it sounded when it moved?

Number ONE, number ONE, number ONE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Those Who Teach

With the ending of the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia (for a five percent raise on a salary that is still among the lowest in the nation), I see again how many people in this country hate teachers.

I admit to some prejudice against the haters. I have had about five (or six) great teachers in my life. All were charismatic, electrifying lecturers and, most important of all, did not compel me to ingest the required curriculum as much as they showed me how what was being taught was valuable, necessary and important to me personally. The message I got from all is that having the time and places to let yourself be educated is a great gift that begins when that lightbulb of understanding goes off in your head, and does not end, especially when you find yourself as old (or older) than your teachers, and you think back on what they did and who they appeared to be, and you marvel at how the wisdom they were passing on.

This said, I can understand why teachers are a target of so much characteristically American animosity. Though the United States may be among the most educated societies in the world, and have colleges so prestigious that foreign students struggle for admission, most Americans believe that life’s greatest lessons are not taught in a classroom, but in the “real world.” We tend to have more respect for “self-made” individuals who began their social climb somewhere behind the starting line, than those who went to school, hit the books, collected credentials and became successful doing as they were taught–even if the majority of self made individuals in this country did precisely that.

We also revere those who exceptions who quit, do badly in school, or are misjudged by their teachers. Among the most famous are Albert Einstein, whose childhood teachers complained that he lacked focus and would most likely fail in later life, Henry Ford, who left school at 15 and became only fascinated with engineering when his father gave him a pocket watch that Ford took apart and reassembled, and Steve Jobs, the consumer products visionary whose dropped out of Stanford but was permitted to sit in on a calligraphy class, which, he later claimed, helped him realize the theory of design that had made some (though far from all) of his Apple technology products so successful.

Add to this a quasi-religious ideal, expressed in fusty mysticism by Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, that anything you really need to know you can learn by living in, and observing “Nature,” a homegrown American turn on the Protestant ideal that God speaks to us all, if we would only draw ourselves away from distraction and temptation and listen.

I confess I shared some of the haters’ skepticism about the efficacy of teaching the arts in a classroom. I became a writer by writing, because my heroes were writers and I wanted to be like them. As an adolescent, I had the chutzpah to call up some writers on the telephone. Others I met at science fiction conventions. I visited one who lived a few bus rides away and, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, apprenticed myself to another.

Every writer I met told me the same thing: you learn by reading and writing and sending your stuff out to editors who will reject it repeatedly until they accept it. This remains true, though nobody tells you how awful rejection can be; that publications will try to cheat you out of what little money they pay you; the days, weeks and months when you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills; how much your stuff is change when it finally sees print; and the peculiar envy and condescension that management–editors, publishers, the people who make money from what you do–has for those who make the stuff they need to sell.

I took only one writing course in college and, based on a single short story, I passed it in the first week. Though I always considered writing to be my calling, I began teaching because I liked to share the experiences I acquired as a self-taught writer who wallowed in the real world. I believed (erroneously) that the tender shoots that bloomed in sheltered academic writing courses were not as hearty as what sprouted from “real world” soil.

Alas, it’s all writing, and what matters, in the long run and the short, is if what is on the page speaks to you, and to what degree you are guided by your ability to listen. But I was a young kid starting out on a journey as a teacher, and, like most who begin an adventure, I had every reason to believe my expectations would be met.

That’s when I ran into a quote from the witty Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Though most in current English literature classes, and a few more who have graduated, don’t know who Shaw was, I most certainly did. I read many of Shaw’s plays in high school because they were funny and, more important, because they took accepted notions of what was morally right and proper and turned them upside down. In the relentlessly chatty world of Shaw’s plays, you could be delighted and annoyed at the same time.

And everyone knew, when I was a child, that Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, a staple of musical theater whose Broadway cast recording I had listened to on my parent’s record player, was based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, which, everyone also knew, was based on an earlier Greek legend.

In Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, an attempt to transform Aristophanes’ Fifth Century B.C.E. Greek comedy into a late-20th Century musical (it was originally presented in a swimming pool at Yale), the god Dionysus (played by Nathan Lane in the 2004 Broadway revival) is disgusted with the quality of contemporary dramatic material and travels to the underworld with the intention of bringing back a playwright who write better.  Dionysus has a tough choice: Shaw or Shakespeare? Shakespeare wins.

Shaw hated going to school in Dublin. He eventually left to work as a journalist–which he learned by doing–in London, becoming one of the city’s most popular theater critics. Even before his plays became successful, he was notorious as a socialist, contrarian and wit. He was extraordinarily prolific and lived on to be a charming, if peculiar and contradictory elder statesman among the Irish.

Shaw’s quip about teachers troubled me not just because the playwright did not teach. When you’re doing anything in the arts, you have moments when you feel you’re not producing enough, not working hard enough, not doing all that you wish you could do in order to achieve the fantasies you had when you started your journey.

And, as anyone who has tried to show anyone how to do something knows, there are times when teaching seems like a complete waste of time: you’ve repeated yourself so many times, and still, the student doesn’t understand.

Finally, Shaw speaks to the rarefied snobbery that professionals use to put themselves above the dilettantes.  True creativity–the kind that produces great art that changes the world or makes people spend money–cannot be taught. You either have it, or you don’t, and those that don’t should admit it and do something else.

You see this snobbery in editors and publishers who, when you put them in a place where they feel they can’t be overheard, talk about the awful stuff they rejected. How could anyone imagine that such dreck was worth writing?

In the science fiction field, the snobbery has been immortalized by late writer Theodore Sturgeon lives on as the founder of Sturgeon’s Law, who, in responding to critics who said “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud,” agreed, but added “ninety percent of everything is crud.”

Was I among the cruds because I hadn’t sold a science fiction short story? Was I a crud because a literary novel on which I had worked diligently for two years was rejected by a publisher of thrillers? When you’re self-taught, you know that learning anything worth doing can be difficult. You also know that talent may open the door a crack, but what keeps you in the game is persistence and dedication.

And just about anybody can be persistent and dedicated. In truth, most published writing is filled with those who produced and produced and produced until they became successful enough to produce less frequently.

So I came up with a line that appealed to those who asked me to do more teaching. I refuted Shaw.

Those who can, should. Those who can teach, must.

Because teaching is also an art, and we all have experienced teachers who were not good at the art. A teaching administrator proclaimed to me that the reason so many people hate teachers is that these people have had bad experiences in classrooms. The haters also believe that teaching is something that anyone can do. “So,” this administrator paused, having no doubt said this same thing to far too many people, “if anyone can build a house, do you want just anyone to build yours?”

Do we hear some of the same snobbery in this remark?

I later tangled with this administrator, who wanted me to teach his way, or not at all. He is one of the reasons I don’t teach any other way but my own.

The people I have taught have published. They have written stuff that they and other people enjoy. Some of them have gone on to teach.

We go where we’re needed, whether or not we understand that when we arrive.

 

 

 

 

 

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Democracy in Action

When I began to hang out in newsrooms, I quickly learned that every journalist hated covering the town meetings, in which school boards, zoning commissions, city councils and county boards of ‘dis-‘n’-dat sat stone-faced on an elevated platform as the rough-and-tumble-dried stood and spoke, one at a time, about the issues that concerned them.

Because I mostly wrote features instead of hard news, I was never assigned a town meeting. But I knew those who did. They left the newsroom bright and cheery as the sun set. They came back at 10 p.m. dull-eyed and slack-faced, clutching a cup of take-out coffee, knowing that even if they captured accurately everything that was said, spelled every the name correctly, and got it all in before the 11 p.m. deadline, their work would be chopped down until it was barely two paragraphs, and then, most likely, get cut further, or not even appear in the the next day’s local news section because a last-minute advertisement took up the space.

What would happen to their reporting? Was it cached somewhere, just in case someone who spoke at the meeting went berserk and shot up a neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool? Would the unpublished article be referenced if one of the officials on the board ran for a position in state politics and won?

What everybody knew, but really didn’t care about, was that these meetings were a crucial part of small town American life, even if what happened at them was as far from the sentimental scenes on Norman Rockwell magazine illustrations as the front page news they aspired to report.

Here you saw the newly elected struggle to keep their composure as they were reviled by those who did not vote for them. Here you heard the rage and frustration of citizens who really did have something better to do than wait their turn to complain about the way a law was enforced, grumble about the neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool–erected in obvious violation of zoning regulations– leaking chlorinated water into their vegetable garden or assail the hypocrisy inherent in the proposed budget. Here you watched a person look back nervously over his shoulder to see if any those who had promised to show up and lend moral support, actually showed up to watch him speak for them. Here you heard a self-proclaimed payer of taxes “taxpayer” talk about truth, justice and the American way, relate it to an issue that had absolutely nothing to do truth, justice and the American way, and then walk out because he was not in the least interested in hearing from anyone else.

When what I believed would be a temporary flirtation with journalism became a series of difficult marriages, I came to know some outstanding political reporters. From them I learned of a different side of the profession, where these meetings were a way to learn how American democracy actually worked.

Go to enough meetings, I was told, and you begin to recognize who really has the power. Go to a few more and you can connect the dots that link the powerful with the influential, the people with money to the people who protect or tax that money. Finally, you understand what is called constituent services, how those in power further the survival and good fortune of themselves by taking care of those who support them.

Forget about what you learned in high school civics about the “checks and balances” created by the authors of the US Constitution. In local politics, the checks are what staffers cash to get “street money” to pay for votes, suppress dissent and make things happen whose cost can’t appear in public records. The balances are fictions–claims made in speeches and proclamations–that, no matter how often reporters prove them false, are intended to help us believe that ours remains the best of all worlds.

And the greatest fiction of all is the belief that democracy is about “the people” being in charge. This wasn’t true in Athens, where the custom of permitting male property-owners sitting on a hillside the privilege to say Yea or Nay over how money from silver mines may be spent (the Athenians chose to build warships with which they created a small empire that lasted for a few generations until they lost a war against the Spartans, who were ruled by a pair of kings, who made sure that Athens would be a tyranny until it was conquered by the Romans) created the idea of rule by the people.

But we want to believe it was. And the great thing about attending a public meeting, as I did recently, is that as long as this belief can be indulged, people who really don’t have any power can feel that they have some control over their destiny.

It can be a beautiful, and ugly, thing to see. It’s beautiful when people stand up and say things that tug at your heart. Let’s do more to help the unfortunate! Let’s give a raise to the people who do the most good! Let’s have a parade or a proclamation to show how much we want to honor those who work so hard for us!

It’s ugly when someone vents anger at the powerful, no matter how much the powerful may deserve it, or spews a dark cloud of discontent about taxes, zoning or the neighbor’s barking dog. Because the anger reminds everyone that politics has limits, the most important being that it isn’t a source of permanent personal happiness. Local government does not exist to please us. Rather, it makes things possible that would not be possible any other way.

We may not like the result. We may grumble at the placement of a traffic light where we previously zoomed on by. We may wonder why the people we elected to not raise taxes have raised them again this year. We may discover that the commonest of common sense cannot explain how any of our tax money has been spent. We may notice, if any of us stand up and make a little speech, that some of the powerful are looking at their watches, or their cell phones, or their tablets, or they’re passing notes to teach other, because they just can’t endure another person telling them what they should be doing.

We may tell ourselves that if things were just a little bit different, we would run for public office, win and make everything right!

What these politic reporters told me was that few people in politics ever agree on what is right. We hope that people of good moral character are elected, and that these people surround themselves with vestments cut from the same cloth. But the purpose of an election is not to deliver the best person for the job. It’s to create a path to power that is clear enough and seemingly fair enough so that we don’t have civil wars every six months.

At best we who are not powerful may be able to empower those who seem to share our values. At worst we can count the days until we cast our vote for the next person.

But we get a chance to stand up and say something. I urge you to try it. I did, a long time ago.

And it really made all the difference.

 

 

 

 

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Dad Shirt

I’ve written previously about how clothing can be more than just fashion, a bargain, or something that disguises how much weight you didn’t lose. Today I want to tell you about meeting up with an old friend.

I like to wear my clothes until they fall apart. This means I have a wardrobe with stuff that’s way past due on the fashion scene: bulky jackets with padded shoulders, pants so relaxed the fabric feels like a second skin, and shirts in patterns and cuts that are about as far as you can get from today’s mean silhouettes.

Alas, I wear Dad clothes: things that look better behind the wheel of a slow-moving sedan. I don’t own a sedan but I am a Dad, so I try to wear what I have with pride.

Today was unseasonably hot. Last October I packed packed my shorts and polo shirts away. The weather was perfect for the straw hat my wife got me back when such things were a cool hipster affectation. My vaguely pre-washed Dad blue jeans would at least blend in. Should I risk a T-shirt?

I went down to that place in my closet where forgotten things hang, and found the oldest shirt I own: a long-sleeved, cotton poly blended green, blue, white and off-white button down plaid that, who knows how many years ago, would look perfect in an office cubicle on casual Friday.

I bought it where I acquire many garments I’ve learned to love, in a used clothing store, because I didn’t have the money to buy shirts for full price. I never wore it in an office cubicle, but found that, with a tie and dark sport coat, I could wear it when I taught college. A slightly more interesting tie made the shirt appropriate for speaking engagements. With the color open, I could be a down-to-earth, writer-type at book signings. It washed easily, dried fast and didn’t wrinkle, so I could bring it along on overnights trips.

After so much loving use, the cotton fibers washed away, leaving only the polyester threads which were now so broken down that they were as soft as silk. Hold the shirt up to the light and what was solid cloth is now translucent. The air blows through it, cooling you as you wear it.

On a day so bright and cheery that people I met outdoors smiled for no reason. It felt good to be alive, to be outside with the dog, or just outside, feeling the sun on my face, a breeze moving around and through my shirt, my old friend, happy to be with me again.

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