Category Archives: Christopher Cudworth

Different I am, but a drummer I’ll never be

The late Charlie Watts, Rolling Stones drummer.

Yesterday one of the most famous drummers in the world died. Rolling Stones member Charlie Watts passed away at the age of eighty.

Drumming is an occupation that I could never do. Nor am I much of a guitar player. Which is why I write instead. I know how to play a keyboard because we learned to use a typewriter in high school.

Musicians in general amaze me. People that “think in music” impress me with their ability to translate ordered notes into nuanced sound. At one point in life I could read music and played the clarinet. I hated the instrument and gave it up along with piano lessons. The allure of sports was much more appealing to me. It produced more excitement, for one thing.

I only picked up playing music again in my late forties. Even then, my role was a simple rhythm guitarist playing in a church Praise Band. The music was nothing special. Much of it was maudlin and overwrought. I just had fun getting up there every week to play and sometimes sing with the band.

Drummer types

We had several drummers over the years I played in the church band. Each had a different style. Some were more ornate and loved to fill songs with a flourish or two. Others concentrated on a steady beat, and my guitar strumming helped with that too.

My closest relationship with a good drummer was a fellow fraternity member in college. His name was Mark, and I heard him play the drums one night in a rock band performing at a pub and was astounded at his natural ability and complex style of playing. Like most drummers, he didn’t have a high opinion of his abilities. He clearly loved to play, but most of the musicians I’ve met in life, especially drummers, know there’s always someone that can play better than they do.

That made his abilities all the more fantastic to me. I mean, if he was that good, and he knew that there were many people better than him, the world is absolutely an infinite place!

That Thing You Do!

One of my favorite movies is the Tom Hanks production “That Thing You Do!” It’s a lighthearted look at the rise and dissolution of a late 60s rock band picked up by a record label when their hit song takes off and rises up the charts. The central character is the drummer recruited from his father’s appliance store to do a one-time gig at a local music contest. His favorite style of music is jazz, so the rock tempo is nothing hard for him. Only he takes off drumming a little fast during the contest, and the band has to immediately adapt. The crowd goes wild and they’re on their way.

It’s the sound! The beat! His happy mistake takes them places they never dreamed possible. Of course, it’s all too good to last. But who among us would turn down such a thrillride?

Whiplash

By contrast, I watched the movie Whiplash a few years back. The movie studies the life of a talented drummer and his unforgivingly critical mentor played by J.K. Simmons. I watched that film in near terror as the young protege is challenged to his limits. There’s even an attempt to embarrass and crush the kid’s spirit through the portal of jazz brilliance that he’s ultimately forced to enter.

That level of pressure and demanding expertise is hard to imagine for most of us. If the scene above does not make you tense in some way, perhaps you have no nerves at all. You should get that checked.

What I’m sharing here is that it takes enormous dedication and the right kind of pride to get good at something like drumming. To get really good requires total dedication. Even obsession.

Which is why, in many respects, it is better for most of us to pursue the things we’re relatively decent at rather than launch off into some endeavor for which we’re really ill-suited. For me, that would be drumming. I’d try it if pressed as a challenge, but I’ve tried keeping the beat with both hands and feet and frankly, it doesn’t work.

Ringo: once and always a Starr

A few years back when I learned that Ringo Starr was not the only Beatle that could play the drums, I was a bit put off by the idea that Paul or John sat in on certain songs. I’d read so much about how Ringo was one of the world’s greatest drummers, and that The Beatles would not have achieved so much without him.

Then I thought about all the solo albums Paul put out, including his first McCartney LP with Macca playing all the instruments, not just the bass and drums. After that, nothing really bothered me about who was playing drums on Back In the USSR or the Ballad of John and Yoko. The fact that other Beatles could play more than one instrument only made them all the more brilliant in my eyes.

What still amazes me, and always will, is how some people can process all that rhythm and physicality into song, especially drummers. It’s a mystery to me, and it always will be.

So I know that I could never be a drummer because I 1) don’t have the talent for it and 2) could never stick with it to get good. <<rimshot>>

Russians that rock

So I’ll leave you with a couple more links to explore. These are YouTube videos of the band Leonid & Friends playing songs by Chicago. They’re all Russians, some of whom don’t speak English, yet they recreate the music of one of the greatest rock bands of all time with such fidelity it will amaze you. All of these people are amazing musicians, and I’ve seen them live twice now. They are incredible. You should subscribe to their channel.

But pay particular attention to the drummer in this band. His playing is so superb even Chicago’s original members are amazed by him. Now that’s the right kind of pride.

Or this one.

the wrong kind of pride

The single most frustrating aspect of living through this pandemic is the persistent strain of obstinance evident in so much of the population.

Obstinance: is a characteristic of being impossibly stubborn. Like a bull that won’t budge, obstinance keeps people from going with the flow.

We’ve seen obstinance from people refusing to wear masks.

Obstinance from people refusing to get vaccinated.

Obstinance by arrogant people gathering in social gatherings without masks to create super-spreader events.

It’s been one bit of obstinance after another.

Obstinance is mostly a matter of false pride. Clinging to a belief that is tightly held, often for all the wrong reasons.

Image credit: The Guardian

Like mask-wearing. Was it ever a question of personal freedom? Is asking people to wear a mask any different than asking them to wear pants in public? It’s not. But people chose to fight the idea of masks rather than consider the value or the purpose. They branded it an imposition on their “personal freedom.”

But masks work. Look at how low the flu rates were in America this year. Cases were way down. All because people wore masks in most public places. Currently the only places where Covid cases are on the increase is areas where vaccination rates are low.

Like Missouri. The so-called “Show Me State.” The origins of that phrase are interesting, as documented on the website of the Missouri Secretary of State. “The most widely known legend attributes the phrase to Missouri’s U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. While a member of the U.S. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Vandiver attended an 1899 naval banquet in Philadelphia. In a speech there, he declared, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

Obstinance as a worldview

There’s a degree of obstinance in that “Show Me” tradition. It is a trait of impossible stubbornness. The same sort of obstinance drives certain religious beliefs as well. Biblical literalists known as creationists refuse to accept the theory of evolution because they claim there is no proof. “You have to show me,” the logic goes. “Or I will not believe you.”

Of course, there is evidence of evolution in every single living creature on earth, but the obstinate among us refuse to see it and choose to project simplistic explanations on all of material reality.

But evolution is not just real. It works. One can map out the relationships of DNA among all living things and find enormous commonalities. In fact, the only reason diseases such as Covid can jump from one species to another is that living things share the same basic genetic structure.

The Vail Health Foundation describes how the Pfizer vaccine is designed to work:

“While the vaccine is new and has been produced quickly, mRNA technology has been around for many years. The vaccine essentially takes a piece messenger RNA from the viral cell and causes our bodies to produce the protein that triggers the immune response and antibodies to ward off infection.

An mRNA vaccine does not actually contain the virus itself. An analogy is to think of it as an email sent to the muscle cells at the injection site that shows what a piece of viral protein looks like and then — like a Snapchat message — it disappears. Our bodies will develop an immune response to kill the viral protein and remember how to recognize it in the future. It is an amazing technology and a breakthrough in modern medicine.”

I took the Pfizer vaccine. The only noticeable side effect was a half-day of fatigue after the second dose, then things were fine. I was vaccinated against Covid-19. Not once did I have to give up personal freedoms to achieve that status.

Stubborn defiance

Rather than consider the medical technology that developed the Pfizer vaccine, obstinate anti-vaxxers instead invent all sorts of obstinate reasons not to get vaccinated.

The roots of anti-vaxxer psychology have grown over the years, with some making connections between vaccinations and conditions such as autism and other brain disorders. According to the Global Citizen website, “The CDC estimates that more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years will be prevented because of vaccinations.”

Obviously many of the 600,000+ deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could have been prevented if a specific vaccine for the virus had been available from the start. That’s not the case when a new infectious disease variant spreads into the human population. Thus it is critical to conduct research into pandemic diseases, which is what the lab in Wuhan, China was doing.

Blaming China

Some ask if Covid sprung free from that lab to infect us all, but there is no evidence so far to indicate that as a fact. The precautionary measures to prevent such an occurrence at all such facility is high. Then there are the cynical among us insisting that China purposely spread the disease and tried to hide the source.

That’s known as a conspiracy theory, an approach to opinion popular among extremists, some of the most obstinate people on earth. Even when faced with facts disproving their “theory” about why things are happening, or how, they cling to a conspiratorial version of “reality” because is it a worldview they can own. It is giving up control that obstinate people fear the most.

That explains the illogic driving anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and anti-science people in today’s culture. They are immensely proud of their seeming ability to provide “secret” explanations that justify their distrust of a world they can’t explain or control. First they deny the science driving knowledge of infectious diseases, then they invent irrational explanations to cover up their ignorance. Obstinance is the last empowering gesture of the terminally disenfranchised and self-persecuted.

Dog whistle empowerment

It is no wonder these folks clamber to authoritarians talking to them through dog-whistle language and obstinate tactics. What they also refuse to understand in these actions is how dangerous and dumb their obstinance is to themselves, and all of us. That brand of obstinance is forever the wrong kind of pride.

Today’s blog on The Right Kind of Pride is titled The Wrong Kind of Pride. It addresses the obstinance of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists and how it endangers us all. But there’s a history there…

Personally, I don’t think the United States has ever been any different. There is a strain of obstinance––the “wrong kind of pride”––woven into the American populace from the beginning. The wrong kind of pride is responsible for horrific moments in history such as the proliferation of slavery and secession in an attempt to protect it. The wrong kind of pride also fuels white supremacy, anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, and anti-gay bigotry. The wrong kind of pride drives religious hatred, wars of choice, and resistance to the truth of all kinds.

The wrong kind of pride is as much a part of American history as the so-called “exceptionalism” with which rabid patriots love to credit the nation. That explains why Critical Race Theory is considered such a threat to the preferred narrative of American superiority. Critical Race Theory is a humble attempt to address American wrongheadedness and prejudice. We can see who’s resisting it with political force. It is the fearful and arrogant among us, the selfish and unkind. It is all those wielding the wrong kind of pride to their own personal advantage.

That homesick feeling

The farm in Upstate New York that I loved to visit as a child.

At six years old, most of us don’t have a great grasp of the world around us. Life revolves around parents and family. The rest of life is a mystery until we experience it.

During the summer after my second grade year in school, my favorite aunt and uncle traveled from their farm in Upstate New York to visit our family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When the time came for them to leave, I begged my parents to allow me to go with them back to the farm. To my surprise, my parents agreed.

A half hour later a bag was packed and I was plopped in the back seat of their car for the trip north to Bainbridge and the farm that I loved.

But the next morning, I woke up with a horrid feeling in my gut. I was homesick. If you’ve never experienced that feeling for yourself, it can be best described as a deep combination of longing and loss that penetrates your whole being. All you want to do is go home.

Confession: I was always an anxious kid. Already at that age, I chewed my nails. Looking back through a life of dealing with aspects of anxiety and depression, I realize that homesickness was a product of who I am. Learning to cope with anxiety is a lifelong job. I don’t blame myself for it, and these days I know myself well enough to function healthily. It wasn’t always that way.

The morning of my homesickness, I recall my aunt making a phone call to my parents, who drove up from Lancaster that day to fetch their anxious, homesick son. Apparently all involved had pity on me. Perhaps they knew those feelings well enough to realize there was no cure except to send me back home. Sometimes good caregiving is a matter of listening to the people involved.

Keeping me on the farm a couple days might have cured the homesickness, but I must have been a sorry sight with all those aching tears. I guess I can be grateful that adults had compassion for my condition.

The giant elm that once stood in front of the Nichols family farm where my mother grew up.

I looked up homesickness on the Psychology Today website. It had interesting things to say about homesick feelings. “A number of studies have suggested that homesickness can be associated with psychological difficulties such as lonelinessdepressionanxiety, difficulty adjusting to new situations, and psychosomatic health problems. Given that being away from home can be accompanied by the sadness of missing it, one wonders why we form such powerful emotional bonds to our home. Surely, attachment is at least partly the product of all the wonderful experiences we enjoyed during our childhood.”

It goes on to say, “As poet Robert Frost famously explained, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Our bond extends beyond enjoyable experiences. It encompasses unconditional love, commitment, loyalty and enduring connectedness.”

Still, no specific mention of fear as a cause of homesickness. Perhaps there’s no reason. That emotion is woven into the DNA of anxiety and depression. It is both the cause and a symptom of those conditions.

The PT article continues,” Efforts to prevent homesickness must contend with a paradox. Although research findings have been inconsistent, homesickness seems to be more likely when children have had prior experiences with separation from home as well as when they had had little or no prior periods away. If homesickness is the price we pay for attachment to a strong loving home, would anyone want to diminish the quality of a child’s home to prevent the possibility of future homesickness?”

Like many children in that day and age, I lived in a home that was both loving and at times, a conflicted place. My father lost his mother to complications of cancer treatment when he was just seven years old. He went to live with an uncle and two aunts because his own father experienced profound depression at the loss of his wife and also brought on in some ways by The Depression.

So my father’s upbringing was at times gruff. His pain at losing his mother at such a young age was probably never adequately addressed. No doubt there were feelings of homesickness after being shuttled from his family home to a life with a tough old uncle and two unmarried aunts. The sense of loss must have been profound. Thus despite his largely caring character, he bore an anger within him that spilled out at times. His four sons tried to meet his approval but there was an exasperating and sometimes frightening tone to certain aspects of our upbringing.

So that feeling of separation from home as a place of safety and comfort is both a physical and emotional reality for all of us. Yet to this day, I still view our Lancaster house and yard as “home” in many ways. We moved away when I was twelve years old. A type of homesickness has traveled with me all these years. We’d have never left that place if I’d had my way.

A Google Maps photo of the family home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Yet that would have denied me all the experiences that were to come and those were good. So while homesickness is real, it is also not permanent and is no way to define or limit one’s time in this world. We have to rip off the bandage at certain times in life, and move on.

All of us have some sense of home that lives within our souls. Sometimes it’s just the smell of a room when the windows are open… or the curl of a pillow as you roll over to face that person whom you love. It can be heard in the song of a bird calling in the trees, or the sound of a car pulling into a driveway.

Take in those sensations and indeed, you’re home again. That’s the right kind of pride.

Note: I’ve shared impressions about homesickness before on this blog because they symbolize so many other aspects of life. May you find that sense of home wherever you are.

I’m in love with stacey’s mom

See that iRobot® Roomba® coursing through our dining room? That’s a recent addition to our household, purchased by my wife to sweep up dog hair and detritus on the downstairs floors.

Our Roomba is named Stacey.

She named the Roomba Stacey. “I don’t know why,” she told me when I inquired about the name. “It just seems to fit.”

This is not a paid endorsement. The arrival of Stacey in our household is a direct result of my wife getting sick of looking at dog hair around the house.

My wife also loves a good bit of technology. She taught our musical friend Alexa to instruct Stacey to begin her morning rounds at 9:00 a.m. The sound of Stacey whizzing around bumping into walls is audible for an hour as we work in our respective home offices upstairs. Then Stacey rolls back to her dock to charge up for another day. That makes my wife so very happy.

Tech woman

That’s not the only tech my wife adores. She’s got a heart monitor for her many workouts as an Ironman Triathlete. She wears a sleep monitor strap to track the quality of her overnight rest. For everything else, we have Garmin tech to measure swims, runs and rides.

You might say Data is her friend. But I’m her husband. And I’m in love with Stacey’s mom.

When we first met we kept the “L” word off the table for a year or so. She was coming off a divorce and I was a relatively recent widower. But the more time we spent together, the more commitment we felt. She even asked the point blank question: “Are you sure you don’t want to date someone else?” I said no. Then after a year or more, one or the other of us said the word “love.” From then on, we didn’t look back.

Guilt factor

I’ll admit that it’s still a little hard to write about the L word in relation to my wife to this day. Having loved my first wife for twenty-eight years of marriage (and four years of dating before that) through the day that she died of ovarian cancer, there’s a touch of guilt associated with proclaiming love for this woman to whom I’m now married. But loving again has nothing to do with not having loved the person before her. If anything, it affirms the fact that love is real, and that I’m capable of it.

That’s the right kind of pride.

Love talk

So I’ll say it again. I’m in love with Stacey’s mom. Here are some of the things I love about her.

We laugh together in the car quite often. To stoke our conversations, I’ll raise an idea about some doubtful topic on purpose that she inevitably swats down with a bit of joyful skepticism. “No…” she’ll intone when I gigglingly make an inane statement, “That’s not how that works.” Then we riff on the subject by making even more jokes about it. I love that in her.

I love her head to toe. She takes good care of herself and we have an affectionate relationship. I love giving her hugs and feeling the strength of her back and arms and the warmth of her arms around me. When I give her massages her leg muscles feel like broad ropes or sheaths. Over the last eight years, I’ve gotten to know her typically sore spots earned from workouts in swimming, riding and running.

Sudden smile

She has a sudden smile that attracted me instantly on our first date. That smile is my reward for pleasing her or making her laugh. She often compliments me on finished projects when we’re working on around the house. Hearing her say, “Nice job, honey,” is one of most satisfying statements a man can hear.

Artful minds

We enjoy seeing aspects of the arts together. Exhibitions. Musicals and concerts. She knows music well and though she’s a bit younger than me, our musical tastes line up well. Except for certain artists. She’s not a fan of Todd Rundgren or Dan Fogelberg, for example, nor Rufus Wainwright. So I don’t tell Alexa to chime those up unless I want to tease her. Then I might tell Alexa to play Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” and give her an Ear Worm for the next day or so.

The dance of life

I like how she dances too. Her moves are both alluring and demure at the same time, and when she’s lost in the music, she doesn’t care much about whatever else is going on. “Dance like no one is watching,” is the popular phrase, and I follow her lead. Catching the shine of her eyes while we’re dancing makes my heart jump.

And I’ll also say that I’m ardently, physically attracted to her too. Even with all the images floating past our eyes in this digital day and age, it is the site of her that makes the sap within me rise. We lose ourselves in each other.

So while the song “I’m in love with Stacey’s mom” celebrates cross-generational lust through the naive notions of a young boy fixated on a friend’s mom, there are more ways than one to love a woman.

And I’m in love with Stacey’s mom.

Glad for those who retire, and for those who don’t

People nearing my age often retire. Some run their career course and it makes absolute sense to cash in and cease working in the conventional sense. Others plan wisely and have the financial resources to allow them to quit working and do what they want with the rest of their lives. I’m glad for all those who achieve those milestones. They’ve typically earned them.

Yet I’m also glad for people that choose not to retire at a given age. While the age of 55-65 is often the traditional age for retirement, there is nothing that says you have to quit working at that stage. Our current President of the United States, Joe Biden, is 78 years old. The masterful Bob Dylan just turned 80. Many great artists work even into their 90s. What’s the damn rush to quit working?

Still, the pressures to do so can be daunting. I know a sales executive, now retired, who could not find employment after his company consolidated departments and he wound up on the outside. He’s living now in Arizona, and enjoying it. But at first he was hurt by the sense that he was no longer valued in a working way.

Those are challenging emotions for people at any age, and losing your job or needing to step back from employment is often a solid blow to the ego. So much of our identity is tied to our working life.

There is also the sense of “earning a living.” During my peak earning years I found myself out of work several times during caregiving for my late wife. At several times during eight years of caregiving she needed me home to take care of her through surgeries, chemotherapy treatments and recovery periods of both physical and mental consequence. The timing was seldom convenient to long-term success or building the perception of a steady-growth career. Each time I peaked in income, rising from $80K to $100K, cancer whacked us with a recurrence, and it was hard for her to work as well.

It felt like starting at Square One during each of those comebacks. Sometimes the return to work involved taking lower-paying jobs that were closer to home during periods of cancer caregiving. I won’t claim that I was a perfect employee during those periods of change, either. During those eight years, I was also principal caregiver to a father who was a stroke victim. The dual demands were daunting.

Yet I still managed considerable successes that included winning large accounts, earning national awards in public relations and marketing, and building a literacy project that served more than 375,000 families. But my failures included forgetting meetings, allowing the occasional typo to slip through, and trying too hard to protect my job by posting a sample of client work to my personal website. I was under enormous stress in the moment and didn’t think that decision through. It led to my dismissal just a day after I’d revealed to the company that my wife was a cancer patient. They brought in a lawyer to protect their interests in that circumstance after they’d promised to support us no matter what. It was hard not to consider that a cheap shot.

Plus, that situation left me with no job and COBRA insurance premium payments of $2000 a month. To say that some of our premium earning years were compromised by cancer struggles is a massive understatement.

So I’ve forgiven myself for not retiring at age 55 when some of my peers managed to do so. But here’s the odd truth about my actual attitude. I’m not eager to retire. In many respects as a writer and content developer, I’ve never been more capable and productive. Quitting now would be a shame, from my perspective. I still enjoy the challenges work provides.

I’ve also been an athlete all my life, and I’ m swimming, riding and running every week. I enjoy the sensations of being fit and active. That aligns with my daily writing, painting or producing creative content across a spectrum of platforms. Perhaps it would be nice to retire, but I feel like I’d still be doing the same things I do now even if I weren’t traditionally “working.”

As for a retirement plan, there is still time to make up the difference and that’s what I plan to do. The other main goal I have in life is to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. That is why a series of books I plan to publish are so important to me.

The first is a book titled Honest-To-Goodness: Helping Christianity Find It’s True Place in the World. It is a treatise on the roots of Christian tradition and how legalism leads so many people astray. It is a collaborative project with a Professor or Religion named Dr. Richard Simon Hanson.

The second is a book titled Nature Is Our Country Club. It is a book about the way golf courses thirty years ago realized there was a better way to manage their properties than pouring chemicals all over the ground and mowing everything in sight. The narrative traces how natural landscaping relates to the world at large, and what the human race needs to do in order to protect the earth on which we all depend.

The third book is Competition’s Son, a biography about life that deals with the effects of competition in all aspects of life; learning, sports, family, relationships, business, religion, success and failure, and emotional conditions ranging from anxiety to joy, from depression to salvation.

The first two books are finished and being prepped for release. My goal is to begin speaking and producing content around those topics going forward. All the while I’ll continue working because I love what I do. I’m glad for those who retire, but I’m also glad for those who don’t.

To me, that’s the Right Kind of Pride. How about you?

Through the eyes of children

I’m not a big believer in the idea that the deceased are able to talk with the living. No amount of talk by so-called “mediums” convinces me that people in this life can connect with the dead through supernatural means. I once read that a famous celebrity promised his wife that if he died, she would someday see his presence revealed in a white feather floating in the air. I don’t think that ever happened, or we might have heard about it.

Instead, I believe that when it comes to all things supernatural, it is up to us to find meaning in everyday experiences that trace the lives of those we have lost. Yesterday, I felt the strong presence of my late wife in a teaching experience with children the same age that she once served.

As a substitute teacher the last month and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to work with classrooms ranging from first grade through middle school and high school. Having been in many teaching situations over the years, including adult and higher education, I’m exploring how I can expand that love of teaching at this point in my life.

It has been a challenge and a joy to learn how to work with students of all ages and abilities. Like my late wife, I’ve also worked with special needs students across a range of abilities. Her ultimate career choice was a preschool teacher, a bit different than the higher-paying public school positions to which she once planned to return, but her love of teaching young children won out.

I always knew why my wife loved teaching children that age. They are getting ready for the big world of kindergarten. They need guidance in social skills as well as basic learning in the alphabet and numbers. They also love to explore the arts and play.

As a teacher one learns to adjust to aptitudes and witness how personalities are already forming. It is also a calling to help form those personalities in an encouraging way.

That means you use what talents you have available to connect with kids. For me, that means read-aloud time and drawing. Those are my best teaching attributes. While moving from group to group during play time, I shared some drawing time with a left-handed little guy who absolutely loved the process of copying what I drew on the board. At one point I drew the head of a mouse. He then completed the body and legs, and drew a companion mouse next to the first.

Such are the serendipitous arrivals of teachable moments. Sometimes you make them happen. Sometimes you let them happen.

Over a twenty-year period my late wife experienced thousands, if not millions of such encounters. Those kids were a gift to her in life. Though her life ended earlier than she ever planned, the children and raised (our kids) made it the richest life imaginable. She saw it through their eyes, and the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time. It will be eight years since she passed away on March 26, 2013. It was nice to feel a bit of connection with that life through some preschooler’s eyes.

Teaching and learning

The kids in the INCubator program at our local high school.

A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.

“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”

Getting certified

I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.

It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.

Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.

I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.

Middle school subbing

My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.

Conducting a live art instruction at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse for an audience of 900 children

I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…

Learning abilities

My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.

To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.

I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.

Individualized Learning Plans

I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.

The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.

The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.

Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.

Teaching is about helping people make connections.

By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.

Speed it up

The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.

Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”

“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.

Non-verbal

Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?

Autism

The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.

We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.

Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.

The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.

Black History month

I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.

That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.

I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.

That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.

A deserving burst of grief

While driving up a local road on some necessary errand last week, I turned up the radio and found the song “Somewhere Only We Know” by the band Keane playing.

I listened with trepidation because that song has deep significance for me. The album on which it appeared was released during an intense period of caregiving for my late wife Linda.

The lyrics are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.

On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?

Oh simple thing, where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.

I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”

And if you have a minute, why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?

I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.

We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.

My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.

Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.

On that night driving home with Somewhere Only We Know playing , I felt a cogent realization that her back-and-forth dance with cancer could not go on forever. The wild balance between hope and terminal completeness is one that we all face. Cancer just compresses it.

That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.

It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.

Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.

Oh, this could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
Somewhere only we know
Somewhere only we know

changing traditions and finding joy in change

The family during a spring gather at the house of my sister-in-law.

Many years back, when I was still single and engaged in a long distance relationship with the woman I’d eventually marry, we ached to be together during the Thanksgiving holiday. She flew out to Philadelphia where I’d been sent on a job transfer and we made the best of it. I grabbed the literal last turkey in the grocery store and we baked it in the oven. Then we parted ways again until Christmas.

We’d only met the previous year in October. Any plan of being together long-term was just formulating. Early the next year, the company that moved me out East dumped the entire marketing department. I was left trying to decide what to do next. Stay out East, or move back to the Midwest?

I moved back to live with a friend in downtown Chicago and spent the next couple years living a dual life between the city and suburbs. That was a period of great change and experimentation. After a couple of years, I’d had enough of the Bohemian city life. We got engaged and married the following year.

During a summer vacation in Wisconsin.

From there, it felt like a blur of events as our first child came along, then another. We celebrated holidays with our respective families. Those days of celebration together rolled on. Mostly we got together at her family home where her parents were always wonderful hosts. Sometimes my parents would join those festivities. Over the years, we also invited friends to add to our joy.

Our Christmases were filled with family togetherness. The anticipation of opening presents with the kids was so high some years we had to let them open a small gift before the rest of the family got up so they wouldn’t burst from the pressure of expectation. Our kids were always respectful, but when they had a hint of the goodies to come, it was cruel to make them wait several hours to open the “big gift” that they’d requested.

Early on, one of those “big gifts” was the Red Ryder BB Gun from the movie A Christmas Story. It became a new tradition in the annual celebration along with watching the movie umpteen million times.

My son Evan Cudworth and my daughter Emily Cudworth/

My father-in-law loved those Christmas mornings more than anything on earth. He also made a big deal out of Easter joys and the annual Easter Egg hunts as well.

His birthday was on the Fourth of July, so that day was always filled grilling steaks and setting off backyard fireworks of the milder kind, except the year that his son and friends loaded up with a stash from across the border in Indiana and blew off so many fireworks the police showed up to confiscate many of them. When the cops arrived, my father salted away the major part of the fireworks stash in the garage. He was a conservative guy by trade, but he also loved a bit of fun. That’s how they did things out in the Nebraska hinterlands where he grew up. You had fun until you got caught. Most of the time, you still got away with it.

These days that father-in-law is gone. He passed away during leadup to Christmas 2012, the year before his daughter, my late wife, passed away after eight years of ovarian cancer treatments. These days, my mother-in-law is quite alive and doing well. But we’re cautious with our visits given the Covid-19 pandemic. My own mother and father passed away in 2005 and 2015, respectively.

So we’ll be apart this year on many fronts. My son lives in Venice, California and the state is rife with Coronavirus, so he’s sitting tight. I cancelled a planned visit with him earlier this year over concerns of infection myself. This will be his time in 34 years that he’s not in company with direct family during the Christmas holidays. It hurts to be apart. But there also comes a point in everyone’s life when circumstances or other interruptions place things out of our control. This is an inside joke with my children, but those changes really do “build character.”

My daughter and her boyfriend live nearby, and we’ll likely see each other. But they’re cautious about the Coronavirus too. Even more than I. So we’ll all Zoom with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and make the best of this holiday the way we have always done. That’s what most families typically do during the holiday season anyway. We go through the motions of opening presents, but to our group’s credit over the years, we dialed that down quite a bit, choosing one person to “gift” each year, and we’d buy or make small themed things for the rest of the family. That took the pressure off the shopping. We could all focus on the joy of appreciation instead. I’m always grateful we did that. It was the right kind of pride to turn our attention away from the presents and toward the relationships.

Our holiday get-togethers were always mixed in with long naps from food comas and other indulgences. For many people, that’s a big part of being together. Letting everyone have their time and space. Sometimes, it’s the unchanging nature of the holidays that makes them special.

We’ve added some critters to our celebrations over the years. This little dog Chuck is a rescue that is now almost fourteen years old. My son has a dog named Luke Skybarker that he’s brought home from the holidays. This will be the second Christmas with our dog Lucy for my wife Sue and I. We’ve all adopted these pups and some cats because they bring change (and joy) into our lives each day.

It’s also true that life’s changes come along whether we like it or not. That’s why finding joy amid the changes in the moment is important. The ache of times past comes from the happy remembrance of shared celebrations. That is the inseparable bond from which we can draw strength. When our hearts ache from being apart, we turn to that. But there is also the joy of creating new traditions, celebrating with newfound connections as well. Over the years, we brought people into our circle to share those bonds. That’s a tradition we should all embrace. Make the world our family.

If this year has proven anything, it is that increasing the breadth of that “circle” is the reason we’re all here. Reach out. Make it happen. The world needs you. Celebrate Christmas or whatever you do by connecting in new ways and old. That’s what this is all about. Peace. And joy to you.

I started the day teaching about storytelling

This morning I taught a session for the INCubator program at a local high school. In the past I’ve served as mentor to groups working together to create a product, service or solution.

Today’s session was on storytelling, a major component of marketing. to explore the subject of what makes a good story, we discussed some of their favorite television show. One young man shared his interest in a show about corrupt superheroes owned by corporation. We talked about how the contradictory nature of the show’s subject was an immediate attraction.

We talked as well about the branding success of the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” We discussed the fact that the phrase has been used for a couple decades and somehow still feels fresh. “How does that work?” I challenged the students.

The Nike approach works––we decided––because it allows the company to show examples of Just Do It while also issuing a Call To Action. That way everyone gets to be part of the story.

Culling a brand message down to such a simple, useful form of marketing takes a bit of inspired thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in all the associated stories and lose sight of what you want customers to do: Identify with your brand.

That sense of ownership is vital. We talked about how customer stories actually become the product when they offer strong enough testimony to its value. I also shared a hint that could help them find that brand messaging the easiest way possible. Ask questions, then listen.

Listening to people is the most powerful tool to build ownership on the whole earth. It is true when you’re a brand marketer. But it’s also true when you’re a caregiver, a team leader or any number of other positions of responsibility in this world. Your brand is composed of the character it expresses. Its authenticity depends on how well people trust what is being said. That’s why influencers have such powerful voices in today’s marketplace. They are the storytellers that people trust for word of mouth advice.

With all this information swirling around, I shared one last image to help the students understand the process of revealing the main story of their product, service or solution. I showed them a fossil (at top) that I’d collected years ago. It has the back of some segmented creature protruding from a sedimentary rock. “Your job,” I told the students. “Is clearing away the material around the creature inside the rock. That’s what you want to show them.”

Every fossil is like a new product emerging from the rock of creativity. It is a revelation when the whole thing is revealed. The reward is sharing that discovery with other people in a way that invites them to participate in the story going forward. That’s what Steve Jobs did with Apple… from the personal computer through to the iPod to the iPhone. Those devices were locked in the rock of perception. It was his genius to see them lurking there and dig them out.

Jobs once stated: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Having the will to persist in that exploration and discovery is the right kind of pride.