Category Archives: the Right Kind of Pride

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.

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?

What it means to lose a longtime friend

Five Luther College teammates, from left to right: Dani Fjelstad, Steve Corson, Paul Mullen, Keith Ellingson and Christopher Cudworth.

I’m driving out to Iowa today to share in the visitation and funeral for a longtime friend, Keith Ellingson. He was a freshman year roommate at Luther College where we were also cross country teammates.

After that, we worked together in college admissions, then parted ways as we got married, raised children and engaged in our careers.

He built a legacy as an excellent coach in track and field and cross country. His worked earned him a place in the Simpson College (IA) Hall of Fame. Dozens of his athletes earned All-American status, and one of his decathletes made the United States Olympic trials, no small accomplishment for a Division III collegiate athlete.

His achievements were many, but he was perhaps proudest of his three daughters, Jessica, Bailey and Catie, all of whom I’ve followed in their careers and family life as well.

Back in 2010, Keith lost his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer. Then in 2013, I lost my wife Linda to the same disease. That was a strange convergence for two longtime friends. Our wives met several times at our college reunions where they quietly shared the challenges of chemotherapy, surgeries and survivorship.

As if that weren’t enough of a rough outcome for my friend Keith, he was later beset by Parkinson’s disease, a condition that muted his physical and social affect. Despite that challenge, he never lost his wry sense of humor or his love of storytelling. Sometimes I had to lean in to hear what he was saying, but it was always worth it. Every. Single. Word.

Then he was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease as well. None of this was what I ever expected for him. Throughout his life he was an active athlete and vividly social being. Many times in his presence I was reduced to absolute laughter by his incredibly quick wit. He had a laugh that seemed to say so much as well. It was a welcoming and yet objective sort of laugh. As in, “Can you believe this?”

Over the last year Keith had become more animated, the result perhaps of some medications that worked well. A large group of his friends and former athletes conducted Zoom calls with him, swapping stories… and asking Keith to tell a few of his own. Those calls were akin to the Knights of the Roundtable, sharing old “war stories” of track and field triumphs and failures. We laughed at ourselves some, and Keith laughed along with us.

Along the way his daughters got to know some of us a bit better as well. We exchanged some direct messages, and I was in the process of gathering information to nominate him for Luther College Hall of Fame status when I learned of his passing. He deserves that HOF honor for his work as an athlete, as a coach, and as a longtime supporter of the institution. Even through his struggles with Parkinson’s, he led our class reunions several times, and I did as well. His classmates revered his perseverance, I can assure you.

The time that has passed does indeed make me think about what it means to lose a longtime friend. I think of all those college reunions and can count the years, but it would require more than a few hands these days. Yet I don’t feel old, because having lifelong friends keeps you young in many respects. Those shared experiences are sustaining in the long run. It means something to work together through thick and thin. To offer that call of commiseration when needed. To extend condolences when appropriate.

Then we get back to the business of living.

That’s not always easy. But that’s what it means to lose a longtime friend. It means you can have gratitude for the time shared and even the time apart. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, with longtime friends it is often the case that once you touch base again, it is like you never left.

The physical Keith is gone. That needs to be said. I’ve been with my mother when she passed away, and my father too. I was by the bedside when my wife died in the company of her two children, and not long before that, her father as well. A few years ago, I lost a longtime friend that had been my baseball coach when I was thirteen years old. He was my running coach in high school and a longtime friend thereafter.

These bonds are important to all of us. One of the interesting products of social media is that people who knew each other from “back then” reconnect and find out they’re friends in new ways. That has redefined how some of our social networks exist and flourish. I consider it a blessing to have met some of my longtime friend’s daughters through Facebook. Now we’ll meet in person today.

The loss of a longtime friend is hard. If I know anything about Keith Ellingson, he would like it if his passing led to emotional support for his daughters and their families. I think of my own daughter Emily and my son Evan, and how much they’ve missed their mom since she passed. In so many ways we are all family, and through that hope we might all find healing. That is the right kind of pride.

And that is what it means to lose a longtime friend.

Bathing in love and respect

She works hard and seldom takes time to slow down.

After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.

It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.

She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.

Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.

From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”

I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.

Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.

I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.

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

wearing a mask is the right kind of pride

One of our Christmas gifts this year was a set of colorful masks. I also received a set of three free from a retailer where I bought gifts. All in the spirit of Christmas.

As Year 2020 grinds to a close, we can agree that we everyone has shared in the difficulty of a manic year. The pandemic disrupted all aspects of life and normalcy, and people are grieving loss and pain at many levels. The active symbol of that grief is the face masks we’re wearing to keep the pandemic from getting even worse than it already is.

Some people resist wearing face masks, claiming it is an impingement on their freedom. The reality is that wearing masks in public is an act of respect for the health of others and for ourselves.

The irony is that so many people seem determined to deny that reality.

Spreading disease––knowingly or unknowingly––is the least acceptable option in a civilized society. Wearing a mask is not a restriction of freedom, it promotes it. If more (even all) people wear masks in public we’ll all have greater freedom as long as this pandemic lasts.

All societies depend on etiquette to protect lives and get along in a civilized manner. The basic rule of driving on the Right side of the road in the United States is an excellent example of people agreeing that social order depends on predictable behavior to govern safety and protect lives. In other parts of the world, people drive on the Left side of the road.

Being required to drive on the Right or Left side of the road isn’t an impingement upon freedom. It is a guide designed to provide greater freedom for all. The same holds true with wearing masks during a pandemic. These are not political demands. They are practical measures designed to keep people safe.

The threat of getting sick and dying during this pandemic is real. More than 330,000 Americans have died from infection. The numbers continue to climb, and America’s infection and death rates are devastatingly real, as bad as anywhere on earth. But why?

It’s simple, and symbolic: some people still find the request to wear a mask in public a great affront.

A recent Huffpost story shared the heartbreaking tale of a man battling Covid-19 in the hospital. Days before he was intubated, he wrote his wife a series of messages, including this loving recognition of his mortality:

“If I don’t make it I want you to know that I lived a happy…life with you and would never have traded it for all the riches in the world.”

He also gave his wife a blessing to live a happy life and find love again if he passed away. That is the right kind of pride: Gratitude and selflessness are the two greatest signs of character in this world.

Yet some people don’t get that. Some people thumb their noses at the idea they have to listen to anybody when it comes to wearing masks. They appear determined to hold out due to some selfish sense of tribal pride. “Don’t tread on me?”

The irony in that the same people determined to avoid wearing masks seems so eager to obey the cynical directives uttered by politicians, business moguls and religious public figures eager to exploit the masses for political, financial and personal purposes.

That’s because the wrong kind of pride vanquishes conscience and steers people away from the truth in favor of arrogant, selfish motives.

Bathed in the light of vainglorious cause, the people that claim to hate wearing masks seeks out alternate views of reality to replace those they hope to avoid. There is a massive psychological game being played in American culture in which people that respect others enough to protect them from disease by wearing masks in public are being portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. That is gaslighting.

The wrong kind of pride encourages people to embrace resentment, greed, and fear over genuine conscience and consideration.

Even religious channels are being used to communicate this alternate view of reality. This brand of corruption is toxic and painful to witness. It encourages people to care only about themselves, or their tribe. That is the exact opposite message of the world’s major religions, all of whom seem to embrace some form of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.

While most of us mask up and recognize that this pandemic can end if people use common sense and gain enough perspective to know that the suffering will someday end, those who refuse to do so literally separate themselves from the norms of humanity and in the process, bring more suffering upon themselves and others.

That man dying from Covid who wrote loving last words to his wife knew better than everyone the value of life, and love. That is the message more people need to hear; that life is precious, and the right kind of pride is having the humility and respect to care about others.

The art of not being famous

Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:

Good day,
I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads:
Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size.
Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print?  I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol.
Thanks in advance,
Delinda

This is a watercolor painting of mine from 1978. I produced it and sold it during a show in the Preus Library at Luther College just before Christmas.

The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.

My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.

The great horned owl painting produced in 1975 from a stuffed specimen.

When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.

That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.

The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.

I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”

Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.

Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.

“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”

I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.

That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.

I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.

Painted in 2015 from a photo of a great horned own at a local forest preserve. The composition is fuller. The rhythms of the bark and the markings on the owl match.

Sanity is relative

Recently I held Zoom call with a cousin that lives in Florida. His parents were my favorite aunt and uncle during my youth. They ran the farm on which my mother grew up. My father grew up on a farm right down the road and they met as kids and married after World War II. Then our family history began.

We lived through all the typical vagaries of families in America. My dad was in and out of work as an electrical engineer. My mom carried us through by teaching elementary school for 20+ years. There were hints of an affair by my father at one point, but my parents stuck it out for all of us. Four boys. All athletes. All creative. We lost a sister during childbirth between my next eldest brother and I. We seldom talked about any of that.

The hand-built chest created by my late grandfather Leo Nichols.

Instead, our family’s move from the East to the Midwest left us all without much contact with our relatives. That meant I never heard much about the rest of our family history from other perspectives. Our parents didn’t tell us that much either. More likely, we weren’t that interested in listening. Too preoccupied with sports and hormones.

Family history eventually does catch up with us all. It would be decades before I realized that my dad’s father suffered through the loss of his wife to sepsis after a breast cancer surgery. Or that he lost his farm in the Depression, then lost a store and another mate, and ultimately succumbed to deep depression requiring an institutional stay. All that family history was locked away in the Let’s Not Mention It Chest.

By the time it finally emerged, I’d long come to recognize symptoms of anxiety, depression, and some anger issues in myself. I met with counselors to help me sort it all out. Over time, I adopted coping strategies and gained cognitive perspective on triggers and traps that send people into ruminative thinking. That is the centripetal force of anxiety and depression. It is its own Black Hole.

While talking with my cousin about mental health on my father’s side of the family, he mentioned that anxiety and depression were ‘well-documented’ on my mother’s side as well. “Your grandfather was depressive,” he told me. “His father was worse.”

Finding out that ancestors dealt with mental health issues seems depressing, but in many respects, the opposite is true. I believe that knowing family history when it comes to mental health is a vital tool for living a healthy life. If you know the lay of the land, it is much easier to navigate it.

The same goes for attention-deficit disorders. I wish that someone sat me down during those early years, even in grade school, to explain that my mind works differently than other people. I already knew that from dealing with boredom and distraction in the classroom. I’d have welcomed the chance to address those issues with an adult who was honest with me, maybe even encouraging. Let’s be realistic: kids are much smarter about their own brains than most people realize.

My method of coping largely involved pouring energy into creative outlets such as art, painting or exercise. I could feel my brain engage and then relax while doing those things.

These days, psychologists often recommend art therapy and exercise to give people with ADD, anxiety or other mental health issues a healthy way to wick off distracted energy.

Even at a young age, I knew that I could often do the work if given the chance to get my brain on task. My fourth grade teacher understood that, and I thrived with good grades all year. The next year, my teacher was a stiff-necked disciplinarian who wanted nothing to do with creativity. Just learn.

Being to just “sit still and do it” was the opposite of how my mind worked, or what it needed. I rebelled at times, sometimes aggressively in the childhood manner of fighting back in various ways. That was an instinct exacerbated by a domineering father who probably suffered from ADD, anxiety and depression as well. He likely hated seeing the same symptoms in his children, even if he didn’t fully understand the source of his frustration.

So these cycles of relative sanity versus ruminative negativity are difficult to identify and cure. But it can be done. That is why I still find it fascinating to talk with a long-lost relative and hear about how people who came before us dealt with life’s challenges, and there were many.

The thing that sustains me through self-analysis and confession is the knowledge that while my relatives and ancestors faced sometimes significant challenges, they also worked hard to lead productive lives. My mother’s father was a farmer. He also a highly cultured man, encouraging my mother’s musical talents. He even hand-built her a violin that she took to Potsdam College in Upstate New York to become a music teacher. Decades later, my daughter Emily Joan (named after both her grandmothers) learned to play on that instrument before we purchased her a better instrument during her progression in music.

The other thing that I retain from the grandfather who built the violin is a hand-constructed chest made out of wood, tin and metal fasteners. I think about the talent and care that went into building that chest, and the home-grown knowledge of how to do it. The leather strap handles are long since gone, but I can lift that chest and know that the hands of a man I never met were what built it. There’s value in that.

Take pride in that aging face

Originally published on my blog WeRunandRide.com

Posted on November 18, 2020 by Christopher Cudworth

Let’s talk about aging faces. I have no real way of knowing the age of the people who read this blog. There are about 1500 subscribers, and there are some who don’t subscribe but read these words through social media and other portals. But no matter what age you are, we all deal with the aging on our faces.

When you’re in your tweens and teens, those facial changes have profound impact on your self image. Getting zits and growing facial hair is a part of growing up. Dealing with tweezed eyebrows and the right makeup mix, or watching a callow jaw shift to manhood are all part of the process. Hair length also affects how facial changes are seen.

So the process of dealing with our aging faces starts early in life. Add in the impact of getting braces on your teeth, or in my case having a baseball accident smash a front tooth, and the changes never cease.

Those of us that compete in athletics put our faces through an entirely different kind of strain. The grimace lines wrought by the pain of endurance sports begins the process of forced aging that continues throughout our lives.

The effort shows in our faces.

So perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a healthier form of pride in that aging face we see in the mirror each day. That face of yours has so much to tell about all what you’ve gone through. There is laughter, joy and excitement. There is sorrow, fear and depression. All in the same face. It’s a wonder we don’t wear them out with all these emotions.

In recent years, I’ve worried that the look of my face has begun to limit opportunities in life. The ugly specter or ageism creeps up on you secretly. People aren’t going to tell you to your face that they consider you “too old” to do a job or fit into a workplace culture, but it happens. By law, age discriminate is illegal. Yet we all know that it still happens.

Wattled and tired

I was sickened one day while reading an article that popped up in my social media feed. A younger writer crowed that he wants nothing to do with people whose faces are “wattled.” That’s a disqualifying factor in his mind. His thinking seemed to be centered around the idea that if someone looks old, they must be unable to think clearly or creatively.

That would be news to millions of people throughout history whose contributions to this world continued or even began in their later years. I think in particular about the life of R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative yet practical individuals to ever live. One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Fuller evolved from an experience of great sorrow and near defeat in his life. He’d experienced a great personal tragedy and was depressed beyond imagination. He indulged in a period of intensive personal isolation to figure out what to do next and emerged with a vision of new purpose, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.

He used that perspective to face the world in a new way. Among his many inventions were the geodesic dome, a mathematical breakthrough in architecture. His influence and thinking continue to expand to this day. No one cared that he looked young or old. What matters is how he thought. We all need to grab that truth and never let it go.

We should also never forget that our faces are attached to our bodies. Today I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that people who do something more than walking in their exercise routines wind up having better efficiency and posture as they age. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t stress the body in the same way that cycling, running or swimming do. It’s the classic training principle that applies to life itself: you have to push past your boundaries to gain the most benefit.

That seems to be the principle at work when we consider the condition of our faces as we age. If you’re engaged and passionate and pushing yourself to continue learning and trying new things, it shows in your expression and even the condition of your face.

Facing life

Until a few years ago, I’d never heard the term ‘resting bitch face’ applied to the baseline expression of someone who looks dour or unhappy all the time. Is that term as bad as dissing someone through ageism? It certainly seems cruel. Yet there is a reality at work in how we project our emotions through our visage. I’m perpetually aware of the value of smiling during conversations with people.

That’s especially true in business situations. I once had a boss tell me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.” He was right. I wasn’t a happy person during that period. My late wife had just experienced a recurrence of cancer and had a nervous breakdown as a result. I was scared, felt alone, and had little tolerance for the daily vicissitudes of business, which seemed so insignificant compared to what was going on at home.

Those internal conflicts showed in my face. There was little I could do about it at the time. Just put on the best face I could, and get through it.

Facial control

So we perhaps don’t always have control of what our faces say about us. There’s always the possibility that a person with a ‘resting bitch face’ has gone through so much in life their face reflects that path. But then again, some people develop attitudes of victimhood and duress that dominate their existence. There is such a thing as becoming so bitter about life that it shows in everything you do.

I’ve got enough life experience now to look back and understand the causes of the challenges I’ve faced in life, and the reasons for the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve come to realize that a native anxiety affected many of my decisions. So did a likely associative form of ADD, a lifelong challenge that often determined the manner in which I processed information, or did not. In summary, I’m proud of having dealt with these challenges and adapted to succeed in some ways along the way. It all comes with knowing yourself well enough to accept past mistakes and not let them rule the present.

I can look at my face in the mirror now and see all sorts of experiences etched there. I see miles of training and racing, and the self-belief emerges from all those tests. But they keep coming. A former coach once told me, upon hearing that my late wife was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

He was quite right. That coach later faced cancer himself. He passed away a few years ago. The thing I remember most of all about him is still his face. I don’t see him as young or old. There’s a spiritual aspect to that, I believe. Take pride in that aging face, no matter what age you are.