Tag 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

“Have you solved the world’s problems yet?”

The world is a tangle of problems.

I often work and write at any number of coffeehouses. I don’t visit these shops because I like coffee. Hate the stuff. But a cup of chai or an icy frozen hot chocolate stimulates the brain sufficiently.

Most coffee shops have “regulars” who treat the place like their office. So do I quite often. Yet I also move around from local shops to any number of Starbucks across the Fox Valley.

While not actively eavesdropping, one still does hear bits of earnest conversation. A week ago a pair of women next to me were consulting on a job search in which one of them was engaged. Hearing that affirmative dialogue on the part of the advisor and the job candidate’s self-examination was a case study in “figuring it out” in real-time.

Then there are the conversations you don’t overhear. But you can still tell the talk is serious in one way or another. Occasionally I’ll pass by people talking at a table and smile. Then I ask, “Well, have you solved the world’s problems yet?”

The question is typically so unexpected it draws a laugh from people, and that’s somewhat how it is intended: Let’s have a laugh at the absurdity of it.

Typically, the answers are just as humorous. “We’re trying,” is a common response.

The world in black and white.

I asked the same question to a table of women as my wife and I were on our way out of an outdoor bar space. They were talking intensely at the moment and my question caught them off guard. Still, they embraced the opportunity to share what they had been talking about––their experience as teachers for example––to point out they were “doing what they can.”

That’s all I really want people to think about. Solving the world’s problems is itself an absurd proposition. That will never happen. Even the claim that Jesus is coming back to fix it all is a misconception. In truth, scripture holds out for the day that we all do our part in making the world a “better place.” Only then can the so-called “return of Christ” take place. It’s not a literal event at all. Neither was the promise made by Jesus to “tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days” a literal prediction. The Lord’s Prayer confirms the same thing. “Our Father in heaven…your Kingdom come, your will be done…on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s up to us.

But the religious authorities of the era in which Jesus threatened to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days did take him literally. They mocked his proposition and later conspired to get him killed to prove their authority over all challengers.

In other words, they sought to solve the world’s problems by killing off the truth that was hitting them in the face. The same thing is happening today.

I’m not here to proselytize that Jesus is the “only answer.” Readers of this and my blog at Genesisfix.com know better than that. What I do want to communicate is that solving the world’s problems isn’t a matter of shunting it off to someone else, or even counting on some future figure about whom scripture prophesies to return and create a “new heaven and a new earth.” That’s reverse literalism.

The real way to fix the world’s problems is by looking at them with real eyes, in a real contest. We’re called as rational human beings to protect the world for future generations.

I will say that the present generation of leaders, the people that have led the rape of the environment and economic coercion of the masses have done quite the opposite. To make matters worse, the allies in this destruction claim to be in deep favor with God. That’s not the right kind of pride. That is human arrogance.

That is why I think the next generation, the much-maligned “millennials” hold so much promise for the future. They seem eager to dispense with traditional or conventional views of the human condition. Race and religion, nationality and economic status, sexual orientation or family position are not the defining factors in how this generation regards and treats each other.

I truly think that if I asked people of this coming generation if they have solved the world’s problems, they might quietly turn to me and say, “We’re ready for our chance.” In fact, I’ve done that a few times, talked to millennials at coffee shops and asked that same question. They typically don’t laugh it off. They honestly look at me as if I’m serious.

And that, my friends, is the Right Kind of Pride.

What cracked earth can teach us about humility

Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.

The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.

Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.

Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.

These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.

Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.

Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.

The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.

Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.

The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.

It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.

But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.

Finding a way to make things work out

Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.

Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.

It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.

Long-time associates

I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.

That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.

Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”

That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.

The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:

Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?

no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing. 

If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow

then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know. 

The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.

Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.

Appreciation

The Untiedts (center) with daughters Jaynie and Maddie. Kane County Chronicle File Photo.

Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.

Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.

Musical talents

It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.

Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.

Eclipsed by circumstance

That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.

The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.

To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.

That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.

It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.

That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.