Media Minds

It’s time for me to call it a summer and head back to school. As my thoughts turn to my classroom, I’m humbled by the importance of the work we teachers do. Yet, I’m also proud of the magic that often happens there. It warms the soul to see that young people are better equipped intellectually and better citizens because they have spent some time with us. Of course, it’d better work like that, or we’re not doing our job.

When I consider preparing students for the world outside of school, there’s one course, in particular, that I believe all students should be exposed to: a media literacy course. Given the proliferation and manipulation of media messages in today’s culture, every young person should be well-girded to withstand the onslaught.

I used to be an advertising executive. I enjoyed the work overall, but I can’t recall ever saying I was proud of it. I’m now a high school teacher, I teach a course in media literacy, and I’m proud daily. I have the opportunity to watch my students develop into critical consumers of media messages, well on their way to becoming savvy citizens. It starts with an anatomical inversion of sorts, encouraging them to use their heads rather than their hearts or guts – the exact opposite of what we tried to do in advertising, concealing our iron-fisted capitalistic coercion deep within the “velvet glove” of emotional appeal.

We begin each class by barking out our class cheer, “Show Me the Money,” that catch phrase from the film, Jerry Maguire. It reminds us, first and foremost, that money drives the media machinery, but it also sets the analytical tenor for the course. We don’t employ avoidance strategies; we borrow directly from the media – in this case, an entertainment medium – in order to critique the media. Following this daily ritual, we employ yet another. Students voluntarily report the “headline news” of the day. This practice encourages them to know their world and to develop their antennae, those essential accoutrements for being good citizens who can help resuscitate an ailing democracy. In reporting the news, we are afforded another opportunity to scrutinize the message and those who deliver it. We check to see how the report of earthquake casualties on day three has been revised from day one. Students challenge each others’ sources, confidently pitting the information gleaned because Dad tuned in to National Public Radio against that of the local morning drive DJ running through his take on the police blotter.

Then we get into the heart of it all, cutting an intellectual swath through the ever-present media sizzle in order to get to the steak. We use a formula to zero-in on elements that influence media messages:


Encapsulated here is the melding of economics and psychology present in all media messages, and it provides the impetus for asking the tough questions. Who’s sending the message? What are they trying to say? Who’s paying for it? What space and time constraints limit the message? Who owns the media concern sending the message? Isn’t everybody trying to profit? These critical questions help us cover some vast terrain, from the Pavlovian conditioning of celebrity endorsements to the “If it bleeds, it leads” surrender of local news programming. From Disney’s manipulation of ABC’s 20/20 to selling presidents like bars of soap. We even examine my own personal 15 seconds of fame on MTV, where a simple sound byte portion of an interview response I gave aired while my more thoughtful, yet more lengthy, comments found themselves on the cutting room floor.

Through such exploration, we come to understand that every media message is filtered and manipulated. This raises more than my students’ eyebrows; it raises their awareness. It makes me feel good, but it makes them feel better. You see, teenagers are a lot like the media. They use sizzle to distract you from the steak. They don’t want us to know how powerless they feel against the constant pelting of propaganda and piffle. Of course, anyone inculcated in a media culture that promotes feelings over thought would feel powerless. Adolescents, for whom attempts to control their world are often tenuous at best, feel this tenfold. They have no vote, no real status. They probably have a say in channel selection if Dad doesn’t preempt them (or if that struggle is long since over and there’s a TV in the teen’s room). And they certainly have the power to spend those discretionary dollars with indiscretion. But they realize that that is not real power. They are thrilled when finally given a chance to control the media rather than to be controlled by it.

It’s a joy to witness their newfound critical abilities. Monday mornings are especially enjoyable, for that’s when they scoff at all of the product placements they saw at the movies over the weekend. They’re not at the point yet where they’ll stand up and shout “product placement” as the actor on screen slugs down a Pepsi, but they’re close. They watch movie trailers more closely to see if the critic who claims “Breathtaking” actually has his name mentioned or at least shown in a discernible type size. They’ve figured out that if the movie promoters didn’t tell us who said it was “Breathtaking,” then they probably don’t want us to know (and it’s a safe bet that it wasn’t Roger Ebert).

In the information age or “knowledge economy,” my students will still be on the receiving end of a media barrage. And while I remain concerned for their well-being, it’s comforting to know that they’re a bit better equipped to handle it, and that I played a small role in developing their armor. I’ll take that as my 15 minutes of fame any day.


About a year after we moved to Blooming Prairie, our mailbox was smashed, along with about fifteen others, during a round of what I believe the kids call “mailbox baseball.” I was moved enough by the incident to put my thoughts and emotions into a letter to the editor, but my wife convinced me not to send it. Now, over a year later, I still have powerful feelings about it and its aftermath, so I’m going to share them.

This may sound odd, but I’m thankful that our mailbox was smashed as part of that vandalism spree. Being the victim of a crime came with all the commensurate difficulties: the uneasiness of being violated, the fear of falling prey to senseless acts, and the interruption of daily routines, like the walk to get the mail, which give us the perception of order and control in our lives. There was also the unanticipated, and grave, ramification of witnessing the erosion of my 5-year-old son’s innocence. His myriad questions and the purity of his puzzlement shook me, and certainly highlighted my lack of preparation in that all-too-prevalent area of parenting – the need to explain the unexplainable.

In the midst of this frustration, however, came “ the visit” for which I am so thankful. The unfamiliar truck that labored down our driveway the following Saturday carried one of the boys who trashed our mailbox. His stoic father drove. The son did the talking. He was contrite and interested in making amends (his two cohorts in crime apparently were not). It was his father, though, who drew my interest and admiration, for he delivered the valuable gift of allowing me to see what good parenting is. It’s not simply the ball games and the barbecues and the hunting trips. It’s certainly not the rush to defend the child when he compromises his principles or cuts corners at school. It’s not the chaw-filled chuckle and spit, proclaiming, “Relax, ‘cause boys will be boys.” It’s a father who knows what’s right and, even though it’s painful, imparts that wisdom on a Saturday afternoon, when there’s surely something he’s rather be doing.

And the way that father chose to impart that wisdom taught both his son and me. He taught his son to take responsibility for his actions, and he taught him that there should be consequences when one harms another. He taught me the value of silence on the part of a parent, allowing the child to find his own voice and to make his own way. It’s like taking a giant step sideways so that the parent’s shadow is no longer cast upon the child, and the parent saying, “There you go. You’re in the light now. What are you going to do with it?” The parent knows there will be faltering and bruising, and at those moments is severely tempted to speak on behalf of the child or to intervene in some way. But the good parent recognizes that when the child has an opportunity to stand alone and to learn through experience, silence and restraint can be the most powerful teachers.

So, with this newfound wisdom, I feel compelled to remind us that our adult actions have an impact on kids. We can choose to shrug off those violations of one human against another, like this mailbox incident, thereby teaching our youngsters that harming others deserves little more than a shrug. Or we can take quiet action, teaching by example, creating opportunities for our children to do what’s right, and then getting out of their way. I prefer the latter approach, which I learned from a fellow father.

I’ll close with some additional, but related, wisdom from Marian Wright Edelman’s Guide My Feet. She offers this as one of many prayers and meditations on loving and working with children:

“Lord, help me not to do for my children what they can do for themselves. Help me not to give them what they can earn for themselves. Help me not to tell them what they can look up and find out for themselves. Help me to help my children stand on their own two feet and to grow into responsible, disciplined adults.”


The recent corporate marriage of General Mills and Pillsbury combined with a couple of strange encounters with household products got me to thinking about the world of advertising and marketing, specifically, and about the world of work, generally.

Now that General Mills’ fourteen different varieties of Cheerios and the baking of Betty Crocker is locking arms with the Doughboy and that baritone bean pitchman, the Green Giant, it’s a formidable combination. However, it also means that a cadre of good minds will be parked in meetings trying to see who can use the word “synergy” more creatively, or debating whether they should return to that lovable image of a finger poking the Pillsbury Doughboy in the gut because they’re uncertain if consumer attitudes over the next decade will promote or discourage physical contact with baked goods (The film, American Pie, may have created a watershed moment for Pillsbury’s promotions team).

While we have always been a nation of innovation and creativity and pooling our efforts, it’s difficult for me to witness significant amounts of time and intellectual energy devoted to endeavors some distance removed from that mother of invention: necessity. All that time spent on designing a better mousetrap, only to discover that peanut butter made better bait than cheese. It reminds me of my advertising days, when there would be weeks of meetings – most approaching the alleged importance of the presidential summit variety – to hash out the most arcane possibilities for finding some point of difference between our brand and our competitors. When I worked on Mr. Clean advertising, our product was never as strong as the Lysols and Pine-Sols, so we had to convince folks that we didn’t leave streaks on your floor like those others did. When I worked on Head and Shoulders, some competitor’s brand claimed to smell better or something, so our strategy sessions covered everything from changing the bottle and the color of the shampoo to putting the models in something other than the typical dandruff-free attire: the black turtle-neck. The discussions even ventured toward a tactic that would scare people about the microbes that could form on their scalp if they didn’t use our brand regularly. When I advertised Suave products, the claims started to approach that which was reasonable. There we simply complimented consumers on being smart enough to realize that all shampoos and deodorants are the same, so they should just buy the cheapest one – ours.

While this work may seem relatively harmless, the thing that troubled me most was the plethora of gifted and intelligent people involved. I often found myself daydreaming about the possibility of turning this brainpower loose on more pressing issues (What if these folks weren’t concerned about Mountain Dew portraying the right attitude for their target audience, but rather what it might take to stop some men from beating up their wives?). I started to believe that that time and effort just may have been better spent. It got to me a bit.

Last week as I functioned in the role of the consumer, my frustration about these matters was exacerbated. There was a new Kleenex … excuse me … facial tissue box in our household. It was one of those premium decorator boxes that have pleasant designs to match any décor. We typically end up with the designer-type boxes when there’s a sale of some sort, or if our household’s noses have been rubbed raw or are in need of some soothing comfort by week two of a cold. I think that’s what they call it, “soothing comfort.” It must come from the alleged lotion they put in the tissues. All I know is that when they come out of the box, they’re dry – ain’t no lotion to be found. And it was what came out of this box that got me going. As I opened it and tried to pull out one tissue, I shredded it three times before it finally emerged along with five others. The undersized box, I posited, must be some clever psychological ploy designed to give us the perception that these tissues are so darn thick and soft, they’re nearly too big for the box, dog gone it.

As a former advertising executive, this one baffled me a bit at first, for I recall myriad examples where the marketing wizards tried to make the package larger in order to gain a greater “presence” in the store aisle. Each package that faced the consumer was called a “facing,” and the marketers paid more money for more facings. So, for an extra hundred and fifty grand, they could have three bottles of Pepto-Bismol side-by-side on the shelf instead of just two, thereby reducing the chance that you’d miss this world-beater product in your haste. But the savvy marketers figured out that they should just make the package bigger. No need to spend money on a new facing when they could make the potato chip bag the size of a military issue duffel bag and still put only 13.25 ounces of chips inside.

I think my favorite, which could easily be embellished folklore but makes for a nice illustration, is the makers of 3-Muskateers candy bar reducing the amount of candy in the bar by increasing the amount of air injected into the middle of the whipped chocolate center. Same sized wrapper. Same sized candy bar. Just less weight & substance in the newfangled, shrinking product.

So, the Kleenex encounter bothered me because good minds had designed a box too small, and probably done it intentionally after much deliberation.

Then there’s the more recent case of the “Ice bag cometh.”   You see, we’ve got one of those refrigerators that lacks the high-tech, ice-making amenities. And to complicate matters, we bailed out on manually filling the ice trays a while back (I can’t remember why we did this, but I’m sure it was a well considered decision assessing space constraints and how many frozen concentrate orange juice containers we could precariously prop up against the Blue Bunny ice cream). So, we buy our ice by the bag. And as I opened the freezer door recently, I was startled by the marketing message blazoned across the side of the bag of ice. It said that their “Premium Ice is ‘frozen inside out’ in a process superior to homemade ice, producing a crystal clear, taste free, hard frozen ice.” Now certainly I’m part of the problem, for I’m buying, rather than making, our ice. But more troubling is the creative and intellectual energy employed to research and implement this alternative ice technology. From the scientists to the sales staff, there surely must have been better ways to spend their time.

However, in the midst of all my consternation and ranting about what I perceive to be a misuse of potential, I recall another advertising experience. I’m reminded of a television commercial I saw years ago for a bank. It featured the CEO of a company that manufactured buttons for clothing. He was ruminating about the obligation he felt toward his employees and how “buttons held their lives together.” He went on to mention that everyone needs buttons, which I considered for a moment, then conceded was true (unless there’s some Velcro, snap ‘n zipper cult I haven’t heard about). While this seemed like just another commercial initially, the next day when I buttoned up my shirt, I thought about those faceless button makers and how much they do contribute. I realized that each one of us should be thankful for the daily contributions that each one of us makes toward our collective well being, no matter how insignificant it may seem on the surface.

Seeming insignificant might explain why people would embarrass themselves on the Jerry Springer show or on one of those “reality-based” television programs like Big Brother. It’s as though they’re striving to secure their Whorholian fifteen minutes of fame, when they should realize that their daily work, their daily contribution, is invaluable. We do need those buttons and those cushioned in-soles, those rear bumpers and that tax advice, those colored toothpicks and those straight lines down the middle of the highway. They do make our lives better at some point in time and in some way.

So, as I smugly take shots at those who design the Kleenex boxes too small or develop an innovative way to freeze ice, I must remind myself that we are all in this together, contributing what we can for the collective good. We do what we do each day in the hopes that we will improve all of our lives, and we should celebrate these daily endeavors. And who the heck am I to cast judgements?

There. I hope I just effectively put myself back in my place. But just in case I didn’t get it, I’ll revisit this great work by Walt Whitman as he reminds us that our daily work for our daily bread is something to be celebrated, maybe even something to sing about:

I Hear America Singing … 

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand

     singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or

     at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of

     the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day–at night the party of young fellows,

     robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.



I met a few of my former students for pizza last week so that I could catch up on the latest college roommate soap operas and get a sense of what their lives are like outside the four walls of high school. Two students from the University of Minnesota told of how they attempted to follow some of my sage advice but got a bit more than they had bargained for. I encouraged them, as I do all my senior students, to play “bulletin board bingo” when they get out into the big bad world of work or college. This practice involves visiting a community bulletin board at least once a month and trying some of the advertised fare. It could be a concert, a play, a lecture, an art exhibit, or a foreign film – something they might not typically do without some prodding. Well, these two tried it by attending a dance recital that they described as a “bit too modern.” Translation: there were some naked folks on stage. That’s the thing with bulletin boards, I reminded them. Not everything will appeal to you every time.

Some of the other alumni talked up their latest favorite films from The X Men to Waiting for Guffman, or shared their concerns about how long their current major will require them to stay in school. Rebecca, who attends Rochester University in New York, turned the conversation into a sociological commentary. She was dismayed that the stereotype of Easterners being rough, rude and abrasive was being played out all too accurately in her experience. She didn’t want it to be the case that Midwesterners were nicer than East Coast folks, but it seemed to be true.

As I think about it, I don’t believe that distinction is all that easy to make. In fact, I think that we’re all becoming more rough, rude and abrasive. It makes sense to me, as one who needs to do deep breathing exercises before entering a mall or a movie theater or any other venue where I need to go out among the masses. I get ornery when it seems that too many people are wedged into too little space. And isn’t that where many of us find ourselves lately, in what the experts call “suburban sprawl?” It’s like one big county fair, where you’re sweaty and sticky and dusty, and you’re rubbing up against people who have cotton candy stuck in their hair and crusty barbecue sauce cracking on their lips. Kids step on your toes as they try to out-yell the carnies over the calliope music, and then that din gets squelched because it’s time to rev up the engines for the demolition derby. In situations like these it takes effort to get along and to be nice. And as the track housing and strip malls of suburban sprawl become our modus operandi, it’s tougher and tougher to be neighborly.

Now, I’ve left the noise and haste for the open spaces, so I can breathe easier. However, recalling my days in the city and suburbs, I noticed what I believed to be an increase in the number of fences – both the tangible kind with posts in the ground, and the intangible kind which reside in our psyche. It seems that, as the people multiply and the space runs out, the fences go up. This is particularly the case in suburbia, where people have tried to get away from the harsh concrete in order to lay claim to a bit of green terrain (rural folks don’t seem as concerned because they have space to spare, and city folks appear to have resigned themselves to the fact that they will be in close proximity to others all the time). But as those fences are erected, we can become a nation of “no longer neighbors.” In his poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost cites the old adage, “good fences make good neighbors,” which suggests that such barriers would reduce friction among neighbors. What they do, however, is reduce interaction among neighbors. While many may wish to retain that 1950s image of neighbors leaning over their fences to chat, today’s yards are sectioned off by fences that are far from chat-friendly. They’re either chain link fences with those nasty, sharp twists on top, which nobody would care to lean on, or they’re 6-foot “privacy” fences that are so darn effective they could keep the neighbor’s barbecue smoke out.

Moreover, today’s new developments have more fences than sidewalks. The developers believe that people who are getting smaller lawns do not want a 4-foot strip of concrete running through them, so they sacrifice cement for sod. What does this mean for our neighborhoods? It means that we’ve got our places all plotted out and fenced in, but we won’t be taking an evening stroll off of our compound, for that means we’d have to walk in the street. Hence, we don’t go out as much, and we don’t see the neighbors as much. We can hop in our car to shuttle the kids to their soccer game, or we can log on to the web and chat with a “neighbor” in Germany, but we can’t walk three doors down to do the same. So, how we design our space has a significant impact on how we interact. And sidewalks that bridge our space are giving way to fences that divide it.

Fences are designed for containment or protection. As a character in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences, states, “Some people build fences to keep people out. Others build ‘em to keep people in.” They serve myriad functions, of which some are practical. They hold in the horses or keep the canine contained. They make swimming pools safer, or stop a foul ball. They redirect the snowdrifts or the golf carts.

But fences can take other forms and operate in more subtle, sometimes detrimental, ways. They can be psychological lines in the sand. They can be the Mighty Mississippi telling us whose side is whose, or the desks in my classroom giving both student and teacher the excuse for not getting too close, or providing safe haven from the challenge of breaking through intellectual boundaries. They can be the political re-drawing of voting districts or the magic marker lines on the realtor’s map highlighting the good school districts. Sometimes words can be fences, erected tall and complex so that only a select few can understand, or strung out like a long, slow freight train, coming one after another so that people are left at the crossing, unable to get a word in edgewise. Sometimes fences are those lines of demarcation running through town between the haves and the have nots – the right side and the wrong side of the tracks. Sometimes people refuse to be fettered by fences any longer, and then a wall in Berlin comes down. Sometimes people want so badly to break through fences that they break themselves instead, whether it’s at a Who concert when I was growing up, or at any international soccer game today.

In the new terrain of the World Wide Web, fences are “firewalls” to keep intruders out, or restricted software to prevent our kids from getting to the bad stuff, much like that toddler gate we put at the basement stairs to prevent the two-year-old’s tumble. Cars can be fences, providing an isolated enclave for bad singing or nose picking, not to mention epithet hurling that rarely occurs on our sidewalks where our fences are down. Some fences are less effective and protective, like the porous line of red-vested movie ushers aimed at keeping our teens out of R-rated movies (just try finding enough fingers to plug that dike).

It’s the mental fences, however, which are the most dangerous and destructive and erode our ability to be neighborly. They’re the ones that tell us I don’t need to get to know her, I don’t want to try that, I don’t care to consider the tough questions, or simply, I can’t or I won’t. I find myself grappling with these frequently in my own daily affairs when I prefer to close up shop rather than to throw open the shutters for some fresh air. My misanthropic tendencies thrust me into a mode of insularity, where I’m comfortable with stasis – my own limited thoughts, my own limited circle of friends, my own limited experience, my own space. Stasis is safe. And when the world gets complicated and intimidating and moves too fast, safety is appealing.

A while back I wrote a poem (included below) that captures the perspective of one who feels embattled by the world’s toughness and needs to erect protective barriers. Some have read its tone as desperate. Others have interpreted it as a celebration of spirit, a courageous struggle of the individual. Either way, it highlights the conditions of our culture that encourage us to erect fences, rather than reach out to our neighbors. The world will only get better, however, when the fences come down.

I Build

I build my wall with your mud,

The soggy filth you slung at me.

I build my wall with your bricks,

The rocky harm you aimed at my head. 

I build my wall high above you,

For you have been elevated so far above me.

I place your rusty barbs on top,

The ones that sliced and poisoned my flesh,

A reminder that you have infested

And infected me.

I build my wall in my head,

In my heart.

A fortress as sturdy as I can.

But you will tear it down

Like a paper wrapper on a Christmas gift.

And you will tear me down again.

And I will build.

Father’s Day

I’m sharing some belated Father’s Day reflections this week because I was out of town for the paternal celebration. Fortunately, I was with my kids, and they got to see their grandfathers during our brief family vacation, which made me contemplate the importance of adult males in the lives of today’s children, and which made me more than glad to be a dad.

One grandfather lives in Northeast Ohio, near Cleveland, so it took us about fourteen hours to make our way to his part of the Midwest. It was worth the trouble, and the road construction, for we had some memorable experiences awaiting us. Because my son, Luke, has become a big fan of Ken Griffey, Jr., Grandpa Mike scored some tickets to see the Cleveland Indians battle the Cincinnati Reds at Jacobs Field. The Reds’ All-Star Griffey didn’t disappoint, belting a three-run home run to straight away center field, tying the game and eventually sending it into extra innings. But that wasn’t the biggest highlight. About an inning later, Luke began to show the wear of a long day, whining about how bad our seats were for catching foul balls. After reminding him that his grandfather was more than generous in providing such great seats (about 15 rows up, right behind home plate), I tried to convey that there were about 35,000 fans who would walk out of the ballpark without catching a foul ball, and that we’d probably be among them. Moments after I said this, a foul ball cracked off the bat of a left-handed batter and careened off of the upper deck façade. It shot toward our section, bounced off the hands of the men in front of us, and landed at Luke’s feet. As he secured it in his glove and stood up straight, the rest of the fans were still glancing around, wondering who had it. I told Luke that the person who catches it should show everyone, so he tossed it in the air. As it popped back into his glove (actually my old little league hand-me-down glove), the crowd cheered him. It’s always a treat to see a young kid get a foul ball at a major league game. For his grandfather and for me, the treat was sweeter.

As a dad, I’m glad I was there.

After the ball game, our family stayed on Grandpa Mike’s boat on Lake Erie. The lake was too choppy to take the boat out, but Luke caught six fish off the dock (more than his dad ever caught), and our three-year-old, Hannah, spent most of her time in the marina swimming pool. I witnessed a significant event in her aquatic development, as she learned that in order to dunk her head under water, she had to blow air out of her mouth or nose, making the sound of a motor boat. So, we spent afternoons in the pool playing “motorboat mouth” until our lips tingled, our fingertips were shriveled, and our shoulders were sunburned. And my daughter found one more thing in this world she didn’t need to feel afraid of.

As a dad, I’m glad I was there.

On our return swing through Chicago, we took our family to see a blues music festival in the suburb where I grew up. This gave our children an opportunity to be with their other grandfather, my dad, who died of his second heart attack in 1982 and is buried in a quaint cemetery near my old neighborhood. During an impromptu family meeting as our van tooled down the road, our kids revealed that yes, they’d like to visit their grandpa’s grave. What the children saw upon our arrival was not a site for somber silence, but an expanse of grass and flowers and marble structures in interesting shapes. So, they were out of the van in a flash, skipping and playing tag between the erect tombstones. Since we were the only ones there, we let them play and saved the “teachable moment” for the car ride home where we could discuss cemetery decorum. What some would have seen as borderline sacrilege – our children dancing around my father’s grave in a scene resembling the Oz munchkins after the demise of the wicked witch of the west – I saw as a beautiful moment where they could come as close as possible to playing with a grandfather they could never meet.

After the frivolity waned, my son pulled me aside and whispered, “Dad, could I see his body?” Since he’s seen other living things perish out on the farm, and because he has a keen interest in the science of the natural world, I felt that I could address the issue candidly. So, I explained that, out of respect, we don’t typically dig up human bodies, and that a human body decays just like a dead bird or those carrion carcasses he’s seen on the Nature Channel. He seemed to get it. If not, I’m sure he’ll have more questions, and we’ll talk again then.

As a dad, I’m glad I was there.

And now we’re home and falling back into our routine. For me, this means taking my children to tee-ball or swimming or tennis, or playing a nightly song on my guitar for them as they fall asleep. Or it could be something unscheduled and spontaneous like a treasure hunt, a walk to the creek, or rock-and-roll dancing in our living room. Blessed with such opportunities to be with my kids, I cherish even the most miniscule moments. I realize that it took us several days and many miles to help my children grow closer to their grandfathers, but I can build our bonds right here, right now.

As a dad, I’m glad I’m here.


“Point and Click”

I recently entered a brave new world, not feet first, but fingers first. They were resting on my computer keyboard and they were trembling terribly. I was about to push the button that would delete my Uncle Bob’s name and address from my e-mail list. Yet as accustomed as I had become to this new point and click universe, I knew that this was going to require more than a simple tap of my index finger on a plastic mouse.

Just days earlier I had stared down at Bob’s gaunt face and his chapped fingers clasping rosary beads, as he lay lifeless in a casket. I had considered death and its swift severance. I had considered life’s lost opportunities, and I guess I saw the end of Bob’s life as one of these, for he was my godfather and I barely knew him. I knew of him – he was the stoic guy who, I was told, had a sharp wit and didn’t suffer fools patiently – but I didn’t know him. For the most part he was one of the grown-ups who sat at the big people’s table at holiday gatherings. And because he didn’t often engage in the bombastic dinner table debates, which echoed over our heads at the kids’ table, I assumed that meant he had little to offer. Of course, that perception was off by a long shot, but during those formative years when aunts and uncles forge reputations in pre-adolescent minds, that was the rap that stuck. His lasting legacy for me now – his remaining essence – is the gift of his children, my cousins and friends. I’d race to them whenever we’d visit, jutting past Uncle Bob, to gab and gossip and get the latest jokes. They were warm and wise and wonderful. They were the Bob I didn’t really know, for it was he who shaped them – all seven of them. The physician, the musician, the meteorologist, the mother. What I glean from them now I glean from Bob. He clearly had an impact on his children, on others, and on this world. And I somehow missed it. I had passively chosen not to drink of that font. I had arrived at that library after closing time.

So, as I stared at my computer terminal ready to … well… to delete Uncle Bob, I realized that pushing that button was like placing a seal on a record of my failings. I failed to get to know him and, in doing so, failed to know my family. I failed to make good use of my time with him. I failed to, as Thoreau put it, “suck the marrow out of life,” by not availing myself of the riches that were a godfather’s wisdom and experience.

Well, lesson learned. Today I sit at my computer ready to push more buttons. I’m going to e-mail my web-connected cousins and aunts and uncles, my mother and my cyber siblings, with a modest proposal. I’m going to encourage us to share our family stories with each other on-line. Since so much of our sense of family is fueled by our stories, our history, the experiences that have shaped us individually and collectively, it seems fitting that we utilize this e-mail thing and all its gap-bridging technology to prevent geographic and generational barriers from distancing us any further. It might even make me feel like a little bit less of a familial failure.

And there is one thing I know about Uncle Bob, which makes me think he’d give this his blessing – he was a computer guy.


Last week I hooked up with one of my old college roommates near Des Moines. A few years back he left a high-powered New York City law firm to take another high-powered attorney position at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. So, we were going to have a high-powered breakfast meeting at a Perkins restaurant in Iowa. As we walked to the entrance, Scott couldn’t resist stopping to peer into the murky window of the Wall Street Journal newspaper dispenser outside the restaurant to “sneak a peak at the numbers.” As I kidded him about being married to his work, he reminded me that it was just like a hobby; he loves his work, and he loves the numbers and machinations that come with the world of finance. I recalled that this was certainly the case with Scott, for he had something akin to a photographic memory in college, and it hadn’t eroded any since. In fact, later that day when we played golf, one of the guys in our foursome made some scoring errors, so Scott walked him through each hole and the strokes for each guy. In the meantime, I was still struggling to calculate my double-bogey on the 18th.

Inside the restaurant we parked ourselves in a booth for breakfast, which slowly merged into lunchtime three and a half hours later because our conversation had taken on the same characteristics of those we used to have back on our “college clock,” beginning after midnight and brushing up against dawn. I’m pretty sure the Perkins folks weren’t too thrilled with us occupying their choice seating after we’d been given our bill hours earlier, but we had important matters to address, and they had little to do with Scott’s world of high finance. The reason I was visiting was because Scott had come home to Iowa for his mother’s funeral. She had died of surgical complications during attempts to improve her failing heart. And as I listened to my friend’s voice crack over the phone when I called to offer my condolences, I knew that I should take this opportunity to be with him. So, there we sat at Perkins. From across the table, I realized that he was a child again, grappling with the loss of a parent, the same way I did when I was his 19-year-old roommate in college.

Yet while he was experiencing a natural regression immersed in childlike longings for his mother, he also had to function as a father. He was dealing with the new barrage of daily questions from his 5-year-old son, like where grandma was and whether they would ever see her again. Scott’s faith told him that there was a heaven and that they would see her again in some form, but it was tough to explain that to a kid whose real interest was in the possibility that she might be available to take him to the playground the following day. As we contemplated such difficult spiritual matters, Scott kidded me about my Catholic upbringing. We chuckled about all of the complexities inherent in such man-made institutions as we imagined trying to explain the trinity, the duality of Christ as God and man, the violence of the crucifixion, or even the transubstantiation aspects of the Eucharist to a youngster. We were left reeling at how much “peeling of the onion” is required in such endeavors.

Our conversation eventually returned to the mundane, spanning topics from 401k plans to school vouchers to the prospects for our old dormitory head resident who’s now doing stand-up comedy. Later we met another good college friend at a local carnival and sneaked off to the beer tent, away from spouses and children, to have some laughs recalling youthful college dormitory tomfoolery. It was a good chat about good times.   Almost like kids at college. About as simple. The thought occurred to me that all three of us had lost a parent, yet here we were, parents ourselves, stealing away to recapture a little of what was fun about being young.

Now, as I reflect on what Scott’s son was dealing with, as well as our own youthful longings, I think I’m beginning to realize that we’re all children, some older than others, and that childhood has the loss as much as the levity. Our innocence flakes away like old paint from experiences like a death in the family or hearing a dirty word for the first time or what my teacher-friend Dan calls that moment “when dandelions become weeds.” But holding on to childhood’s grief and glory does provide a certain comfort, so we clench it as tightly as we can.

In another attempt to hold on tightly, I’ll share these few memorable moments, these snapshots of youth, brought to you by my kids….


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A while back at dinner my daughter, Hannah, was speaking when her brother began to interrupt her. My wife told Luke to wait a moment until his sister was done, and then he could say his piece. So, Hannah began again and, as she did, Luke began to quietly count, “one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand….” As Hannah finished, Luke reached nine-one-thousand, then leapt into the air, circled the table while pumping his clenched fists in some sort of celebration, and yelled, “Yes! Yes!” When we finally got him parked back in his seat and asked what was going on, he exclaimed, “I just figured out how long a moment is; it’s nine seconds.”


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When Hannah was a bit younger, I was engaged in one of my futile attempts to entertain her. This time I was impersonating an opera singer, but I was sounding more like Adam Sandler than Luciano Pavarotti. As I belted out my final crescendo with one hand extended palm upward to the heavens, Hannah waited for the eagerly anticipated silence. She then squinted one eye, wrinkled her nose, and announced to me in a tone typically reserved for a phone solicitation during dinner, “You make me nervous!”


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I make milkshakes for the kids as one of our regular rituals. Recently, as I filled their cups in the kitchen, I realized that Hannah was getting a much smaller shake than Luke. It occurred to me to stop right there, get the same sized cups and dole out even amounts (something Luke would have surely demanded if he were on the short end). But I decided to run a quick experiment to see if Hannah would notice. As I served them, she couldn’t have cared less about who had a bigger milkshake. They were topped with colorful candy sprinkles that made “swirly rainbow colors” when she stirred them, and that’s all that mattered. While I’m sure she’ll learn about the haves and the have-nots before too long, I’m glad Luke decided not to teach her that lesson on our milkshake night.


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When Luke was a toddler, we’d put on little parades around the house, something I dubbed “Helmets and Horns.” We’d don sauce pans or shower caps on our heads, dig through the dress-up box for apparel, and blow tunes through vacuum cleaner extensions or paper towel tubes. We’d goose-step throughout the house to entertain ourselves. Unfortunately, I must have thought this would be entertaining for our guests during one social gathering (You know the kind, where parents of young children invite people over to sit around and watch their children, with the hope that the guests will find them as lovable as the parents do). So, Luke had convinced me to do a bit of “Helmets and Horns” for the whole crew. As I started marching around like a fool, Luke turned to our guests and asked as though he’d never seen this behavior before, “What is he doing?” They all got a good laugh at my expense, especially because I was set up by my own child.


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Recently, we watched a bit of the Wimbledon Men’s Finals to see Australian Patrick Rafter try to keep up with Pete Sampras. Occasionally, Rafter had a bad service toss and apologized to his opponent by hollering, “Sorry, Mate!” Luke was quite amused by this, and while I tried to remind him that Australia was one of the continents and that Rafter’s speech was like that crocodile hunter guy, all Luke could do was repeat over and over, “Sorry, Mate!” So, this past week, whether he was making an errant throw during a game of catch, or mispronouncing a word while reading, all we heard from our little lad was . . . you guessed it. It’s a bit annoying, but I’m also sorry it won’t last forever.


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So, children seem to make due with what they have to minimize the bad and manufacture a bit of bliss. Regardless of their circumstances, they are able to find simple satisfaction on their own terms. In Birches, Robert Frost’s poetic reflection on childhood, I think he captured this notion when he wrote, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” It’s about a boy who finds himself closer to heaven by simply living the life of a child.   I encourage you to read the whole poem, and to send me any of your own childhood reflections at




The Barn

We moved here from Chicago for a change of lifestyle. I think it’s fair to say that Blooming Prairie has delivered on that count.

I got used to the tilting of heads everyone gave us when we told them of our transplanting from the big city. There was always the friendly nodding coupled with an “Oh!” that escaped people’s lips before they could conceal their surprise. Then there was the pregnant pause necessary to process that which is out of the ordinary, followed by the familiar line, “ So, what made you do that?” This was typically delivered in a quizzical tone or with a self-deprecating chuckle and a gentle tap on my elbow, suggesting the listener’s incredulity.

I’ve always been a bit taken aback by this regular reaction, for we didn’t come here because we had to; we came here because we chose to. And although I didn’t need it, when my family came from Chicago to visit for the Fourth of July, it provided salient reminders for why we’re here. They came partly because they love us, but partly because this place offers what folks can’t get in the big city.

Certainly, there are some aspects of the City of Big Shoulders that I miss dearly – most notably its pizza, its theater, and its music (I was going to put its traffic on this list, but I knew no one would believe it). There are significant ways, however, in which that town can’t compete with Blooming Prairie specifically, or with the vast tracts of prairie that are emblematic of the Great Plains. Among them are space and solitude, of course. But more subtly, Chicago, a city known for its architecture – from Frank Lloyd Wright to the Sears and Tribune towers – is missing one of the most beautiful man-made structures ever created: the barn.

That’s right. Those wondrous wooden forms that creep out from behind the hills of green and gold and cinnamon brown. That deep, dark recognizable red that reminds us there’s work to be done, that food will be on the table, or that we’ll soon be home. Those knot holes, rusted nails, and broken boards that time has torn. They’re beautiful. Not just in aesthetic terms, but beautiful because of what they represent: self-sufficiency, hard work, dependability, the farm’s fortress for man’s incessant struggle against nature, at once community and solitude. I’m so struck by these barns, and these thoughts, that I often find myself staring as I encounter one set off the road a bit, or as I gaze out of our west windows and find one fewer than fifty paces from me.

But the beauty of these barns is fading along with the small family farms and the people who painted our landscape with them. They simply can’t keep up with the mass production that is now a prerequisite on the prairie. Barns aren’t about mass production; they’re about daily routine, callused hands hefting hay, one thing at a time done well. These barns are buckling and becoming earth again. The creaks of their decaying timber provide the dirge that we will hear all too soon. They are losing their place as monuments in the Midwest and New England. Soon they will no longer be that most memorable, most striking image of the farm – those earthen-red mainstays from postage stamps and the pages of children’s books.

But what happens when we lose such a link to the past? Do we not decay a bit too? Old barns are like old trees. They were created. They grew from the ground up, like the planting that is so much a part of these places. When we lose them, there is no harvest. There is emptiness. A hole in the ground.

As I stand in the great barn near our home, the footsteps of our children’s great-grandfather echo through the timbers. The foundation beneath was laid to link us to the past and to the land. I realize today that people produce a place like this so that others may reap later rewards. Replacing these old barns with aluminum sheds is indeed practical and utilitarian, but a certain amount of soul resides between the slats and the slivers. While I’ve never met my wife’s grandfather or heard his voice, I know him when I enter that barn. I feel him in the hallowed hills of hay, the wind that whistles by as it is thwarted by the still sturdy structure, and the sunlight that stretches across the beams like a built-in sundial. That man made this place. He left something that lasted. But time and age are rapidly taking places like these. If we can save them, we can possibly save some of our collective soul, some of what connects us to the earth and that which is natural.

In her book, Dakota A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris reflects on a saying of the desert monks: “If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out.” I find this truth unsettling for me as I live on, but do not farm, a large acreage. Because I do not wish to be cast out by this place, I feel I must in some way preserve it.

So, here in our small part of the world, we are trying to put this into practice. As the barn at our place slowly crumbles, we resurrect it. Last July we used some of its wood to frame a wagon for hauling stuff or for kiddy rides. This July some old barn planks became a kitchen table that should last forever.

These are the fruits this barn can now bear. And its beauty battles on.

Rude Awakening

How’s this for a rude awakening? The other morning I was in the kids’ room as my son was waking up. He did one of those great morning stretches where his toes pushed against the slat of the bunk bed railing, bending it just a bit, and he emitted a sustained guttural groan that sounded like an idling tractor. His body then relaxed completely for a split second, before he propped himself up on his elbows and said through puffy eyes, “Dad, I just had the best dream. I was playing backyard baseball.”

After I asked him if he’d gotten dirty and skinned his knees in his dream (two of the best things about baseball, in my view), he immediately corrected me. “Not real baseball, Dad. The CD-ROM!” I should have realized that Backyard Baseball required capital letters, for it was the name of a computer game he’d been coveting. Having never had a cyberspace dream, I barraged him with questions in order to discern whether he was a character inside the game itself, or if he was simply sitting at the keyboard in this dream. It was the former, and there was something about hitting a game winning homer and being doused with Gatorade.

As I tried to recall if I’d ever dreamed about singing in the Partridge Family’s garage or being a castaway on Gilligan’s Island, I pondered the significance of having new technologies affect our conscious and unconscious affairs. While the computer has significantly altered my generation by being injected, or adopted, into our lives, it will be just another part of the cultural furnishings for my children’s generation, the way television was for me. My hope is that it will function as a useful tool rather than an anchor, an appendage rather than an albatross.

But then again, what if it comes to actually replace an appendage? For example, past technological advances made for smoother modes of travel, which replaced walking. Could it be that we won’t need to use our hands much because of advancements in computers? And what will that do to us? Could Cat Stevens have been right when he sang that if we ever lose our hands, we won’t have to work no more?

Certainly, computerized automation and robotic technology has already replaced humans, and their hands, in our factories and warehouses. That’s where the clearest indication of the economic shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age lies. Hands and brawn are essential in an agrarian economy or an industrial economy, but in an economy that trades in information it doesn’t take much strength to push a button on a computer keyboard. And that’s not even taking into consideration the voice-activated technology that’s peeking around the corner. Soon we’ll be talking to our computers rather than touching those buttons. Our hands could be stuffed in our pockets for all our computers could care. And we’ll be talking to our homes as well, barking commands as we enter our front doors: “Lights on. Dim down. Music up. Channel Two.” That way our hands will be free to carry those grocery bags. But wait a minute, we will have ordered those groceries online, so they’ll just sort of show up without us. Someone else will be schlepping them.

The experts say we’ll be working in our homes more, many of us parked at computer terminals two doors down from the bedroom. In John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp, he paints a picture of the whole neighborhood lit up by the blue haze of the televisions trickling out of everyone’s windows. Will it be like this with our computers? Eyes fixed? Computers shaking hands? Our voice-activated, digital tongues trilling along?

Let’s examine some everyday elements where the voice-activated computer might displace our need for hands. If we’re “telecommuting” to work and not leaving our homes, we could simply say good morning to our computer and have it provide the morning’s news. Instead of wading through all the nonsense and coating our fingers with newsprint, we can have our electronic paper tailored to give us simply what we want: world news, stock quotes, sports. We won’t even have to worry about putting on a bathrobe to get the paper from the front steps because it won’t be on the steps; it’ll be on the screen. So, aside from not needing our own hands, all the hands of all the humans who used to get our morning paper to us will no longer be needed either. No more delivery person on a bike. No more truck driver. No more loaders on the dock.

If we’re not leaving the house to go to work, is it possible we won’t need those 2.2 cars in the driveway to get us to and from? Does that translate into fewer mechanics and their expert hands? Fewer roads and those who build them? Less downtown office space and the hands that shape that steel? And what of gender equity in the workforce? Could computers be the great equalizers? When the economy calls for less tilling and hefting, less heavy lifting and hardened hands, will there be more room for women? Are we men ready? What will we do with our hands?

In Arthur Miller’s award-winning drama, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman did one thing well: he built steps onto the house, and they lasted. When he ignored the fact that he should have been working with his hands, he became cursed. He tried to fake it, but by not doing what came naturally, he destroyed himself. He couldn’t produce. He couldn’t get his garden to grow, he had no successful sales calls, and he was left flailing for answers. The world changed, and he didn’t fit. So, he stepped out of it.

Our world is also changing rapidly. The pace will certainly quicken when the baby boom generation, which currently wields political might but has one foot planted in “how things used to be,” becomes displaced by the echo boom, their children, who have been reared in a world of information technology and cyberspace.

What will we do in the face of this change? Will we surrender like Willy Loman? Will we accept the change gracefully, welcoming talking computers and turning our backs on our hands and our handiwork? Or will we fight this thing tooth and nail? Maybe we’ll hold fast to the safety of what we know, and avoid too much computerized progress. An ever-present reminder of our unwillingness to welcome change is the QWERTY system on our keyboards. That’s the configuration of the typing keys for the left hand. The order of letters was made intentionally difficult because the human hand was too fast for the early typewriting mechanism, and the arms would get stuck. Now that the technology has caught up, we could make the configuration easier on the hands and more efficient, but it would require re-training. We have, so far, chosen not to pursue that growth.

I hope that we don’t fight computer advancements too stridently, for they appear to present some profound possibilities. However, I also hope that we don’t forget the beauty of the human hand – opposable thumb and all – and the wonders it can create. As the son of a cabinetmaker and carpenter, I’m woefully inept when it comes to working with my hands. I built a sandbox for my kids, and I can throw a circuit breaker switch, but that’s about the extent of my ability. This reality has given me supreme envy and admiration for those who can create and accomplish with their hands. From the mechanic to the musician, the sculptor to the surgeon, the field hand to the firefighter. We can’t allow ourselves to get too far removed from the tangible, the touchable. We need to keep things within our grasp.

What if this technology does get us moving too fast? What if we start spinning out of control and get to the point where we engage in practices because we can rather than because we should? What if we end up destroying what we have? It will be the capable ones, the handy ones, who have what it takes to bring us back, for a computer can’t create from nothing.

Pablo Picasso said computers aren’t good for anything; they only give you answers. And here I am left with all these questions, trembling, and feeling like I can’t hold on.