Tag Archives: memories

Monday Musings: Two Conversations With My Mom

Mom and meYesterday would have been my mother’s birthday — her 101st. I’ve written about her, and my dad, quit a bit in this space, though I haven’t written about my mother in a couple of years. She was smart and funny, classy and beautiful, quietly ambitious and deeply accomplished. She doted on her children and was, in turn, doted on by my father. She loved to travel and was passionate to the point of reverence about literature and the arts.

No one would ever accuse her of hands-off parenting. That wasn’t her thing. She was a constant and profound presence in the lives of my siblings and me. And yet, when I scour my mind for specific memories of her, I sometimes find them hard to gather. I’m not alone in this regard. My brother and I have discussed this at length and agree that she was, in a way, so constant, so engaged, that specifics give way to a sense of warm omnipresence.

But today, as I think of her, I find myself focusing on two phone conversations that took place rather late in her life and that have stuck with me over the years, for very, very different reasons.

The first took place when I was in graduate school. It was my second year — I’m sure of this, because I recall the project I was working on at the time. My mom loved that I was studying history, and I think she looked forward to me becoming a college professor. She never really approved of my decision to give up history for a career as a fantasy author, and she never saw any of my books in print, which I think would have won her over a bit. But I digress . . . .

She asked me about the project I was working on — a study of changing dynamics within the Democratic Party in the period between the landslide elections of 1964 (Lyndon Johnson) and 1972 (Richard Nixon) — and I told her about what I was learning, but also admitted there were elements of the story I was trying to tell that I had yet to figure out. She began to ask me questions, one after another, and eventually she pointed me to a crucial part of the narrative that I had been missing all along. I know — and knew then — it should have been obvious to me, but I think I was so immersed in the material, I just couldn’t see it.

But Mom did. She had such a nimble mind and was so good at synthesizing information and distilling it down to its most important elements. She was also a remarkable listener, and she liked nothing more than to speak with her children and help them deal with whatever was consuming them at the moment, whether it was a personal problem or an academic one. When I told her how helpful she’d been, and described for her how I could slot her insight into what I’d been writing, she was thrilled. I could hear her beaming. It was a wonderful moment.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years later and was pounded by her chemotherapy treatments. Her cancer spread despite the drugs and at one point she needed to have brain surgery to remove a tumor. Not long after, early in 1995, mom slipped into dementia. Conversations with her became next to impossible. That brilliant mind lost its power, its coherence. It was truly tragic. We lost her long before she died.

Except I got her back for one last conversation — the most important I’d ever had up to that point in my life. In May of 1995, Nancy gave birth to our first daughter — after a labor that lasted some forty-two hours. Grueling for Nancy, exhausting for both of us. I called my parents to let them know, figuring I would just speak with my Dad. But Mom got on the phone, too. And for five glorious minutes, she was back. Fully. Miraculously, She asked all the right questions — “How is Nancy?” “What’s the baby’s name?” “Did everything go smoothly?” “Is the baby beautiful?” — and said all the right things, telling me how much she looked forward to meeting Alex, how happy she was for both Nancy and me. I think she even was cogent enough to ask who was taking care of our dog.

I hadn’t had a conversation like that with my mother in months, and the truth is, I never had another one like it. But in that moment, on the most important day of my life thus far, she was there for me. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, since being there for my siblings and me was what she did best.

I miss her every day. I wish she had seen my books in print. I wish she’d had the opportunity to meet my girls — she would have adored them. I wish I could speak with her today, to get her input on plot lines and her opinions on the issues of the world. I wish I could hear her laugh and see her gorgeous smile. But I will content myself with my memories, and with that sense of loving omnipresence that suffuses all my thoughts of her.

Happy birthday, Mom.

A Friday Milestone

We built our house in 1998. Or, to be more accurate, we paid other people to build our house in 1998. We took a pre-made design that we found in a book of house floor-plans, and with some help from a local architect, customized it to meet our needs. At the time, our older daughter was three and Nancy was pregnant with our younger daughter. We needed a kid-friendly home that would give the girls space to play, and us room to watch them but also cook dinner and such.

We moved in just before Thanksgiving, and the house we wound up with was even more wonderful than we had hoped. Sure, it has its quirks. All houses do. But this one has served us so well over the past twenty-four years (going on twenty-five). We raised our daughters here, pursued our careers here, build a family and home here. We have loved and grieved in this house, celebrated and brooded in this house, and everything else under the sun.

Our first Christmas in the house, my brothers and sister came with their families to visit us. An ice storm knocked out power the day before Christmas, and we didn’t get it back for two days. It was very cold, but we managed to have a good time.

As the girls grew older, our lives and needs changed, so back in 2011 we remodeled and refinanced, turning a back porch into a teen-friendly den, and redoing our kitchen (and incurring additional debt). We’ve cooked some amazing food in that new kitchen, but of course, we cooked some great food in the old one, too.

I bring all of this up because today we reached a milestone: We paid off the last of our mortgage. The house is fully ours, which is pretty cool. Just thought I’d share the moment.

Have a great weekend.

Monday Musings: What Matters, Part IV — Money

Say you don’t need no diamond rings,
And I’ll be satisfied;
Tell me that you want the kind of things,
That money just can’t buy.
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney

We were bound to get to money eventually, right? For weeks now, I’ve been writing about the things that matter and those that don’t. It seemed inevitable that I would come to financial issues before long. And here we are.

Let me start with a spoiler. I am not going to tell you that money is unimportant, that what matters is what’s in your heart, what brings you joy. I’m not going to tell you to throw off the bonds of our Capitalist mindset and devote yourself entirely to your art. Money matters. You can’t eat what’s in your heart. You can’t use your art to keep warm and dry and safe. You can’t retire on dreams and professional contentment. Call it a necessary evil. Call it a source of comfort and pleasure. Call it whatever the hell you want. But don’t kid yourself: In this world, we all need money to get by.

My father struggled early in his professional life, at a time when my older siblings were kids, and he worried about finances quite a bit. Those worries contributed to an authoritarian streak in his parenting. Later, by the time I was growing up, he had established himself in the world of finance and was earning a healthy living. We weren’t truly wealthy — we had family friends who were, so we saw the lifestyle of the rich up close — but we were comfortably upper-middle-class. In my memory, we never worried about money. My dad was far more easy-going in those later years. When unexpected expenses arose, he would shrug and say, “It’s only money.” Which, of course, is an attitude born of privilege.

My brother Jim tells of going with my father to his office in lower Manhattan when Jim was just a kid. My father showed Jim where he worked and said something along the lines of, “I could have been one of those guys with a corner office and a lot of money, but I chose to be a husband and father instead.” That’s a paraphrasing, but a close one, and it is indicative of my dad’s priorities. Again, though, it’s also something one can only say from a place of comfort.

I’ve been rich, oh baby, I’ve been poor;
Been in love a couple of times before.
If I had to choose, you know, between the two,
I’d take both rich and in love; I ain’t no fool.
— Paul Barrere, Little Feat

My father’s example has guided me for much of my life. Yes, I want my books to sell. I want to make money as a writer, and I take advantage of opportunities as they come my way. But when my daughters were younger, I tried to prioritize family in choices between home life and profession. And I have always worked hard to make my books as clean and polished as possible, even when I’ve known that I might make more if I took less time on each project and squeezed out more publications every year.

As a result, I have enjoyed more critical success than commercial success, and at times, my sales performance has bothered me. Once, when I was lamenting another well-reviewed book that hadn’t sold very well, Nancy asked me, “Would you want it to be the other way around?”

The question brought me up short. “What?”

“Would you be happier if your sales were great, but your reviews were bad?”

It took me all of three seconds to answer. “No, I wouldn’t.”

“Then stop complaining.”

Wise woman.

At this point, you might be saying, “You know, for a guy who said he wouldn’t tell us money is unimportant, you sure seem to be telling us just that.”

To which I say, “Well, yes and no.”

Money matters, no doubt. I would like to be making more as a writer, and I’ve felt that way for much of my career. But money is not all that matters. Not by a long shot. For each of us there exists a balance — things we will do for a paycheck and things we won’t. I have the luxury of making choices that are similar to those my father made. Nancy earns a good living and she wants me to write with joy, with satisfaction in my work, and with respect for the boundaries we have placed between our professional lives and our private life. An approach born of privilege? Absolutely. And so I would never judge anyone who makes different choices, who emphasizes the commercial end of the profession. We all have to do what is right for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our goals and desires.

This is a Monday Musings post, but these closing graphs have the feel of a Professional Wednesday essay, and so allow me to offer a few bits of business advice. First, do not rush into any contract or business arrangement. Most of the people I have encountered in publishing are honest and care deeply about the written word. Most, but not all. Read your contracts before you sign, and ask questions, not just of the person you’re signing with, but of friends who know the law and the business. If you have any doubts about any provisions, don’t sign until those questions have been answered to your satisfaction.

Second, don’t give up your day job until you’re absolutely certain you can. I gave mine up many years ago, and so I am not really in a position to give such advice. The fact is, though, had I know as much then about the vicissitudes of the market as I know now, I might have followed a different course. This despite the fact that Nancy and I have never really wanted for much or had to worry about finances.

And third, remember that once your words are out there, there’s no taking them back. Take pride in your books and stories. Make them as good as can be. Long after the money from a specific book or story sale has been spent, the work itself will still be available for readers. In my opinion, you want those words to represent the best you have to offer at the moment you published them.

They toss around your latest golden egg,
Speculation — well, who’s to know,
If the next one in the nest,
Will glitter for them so.
— Joni Mitchell

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: My Father’s Present

I write about my father a lot in this blog. Last year at this time, I wrote a long tribute to him commemorating what would have been his one hundred and second birthday. I write about my mother as well (her birthday is in February). We lost both of them way too early, and I miss them both more than I can put into words.

I won’t repeat last year’s tribute. If you’re interested, you can find it here. But I did want to share a memory of my dad that I find myself relating to with particular resonance this year.

I grew up the youngest of four children in a privileged family, and all of us enjoyed giving as much as we did receiving. Our Christmas mornings tended to be affairs of largess; we all had enormous gift piles. Record albums, clothes, books, the occasional piece of jewelry — as I say, there was always plenty under our tree. The Christmas morning I’m remembering came when I was in my early-to-mid twenties, and was home visiting either from Providence, where I lived after completing college, or California, where I attended graduate school.

All of us were in our usual frenzy of tearing wrapping paper and oohing and aahing over one another’s gifts. Dad sat watching us all, not unwrapping anything himself, but smiling contentedly. One of us said something to him — probably prompting him to open one of his as-yet-unopened gifts, and he waved off the comment.

Mom and Dad, by the author“This is my present,” he said. “Watching all of you.”

I know: It sounds like a line from a Hallmark holiday movie. Thing is, he meant it. There was nothing he enjoyed more than watching and listening as his kids and his beloved wife talked and laughed.

I remember another time, the last summer we had with him: My mother had died the previous fall, and not long after Dad was diagnosed with leukemia. But during the summer, we rented a house in New England that was huge enough to accommodate all of us — my dad; my brother Bill and his partner, Sandy; my sister, Liz, her husband, and their two young children; my brother Jim, his wife, Karen, and their son (their daughter would come along a year later); and Nancy, Alex, and me (Erin was born three years later).

We had a great week, but there was one night in particular when we put the kids to bed, and dad retired early, leaving my siblings and me and our partners to hang out on our own. We didn’t realize how much sound traveled in the house, but we learned the next morning that Dad had heard us the whole time. He wasn’t at all angry, and he didn’t mind being kept up.

“Listening to you all laughing was better than sleep.”

By that time, of course, I was a father, and was starting to understand what he meant. I didn’t appreciate it fully, though, until after Erin was born.

I have been fortunate to hear live performances by some of the most phenomenal musicians in the world — jazz and classical, blues and bluegrass, rock and country. I have heard remarkable birdsong throughout North America, in New Zealand and Australia, in Costa Rica, in several parts of Europe. I have heard coyotes call in the desert, and Screech Owls trilling on a rainy night in Oregon, and Whip Poor Wills singing on summer nights in Tennessee. There is no sound I have ever heard that compares to the music of my daughters laughing together.

Nancy, the girls, and I have our own Christmases now, of course. There is always plenty under the tree, although this year Nancy and I don’t have much for each other. That’s all right. I won’t miss the presents. Because I’ll be able to sit, as my father did all those years ago, and watch Alex and Erin enjoying their holiday, laughing with each other and with us. That will be my present.

That, and my memories of my dad.

Happy birthday, Pop. Love you.

Monday Musings: The Two Best Holiday Gifts I’ve Gotten. Ever.

The holidays are upon us, and chances are you — like me, like everyone I know — have

been caught up in the spirit of gift-giving. We want to find those perfect presents for the people we love most. We want to surprise and delight. For Nancy and me, shopping for our daughters, who are grown and very much aware of the things they want and need, has become fairly easy, if unexciting. They give us lists, we do our best to find the things on those lists, and everyone is happy.

A few years ago, we surprised them with special presents we’d spent a good deal of time planning and acquiring, and we still try to do that when we can, but our lives are busy, and these days the holidays really are much more about being together than about stuff. Which is as it should be.

But I wanted to share with you two brief stories about the two most thoughtful, memorable, wonderful gifts I have ever received. Because I think of them often this time of year.

When I was very young — about seven years old — my brother Jim, who is six years older than I am, developed an interest in birding. How that came about is his story to tell, but the important point is that his love of birds soon infected our older brother, Bill, and me. We began to go on bird walks together whenever possible. Jim and I were both living at home still, and during spring migration we would get up early in the morning, even on school days, to check out the warblers, orioles, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks moving through our neighborhood. Bill, fifteen years my senior, nine years Jim’s senior, joined us whenever he came home to visit, or whenever we went to visit him.

Again, I was seven, Jim was thirteen, Bill was twenty-two. We ought to have had little in common. But birds and birdwatching shaped and cemented our love. Other shared interests and passions contributed as well, but our love of birds, of nature in the broader sense, was formative.

The binder, a bit worse for wear.

As birders, Jim and I started getting serious about keeping track of what we saw and when, and about a year later, on Christmas day 1971, Jim surprised me with what was, to my mind, an amazing gift. [Geek warning: What a young birder thinks is an amazing gift may not match what you think is an amazing gift . . . .] It was a binder with custom made bird checklists for my year lists, my life lists, my lists for our little town. He had typed up the life lists, created a “template” for the year lists (back when that meant using a typewriter and a ruler and a marker) and actually filled out my life list up to that point based on his own memories of our earliest excursions, which were clearer than mine.

My very first year list, started at age 8. My handwriting has improved. Marginally.

The amount of work involved, the effort, the attention to detail, the amazing thoughtfulness of the present, from someone who was fourteen at the time, for his annoying little brother — it all still boggles my mind.

I still have that binder. I don’t use it for much anymore, but I will NEVER throw it away.

The other thing that bound Jim, Bill, and me together was music. They introduced me to so much of the music I still listen to today. Jim was my gateway to jazz. Bill, though, was my gateway to rock, and to blues, and to bluegrass. He was my guru. As I said, he was fifteen years older, and as I entered my teen years, and was diving into music in a serious way, as both a listener and a budding musician, he was the person to whom I looked for guidance. He was an incredible musician in his own right, he was in a very cool band, and he was a student of music, particularly classic rock.

Sometime in my late teens, I can’t remember the exact year, he gave me two gifts for Christmas. The first, I could tell right away, was a record. An LP, because back then that was pretty much all we had. The second gift I couldn’t figure out. It felt and looked like a thin sheaf of papers.

“Open the album first,” he told me.

Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling StonesI did. Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. A legendary double-album by the rock band of the era. “I think you’re ready for this,” he said.

I could stop this story right there. My older brother, my rock ‘n roll mentor, he of the effortless cool, telling me I was ready for what I knew was his favorite album of all time? That was gift enough. But then he told me to open the other package.

Exile on Main Street didn’t come with a lyric sheet. The Stones couldn’t be bothered with such trifles. And so Bill had transcribed the lyrics to every song on the album. This was before the internet, before personal computers. He listened to the two records over and over again — he later told me he had to replace his copy of the album, because he wore the grooves down so much — trying to decipher the mumblings and rantings of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, men not known for their clarity of speech. And he typed them up for me. I still have the album, of course. I am ashamed to say, I don’t know where those lyric sheets have gone.

Two sparkling, wonderful gifts, from my two brothers. Both shine in my memory to this day. They were born of love and thoughtfulness and a type of generosity that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

Something to think about as we approach the holidays.

Have a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Memories of Halloweens Past

With much larger family neighborhoods, not to mention dormitories, only two miles away, in the village proper, the families with kids in our area tend to drive over to town for trick-or-treating. Certainly, that was what we did when our girls were young enough to go out in search of gobs of candy. Nancy and I don’t usually buy candy at all, knowing that whatever we buy we’ll wind up eating ourselves, since no one will be ringing our doorbell. Okay, some years we DO buy candy, knowing that whatever we buy, we’ll wind up eating ourselves . . . .

The larger point remains, though. For us, for many years now, Halloween has been a non-event.

Erin as kitty catWhen the girls were little, we used to take them into town, meet up with their friends and their friends’ parents, take a bunch of photos (all of them too cute for words), and then commence the hunt for goodies. We would actually bring a bag or two of candy to supplement what our friends were giving out, so that we wouldn’t be total freeloaders, and while half the parents (sometimes the dads, sometimes the moms) went out walking with the kids, the other half stayed, gave out candy, drank a bit of wine. Those were great evenings. Sadly, I missed out on trick-or-treating as often as I participated. Back then, World Fantasy Convention was held each year on Halloween weekend. If Halloween fell anywhere between a Thursday and a Sunday, chances were I’d be away. Sometimes, if the travel was complicated enough, I missed out on Halloween on other days as well. I considered WFC one of the most important professional events on my calendar — I still do — but looking back, I wish I’d skipped the convention more often than I did. I missed out by not taking my girls door-to-door more than I did.Alex as pirate

I grew up in a small suburb, a bedroom community of New York City. From an early age, my parents felt comfortable sending me out with my friends on Halloween night. Before then, I remember my sister, Liz, taking me trick-or-treating. She is older than I am by twelve years, and so by the time I was old enough to go out, she was old enough to have given it up. She was a good sport and always accompanied me for as long as I wanted, for as far as my little legs could carry me. Back then, we young-uns would be armed with two items: a brown paper shopping bag bearing the image of a ghost or a stylized witch or a spooky jack-o-lantern, and a small, orange, slotted cardboard box in which we were to collect pennies for Unicef. A quick internet search tells me that “Trick-or-Treat For Unicef” is still a thing, though these days the boxes have little handles and, yes, QR codes.

I judged the success of the night by the weight and jangle of that orange box, and the weight and sag of that shopping bag. Each year, the latter proved disappointing. Somehow, in the build-up to Halloween, I pictured myself filling my shopping back to the brim, which, of course, would have required a walk lasting days rather than hours, and covering leagues rather than miles. The truth was, I always returned with more candy than I could possibly eat (not that I didn’t make the effort). In one of those old paper shopping bags, candy piled two inches deep was a lot of candy.

My parents, of course, examined and culled my takings. My father loved Mary Janes — peanut butter flavored taffies that always threatened to tear the fillings from his teeth — and Bit-O-Honeys. My mother loved Good and Plenty and anything chocolate (though obviously she didn’t take ALL the chocolate, or anywhere near it). The inspection of our haul post trick-or-treat was, for my siblings and me, a bit like April 15th. We got to keep most of what we brought home, but the powers-that-were took their cut.

Any loose candies, home-packaged candies (like baggies filled with loose candy corn), or homemade treats we threw out. Our parents were not trusting. We threw away apples as well, our fears stoked by urban legends of people slipping razor blades into apples. Raisins we were allowed to keep, but honestly, what kid wants to get boxes of raisins on Halloween?

I remember several of my costumes — baseball player (in a vintage woolen Yankee uniform that I thought was very cool, until I put it on and found it itched like mad), hobo (with burnt cork rubbed on my face to make me appear unshaved), astronaut (this was at the height of the Apollo era, and my helmet “mask” had a tiny little lightbulb that flickered on when I pressed a control at the end of a thin wire that ran from the helmet, down my sleeve, to my hand), ghost (with a freaking scary rubber mask), Charlie Chaplin (I honestly don’t know why; I never was particularly fond of his movies). I think I went as a vampire one year, with those plastic teeth and my hair slicked, but I might be making that up.

All this by way of saying I miss Halloween. I miss the excitement I felt for it as a kid, I miss the anticipation I saw in my own kids as the end of October approached and thoughts turned to candy and costumes. (I remember a pirate and a tiger, a ballerina and a soccer star, a kitty-cat and a scarecrow, a froggy and a princess.) I would love another chance to savor the holiday . . . and I suppose that’s what grandchildren are for. Someday!!

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: Remembering My Brother Bill

Five years ago this week, my family—spouse and kids, brother and sister and their families, cousins—gathered in northern Massachusetts to say goodbye to my oldest brother, Bill, who had passed away earlier in the year after a brief, intense battle with lymphoma.

Five years ago.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been so long.

My brother, Bill
Bill in 1976, while visiting me at sleep away camp.

Bill was older than me by nearly fifteen years. Same parents; I was a mistake. A happy one, my folks always claimed, but a mistake nevertheless. Despite the age difference between us, Bill and I were very close, drawn together by shared passions for music, for baseball, for nature and birds, for literature, for history. He (and Jim, our middle brother) introduced me to much of the music I still love to this day, everything from the Rolling Stones and Little Feat to Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice. Bill was also a musician—a fantastic vocalist and skilled blues harmonica player. He and I performed a short set together back when I was in college—a memory I still cherish, and one of the coolest things we ever did together.

Bill, David, Jim
Left to right, Bill, me, Jim. Back in 1990 or so, when I, at least, still had hair.

He and I didn’t get to see each other nearly as often as either of us would have liked, but usually we spoke weekly, sometimes more. One of us would hear a new piece of music, or see some unbelievable highlight from a pennant race game, or finish reading something the other would just love—whatever. And it would prompt a phone call. An excuse, really, for the joy and comfort we each derived from speaking to the other. (And I should add here that Bill had a very similar relationship with Jim. Some of the shared interests were different but they were just as close. And I should add as well that to this day Jim and I have the same sort of relationship as well. We three were/are bound by so much.)

Like many relationships, though, mine with Bill was as complicated as it was loving. He struggled all his life with mental health issues and substance abuse. For several years, when his life-long battle with alcoholism raged with particular ferocity, he drew me into his struggles as a reluctant enabler. He confided in me, called me in the midst of binges, then swore me to secrecy, telling me I couldn’t tell our parents. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, living a continent away in California, trying to survive my first years of graduate school. I still remember those conversations with disturbing clarity. Slurred, confused, maudlin, affectionate, but also manipulative, all against the background noises of sloshing bourbon and ice cubes clacking against the edges of a crystal tumbler. I finally broke out of the pattern, but those phone calls took their toll on me, and, for a time, on our friendship.

Bill was a brilliant poet, but after the dissolution of his marriage and the loss of a job he truly loved, he stopped writing. He could have had a writing career. He was that good. On some level, I believe he resented the fact that I managed to turn my dream of being an author into a profession. He read what many call “literary fiction” and often expressed, subtly or not, his belief that writing fantasy was a waste of my talent. At the same time, he kept all of my books displayed prominently on shelves in his home.

With Bill, such contradictions were fairly common.

Uncle Bubba, Erin, and Alex
Bill with Erin (center) and Alex, back around 2004.

He loved his nieces and nephew—my girls (who, for reasons too convoluted to explain here, used to call him Uncle Bubba), Jim’s son and daughter, our sister Liz’s son and daughter—and doted on them, more like an attentive grandparent than an uncle. But often during family get-togethers he would, without warning, grow moody, sullen, silent. To this day, I wonder if on some level being with our families made him regret choices he made earlier in life, when he might have started his own family.

Yet, as difficult as he could be, he was always the king of whatever room he entered. He was beautiful, he had unbelievable charisma, he was a terrific storyteller. He was also brilliant, well-read, funny as hell, and stunningly generous. He had the best laugh I have ever heard. I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating: his laugh was so wonderful, it made others want to be funny. Eliciting that laugh was like winning the humor lottery.

The memorial in 2017 that drew my family and me to Massachusetts on a crisp, gorgeous fall day, coincided with Bill’s birthday, which would be tomorrow. He would be 74 if he was still with us. He would lament how old that sounds, but then make some crack about Mick Jagger still touring at 79. (Once he and I were joking about something and I made some remark about me being more immature than he was, and he said, “Hey, man! I was immature before you were born!”)

I miss him every day. I have a musical mix on my phone that I named for him. It includes all the music he turned me on to, all the music we used to talk about during those many phone calls, and some stuff I’ve discovered since he died that I know he would have loved. The playlist is constantly growing.

Happy birthday, Bubba. Love you.

Monday Musings: The Wisdom and Love of Friends and Family

Many years ago — decades, in fact — in a rare moment of precocious insight, I wrote the following in my journal:

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends to remind us of who we are.”

Even at the time, I understood that I had, without any intention of doing so, stumbled upon some deep wisdom of my own. Because add to “the wisdom and love of friends” the words “and family,” and you have precisely the experience I have just enjoyed.

I have recently returned from an extended journey east and north, and I am feeling stronger than I have in some time, in large part because of the friends and family I encountered along the way. The trip began with Nancy and me attending a university event in Richmond, where she was the guest of honor and featured speaker. Seeing her excel at her job, watching her move among strangers with ease and poise, listening to her deliver remarks with the aplomb of a seasoned pro, brings me such joy and makes me so proud I can hardly find words to express the emotion. And so the trip began, as do all things in my life, with her, with us.

From there, as many of you already know, I went on to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, which was well-run and professionally fulfilling. The highlights of the weekend, though, were the two evenings I spent hanging out with Edmund Schubert and John Hartness. Both nights, we talked business, we talked craft and market, we spoke of family, of life and friendships, we just shot the shit for hours. It was amazing.

I have spent too, too long, in my own head, dealing with uncertainties, with anxieties, with fear and grief, with my own emotional health issues as well as with the challenges life throws at so many of us. It wasn’t that these evenings with my friends made me forget all that other stuff. Rather, it was that these two amazing friends and I made room in our interactions for all that each of us is going through right now. We commiserated and supported, even as we also laughed and spoke of other things.

And that was a harbinger of the entire trip.

David and daughter AlexFrom Virginia Beach, I went to Brooklyn, where I spent two evenings with my older daughter. She looks beautiful, seems great, has a ton of energy, and was her normal, playful, thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, slightly acerbic self. Seeing her, having such amazing time with her, was reassuring to say the least.

I also spent an afternoon with two old friends from my high school and college years. We are, all of us, changed. How could we not be? But our affection for one another remains, as does our ability to joke and laugh one minute, and then shift gears into matters weighty and significant the next. Seeing them was a rare treat, one I have missed these many years.

I drove from Brooklyn to central New York State, where I stayed with my brother Jim, and his wife, Karen. They are two of Nancy and my favorite people in the world. Jim is my birdwatching partner and guru, not to mention my oldest and dearest friend in the world outside of Nancy and my girls. Karen, his wife of 35 years, is brilliant, witty, articulate, passionate about her work, and so much fun. She and I share affinities for good Scotch and teasing Jim. While I was there, we were joined for dinner one night by Jim and Karen’s daughter, Rachel, who is as terrific as her parents.

And while in the Albany area, I also saw my wonderful friends Alan and Karen. Alan was (along with our friend, Amy — more on her in a moment) my closest friend in college, my musical partner (also along with Amy), and my housemate. In the nearly forty years since college, he (and Karen, and Amy and her husband, Paul) has remained as caring and constant a friend as anyone could want.

I started home on Friday, driving into the wind and rain of Ian, and I stayed that night in the Charlottesville area with Amy and Paul. We drank Manhattans and ate pasta, they showed me photos from their son’s recent wedding, and we talked deep into the night. Or as deep as we of advanced middle age are capable of these days. Which is to say, not really that late at all. But it was a great evening.

The next day, I arrived home.

My trip lasted twelve days, and pretty much every one of them brought me to someone I care about, someone who knows and understands me, someone whose wisdom and love made for a special day or evening.

I am back home now, and I feel restored in some way. Yes, the anxieties and difficulties persist. Life continues to throw stuff in our paths, and much of what Nancy and I have struggled with for the past year and a half will continue to challenge us for a long time to come. But I feel more connected to where I come from, to the person I have long known myself to be. I am reminded that there is more to me than fear and sadness and struggle. There is strength as well, and worth and humor and, most important, the love of people I respect and admire.

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends and family to remind us of who we are.”

Yes, maybe there is something trite to the thought. But at 22, when I wrote it, it felt like a valuable insight. And three and a half decades later, it still carries the weight of truth.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Celebrating Nancy

David and Nancy
Us in Dublin, Ireland for WorldCon 2019. (Photo by Cat Sparks)

I mention Nancy on this blog quite often, yet, I rarely write about her. Well, she has a big birthday coming up this week (tomorrow) — a BIG birthday — and so this seems as good a time as any to sing her praises.

For those who have somehow missed the references, Nancy is my wife of thirty-plus years. She and I met at Stanford, when we were both getting our Ph.D.s. She was a first-year grad student in biology; I was in my second year in the history program. We met because one of her suite-mates in grad school housing, another history candidate, brought her to the department’s weekly grad student card game at the on-campus pub.

Yes, we met over a game of hearts, and we were both smitten that very day. Nancy later confessed that she saw me and thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.” Poor thing . . . . For my part, being a guy, I saw her and thought, “Wow!”

Wedding Day Photo 1
Our wedding day, 1991.

We were married in the Rodin Sculpture Garden beside Stanford’s art museum, and a year later moved to Tennessee so that Nancy could take an assistant professorship at Sewanee: The University of the South. Our plan was to stay for a couple of years, and if nothing worked out for me in the history department, we’d leave for wherever and start again with me taking the offered job and her trying to work something out. Rinse, repeat until both of us were employed. That was the idea. But at her urging I started to pursue my lifelong dream of writing fantasy professionally, and before we had to leave, I got my first publishing contract. Thirty years later, we’re still here.

Nancy provost installation
Our family, the day Nancy was officially made provost of the university. Erin is on the left, Alex is on the right.

In that time, Nancy has been assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, and chairperson of her department. She has been appointed to a named chair in the biology department (for those unfamiliar with academia, this is big deal). She has received research grants to support her scholarship from a host of organizations and agencies, including the National Science Foundation. She has been an associate dean, associate provost, university provost, and, for the past nine months, acting president of the university. She is the first woman ever to serve as Sewanee’s president.

I am a pretty confident person. I believe in my creative abilities, and I believe in my own intelligence. I like to think that I’m usually one of the smartest people in whatever room I’m in. And yet, when both of us are home, I’m not even the smartest person in my own kitchen.

Erin, Nancy, Alex
Erin, Nancy, and Alex.

Nancy is a creative thinker, too, though in an entirely different way. Her creativity, her brilliance, is rooted in her ability to approach any problem, any issue, at any given time, from multiple perspectives. This is what has made her such a successful scientist, and it is what informs her strategic thinking as an institutional leader. She is also a person of remarkable yet quiet strength. She is serving as president, coping with issues large and small, interacting with people in various university constituencies who, let us say, sometimes forget how to be their best selves. She is also, like me, dealing with the illness of her child. She recently lost her mother and, with her brothers, had to help get her father situated in an assisted living community. She is spouse, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, community leader. She does all of this with composure, with grace, with her sparkling and mischievous wit, with an equanimity that humbles and dazzles me on a daily basis.

Nancy and Samantha
Back when we first started dating. Nancy is the one on the left . . .

Yes, I adore her. I would never claim to be a neutral observer where Nancy is concerned. But you don’t have to trust me on any of what I’ve written here. Others will say it as well, including many who don’t always see eye-to-eye with her. That is part of her charm. She can disarm with a smile. She can discuss without bringing ego to the conversation, and — something truly rare in today’s world — she can agree cordially to disagree.

And still I haven’t begun to scratch the surface when it comes to telling you about her. She is far more than her professional activities. She knits and gardens, she brews beer and makes AMAZING Indian, Thai, Moroccan, and Southwestern cuisine, not to mention gorgeous fresh bread and the best chocolate chip cookies anywhere. She has run triathlons and used to be an active rock climber. She loves to travel and to hike (and she tolerates my birdwatching interruptions when we’re hiking together). She plays cards and board games and is somehow really good at all of them.

I’ll stop now. Except to say she’s the love of my life, my partner in silliness, my best friend. And yeah, tomorrow’s her birthday.

Happy birthday, Sweetie. Love you.

Monday Musings: Fireworks and My Environmental Hypocrisy Explained

The first fireworks display I remember with any clarity came on a Fourth of July when I was three or four years old. My family had gone to the park in town where the fireworks displays took place each year, and we were sitting with our neighbors, including the high school student who babysat me when my older siblings were unavailable.

I was terrified of the big booms, and I cowered on my babysitter’s lap, my eyes closed, wishing this nightmare would end. Until she convinced me to look at just one.

It was magical! The colors! The patterns! Even the resonance of the explosions in my chest. From that day forward, I was hooked, and I have been ever since.

Anyone who knows me, knows that my politics track well to the left of center. On no issues am I more committed or more radical in my advocacy than those pertaining to the environment. And so, as environmental groups and activists, including some in our little town here on the Cumberland Plateau, turn more attention to the negative environmental impacts of fireworks, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between fighting against something I love, or making myself look like a hypocrite.

This one time, I’m embracing hypocrisy. Hear me out.

First, let me acknowledge the obvious. Fireworks ARE bad for the environment. They release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They pollute the air with particulate matter, and, because those lovely colors are produced by the burning of different elements, including heavy metals and other toxins, they pollute our water and soil as well. They are incredibly loud, and so can be deeply disruptive to local wildlife, not to mention being harmful to our pets and to livestock. And, with drought impacting more and more of the U.S. every year, we can’t ignore the significant fire danger posed by fireworks.

In short, they are pretty much a nightmare, and at some point, as we continue to fight the effects of global climate change, we will probably need to get rid of them altogether. But we are nowhere near that point yet, and, in fact, trying to get rid of fireworks now could actually set back the cause of environmental protection.

Again, hear me out.

All the fireworks used in the United States in a single year, including displays put on by municipalities as well as those set off by private citizens, emit about the same amount of greenhouse gas as 12,000 gas powered automobiles do on average, over the course of a year. Which sounds like a lot, until we place the number in context. There are 276 million automobiles in the U.S., which means that the entire universe of fireworks in this country emits less than 0.00005% of what cars produce. Put another way, if we could come up with technology that reduces car emissions by one percent — just one percent! — the reduction in our nation’s carbon output would be 20,000 times more than what a total ban on fireworks could accomplish.

What about the particulate matter in our air, the heavy metals and toxins in our water and soil, the sheer solid waste of all those fireworks casings made out of plastic and cardboard and paper? Yes, the harm from fireworks is real. But as with greenhouse gases, the contribution of fireworks to all of these problems is minuscule when considered against the scale of industrial pollution in the U.S., or automobile pollution, or household waste production, or any number of other causes of environmental degradation.

Aiming our ecological ire at fireworks is foolishness. It is virtue-signaling en masse. It is like ordering a double-patty bacon cheeseburger, a super-sized container of curly fries, and a huge slice of New York cheesecake, and then also asking for a Diet Coke.

Worse, it is politically stupid. Progressives could come up with a comprehensive, scientifically sound, guaranteed-to-address-the-problem legislative package to combat climate change, and if it included a ban on fireworks that would be the only thing Fox News and the Republicans would focus on. “Liberals want to ban your fireworks!” “Liberals have declared war on the Fourth of July!” “Liberals hate America for winning our independence!”

The fact is, progressives have, again and again, come up with comprehensive, scientifically sound, guaranteed-to-address-the-problem legislative packages to combat climate change, and always the right-wing climate deniers have latched onto the one element of the plan that is a) least significant, and b) easiest to parody and misrepresent. “Liberals want to keep you from eating hamburgers!” “Liberals want to replace your pickup with a bicycle!” “Liberals want to use climate legislation to turn America into a socialist hell-scape!” “Liberals want to make you compost your puppies!”

Okay, I made up that last one, but you get the idea. Banning fireworks gets us next to nothing. The impact would be minimal at best. And the cost to the larger cause of saving our planet could be far greater than this one step is worth.

So what should we do about fireworks?

Already governments across the globe, national, territorial, and municipal, are beginning to use drone and laser technologies to make celebrations less fireworks-dependent. We should do more of this. Displays that blend these newer approaches with traditional fireworks, have less impact on our land, water, and air. Moreover, many U.S. states already ban the purchase and use of fireworks by private citizens. More states should do the same. This would lessen fire danger while also lowering the amounts of smoke and pollutants we put into the environment. We would still get to see our fireworks displays and celebrate July 4th as we always have. We would just have to rely on public fireworks displays for our yearly fix of “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

That, it seems to me, is a reasonable sacrifice for the greater good.

Have a great week.