Moments: On Robin Williams and the daily struggle


Robin Williams died Monday. Authorities said took his own life. He was 63.

Williams struggled with alcoholism and other addictions. He also struggled with mental health issues. His publicist told the Los Angeles Times that Williams was suffering from depression in recent weeks. It appears the depression took his life.

robin-williamsI never met Williams. I knew him through his work, which was often terrific. But I feel for him and his family, especially because he carried the burden of depression.

Twice in my 39 years, I’ve been to an emergency room with suicidal thoughts. I could have very easily taken my own life on both occasions. For whatever reason — blind luck or divine inspiration — I reached out for help instead of killing myself.

My late mother struggled with mental health issues in her life. My dad tried to get her help, but he always felt guilty. He grew up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression and loaded ships as a Navy seaman during World War II. To him, psychiatry was akin to witchcraft and asking a therapist to talk to his wife meant she would be confined to a room with padded walls and straightjackets for the remainder of her days.

I want to believe we as a society are more enlightened about mental health than we were when I was a boy. But I worry that people still think padded asylum cells and violent criminals when mental illness is discussed. We are not far removed from a time when Tom Eagleton was shamed out of being a vice presidential nominee because he sought treatment for depression.

Mental illness is a broad spectrum of ailments, but it is all rooted in one thing: The brain is an organ — just like the heart or liver — and sometimes it malfunctions. In exceptionally rare cases, it means people cannot function at all. But in most mental health cases, the disease is simply something that we live with day to day.

I am diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. The clinical words simply mean I sometimes get very sad or very scared, sometimes both, for long periods and greater intensities than I find tolerable. I control it with medication and therapy. Most days, that’s enough. But sometimes my brain doesn’t work right.

I get very depressed. I work every idea out to its ultimate outcome, which is usually slow, painful death. I feel disgusting and loathsome, even though I have a wealth of family and friends who would tell and show me otherwise, I am unable to feel anything but misery. Panic attacks feel as if my skin is itching on the inside. Everything is an emergency and I can only focus on negative thoughts.

Sometimes, not often and certainly not every day, those thoughts turn suicidal. I am in pain and the only way I can get out of it is to die. The times that I have seriously considered suicide, I don’t really want to die. I want relief. Of course one can’t feel relief when one is dead. But when your brain isn’t working right, it becomes all too easy to forget that.

Robin Williams apparently lost sight of that sometime Monday. The world lost a great entertainer to a disease that affects about one in 10 Americans, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

My second set of parents, the retired east Des Moines hairdresser and printer, would be hesitant about me writing publicly about my mental health problems. They would worry, rightly so, that people would look at me differently or treat me as lesser or perhaps a dangerous nut who will run amok at any moment.

People do react differently to you when you struggle and are open about it. But I talk openly about it amongst my colleagues, on my blog and with my friends, family and sometimes my sources when reporting stories where the revelation is relevant. I talk about it not to brag about it or complain in a “woe is me” kind of way.

I talk about it because mental illnesses are really no different than high blood pressure or diabetes – other health problems that can be fatal. And that’s what suicide really is: the fatal heart attack or liver failure of depression and anxiety.

I talk about it because people who suffer, my fellow travelers, need to know they are not alone. As my friend Bill McClelland, the great St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, once told me: “We are all walking on the thin ice.”

I talk about it because people need to hear from those of us who suffer from the illness that sometimes it is a daily struggle, but most of the time we survive and even thrive. But it is a scary thing. Because I have been to that place Williams visited, with the instrument of my death in my hand, and thought there was no way out.

I found another way out. Williams didn’t.

That Williams lost his fight and I’m still fighting isn’t a measure of character, strength or determination. My cancer just went into remission. Williams’ got stronger.

Mental illness is often a brutal, cruel fight against your own thoughts. And one gets so tired, so very damned tired.

I don’t have any more answers or magic solutions.

But I have a bit of advice: Put as much kindness into the world as possible.

If one measures kindness by laughs inspired, Williams left one heck of a legacy for us to follow.

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Moments: On the burdens of books


My back is sore. My legs hurt. I’m tired of carrying this heavy load.

The burden I refer to is books. I have too many of them. The shelves of my overstuffed (and very cheap) bookcases sag beneath the weight of my books. Nearly every surface in my home serves as a holding space for books.

Paperbacks are jammed into the entertainment center behind the TV. Books pile up on the coffee table. There are a few in the closet and a few more in the nightstand. I bet if I looked real close, I’d find a few under the bed.

But I’m too scared to look under there. I saw “Monsters, Inc.” Nobody wants to be surprised in bed by John Goodman and Billy Crystal.

This book problem becomes particularly acute when one moves, which I’m doing this week.

Confession: I have not read all the books I own. I have not read most of the books I own.

I have, for example, a Christian Bible. I keep it out of respect for my parents, particularly my late father, who went to a great deal of hassle to make sure I passed confirmation at the First United Methodist Church in Winterset when I was a boy.

I’ve looked up things in it. There are lots of Biblical references in society, especially made by politicians. I like to look them up and see if they say what I’m told they say. But most of the time the language is very dense and often vague. So, no, I haven’t read it cover to cover.

I watched “The Ten Commandments,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Bible” on TV around Easter every year when I was a boy. I know it’s not the same, but I understood those.

A very nice Methodist minister I knew gave me a guide to prayer when I graduated. I picked through it once in a while when I’m feeling desperate, but I didn’t understand the supplementary materials any more than I did the main text. But I keep both, just in case.

I have a very nice hardback collection of Plato’s dialogues. I haven’t read it, either. It makes less sense to me than the Bible. It was given to me by a philosophy professor I had at Drake University. He and his wife, who was the provost at the time, wrote a very kind dedication upon my graduation.

I briefly considered cutting out that page and putting the book in the pile to sell to the used bookstore. But that seemed uncouth. So the book went in a box.

Other books, however, were less fortunate. “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, three books by James Joyce and a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories were all sold. These are books I bought because I thought it was important to have them. I thought writers had to read these kinds of books to be writers of any promise or ability.

But I never read them. I’m not sure Joyce is even written in English. I bought those books because I wanted to impress a girl in St. Louis. Her former boyfriend quoted Joyce. She’s married now, not to me of course.

And, well, most of the people I know who regularly quote Joyce are kind of snobs. I can’t become a snob if I don’t read him and, thus, don’t quote him. So I got rid of those books to improve my character.

My apologies to Dickens and Hemingway, whom are often regarded as canon by people who call a writer “a man of letters.” I get more out of the collections of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Anyway, I like those books.

I could never really get into the machismo Hemingway or the Victorian-era Dickens. I loved, however, the “Doctor Who” episode in which the Doctor and Rose meets Dickens. I have that on DVD. I’ll probably watch it before I read a page of “Great Expectation.”

People often give me books by Bill Bryson, the Des Moines, Iowa, native who moved to England and writes books admired by nearly everyone, save me, who prefers Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh. So a couple Bryson books, both gifts, were sold off, hopefully to land in a home where they’ll be read by an admirer rather than an ignorer.

My bookshelves are heavy with good intentions. There’s an acclaimed book about the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I bought it at the suggestion of a colleague, who said it was excellent and showed everything the public thinks about that day is a lie. I bought the book used. It was sold with no additional mileage. It struck me as too depressing a topic to want to scratch through while relaxing at bedtime.

I always meant to read “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton. It was the classic insider tell-all about life in the majors. Mickey Mantle reportedly wouldn’t talk to Bouton for years because Bouton revealed Mantle as a drunk. It seems kind of innocent in retrospect, doesn’t it? Entire books are written about all kinds of horrible things done by baseball players and other athletes these days. Being a drunk wouldn’t even rate an item in the celebrity news.

A copy of James Clavell’s “Shogun” won’t make it to my new home. I’ve never been one for epics, but I have the NBC-TV miniseries based on the novel on DVD. I think that’s probably enough feudal Japan for me.

I kept “Summer of ’49” by David Halberstam, which I bought as a paperback from the racks at Montross Pharmacy in Winterset. I read it on long baseball road trips from Winterset to Nevada. I felt the hot sun on my arms and fell in love with the New York Yankees as they beat back the Boston Red Sox on the final game of the 1949 season.

I had several books by Charles Finney, who writes about time travel. I was impressed by the title of one book collection: “3 By Finney.” The guy had the same last name as me. Maybe I could write three novels. But its doubtful. I never read “3 By Finney” or any of the others.

For years, I owned a guide to being an action hero. I bought it one night after a writing class I took with my friend Syd Spink. We laughed uncontrollably under the section that advised what to do if you’re wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Advice included: “Take a lover if you need to. Do whatever it takes to survive.” But I never really read it more than that.

Of course, there are books that will always be with me. “Nobody Asked Me But … The World of Jimmy Cannon,” by the great columnist Jimmy Cannon, was given to me by the best teacher I ever had, a journalism professor at Drake. I was struggling to come up with a column idea one week. He picked up the book at a used sale. It was a revelation. I keep it close, a reminder of the great teacher and the great writer. That’s the book I save in case of fire.

Collections of columns by Mary McGrory, Mike Royko, Roger Ebert and Andy Rooney all made the cut. Most of my comic books and graphic novels make the trip. Yeah, I know they’re books with more pictures than words, but people who say that have never enjoyed the sublime pleasure of Jack Kirby’s kinetic art with Stan Lee’s prose in something as perfect as “Captain America No. 105.”

So I culled the collection, not as much as I probably should have and certainly not as much as my movers would have wished I had. But there are fewer books headed to the new apartment.

I would like to believe I’ll be content to enjoy the books I have — especially those gone too long unread. But I ordered a collection of Hunter S. Thompson works just this morning. I don’t think that cleared shelf space will stay vacant long.

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Moments: On smoothies and small victories


“I’m having a bad day,” I complained to my friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog.

I had him on speakerphone as I went through a drive-through window. I ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie. It’s one of those beverages that sounds healthier than it really is. I ordered it anyway.

My brain is in knots, I explained to Paul. Sunday night, I became obsessed with something and my brain wouldn’t let it go until almost 8 a.m. I ended up taking a sick day.

The obsession was a paperback book. I wanted to read a few chapters before I nodded off. I couldn’t find it. I tore up the apartment. I looked in all the usual spots. I finally found it wedged between my mattress and the wall. By the time I found it, my heart was racing and I was so angry I could have chewed nails.

I was in the midst of a panic attack. I didn’t recognize it. I was slow to take my medicine to abate the symptoms. And thus I ended up tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling until it was almost time for work.

The causes are varied and complex. The bottom line is sometimes my brain doesn’t work the way it should and the emotions I’m feeling don’t match with the reality I’m living.

I tried to regroup during the day. Then a malingering depression settled in like a thunderstorm. All the usual thoughts — how worthless I am, how stupid I am, how poor a human being I am — rattled my brain.

Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., I managed to rise from bed and go out for some food, including the aforementioned smoothie.

Paul, my good friend, listened as he usually does.

He replied in his mild Tennessee drawl. He recalled an incident a week or so ago when I had him on speakerphone in the car. I had spilled my smoothie on the passenger-side mat. I cursed as I beat the mat against a tree to get the milk and ice off the rubber surface.

Paul then asked me, “Did you manage to get inside your apartment with your strawberry-banana drink?”

In fact I did, I replied.

“Well,” he said, “that is progress.”

I love my friends.

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Moments: 39 lessons from 39 years of life


Thursday was my 39th birthday. I wrote a weather story for the paragraph factory. I took a long nap after work. I had a quiet dinner alone after work. The waitress brought me a slice of cake. I thought it was a gift, but she charged me $6 for it. It’s true what they say: You can have your cake and eat it, too, but there’s no such thing as free cake. Here are 39 other lessons I learned in my 39 years:

1. The delete key is my best friend. Many of the worst problems I’ve had in my life can be traced to a failure to judiciously use the delete key.

2. Mrs. Liechty was right: My laziness in learning grammar, spelling and syntax did haunt me for the rest of my life. Conversely, Mr. Hickman, I have not used trigonometry for a 39th consecutive year.

3. Naps are terrific.

4. Keep your feelings close and your mouth shut. They can get you into trouble and, to be frank, most people don’t give a damn what you think.

5. It’s always a little bit about the money.

6. Peace and quiet are highly underrated and increasingly scarce.

7. American football is a brutal, violent game that takes a terrible toll on the boys and men who play it. Yet, I still love it. I am not sure how to reconcile this, but I keep watching and that makes me part of the problem.

8. Most of the world’s problems cannot be solved and the amount of time I spend angry, upset or frustrated by them diminishes with each passing year.

9. The waitress is only flirting with me for a bigger tip. She is in no way interested in me or my life.

10. Everybody is a little bit kinky.

11. The world would be a much better place if everyone would leave everyone else alone.

12. There is no such thing as closure. The things that hurt the most in your life will always hurt. You will just become more accustomed to that pain as a part of your life. “Closure” is a word used by people who are tired of hearing you talk about your sadness.

13. Never work for free.

14. People are given one button to push in this world. They will jealously guard that button with their lives, but often never push it. Yet, if they have the opportunity to push someone else’s button, they will hammer it until they pass out and mock the person who lost control of their button.

15. Love is never enough, but it helps.

16. I like to look at beautiful women. People argue this makes me a sexist creep or a sex-crazed pervert. They might be right, but I still like to look at beautiful women.

17. Nobody is all one thing all the time.

18. Cynicism is a perfectly reasonable response to society.

19. Always appreciate the classics: the Beatles, peanut butter and jelly, iced tea and “M*A*S*H” reruns.

20. The Internet has collected all the knowledge in human history in one place searchable by devices we have in our pockets, yet it has somehow made us dumber, more shrill and overrun with delusions of grandeur.

21. Don’t blog about your job.

22. Mental illness is not something you cure. You treat it. You cope with it. You make peace with it. Some days are better than others. But some days are very bad.

23. Reading is wonderful. It really doesn’t matter what you read or how you read — printed copies or digital devices. Just take time to unplug from the fear machine and its amplified stupidity. Enjoy a single story one-on-one.

24. I am a lot more sensitive than I would like to admit.

25. I am lot meaner than I intend to be.

26. I worry I am going to die broke and alone.

27. Most of the things I worry about everyone else worries about, too, but they seldom talk about it.

28. I don’t really want to talk about it, either.

29. Don’t blog about your job. That’s right. It’s on here twice. Don’t do it.

30. I like to remember things how I remembered them, not necessarily how they were.

31. Reconnecting with people from your past is a mixed bag. Sometimes you revive a dormant friendship and it is terrific. Many times you quickly discover there was a reason why you stopped talking to this person. Approach with caution.

32. I don’t always instantly know how I feel about everything and I am suspicious of people who do.

33. Television news is a massive fear machine designed to make you feel weak, sad, terrified and powerless.

34. You are free. The rest is detail.

35. Discussion of politics and religion is almost never worth the hassle and headache. Avoid it.

36. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions and tremendous effort, it just doesn’t work out.

37. Sometimes it does work out, so go hard on every trip to first base.

38. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind.”

39. Forgiveness and redemption are real and they can be had. This isn’t just a religious concept. Everyone screws up. Everyone falls down. What matters is what you do when you get back up again.

Moments: On moving and the boxes never opened


This pending move is really getting me down.

As moves go, it’s a small thing. I’m changing apartments. The place across the hall has termite damage. They need to fix the walls in my place. I can’t stay while they do the work.

The door-to-door distance is probably less than 100 yards.

I hate moving. Most people do. It’s awful. Pack up all your stuff. Move it. Unpack it. Try not to die of exhaustion and frustration. Hopefully nothing you really care about will be broken.

My hatred for moving is long-standing and probably a little deeper than is psychologically healthy.

When I was a boy, my family lived in a nice ranch house on Lynner Drive on the northwest side of Des Moines.

My parents grew up in Winterset and I guess he always wanted to return there one day. He found a big, redbrick ranch home just west of town.

The house had a lot of problems. Buying it and fixing it up broke my parents financially and probably contributed to my dad’s failing health in his final years.

My brothers and sister all helped with the move. It was grueling, tiring work because my parents had accumulated a lot of stuff in their lives.

They survived the Great Depression. A lot of people who lived through those hard times had trouble throwing things away. “You never know when you might need it,” was the mentality.

Today, I suppose, we would call it hoarding.

My dad was a salesman. He had lots of samples, everything from paper plates to enough tools to fill a hardware store.

We lived in the house west of Winterset for about six years. It seemed like we never quite settled. Every room in the house had unopened boxes of stuff.

I resented the boxes in my room. They weren’t my things. Why did they have to be there? But they were.

The basement was worse. The center of the finished downstairs had boxes stacked to the ceiling. It would have made a great space for a dance floor. Instead, it was a warehouse.

The same was true in my dad’s office, which had boxes piled in a great pyramid in one corner. Once, I climbed the stacks of boxes just to see what there was to see. I found a box of old long-playing records, Glenn Miller, the Four Seasons and the like.

I pulled out a couple records and went to our record player. It was a jukebox-style job from the 1970s, with an 8-track player and lights that flashed with the music.

The jukebox was buried under boxes, of course. I managed to get it plugged in and played some of the sides. It was too big a hassle to get the record player going, so I gave up.

My dad got sick and died. My mom and I moved into town. My brothers and sister sold off a lot of the stuff in the boxes that were never opened, but not all of it.

Our garage was filled to the ceiling with boxes. And boxes were in the downstairs den, the furnace room, at the bottom of the basement stairs and in my mom’s room and the laundry room.

Again, it never felt like we settled in. Everything was in transition.

My mom fell downstairs and died. I moved again. I lived with a family in Winterset for seven months. That didn’t work out. I moved again.

I finally settled in east Des Moines with Parents 2.0. There I unpacked in a big way. I stayed up all night getting my room just the way I wanted without any boxes. I must have liked it. I stayed for 10 years.

I only lasted two years apiece in Omaha and St. Louis, but I always moved all the way in. I’ve had three address is in Des Moines. I’ve filled out every corner with my stuff, but never any boxes, except the odd one or two in the closet.

Now, I’m moving again and I’m coping poorly with the prospect. I decorate my home just the way I like it. Every wall has some pop culture memento. Everywhere I look, I’m looking at something I like.

My home is a great comfort to me. It’s my safe space. It’s a quiet spot in a noisy world, certain in a sea of uncertainty.

This move isn’t that big of a deal. Intellectually, I know that. But emotionally, I look around the place and think, aw, geez, I’m going to have to pack all this up soon.

It feels like a really great Etch-a-Sketch drawing that’s been swiped by an ornery sibling.

You’re watching in horror as they’re about to shake it and wipe out your beautiful artwork.

And the only thing you can do is start over.

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Moments: On panic attacks


I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. It’s called general anxiety disorder. I suffer from panic attacks.

When it acts up, I feel fear. Sometimes the fear is response to stimulus: a mistake made at work, a social faux pas or an overindulgence.

Sometimes there is no reason for the panic. It just settles in like a thunderstorm inside my skull. My doctor gives me little yellow pills. They usually work within about 15 or 30 minutes.

Once in a while, though, the panic gets past the pills. That happened Monday night. The panic set in about 9:30 p.m. and just sat on my chest until around 3:30 a.m.

I tried to nap. The panic usually subsides when I sleep. It didn’t work. I dozed, but I could feel the tightness in my chest, the restlessness and uneasiness. It was still there when I woke up.

The worst panic attacks feel as if my skin is itching on the inside out. This was not one of those. This was a lesser variety, but still exhausting.

I struggled to concentrate on the TV show I had recorded. I tried to mindlessly watch sports highlights. But everything seemed irritating and unsettled.

I dimmed the lights and turned on the fans. I tried to imagine myself pitching a baseball. I thought about dragging my cleat along the rubber atop the mound. I thought about the feel of the baseball on my fingertips. I could almost smell the dirt on my hands.

I imagined the fan blowing the hair on my arms was actually a gentle breeze on a calm, cool day at the park. I could hear the gentle rustling of the crowd chatting.

I never got around to throwing the ball. I never do. It’s just a technique I use to try and calm myself down. It was only partially successful.

The worst part of panic attacks are the thoughts. Every thought is carried out to its most gruesome conclusion.

For example: I ate pasta for dinner. That’s bad for my blood sugar. I’m going to have to have my feet amputated. I will die broke and alone in a wheelchair at a county hospital.

Sometimes I think about killing myself. I think about jumping off a parking garage. This is all in my head, mind you. No actions are taken.

Usually I am able to brush those thoughts off without much trouble. I want to feel relief, I remind myself. A dead man cannot feel relief.

If the thoughts get too noisy, I call my therapist. He’s an excellent therapist. He is a former U.S. Army Ranger. He is direct, thoughtful and quick. A few minutes with him on the phone is enough to get me back into acceptable condition.

It didn’t go that far Monday night. Like I said, it was a milder version of a panic attack.

Once I had a panic attack where I got a song stuck in my head. It was summer 1999. I kept hearing the song over and over again, each replay getting louder and more shrill. I thought I was going to have to stick an ice pick in my brain just to end the torment.

That was a bad night. I didn’t know what panic attacks were then. I wouldn’t be diagnosed for another two years.

I write about this not to terrify my friends and family who might read it. Sometimes that happens. They get sad because I am not always happy. But most people are not always happy. They might pretend to be, but they’re not.

To them, I say that I am OK. I manage this problem. I’m not going to die from it. Nothing bad is going to happen. I take pretty good care of myself in this regard. Part of the reason I do is because you being a part of my life makes me stronger.

It’s no different the high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Mental health problems are just like other medical problems. They can all be fatal if not treated, but most days, for most people, they don’t amount to much more than taking your medication on time.

I don’t write about my mental health problems as a plea for sympathy, either. I am who I am. These problems are a part of me, but they are not all of me. Yes, I struggle. But most people do with some kind of problem or another.

But I write about this because most of the dialog about mental health is about very extreme cases: people who are severely disabled and unable to function or people who have committed crimes.

That’s understandable. The dire end of the spectrum needs our help the most. But most of us live in the great, wide middle. I am able to work most of the time, but sometimes I have sleepless nights like this one. Sometimes I’m edgy and rude. But generally I live a full life with family, friends and adventures that interest me.

I write about this because I know there are other people like me out there, who have bad days in their brain. I write this as a message to my fellow mental health travelers: It’s OK. You are not alone.

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Moments: On clocks, change, moving and floating


I’ve started swimming again over the Memorial Day weekend. That’s when my apartment complex pool opened. I like to swim. It allows me to exercise without my girth damaging my knees.

I swim mostly in the evenings. I do it to avoid crowds. I am middle-aged, fat and not particularly proud of my body, especially with my shirt off. My apartment building is near a college campus and most of the residents are young.

Many of them are young, beautiful and in great shape. Some of them are law students. I try not to hold that against them. Anyway, I am a little embarrassed to swim around the beautiful people. So I swim in the evenings or at night.

I say “swim,” but mostly I run or walk in the water. The resistance is good for my legs. The water is cool enough I don’t go into fugue sweats the way I would on the track. I do some bicycle kicks under water and a little shadow boxing for my upper body.

After a good 30 minutes or so, I stop and float on my back. I let the water form a seal around both my ears. All I can hear is my own heartbeat and the gentle motion of the pool.

This is my favorite part of the swim. I stare up at the night sky and watch the clouds drift. I try to determine what phase the moon is in. Dad 2.0, the east Des Moines printer, used to tout one of the benefits of camping was learning what it felt like to be outside when the sun came up and when the sun came down.

He’s right. There is a particular sensation to the world when the sun rises and falls. It’s difficult to describe, but if you’re taking the time to observe it, the moment is usually very peaceful.

The world is a noisy place, I think, even here in Iowa, where we move several steps slower than our friends on the coasts or in the big cities. This is probably a function of getting older, but everything seems to be more complicated — maybe unnecessarily so — than it used to be.

I needed a clock for my living room. For years, I used the VCR. But the VCR is analog and my TV is digital. This means the picture looks bad. So I moved the VCR into my bedroom, where the analog TV — the big, old, square tube — is. But I missed the clock in the living room.

I thought this would be an easy fix. I wanted a nice digital display. I wanted it mostly because the presence of a clock would remind me to take my pills at night. (I really am getting old.) The first store I stopped at had a half dozen varieties of clocks. None of them were cheaper than $20 and all of them did things that I didn’t need or want.

One clock synced with U.S. Naval Observatory’s Master Clock. Both Dad 1.0 and Dad 2.0 were Navy men, the first in World War II and the second during the Vietnam War. I am a civilian and always have been. I didn’t see the need for my timepiece to be militarized.

Another clock projected the time onto the ceiling in bright blue. I would be sitting across the room from it. Projecting it on the ceiling wouldn’t be very useful to me. Another clock had a night light. Another had five different alarm settings.

Most of the clocks connected to smartphones. They could play music and set alarms and possibly send text messages. I don’t know. The were all things I with I didn’t need or want. I just wanted the clock, the part that told time.

I was so frustrated at the first store that I just left. I went to a second store, Radio Shack. I go to Radio Shack from time to time because this is a place I trust to simplify complicated tasks. I told the clerk I wanted a clock. He led me to the shelf with the clocks.

He started his sales pitch. They had the clocks with the smartphone hookups and other do-dads. I stopped him. Don’t you just have one that tells time and nothing else? I asked him. He pulled a clock from the bottom shelf.

This one has an alarm on it, he said, but you don’t have to turn it on.

That will be fine, I said.

But this other clock has a USB charger and it’s on sale, he tried.

No, I’ll take the more expensive clock that does less. It’s come to that in this world. I have to pay more to get something to do less. It’s like paying an extra dollar to the hamburger joint so they’ll leave off the onions.

I am fairly pleased with my new clock. But then I got some bad news. My property manager called and said the walls of my apartment have termite damage. I would have to move to another unit in my building.

I was crushed. I hate to move. I have a lot of books and toys and posters. My home is a clutter pop cultured museum. It’s a large womb where everywhere I turn, I cast my eyes on something pleasant and calming to me. It’s the way I like it. Now I was going to have to move.

Years ago, I was in a training session with a sleazy human resources guy. The session was called “Change Management.” He said we all fall on a curve. Some people are “change agents,” people who cause change. Some people are “change neutral,” which were most people. And some people were “change averse.”

This was bad according to the sleazy HR guy. He believed change was good. I disagreed. Sometimes change is good. Sometimes its bad. My aunt recently went from thinking she was healthy to learning she has cancer. That was change. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the family who would describe it as “good.”

I take disruptions to my living space very personally. I moved more than I would have cared to as a boy. I like to set my roots deep. I have been known to work to the point of exhaustion to make my new space as livable as my old space.

And I am middle-aged now. So I have more stuff than I need crammed into every corner of every closet. This was going to be a terrible hassle. My mind reeled with the annoyances ahead.

So I went to the pool. I put out of my mind thoughts of changes, complicated clocks and the pending move. The only moving I did was to float. I stared at the night sky and let the silence take over.

- 30 -

Moments: On smokers


I respect the smoker of the 21st century. They are some of the most persecuted people in our culture. But they stick with their habit, as bad as it is and no matter how hard society tries to condemn them or push them out.

They’ve been banned from buildings, restaurants, airplanes and busses. Busses! I once rode a bus with a homeless man who smelled of strongly of urine and cheap whiskey. I would have welcomed a smoker to take the edge off the odor.

Still, they huddle together in the cold, the snow, the rain and the punishing summer heat. They flick their butts onto the ground in defiance of the litter laws the society which tries so hard to ostracize them.

I have a friend who grouses about the smokers who are allowed to puff outside. He is angry that he must smell smokers when he walks city streets. I try not to remind him that he has been known to bum cigarettes when he’s on a good, long drunk. But he doesn’t do the benders anymore. He’s got diabetes.

I am not a smoker. I tried it. I always felt silly with a cigarette in my hand. It was like trying to use chopsticks with catcher’s mitts.

I smoke cigars for a period during college and in the late 1990s. My asthma caught up to me. I think about a cigar and a nice beer from time to time, but taste would stay with me for three days. I might consider it if they tasted like buffalo wings or french fries. But they taste like burning leaves. I’ll pass.

And I know some people who really suffer because of smokers. Mom 2.0 has an allergy to smoke. Even campfires cause her sinuses to swell and bleed. Parents 2.0 have a crowd of neighbors who smoke. It’s forced them to curtail outdoor activities. That’s a shame.

The Iowa Legislature banned smoking in most public places back in 2008. This was probably a good thing. Bar owners cried it would be the end. But most bars are still open. And the smokers huddle outside the back door, in the alley, like criminals scoring a fix.

The smokers cry persecution. They are right. There is an ugly tendency in America to pretend minor inconveniences are serious assaults.

Going to a bar and coming home with clothes that smell of smoke is an inconvenience. Lung cancer is a serious assault. The smoker risks the latter. I endured the former.

Now I don’t even have to put up with that. The bars are clear of smoke. I can drink in peace. Because drinking alcohol is a good drug that society accepts.

If I say, “Hey, Bill, let’s go grab a beer after work,” Bill thinks I am being friendly. But if I say, “Hey, Bill, let’s shoot heroin after work,” Bill is probably calling the police, or at least human resources for an intervention.

Both cigarettes and booze are legal. But we’ve decided one is much more terrible than another. There is a lot of talk about second-hand smoke. It kills as many as 42,000 people a year, some studies say.

That seems like a lot, but I’m not a scientist. And being an introvert, I have the natural tendency to avoid people whether they smoke or not.

I doubt second-hand smoke is deadly as a drunk driver. But then again, most people who drink and then drive have driven drunk — at least under the legal definition. That’s a fact we don’t like to think about, but it’s true.

I went for a swim in my apartment complex’s pool this evening. It was getting dark, but little orange flares could be seen in the balconies of the buildings that faced the pool. It is too early for fireflies.

It was smokers. The evening air was cool. The balconies of these apartments have about 3 feet of foot room. There really isn’t even room for a chair. But here are these poor, persecuted smokers puffing away on their balconies.

I don’t really feel sorry for them. What they do is a choice. They are addicted to a drug. It’s a serious addiction. But in the 21st century, anyone who starts smoking knows the risks of both disease and addiction.

But I do admire the dedication. If I were as dedicated to exercise as the smoker was to smoking, I could be Jim Fixx. Of course, he’s dead. He died of a heart attack while running.

I guess everything kills you in the end.

- 30 -

Moments: On Dennis


Dennis had another good one when I ran into him over Memorial Day weekend.

“People say after the holiday the week will go fast. Well, when he comes, it’ll be a fast that will last.”

The “he” Dennis refers to, of course, is Jesus Christ.

Many of you in Des Moines might have seen Dennis around the city. He walks all over with a cardboard box under his right arm. He digs in trash bins for aluminum cans, which he returns for the 5-cent deposit. That’s how he makes most of his money. He also works part-time at Christian Printers over at 21st Street and Forest Avenue.

He’s a hunched over man of more than 60 years with bronzed skin, foggy glasses with yellowed lenses. He usually wears a baseball cap, golf shirt and slacks with comfortable walking shoes.

In the summer, his shirts are sweat through most of the time. In the winter, he is bundled up. The only days he doesn’t go out are when it rains. The rain, Dennis says, wrecks his boxes.

Dennis lives in my apartment building in the Drake University neighborhood. He’s friendly, but keeps to himself. Some people even leave whole bags of cans for Dennis by the trash so that he doesn’t have to dig through the garbage.

Dennis doesn’t like to talk about how many cans he collects or how much money he makes in a day. He’s been robbed twice. He doesn’t want to become a target. What little money he makes pays for his apartment, a small TV, a radio, some food — usually a hamburger and a can of Mountain Dew.

I’ve given Dennis a ride home a couple of times, especially on hot days. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken man. The only time he really gets excited is when he talks about the Lord.

Dennis has a collection of more than 200 of his little sayings about when Jesus will return and call home all his followers.

Dennis believes the time is coming soon.

“I told someone this year for sure and I cried tears of joy,” he said. “That’s how bad I want to get out of here.”

Dennis came to Des Moines in the early 1980s. The first time he was robbed, Dennis recalled, the robber said, “Your money or your life.” Dennis gave him his money.

“I almost went to hell then,” Dennis said. “I wasn’t saved yet.”

Dennis was saved in 1984. He attends church every Sunday. A friend gives him a ride. He listened to Billy Graham’s radio show until the great evangelist gave up the broadcasts due to failing health a few years ago.

Dennis hopes Graham lives lone enough to see Jesus come back.

Dennis was cheerful as he sat on the picnic table in the courtyard of our complex. He said it would be 29 years in June since he last told a lie. He remembered the lie. Somebody asked him how much money he had. Dennis thought he was going to be robbed again. So he said he had less money than he had.

Since then, Dennis said, he’s never told a lie.

Dennis has a lot of ideas about the world and he shares them. Dennis hates garbage. This makes since for a guy whose primary occupation is digging through trash to make a couple of nickels.

But when Dennis talks about garbage, he means something else. Five things make up garbage to Dennis’ way of thinking: lying, swearing, pride, anger and greed.

It’s hard to argue with that.

Dennis doesn’t like himself when he gets angry. But he hasn’t lost his temper in years.

Dennis especially dislikes anger. He says he hasn’t lost his temper since he got saved.

While working at the print shop the other day, Dennis told one of his coworkers, a younger fella, that he hadn’t told a lie in nearly 29 years. Dennis said the young man stopped his work and shook his hand.

“That was the only time anybody ever did something like that,” Dennis said.

I got out of the pool and chatted with Dennis until I dried off. I walked over to the table he was sitting at. I asked him how long it had been since he told a lie, though I know the answer.

He told me again.

So I shook his hand, too.

- 30 -

Moments: On a Blu-ray player and future frustrations


Dad 2.0 worked as a printer for a bank. About 20 years ago, his office started using computers for the printing process. This was a big change for Dad 2.0. He worked most of his career in the darkroom.

The company was going to use Macs. I was editor of the student newspaper in college. I borrowed one of our computers for the summer. Dad 2.0 checked some books out from the library to learn the new system.

He didn’t like it. I tried to teach him, but the lessons worked poorly. I went too fast. I took for granted that everyone knew how to use a mouse.

Dad 2.0 was the kind of person who read the instructions first. He was, wisely I add, of the “measure twice, cut once” philosophy.

I grew up with computers and video games. I only went to the instruction book when I couldn’t figure out the buttons necessary to decapitate an enemy with a kung-fu move in “Mortal Combat.”

I teased Dad 2.0 for being old. But Mom 2.0 scolded me. She admonished that one day I wouldn’t want to learn every new thing, especially after I had done it one way for a long time.

I scoffed. I had always enjoyed gadgets. I found it impossible to imagine a time when I would want anything less than the newest, sleekest and best gear.

As usual, Mom 2.0 was right. Wisdom comes with age and experience. It’s tough to recognize that when you’re 20 years old.

My first clue that technology was passing me by came in the world of TV. I bought a nice, big TV back in 1998. It looked great. It sounded great. So what if it weighed as much as a Volkswagen Beetle?

I put it on a stand in the middle of the room and watched TV shows on the square tube screen. I used it more than any other appliance. I failed to see the need to replace it with one of these skinny, rectangular models that hang on the wall and are filled with plasma or LCD or LED.

When my Grandma Rogers died late last year, I inherited her small flat-screen TV. I could definitely see the improvement. The picture was pretty and rich. I hauled the big tube TV into the bedroom, where I watch videos of old cartoons from my childhood and pretend it’s a Saturday in 1981.

But the truth of Mom 2.0’s words sunk in last week. My DVD player, the one I had bought when I got the then-fancy new TV back in 1998, died. People don’t repair things anymore. The shop I went to said it would cost me $50 just for them to look at it. I could get a new one for less than that.

So I did. I bought a Blu-ray player. The technology community might mock me for needing a hard media player at all. Everything, they say, will be streaming soon. Still, I have a lot of movies on DVD. Without a DVD player, they’re simply taking up space on the wall that could be used for vintage Lynda Carter posters.

I brought the new player home along with a Blu-ray copy of my favorite movie, “The Big Lebowski.” I quickly learned that I needed a cable that wasn’t included in the box. So I went back to the store.

I got the device hooked up. The first thing the device wanted to do was connect to the Internet. I couldn’t fathom why this was necessary. But I entered my network passcode.

Then the Blu-ray player wanted more passwords. Some were for entertainment networks that I had never heard of. Others were for Netflix, to which I don’t subscribe.

Finally, the Blu-ray player wanted to connect with Facebook. This was it for me. I use Facebook for my job as a paragraph stacker. Somehow this network where people share pictures of the meal they are about to eat, the minor achievements of their children and complaints about movies has become essential to reporting and writing the news.

I once enjoyed Facebook. It put me back in touch with a lot of people with whom I’ve lost contact over the years. But after looking at their Facebook feeds for several years, I’ve learned there was a reason why I lost contact with them.

I couldn’t imagine a good reason for the device by which I watch movies to connect to Facebook. So I didn’t do it. But my frustration grew.

I began to want for the simple days of VCRs. Insert movie. Press play. Now, it seems, there is a desire to connect to the outside world even when you’re just trying to watch a movie at home alone.

I finally got the player setup. I put in my movie. I thought bliss was on the way. “The Big Lebowski” always mellows me out.

But no. There was more.

The Blu-ray wanted to educate me on all the special features it had. There was one that would count the swear words on screen. Another one would tell me what song was playing.

This all sounded neat, but they took up a third of the screen. And even then I couldn’t read the print from my chair across the room. It took me a full 5 minutes of button pushing just to get to the movie.

Finally, I pushed one of the green buttons. The TV and the Blu-ray turned off. That was enough of a sign for me.

I went into the bedroom and picked up a book. I don’t remember which book it was, but I know this much: No network or Facebook connection was required.

- 30 -

Moments: On my three moms and Mother’s Day


I suppose I have three mothers, if you count my biological mother.

I never met her, at least not that I remember. She carried me to term and gave me up for adoption. This was in 1975, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal in the country.

So she could have chosen not to have me. I am thankful she did. I am very fond of being alive.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. My parents, whom I call Parents 1.0, were open about it. They explained it to me in a way I could understand it – I was their son because they picked me. That was good enough for me.

I rarely asked questions about my biological mother. I didn’t see the point. I had parents.

Family records show my biological mother was in trouble with the law for writing bad checks. Not long after she gave birth to me, she went to live in a halfway house in Kansas City, Mo.

About 25 years ago, I learned the name of my biological mother. I never bothered to look her up. I wasn’t even curious.

I’m a capable reporter. I could probably find this woman if I wanted to. She knew the family who had fostered me had adopted me. She even wrote a letter to the judge encouraging he approve their petition to make me their son.

So she knows my name. With the proliferation of the Internet, social media and whatnot, she could have found me if she wanted to. She made a choice nearly 40 years ago and has stuck with it. I respect it. I think it best to leave it be.

So that leaves two moms. They were very different women.

The first was in her late 50s when we met. I was a ward of the state at the county hospital. I was an infant, barely three and a half days old when the state placed me into the custody of Parents 1.0.

The story goes I was big baby who cried a lot. The nurses at the hospital were glad to see me go because I agitated the other newborns.

I don’t remember it, of course, but it would not be the last scornful mark on my report card from an authority figure.

Parents 1.0 had children of their own. They had four boys the old fashioned way. The adopted a daughter who was in her 20s when I came along. They were a foster home for more than 140 babies. I was the last. They decided to keep me.

Mom 1.0 and I were close when I was a child. She often said she put me on cereal very early. This ended my crying jags.

As a small boy, I felt very close to my mother. I used to feign illness in first grade because I did not want to spend the day away from my mom.

Some of my earliest memories are of us shopping at Target. Mom 1.0 never learned to drive. So we walked down the hill from our northwest Des Moines home to the store from time to time. She would usually let me pick out a couple of “Star Wars” guys.

Mom 1.0 was short, probably about 5-feet tall. She had hazel eyes with a glint in them. Sometimes the glint was cheerful. Other times it was menacing. Her skin always felt unnaturally oily because she constantly rubbed on beauty creams.

I can’t precisely pinpoint when I realized there was something wrong with Mom 1.0. Maybe it was when she had gallbladder surgery. While she was laid up in the hospital, Dad 1.0 tried to get a psychiatrist to visit her.

Mom 1.0 got very angry. And when she got very angry, everyone paid. She viewed it as betrayal. Dad 1.0 felt very guilty.

They were from a different generation. To them, seeing a psychiatrist was simply the first step that ended in straitjackets and padded cells. Only really crazy people saw psychiatrists.

Mom 1.0 got worse as the years went on. She slept most of the time. She was, I believe, addicted to prescription painkillers. When she died, she had scores of bottles of pills – opiate derivatives so addictive they’re banned by the government now.

She did the strangest things. She walked through the house naked or nearly naked. She said the meanest things. She wrought havoc in the marriages of my older brothers and sought to shame my youngest brother, who was gay.

Dad 1.0 protected me as much as he could. But he got sick and died. And I was alone with Mom 1.0. She got weirder. She used to make me wash her back. She would sit naked or nearly naked on the edge of the tub. I would scrub her back with a washrag and soap.

Sometimes it fell to me to scratch her back. Her skin had a rubbery texture and it always seemed to be covered in a strange grime from those damned creams.

I never scratched hard enough, according to Mom 1.0. I wasn’t trying. Sometimes I scratched until she bled. Still it was not enough.

This may seem innocent enough. But it did not feel innocent to me. It felt awkward and wrong. I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to fade away and fall through the floor and never be seen again.

To this day, I’m very uncomfortable with nudity and the touch of women.

I got older and more independent. Mom 1.0 took this as a sign of betrayal. I believed she thought when her children started doing things on their own that we didn’t need her anymore.

There is probably a lot of important sociological and psychological stuff going on in and around Mom 1.0 about a woman from her generation and her perceived role in society and her identity and value being tied into her role as mother.

All I know is the strange behavior continued.

One day, I would come home from school to a steak dinner. The next day I forgot my baseball glove at school and went back to retrieve it. I was late by 10 minutes.

Mom 1.0 had already called the family lawyer and was threatening to call the police. I did this, as she always claimed, to hurt her. I was a hateful child.

I wasn’t, but that is the kind of message that sticks around. I began to think of myself as a terrible person. That thinking sticks around today.

On the night before my algebra final my freshman year in high school, Mom 1.0 fell downstairs at our home. My room was in the basement.

I awoke in the middle of the night to hear a strange moaning sound. I thought it was our air conditioner malfunctioning again.

I saw the light was in the stairway. I would get yelled at for that. Leaving the light on was the kind of thing bad children did to hurt their mothers.

I turned the corner to see Mom 1.0 splayed at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of her own blood. She had fallen and split her head open. I don’t know how long she had been there. The blood had coagulated on the floor in big, lumpy clumps on the brown tile floor.

I called for an ambulance. I called one of my brothers in Ankeny. The best friend’s mom, a nurse at the local hospital, took me home with her. Mom died a few weeks later.

I did not learn until years later that the pills my mother took so regularly caused memory loss. She always denied the things she did. This made me question my own reality. I knew what I saw. But this was my mother. And she was telling me it didn’t happen. Was I crazy?

It turns out she really did not remember. But sometimes I still doubt myself and my sense of reality.

Eventually, I made my peace with the memories of Mom 1.0. I choose to believe that she meant no harm. She was very sick. Her addiction superseded her head and her heart.

After Mom 1.0 died, I eventually ended up living with Parents 2.0. Dad 2.0 was a printer for a bank. Mom 2.0 was a hairdresser, in particular, she was Mom 1.0’s hairdresser.

I bonded quickly with Dad 2.0. I was close with Dad 1.0. Both men had a quiet grace. They liked to work outside. They laughed at my jokes.

When I moved into Parents 2.0’s home, I brought with me a cardboard mockup of K-9, the robot dog from “Doctor Who.” Dad 2.0 asked me if that was K-9. I knew we were going to get along fine.

I was tougher on Mom 2.0. She loved easily and fully, but I rejected her. I didn’t trust her. This was all going to end badly and she was probably going to cause it.

This was faulty logic, of course. I was blaming Mom 2.0 for the sins of Mom 1.0. It’s unfair. But teenagers do unfair things.

I saw a therapist during the time. Parents 2.0 met with him separately. He cautioned Mom 2.0 that she had the toughest job of all: making me like a woman.

I don’t remember the precise moment I started to believe it was all going to be OK. Maybe it was the day Parents 2.0 confronted me about my attitude toward Mom 2.0 and women in general. I broke down into tears that day and they both hugged me hard.

Or maybe it was the basketball hoop they erected on the edge of their beloved yard on the very first weekend I lived there: a strong and sturdy monument to my new permanence.

I doubt it was one thing, though. It was a cumulative effect of a warm, safe home where I was never threatened always welcome and eternally loved.

There was a home-cooked meal on the table every night. We talked as we did the dishes. Clothes were freshly laundered.

They were in the stands for every game I ever played in – or more accurately, sat on the bench during. I lost count of how many professional baseball games they sat through. The only reason they went to baseball games was because I liked baseball.

They encouraged me to write and be creative.

And Mom 2.0 will remind anyone who will listen that she forced me to take a typing class in high school when I wanted to give it up.

For years, they clipped out every story I wrote and pasted it into a book. Mom 2.0 took it to work where she bragged on me to her customers about them.

I still don’t think too highly of myself sometimes. As child and adult, I’ve caused Parents 2.0 some heartache.

We are not a family of huggers or great greeting card declarations of love. But none of that stuff really matters.

Mom 2.0 taught me about unconditional love. No matter how badly I’ve goofed up or how much I twist my every thought against myself, she will always be there for me with a hug, a plate of something tasty and a tall, cool glass of common sense.

That is true love, a mother’s love.

- 30 -

Moments: On reading today’s newspaper with yesterday’s eyes


The young women pulled the wobbly red Radio Flyer wagon east along the sidewalks of University Avenue. They were the circulation department of the Times-Delphic, Drake University’s student newspaper. And inside the wagon was the Relays Edition of the paper, the biggest, boldest and most laborious to produce of the year.

They carried on a long tradition of delivering newspapers a few bundles at a time to racks across campus and at surrounding businesses using that battered little wagon. It looked to be the same contraption the circulation team used when I was a student there nearly 20 years ago.

I collected a copy of the newspaper and ducked into a coffee shop. I ordered a Coors beer. I had not had a beer in three or four years, but if there was ever a day to have a beer and read the newspaper it was this one. The day was a brilliant Friday afternoon marked by clear skies, a soft breeze and temperatures that were warm to the skin, but not hot.

I took a gulp and spread out the paper. I read the stories, scanned the pages and flipped through the full-color sections. I served as editor of the Times-Delphic, or T-D as the students referred to it, for two years and worked at for all four of my years at Drake.

By the time I graduated, I had either written for or edited 207 issues of the twice-weekly paper. That was a record in my day. It’s probably fallen since then. Nobody keeps very close track of those kinds of things. There’s no reason why the should, I suppose.

My first instinct was to be critical, to be an editor. I saw design choices that I didn’t like and stories I thought needed more sources and graphics that needed better context.

Then I took sip of my beer. I cringed at my mindset. I was reading today’s newspapers with yesterday’s eyes. I am not the editor of the T-D anymore. My time has passed. This belongs to a new generation of students who faced different challenges than me and my classmates when it came crank out the Relays Edition or the other 50 or so issues of the paper.

I cursed myself because I was guilty of doing something I had loudly and angrily scolded some former colleagues for doing to the local paragraph factory where I work. One retired colleague bemoaned coverage in one area. Another chimed in with his concerns in another field. Soon the gripe festival was in full swing.

The default communication for photographers and paragraph stackers is complaining. It may be the default setting for most people as a whole, but people of my trade have it down to a bitter science. And I am as guilty of it as anyone, maybe more so given my fits of depression and anxiety that often expresses itself as anger.

I twice lashed out on social media at a former paragraph factory employee’s comments about how he thought we should be doing things better. The implication, I believe, was that they did things better in his day and we’re not that good anymore. One comment used the phrase “golden age.”

I hate the phrase “golden age.” It’s the opposite of “new normal.” Golden age gets better the farther away you are from it. New normal is shorthand for “Things are lousy now. Get used to it.”

So I popped off. I have a bad habit of doing this. There’s something about social media that makes me decidedly antisocial. I barked back and forth with a couple of commentators. Finally, I left the discussion and put away my computer and phone. I took a walk, got a haircut and spotted the two women with the little red wagon outside the coffee shop.

I decided to take another breeze through the pages of the T-D, this time looking at it not as a reader or an alumni, but just as a guy who picked up a paper. Like any newspaper, there were stories that interested me and stories that didn’t.

I was surprised by how common the stories were in the 2014 T-D to those in the T-D we made in the early 1990s. One columnist urged people to pay attention to the track meet, saying it wasn’t all about getting drunk. I read at least four columns like that when I was a student — one for every Relays.

There was even a story by the paper’s about producing the Relays edition. That I remembered fondly. We had a great team. I don’t know where most of those folks ended up, but boy were they fun to work with: smart, witty, hard-working and great people.

I’ll bet the editor of this T-D feels similarly about her team and will feel even better about them as time goes on. Sometimes it’s fun to remember yesterday, even romanticise it. But it’s another thing to take a beautiful yesterday and try to impose it on somebody’s today.

I doubt I’ll ever convince the grouchiest of critics of my current paragraph factory. But I’m convinced. Fleetwood Mac was right. “Yesterday’s gone. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

And for now, whether it be at the paragraph factory or in the offices of the Times-Delphic, here’s to all your wonderful nows.

- 30 -

Moments: On not being able to care everything


The New York Yankees, my favorite baseball team, played the Boston Red Sox on Sunday night. ESPN broadcast the game. I remember seeing the two teams were on TV and thinking, “Ugh. Not again.”

The Sunday game was only the fourth time they played this season. They’re scheduled to play 19 times. But I am already tired of the Yankees and the Red Sox. And it is only April 13.

This exhaustion is not really the fault of the baseball clubs. They have a schedule. They play it. It’s the hype machine. Whether it’s ESPN or Fox or the MLB Network or whoever is putting the game on TV, the hype machine tries to pretend every meeting between the two teams is another historic clash in an ageless battle.

Sure, both teams have great histories. And they’ve played a lot of interesting baseball games through the course of baseball history. But not every game is meaningful. Most of the games, in fact, are not meaningful, especially in April. That’s the point of baseball. It has no point. It’s a distraction, a pastime. It’s supposed to be fun.

But fun is not enough for the hype machine. It must be epic. There must be storylines and grudges and emotions running high and bulletin board material and tabloid headlines and, of course, tweets, always with the damned tweets.

It’s not just baseball. I was tired of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a month before it started. I was sick of brackets and bubble teams in February. By the time the tournament actually started, I got angry when anybody mentioned office pools or used the word “busted” to describe their bracket predictions.

I don’t know what happened to me. I liked the NCAA basketball tournament as a kid. I liked the fact that there were teams in the tournament I had never heard of. I would always pick them to win a couple games. Why not them?

Now, though, every team in the country is obsessively scouted. I didn’t even know the mascot of most of the teams not from the Midwest. Now you’ve got “advanced statistics,” whatever the hell that means, on every player down to the student manager’s ability to hand out sports drink in late game pressure situations with less than 2 minutes on the clock.

I don’t care how the network’s panel of experts filled out their brackets. They will play the games and then we will know the actual answer.

I’ve heard so much about that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and whether he will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft that I hope the he is picked dead last and the commentators get laryngitis from shouting about it all day long.

It isn’t just sports. It’s everything. During the basketball tournament, CBS promoted the series finale of “How I Met Your Mother” so much that I went from never having watched an episode to actively resenting the show ever having been on the air.

Some of this, of course, is my own jangled nerves. I waited two years to see the movie “Pulp Fiction” because I was so tired of everyone telling me how great it was. That movie came out in 1995, just seconds after the Internet as we know it came into being. If that movie happened today, I probably would never see it just on principle.

All the cable TV news channels hype every story as if ragnarok was upon us. But they don’t know anything. They just keep repeating the same four paragraphs of facts (and many times rumors) while they call in “experts” to say what they think might have happened.

A buddy and I went to a classy restaurant in a northwest Des Moines neighborhood this weekend. At the bottom of the menu, they had a sign that said “Like us on Facebook.” I grimaced.

What they were really doing is asking me to advertise for them. The thing is, this was a nice restaurant. They don’t need my “like” on Facebook. They’ve been around for years. It’s one of the nicest places in town.

I eat lunch at a Mexican restaurant downtown. You can get 10 percent off your bill if you “check in” at the restaurant on Facebook. I just pay the extra dollar. The world doesn’t need to know where I’m eating, what I’m eating or whether I liked it.

This probably sounds hypocritical from a guy who writes a blog and works at a paragraph factory, but social media is just part of the hype machine, maybe it’s noisiest and stupidest sprocket. It’s no different than professional babblers making too big a deal about a baseball game in April or the finale of a TV series.

Everywhere we look, the world is shouting at us to care — no, more than that — to be relentlessly obsessive about everything. The problem is, there’s no context. It’s nearly impossible to tell what’s important and what’s nonsense.

When things become that murky, the best advice I can tell you is to regard it all as nonsense.

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Moments: On losing friends


Every now and then, I lose a friend. It happens. People are complicated creatures and relationships of any kind between them can be tricky.

I’m talking about friends on social media. Those don’t count.

Social media, especially Facebook, has diluted the word friend. (I prefer Twitter, which uses the term “followers,” which is more accurate and less personal.)

I have 2,441 Facebook “friends.” I don’t really have that many friends. I don’t even know that many people. Most of the people who are connected to me on Facebook are people who follow my work as a paragraph stacker.

I consider people on Facebook to be audience for my work. The connection doesn’t go much deeper than that. A small number of the connections are people with whom I attended various schools or current and former co-workers. A smaller number of connections are family. The smallest number is actual friends.

I almost always agree to friend requests unless its obviously a spammer or a stripper. No, I don’t really believe I will receive a free iPad if I fill out one or two of those amazing offers.

I don’t have a problem with strippers. It’s your body. You get to make up the rules. But this fad of strippers wanting to be Facebook friends with people is bizarre to me. I don’t need Facebook friends’ help finding naked women on the Internet.

I’m also not talking about women whom I asked out who “just wanted to be friends.” They didn’t really want to be friends and that’s OK. It’s just something nice people say when they’re rejecting someone.

The lost friends I’m talking about are people I actually loved and cared about. They’re people I trusted them enough to let my guard down and speak freely and hoped they did the same to me. They were people I could call on my worst day and hoped that they called me on theirs.

Sometimes friendships fade. People move in different directions. They lose contact. No terrible event causes the friendship to end. It just happens.

But once in a while, something awful happens and a friendship is just finished. A few years ago, a friend of mine for a decade declared he never wanted to speak to me again. I made a joke on Facebook. He thought the joke implied I thought he was an alcoholic. I didn’t.

He took my bad joke to mean I was trying to get him fired or “come at him” through his daughter, with whom I also connected via Facebook. He thought this was creepy. I thought she was just another audience member.

I tried to mend things. He would have none of it. Except for a few futile efforts to reach out, we’ve not spoken since. I regret that a lot. It was a dumb thing to say. I’m not sure it was worth ending a friendship over, but it was to him.

I think about that former friend a lot. I’d like to talk to him, but there’s no point. He doesn’t want to talk and I already talk to myself enough.

Recently, I was corresponding with a former teacher. She was struggling with her second go with breast cancer. She had moved away and was feeling lonely. We exchanged a few letters. They were honest and open conversations.

This weekend, I got a very mean letter from her that eviscerated nearly every aspect of my life. The preamble was a long, strange and completely incorrect theory on my parents.

The rest was a bulleted memo of things she thinks I ought to be doing differently with my life, including getting rid of my comic books and popular culture collection because, in her estimation, I had lived my life in a fantasy world.

The letter ended with her saying it would be her last correspondence. I was really hurt. This teacher could be harsh and judgmental. We all can no matter how hard we pledge not to be. I know I am. But this got very personal and very mean. It really played on my anxieties about myself.

I sought solace of other friends and my therapist. My therapist assured me my grip on reality was fine. Other friends suggested the teacher might be struggling with her cancer treatment, either medication making her loopy or dealing with her own mental health issues.

Still, I mourn the passing of the friendship. I’m not that easy of a person to get along with. I’m grouchy and not optimistic. I complain a lot. And I can be judgmental and unkind, even though I don’t like people who are judgmental and unkind. That, of course, makes me a hypocrite.

It also makes me human. And, as I said, relationships of any kind are difficult. They’re a lot of hard work.

I’m heartened by the fact that in recent years I’ve reunited with friends long after the relationship ended badly. There is forgiveness and redemption in the world and by and large I make friends far more often than I lose them.

I’m not keeping score, of course, but if I were, that’s one place I’d definitely want to be ahead.

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Moments: On the last charge of Derek Jeter


This season marks the 20th and last for my favorite baseball player, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

Jeter turns 40 on June 26, the same day I turn 39. Because we share a birthday, I’ve always felt a special connection to Jeter.

Derek Jeter Color Swap 2012 Topps HeritageI don’t mean that in a creepy stalker kind of way. I mean that Jeter and I are of the same generation. We remember Saturday morning cartoons, the terrifying wonder of combining Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola and life before the Internet and the 24-hour fear machine that is the news cycle.

The differences, of course, are overwhelming. He’s a New York idol beloved by scores of Yankees fans and respected by even his most hated rivals. I’m a paragraph stacker in Des Moines who might be Facebook friends with one of the people over at Channel 13.

Jeter has dated beautiful actresses and pop stars. I haven’t been on a date in about three years. He can still hit a curveball and field his position. I once struck out hitting off a tee and have been known to let more than a few typos slip by me.

Now he’s soon to be 40 and before you know it, his baseball career is going to be over. It’s a milestone for him, to be sure, but for me as well.

I was never good enough to make junior varsity let alone the majors. But it is a strange thing to realize that nearly everybody who is playing professional sports is younger than you.

I’ve been through the retirements of favorite players before. Don Mattingly, my boyhood hero, retired unceremoniously before the 1996 season, his body and badly injured back unable to keep up with the rigors of the season. The Yankees won the World Series in ’96, the first time since 1978, and Donny Baseball, the face of the franchise during the darkest of the George Steinbrenner ownership years, wasn’t on the team.

That always stung a little bit, but Mattingly was always an adult and I looked up to him the way a boy looks up to a man who is good at sports.

By the way, 1996 was Jeter’s rookie year. It was my senior year at Drake University. Jeter wasn’t like Mattingly. He was a kid like me. And he was in the World Series with my favorite team in my favorite sport.

Jeter was like a buddy, somebody who might have the dorm room down the hall. Sure, he’d have all the best-looking girls over, but I bet he’d nod at me in the hallway once in a while.

The next year was my rookie year of sorts. I graduated from college and got a job working at a weekly newspaper for $8.75 an hour. I’m not sure what the Major League minimum was in 1997, but I think Jeter was doing better than me. He still is, by the way.

1997 was a mixed bag for me. I had this wretched jalopy of a used car. It seemed like every day I drove the thing to work, something else broke on it. I spent thousands of dollars of that $8.75-per-hour paycheck to keep that thing running.

One day, I was hustling home from work — I still lived with my parents, something I’m sure Jeter did not do his second year in the majors — to catch the Yankees playoff game against the Cleveland Indians. The old car threw a rod and died. Somehow I was going to have to figure out how to buy a new car on my small salary.

I was depressed. I settled in to watch the game. The great relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, who was in his first full season as closer, gave up a home run to Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar. The Yankees lost the series.

But in 1998, I made the finances work and I bought a shiny new car. I got hired by The Des Moines Register, which for me was like catching on with the Yankees, as a reporter in the suburbs. The same year, the Yankees won the American League and the World Series by a wide margin.

The closest I ever came to meeting Jeter was in 1999. I spent a summer on loan to the baseball desk at USA Today, which is owned by the same company as the Register. It was a great job. I got to watch baseball on TV all day and write about it.

One hot July day, I took the train up from Washington, D.C., to New York City. I took the subway out to the old Yankee Stadium and watched the Yankees beat the Braves. Jeter was 0-for-5.

It was the same weekend John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane disappeared over the Atlantic. They had a moment of silence for him those aboard the plane during the game. I got a call from a colleague at my hotel that night. They wanted us in the office early Sunday because the paper had early deadlines because of JFK Jr.’s death.

When I got into the office, everybody was gathered around one of the TVs. David Cone, another one of my favorite players, was pitching a perfect game against the Montreal Expos. I always liked Cone. I read a story in Sports Illustrated that he made up pitches on the mound because that’s how he used to throw Wiffle Balls in his yard as a kid.

I grumbled that I was just in New York that morning and just missed a historic event. The editor made it work. He said if he’d known I was in New York, he would have had me stay there and cover the game because they didn’t have a reporter at the stadium. It remains the single biggest disappointment in my journalism career.

Jeter won some more championships. He lost a couple, too. And there were some years, not many, but a few, when the Yankees weren’t really in it at all. I stayed with paragraphs. I had some very good years and some very bad ones. But I’m still getting paid to be a writer in the 21st century, and there’s something to be said for that.

In October, Jeter will be retired. But I’ll keep typing. I probably won’t notice until next spring, when they announce someone else at shortstop for the Yankees.

But an era will have passed. And my favorite player, whom I admired and cheered for, is now too old to play the game we both love.

I feel a little melancholy. Or maybe that’s just jealousy. After all, he’s retired at 40. I’ve got another 28 years to work.

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