“And theyyyrre off!…”

On Mondays I figure out how long I’ve been unemployed. Today begins my twelfth week as a victim of the depressed economy. (That was wry humor. I’m not a victim of anything. I just have a long subscription to life.)

I’m neither ashamed nor much concerned by my layoff. I know Americans take pride in working hard and I did for nearly forty years. Now I’m taking pride in catching a break and spending my free days wisely. I’m resting, seeing more of my family and Carolann and I have taken up a new hobby: horse racing.

I suppose most people with extra time on their hands discover gardening or join reading groups. Carolann and I have discovered how to box exactas and read racing forms. Yesterday we spent our third full day in three weeks at Santa Anita Park and we love every minute of it. The storied home of Seabiscuit absolutely oozes a dramatic history involving magnificent animals and courageous, short men. The weather is perfect, the landscaping is immaculate and every thirty minutes is spent in brow-furrowed study, the anticipatory trip to a parimutuel window and the race itself, a climax of mass excitement!

I’m convinced that Santa Anita is populated by Central Casting. Everybody you’ve ever seen in a racing movie is there: old men in frumpy hats pulling on cigarettes and studying charts, young men filled with too much beer and testosterone, and happily, though somewhat oddly — families with young children looking as if they took a wrong turn enroute to Disneyland.

The sweet aroma of fresh grass, rich turf and plush floral displays, the Call to the Post, the clunk and ringing of the starting gate and the roar of the crowd is all quite invigorating.

If learning to gamble seems like a ridiculous pastime for somebody unemployed and pinching pennies, consider this: Six hours of outdoor fun and wagering excitement yesterday cost us about seventeen bucks. Next week we might win*. Try to beat that at a movie theater.

* In the spirit of full disclosure I must report Carolann actually did win yesterday. My losses dragged down our average.

Of aging gracefully: keeping up or giving up

“When I look at the younger generation, I despair of the future of civilisation.” — Aristotle, 300BC

Not exactly an original thought, is it? Who among us over 40-somethings hasn’t worried about the future of the world because we just don’t understand kids today? And yet, if you’re like me, you are also annoyed that over the years you have apparently turned into your own father.

My father was a good, strong man in every way; he was a devoted and loving dad and a good provider. He could make me think, make me smile and he hugged me when I needed courage. But at some point he just stopped going along with all the nonsense in the world.

As he got older my dad used to rail against the collapse of American values, corruption in American politics and the loss of American jobs (to China, mainly.) When he whittled it all down he figured all the problems in this country started in millions of homes at empty dinner tables while moms as well as dads conducted their own lives outside of the house. He never expressed his disdain for women working outside the home but I think he felt it. Kids were left to raise themselves, he’d say, parents were allowing kids freedoms they weren’t ready to enjoy responsibly.

Life, my dad thought, had gone down the crapper. As he put it to me more than once, “I like people individually but as a species we’re not worth a damn.”

Sometimes I think that way, too. It annoys me, not because I’m channeling my dad but because it feels like I’m digging in my heels and giving up. I’m edging closer to the rocking chair and I don’t want to go there.

Yesterday the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition. Newspapers across the country are losing their grip on the Information Age. There’s just too much competition from electronic gadgets and cyber sources. Nobody has time to read anymore. “News” is gleaned from short sound bites on television and radio. Broadcasting is a technology slipping into history

Nobody wants to talk these days. We’d rather text and tweet than actually have a conversation. Expressing ourselves electronically is easier and more efficient; it removes the inconvenience of having to listen.

As I watch the world evolve beyond my personal comfort zone I have come to understand why each succeeding generation eventually reaches a point where it can’t or simply refuses to keep up. We all fall victim to the inevitable grip of nostalgia and are given to wistful expressions of “Back in my day…” We long for a simpler time that probably wasn’t really simpler, we were just younger, more curious and more resilient.

We just get tired, I think. That’s okay but when we do that we have to accept a very hard truth: time is passing us by and our culture won’t stop to wait for us to catch up.

Whether that is aging gracefully or quitting, you’ll have to decide for yourself. I’m going to try to keep up for awhile.

(Copyright 2009, D.L. Williams. All rights reserved.)

“There, but for the grace of God…”

I always thought that seemed a smug presumption.

You know the rest of it: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It presumes that the poor bastard you’re referring to did not have (and by implication must not have deserved) the grace of God and you are therefore thankful to God that it was somebody else and not you who was dropped into life’s dunk tank.

A couple of weeks ago I got a note from a special friend telling me that he had just attended his son’s 32nd birthday party. It was a joyous affair with many friends and members from both sides of the young man’s family in attendance. The birthday boy’s own daughter was there. You can just imagine.

Then, my friend told me that a couple of days later his son, his pride and joy, had been killed in a car crash while going to the mountains for a day of snowboarding with a friend.

I reject the smug presumption and yet, I can’t stop thinking it.

My own son’s 32nd birthday was two days ago, barely a week after my friend lost his. We went to dinner, gave him gifts, sang to him, lit candles, cut the cake and when the evening was over I hugged him tighter than usual and told him this story.

“You’re not supposed to bury your kids,” I told my son as he held his own son in his arms. “When you were born I made a deal with God. I promised to raise you and give you all the things you would need to make a wonderful, happy life for yourself. In exchange I simply asked that he not let me bury you.”

I hugged him again. I hugged my grandson and my friend, though he wasn’t there.

And I gave silent thanks to God in the form of a seemingly smug presumption. But now I realize it isn’t like that.

It’s just the natural confluence of relief and faith.

Nothing special

This morning I took my almost-four-years-old grandson to school.

His parents are out of town and though he spent the night with his maternal grandparents they both leave for work very early. So, I had the pleasure of driving to their home at 4:30AM and being on hand when Tyler awoke around 7:00.

He was very pleased to see me.

“Oh, yeah!”

Still wiping the sleep from his eyes he suddenly remembered that I would be here for him this morning. He flashed a drowsy grin and ran to me, bare feet slapping the wood floor, his favorite soft baby blanket slung over one arm. His arms went up as mine went down and I lifted him high over my head. We hugged and smiled as is our habit and standard greeting.

I guess he thinks I’m sort of special and for that great honor I know he is right.

At first I just sat on the couch and held him on my lap, allowing him to wake up gently.

I don’t like brisk, lively beginnings to a day. I like slow, quiet starts and I think Tyler does, too. At least this morning he did. I held him in my big, bear-like grandpa arms and spoke to him softly.

“Did you sleep good?”


“Are you ready for a great day?”


We talked like that for maybe ten minutes, me asking leading questions designed to put him in a happy frame of mind, him responding affirmatively and with increasing animation. Finally, we decided it was time to get dressed and off to school with a stop at McDonalds for breakfast.

And that’s the way my day began. No big deal and yet quite remarkable.

As I look back on nearly sixty years of life I am always amazed at how little of it I remember with any degree of detail or certainty. I remember the big things but not much of the ordinary and that just makes sense, really.

On a cold, dazzling-bright February morning Tyler and I ate eggs and sausage at McDonalds surrounded by old men in ballcaps sipping coffee and solving the world’s problems.

He’s not going to remember this.

I will never forget it.

Confession of an American Heretic

The young man was clean, well-groomed and polite.

“Going to watch the game Sunday?”

“Isn’t everybody?” I replied glibly without a split-second’s hesitation. I don’t know why. I’ve never done anything like that before. I know from more than fifty years of living that lies corrode one’s soul. Besides, when you lie about sports or politics  you inevitably get caught in your own web.

“Who’s going to win?” he smiled.

“Steelers,” I assured him. Where was this coming from? What malignant spirit had taken possession of me? Why was I fibbing about something of absolutely no consequence? And yet, I wasn’t finished.

“Is it going to be blowout?” the young man pressed while guiding the courtesy shuttle toward my home, which suddenly seemed a continent away. We couldn’t get there soon enough to shut me up.

“I don’t know,” I said with wrinkled brow, the very picture of a man examining his superior expertise, “I don’t think so but Pittsburgh’s defense is just too good for the Cardinals.”

Ten minutes earlier I had no idea who was playing in the Superbowl tomorrow. When I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Toyota dealer’s service department I’ll read anything I can find. Ten minutes earlier it happened to be the sports page, which I never read anywhere else.

And now I was lying to a clean young man, well-groomed and polite.

I could brush this off as a victim of cultural insistence. I am an American man. We worship at the alter of the NFL. While I have boldly, even cheerfully admitted to preferring chick flicks to action movies and my inherent ineptitude when the subject turns to Motor Trend magazine this — this is beyond the pale.

I don’t care about football. Not even the Superbowl.

Those were the most painful two sentences I have ever written. The shame is coursing through my stomach. I can’t stop thinking of my father and my sons. They expect more from me. I am grateful my camping buddies aren’t here to witness this. Confession may be good for the soul but it can torture the heart.

I don’t care one whit about football.

Please, let me be alone.

The way we were.

Sometimes I wonder if I have changed much over the past, say, fifty years. Beyond the obvious, I mean. Sure, I’ve learned a lot and had as many personally defining experiences as I’ve had heartbeats. I just wonder if I am essentially the same person I was as a child, a teenager; a 20-30-40 something.

Do we really change over time or do our personalities simply undergo the same sort of superficial aging that our bodies do?

I’m always looking at total strangers and trying to imagine them as children. Transients for example, the people we used to call “bums.” When you see a dirty man in tattered clothing drinking from a paper bag or pushing a shopping cart do you ever wonder what series of misfortunes took him where he seems to be? I say seems to be because none of us can fairly judge the lives of others but still, it seems clear that this downtrodden man is not the current visage of a once happy, fresh-faced child. Surely somebody once loved him. Maybe somebody still does.

What happened?

The other day I was in line at the supermarket and the woman in front of me was taking forever getting through the process. The checker had finished totaling the woman’s modest basket of products but now the customer was digging slowly through the contents of her purse looking for coupons. She found plenty but apparently not the ones she needed. As we all waited patiently the checker sent the bag-boy off to find the manager who then began to search through his office for the correct coupons. Meanwhile, the lady in front of me seemed oblivious to the growing line of increasingly irritated people behind her.

I was fine. I was in no hurry and found it kind of funny. I had a small wager going within myself that once the coupon crisis was solved, then and only then, the woman would begin looking for her checkbook and spend another five minutes writing the check, entering it into her records and deducting it from her balance. She might even pull out a handheld computer.

The oblivious are truly oblivious.

Meanwhile, the man behind me was commenting on the procedure.

“Can we get this thing going?”

“Jesus Christ, is everybody on strike here?”

“What the hell’s taking so long?”

He crabbed a new sentence approximately every thirty seconds. None of us responded but the checker looked at me and slyly rolled her eyes. I smiled. The oblivious woman saw and heard nothing.

At some point in all of this I began to wonder why this man in his sixties or seventies was so grouchy. Sure, he had only two items and had been waiting, as I had, for an inordinately long time to get through the checkout but it was a pleasant day. I couldn’t imagine that he needed to get somewhere with a bag of potatoes within the next five or ten minutes. Probably he was just going home to park himself in front of the TV and crab at his wife while she fixed his dinner.

How’d he get like that? And if I, a perfect stranger, thought he was being an ass what must his own family and friends, assuming he has any, think of him? What lovely part of his happy, gentle nature am I not seeing? Did he even have another side to him?

Not that it’s any of my business, of course. But, keeping my thoughts to myself I worked the process through to a logical conclusion.

What nice things would people find to say about this man at his funeral? They’d probably say things like, “He was strong in his convictions,” and, “He never backed down.”

I could be completely wrong, of course. I may well have just seen an unflattering moment in the life of the most wonderful husband, father and grandfather who ever walked the earth. But it did remind me that the way we treat others has eternal consequences. We make ripples.

I want to be remembered smiling, tolerant, patient, wise and goofy. I should start working on that memory right now.

Oh, and I was right about the checkbook.

Notes from SaturdayVille…

Today is Monday in most places but not where I live.

About four days into my recent unemployment something happened. I lost track of what day it was and suddenly my world defaulted to Saturday, our perennial American favorite.

All through my working adult life I have adored Saturdays and felt glum on Sundays. I suppose it’s because I knew Monday was coming and I hadn’t finished my homework and would have to take a bath and go to bed early. That sort of thing stays with you as long as you’re on the rat track. Even when I worked weekends and had, let’s say Wednesday and Thursday off, I would get that special little thrill of anticipation in each Friday and feel a growing, depression on Sundays. It’s a psychological habit, I guess and I may never kick it.

Now I begin each morning before daybreak at my computer with a thermos of coffee and our little dogs snoring happily at my feet. As daylight grows I begin to think of all the ways I can be productive and happy today. I think of the things I no longer have to do.

In SaturdayVille nobody seems to be in a general hurry without good reason. Stress is a word applied to the poor working stiffs. Clocks are mostly meaningless.

I know I’ll go back to work eventually and I’ll be happy about it. For now, though, a long break from the demands and routines of Sunday through Friday is delightful. Carolann and I may take a long trip in our motor home. Maybe I’ll finish my book. Maybe I’ll just take a nap and then watch some TV.

Life in SaturdayVille is idyllic. I think you’d like it.

Rainy days and Mondays…

I didn’t go to work today.

It’s a dark, unusually cold and rainy morning in Southern California, a Monday. The first day of the work week is usually a bit of a struggle because two days of being out of sync with my workday routines tends to throw me just a bit. It’s not that I ever have a case of Monday blahs, it’s just a psychological phenomenon I’ve had to deal with for as long as I can remember. Monday mornings are like turning the clocks ahead to Standard Time every seven days. It’s not big deal but merely a nagging one day oddity which I shouldn’t have to worry about for awhile.

I lost my job this past Friday.

I have always had the odd (you can say “weird”) habit of viewing my emotional reactions to things from a perspective of detachment.

I watch and try to analyze my emotions even as I am experiencing them. Many years ago I started kibbitzing my marriage counselor about how she might help me survive and prosper through my divorce. Now I am trying to understand why I am having my standard workday Monday funk even though I’m not working.

It’s cold and rainy. Did I mention I lost my job?

I’m going to study this for a bit because introspection is a tricky business. False conclusions beg for sudden embrace.

I love cold, rainy mornings. Truth be told, I liked the people very much but that job was very frustrating. So, why the funk?

Did I mention it’s Monday? That’s all it is. Just Monday.

You can overthink this crap to death.


A week ago today we lost a dear friend and my heart still aches for him.

Merle was the cat who said his own name. We got him when he was a tiny, black as coal kitten nearly twenty years ago. He grew up with our kids and tolerated several other cats, dogs and even a pig in what quickly became his kingdom.

He was the coolest cat I ever knew.

Unexcitable, always able and willing to defend himself, Merle was never the aggressor. He put up with a lot of nonsense from kids and puppies. He grew to be nearly thirty pounds of impressive reflexes, muscle and sinew. But near the end he had withered away to merely ten pounds and was having trouble finding a reason to eat.

Merle wasn’t in pain but he was tired. Our backyard was still his domain but he patrolled it less often near the end, preferring a soft basket chair in the shade of an enormous avocado tree. We prayed for him to slip away quietly in his sleep but when he stopped eating altogether we knew it was time to say goodbye to one of our babies. Quality of life is a subjective call but Merle’s magnificent integrity deserved preservation. It was time.

He loved us deeply. He was purring loudly and looking calmly into our eyes as Carolann and I gave him our tearful goodbye kisses.

Even then he gave us comfort.

The backyard is awfully empty now. When I open the screen door I still expect to hear him calling his own name, “MURRRL!” and to see him ambling toward me with his graceful, regal gait so that he might allow me to scratch behind his ears.

And as I think of him now I am painfully aware of how the hearts of our beloved pets are so great as to selflessly wrap us in their furry, purry love when we are in need of compassion.

I wish I could hug Merle one more time. I certainly owe him that.

I get to.

A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.”  ~Author Unknown

These days teachers come under fire from all sides. They’re pressured by bureaucrats, abused by parents; disrespected and ridiculed by their own students. They work longer hours under more stressful, thankless conditions than anybody in any other business I can imagine. And, on those rare occasions when they’re forced to stand up for their own needs they’re often shouted down with scorn.

How dare they be so selfish!

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”  ~Jacques Barzun

Some who become teachers can’t hack it, and how can you blame them? Overworked, underpaid, hardly ever appreciated, they continually reach into their own pockets to buy school supplies and to decorate and liven up drab classrooms in the hope that they can excite and ignite a fire in their students, many of whom would rather be anywhere else.

Those who do manage to hang on grow. The good ones grow large enough to find a higher regard for themselves and humanity. They become leaders. The occasional great teacher grows large enough to inspire greatness in others.

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  ~Khalil GibranEmily's 7th grade science class

This week my daughter-in-law, Emily Williams, was named one of sixteen Teachers of the Year for all of Los Angeles County. That’s sixteen teachers out of eighty (80) thousand!

To say we’re proud of her would be an understatement of the magnitude of saying it’s nice to be alive.

I could write pages of praise for Emily and the extraordinary, loving family that raised and still nurtures her. I could enumerate her higher qualities until I simply exhaust my own limitations in recognizing them and still she would have more. When looking for the right words to express gratitude for teachers even Shakespeare came up wanting:

“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks.”  ~William Shakespeare

It’s enough for me to know that Emily is the perfect wife for my son, a truly wonderful mother for my grandson and a teacher of such high standing that she has earned the adoration of her administrators, her peers and her charges.

But what blows me away is how she does it in the face of all that pressure, abuse and disrespect. How she does it and why.

She is simply head over heels in love with life. She possesses an eternal wellspring of idealism and hope. She never thirsts for a dream.

And while the rest of us open our eyes each morning and think, “I have to go to work,” our Emily explains, with perfectly ingenuous wonder:

“I get to.”

 Emily's award