Halloween Revisited

My workmates present the Day of the Dead altar in our reception area.

My workmates present the Day of the Dead altar in our office reception area.

To be honest, I mostly lost interest in Halloween sometime in early adolescence, after I had outgrown trick-or-treating. Yes, there were some good parties in college but we didn’t really need Halloween to do that.

When my sons came along, of course, I managed to muster some enthusiasm for the holiday and truly enjoyed their costumes and enjoyment of trick-or-treating.

But Halloween has taken on a bit of a revival in my life since I started working at my current job five years ago. The simple reason is that my coworkers love Halloween!

Every October 31 in my office we dress up, decorate the dining room, make a big lunch, have a best costume contest, put on crazy music – it’s good, clean fun.

Most of my coworkers are immigrants from Latin America and bring with them traditions associated with this time of year. The Day of the Dead, November 1 and 2, is an important holiday in their lives, providing a special occasion to remember loved ones who have passed on.

Some of my office mates make small altars for the Day of the Dead near their desks. They put together colorful collections of flowers, decorative paper, candy skulls, photos of loved ones who have passed on, and even bits of food and drink. Robin Williams and Joan Rivers have appeared on a couple altars I’ve seen as it’s customary to include celebrities who have died as well.

These are all symbols of life overcoming death. And it seems that Halloween is a natural extension of the celebration for my co-workers.

I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from them.


My Firefighting Father


The volunteer fire department of Lodi, Wisconsin circa 1960.

Coming across this photo the other day took me back to my tiny hometown of Lodi, Wisconsin and reinforced memories of one of the basic values my parents have always practiced: getting involved in the community.

As the picture suggests, my dad, standing in the second row, fifth from the right, was a volunteer fireman. For many years he served on a voluntary basis with this group of men – in those days they were all men – with whom he became very close.

My parents, fortunately, continue to be in good health and young for their age, but it’s still fun to see my dad in this photo looking even more youthful, vibrant, and handsome in his early 20s.

I don’t remember my parents ever lecturing us on community involvement or waxing philosophical on civic engagement. But both my mom and my dad were highly active volunteers in a variety of civic and church pursuits.

In addition to being a firefighter, for example, my dad at various times was a Cub scout leader, youth BB-gun team coach (his team went to nationals!), volunteer at the summer fair, president of the parish council at our church, and much, much more. My mom was similarly involved, especially in church activities.

My dad moved to northern Wisconsin some 15 years ago and he continues to stay highly involved in his community. He even fought fires in the North Woods for several years.

Many of the men in this old photo are now gone but the Lodi volunteer fire department is still going strong. Women have been serving on the department for many years now and the trucks and equipment are more sophisticated as things have evolved since my dad’s time there.

I happened to gain much more insight into my dad (and my hometown) after I read one of the best books I’ve come across in the last decade, Population 485 by my fellow small town Wisconsinite Michael Perry. This New York Times bestseller is a wonderful read about small town life in general and volunteer fire departments in particular.

And yes, my dad read the book and loved it.

Sunday Afternoon in a High School Cafeteria

My youngest son 'warms up' before the first match of the chess tournament he's in today.

My youngest son ‘warms up’ before the first match of today’s chess tournament.

Chess must skip a generation.

I’m not a chess guy. But my sons are. They like it and they’re fairly good at it.

They don’t seem to be future grandmasters or anything but at young ages they were already beating me. Sadly though, that’s not saying much.

I’m intrigued by the things my sons are good at that I’m not, like chess and soccer and remembering almost everything they ever read or hear.

I find it’s like studying another culture, observing the differences between my children and me. I’m very curious as to how their minds work, thinking several moves ahead in a chess match, for example.

One of the more challenging parts of having children as chess aficionados is the tournaments. It’s one thing to watch your kid’s hour-long soccer game. You’re outside, there’s lots of action, and in 60 minutes everyone’s having snacks and juice boxes.

Chess tournaments, on the other hand, are several hours long, you wait in a high school cafeteria (sometime on beautiful fall days!), and for a non-chess person the idea of ‘action’ doesn’t really come up. But you focus on the good things happening to your offspring and life quite happily goes on.

Two Men, a Husky, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

In the midst of a long, hectic day, preparing for a major event at work this morning, I realized I had several errands to run and no transportation. My two older sons had the car.

I texted my oldest son Ben and asked him to drop it off for me. As I waited for his response, part of me hoped he would offer to run the errands for me. Instead he did one better: he said he would take his brother to class and while waiting for him, would drive me around to get the things I needed for the event at work.

And so with my beloved firsborn behind the wheel and his adorable Husky puppy in the back seat, I was whisked around the south side of Chicago taking care of business. We opened the windows to a beautiful fall day, listened to 70s rock-and-roll, and discussed the merits of such classics as “Blinded by the Light.” It was the perfect antidote to the stress of planning the big event at work.

Just two weeks away from his 21st birthday, my son is making that turn in life that is so typical of his age: re-adjusting his priorities, letting go of the very normal self-centeredness of adolescence, thinking more about others (especially his family members), and taking time to be with them – with me in this case.

He caught me up on his classes and his friends and I unapologetically gave him advice on his driving (he’s an excellent driver, but I’m still his father!). We talked sports, of course, and about other family members. He didn’t even complain when one store didn’t have what I needed and we added another stop to the trip.

When I got back to work, it felt like I had been gone for a day. I was grateful for the time with my unique, sometimes difficult, but very gifted son.

And seriously, I thought to myself, how many 20-year-olds are able to truly appreciate the off-beat genius of the “Chopsticks” part of “Blinded by the Light”?

Responsibility: Going to the Dogs


My sons’ unusual naming process for their puppy, who’s mostly Siberian Husky, went from Sosha, to Osha, and finally to Asha. I still haven’t shared this with several Indian friends of ours who share that name.

When my two older sons announced six weeks ago that they were getting a puppy, I joined the chorus of naysayers warning them that they had no idea what they were getting into.

When they adopted the beautiful creature pictured here my heart melted but I still knew that the demands of dog care – especially puppy care – would be way beyond them.

That’s why I couldn’t be more thrilled that they proved me and everyone else wrong. So far they have been exemplary dog owners. In fact, except for school (they’re both in college), their loveable pup has been at the center of their lives.

The first and most pleasant of surprises for me is seeing how they work together caring for their dog. They share ownership and responsibility and while they do engage in the usual complaining and arguing it’s rather mild compared to the basic respect and support they show one another.

My two sons have educated themselves, reading extensively, picking the brains of other dog owners, and observing carefully and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

They make the sacrifices, not going out when there’s no one to watch their dog, getting up early to take her out, cleaning up after her, feeding her and doing the multiple other tasks of puppy care.

They’ve found a good balance between strict discipline and affection with their beautiful puppy. They’re training her in the basics and letting her play appropriately rough during frequent visits to the dog park. But they also aren’t afraid to put aside their gruff male exteriors and share affection with their beloved pet.

I’ve learned a lot about my sons these past weeks and I like what I’m learning.

An Unscheduled Wake-up Call from a Klaxon

14376479563_5e58409b56_kWaiting for the train this morning, I had an out-of-body experience when the engineer fired the klaxon just a few feet from my ear.

Klaxon, as you probably know, is the thundering voice of the train, the warning signal; like a car horn only much deeper and louder.

I remember learning this word  years ago when I heard a Mexican man refer to a car horn in Spanish as a “claxon.” He pronounced it “CLAHK-sohn.”

9481071415_6280ac357c_kThe sound of the word made me think it was a foreign one borrowed by Spanish speakers. I did some quick research and discovered the English word “klaxon.”

It’s interesting how once you’re aware of a new word you start hearing and reading it everywhere. Most likely you had come across it many times before and it just never penetrated your consciousness. Now I see klaxon fairly often and occasionally use it in conversation. Spanish speakers use claxon even more than it’s used in English and it also exists in several other modern languages.

Where did the word come from? I thought klaxon might have been a proper noun at some point, an invention named after its creator like a Zeppelin or a Colt revolver. According to Wikitionary.org klaxon was once a trademarked name and comes not from an inventor’s surname but from the Greek word “klazo” meaning “roar, make a sharp sound.”

In any case, its sharp sound roared me right out of my skin this morning.

“One heart, full of courage, is a majority”

Martin Sheen at press conference

Martin Sheen joins Illinois Governor Pat Quinn at a rally and press conference to support raising the minimum wage on October 5, 2014.

Actor Martin Sheen said the words above last Sunday at a rally outside my church, paraphrasing a line popularly attributed to Andrew Jackson (most likely in error, it seems). Sheen was encouraging his listeners to continue to fight to raise the minimum wage.

Martin Sheen also came to our church last winter to support this same cause and I was impressed on both occasions not only with his commitment to issues of social justice but with his friendly good nature and his patience with everyone in the crowd wanting a moment with him – and selfies as well!

The long-time movie and television actor is an ardent follower of the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and helped make and starred in the famous movie about the former. At a demonstration a few years ago Sheen told the crowd that, “I still firmly believe that ‘lost causes’ are the only causes worth fighting for and that non-violence is the only weapon to fight with.”

It is notable and telling that on both visits Martin Sheen was the last person to leave the gathering and each time his staff had to pull him away from final conversations with people at the events. He simply didn’t want to stop sharing stories, telling jokes, laughing uproariously at those jokes, and, yes, even letting people take selfies with him.