Sunday, September 11, 2016

A day to never forget

This the first September 11 since 2001 that I didn't have a newspaper column to share my thoughts about the day. I'm used to writing them down (or more often typing them on a screen) and I figured this year should be no different even if my thoughts are going in a different space and no one really reads them but me.

Each year at this time of year there's been a flood of emotions and I'd gather those thoughts and share them. In 2001 I wrote several times about the terrible events that changed the country and everyone in it. I was far from New York or the Pentagon or the field where Flight 93 landed, but as an American it affected me deeply.

I happened to be 8 months pregnant on September 11, 2001, so emotions were in high gear already. I was married to a part-time firefighter who had tested to become a full-time career firefighter and was just waiting for a slot to open up for him.

My seven-year-old was at school the morning that the terrorist attacks occurred so he wasn't at home as we watched the scene unfold live on the t.v. screen. I didn't have the television on much when he was around, but of course he was taking in all he heard and saw. I took him to a community vigil not long after 9/11 at the football field of the local high school. His dad and his fellow firefighters were all in their dress blues on the field for the event. I remember my son setting up chairs and flags in the back yard a couple times after that and asking the neighbors to come over for a 9/11 memorial service.

I should have been at work that day, but was feeling sore and fatigued and called in that morning to let them know I was taking a sick day. I was in the shower when my husband stuck his head in the door and said my sister just called and said the World Trade Center had been struck by a plane. We just watched in disbelief without words as smoke poured out of the towers. Then we watched the first one collapse. Finally my husband said something. "Do you know how many firefighters just died?'

I remember that we had our soon-to-be-born son's first name selected but the middle name was still being discussed. One of the names in consideration was Christian. When I was watching a memorial on television at Yankee Stadium at home alone, I saw a sign in the crowd of a missing firefighter with the name Christian written under it. At that moment I moved the named Christian to the top of the list.

My son was born on October 11. I was in the labor room watching the president speak and ask for a moment of silence that morning in remembrance exactly one month later. It was a somber time for the country, but a time of happiness for me. I found out my friend delivered in a room in the same hospital just down the hall within a couple hours of my son's birth. She named her little girl Liberty. They call her Libby.

I remember writing a front page story months later about a group of local firefighters who traveled to New York to visit a fire station and donate over $45,000 raised to go to the NYPD widow's and children's fund. They described how work was still being done at Ground Zero as they were there six months later and that when they'd recover a body (or part of one) all work would stop and they'd cover the victim with an American flag and carry them out.

I remember interviewing Lee Greenwood about an upcoming concert in the region a few months after 9/11 and him talking about feeding rescue workers at Ground Zero alongside Olivia Newton-John and Brooke Shields and then singing a spontaneous a cappella version of "God Bless the USA" at Ground Zero.

For at least that first year after, it seemed to be always present. In conversations everywhere. On television. Everyone was bursting with patriotic pride while still respecting the underlying somber mood as we began to realize a new normal.

I was so far removed from the situations. I had no business feeling such grief. But I felt grief for all who had lost so much. I felt an American grief for those I didn't know but who shared that common bond of living in a country that is free and on every day before it had felt so safe.

Each year I kind of throw myself back into that mindset. I want to go back to that place where everyone seemed to be in it together. Everyone seemed to be grieving together for America. I look for footage of that day on television and I watch interviews of heroes who were there or people who lost loved ones. I soak myself in it. I read all I can about it. I watch everything I can find on it. I get annoyed at the lack of coverage on most channels and the commercial breaks. I look for it to be nonstop like it was when it happened. Many years I've gone to memorial ceremonies in different communities. I want to be around those who are also remembering. I want to soak it in again. I cry. I make myself feel it all over again. And I want the days to follow to be filled with flags and good will and charity and coming together. I almost feel like time should stop again like it did then with no planes in the sky, no baseball or football games, no bustling stock exchange, but by the morning fn September 12 it has fizzled. Things are back again and I wish we remembered for more than a day.

Some feel like that's not a good thing. After so many years, it's time to move on, I've heard. For those who lived through it first hand, it's not a once a year, one day remembrance. It's something that is a constant in their mind and heart. For those who lost, it leaves a void that is there every single day. It fades a little. It lessens slightly as time passes, I would guess. But it never leaves. I feel like it shouldn't leave me. It shouldn't leave the rest of America. We need to keep hearing those stories. Keep seeing those images. Keep feeling it. Keep hurting for all those who lost so much. Some would call that dwelling. I call it remembering.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Top 10 Alternatives to Voting Clinton or Trump

How can we describe this year's presidential race? More Americans are dismayed with the candidates than are excited about them. Looking back, four years ago either one might have seemed a viable candidate that people could be excited about. Ah, if we didn't know now, what we didn't know then. Anyway...just a little election humor, Dave Letterman-style/SNL-style, in a year where we really, really, really need it.

Top 10 alternatives to voting for Clinton or Trump:

10) Let's go with the winner of Dancing with the Stars.

9) Try the underdog and eeny-meeny-miney-moe it on the independent candidates.

8) Ever seen Kid President? Yeah, we may be able to have more confidence in him.

7) Chewbacca Mom.

6) Is Ross Perot still alive?

5) How about a job sharing situation? Trump on M, W, F. and Clinton on T, Th, Sa. Whoever screws up the least that week fills in on Sunday.

4) Give Big Bird a chance.

3) Let's write in Bill Murray.

2) Vote for Pedro. Or Napoleon. Or Kip. Or Uncle Rico. Maybe even Tina the Llama.

1) Joe Madden for President.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Dear Sons: Be Good, Kind Men

Dear Sons:

(Letter #26)

It's been a long time since I've added one of these letters to the blog, but it was something I was thinking about and had to put it down on paper (or computer screen - LOL.)

I've many times tried to impress upon you the concept of being kind and charitable and making the world a better place. I've brought you along to help when I've volunteered or recruited you to help out with different projects. I guess I have done an okay job at it. But I rarely acknowledge the best example of leading you to being good men - and that's your dad.

You guys aren't babies anymore. You're growing into teens and adults and while I spent the most time with you as babies and toddlers and preschoolers, trying to teach you right from wrong, and how to read and how to navigate the world, the tables have turned. You'd rather be around dad most of the time now and that's completely understandable. Father's have an equal or more profound effect on their sons as their mothers do.

I really sometimes forget about so many good things that your father teaches you about the world and about being a good person. After all, he's a firefighter and paramedic and he literally helps people every single day that he goes to work. I can't say that I do. Sometimes just in the grind of going about the day, I truly forget how extraordinary that is. He cares for patients and is there for people at their worst moments. I just got a message from a childhood friend last week who said that she was transported to the hospital by him - and she said how comfortable he made her and how his humor helped her, even though she was in pain. Every once in a while I encounter people who will say that he helped one of their family members and how grateful they were for what he did.

I am always happy when I get to hear such things as I never get to see the person he is at work.

When he's caring for a cancer patient who is going downhill and has to return to the hospital or for a young child who is having a seizure or for an elderly veteran who knows death is imminent and who just wants to fade a way at home, but has a family insisting that he be taken to a hospital that he knows he'll never make it home from.

I remember one man who was speaking at an event we were at and in front of the crowd acknowledged your dad, who happened to respond to a call for his wife when she was not breathing. Even thought the man lost his wife, he expressed how grateful he was to your dad for the care to both of them and for doing what was within his power to try and save her.

And although more often than not patients in critical situations where CPR has to be administered and equipment has to be used to try to restart the heart, don't make it - sometimes they do. Many years ago your dad played a part in saving a high school athlete who had collapsed at a game due to cardiac arrest.

He's also witnessed a lot of loss of life. Many are so tragic that I can't imagine how he goes on after witnessing such traumatic scenes. But he does.

His influence hasn't just spread to you. At many points over the years, our place has become the hang-out house for your friends. And sometimes it seems they are here as much because there is a dad around as to play video games and scarf down grilled hamburgers. A few of them have wonderful dads of their own, but some of them have enjoyed hanging out here because they have not had a father in their lives at all or very little. Somehow kids and teens (and even young adults) are drawn to him. When he'd show up for a field trip or class party at school he'd come home wondering why the kids always wanted to come up and give him a hug.

Among the good things he's done that make so me proud are:
-When he would take you boys out to pick up garbage around town just because he noticed it needed to be done
-When he would do yard work for elderly neighbors without them ever asking - and sometimes without ever notice he did it
-When we went for breakfast and the waitress was an older lady who was limping as she walked. He said he felt horrible having her wait on us and he gave her a $20 tip on a $16 breakfast bill.
-When he thought he heard a cat crying and followed the sound, which landed him a block and a half away where an elderly lady was in her home crying for help after falling down stairs. She had already been there since the early morning when he found her that afternoon.
-When he has helped with our town's annual festival and when he noticed something needed to be done, he did it (and had you boys help with it) - like building a sign for the front entrance and moving items and hanging signs.
-When we went to dinner in Edinburgh, Indiana near Camp Atterbury and a group of four soldiers came in to eat in uniform..and dad paid for their entire meal just before we made our way out the door.
-When he's volunteered to clean up at the Izaak Walton League and brought you kids along to help just because he saw that it needed to be done.

Sometimes he gets crabby. Sometimes he gets frustrated and decides that overall he just doesn't like people. He's not the only one. But those moments don't last long. He goes back to helping and taking care of others. And I don't always take notice of all those times. But I hope you boys do. And I hope that you're learning to see those kind things he does and that they help you grown into good, kind men.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

I've Graduated!

It's been an exciting week here. Three of the four kids are done with school for the year. Wednesday my 14-year-old graduated from 8th grade, ending a very good run and I'm so proud of him. He's a hard worker and has always been the serious one who gets really bothered by others not following rules. He's always been responsible and one that never has to be reminded to do homework. He takes initiative and has made his school career very easy on me.

While his older brother has final exams next year before he moves on to his senior year of high school, his younger brothers finished 7th grade and 5th grade. The ending of 5th grade is a big deal as it marks the end of elementary school and the move on to junior high. My youngest didn't seem to show much thought on it either way - neither sentimental about it being over or nervous about moving on. Eh, it's school.

I, on the other hand, am seeing the milestone that he's moving up and the end of his grade school childhood years and its also the end of an era for me. It's the end of a long stretch of having kids at this school - the 12th consecutive school year with a child there. 12 years is a long time. I've spent as many years there as a child spends in his elementary through high school career. In a way it feels like a graduation for me.

And although I have enjoyed it so much, I am glad to finally be hanging up my room mom hat - one that I have worn since 1997 when my oldest son started preschool. Some years I've been room mom for several classes. Some years I've been a room mom at two different schools. It was a lot of work and a lot to keep up with, but a lot of fun.

I was fortunate enough to spend lots of years as a room mom back when you could still bring in snacks and bake homemade cupcakes an when the PTA helped foot the bill for parties or the school let you collect money from each family to pay purchase what you needed to throw the party. In fact, for years, the kids called me cupcake mom because they knew that anytime there was a party, I'd be baking cupcakes. That was really missed the last few years as the schools went to a no food policy.

As a huge foodie, I found it really hard to celebrate things without any food involved. And truth be told, it turned it into a real drag for me to do these parties without being able to have food. And it became much less appealing when you as a mom were expected to shell out the cost of the party all on your own. It just wasn't much fun anymore for me and got to be a burden financially, but I still tried to make it fun for the kids as best as I could. I had some of the most fun with super cooperative and inviting teachers who would let me come in and have a Cinco de Mayo party with authentic Mexican food and some history and language lessons or a Chinese New Year party with rice and cookies and gold chocolate coins or a St. Patty's celebration with Green River Floats and Irish soda bread and corned beef and cabbage made by the teacher's mom or an Oktoberfest with sausages and kraut and German chocolate or a Hawaiian luau with macadamia nuts and pineapple and coconut.

So, although it's bittersweet to see my last child finish elementary school, it's a relief to be retiring from those elementary school parties. There are still opportunities to volunteer in junior high and even a little in high school, but no where near the level of involvement as in grade school. I will miss reading to kids and getting hugs and greetings from them when they see me and chaperoning field trips and going in to teach the kids about local history. But it feels good to be graduating, too.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan airs Memorial Day Weekend

Over my 16 years as a freelance writer, I have written extensively on veterans and on World War II. I've had the opportunity to interview several World War II veterans during that time - some who served in Europe, some in the Pacific and some who served here at home. Every story is so different, but there are similar themes. I'm always blown away at how humble these men are and how they don't consider themselves heroes. Most of those I talked to lost friends during the war - and those who didn't come home are who they call heroes. So often they recall battles or situations with such clarity. The memories are still so vivid in their minds and it's been such an honor to be able to hear so many of them over the years.

Being a mom of five boys who all have an interest in the military and in World War II history, I was excited to bring them along when I got an invite to a preview of the documentary Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan. Both their grandfathers are veterans as well as an uncle. And they have two cousins who are currently serving - one in the United States Marine Corps and one in the Indiana National Guard.

They've all been involved over the years in my efforts to recognize and thank veterans for their service. It's included starting a PTA program at their school to send off care packages to those deployed, "adopting" some individuals who were deployed, working with units in Afghanistan to send donations of shoes for orphanages near their bases and sending dog treats for K-9 units, taking them to welcome veterans home from an Honor Flight, arranging welcome home visits at the schools when local soldiers and marines came home on leave or returned from deployments, arranging for World War II veterans to visit local schools as guest speakers, working with a local organization in planting a tree and placing a marker in honor of a fallen marine from our town, starting a Veteran Appreciation Dinner with a local non-profit in our hometown and my son's school project of "Samples for Soldiers" where he collected small toiletry items to send overseas.  As a vice president and program director of our local historical society, I dedicated a full year of programming to World War II and the curator created exhibits covering the war. I've encouraged the boys and enlisted their help in doing what we can to support our troops. One of my boys is a current CAP cadet, a cadet program of the Air Force and some of the other boys have expressed interest in serving in the military when they get older.

They were all very interested in seeing the documentary. How often do you see teenagers excited about a documentary?

I knew just a little bit about military training being done on Lake Michigan, but didn't have any idea of the extent of it. Like the fact that around 15,000 Navy Pilots did their training to become carrier qualified on Lake Michigan before heading overseas. Or how big of a part Navy Pier, now Chicago's huge tourist destination, played in housing and training during the war. Or that there were dozens of planes that crashed during training exercises and remain on the bottom of Lake Michigan. Some have been recovered in recent years and I'd seen clips on the news as they were brought out from their watery residence, but didn't know any details beyond that. This documentary highlights the scope of this unlikely and at first, laughable, endeavor and how it affected the outcome of the war.

For anyone who has an interest in the military or World War II or anyone from Chicago, this is a must-see as we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend and as another year passes that these heroes are lost and their memories and stories fade along with them.

The screening of this documentary was part of the kick-off of fundraising efforts for the Naval Air Station Glenview Museum and the Glenview Hangar One Foundation. For more information on the foundation or to donate, go to

Heroes on Deck airing times:

Airing times are:
Thursday, May 26th at 9pm
Friday, May 27th at 3pm
Saturday, May 28th at 2pm
Sunday, May 29th at midnight
Monday, May 30th at 3:30pm
Tuesday, May 31st at 2am

Here's a link to a trailer on WTTW

And an interview on YouTube with one of the producers

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dear Parents: Behave at Graduation

We're moving into graduation season and parents are understandably excited about the upcoming commencements. I, too, am excited for my son who will be finishing up his time in junior high and getting that 8th grade diploma before a much-anticipated summer break leading up to high school.

But with graduations comes a bit of dread, I must admit. You see, every single year the administration at the local junior highs and high schools asks that the crowd contain themselves as names are called and hold applause and screams of excitement until the end. It's done mainly so that every parent who is there has the pleasure of hearing their child's name called to invite them up for their diploma. Every year they insist that they'll enforce it. They threaten to remove out of control parents who disrupt the ceremony. They go as far as to have uninformed officers at ceremonies to remove disorderly attendees. But it doesn't happen. And everyone knows it won't happen. There are no consequences.

So, as they start calling names alphabetically, the parent of a student with the last name Adams shouts out a quick "Woot!" Then the name Calhoun is called and you hear longer cheers. A student with the last name Evans has a parent who screams and shouts a little louder. By the time you get to Johnson, it's an all-out free-for-all. Parents jump up and down shaking the bleachers, making shrill sounds that would shatter glass. By then the officers just smile and shake their heads. They can't remove them all.  They simply can't keep up. Sometimes the parents stand up, scream and shout and then leave on their own. They've seen what they wanted to see, so off they go.

So, it's just become acceptable to make a spectacle at a graduation ceremony and everyone else just has to accept it and put up with it. But, you know, it just plain sucks. Because by the time they get down to my son, with a last name that starts with an "S," I won't even be able to hear his name over the inconsiderate and ill-timed celebrations of other parents who disregard the rules. You've just spent years teaching your kids to follow rules at school and you can't get through an hour-and-a-half ceremony without breaking them.

I can think of a few ways to possibly reduce or solve the problem.
- Actually stop the ceremony and remove the first disruptive person so that it doesn't continue.
- Hold the diploma of the student whose parents cause a scene and have a waiting period before it will be released.
- Have parents sign off prior to the graduation that they'll pay a fine if in violation of disrupting the graduation.
- Have police enforce disorderly conduct charges.
- Or give in and allow an extra 10 or 15 minutes to the ceremony and give 4 or 5 seconds between reading names and let everyone do their clapping and cheering, so at least it's fair. Otherwise you have a good amount of the people patiently waiting and behaving themselves who have their evening ruined by a few dozen rude ones.

But, in my years of graduations for my own kids and covering them as a photographer and writer, I've yet to see a school that has figured out a way to avoid it or fix it - with the exception of the private school my oldest son graduated from for 8th grade where there were only eight kids in the graduating class.

So, I go into graduation season proud and excited - and also shaking my head at the inevitable and knowing the commencement will go from dignified and emotional to taking a sudden downhill turn to chaotic and insensitive and I'm not looking forward to that part at all.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Another Easter in the books

Holidays can kind of be bummer when you're married to a firefighter who has to work a 24-hour shift and is gone for the entire holiday. But, you can't be all bummed out and wallow in bed with a bag of Cheetos if you've got kids. So, these years where I've had to do it solo, I've tried to make it enjoyable for the kiddos.

Until a couple years ago, we almost always spent Easter with my inlaws. When my father-in-law passed away, it made holidays even more of a bummer. My mother-in-law has since moved out of state, too. And on my side of the family, each of my siblings usually does their own thing with their own in-laws. It's kind of gotten to be a lonely holiday as far as extended family. But...every year the Easter bunny shows up and leaves baskets of goodies and shows up in the wee hours to hide plastic eggs throughout the yard and I have traditionally cooked a big dinner. But last year, with hubby scheduled to work, I decided we'd have our big dinner the day before when we were all together and then splurge on brunch at the local country club. Hubby ended up getting the day off and we actually got to spend the day together, but I opted to keep the reservations. It was wonderful. And it got me a bit spoiled. When hubby worked on Thanksgiving, we did the same thing - our big dinner the day before and then I did a buffet with the kids.

This year, with hubby scheduled to work yet another holiday, I made a reservation for brunch at a favorite steakhouse. I've finally gotten to the point where I can take all of the kids out to a nice restaurant and actually relax. There were years and years of anxiety of eating out because toddlers and fine dining are a really bad mix or because we had to strategically seat certain kids apart from each other because we knew a fight would ensue if they were to close to one another. They've grown up to be pretty good guys. They know that it costs a lot of money for our whole gang to go out and are pretty respectful of me and one another...and their faces are often in iPhones when they can get away with it, which keeps them pretty quiet.

I knew that they'd probably want to sleep in and hang out in their pajamas in the morning, so I made an afternoon reservation. I didn't nag, but told each one that the dress code was nice jeans or khakis and some sort of shirt with a collar. All complied without complaint, except the one I least expected to. The youngest, who wears a dress shirt and tie twice a week to his 5th grade class walks in the kitchen wearing a Chuck Norris t-shirt and asks if he can wear it. I turned my head, gave him an "Are you kidding look?" and said "What do you think?" He returned to his room and pulled a Tony Hawk polo over his t-shirt.

Then we headed out to the van and my oldest discovered a little fun his younger brothers had at his expense - they had covered his truck in saran wrap. That was good for some giggles.

The ride was pretty pleasant. My 16-year-old drove. The kids filed in the back and left the passenger seat for me. Even after we got the restaurant to find out that they didn't have my reservation on their list - and waited another 35 to be seated, they were pretty good. A few jokes and laughs. I managed to get one shot of all of them standing together -- but only one out of five smiling. They ate like birds, making me question why I'd take them all out for a $185 meal. But it was a pleasant time. And I keep thinking that in the not so distant future, the kids will be scattering and we won't always be together on Easter. So, for now I'll take pleasant along with all the chocolate bunnies and eggs that they want to share with me. :)