Saturday, June 16, 2018

On Fathers Day

This is Fathers Day. I've published these photographs, and the thoughts that go with them, a couple of times before this. Can't think of a better time to do so again.

My Dad died 24 years ago. He was 62 years old (just one year older than I am now, which is somewhat sobering.)

At the age of 56, My Dad suffered a heart attack while he was in the hospital for something else. The doctors who examined him determined that he had had multiple previous attacks, but had probably passed them off as an upset stomach or perhaps a muscle spasm. Shortly after this diagnosis, he underwent triple-bypass surgery.

He was never quite the same afterwards. That isn’t to say he never had any good days again, or that he never laughed, but the bad days far outnumbered the good, and the laughs were less numerous than they had been before.

The main problem was this: before the surgery he carried an inner sense of utter invincibility. He had been a boxer earlier in life, so he feared few men when it came to physical encounters. He served in the navy during the Korean conflict, so had discipline and grace under fire. He had briefly attended seminary, so had a rock-solid belief in God. He also had innate inherited intelligence. He wasn’t some pug with a cauliflower ear, ducking imaginary flocks of birds. He was erudite, had a great memory for jokes, and trained his somewhat pudgy fingers to do amazing things with cards. He also trained himself to become a very decent amateur chef. So, he was extremely independent, with a belief that he could accomplish almost anything to which he set his mind. He asked others for help on occasion, but he always knew that, when push came to shove, he could do it himself if need be.

After the surgery? He was as weak as a kitten. He became exhausted from a walk around the block. Just getting dressed was a chore. He did almost no exercise because he feared another attack. As a result of the no exercise - and by not giving more than a cursory nod to changing his diet - his heart went from bad to worse. He was regularly in the hospital with congestive heart failure.

He had almost always been a bit overweight during the years that I knew him, but heavily muscled. As time passed following the heart surgery, his weight went up and he lost muscle mass. I recall trying to make him feel better, on a visit to his house in New Hampshire, by giving him a nice backrub. I was shocked when I felt bone under my fingers where once there had been thick slabs of muscle.

Before I go on, I’d like to make sure that you know My Dad wasn’t some pitiful character. He had a pretty rich life, overall. He traveled to exotic places, made love to beautiful women, ate high off the hog, and got to realize more dreams than most. One of his favorite expressions, usually spoken about some poor unfortunate soul who never even had a chance to realize his dreams, was “He never got a kick at the cat.” Well, My Dad had enough kicks at the cat to cost it all nine lives and then move on to another cat altogether. This is the anniversary of his death, however, so despite the abundance of good times, that’s what I need to get to.

On the day he died, he was in the hospital - again. I had taken the day off from work, and I planned on driving from Boston up to Plymouth, New Hampshire, where the hospital was, and visit with him. Then I’d go to his house in Thornton, about 15 miles up the road, to mow the lawn and do a couple of other housekeeping chores. I was going to get an early start, perhaps 6am or so, to avoid traffic and to give myself plenty of time.

At about 4am, our phone rang. It was My Dad. He told me that he wasn’t feeling too good, that the doctors were going to have him doing some tests, and that I should just enjoy my day off and not make the ride, since we wouldn’t be able to spend much time together. I asked him if he was sure about it. He said that he was. I told him I loved him, he said that he loved me, and I left it that I’d call him the next day, or maybe the day after, to re-schedule a visit.

At about 8am, the phone rang again. It was My Dad’s primary physician, calling to tell me that he was dead.

If I had taken the ride up there as scheduled, I would have arrived at about 8:30 or 9:00. He would have already passed. And there I would have been, alone in Plymouth, crying. In addition, MY WIFE would have gotten that hideous phone call and then would have had to wait in dread to pass the news on to me. Instead, I was home and MY WIFE hugged me as the tears came. MY WIFE gave me that hug, God bless her, but being home to receive it was My Dad’s last gift to me.

He died on Thursday, June 16th, 1994. His wake was on the following Sunday.

It was Father’s Day.

These are some pictures of My Dad, from infancy up to the year of his passing. I hope you enjoy them. If your own father is still living, even if it’s a few days before or after Father’s Day, do yourself a favor. Give him a call. If he's near you, and he likes such things, give him a nice backrub. I guarantee you won’t be sorry. Ask anyone whose Dad is no longer around. Being sorry only happens if, while you have the chance, you don’t take advantage of the opportunity.

My Dad, with his Mom & Dad.

With his cousins, Patty & Dorothy.

Confirmation, probably at Saint Andrew's in Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood of Boston where he grew up.

Wedding to My Mom, 1955.

With Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, during My Dad's run for Congress, 1956.

I'm in this picture from early 1957, but you can't see me. I'm hiding in my Mom's stomach.

Years after his death, I bought the same tie My Dad is wearing in this photo, independent of knowing My Dad had once owned its twin. The pattern is the same as used in dress kilts for the MacPherson clan of Scotland. That was his mother's (My Grandmother's) maiden name. Our family has since found out she was adopted by the MacPhersons, so that blows my Scottish heritage out of the water.

Me, My Grandmother Sullivan (MacPherson), My Dad - Hialeah Race Track, Florida.
I was such a snazzy dresser in those days.

With My Dad in Monaco.

With Mom and Dad in Amsterdam.

My Dad with My Grandfather Sullivan, London.

The realization of a lifelong dream. My Dad's thoroughbred race horse, More Now, winner of the first race on April 15th, 1971, at Suffolk Downs, East Boston, Massachusetts.
He owned a minority share in the horse. It was the only horse he ever owned any part of, although he had money invested in many horses throughout the years...

He and My Mom were divorced about a year later. Not the only factor, I'm sure.

My Dad was Tony Soprano before Tony Soprano.
Note the now mostly-defunct brands of beer - Schlitz and Schaefer. The Schaefer would be My Dad's.
He wasn't much of a drinker, but when he did drink it was Schaefer
 ("The one beer to have, when you're having more than one", according to their jingle.)

One of My Dad's lovely culinary creations. He crafted this bird from an apple, using his Swiss Army knife, while on an airplane. Nowadays, you could get arrested for such a thing.

Always a well-dressed man.
He took many cruises in his later years. No doubt, this was just prior to one of them.

On one of his many trips to Singapore.
He worked for Singapore Airlines, so attended many meetings there.
It was a long haul to go to a meeting.

My Dad and I in Thailand. I'd say circa 1977, from the clothes and my skinniness.

Hong Kong, same trip as above. I was so skinny then I wore my wristwatch halfway up my arm.

My Dad in Teheran, Iran, prior to the Shah being deposed and Khomeini coming into power.

As I said, always a well-dressed man. Not his car. He looks right at home with it, though, doesn't he?

In the press box at Suffolk Downs.
Note the carrot/pepper palm trees on the table, which were no doubt his creation.
Everybody else in this photo worked there, either for the track or as newspaper reporters.
My Dad, on the other hand, just liked to hang out there and the professional handicappers considered him their equal. He really was quite good.

With his friend, Sidney Yeung, on the occasion of their joint 55th birthday party.

My Dad's street sign. He petitioned the town of Thornton to have the name of his dirt road in New Hampshire changed. They said OK, as long as he had a sign made. He did, and there it is.
He was mighty proud of it.
After his death, the bastards changed the street name back and took down the sign. I wish I had it. So far as I know, it was just taken to the dump. Fuck Thornton, New Hampshire.


This is what I said to My Dad every night I was in the same house with him at bedtime. It was said as it is written here, without what would seem to be some necessary punctuation; no pauses, like a magical incantation. I haven’t said it to him in 24 years, but here again, for good measure.

Good night God bless you.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

MY WIFE and I just got home from watching the new documentary about Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?

It was magnificent.

Lots of good background about Mister Rogers, with interesting commentary from family members, co-workers and others. Many tears were shed in the theater, including quite a few from my eyes. I highly recommend seeing this movie.

Here is a nuanced review of the film.

Since Fred is "hot" right now, here are some thoughts I wrote concerning him a few years back, with a few slight edits to reflect the current day.


I think Fred Rogers was a living, walking saint among us.

When you watched Fred Rogers, there was absolutely no pretense. What you saw was the real man. That same gentleness and childlike quality displayed on the screen was present always. He was not an actor. You may be surprised to find out what he actually was.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His special charge, given upon his ordination, was to minister to children through the media. He did so – and continues to do so, even after death - with amazing grace. He has been a part of TV, in one way or another, for well over 60 years now.

He planned on becoming a minister while still a very young man. He was attending Rollins College, in Florida, earning a degree in music composition. The plan was that he would enter the seminary after graduation. However, on a visit to home – Pittsburgh – he saw television for the first time. What he saw appalled him. It was a children’s show and there were people hitting each other in the face with pies.

If there was one thing that made Fred Rogers truly mad, it was when one person demeaned another person. This feeling stemmed from his childhood. He had been a fat kid and teased a lot because of it. He developed a strong sense of advocacy for the underdog. What he now saw on this new medium was despicable to him. Fred thought that hitting someone in the face with a pie was about as demeaning as it gets. He thought it was a horrible lesson to be teaching children. And, at that moment, he changed his plans. He decided to go into television.

Since television was in its infancy, it wasn’t as hard to get into as one might think it would be for a man with no previous experience. Using his musical degree as a way to open doors, Fred landed a job with NBC in New York, becoming stage manager for The Kate Smith Show and other musical programs.

After gaining valuable insight into how television worked, he went to WQED, a fledgling public television station back in his hometown of Pittsburgh. This was his first opportunity to actually do something for children. He, along with a woman named Josie Carey, created a show called The Children’s Corner. Josie Carey was the host, while Fred was never seen on camera. He stayed behind the scenes, manipulating and providing voices for puppets, writing songs, etc.

(Meanwhile, during his lunch hours, he worked towards his degree in divinity. It would be some seven years of lunch hours later before he finally became an ordained minister. During this time, he also married his wife, Joanne, whom he had met while at Rollins.)

After his ordination, he received a call from the Canadian Broadcasting Company. They wanted Fred to develop a children’s show for them. He assumed that he would once again operate out of sight, as writer and puppeteer, but the head of the CBC had seen Fred interact with children and what he saw was a man with a gift. He knew that if Fred could get that quality to come through on camera, it would be something special. And thus was born a show known as MisteRogers.

He was “Mister” because, despite changing from suit coat to sweater, and dress shoes to sneakers, on every show, he remained an authority figure, albeit an extremely friendly one. He would be akin to an uncle or perhaps a very nice neighbor (or, as he aged, a kindly and gentle grandfather, which he himself had become in real life by the time he stopped production of the show on PBS almost forty years later.)

The Canadian show was relatively short-lived, but Fred took the concept back across the border and started Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. It was - and remains, if you are lucky enough to find it still airing in your vicinity - the most relaxed children’s show on television; thirty minutes of peaceful talk, thoughtful songs, whimsical visits to a very well-delineated “Neighborhood Of Make Believe”, and pacing that encourages children to express their emotions freely, but in ways that will not hurt others.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I believe Fred Rogers was a saint walking among us. I came to this conclusion through both personal interaction and then further reading concerning his life.

I wrote a letter to him, back in the early 90’s, asking him a few technical questions concerning the show. As you may know, I was involved in what might be loosely termed “show business,” although in an extremely tangential way. In any case, I was interested in how certain aspects of his show were created and performed. I expected a short reply, if any at all, knowing that I was asking for an expenditure of his personal time.

Instead, Fred Rogers replied with a multi-page handwritten letter, explaining in great detail the answers to my questions. In addition, he included 20-some pages of printout material concerning the show, as well as an autographed photo personally inscribed to both MY WIFE and me (as seen at top of this page. I had told him that we both watched the show, even though we had no children. This was the truth. MY WIFE and I found the show extremely relaxing, the video equivalent of a martini after work.)

To say that I was impressed by his response would be understating the matter. I had written similar letters to a few different performers whose work I admired. Some remain unanswered to this day. Those that did answer did so by dashing off a couple of quick lines. Fred Rogers was the only one who sent me a handwritten in-depth reply and it was obvious that he had given my questions quite a bit of his time and effort.

From that point, Rogers could do no wrong as far as I was concerned. And from everything I’ve ever seen or read concerning him, Fred Rogers did no wrong, period.

Seeing this new movie has re-energized my own sense concerning what a Christian should do, what actions he or she should take. I like to think I might try harder to keep Fred’s example of patience and forbearance in mind, while attempting to see that of Christ which is alive in others. I’m no saint, by any means - heck, just a few minutes after leaving the theater, I was cursing out another driver on the way home. I'm ashamed of that. - but I hope I’ll hold on tighter to some of the lessons that Mister Rogers has taught me, even at this advanced age for childhood.

(One thing I think I should clear up is the seeming dichotomy between my liking Fred Rogers and also liking, say, The Three Stooges. He found people being hit with pies demeaning. I find it funny. To each his own.

OK, that’s a bit too flippant. I look at it this way: He was seeing people hitting each other with pies as being a bad object lesson for children. Maybe so. I think it depends upon the child in question. I love slapstick comedy. I also love violent cartoons, i.e., Tom & Jerry. I never considered hitting someone on the head with a frying pan as a way to truly solve problems, nor do I have an urge to run a ripsaw across anyone’s noggin. I was able to determine what was reality, and what was humor, at an early age. This was largely because I had parents who made sure I knew the difference. If a kid has less insight and non-caring parents, maybe it would be a different story; I’ll concede that point.)

Anyway, please see the movie. It is a beautiful thing. Bring tissues.

Soon, with more better stuff.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Keep Your Hat On

We may end up miles from here.

(That's the punch line to some joke or another, but I can't remember the set-up. I recall it as being a dirty joke, so it's probably just as well I don't remember it all.)

This is an exercise in... well, I'm not quite sure. I'll start with an explanation of sorts.

I've become somewhat disenchanted with writing. Since losing my spot as a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of the Boston Herald - see HERE for a partial explanation of that situation, although since then I was published some 9 or 10 times more, and paid, and also had some pieces published elsewhere - Anyway, I just plain don't have an urge to subject myself to the rejection notices, at least for a while. So, what to do?

This space has always been a safe place wherein to write whatever in hell I feel like writing. The rejections are rare. So, I'm going to just let my train of thought chug along until it derails. I'm going to write about the first things that pop into my mind at any given moment, then write about whatever that might suggest to me, then another thing that may or may not interest anyone but me, and so on.

It may go on for months, years, until I die or it may peter out any moment. The moment it becomes uninteresting to me (to you, that may occur sooner) I will stop. As soon as I find myself feeling that it's a chore, no more.

Today, that moment has come. Tomorrow, or the next day, or who knows when, I'll jump in again. In other words, this blog may become what it once was; a place of entertainment, rather than someplace to flog what I've written elsewhere for money. We'll see.

If you bear with me, you may like it. Who knows? Could be an utter waste of your time, though.

Soon, with more better stuff, used to be my sign-off because I usually believed that to be the case. Time will tell.