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  • Random Thoughts

    A few random thoughts from the past week:

    • Line of the day: Treat others how you'd like to be treated and we'll all live happily ever after.

    • RIP to Sam Shepard, a renaissance man and true artist, in many more ways than one.

    • Beyond proud of Nicholas as he starts grad school in Elon's iMedia program, and grateful for the time we've had together during his "funemployment" tour. 

    • My life's hashtag should be: #justcan'twaittogetontheroadagain. This week, I drove to Norfolk for a dance conference, then turned around and went to Pittsburgh to move Emma into school, where she is working as a "resident educator" — most of us call them RAs — this year. Look at how much our girl has grown up since the far left picture was taken at the start of her freshman year last August. 

    On the political front…

    • This is life at the White House:

    • Breaking "news": Revolving doors with gold plated T's belatedly installed in West Wing at cost of $1.2 billion. Trump blames media.

    • And one more on the subject courtesy of Bloom County.

  • Happy Birthday, Julie

    A dozen of my Facebook friends have birthdays today, but none is more important than my sister's. Happiest of happys to Julie, who is now closer to 50 than 40. There may be no more AstroWorld in August, but a Dairy Queen toast will do!

  • A Family Visit

    My nephew Eric is here visiting this week, his first trip to the D.C. area, so I took him to see a couple of his grandparents' favorite places. First stop: The Kennedy Center, where we saw a beautiful sunset at the end of a scorching day. Second stop: A nighttime tour of the memorials.

    How hot is it? Air conditioners throughout the region are singing the same refrain: "I think I can, I think I can..." Toward the end of the tour, Eric wiped the sweat from his brow and apologized for bringing Texas with him.

  • 10 Years Later: I Miss You, Dad

    Ten years ago today, I wasn't there. I'd left Texas City the day before and returned to Virginia, hours after my father waved goodbye to us and slipped into a coma.

    Losing my dad, without question, was one of the most difficult things I've gone through in this life. I viscerally remember the multiple flights back and forth from Virginia to Houston after his final diagnosis. Falling behind at work, I remember working on a piece for a magazine while staying with him one weekend in the hospital. I remember the nights he was in such pain, as I simultaneously wished for it to end while selfishly hoping he wouldn't leave us.

    I didn't make promises to higher powers about changing my life forever if he could be spared. I walked around the hospital after that final goodbye, playing Alejandro Escovedo's "The End" on my iPod as loud as I could bear. I started working on a slideshow of dad and his grandchildren that I would show at his funeral. And I started thinking about the future, not knowing what it would hold.

    Often I've said I became a better father when my dad died, having recognized belatedly that life is finite. I started paying more attention to family instead of career, and began to chase after that elusive creative muse. What I learned most is that life is not about the things you have. It's about what you experience with those you love.

    I love you, Dad.

  • A Memorable 4th Weekend

    It's been a memorable Fourth of July weekend, in part because we've been home, a rarity given schedules, conferences, and summer travel. Nick and Conner joined us on Friday and we went to see Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion, then went to the Workhouse Arts Center for their annual Fourth fest and fireworks show.

    Despite my long association with the Workhouse and the Arches Gallery Artists, we've never attended the celebration. To see more photos of the fireworks, go to my Facebook album here.

    Hope you have a happy 4th!

  • 5 Years Ago

    Hard to believe, but it's been five years since Ben made his debut as Billy Elliot in the sweltering Louisville, Ky. Here he is after the show with Nicholas and Ginno. 

  • The Last Two Weeks

    Over the past two weeks, I've:

    • Shot and edited more than 1,000 photos at two conferences in New Orleans and San Francisco.

    • Written a column for one magazine and a paid-sponsorship feature for another. Also wrote a blog on Fathers and Sons and posted two albums of photos on my business page.

    • Officially (at least according to LinkedIn) marked year 4 of this solo business gig.

    • Visited a Louisiana swamp and Bourbon Street. (I'm not talking about the same thing, despite many similarities.)

    • Spent an invaluable week with my oldest son, showing him NOLA, Texas, and (long enough to snap a picture) Oklahoma.

    • Saw and spent varying degrees of time with my mom, aunt, sister, first cousin, and nephews/grandnephew. (Just saw one of the nieces in a literal drive by.)

    • Took a number of photos in Kilgore, where my parents first got together.

    • Visited my grandparents' gravesite and showed Nick the places where my parents grew up.

    • I did not leave the hotel these last three days in San Francisco, but with an afternoon to kill before my red eye back to Virginia, I went to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to see the Summer of Love 50th anniversary exhibit. Before leaving, I also walked through the National AIDS Memorial Grove, where I had a fascinating conversation with two college-age women.

    And despite a trigger finger that is rapidly approaching carpel tunnel status, I took my camera. It was nice, after all the work-related stuff, to let my eye roam free.

    All in all, it's been a great and productive trip, exhausting but emotionally recharging at the same time. I'm truly grateful to Jill (who's had a couple of interesting weeks in her own right) for having the love and patience to let me do these things.

    So that's the news from this end. Look for more photos here and on my Facebook page soon, and hope I sleep well on the plane ride home.

    Thanks for reading... How's your week been?

  • Flying Leap

    In case you’re wondering what Jill does when I’m gone for two weeks… She jumped out of an airplane with the Golden Knights as part of her work with the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion.

  • Happy Adult (21st) Anniversary!

    So, after 21 years, our marriage is officially an adult. Four children, including three within the first two years of marriage, are enough to challenge anyone. But we've made it this far and now get to enjoy some precious time with each other, such as today's Nats game. It's wonderful to go through this life with someone you consider your best friend. I love you, Jill!

  • Fathers & Sons

    I really don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe in spirits, both of the adult and ghostly variety.

    This summer marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, unbelievable because of what has happened over the past decade and because I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s also remarkable because it has been almost 10 years since my oldest child, Nicholas, was last in Texas.

    Nicholas, now 24, and I have bonded greatly over the past couple of years, developing the type of father-son relationship I always hoped and prayed we’d have during his long childhood absences marked by distance and divorce. Thankfully, circumstances lined up for him to join me this week as I trek from New Orleans to Texas to San Francisco, part of a 14-day jaunt that includes shooting two conferences on both ends, with a trip through my home state in between.

    With a month between leaving his job and starting grad school, Nick met me in New Orleans and came to Texas. The purpose of this part of the trip, determined long in advance, was to help my aunt — my dad’s sister and the last link to his side of the family — get ready to move from Pottsboro to her hometown of Longview.

    I’ve long wanted my kids, who’ve spent most of their lives on the East Coast, to come back to Texas with me to see and hopefully gain some understanding of my roots that run across this entire state. Being the oldest, and the one somewhat suddenly with time on his hands, it was logical for Nicholas to be part of this trip with my mom.

    After Nick spent two days in New Orleans, his first trip there, we flew to Houston on Thursday night and left in mom’s van for Pottsboro on Friday. My mom has separated all the photos from her nine grandchildren into boxes. Nicholas’ box, which she gave him, included many photos from when he was a baby/toddler and included my dad. Many he had never seen.

    As we made the trek up Interstate 45, Nicholas held the box in his lap, thumbing through the pictures on occasion. When we stopped at a gas station/convenience store in Ennis, one of the many small towns you pass on the long trek, the ghost/spirit made his first appearance.

    My dad was a huge fan of both superheroes and James Dean, and when we trekked into this kitschy store with its knickknacks, cheap souvenirs, and single beers iced in the open air, I spotted two metal signs above the cooler. One was the Superman insignia; the other was a photo of James Dean.

    We went to my aunt’s house and packed some of her things in the van. Nick and I made a mad dash to the Oklahoma border so he could claim he'd been to the state, then stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about life, childhood, relationships and adulting. (Yes, adulting.) The two of us and Mom left Saturday afternoon for Longview, where we stayed at the homes of my dad’s first cousins. Much reminiscing ensued.

    Yesterday, on Father’s Day, we drove around Longview, visiting the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. There, I realized something I had never thought of before: My dad was 52 — my age now — the year that Nicholas was born.

    After driving by the childhood homes of my parents, we then went to Kilgore, where I had my first chance to see the campus where my mom and dad first got together. (She was a Rangerette; he was the squad’s manager. Not a bad gig for a then 19-year-old.) We then drove back to Houston.

    In many respects, even though Jill and my other three kids weren’t with us, it was the perfect way to spend Father’s Day. Throughout the day, I received texts and calls from Ben, Emma, Kate, and Ginno (“adopted” child). Jill posted a beautiful, sweet message as well.

    Today, the last day Nicholas and I are together, real life is intervening. We are sitting in a Starbucks. I’m writing a freelance story (after processing all of this, of course); he is advertising furniture he and his girlfriend are trying to sell. We are, in many ways, adulting.

    When I started going through some of the pictures I’ve taken over the course of these past few days, I zoomed in on the one I took in that convenience store in Ennis. I knew the photo had a James Dean quote on it, but I hadn’t really paid it much attention. When I read it, however, tears came to my eyes.

    “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, and if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”

    Thanks, Dad.

  • Jill & '13 Reasons Why'

    In her role with the American School Counselor Association, my wife Jill has been fielding a number of calls about the ongoing controversy surrounding Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” the TV series about a teen girl’s suicide.

    Earlier this week, she appeared on the National Public Radio show On Point, which you can stream here. Last week, Jill  was part of a webinar that included representatives from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Association of School Psychologists.

    The webinar, titled “A Teachable Moment: Using 13 Reasons Why to Initiate a Helpful Conversation about Suicide Prevention and Mental Health,” drew more than 1,500 participants. You can stream it here.

    Very proud of my spouse and the work she is doing on this extremely important topic!

  • Places #5: Box 344 & The WPA Post Office

    The Longview Post Office, built during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and open since 1939, holds a special place in my family’s history.

    The town, about 125 miles east of Dallas, is where my parents grew up. The post office at 201 E. Methvin Street opened in 1939, the year before my father was born, and my grandfather was the assistant postmaster there until 1964, the year before I was born.

    Like many families, my grandparents used a post office box rather than home delivery. Even after he retired, my grandfather would dutifully drive the two miles or so every day or two to get the mail from P.O. Box 344. After he became ill, my aunt or another family member would get the mail for my grandmother, who never learned to drive.

    Earlier this month, my mom and I started the long process of moving my aunt back to her hometown.

    I’ve been to Longview only once or twice since 1989, the year my grandmother died. Each time I’ve returned, I’ve wanted to see what has changed since my childhood. The older, south side section of town where my dad grew up has fallen into decay. The post-World War II era Pine Tree area where my mom grew up has changed as well, though not as much.

    Remarkably, the post office remains the same, a step back in time.

    In addition to the post office boxes, which are the same as I remember them from my youth, a massive oil on canvas mural titled “Rural East Texas” remains in the lobby. According to the website East Texas History (, Thomas M. Stell Jr. painted the mural in 1942 “to celebrate the history of farming in East Texas and demonstrate how mechanization changed the agricultural industry.”

    Stell, described by the website as “a master portraitist who strove to connect his work with the viewing public,” was the WPA’s state director of the American Index of Design and a professor at San Antonio’s Trinity University.

  • Frustration & Gratitude

    One challenging week: Computer craps out, Internet goes down (not related), and this year's post-50 doctoral round robin continues with with a hernia repair. So I'm behind, sore (not in the behind, fortunately), and frustrated.

    On the good news front, the Internet is back up and the hernia is fixed, which means I can start (gingerly for the next day or so) to catch back up. My twins are loving their time together in NYC, Nick saw Oprah yesterday and Kate has a variety of exciting things coming over the next week. Oh, and my wife is a rock star.

    All in all, despite the frustrations, it could be much worse.

  • The Summer of Watergate

    In the summer of 1973, I split my time between my parents' house in Texas City and my grandparents' home in Longview. Most of that time was spent with my beloved grandmother, who sat glued to the television every day.

    These were the days before cable/satellite/streaming, so daytime viewing options were largely limited to soap operas, game shows, and reruns of old black and white sitcoms and Westerns on the UHF channels. My grandparents' Zenith TV was noteworthy because it had a remote control, so you didn't have to get up and down to turn the channel, although the unreliable antenna meant you sometimes had to stand on one leg and hold your arm at a certain angle to watch a show.

    Instead of the ubiquitous "I Love Lucy," "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Little Rascals" reruns, my 8-year-old self was decidedly bored watching a bunch of men in suits speaking into microphones. I asked my grandmother a bunch of questions about the presidents, which had become a fascination for me because my elementary school was named after not one, but two of our country's former leaders (FDR and Woodrow Wilson). She patiently answered and said we always have to respect the office, no matter whether we respect the person occupying the top seat at the time.

    As my interest grew in the presidents, I took a minute to write a letter that summer to the White House. Normally I don't write fan letters, and my timing likely could not have been worse. But hey, I was 8 after all.

    Soon after, I received a form letter and a black and white photograph of the White House. Not surprisingly, a photo of our then-president was not enclosed.

    I thought about those summer days again this morning and wondered whether it's a case of history repeating itself. One thing is for sure, there will be no fan letters sent from my address anytime soon.

  • Family Reunion

    The six Cook-McFarland cousins have not all been together in more than four years, so it was great to have everyone (including Conner, Nick's significant other) in the same place this past weekend in Boone for Jill's family reunion. These pics show they were quick to pick up where they left off...

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.


    The Hodges-Love family reunion drew about 50 people to Oak Grove Baptist Church in Boone over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. It brought together family members from Jill's maternal grandparents, many of whom we haven't seen in years. Here are a few photos; the rest can be seen in my Facebook album here.

    Meanwhile, as part of the event, I took a series of shots of old family photos to display in the room. Below is one; you can see the rest by going to this link in the VIsual Storytelling section of the website.

  • The Six First-Cousin Pyramid

    I've had the kids on the brain this morning, particularly thinking about the pyramid picture I took of the six first cousins in Boone over Memorial Day. I wanted to recreate the pyramids the kids did in their youth and (after much cajoling/negotiation) managed to get them to recreate this one from Memorial Day weekend nine years earlier.

  • Places: American Tobacco Campus

    When my oldest son moved to North Carolina as a toddler, we lived less than a mile from the American Tobacco Company plant. Today, Nicholas still lives in North Carolina, just a mile from the place that was home to the cigarette maker’s primary headquarters.

    But times have changed greatly over the last two decades for everyone involved, in oh so many ways.

    For me, the move from my native Texas to Reidsville, N.C., in 1993 represented a huge personal and career risk. Over the eight years I lived there, life as I knew it took a series of seismic shifts. I got a divorce, met the love of my life, remarried, had three kids in a calendar year, bought a house, changed careers and found lifelong friends.

    I also saw a town and region face a series of seismic shifts of its own, as its economic drivers — mainly textiles and tobacco — left either gradually or almost entirely during that time.

    A few months after I took over as managing editor at The Reidsville Review, the town’s largest employer was sold by its parent company. More than 1,000 employees — almost 10 percent of Reidsville’s population — lost their jobs because the American Tobacco Company was no more. Today, the plant that once employed more than 1,500 people and dominated the northern part of the town is only a shell of itself, with only a handful of workers plying their trade for a company that sells cigarettes in foreign markets.


    Several years earlier, in 1987, American Brands closed the American Tobacco factory on Blackwell Street in downtown Durham. This, combined with declines in the textile industry, was a huge blow to the town on many levels; the company had been founded by the Duke family after which the university nearby is named.

    For more than a decade, the tobacco campus remained vacant, a gigantic hole in the center of town. But in 2004, the Capitol Broadcasting Company started a $200 million renovation effort that has led to both an economic and cultural renaissance in the city’s downtown area.

    The American Tobacco Campus, as it is now known, is home to office space, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, one of the nicest minor league baseball stadiums in the country, is adjacent to the campus, as is the Durham Performing Arts Center, the largest of its kind in North or South Carolina. The area attracts more than 2 million visitors a year.

    Today, small businesses form a strong restaurant and entertainment district throughout the downtown area, luring back 20-somethings like my oldest son and his girlfriend to Durham, where they live in a converted textile factory about a mile from the American Tobacco campus.

    Durham is cool — not Kool — again.


    The past two decades have not been as kind to Reidsville, located in a rural area just north of Greensboro about 60 miles from Durham. Like many former factory communities across the nation, Rockingham County has struggled economically, and is facing a population decline.

    The tale is all too familiar. Within a decade after the Reidsville plant was sold, The Review was a shell of itself as well. Started in 1888, around the same time that American Tobacco came into being, it has been sold twice since 1997, consolidated with two other community newspapers, and seen its frequency cut from daily to twice a week.

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve gone back through Reidsville during my trips to North Carolina. On one recent trip, I went past The Review building and the former American Tobacco plant and thought again of how their fates — caused by an almost simultaneous explosion of the Internet and the new global economy — seemed intertwined and in some ways interchangeable.

    Say what you will about big tobacco, and there’s plenty to say about that, but there’s no denying that the collateral damage caused by any major industry going through rapid decline has generational impacts. I’ve seen this first hand in journalism, my chosen field, with overworked staffs in small and midsized newspapers being sliced to the bone as the institutions that served communities for decades consolidated or closed entirely. Too many of my colleagues, hard working people with an invested interest in their community’s future, present and past, have found themselves out of work and scrambling to make ends meet.

    When I moved to North Carolina, I took some time to revisit You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, the state’s most famous author. I thought again of that book as I drove by the three houses and apartment where I lived, marveling at the snail’s pace in which small towns change, and recalling the tumultuous times that so dramatically changed my path.

    It is a place, like my hometown, that will always be part of my history. And my son’s.

    To see more photos from this essay, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Happy Birthday, Jill!

    Some of my favorite people in this world celebrate their birthdays today, but one in particular stands out. I love you, Jill Cook, with all my heart and soul. Thank you for being the centerpiece of life's greatest adventure: our family.

    The best part is that we're celebrating it — along with our 20th anniversary — in Venice, Italy!

    #anniversarytour #whodathunkit #grownkidsyay

  • Emma's Birthday Tribute

    This is Emma's birthday tribute to her mom. There is no disputing who the best writer in the family is...

    Back in the beginning of December, I was a few months into my freshmen year of college. While I love Point Park, some things were inevitably hard to cope with. Throughout my time here I have received care packages from my parents, always accompanied by an encouraging message (which I could tell my mom had written). These packages are sent out through the school, with all of the notes prewritten back in August.

    It was during this time in which I was struggling with a few things that I decided to get a tattoo with the quote "This too shall pass." I told my mom about this idea, and she loved it. A few days later, I received another care package. When I opened it the first words on it were "This too shall pass."

    My dad has always said that my mom and I are very similar, but it wasn't until reading that message that I truly knew how much. I'm beginning to realize that she probably understands me better than I understand myself. Everything she does is to protect and support the people she loves. She is so hardworking and strong, and it inspires me to do the same and always work to be a better person.

    As I grow up I'm more and more grateful for my parents, and everything they have provided for my siblings and me. I love you so much mom. I hope you and dad have an amazing time in Venice. Happy Birthday.

  • #BenCookWeek: Newsies and Law & Order

    So, in addition to this being Valentine's Day, we are marking the official kickoff of "Ben Cook Week" in the family. Last night started with Emma accompanying the boy to the Newsies movie premiere in New York.

    Tomorrow it's Law & Order: SVU (check local listings) and then Newsies opens in movie theaters. Jill, Kate and I will see the movie with a bunch of family, extended family and friends at the Regal Springfield Town Center. Nick and Conner will see it in Durham and the Cook/Ghirardi clan are going in Clear Lake.

    The movie, which received great reviews from those who saw the New York premiere, also is showing on Saturday and next Wednesday. Hope you get to see it!

  • 'What Democracy Looks Like'

    The Women's March was an incredible event, one in which people came from all over the country to, in Jill's words, show "what democracy looks like."

    Peaceful, yet firm and assertive protests for the rights of women and traditionally marginalized groups made this a day to remember. Say what you will, and vote your conscience. But know also that a large coalition of people who took the November election for granted has had a wake-up call they will never forget.

    And I hope and pray the country is all the better for it.

  • A Heartfelt Thanks

    To say I'm overwhelmed by the birthday wishes is a great understatement. Thank you one and all for your nice words and messages. 52 may not be the new 25, but between the kindness of my family (biological and extended) and friends far and wide, I am humbled that you took a moment to acknowledge the fact that another year in this crazy thing I call life has passed.

  • New Business Cards, Watermark

    My oldest son designed these business cards and a new watermark for my work. Thank you, Nick!

  • Mrs. Obama Honors School Counselors

    At today's School Counselor of the Year event, in her final public event as First Lady, Michelle Obama finished with these powerful words for the youth in our country:

    "I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong ... Don't be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear."


    Jill is quoted in this piece promoting the ASCA School Counselor of the Year event that will take place tomorrow at the White House. So very proud of her and the much deserved recognition school counselors are receiving.

  • 'Law & Order: SVU' Episode to Air Feb. 15

    Jill has long kidded that Ben would be a legitimate actor when he appears on an episode of "Law and Order." Well, at the end of tonight's episode, we finally got confirmation that next Wednesday is the date. (Check your local listings for air times.) 

  • National School Counseling Week

    This from Jill: "It has been a great National School Counseling Week! A big thanks to Connie Britton, Glenn Cook's celebrity crush, for her support. #NSCW17"

  • Is Listening A Lost Art?

    I distinctly remember the first time I heard the “F” word. We were driving from Texas City to Longview on the dreaded U.S. 59 in my mom’s white, two-door Oldsmobile Cutlass. I was 9, maybe 10. My dad, his head on the 90-degree turn thanks to dysplasia/spasmodic tordicollis, was in the passenger seat and mom was driving. These were the days when the speed limit had just been lowered and mom, never wanting to break the law, kept the needle neatly positioned between the 5 and the 5.

    As frequently happens on long trips on divided four-lane highways, we played a slight game of tag with another car. We passed it, it passed us, and so on. I’m sure the driver in the other car had to be a little freaked out by the fact that, every time we passed, my dad was staring at him — involuntarily — through the passenger side window.

    Suddenly and without warning, I heard my dad explode with a resounding “F-U too, buddy!”

    I asked my mom what the “f” word meant, and she said it was a word that only adults use, and even then only infrequently. (Little did she know...) Giving my dad the stare down while somehow simultaneously looking at the road and in the rearview mirror, she proceeded to explain that it was a word I shouldn’t ever choose, especially in anger.

    “We’ve taught you to have a better vocabulary than that.”

    The lesson I took from this experience was that the word itself is not what’s important, but the tone of your voice is what really matters. What I didn’t understand at the time, but do today, was that my dad was hurt and lashed out. The other driver had no idea the kind of pain that he was in, no idea how embarrassed/emasculated he might have felt thanks to an insidious disease that would affect him for the rest of his life.

    Over the years, since becoming a writer/editor in my own right, I’ve learned to love and respect the power words have. But more important, I’ve tried to dissect and learned to appreciate the tone my voice has when I choose to use words in a certain way.

    Now, if I’m truly angry, I don’t use profanity. I don’t want people to get hung up on a particular word choice and use that as an excuse to not listen to what I have to say. Deep in my heart, I wish that others would choose words as carefully and listen when others with dissenting opinions are talking. My fear is that listening is becoming a lost art.

  • Happy 20th Birthday, Kate!

    Kate last night at her 20th birthday party — she has to work on her actual birthday, which is today — and with her siblings at the Escape Room Live in Alexandria. Plus, as a bonus, a flashback photo to 3-day-old Kate and her mom on the living room couch. (It's still one of my all-time favorites.)

  • Dear 2016...

    11:33 p.m., December 31, 2016

    Well, if all goes well in the next half hour or so, I can say we survived. And then some. (Given the rash of creative talent that has passed away this year, "and then some" seemed like a proper qualifier.)

    It's truly been a year of great highs, lows and transitions: 20th wedding anniversary, high school graduations, moving kids in and out of new homes, Broadway, a movie, First Lady shout outs, college, new jobs, travel to 18 different states (some multiple times), Paris, Zurich, new business, old business, stressful business, deepening friendships, learning opportunities, missed opportunities, sinus infections, the flu, global uncertainty, and the love of family.

    As my kids move into rapidly into adulthood, I've tried to be a better father, in as much as my role is shifting from professional schlepper/caregiver to advisor, helper and confidant. As our home moves to a (mostly) empty nest, Jill and I have gone on a series of adventures that I hope will continue for many many years to come. It's nice when you can do that with someone who is both your best friend and the great love of your life.

    I'm increasingly aware of how the traits that our parents passed on to us are being forwarded to subsequent generations, and how a seemingly innocuous incident that occurred decades ago can have long-term effects on your life. (Spoiler alert: This is not a new revelation caused by binge-watching "This is Us," although the show is highly recommended.)

    And, I'm increasingly aware of how fragile life really is. How short it is in the grand scheme. How much we need to live it for as long as we can in a truthful, caring, and loving manner as possible.

    I was born 17 days after the Baby Boom era ended, which means I was part of the Generation X transition plan. This year, more so than any other, we saw the loss of so many people who were part of the fabric of my life from birth.

    A partial list of those we’ve lost in 2016: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Abe Vigoda, Gary Shandling, Patty Duke, Doris Roberts, Prince, Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the new “Star Treks”), Gary Marshall, Marni Nixon (voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn in three classic musicals), Gene Wilder, Curtis Hanson (director of “The Wonder Boys”), Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds.

    Hell, even Nancy Reagan didn’t want to stick around for the possibility of a Trump administration.

    And tonight, scanning the last-minute headlines to make sure Betty White was still safe, I saw that we lost William Christopher, who played the loving, bumbling Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H.

    Say what you will, but I'm glad to see this turbulent year gone. Like many, I'm concerned about what the future holds, not just here but around the world. I'm also concerned about the lack of empathy our society — not everyone, I swear it's not that blanket of a statement — shows toward traditionally marginalized populations.

    So if you're lucky enough to give a significant other that kiss in a couple of minutes, take a second to think about love, what it means, and what you can do to spread it around.

    Thanks for reading my latest rant. Here's to a better year in 2017. Let's live it up...

  • Christmas Traditions

    The annual Christmas morning photo: Same staircase, 14 years apart.

    Going to see a Christmas Day movie with the four, who suddenly regret that Jill and I got rid of the minivan. (BTW: La La Land was great!)

  • Family Tradition

    When the kids were, well, kids, they loved going to the Lincoln Memorial at night. For several years, every trip Nicholas made to Virginia had to include a trip to see the tribute to Honest Abe.

    Sometimes everyone made the pilgrimage, but often we were missing one. That was true again this year — Kate couldn't make it due to another obligation — but this time we added a new member, Nick's girlfriend Conner.

    One of these days, we'll have everyone with us, and another addition or two would mean we have to take two cars. I look forward to that day...

  • Happy Holidays!

    Thanks to everyone who sent us holiday cards this year. It is wonderful to see your families and to hear your stories. Unfortunately, we did not do a printed card this year, but would like to share in wishing you all a happy and blessed holiday season.

  • Congrats, Ginno and Elie!

    We could not be happier for Ginno and Elie, two members of our extended family who got married Sunday evening in New York with Ben and Casey Whyland serving as their witnesses. It's times like this when I'm reminded yet again that there is much to be thankful for...

  • Birthday Month

    It's December (aka "birthday month") at our house, so here's a flashback to one of my favorite photos of the four kids holding hands in a brief moment of solidarity. Every time I see this photo, it makes me smile.

  • John Glenn: Not My Namesake

    The death of astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn brought attention to the fact that my legal name is the same as his. Born three years after Glenn's space flight, I've spent much of my life explaining that I'm named after my dad and grandfather, not the astronaut.

    Here, I went into more detail...

  • Nick's Birthday Surprise

    Surprised the oldest on his birthday yesterday in Durham. It's the first birthday we've spent together since 2009.

  • Happy Birthday, Ben & Emma!

    Birthday Month, Parts 2 & 3: Wishing the happiest 19th to Ben and Emma, separated by distance in body but always together in spirit. We love you both so much!

  • Pre-Christmas Randoms

    After a week of illness in the family, a Facebook hack, and the final flurry of shopping, here are a few pre-Christmas random thoughts:

    • USPS at the holidays: On the last Monday before Christmas, the 8:30 a.m. line at the post office rivals that of the DMV next door.

    • Ben truism: You know you're in a theater family when you "call out" sick rather than "call in" sick.

    • Memo to the alien bug that invaded our bodies last week: This is your formal eviction notice. Despite the cold and windy weather, please seek shelter outside our home effective immediately.

    • More cold commentary: I hear the roar of the ocean. Unfortunately it's inside my head. #hatethissnotshit

    • After my Facebook was briefly hacked: If you get a friend request from me, don't accept it. As far as I can tell, we're already friends... Or, in political speak: Damn those Russians.

    • Finally, here’s one worth watching. In the spirit of the holidays, we were so glad to see Walter White come back from the dead.


  • Thanksgiving Memories

    We're having a quiet Thanksgiving at home, quite the contrast to years past. Feeling nostalgic with Ben, Emma, and Kate here together for the first time in months, I started going through old photos of past Thanksgivings.

    A few things I noticed during our visual time travel:

    • Over the last 20 years, we've had Thanksgiving dinner in at least 7 different cities in four states.

    • Only two years (2001 and 2014) are not represented in this album. We were just moving into our home in Lorton in November 2001 and in 2014 we had just the girls here for a low-key Thanksgiving.

    • After 2003, we didn't have Thanksgiving at home until 2013. Since then, we've been at home for three of the last four years.

    • The last Thanksgiving all six McFarland/Cook first cousins were together was in 2012. They've only all been together a handful of times since. The last time all of the Cook/Ghirardi cousins were together was at my dad's funeral in 2007.

    Going back through these photos was fun experience. Some years were easier than others — no surprise given that December is the month of birthdays. At times we were celebrating new opportunities; at others we were mourning those we had lost.

    But all it takes is one quick look, and you can see why I give thanks every day for the life we have together.

  • Family Reunion in NYC

    Reunions that include all four kids are far too rare these days, so it was great to come together briefly in New York this past weekend. Ostensibly, the reason was to formally (and belatedly) celebrate Ben’s high school graduation, which we did with a small gathering of family (biological, extended, extensions of extended) on Saturday evening.

    Nick and Conner came from Durham on Thursday night and, given that she had only visited the city a couple of times, we hit the sites hard on Friday. Nick took Conner to her first Broadway show (“Waitress”) and a friend gave them a backstage tour. Once the day was done, we had walked more than 10 miles.

    On Saturday, Jill and Kate came in by train from Virginia and Emma flew in from Pittsburgh. At that point, we had all four children together for the first time since Emma’s graduation in July. Thanks to Ginno, Casey, Bernadette, and everyone else who took the time to stop by, say hello, give a hug, and catch up. It was great seeing all of you.

    On Sunday, Emma and I stuck around and went to The Newsboys Variety Show at 54 Below to see Ben perform a song (“Unemployed”) with his roommate Josh. Again, I was struck by how kind and (obviously) talented the cast of this show is, and by how warm and friendly they are. They are a family unto themselves.

    Before you knew it, the long weekend was over and it will be Christmas before the four are together again. But it was nice — very nice — while it lasted.

  • Random Acts of Kindness #2: Fire Away

    I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”

    One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.

    “The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.

    Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.

    Until it’s too late.


    I’m a lucky man.

    I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.

    Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues. 

    Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.

    Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.

    The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.

    When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.

    Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.

    “I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”


    The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.

    Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”

    At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”

    After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”

    And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.

    The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.

    Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.

    On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.

    Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.

  • Election 2016: My Last Word (Maybe)

    I've been sitting in the Denver airport all night because of a cancelled flight, which prompted this sleep-deprived diatribe. Read on if you choose...

    Look folks, I'm not perfect. Never have professed that. I have flaws as a husband, father, son and human being.

    I think the fact that I can and do acknowledge those flaws makes me imminently qualified to say this: There is no way in hell I'm voting for a Mr. in this election.

    I realize this comes as no shock to anyone who knows me well, but understand that I know and recognize that both candidates have flaws. However, if there was any margin for error, it has been erased permanently by the most vitriolic, distasteful, and abusive campaign in U.S. history.

    As a husband, father and son, I can't in good conscience vote for someone whose systemic manipulation of women (and other, equally important things from a governance perspective) is a centerpiece of his very existence. And I don't understand how anyone else can do the same.

    I have friends on all sides of the spectrum. Some of you have chosen to unfollow or unfriend me because my views don't march in lockstep with yours. Others are quick to note the flaws and peccadilloes of previous politicians for the umpteenth time.

    Some will not take the time or energy to read this because one more word about this election is just too much. And that's OK. That's your right.

    Come November 9, I hope our nation can get treatment for the collective PTSD that this election has caused (at least for those who believe such a thing exists). But between now and then, I hope everyone will carefully and prayerfully (if you so choose) consider the type of person you want to represent our nation.

    Either way, please exercise your right to vote. That's one thing we can all do together, even if we disagree.

  • Random Act of Kindness #1

    This story is about life lessons, not giving up, the kindness of strangers, and a purse.

    Yes, a purse.

    Earlier this month, Jill, Emma and I were fortunate to attend the Pittsburgh Steelers-Kansas City Chiefs game at Heinz Field. Chris Ballard, who grew up across the street from my family in Texas City, now works for the Chiefs and arranged the tickets, complete with a pregame pass to stand on the sidelines.

    Things started smoothly. Traffic was light for once on the trip from Virginia to Pittsburgh — a rare occasion indeed — and we had a nice time with Emma, who we had not seen since she started her freshman year at Point Park University. Emma gathered a group of her friends — new and old — for an Art & Dance shoot at Point State Park.

    All in all, a very nice day leading up to the main event — a nationally televised Sunday Night Football game.


    I hoped to bring my camera to the game, but Chris told me to look at the venue rules beforehand to make sure, and professional cameras were on the don’t list. Security crackdowns have been in force at major events around the country for the past several years, so it came as no surprise. We’ve been to several games at Nationals Park, and know the search-before-entry drill all too well.

    But we didn’t realize that purses were on the banned list, too. Only small clear bags are allowed in the stadium and even if you dump your purse’s contents into an accepted clear bag, you can’t carry the purse in.

    “Sorry, those are the rules,” the security guard said, pointing to a number of purses and bags residing in a nearby trash can.

    Suddenly the nice day was turning almost as dark as the skies above.


    I always tell my kids, "Don't be afraid to ask for something worthwhile, no matter how outlandish the request may seem." The worst thing a person can say is “no,” and rejection is part of life.

    Occasionally, if you’re courteous and polite, people will surprise you with the same in return.

    We didn’t have much time, but I decided to embark on a “Save the Purse” quest. I went to the box office and the customer service desk, asking if someone could hold on to it until after the game, but I was summarily rebuffed.

    Finally, I walked over to the Don’s Appliances truck. Not being from the area, I didn’t know that Don’s is a luxury manufacturer of fancy kitchens, or that the gentleman handing out free samples of food is actually a master chef named Anthony Marino.

    I explained the situation about the purse, the fact we were from out of town, in Pittsburgh to see our daughter, meeting a friend at the game, etc. Could I stash the purse with them and pick it up later?

    Unfortunately, the truck left at kickoff, so that was out of the question.

    Fortunately, Chef Marino is also married — “I understand,” he said with a smile when I told him my story — and an extremely nice person. He offered to ship the purse to us when he went to work the next day.

    Three days later, the package arrived via UPS. All we had to do was mail a check to Don’s Appliances for the shipping.

    So there’s your happy ending, affirmation that even in these most contentious of times, there are still some kind people in this world. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask, and when things work out in your favor, offer a grateful thank you.

    Remember, you never know unless you try.

  • iPhone Photo Challenge: SNF

    This past weekend, Jill, Emma and I were fortunate to attend the Pittsburgh Steelers-Kansas City Chiefs game courtesy of Chris Ballard, a childhood friend from Texas who now works for the Chiefs organization. Also, thanks to Chris' kindness and generousity, we were able to stand on the sidelines during the pregame before going to our seats.

    I did not take my regular camera to the game due to restrictions set by Heinz Field, but used the iPhone as an experiment to see what I could get. (And fortunately, due to the steady rain we faced after kickoff, I'm glad I didn't bring the good camera for once.)

    As I've mentioned before, an iPhone is no substitute for a regular DSLR, but I've learned a few tricks along the way that can result in some good images. So here's a look at Sunday Night Football from a slightly different point of view, with a story of good fortune to follow in due time.

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Headshots: Kate

    It's been a while since I've taken headshots of Kate, and she needed some new ones, so it was a pleasure to take these. Here are four takes on my beautiful daughter, who turns 20 (!) in December.

  • Life on the Road

    In a post earlier this week, I mentioned our crazy travel schedule and how thankful I am to have so many friends and family (biological and extended) willing to spend a little time with us on this journey.

    So here's a small photo summary of the last five weeks. (Roadmap not included.)

  • Family Time in Texas

    Growing up, my sister and I had only two first cousins. Thanks to a mini-baby boom on both of our parts, our kids don’t have the same problem. Between the two families, there are nine Cook-related first cousins.

    Unfortunately, given the size of the families and the distance between us, we don’t see each other much. Julie has taught her kids to send me off with, “See ya next year, Uncle Glenn.”

    What’s remarkable, though not surprising given their ages (9 to 20), is how much Julie’s kids change between visits, none more so this time than Matthew, her 16-year-old middle child. Matthew, who is autistic, has shot up over the past year and now is almost as tall as I am. He also is pursuing his black belt in taekwondo, the Korean martial art that focuses on head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast kicking techniques.

    On October 20 (fittingly my dad’s birthday), Matthew will take the test for his black belt after pursuing it for just 20 months, a remarkably short time frame but one that shows his dedication to the craft. When I was in Houston earlier this month, my mom asked me to take a few photos of Matthew in his class because I could not be there for the test in person.

    Here are some of the photos I took. Congratulations to Matthew for his upcoming accomplishment, Julie for maintaining the juggling act I know all too well, and my mom for all of the schlepping she does back and forth for the kids.

    See ya next year…

    Speaking of which, the last time I was in Houston in May 2015, my great nephew Lincoln was a newborn. Now he’s a 16-month-old toddler, constantly active and filled with innate curiosity.

    He also holds the distinction of being my mom’s first great-grandchild, and given that Calliope and Lincoln live with her in Clear Lake, the focus of much of her attention.

    During my visit, my mom asked me to take some pictures of Lincoln in “his natural habitat.” Nothing posed, just candids of a little boy. Here is the result.


    To see the photos from last year's visit, go to

  • Thanks for a Great Weekend

    A huge thanks to the staff, students, and parents at Sonya's Dance Academy who took part in a weekend-long series of photo shoots, master classes, and workshops recently in Hickory, N.C.

    My son, Ben, taught two hour-long dance classes and talked to the students about his evolution from child to adult actor/performer. Meanwhile, I scheduled a series of mini-sessions with students for headshots, and spent more than an hour with parents talking about raising a young professional in the performing arts. Finally, we did a series of "Art & Dance" shoots, for which the photos will be coming shortly.

    If your studio or group is interested in putting together this type of package, please contact me via Facebook message or by email at

  • 'Newsies' Night, and a New Day

    Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.

    Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."

    Whatever that is.

  • Art & Dance: Zach (With a Guest)

    I’ve been fortunate to know Zach Manske and his family for the past five years, ever since he and our son, Ben, shared the title role in the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Zach, who lives in Woodbury, Minn., was named “2016 National Senior Male Outstanding Dancer” last month by the New York City Dance Alliance.

    A couple of weeks ago, Zach was completing a summer intensive at Julliard when I had the long-awaited opportunity to take his headshots and add to my “Art & Dance” portfolio. Ben, who is auditioning in New York, came along for the shoot, which took place in front of Lincoln Center and at Central Park.

    As you might expect when you have not one, but two excellent dancers, the shoot was great fun. But the best part of the day was seeing these two young men, who became friends during a high pressure and intense time as kids, pick up right where they left off, urging each other on and enjoying a chance to perform.

    For more photos, go to

  • Happy 75, Mom!

    "So my Mom turns 75 today. Not sure how that happened, because she always says she was just so young when she had me."

    Pause. Punchline. Followed by, "Of course, calling your mom a liar in public is not polite."

    She's not really fibbing. Mom and dad were 23 and 24 when they had me. But this is the type of humor we share, a back and forth that has been a never-ending game of ping pong for years.

    I wish I could put into words the influence my mom has had on me. Perhaps the best way is to describe her as "my first, best teacher," who has shared her talent with countless school children, friends, and family for her entire life.

    I love you, Mom. Happy birthday. And may the ribbing continue for a long, long time.

  • Random Thoughts: Traveling Along

    Having driven more than 2,000 miles across four states over the past week, it's safe to say that:

    1) The windshield of my rental car did more than its part to reduce the bug populations of Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming.

    2) Email and Facebook posts go largely by the wayside in the American West, unless you scheduled them in advance. I'm just now checking email for the first time in several days, and it's not pretty.

    3) I still don't understand why Utah convenience stores close at 10 p.m. Is post-11 p.m. really too late?

    4) Sitting with my wife at a bar, shooting the bull and watching the Olympics in a place where the Winter Games once were held, remains one of the most pleasurable experiences I could have.

    5) I don't like red eyes. To quote Danny Glover, I'm too old for this shit.

    See you on the other side, folks...

  • Random Thoughts: Pre-College Version

    A few random thoughts en route to dropping Emma off at Point Park University:

    • This past weekend, as a farewell of sorts, our longtime friend Tom Pratt gave the girls, Nicholas and his girlfriend Conner a tour of the West Wing and the White House. Ginno and Elie came from New York, and we had a lovely time.

    The best part of this story, however, occurred before the tour. I had mentioned to Ginno and Elie that “business casual” dress was required, but failed to let Nick know. My son has to wear a suit to work every day, so he likes to be as casual — but stylish — as possible on the weekends.

    I guess it should not have come as a surprise that he came downstairs in shorts, but he didn’t even bring pants on the trip up from North Carolina. So he and Conner had to make a mad dash to get pants at the last minute just to get through security.

    As Jill said, “That’s totally something you would do.” I could only reply with, “Yep, he’s my son.”

    • In honor of our last child's college orientation, my forehead is the recipient of an enormous stress zit, proving yet again that you're never too far away from your inner 18-year-old.

    • Jill says she can’t go anywhere without me bumping into someone I know. It happened on our honeymoon 20 years ago, when I saw a couple I knew from Texas while hiking at Mount Rainier. And it occurred again on our vacation to Utah.

    Lynne Barnes, a good friend whose daughter was on the Billy Elliot tour with Ben, and I bumped into each other at a restaurant in Moab. I had gone to get dinner and went to the restroom when Lynne sent me a text saying she had seen my “twin.” I didn’t think anything of it until I got a tap on the shoulder and there she was. Small world…

    • A recent study said intelligent people tend to be messy, stay awake longer and swear more. If this is the case, I’m a genius.

  • Family Posts

    Two posts related to people I'm closest to in this life...

    I get a little quiet and contemplative every year around this time. My thoughts tend to get scattered — even more than usual — and I forget little things when a memory of him pops into my head, like I did last night when I realized the anniversary was today.

    No question, the simple passage of time has helped. So do the memories. I still have questions and wonder what he would think about so many things involving our lives and family.

    Today marks nine years. Where has the time gone?

    I miss you, Dad.

    I've been tagged twice in the "Love Your Spouse Challenge," in which you're supposed to post photos for seven days in a row to keep the Celebration of Love and the Promotion of Marriage going. Unfortunately, I'm not the most consistent when it comes to these types of things, so I thought I'd just do 7 photos in one day instead.

    Chances are pretty good that you've seen one or more of these over time. And if you know me at all, chances are pretty good you know how I feel about the woman I've spent the last 20 years of my life with.

    I love you Jill. Always have. Always will. ‪#‎loveyourspouse

  • 'Humble & Kind'

    This song is best known because of Tim McGraw's version, but it was written by one of my favorite musicians — Lori McKenna (check out her stuff now!) — and will be on her new album that comes out in a couple of weeks.

    If you have 4 minutes and 18 seconds, please give this a listen. It's something Jill and I have tried to teach our kids, and given all of the unrest in our country and in the world right now, it's a lesson well worth sharing to any and all.

  • Surprise, Surprise!

    Good big brother that he is, Nicholas surprised Emma following the matinee of "Alice in Wonderland" on Saturday. Nick had said he could not make it to the show, but he and Conner had been making plans all along to come from Durham to Northern Virginia for Emma's last recital performance.

    And with Ben, Kate, and other family members supporting our youngest daughter, the end-of-high school cycle is almost complete.

  • Emma's Final Recital

    Emma has danced with her siblings (“Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” — 2004), played an orphan (“Hard Knock Life” — 2009), and ends her time at Metroplitan School of the Arts this weekend with two performances as the March Hare in “Alice in Wonderland.”

    At MSA, she is literally the last Cook standing, the only one of our kids to perform in every show since first grade.

    Earlier this week, someone asked me if it was difficult to see our last child finish high school. And it’s not, not really. The harder part is watching Emma in her last role, because the studio has been (literally, it seems) her second home.

    We love you, sweetheart, and are so proud of you! Break a leg!

  • Alternate "Alice," Parts 1 & 2

    Each year around this time, I spend hours shooting and editing photos of the Metropolitan School of the Arts spring show. I had other work commitments this year during the dress rehearsals for "Alice in Wonderland," so I was able to take photos of the Saturday and Sunday casts once.

    The first set (above) is of the ensemble from the Saturday show. You can see more from this shoot by going to my Facebook album here.

    The second set is of class dance photos taken, primarily, of the Saturday matinee cast. I was able to go to the dress rehearsal briefly for the evening cast and took a few from different angles. You can see the rest of the class dance photos on Facebook here.

    As many of you know, I have taken photos of Metropolitan School of the Arts productions since my kids were little. It is always a challenge to find new ways to capture a live performance, but I think these offer a glimpse of the quality and commitment everyone had to the show.


    BTW, the reason I’m calling these albums “Alternate” is because another photographer (Laura Mann) has been capturing rehearsals since they started. Typically, I shoot only the performances and the promo photos. This year, I did more than 140(!) headshots of the ensemble.

  • The 4th of July

    Beautifully done. Never thought I'd call myself a John Cena fan, but between Trainwreck and this wonderful ‪#‎WeAreAmerica ad, I'm a convert.


    So Jill and I spent our wet and humid 4th in the best, most celebratory way possible. She had her bottle of wine, I had my beer, and we watched several episodes of "Justified" together in the living room.

    Bliss and bless. That is all for now...

  • Portraits: Nick & Conner

    A weekend with my oldest son, Nicholas, and his girlfriend Conner in Durham, N.C. led to a walk around downtown and a series of fun photos of a cute couple. To see more, go to my Facebook album here.

  • We Have Another Graduate!

    Our last child graduated from high school today as Ben finished the online program he's been in for the past two years. Since there was no formal ceremony — just sighs of relief from parents, relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and others — I decided to post his other "graduation" photo. (Kindergarten, 2004)

    Congrats, Ben! We are proud of you!

  • Feline in Flight

    Earlier today, I posted to Facebook that I spent most of my morning rushing to get a cat to the airport, ending with, “It’s a long story.” Since the post generated the expected “WTH?!?” response, I thought I’d explain.

    Jill’s cousins, Brian and Elise Hodges, left their cat with us last month as they embarked on a long journey that eventually landed them in Chicago. The plan was to send the cat back to them when they made it to the Windy City.

    The best plans, as they say. The problem was that the cat, who has been cared for like a child since Brian and Elise acquired her, had to go to the vet before she could get on an airplane. So Brian, who is very attached to the cat, arranged for someone to come pick her up and drive her to Chicago rather than inconvenience us.

    That, unfortunately, was the day after a series of horrible storms, and the driver contacted Brian to say he had two trees in his driveway and would be unable to drive Tatau to Chicago. They agreed to reschedule for Wednesday, but the driver never showed up.

    Which brings us to Plan B.

    We took the cat to the vet, got the certificates and the shots and everything else, and Brian scheduled the flight for this morning. Except there was one more problem: The carrier we had did not meet the FAA requirements.

    So, with the cat scheduled to be at National Airport at 11:45, I found myself sitting outside a pet store to get the right carrier. And, guess what? The store owner informed me that he didn’t have the required bowl and water bottle in stock.

    At 10:35, I made a mad dash through weekend “getaway” traffic — ha! — to another pet superstore, which I rapidly discerned was the feline equivalent of a Home Depot (aka 7th circle of hell). I managed to get the carrier and appropriate feeder/waterer and made the mad dash home, where Jill and Emma were trying to keep a by now very suspicious cat from running like the wind.

    Confused cat stuffed in carrier, I headed to the cargo depot at National Airport. Thankfully there are signs, but it was somehow less simple than “over the river, through the woods, past grandma’s house and take a left at the light.”

    At 11:44, I dashed into the cargo hold, cat and carrier in hand. And then I proceeded to wait for 25 minutes for the intake person to return to her desk and start filling out the paperwork. The last time I saw that many things to initial and sign was when I bought my house.

    The clerk informed me that she gets seven or eight dogs to every cat that is shipped off, explaining that's why she continued to call Tatau a puppy despite obvious appearances to the contrary. Combine this with the fact that Jill and I have called Tatau a "he" many more times than we've called her a "she" over the past month, and it would not be a surprise to see kitty therapy in Brian and Elise's future.

    To complicate matters further, a gentle giant — all 6 foot and 350 plus pounds of him — came inside the office, took one look inside the cage and stuck his face down in the gate. “What a pretty kitty,” he said in a deceptively high voice. The cat, I’m sure, twitched a little.

    Mounds of paperwork later, I left the cat behind, off to a new life with his owners in Chicago. Several hours later, she arrived at O’Hare, only to wait another two hours before Brian could be allowed to pick her up to go home.

    And so, ladies and gentlemen, that is the saga of how an 8-pound, 3-ounce cat moved from Northern Virginia to Chicago. Below, I’ve provided you with an illustration of what she looked like before (and likely after) the flight. I can’t even begin to tell you how the humans probably look.

  • Emma's Graduation Week

    Prior to Thursday's commencement ceremonies, Emma participated in several activities during her last week at Lake Braddock Secondary School. Among them: the school's senior awards ceremony on Tuesday, where she was recognized as one of 145 of the 659 graduates to finish with a GPA above 4.0. Then, on Wednesday with her grandmother in attendance, Emma and longtime friend Julia Speranzo danced to kickoff the school's baccalaureate ceremony. It's been a busy week...

  • We Have Another Graduate!

    Emma graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School during a ceremony honoring 659 seniors at the Patriot Center at George Mason University. It was the first time all four of our kids have been together since Kate graduated from Mount Vernon last year, and we were fortunate to be joined by other family members (including my mom) and close friends. Congratulations to our youngest daughter!

  • The End of GradFest 2016

    Emma's "GradFest 2016" came to an end Sunday with a party beautifully organized and coordinated by Jill. Thank you to all who helped and participated. I know Emma truly appreciated it...

  • A Father's Legacy

    The past 10 days included our 20th wedding anniversary, a prom, awards ceremony, baccalaureate service, graduation, graduation parties, Jill's 2+ day trip to Colorado, three roundtrips to National Airport in a 24-hour period, family members coming in from out of town and state, Orlando, the Tony Awards, the NBA Finals (wow, game 7), shooting MSA's graduation, finishing two freelance pieces, and putting up a small exhibit in the Associate Artists gallery.

    Oh, and there was this thing called Father's Day, too.

    Normally, I would get all sentimental around this time, in part because I truly wish my father was here to see all that our kids have accomplished in their (relatively) short time on this planet. Not a day goes by that I don't think of what he's missing by not being here.

    I can't help but think he would marvel at the swirl of activity that envelops our lives, just as Jill's parents would. He would tell us to slow down, if even for a second, because he never seemed to like moving quickly.

    At different times during this past week, I took a moment to look at each of my four kids who, because of circumstances, were all together for the first time in a year. In every case, I saw bits and pieces of my dad in each of them. It was a comforting reminder that, even though he's not here in physical form, his legacy lives on.

    Love and miss you, Dad.

  • Headshots: Ben

    Need some headshots? Check out these, taken of Ben during a session in New York City earlier this month. The photos are up at

  • MSA Senior Showcase Set

    Twenty-one high school seniors affiliated with Metropolitan School of the Arts will graduate later this month. Most also will perform in a special senior showcase scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the MSA studio in Alexandria.

    Our daughter, Emma, has been a part of the studio since early elementary school, so this will be one of the last opportunities she has to perform in a MSA show. As a parent, I’ve been fortunate to watch many of these kids — now young adults — grow up and flourish as performers and people. As a photographer, I’ve also been fortunate to take many of their headshots and senior pictures as they get ready to go to college.

    Late last month, on a drizzly Saturday morning, we went out for a shoot with the seniors that will be featured in a video to start the show. You can see some here. Come back next week to look at what I take at the senior speeches scheduled after the showcase.

  • Rhythm & Sole

    Photos from "Rhythm & Sole," the annual dance showcase featuring students from Fairfax Academy for Communications & the Arts. Our daughter, Emma, performed the dance she choreographed as a trio with her friends Georgia Monroe and Kelsey Kaufman. Congratulations to all the dancers, a number of whom had not performed on stage for an audience prior to the event.

    For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • MSA Graduates Showcase

    After Sunday's showcase featuring 16 high school seniors, Metropolitan School of the Arts hosted a reception for the soon-to-be graduates, a number of whom have been part of the studio for more than a decade.

    Recognized were Ben Cherington, Sarah Christophersen, Emma Cook, Sam Cornbrooks, Nakya Fenderson, Sarah Kelly, Sophia Kleess, Biby Medrano, Georgia Monroe, Gabi Odom, Jeremiah Porter, Veronica Quezada, Lexi Rhem, Amber Supernor, Hank von Kolnitz, and Adia Walker.

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.


    Emma and Sam Cornbrooks produced the showcase and developed, filmed and edited this video to introduce the event. Congratulations to both of these very talented kids and to all of the performers for their hard work.


  • 20 Years

    20 years. Where has the time gone? It has flown by so fast, and today, our last child finishes her last day of high school and goes to prom.

    20 years of memories, travels, adventures, happy times and (a few) heartbreaks. Four young adults we've worked to raise.

    20 years. Happy anniversary to the great love of my life. Here's to many more adventures together.

  • The First and Last Day

    Dear Emma:

    I took pictures of you on your first day of kindergarten (top left), first grade and many other first days since. This morning, I had the chance to take a photo on your last day of high school.

    Two schools, 13 years, more late nights than anyone cares to count. Your mom and I could not be prouder of you and all you have done. We can't wait to see what happens in the next chapter of your life.

    Love, Dad

  • Graduation #2: Brian

    Jill's cousin, Brian Hodges, received his MBA Friday from Georgetown University with his wife, Elise, son Parker and parents Gerald and Susan in attendance. Brian, Elise and Parker are moving to Chicago later this summer as he takes a position with S.C. Johnson. Congrats to Brian on this fantastic achievement!

  • Happy Mother's Day!

    I'm fortunate to be surrounded and supported by wonderful women in this life. To no one's surprise on this day of recognition, two who come quickly to mind are Jill and my mom, Olivia.

    As moms, you both have done and continue to do so much for your children and countless others. We would not be the same without you.

    Happy Mother's Day, night, and every other day of the year. We love you!

  • Another May, Another Graduation

    Graduation season began this past weekend with our niece, Elisabeth, receiving her bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We participated in Saturday's ceremony at the School of Journalism, followed by a lovely dinner at the Carolina Inn.

    Elisabeth is the second in the McFarland/Cook clan to graduate from college this year, following on the heels of Nicholas. Margaret graduates from high school later this month, followed by Emma and Ben in June. Busy time of year...

  • College Signing Day

    As we mark "College Signing Day," a hearty congratulations to our youngest daughter, Emma, on her decision to pursue a bachelor of arts in dance at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. She starts classes this fall.

  • A Memorable Night on Broadway

    "Tuck Everlasting" made its formal Broadway opening Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Jill, Emma and I drove in from Virginia and Nicholas flew from Nashville to see Ben in his first "adult" role.

    Here is a photo chronicle of our day and night, which included subway rides, a visit to Sardi's, the Gypsy Robe ceremony for the Tuck cast (covered by Broadway World), the show, the red carpet treatment, and a premiere party at Tavern on the Green. A memorable time was had by all, that's for sure.

  • Bowties for Parker on Playbill, BWW

    The Bowties for Parker on Broadway project I recently wrote about has been picked up by Playbill, and right now it's the lead on their Twitter feed. You also can see a Broadway World piece on the project here.

  • Stage Dad: A New Chapter

    Opening night for "Tuck Everlasting" is finally (almost) here, the culmination of almost three months filled with firsts for the boy.

    Tomorrow, we have the chance to see Ben perform during the opening of an original Broadway musical. At 18, he also is making his “adult” debut in the ensemble at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City.

    What makes this a unique experience for Ben, besides the "adult" part and living on his own in the city, is this is the first time he has been part of the cast of an original musical in New York. "Ragtime," in 2009, was a revival. "Billy Elliot" had already been running for more than a year on Broadway when he joined the ensemble. On the "Billy" and "Newsies" tours, he went through the tech process, but both of those shows were already established and much of the music/script/choreography had been locked in by the creative team.

    A new musical, even one that had been performed out of town, is much different.

    Five weeks of rehearsals were followed by almost a month of previews as the creative team continued to tweak and polish “Tuck,” which is based on the acclaimed children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt. Tim Federle, a wonderful writer and family friend who was one of Ben's mentors on "Billy," was brought in to contribute to the book. Music has been added, polished, and cut. Much of the choreography is new.

    That’s the reason the preview process is so important, because it gives the show a chance to be performed for audiences to see what works and what doesn’t before it is formally locked in.

    Chances are that if you saw “Tuck” in the first week or two of previews that what you’ll see now is different. It’s certainly been different for Ben, who is on stage quite a bit as an ensemble member and had not gone through one of those periods as a performer. (He was an understudy during the “Ragtime” revival.)

    What makes this period so grueling for the actors, creatives, and crew is that you are essentially doing two shows a day, six days a week. During the preview period, “Tuck” has been running on a nontraditional schedule, with Sundays instead of Mondays off.

    On single performance days, you typically arrive around noon to make adjustments and run through the show, take a break around 5 and then return two hours later to do it again for the preview audience. (Wednesdays and Saturdays are two show days.) Meanwhile, Ben is understudying two roles — Jesse Tuck and Hugo — and is learning their parts on stage.

    Also over the past month, the show has hosted legendary theatre photographer Joan Marcus, who captured the in-performance images that are at the top of this piece, and shot performance footage for a “B-roll” that will be used for promotion purposes.

    Finally, on Sunday, the cast gathered in a recording studio to record the score’s soundtrack, which will be available digitally on June 10 and in stores on July 1. That was another first for the boy.

    And so now it’s almost time. Another opening, another show. Proud family members in the audience. Others rooting for Ben from close and afar.

    There’s a certain “déjà vu all over again” feeling … and we couldn’t be more proud.

    Break a leg, son. 

    A couple of additional things to note:

    • It has been so wonderful to see the large number of friends and extended family who’ve come to see the show during the preview period. Cast members from “Billy Elliot” and “Newsies,” as well as friends from Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan, already have seen “Tuck.” I hope you’ll consider a trip, too.

    Dave Mack, a New York-based photographer, videographer and musician, is working at the Broadhurst Theatre and has been taking a series of beautiful portraits backstage. Here are a couple.

  • Preview for 'Tuck'; Opening Tomorrow!

    See the boy and a host of others in this video preview of Tuck Everlasting, which has its Broadway opening night tomorrow at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Congrats to Ben and the entire cast and creative team! Can't wait to be there...

  • Help Nick and Make-A-Wish

    As many of you know, my oldest son Nicholas has a younger sister, Bella, who lives in Greensboro and has Down’s Syndrome. Although she has since received a clean bill of health, Bella fought through a tough cancer battle several years ago. It was during that time that the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave his North Carolina family an opportunity to go to Disney World in 2013.

    “It was a long, trying, and emotional two years,” Nick wrote in a Facebook post yesterday. “She pushed through it though and is one of the strongest, most resilient little fighters I know. I couldn’t be prouder and more honored to be the big brother of this little inspiration.”

    Nick, kind and gentle soul that he is, has since been a supporter of the Make-A-Wish, including fundraisers with his college acapella group, Vital Signs. On June 3, he will hike 28.3 miles of the Foothills Trail in one day for the Make-A-Wish Central & Western North Carolina. He already has hit his $1,700 fundraising goal, but is still accepting donations to meet a personal goal of $2,500.

    “No child should have to go through what Bella's gone through. But for those that do, having their wish granted gives them and the family a break from it all, enriching lives with strength, joy and hope, an opportunity to smile,” Nick wrote.

    Our family has made a donation to Nick’s effort. I hope you will consider making one, too. To do so, go to his donation page here. Thank you for your support of our sweet and generous son.

  • Off to Point Park!

    Congratulations to Emma (far left with her sister, Kate, and mom earlier this month). She has been accepted to the Dance Department at Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh starting this fall. We are very proud of our youngest daughter, who graduates from Lake Braddock Secondary School in June.

  • Haggard, Springsteen & Times of Change

    My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.

    Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.

    I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.

    Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.

    "To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."

    Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.

    “I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”

    I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…

    The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)

  • Book Signing ... "Whatever."

    Tim Federle, whose young adult debut “The Great American Whatever” has been called “a Holden Caulfield for a new generation” by Kirkus Reviews, held a storytelling session and book signing Sunday at the McNally Jackson store in SoHo.

    The multitasking author, who also is co-writer of the book for the new Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting,” brought our son, Ben, as his special guest to read the first chapter of the book. Tim and Ben worked together on “Billy Elliot” in 2010-11 and have been reunited again on “Tuck Everlasting.”

    Tim, who is one of the nicest people we know in the industry, was a Broadway performer prior to making his writing debut with “Better Nate Than Ever” and its sequel “Five, Six, Seven Nate!” His first novel was named a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” while its follow up won the Lambda Literary Award.

    For more about Tim’s work, go to For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • On Broadway Again

    Proud parents with Ben after his performances in his first-ever Broadway show (Ragtime, November 2009) and his first show as an adult (Tuck Everlasting, April 2016).

  • Moving on Up: A Three-Day Journey

    It's difficult to believe it was just a week ago that I embarked on a 60-hour trip from New York to Tampa to Northern Virginia to move our daughter's stuff home. Now that our garage is sufficiently stuffed with stuff again, here is a summary of random thoughts from the long drive home.

    Day 1: Monday

    • Flying from New York to Tampa, I spent three hours on a packed airplane — window seat — with Edith Bunker and Sophia from The Golden Girls. Neither stopped talking the entire flight. One leaned over and raised my window while I was trying to take a nap, then explained three times in two minutes that she's "class-tro-phobic." I could resurrect the sitcom stereotype and run for five seasons on that material alone.

    • The weather is nice in Florida, but reminds me of growing up on the Texas Gulf Coast. That’s the last time I remember seeing I saw a mosquito drive past in an Escalade.

    • Not to make a political statement, but folks down here don’t seem to remember that the war ended 151 years ago. Of course, I know people in Texas who refuse to believe it ever joined the Union.

    Day 2: Tuesday

    • I’m in a 12-foot moving van from Florida to Northern Virginia with no CD player or aux cord and spotty FM reception. The local AM conspiracy theorists are coming through loud and clear though.

    I want to ask how it's possible to be so pessimistic and paranoid given their proximity to the happiest place on Earth, then realize I'd rather not know the answer and start searching for a sports talk channel. It’s gonna be a long trip...

    • Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Road,” his post-apocalyptic tale about a father and son traveling for months across land that has been destroyed by an unspecified cataclysmic event. Pretty much sounds like I-4 between Orlando and Jacksonville.

    • Seeing a billboard for a heart specialist between ads for Cracker Barrel and Golden Corral seems sort of beside the point, doesn't it?

    • In its next session, the Florida legislature sincerely should consider making an orange cone the state flag. That is, if Pennsylvania and Texas don’t beat them to it.

    • Spotted on I-95 after crossing the Florida line: One F-150 towing another F-150. In many states you’d say that was someone helping out a friend. Given the political climate in Georgia these days, it feels like Ford is making a commercial for Brokeback Mountain.

    • Speaking of I-95, it’s time to paraphrase Robert Earl Keen with, “The road goes on forever, but the party never begins.”

    Day 3: Wednesday

    • Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up, even if you’re working on next-to-nothing sleep at a Best Western off I-95 somewhere in the sticks of South Carolina... George Mason University received $30 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor to rename the law school after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. The name they came up with was The Antonin Scalia School of Law, which translates to ASSoL or ASS Law.

    Needless to say, I’m sure the Kochs weren’t happy to hear this. The name was quickly changed to The Antonin Scalia Law School.

    I needed that.

    • I’ve stopped at a couple of places along the way to take pictures. Future stories/photo essays coming up, I’m sure.

    • My grandmother rode her first horse in her mid 70s. I feel like I’ve been riding one for 800 miles.

    • One stop was in Summerton, S.C., where I spent several months researching a story for the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Almost 12 years after that story was published, not much has changed in this small town … sadly. (More on that later, too.)

    • If Pedro from South of the Border ever becomes the billboard spokesperson for 1-800-Kars4Kids, I promise you I will hurt someone. Consider that a given.

    • Post-Pedro billboard observation: North Carolina's internal conflicts are exposed in a 10-mile series of advertisements for Jesus and adult novelty stores that use the name Adam & Eve.

    • Not much to report in Virginia. Thank goodness.

    • Made it home around 9:30, about 60 hours after leaving New York. Now that all is said and done, I have driven more than 1,000 miles in 2+ days, loaded a small apartment, taken some pics and made it home alive to tell the tale.

    Not that I haven’t been telling it all along.

  • Life: Fragile, Unfair, Everlasting

    Tonight, my 18-year-old son is performing for a paying crowd in his first Broadway show as an adult. About 50 miles north of Syracuse, the family of one of my high school classmates is mourning the loss of their 18-year-old son, an aspiring musical theatre performer who was killed last week in a head-on collision that was not his fault.

    Life is just not fair.

    Like many of you, through Facebook I’ve become reacquainted with many people I grew up with but haven’t seen in years. Chuck Leikham and I went to the same high school; he is best friends with David Watson and his wife, Mary, who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been alive.

    Chuck and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Adams, N.Y. He has been in the military for much of his adult life, and now is assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like many families in the military, they have endured long separations from each other.

    Their son, Parker, was deciding between colleges in Michigan, where he planned to pursue a career in musical theatre, when the van he was driving was struck head-on about a quarter-mile from his home. Parker had performed in local, youth, and school theatre since he was in second grade and had just finished a starring role in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the weekend before the accident.

    By all accounts, he was a terrific talent and beloved by the community and his classmates. A lineman on his high school football team, he was on the school’s “Whiz Quiz” team that won an international championship in 2014. He also was known for wearing bow ties.

    Two days after Parker’s death, a community candlelight vigil drew more than 800 people to the South Jefferson High School stadium, where his parents and siblings released 18 balloons in honor of his life. A local video company showed up to record the event, and after letting the family know they had a drone to capture the proceedings from overhead, his mother asked the crowd to make a bow tie for her son. The result shows the incredible outpouring of love and support for Parker and his family.

    Tonight, as we celebrate Ben’s opening preview of Tuck Everlasting, a show with beautiful music and the theme of eternal life, we’ll also say a prayer for a family that has lost its own shining star.


    Note: The family is trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bowtie in honor of their son and is asking for support from their friends on Facebook. Chuck wrote today that his son “loved her show and has much in common with her. Parker was all about love and tolerance.” To write in, go to

  • Talking About the Bipolar Tiger

    In many ways, Patty Duke could have been — and perhaps should have been — a child star statistic. The early rise to childhood fame, the alcoholic and mentally ill parents, the controlling and abusive managers led to an adulthood featuring multiple marriages and affairs, suicide attempts, and her own struggles with drugs and drink.

    Despite a persistent feeling that “something was not right, or even more intensely, that there was something wrong with me,” Duke refused to get help until she was in her mid 30s, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

    “I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t need their help,” she said in a 2011 interview with the girlfriend of a writer I once supervised. “I was on an intimate basis with God. I told God what to do, and He did.”

    Duke managed to survive, and ultimately thrive, in the second act of her life, which ended Tuesday at age 69. She started taking lithium, going to therapy and talking to anyone who would listen about mental health issues; Duke was a keynote speaker at Jill’s American School Counselor Association conference in 2011.

    She attacked the stigma around mental health as fiercely as she attacked a script, writing two books and speaking across the country about her experiences.

    “I’ve survived,” she wrote on her website. “I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, most days, that feels like a miracle.” 

    As our kids transition into adulthood, Patty Duke’s story resonates with our family. Now living in New York, our son is navigating the tricky move from child actor to adult actor. Back at home after a few months in Florida, our daughter is learning how to be an adult and trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Their siblings are dealing, in some ways, with the unintentional collateral damage caused by family circumstances.

    The treacherous path that we call parenthood is littered with block after block of crossroads. Left, right or straight, many decisions feel like an endless game of second guessing. Did we do the right thing? Are we doing what’s best for everyone? Is that possible?

    The answers are not clear cut, but we continue to try.


    People are starting to talk more openly about "it."

    Five years ago, when Ben was in the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” in New York, he met Jonathan Bucari, a French filmmaker who had moved to the U.S. and was starting work on a short film called “Illness.” The mother of one of Ben’s cast mates, Carina Rush, agreed to produce the movie, which looked at a family’s struggle to cope with the erratic behavior of their middle son and the discovery that he has a mental illness.

    After winning multiple awards, “Illness” has been expanded to feature length and retitled “No Letting Go.” The 104-minute film, a labor of love for Carina, Jonathan and writer/producer Randi Silverman (who based the screenplay on her own life), has received strong reviews for its handling of the sensitive subject matter and performances. 

    “No Letting Go,” which was released in theaters this month in New York and Los Angeles, was made available on demand Wednesday for “World Bipolar Day.” An event created in 2014 to bring awareness to the disorder and to eliminate the ongoing stigmas surrounding mental illness, “World Bipolar Day” is held annually on the birthday of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was believed to have suffered from the illness.  

    Also on Wednesday, a webcast held at the University of Michigan Depression Center featured a panel of experts and contributors to the upcoming PBS documentary, “Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain.” The webcast and the one-hour documentary, which focuses on cutting edge mental health research amid personal stories of people with mood disorders, are fascinating and worthwhile uses of your time. Both are available to stream now on the PBS website; the documentary premieres on PBS stations on April 13.

    Throughout “Ride the Tiger,” which I watched after Jill alerted me to the webcast, those affected by the disorders talk about their journeys, what they’ve learned, and how they face the stigmas associated with mental illness.

    The researchers discuss what they are doing to find out where biological breakdowns occur — bipolar is not, despite what some may think, behavioral. It is a medical diagnosis that affects the brain. The researchers show how they are trying to find ways to pre-empt, fix, or rewire the brain so the manic and depressive swings don’t take place.

    One of the documentary’s contributors, author Melody Moezzi, recently wrote an excellent Huffington Post column that talks about “Thriving With Bipolar Disorder.” In it, she notes how it remains difficult for people to talk about mental illness. 

    “For God’s sake, we still call it “mental illness,” as though the brain weren’t a fundamental part of the physical body. Given the prevalence of this colossal oversight, not to mention a grossly underfunded mental health system that relies heavily on condescension, coercion and incarceration, it’s hard not to support any day that might bring more attention to brain disorders.”

    The first person to appear in the documentary, somewhat ironically, is Patty Duke. It is her last screen appearance.


    After her diagnosis, Duke did everything she could to promote awareness and eliminate stigmas as she brought stability to her own life. Her last marriage remained solid for 30 years. She managed to forge close relationships with her sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, both of whom also became actors. In the 2011 interview with Elizabeth Zavala, almost 20 years after her diagnosis, her voice trembled as she described her sons’ upbringing.

    “They never quite knew who was going to be on the other side of the door. It could be the nice mom or this raving, ranting, raging, out-of-control creature … It took a while for these little boys to trust me again. They do now. They have tremendous respect for my recovery and amazing generosity in their forgiveness of me, as long as I take my medicine.”

    On Tuesday, Sean Astin published a note announcing the Patty Duke Health Project, a program that “will fuel a multi-level approach to achieving results for those suffering with mental illness and their families and communities.” You can make a donation to the initiative here

    “Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public,” Astin wrote. “She crossed the nation speaking and campaigning and lobbying for mental health. My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”

    May her efforts not be in vain. We need all the advocates we can get. It’s just too important to rest on stigmas.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Conclusion

    Conclusion: Being interviewed by an aspiring teenage photographer — the director’s cut. This section focuses on the “Art & Dance” series.

    What led to the “Art & Dance” series?

    My twins, Ben and Emma, are dancers (as was their sister, Kate, until she was in high school). So, as the family photographer, I found myself taking pictures of their recitals, just like I did with Nicholas and his theatre/music performances in high school and college. For a long time, I had to take hundreds of pictures just to get a few I liked.

    And there are reasons for that.

    First, I shot a lot of pictures indoors, and until I got a good camera body (Canon 5D-Mark III) that works well in low light as well as a number of F2.8 lenses (the expensive ones), I was working at a disadvantage, especially indoors.

    Second, I usually shot performances, which meant that I sat in the same place and tried to capture things on a stage. That was both fun and boring at the same time, because I had to wait instead of create, and I had to rely on lighting that was completely out of my control.

    In 2014, I was looking for a new creative challenge, one that was more conceptual and artistic. I was always told that I had more of a news eye than a conceptual one and, for a long time, I believed that, but I wanted to challenge myself because it was something I hadn’t done before.

    That’s when I came up with the idea of taking pictures of dancers in natural light and in unusual settings. This is not a unique thing; you can find countless images all over the web. But it solved two concerns for me: 1) I wouldn’t have to worry about slow shutter speeds and sitting in the same place all the time. 2) I could see if my conceptual eye (the Art) could match the skills of the performer (the Dance).

    What challenges did you find in doing this?

    Unfortunately, at least at the beginning, I shot the “Art & Dance” pictures the same way as I did the performances. As someone who doesn’t dance, I didn’t understand the “peak” and missed it over and over, as my kids took pains to remind me constantly.

    Things changed for me when I realized that I needed to try different angles. I do that in my other photography, but why not dance? Often when I sit I can capture peaks because my eye is at the same level as the dancer’s jump. And the more I practice, the better I get at it, both the photography and the art direction.

    As a dancer, you have an advantage because you know that part. But you will still need to practice, practice, practice. Photography is a form of art just like dance is, and you can always find ways to improve.

    For the first three parts of this series, go here, here and here.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Part 3

    Part 3: Being interviewed by an aspiring teenage photographer — the director’s cut. This section focuses on starting and running a business.

    Did you always want to own a photography business?

    Growing up in the days when we had film and not digital photography, I never, ever thought I would do something like this.

    I’ve always been primarily a writer and editor. Photography was something that interested me, and I really enjoyed doing it while working for small newspapers in Texas and North Carolina. Traditional studio portraits, however, are often more technical than artistic, and for the longest time I thought that was the only way I make a living through photography.

    When I moved into communications, and became a one-person publishing unit, I started paying more attention to the visual presentation, especially as I took photos. The problem was I did not have the technical skills, or the patience and aptitude to learn those skills in a way that could make me successful solely as a photographer.

    Understanding how to get my camera to do what I wanted so I could capture what I saw was more frustrating than fascinating, especially in the days when post-production was spent inhaling chemicals in a pitch dark room.

    That has been eliminated thanks to the digital explosion, and enhanced by a chance to pay tribute to my dad. It’s also served as an opportunity to explore that I never thought I'd have.

    How did you start your business?

    On a rainy day in 2012, my oldest son (Nicholas) needed headshots for school. Of course, he was leaving that day, so we had to be creative, especially since I didn’t have studio equipment.

    I was extremely nervous about doing them — nothing is harder than getting professional quality shots of your own family — but they turned out well and I found that I liked the challenge of portrait photography, especially without the constraint of being in a studio.

    The next year, I was laid off from my job and became a freelancer. I started offering photography as part of my services when I felt like I finally had the equipment and the skills necessary to make sure my customers would be satisfied with my work. I’ve been fortunate that most of my clients like my work, and the business has grown in new and unexpected ways. 

    What have you learned from running your own business? What are the challenges?

    I learn something new every day. I’ve had to learn how to juggle many different writing and photography projects at once while still trying to raise a family, something that is not unique to anyone who does this even if our circumstances (and skill sets) are a bit different. Like any business, this one fluctuates in a feast or famine way, and that can be challenging.

    My wife is an excellent time manager, and being the one with the out-there creative gene, I’m not. I never have been, so it’s something I have to continue working at constantly.

    Purely from a photography standpoint, I still struggle at times with my technical skills (especially in the area of retouching). They are not where I’d like them to be yet, although I’m getting better. It’s not something that comes naturally, but I’m working at it.

    What have you enjoyed the most?

    I genuinely like meeting new people and working with them on various projects, whether its through interviews for stories or going on a shoot. When you have a chance to work together in a collaborative way, like we’ve done for the “Art & Dance” series, that’s always a lot of fun.

    Increasingly, I’ve learned how to enjoy art directing a shoot. This was something I never thought I would be good at, because I didn’t think I had that level of creativity to create something out of nothing. I find it really fascinating.

    Tomorrow: Concluding with Art & Dance. For Parts 1 and 2, go here and here.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Part 1

    Recently, the father of a 13-year-old girl wrote asking if I could help her with a class project by answering some questions about photography. The dad explained that his daughter — a dancer and a big “Newsies” fan — had started following my work because of my ongoing “Art & Dance” series and had gotten a camera for Christmas.

    As a dad, it’s hard to turn down this type of request, especially when a parent takes the time to ask for help for his daughter. As a photographer, I’m more collegial than competitive, and always happy to help others.

    Answering her questions was an interesting exercise. Since Jill and I reached 50 last year, we both find ourselves reflecting on why we do what we do, what drives us to continue, and what we like/dislike about our roles in this life. As the child of two teachers, this was my teachable moment, an opportunity to explain  the craft I've come to love.

    Over the next four days, I’d like to share edited — and in some cases enhanced — versions of the responses. (Call it a “director’s cut” if you will.) If you follow my writing and this blog, chances are you’ve seen some of this before. But I hope you find it an entertaining read nonetheless.

    What was your inspiration to become a professional photographer?

    My dad was a visual artist who could paint, sculpt, or draw anything that came to mind. I can't draw a stick figure, but I've always had his eye for composition, just not the creativity (or sadly, the fine motor skills) to create something out of nothing.

    When I first went to New York with our son, Ben, in 2009, I thought of my dad often as I was drawn to the visual explosion that is the city. Dad died in 2007 and never visited New York, but in so many ways, the stuff I see walking around serves as a constant reminder of his interests, insights, and influence on my life. Also, when in New York, I spend most of my time on foot as opposed to in a car, so I see things differently when I’m there.

    On a beautiful spring day, I took out my camera, started taking random pictures of the things I saw, and found I have a knack for it. I shared the photos to Facebook, found my friends liked them too, and just continued with it. 

    What do you like most about photography?

    Capturing moments in time, whether it is through the dance pictures, an unusual or visually interesting place, or through portraits I take of people. People seem to appreciate that I can do it and like my work, which is very gratifying.

    Photography also has allowed me to make connections I never would have imagined — such as the one I’m making with you right now — and several folks from far-flung places have said they became interested in picking up a camera after seeing my random noodlings. I've been lucky to go out on photo shoots with a variety of other weekend warriors, all of whom I've learned from and whose talents are greater than mine.

    Here’s what I say to anyone who has an interest in taking pictures: Try it and see what happens. You might find you like it and have a previously untapped talent. It’s something you can do alone or with others. It gives you a chance to be creative in ways you might never have imagined.

    Next Up: Learning the basics.

  • Shadows by the TV Light

    Several years ago, before my father died, we were tweaking each other about politics, something that happened on a semi-regular basis. Somewhat joking, he asked how I turned out the way I did.

    My response: Saturday night television.

    Between All in the Family, Maude, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Times, and Carol Burnett — all of which aired Saturdays on CBS at one point or another in the early to mid 1970s — I was doomed. Call it the curse of King (Norman) Lear.

    By the late 1970s, however, many of those shows had either ended their runs or were winding down (M*A*S*H being the exception). Sitcoms were becoming increasingly dumb and — having reached the ripe old age of 13 — I had matured enough to look for something more.

    First up was Lou Grant, the MTM spinoff that took one of our most beloved sitcom characters and put him in a dramatic newspaper setting. It was thanks in part to that show that I became interested in writing and, especially, in reporting.

    The second show was The White Shadow, which ran on Monday nights from 1978 to 1981 and told the story of a former NBA player trying to coach a group of high school students in urban Los Angeles. Anchored by Ken Howard (himself a 6-foot, 6-inch former basketball player), The White Shadow was the first show that truthfully used sports, and the struggles teens from difficult environments face while trying to escape their surroundings, to such telling effect.

    Friday Night Lights is my all-time favorite TV series, but The White Shadow was its forefather. Between Howard and FNL’s Kyle Chandler, you had two tough, moral, flawed, and kind people in the center square. (Interestingly, both were referred to more often as “Coach” than by their character’s real names.) Both characters are people that you can admire, and even aspire to be more like.

    I had not thought about The White Shadow in some time, then read this morning that Ken Howard had died. Immediately, I saw his character interacting with Salami, Coolidge, Gomez, Reese, Thorpe, Goldstein, CJ and Vitaglia.

    But mostly I thought of the lessons that Coach taught me as a young, impressionable viewer. I then thought of my dad and the lessons he taught me, and then of the dad that I’ve tried to become.

  • Tides of Memories: Pat Conroy & Others

    Pat Conroy’s death last week brought back a tide of strong memories. The first was when I read the “Lords of Discipline” in high school, and the second was when I saw Conroy at a talk/book signing in Greensboro almost two decades later.

    Like “The Great Santini,” perhaps the book he is best known for along with “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” draws upon the author’s struggles with the military’s hardness, born of traditions that encouraged prejudice and misogyny in the Vietnam-era South.

    Published in 1980, the book was being made into a film a couple of years after “Taps,” another fictionalized drama about a military school. As I’ve often done, hearing about a movie based on a novel makes me want to read the book before seeing the film, so I picked it up.

    What “Lords of Discipline” taught me was how hard it must be to do a novel justice on the big screen. Even though the film was OK, there was no way it could capture the depth of Conroy’s work, or the (occasional) pulp of his prose. The book captured a South I had long heard of, but never wanted to be part of, in such a way that I became determined never to experience it.


    This has been a terrible winter for artists, and the world of classic rock-era music has been particularly hard hit. Add to that list author Harper Lee and actor Alan Richman, and it has been seemingly a never-ending roll call.

    In the first three months of 2016, we’ve lost Beatles producer George Martin, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Vanity, Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of Jefferson Airplane.

    In some ways, the deaths of most of those who passed away should not come as a shock, given the hard living that many of those musicians lived during the substance-fueled 1960s, 70s and 80s. Bowie, still working until right before his death, was the exception, even though he had been battling (quietly except to those closest to him) cancer for 18 months.

    The reason, I think, that the long list of deaths surprises and gives me pause is because each of these artists was popular during my childhood. And with each passing, that childhood recedes further into my life’s rear view.

    One singer’s illness, in the midst of everything, caught my attention. Joey Feek of the country duo Joey+Rory, whose public battle with cervical cancer was chronicled every step of the way by her husband, died this month at the young age of 40.

    I didn’t know much about the couple or their music. In fact, I’ve heard only a few of their songs, which are pretty enough (especially their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”), but not cutting edge or truly memorable. What caught my attention was their openness about the illness, the way Rory Feek wrote about and cared for his wife and young daughter as Joey moved into hospice care.

    There is something wrong about a person having to suffer in such a way, especially just a couple of years after having a child with Down’s Syndrome. But the grace and dignity they showed throughout is both commendable and memorable, and will outlive the songs they leave behind.


    Pat Conroy wrote about life, death, family, dysfunction, mental illness and life as a military brat in the South. He too was open about all of his family’s foibles, so much so that many of his relatives would no longer speak to him.

    He joked about this at the speech and book signing I saw him at in Greensboro, when he was promoting “Beach Music.” I had the chance to see him when Sarah Bullock, one of Jill’s co-workers and a second mother to her in many ways, invited me to come along.

    Conroy’s sense of humor, always bubbling under the surface despite his lifelong struggles with depression, was in fine form as he told stories about his father meeting Barbra Streisand, and writing. When I mentioned, during the book signing, that I had worked as a newspaper editor before moving into communications, he complemented me on “escaping my career choice.” He then signed my copy of The Lords of Discipline — a hardback I bought that day, with the phrase, “For the love of words and books.”

    Seeing Conroy was a highlight of my seven-plus years in North Carolina, and it’s rare that Sarah or I fail to mention it when we see or speak to each other. I still have the book, and last Christmas, Sarah sent me Conroy’s last work — “The Death of Santini.”

    May he — and the others — rest in peace.

  • Tuck Marquee is Up!

    In a continuing quest to show — from afar — the process of rehearsals for "Tuck Everlasting" (and the boy who is in it), here's a short video on the unveiling of the marquee. The show opens in previews on March 31, with opening night set for April 26.

  • Exit Interview

    Jordan Samuels, one of the cast members of "Newsies," conducted his video "exit interview" with Ben prior to last show in St. Louis and posted it to his YouTube page. Both guys did a great job.

  • "Tuck" Starts Rehearsals

    Congrats to Ben on his first day of “Tuck Everlasting” rehearsals. We’re so proud of you, son, and can’t wait to see the show.

  • Stage Dad: Beginnings & Endings

    Beginnings and endings make my stomach turn, especially since I became a parent. Every performance, every show, every game brings the same set of nerves and emotions, especially at the start and as the finish approaches.

    Today brought me to St. Louis, the site of a beginning and — the reason I'm here now — an ending. More than four years ago, Ben started tour life in "Billy Elliot" at the Fox Theatre; today he ended his 17-month run in "Newsies" at the same venue.

    The difference is striking, as any parent who watches their child grow up notices. At almost 14, he was already a theater veteran, but had never been farther from home than New York; now, at 18, he has spent multiple nights in more than 40 states and all five provinces of Canada.

    Unlike when the "Billy Elliot" run ended in May 2013, Ben isn't facing the teenage "dead zone." Starting later this month, finally considered an adult in the industry, he will start work on a new Broadway musical while finishing his senior year in New York.

    It's been a remarkable run, one filled with as many false starts as beginnings and endings. It's also a testament to the rare occurrence when desire and hope merge with opportunity. What I'm proudest of is when others tell me our son is still the boy we hoped to raise when he and Emma were born. That, despite having so many different experiences at a young age, he is still kind and grateful for the opportunity to do what he does.

    I don't pretend to understand how or why this works the way it has. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise four very different children while maintaining our own careers, friendship, and marriage. I would be lying to say it's been an easy juggle, but can honestly say I would not have been able to survive it without her as a partner in this endeavor.

    Over the past two-plus years, while trying to build a business and realizing that the career I worked for 30 years to build means little in life's grand scheme, I've been fortunate to spend quality time with each of my kids and help support Jill in her career as it has taken off. Although I wish (and hope) to build a new career as our children leave the nest this year, I would not trade that time for anything.

    It's not the turn I would have expected my life to take four years ago when I first saw Ben in St. Louis. But that's the thing I've noticed repeatedly over time: Where you start is not necessarily where you end up.

    No matter how nervous that makes me, I wouldn't have it any other way.

    Here's to new beginnings.

  • Parker In the Snow

    Meet our 5-month-old godson, Parker, the child of Jill's cousin Brian and his wife, Elise Hodges. Brian, Elise and Parker have been staying with us for the past three days during the snowstorm/blizzard. While this is not his first exposure to snow, it still made sense to put him in a drift briefly and see what we could capture. (And what we captured is pretty cute, IMO.)

  • The Challenger: A Look Back

    Thirty years ago, running late to a 10:30 a.m. class, I walked past a TV set at College of the Mainland and caught a glimpse of what you see above you. The Challenger shuttle had exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven on board, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.

    It was a sight unlike any other we would see until the Twin Towers fell 15 years later.

    McAuliffe’s presence on the shuttle was expected to bring some much-needed attention to the beleaguered space program, which was facing major budget struggles and dwindling public interest amid criticism of a bureaucratic management. Still, only one network — CNN — planned to carry the launch live.

    What NASA hoped would be a public relations coup soon turned into a tragedy few can forget.


    Growing up on the Gulf Coast, the space program was a large part of our lives. Fran Waranius, my second mom, was the head librarian at the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute (now Lunar and Planetary Institute), a research arm of NASA.

    One summer, when I was 15, she hired me to collate the Apollo mission prints she had salvaged in a dumpster dive at the JSC headquarters. NASA, trying to save space, had trashed all of the almost 100,000 prints.

    It was a memorable job, but not — I repeat not — a sexy one. Photo after photo of rocks and craters were broken up only on occasion by iconic images that had landed on the covers of every major magazine and newspapers. Fortunately, Fran let me keep any duplicates I found, and I still have them to this day.

    I also have photos of the Class of 1978, a group that featured Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and several of the Challenger astronauts who perished on that day. One was Ronald McNair; his wife, Cheryl, taught school with my mom at Roosevelt-Wilson.


    Three days later, President Reagan addressed a crowd of almost 10,000 at Johnson Space Center at a memorial service for the astronauts. The service was held in Houston because five of the seven who were killed lived in the Houston area at the time.

    Just days after my 21st birthday, working as a reporter at the Texas City Sun, I received a press pass to cover the event. It was my first chance to see a sitting president in person.

    The non-White House press corps had to arrive four hours before the service was set to begin. We were assigned small spots and told not to move. The Secret Service was everywhere. Four hours seemed like an eternity on three hours sleep, especially on a chilly, sunny morning.

    Reagan and his wife, Nancy, arrived with at least 90 members of Congress for the service, which was attended by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests. The NASA T-38 jets flew overhead in Missing Man Formation as a band from Lackland Air Force Base played “God Bless America.” The crowd sang loudly as the band performed “America the Beautiful.”

    It was as surreal as you can imagine.


    Somewhere, I still have the copy of Reagan’s speech and the program from the event, stuffed away with all of my other Fran-related NASA paraphernalia. But one quote from the speech stands out, and as I started writing this late on the anniversary day, I had to dig it out again.

    “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short,” Reagan said. “But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

    The shuttle program did press on, despite a 32-month hiatus following a sharply critical report by the Rogers Commission that focused on NASA’s flawed organizational culture and poor decision-making practices. The space agency was criticized again in 2003 after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members, but no other major incidents occurred before the program was retired in 2011.

    Befitting a mission that was to put the first teacher in space, the lasting legacy of the Challenger can be found in many of our schools.

    Numerous campuses across the U.S. are named after the fallen astronauts. Their families established the Challenger Centers, a network that focuses its efforts on educating students in 40 towns and cities around the world on science, technology and mathematics. Today, the network has reached an estimated 4.4 million school kids.

  • Out in California: The Story

    A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.

    I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.

    Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.

    Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.

    It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.

    Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.

    The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”

    After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.

    Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.


    On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.

    Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, B