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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Fathers, Dads, Etc.

    This special “Father’s Day” essay is brought to you by the Department of Unsolicited Advice…

    Parenting is not a math problem. There are no definite right and wrong answers. In many respects, it’s a matter of taking your best guess at a moment in time and going with that, all the while knowing you might have to change course at some point along the way.

    I’ve been fortunate to have several father figures in my life, even if I didn’t make the connection at the time. Although none was more important than the man I called “Dad” for my first 42 years on earth, these people helped fill in the personal and professional gaps that have made me who I am today.

    Village clichés aside, I learned early in life that “family” has an elastic definition, one not confined to biology or genetics. My parents deeply loved each other and their children, but they also recognized they did not have all the answers. I’m so glad they didn’t try to pretend that they did.

    And despite having such good role models, I spent much of my first 30+ years terrified of actually being a parent, admiring those who did it well and feeling I could never measure up. As a result, much of my self-esteem centered on professional successes and less on personal ones, even after Jill and I got together and my four kids were born.

    It was only after my dad died that I realized my time on this earth was finite, and that my chances to have a direct impact on the upbringing of my kids was fleeting. I also saw the chance to be that male person that others could turn to, and tried to spend time listening and offering realistic, heartfelt advice and support where I could.

    Now, Father’s Day comes down to this for me:

    • Don’t forget to take a moment to realize that a young person is never too old for a hug, and that simple kindness is greatly underrated. 
    • Don’t be afraid to take responsibility for your actions and mistakes. An apology is not a mark of failure, but of maturity.
    • Don’t forget what brought you to this point, or those who brought you there.
    • Don’t be afraid to call out someone when necessary. 
    • Don’t forget to be thankful, even when the day/week/month/year/decade sucks.
    • Don’t be afraid to embrace uncertainty. It's where creativity begins.

    Most of all, remember that your life’s work is never done, even after you’re long gone. Whether you know it or not, your influence — good and bad — will be felt for generations to come. ‪#‎HappyFathersDay‬

  • 'Do Not Forget' Good Music

    Realizing I've been on a Jon Dee Graham kick recently, this song has been been stuck in my head for days. Any father/son (or parent, for that matter) should be able to identify... Just great.

    BTW, Graham will perform — solo, I think — at Hill Country BBQ in DC on June 16 and in NYC the following evening. Jill has agreed to go again with me to the DC show; would love it if friends would join us. And NYC peeps, you'll be hearing some great stuff...

    Meanwhile, Graham and his son, William, have donated a song to the Hallman Flood Relief mixtape, now available here on Bandcamp for a minimum donation of $15. It’s great music — 36 songs in all — for a great cause: Austin musicians helping one of their own faced with terrible damage from last month’s flooding.

    Mark Hallman is a “renowned and loved” producer/musician/mastering engineer/studio owner whose home suffered severe flooding when storms struck Texas and Oklahoma in May. About 90 percent of the songs on the mixtape were produced, recorded, mixed and/or mastered by Hallman and Andre Moran at Hallman’s Congress House studio.

    Artists on the mixtape include The Painted Redstarts, the band led by Graham’s son, William; Eliza Gilkyson, Betty Soo, Danny Schmidt, Charlie Faye, Randy Weeks, Sara Hickman, Will Sexton, and The Belle Sounds. Unlike most of these compilations, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch, and it’s a terrific primer for anyone interested in the music being made in the Live Music Capital of the World.

  • Not "Waiting for Superman"

    My dad was a lifelong fan of superheroes — Batman, Green Hornet, the Flash, and, yes, Superman — for his entire life. He drew pictures, collected comic books and action figures, and saw the art that was brought to life within the pages of a comic book.

    He also was a teacher, someone who taught art and history for more than 30 years and a person who affected the lives of thousands of students. When he retired, three years before his death, he questioned whether he had made a difference — even though those who were in his classes knew he had.

    I looked up to my father — and to my mom, whose career also was spent in classrooms — and respected his opinions, even though they differed greatly from my own at times. Today, watching the opening of “Waiting for Superman,” I wondered what he would have thought.

    Davis Guggenheim’s new film has ramped up the debate about our nation’s public schools in a way that the best films do. He hitches the narrative to sympathetic, interesting characters and draws them into a sort of good vs. evil battle with the highest stakes of all — the education of our children. But in doing so, he also misses the mark.

    “Superman” does not feature the staple of what makes superhero stories interesting — a great villain. By casting teachers and, more specifically, teachers unions in this film’s role, Guggenheim opts for a convenient target. (Examples of school boards and traditional administrators are shown in films made in the 1950s and ’60s — another cynical slap at traditional public schools.)

    And while the brush is not quite broad enough to paint charter schools as the be-all, end-all for public education — more than 80 percent underperform their traditional counterparts, by the way — the only success stories shown in the film are charters. I know, having covered education for a number of years, that you can find many traditional public schools that are doing great jobs as well.

    Guggenheim’s case is boosted by five adorable children — all with loving, sincere parents who are seeking admission to high-performing charter schools via a lottery. Innovative, charismatic reformers — Geoffrey Canada, who provides the source of the title, and Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington, D.C., chancellor — are without question upheld as the heroes.

    You can’t help but feel for these families as the lottery balls drop, and knowing the outcome in advance — I won’t spoil it for you here, but needless to say it’s not a fairy tale — makes the inevitable ending all the more heartbreaking.

    As the credits roll, Guggenheim notes that, “The problem is complex but the steps are simple.” By failing to properly outline the complexities found in our public schools, he has done a disservice to viewers who are being called into action. In the end, nuance is all but lost in the interest of drama.

    Make no mistake, as a drama, “Waiting for Superman” works. But the more I think about the film, I keep coming back to a problem with its central thesis. By casting unions as the central villain, and noting that some people scam the system (and ultimately, the kids) for their own self-interest, Guggenheim takes the simplest path to make his point. This uneasy mix of cynicism and naïveté, while it works in telling his story, also feels somewhat contradictory and disingenuous to someone who knows how complex schools are to operate.

    I can’t help but think my father, who was no fan of unions, would have felt the same. He knew the superheroes he loved were characters from a comic book, and that real-life heroes could be found in traditional public schools every day. I just wish Guggenheim and those who are so quick to bash would look for those heroes, too.

  • A Belated Gift

    Our life together is so precious together.
    We have grown. We have grown.
    Although our love is still special,
    Let's take a chance and fly away
    Somewhere alone...

    My father and John Lennon were born 12 days apart. They had a mutual love for Elvis and married early, as adults from that generation did. Tragedy helped shape their lives — Lennon’s in his childhood, my father’s after he became an adult.

    This year, both would have turned 70 — Lennon this past weekend and my dad on October 20. Neither made it.

    The similarities stop there. We all know Lennon’s story, which is endlessly retold and reshaped every few months or years. My father’s story is more mundane, but no less important, at least to me and to other members of my family.

    This past weekend, en route on another traffic-infested trip from Northern Virginia to New York with my girls, I stuck in the “new” CD, “Double Fantasy — Stripped Down.”

    Lennon’s first album in five years, “Double Fantasy” was a long-awaited rebirth for the former Beatle, who emerged from a self-imposed period of domesticity that followed the breakup of one of the best — if not the singular — rock bands of all time. In between, he suffered through an attempted (and finally thwarted) deportation by the Nixon Administration, dealt with fans’ lingering (and, for many, ongoing) anger toward Yoko Ono, separated from her, dove into the wilderness of drugs and drink, and finally emerged, a mature man. And within two months after hitting 40, he was dead.

    While I liked “Double Fantasy,” I wasn’t thrilled by it, in part because I didn’t understand the place Lennon was at then. (And, to be honest, I was never much of a Yoko fan.)

    “Stripped Down” intrigued me, however, and as the boredom of the New Jersey Turnpike wafted past, I found myself listening in a new way to Lennon’s valedictory effort. I flashed back to the night we all found out, watching a Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets when Howard Cosell broke the news. For a moment I was 15 again, a place no one in their right mind should want to revisit.

    My dad was not much of a Lennon fan; he preferred McCartney. He didn’t understand or appreciate Lennon’s politics, which were out there for someone living on the Texas Gulf Coast. In fact, if you came right down to it, he was happy to ditch the Beatles for Elvis any day of the week. Our entire family was affected far more by Elvis’ death than by Lennon’s.

    Still, on the Tuesday after we found out, I came home after school and rummaged through my dad’s records, where I found the first three Beatles albums. He skipped the psychedelic stuff but returned for “Abbey Road” — “Come Together” played over and over in our house — and he loved “Imagine” (except for the no God part).

    It's been too long since we took the time.
    No one's to blame.
    I know time flies so quickly.


    I thought about going to Central Park and visiting Strawberry Fields on the birthday anniversary, although I knew it would be filled with people playing guitars, singing, weeping, and flailing their way through the Beatles/Lennon catalogue. I've been there before, and decided I couldn't take it, especially when there were more important things to tend to: my children.

    So, I spent the weekend with my girls and Ben, running them to various things that mean something to their lives (Ben to an audition, Emma to the Cake Boss bakery in Hoboken, and Kate to every kiosk and trinket she saw). I never made the turn right to go to Central Park.

    Driving back to Virginia last night, I put the CD in again briefly and listened, thinking of my dad and the weekend. As the songs played — even Yoko sounds a little better in the “Stripped Down” incarnation — I regretted briefly not making the walk on the beautiful fall day. Then I looked at my daughters — Emma napping on the passenger’s side, Kate sitting in the back looking at the laptop — and realized I had been where I needed to be all along.

    Nobody told me there’d be days like these.
    Nobody told me there’d be days like these.
    Strange days, indeed.

  • Stage Dad: Father & Son

    I became a better father when my dad died.

    It was five years ago this past week — a lifetime in many respects. Dad had been ill for some time, thanks to a slightly toxic gene pool that forced him to fight a variety of physical maladies for years. My mom spent most of my childhood and a large chunk of my adult life caring for my dad, with a level of devotion that still amazes me.

    Watching mom and dad deal with everything was one reason I never thought I would be a parent, let alone one with four children. I saw their sacrifices — even though in my self-centered youth, they may not have seemed like much at the time — and never believed I could do the same.

    Of course, growing up in Texas, I didn’t think I would live in the Washington, D.C., area or that I would have a job that would take me to the corners of the U.S. and parts in between. I wistfully dreamed of going to parts unknown — before the reality of business travel kicked in — and never thought it would happen.

    I never would have thought it, but it happened.

    That brings me back to my dad and to his lasting effect, both in life, but especially in death.

    ••••••

    This column is about being a stage parent, about the schlepping, trailing, and trolling my wife and I do to keep our traveling troupe of performers, artists, and athletes afloat. But, as I mentioned in my first column, “stage dad” is not what this is about, despite the tight verbiage that appeals to my inner editor.

    “Parent” comes first.

    Not that it always did. I’m a workaholic in a 12-step program, and to this day it is difficult to resist the temptation to put the job — or the task — first. For the longest time, I wanted to be a success at what I did for a living. I wanted to hit the home run and move as far from my hometown as I could.

    And I did. But there were costs. I missed a lot of time with my children — all of them — when they were younger because I was working. I saw my parents less and less when I moved from home.

    Until the last two to three years of his life, I did not realize how frail my father was. He had been in poor health for so long that I started to take it for granted. Dad felt bad — all the time.

    You could see glimpses of his talent. A visual artist, he could draw anything, although his physical ailments made it tough to measure up to his perfectionist standards. So after an 18-month burst of creativity between my third and fourth grade year, he largely stopped, only picking up a pencil or pen to do a project for my mom or when the muse hit so strongly that he couldn’t resist.

    To this day, I live in fear that the creative muse will leave and not return. For me, creativity is a way of focusing the chaos that’s inside my head.

    So what happens when you need to give writer’s block an angioplasty?

    ••••••

    Just in case you’re wondering, it’s been almost three weeks since the last “Stage Dad” column appeared and a month since my son opened in “Billy Elliot” in Louisville, Ky. I’ve had material, but even more, I’ve had convenient excuses.

    Thanks to the fine coverage this website gave to the Fringe Festival, for two weeks there really wasn’t much space for a parent’s meanderings about raising a family of performers. And who would read this when they can watch NBC’s tape delays of the Olympics?

    I jotted down thoughts, and started writing. And started. And started. I’ve started 10 essays over the past month and finished none. I worried that I had left the muse in Louisville, even after spending a few days with the tour in Madison, Wis., and making plans to visit Ben with our family in Boston.

    For several days, I walked around with the lead to this column in my head — pondering what it meant. Is it true that I became a better parent when my dad died?

    I think so. If anything, my father’s passing forced me to focus on the time I have with my own children, who are growing up all too quickly and soon will be in positions where calling their parents is not always high on the list (sorry, mom). The time I lost with Nicholas, my oldest son, due to a divorce forced me to realize that missed opportunities result in lifelong regrets.

    It’s coincidence, perhaps, that my journey as a stage parent began the fall after my father died, when Ben got his first professional role. During a terribly difficult time, the late night car rides presented an opportunity to spend time with my son while mourning my father. Two years later, when Ben moved to New York for “Ragtime,” Jill or I went with him, essentially becoming single parents for almost a year until a new caregiver arrangement could be established. That forced me to focus on having quality time with all of my kids, because I was no longer in a position to be in the office 12 hours a day.

    ••••••

    I realized last week that I could not finish this column until after our Boston trip. My mom, who still lives in Texas, decided to come see her grandson, who would be performing on the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death.

    It became evident that Boston represented a chance to honor my dad’s memory, because my parents had a great two week trip up there more than a decade ago. My mom, a trouper, constantly recalled the places they had seen and the things they had done.

    Several weeks ago, a friend who also lost his father and I talked about childhood memories and their effects on our parenting today. He had returned from a trip back to a place where he had lived when he was 11 or 12, and seemed perplexed that he did not feel the loss of his father more. I mentioned that it’s the same for me.

    I miss my dad at times like this past Sunday, when my family saw Ben perform on stage, completely in his element and in total control. I miss him at gatherings, at holidays, at events where I should be able to turn and to see him.

    But then, when I think about it, I see my dad every time I look in the mirror, and every time I look at one of my own children. And I know that he’s smiling from his seat in the balcony.