Graduates, I Stand Before You Today Prepared to Offer More Advice Per Square Diploma Than You Have Ever Heard … Ever

Graduates, I Stand Before You Today Prepared to Offer More Advice Per Square Diploma Than You Have Ever Heard … Ever

Graduations are generally a good thing.  Years of hard work, some work, no work, are rewarded with a twenty-second stroll across a stage and a handshake.  Proud families whoop, videos and selfies abound; for the lucky grad, the event brings laughter, tears, and appreciation for opportunities well met.  Graduation usually take place in the spring, and colleges and schools spruce themselves up for the event, so what’s not to love?

For reasons I can’t explore in this essay, the Greatest Shows On Earth have given out; no more circus high wire acrobatics.  Where then can we find that agonizing pleasure of watching an individual wobbling to find balance, facing a calamitous fall with no safety net?  Well, student graduation speeches come pretty close.  The best of them soar, leaving an audience giddy with appreciation of risks taken and pitfalls avoided; the worst of them are eminently cringe-worthy, uniting an entire auditorium in shared pain.

Some student speeches may be maudlin or wax hyperbolic, but no matter how tortured the language, these are authentic attempts to capture something important before leaving a place that means many things to many people.  Speaking publicly is tough; speaking before an audience of friends, enemies, teachers, parents, siblings, grandparents, sundry odd relatives in for the weekend from Iowa, past romances, romances anticipated, crying babies, and that guy who saw you walk out of the bathroom with toilet paper hanging from the back of your pants – that’s daunting.

So, we’ll cut the student speeches the slack that they deserve.  The shortest are blessedly short, and the longest rarely cause an audience to slump in exhaustion.

Adults invited to speak, however, rarely escape their own worst instincts.  It is gratifying to be asked to speak, I am sure; it seems folks rarely turn down the honor.  As social media demonstrates, we all have strong opinions and feel obliged to share them; why should we be surprised that a speaker arrives ready to deliver those opinions to a captive crowd?  The basic flaw in the whole “Every graduation needs a notable speaker” concept is that, with rare exceptions, the speaker is not attached to, aware of, interested in, the individuals attending the event; the speech, almost necessarily, has to be about the speaker, even when  the speaker couches his/her remarks as confidences passed on to the fortunate few present.

Most of us can sit through a sixty minute lecture if we have any interest in the subject.  Sure, an animated address is more captivating, but we can chalk up the lost hour as an opportunity to learn something we hadn’t known or understood.  A sixty minute graduation speech, however, is torturous; there’s no escape without appearing rude, and under full sun or amidst the contending aromas in any gymnasium, seated on folding chairs, trapped with a faulty sound system that delivers every other word (“Is … on?  Can … hear … in … back?”, every vestige of proud celebration is smothered.

The varieties of excruciating graduation speeches are many and profoundly unfortunate; there is not time nor room enough to provide the catalogue, but one arrives with grim regularity at nine graduations out of ten.  The speaker waffles for a bit, the sort of pre-address throat clearing that is intended to provide the audience with the speaker’s qualification to hold the space hostage.  Gaining purchase, the speaker then reveals his/her obligation to give the graduates as much good advice as possible before they lumber into the wider world.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some excellent speeches that offer advice, but … they generally land on one point of concern, maybe two at the most.  An original or lightly understood insight is presented, examples follow, best wishes close it up, and the whole thing is over in about twenty minutes.  On with the show!

George Saunders at Syracuse University –

“Err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College –

“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

Steve Jobs at Stanford University –

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Bad speeches are legion, and I can’ cite them because nobody remembers what the speaker said.  The hallmarks of the forgettable speech are grotesque length and droning presentation of advice already very familiar.  Think about all the advice you have been given, sort out the obviously mistaken advice (the best cure for a rash is bleach).

Without much trouble we pretty much all know the sort of advantage that reasonably good advice brings.  We know that a job done poorly is less estimable than a job done well.  We know that persistence often brings greater results than giving up.  We know that facing challenges may take courage.  We know that there is danger in following the crowd.

Doing something about any of these or the thousand other now familiar sets of instructions is the hard part, and it is unlikely that the speaker will be hanging around when we have to summon courage, or persistence, or good sense, or honesty.  We’ll be there, of course, and what sustains us in the moment is not advice given in a graduation address but the example of estimable behavior we have witnessed in those around us.  We know courage when we see it.  We hear honesty when it arrives.  We see the dignity in those who persist, and we know the value of a job done with dedication and care.

Hmmmm.   That sounds like a pretty good graduation speech.  Operators are standing by to take your call.



I Know I Had It This Morning

I Know I Had It This Morning

I’d like to think …  well, that’s kind of the subject of today’s discourse.  I’d like to be able to think.

I started writing a novel I intended to title Time To Forget, set on a college campus, in which I would describe a popular professor’s growing concern about the deterioration of his memory.  In the early chapters he lost the occasional word; by the middle, entire concepts had disappeared.  The experience was not so much of memories erased, but of memories so slight and fragile that in attempting to recall them, they floated further into obscurity.

It wasn’t hard to come up with examples; they’re all around me.  Identification with the character came much too easily.  I backed away.  The novel is still-born, not without merit, but too disturbing to finish.

I quite liked this section at the start; you’ll catch the overwrought tone of a weary academic.

In the dead of night, in the hour of the wolf, startled awake, I try to bring any of it back.  I get no purchase.  As I sit at my desk today, I recover shards of it, but the likely possibility that I’ll lose it all again brings the familiar thrill of terror. It takes an act of will to shake it sideways.  I have learned to distract myself by flipping on  the light next to the bed, staring purposefully at the window, half-closed, imagining myself raising and lowering it, raising, lowering.  

My time is about to run out, and, in an egregious piece of bad planning, the universe intends for me to linger long enough to realize that not only will my experience of being end, but that my own memory of my existence will fade before my time runs out.  

Uh, too close for comfort.

Yesterday’s plan was to drive to my brother’s house for a short visit.  It’s not a bad drive, about two hours each way.  When driving alone, I like to listen to an audio-book, but when with my daughter, I count on her to invent a challenging and diverting exercise-of-the-mind, pretty much her stock in trade as one of the nation’s most engaging and provocative conversationalists.  In but a moment she presented what ought to have been a reasonably straightforward exchange:  She presents an actor, I am to reply identifying a film in which the actor has appeared, she then responds with another actor also in the film, I come back with another film in which the second actor has appeared, and so on, we are to hope, ad infinitum.

The first hint of imminent disaster came within seconds of her lobbing me an easy first actor, thus:

She:  Dustin Hoffman

Me:  (OK, I know a bunch of films with Dustin Hoffman, but I have to pick one that features an actor that will leave her speechless, incapable of response …. No … I want the game to continue … OK, OK …  Mrs. Doubtfire should work.  That gives her a couple of options.  She’ll get Robin Williams.)   Robin Williams

She:  No, you give me a movie.

Me:  I did, from Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams

She:  (Already wary) OK, so, you’re saying Mrs. Doubtfire?

Me:  Yes.

She: Sally Field.

Me:  Got it now!  Soap Dish!

She: (OK, this might work) Robert Downey Junior

Me:  (Cleverly) I’m not going to give you Gwyneth Paltrow

She:  Good. (Hey, he remembers to name a movie)

Me:  Mark Ruffalo

She:  You want me to take the movies and you take the actor?  There are only two of us, two jobs, whatever one you want.

That part got better; that was actually the easy part.  The hard part was coming up with names that I knew perfectly well, familiar names, obvious names.  Endlessly patient, the quiz mistress gave me a great deal of latitude in working my way from the clumsy approximations to something close to an actual name.

Given Ben Affleck, for example, I wanted to get cagey, show my teeth just a bit, avoid any of the obvious roles, so, remembering that he appeared in an odd and disturbing fantasy comedy, I began the work of bringing the title to mind.  I knew everything about it:  It was condemned by the Catholic League even before it was released, directed by Kevin Smith, had a bunch of my favorite actors – Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Linda Fiorintino, Janeane Garofalo – all I was missing was the title.

Me:  I know this.  I know this.  (Then told her all the information above)

She: (Nodding, willing to be helpful)  OK, starts with a “D”

Me:  Starts with a “B”.

She:  Think of Password.  Not Catma, but …

Me:  Batma?

She D!  D!  D!

Me: Oh!  Dogma!

Sainthood will fall upon her.  We continued to play.

Mangling the work of countless artists, I suggested answers such as:

“Cameron Diaz. Got this.  There’s A Problem With Mary … No … What’s Wrong With MaryThere’s This Thing With Mary“.  With latitude again rather than attitude, she responded, “There’s Something About Mary?”

“Penelope Cruz.  I know, I know … Velvet Sky!”  No response.  “Violet Sky?”  Nothing.  “Violent Sky?”  Again with charity, “You mean, Vanilla Sky?”

The disturbing part is not that I have faulty recall of titles I once, and intermittently still, know; the problem is that only a short while ago, if I had issues with recall, it had to do with finding the proper noun.  That was easy enough to negotiate; I could use all-purpose words, You know, Whatcha-ma-call-it, Thing-a-ma-jig, What’s-it, Whose-it, Thing-y.

“Honey, where did you leave the Whose-it that was in  the kitchen?”

That actually called for several more passes before the item was identified as a spatula, which, to be fair, is not a word that comes up often in daily conversation. No, the search for absent nouns was challenging enough; disappearing adjectives are a whole other order of misplacement.  Not much room to fake it.


Unlike the professor in my stunted novel, my concern is not appearing purely competent to the outside world, or as was the case on our trip, in quickly trading film titles, but in losing access to the richness of language. Aside from my family and best friends, I love words, and I will miss them if the days bring increasing ____ uh _____ you know ____ Whatcha-ma-call-it.






On Broadway

On Broadway

New Yorkers have long known that the current generation of Broadway production is all about revivals and musical adaptations of successful films.  Rogers, Hammerstein, Hart, Porter, Coward, Berlin – the hills are alive with the sound of recycling.  Yes, an original production appears from time to time, but for every Hamilton there are three Hello Dollys and a pair of Showboats.  Need something more current? Tap those toes to Groundhog Day The Musical, Legally Blonde The Musical, Shrek The Musical, Waitress The Musical, Sunset Boulevard The Musical, and Amelie The Musical.

Really?  Amelie?

An unusual opportunity has come my way as my wife went to school with a producer constantly on the lookout for the next bright Broadway bound idea.  I see every production here in Southern Oregon; she’s asked me to pass on any new work that might do well in the Big Apple.  She has said she needs gripping contemporary dramas, new voices, fresh ideas; I beg to differ.

I’ve sent her my slate of hot prospects, any one of which could be bouncing its way as the centerpiece of next year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, a once-proud celebration of music and spectacle culminating with the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus, now devolved into Broadway’s version of product placement.

Mr. Ed The Musical

The Great White Way has long hoped for a bit of equine humor with a dry twist.   Mr. Ed, the astounding American Pharoah, displays a shaky baritone warbling the familiar “A Horse Is A Horse Of Course, Of Course” but who cares?   Ed’s manipulation of his ostensible owner,  Wilbur Post (“Hay, Wilbur”), darkens the show with Gone Girl gaslighting,  setting Louis Black as Wilbur up as an ineffectual and psychologically disordered stooge (“What’s The Matter, Wilbur?”).

The Bachelor The Musical

Roses for everyone!  Twenty high-strung, conniving, emotionally wounded women provide an unmatched chorus of voices on the show’s title song.  Lyricist Chuck Palahniuk’s deft patter ( Total Heartbreak Never Ends/  No Skank Here Was Making Friends.  Although Corinne Opened Up To You/  You Didn’t Need To Bonk The Shrew.) elevates the pedestrian script.  Daniel Baldwin’s off-handed portrayal of the show’s host is completely incomprehensible.  Lindsay Lohan’s desperate also-ran Bachelorette is both compelling and truly disturbing.

Talent Round Up Day The Musical

This clumsy pandering to nostalgia-bound Boomers plumps an ersatz Annette, Darlene, and Clubmaster, Jimmy, in a noxious triangle set against a ripped-off Chorus Line musical confession.  Fresh faced Eric Von Detten (Brink) almost saves the last act as Cubby, the driven drummer whose frantic timpani solo brings this mess to life for a fleeting moment.

The Newlywed Game The Musical

From the signature game show anthem to the disturbing “Where’s The Strangest Place You’ve Made Whoopie”, this challenging and thoughtful examination of the early years of marriage raises questions perhaps better left unanswered, particularly in the awkward duet, “I Thought You Liked That”.  Johnny Depp is miscast as provocateur Bob Eubanks, but the rest of the cast carries the day.  Dakota Fanning as the wrong girl married to the wrong guy breaks hearts nightly at the Orpheum.


The Rifleman The Musical

Sensing a shift as older generations take their leave, the NRA commissioned this faux-western musical in the hope of bringing an iconic and well armed figure back from TVLand obscurity.  Against all odds it works.  Lin-Manuel Miranda holds the audience hostage with the stirring “I’ve Got My Sights On You”.  Bernadette Peters as the Rifleman’s nemesis, Shotgun Polly, rocks. “My Cold Dead Hands” in a delightful dream sequence set in the Arlington Cemetery.

Hogan’s Heroes The Musical

Never has a prisoner-of-war camp been more lively!   Matthew Broderick is the wily Hogan routinely outsmarting Neil Patrick Harris’  rigidly obtuse Colonel Wilhelm Klink.  Harris’ dimwitted Junker Kommandant does most of the musical heavy lifting, leaving to Broderick fast paced-bamboozling with Seth Rogan’s Sergeant Hans Schultz (“I Know Nussing!”).  Hyper-hormoned French detainee, Louis LeBeau (Zak Efron channelling Maurice Chevalier) and zaftig camp follower Megan Hilty romp through the raucous “What’s A Latrine For If Not For Love?”

Leave It To Beaver The Musical

Hugh Jackman is Ward, Kristin Chenoweth, June, and delightfully miscast Martin Short the Beaver.  This airy farce is reminiscent of the most artfully choreographed French comedies as indiscrete couples in flagrante delicto narrowly escape exposure.   Wally (Taylor Lautner) stolidly juggles his three girlfriends while keeping the aroused Eddie Haskell (Jesse Eisenberg) on a short leash and away from June.  Short’s Beaver whines charmingly, particularly in his rendition of “Miss Landers, You Are So Hot”.  Chenoweth is one of Broadway’s signature voices, never better when chiding her distracted husband, “Ward, You Have To Talk To The Beaver”.


Taking Parenting Personally

Taking Parenting Personally

From time to time I wonder how my children survived this parent.

My kids turned out fine.  Better than fine.  By any objective assessment, they are superb people – smart, funny, kind, responsible, honest, resourceful, and compassionate.  In fact, if I had to draw attention to anything approaching a failing it might be that they are, all three, perhaps a bit too generously compassionate at times.

I can live with that.

Nature?  Nurture?

Here’s what I know with certainty: All three children were absolutely themselves from the first moment I met them. My wife and I probably had some impact upon their developing character, a somewhat uncertain supposition given the amusement with which my children have observed my attempts to pass on the wisdom I have acquired along life’s bumpy path.  My wife is a unfailingly practical person, connected to all those elements that make up what they call the “real world”, whereas I tend to operate in blissful ignorance of how things actually manifest, preferring my own rosy imagined planetary home.  They probably picked up something from both of us; we hope it was our best.

Sure, school and friends, fads and fashions occasionally appeared to have influenced them to some slight degree, but each slipped into the assumed persona, found it wanting, and returned to true north almost immediately.  Each of the three has differing enthusiasms and quirks, but in terms of character, each is solid in the same way.

Which is a good thing because as a parent I missed some important cues, operated with faulty judgment, and let them down in ways that ought to have darkened their path.  I’m not brave enough to describe the worst of my failures, but I know my deformities of character caused collateral damage at significant points in their childhood.

My intention had been to present a list of observations that might inform good parenting, but it has become increasingly clear to me that only one is necessary:

Don’t take things personally.

Yes, parenting is a serious enterprise, and there is no doubt that we invest a great deal of our abilities and our predilections in the raising of our children.  The stakes are high, and there’s no escaping the emotional tangle as kids make their way to adulthood.  No matter how we try to separate our hopes from theirs, we want what we want for them.  Some days we can keep our notions of what their future should bring at bay; some days we don’t do so well.

We’re attached, and that’s a good thing, even when it gets awkward.

But … attachment can bring some fuzziness of perspective.  I choose not to document every misstep I have taken as a parent, in part because I’m sure I’m still making them, but there are three that haunt me because in taking a child’s behavior personally, I did damage when they most needed support.

My son and I can laugh about it now, but when he was eight or nine, I took him to the video store (remember those?) to pick any video he wanted.  Any video!  What a great dad!  What a generous and giving dad!

Just pick one, I said.  The minutes went by.

Ready to pick one?  Ok, let’s just pick one.  Hey, we have to move along.  Want to pick one?  Yo, “tempus fugit”, pick one.  What is the matter with you?   PICK ONE!

I snapped.

Flawed, self-obsessed fathead that I am, I snapped.  I took it personally.  Obviously, my rancid wretch of a son had no concept of gratitude.  This was not a trip I wanted to take.  This was for HIM.  My so-called parents never….  When I was a kid …. Come on!

Look, there were tons of family of origin crap not yet resolved that fueled this huff-fest, and it’s part of the reason I knew I had some work to do, but nonetheless, I admit I raged.

Rigid with fury I swept him up, angrily strode to the car, tossed him into his seat, buckled his seat-belt, revved the engine with terminal prejudice, and squealed out of the parking lot.  All of that was reprehensible, but I added insult to injury by calling him a name that came to me from the dark side.

How bad was it?  I’ll leave it to you to decide.

I think I said “Toe faced vermin”.  He maintains that I said “Toad face vermin.”

Either way, I’m ashamed as I write and should be, but the worst was yet to come.

Why had my son not picked his video?  Because as a shorter human, his field of vision did not include the family favorite section; all that he could see were the salacious covers of R-Rated videos.  Porky’s.  Hard Bodies.  Revenge of the Nerds.

He was embarrassed, and I took it personally.  Thank God my son is made of better stuff than I.  There is no way to undo my terrible judgment, but he’s forgiving, moderately amused at my idiocy and my distress.

I failed to recognize depression in two of my children, chiding them for failing to share my excitement for one activity or another.  They spent too much time in their room, too much time in bed, too little time chatting with us.  I knew that school days had not been particularly joyful, but I had no idea how saddened they were in not having friends, in not being recognized.

They were in pain, and I missed it.  I don’t think I ever said, “Get over yourself”, the vermin line still rang in my ears, but that’s what I wanted to shout.  “Come on.  You have so many advantages in life.  So much to be grateful for”, which, as I look back on it, was essentially born of my narcissistic belief that their sadness was somehow a commentary on my worth as a parent.  Hadn’t I done enough?  Hadn’t I provided enough?

“What am I doing wrong” – about as obtuse and self-absorbed a question as I can recall.

My children were sensitive, intelligent, and often anxious.  How did I miss the paralysing effect of anxiety? I am no stranger to social anxiety myself; if I could go through life without having to speak with anyone outside of family on the phone, I’d be delighted.  I hate heading into unfamiliar circumstances; I’m terrible at small talk, and uncomfortable in almost any new social setting.  I fret and fumble and often wish I could just stay in bed.

But, when my kids did not want to go to a play, or the circus, or the ballgame, or on road trips, when they didn’t want to watch a great tv show, read a great book, of course, I took it personally, frustrated that they missed out on things I was sure would bring them pleasure.  They weren’t so sure and told me so, but I didn’t listen to their anxiety; I only saw them miss opportunities I hadn’t had as a child and thought they should grab.

I’m guessing I’m not the only father who fell into parenting with a set of beliefs about the way kids should be, who too frequently felt judged as a parent, who forgot how confusing and uncertain childhood is for much of the time.  I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in having regrets.

I wish I had been a steadier, more consistently affirming, more readily understanding father.  I do. That’s what I can take personally.




The Incredible Dr. Pol

The Incredible Dr. Pol

I’ll admit that over the years television has let me down, taught me some tough lessons.  No, Mr. Ed could not really speak, and apparently the MASH unit ostensibly operating in Korea was actually filming near Malibu, and Cosby … well, you know.

Having already documented my attachment to and fondness for Survivor, I’ve clearly fed beyond the pasture, consuming my share of Reality TV, and, although this is not the time to rail against most scripted television (Thank God for Madame Secretary and This is Us), I find myself much more inclined to wallow in someone else’s televised home renovation; it’s far less costly than  taking on any of the long-postponed projects around my place and rarely means we lose a bathroom for a month.  And, there are some remarkably accomplished people out there who doing remarkable things.  Chefs battling, designers designing, dancers dancing, singers singing – I’ll take them all.

Absorbing and impressive display of talent almost certainly free of bloodshed.

Against all odds, however, my wife and I choose to eat dinner while watching The Incredible Dr. Pol, now in its eleventh season.  How we missed this show for the first ten seasons I cannot fathom.  It’s the highest rated show on Nat Geo Wild, one of the most successful non-scripted shows in the cable universe.  It’s not as though we haven’t travelled in the same circles all along.  we’ve watched saddle repair, rodeo roping, and This Week in Agribusiness on RFD TV, My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet, and The Forest of the Lynx on PBS; how did we miss all ten previous seasons of Dr. Pol?

So, we have a lot of catching up to do, which does not explain why we watch this show at dinnertime.

Dr. Jan Pol is a Dutch-American vet working in central Michigan.  His practice includes a variety of large animals, cows, horses, alpacas, an occasional zebra, and all of the ordinary small animals.  Yes, he trims nails and feathers of macaws.  Sure, he deals with depressed bearded dragons.  Got a listless goat?  Bring it on.  Week-in and week-out, Dr. Pol’s office is awash with pet owners holding pups for first shots, cats needing a worming on the spot, and peafowls with a nasty beak infection.  The doc and his team spend easily as much of their time in the field, pulling calves from cows stuck in delivery, castrating llamas, not-so-gently piercing a bull’s nose.

All of which is surprisingly fascinating.  One would think that if you had seen one rowdy male castrated, you’d probably not have to witness that again, and yet, there are so many curious differences, so many.  The team of vets deal with emergencies large and small, horses with abscessed hooves, goats with polio, cows that have fallen and can’t get up, cats that refuse to eat, dogs hit by cars.  Some procedures take place in the vets’ operating rooms, others in a muddy field or in the back of a pick up truck.

My wife and I love animals, and in a year of some dislocation and angst find our faith in humanity has been restored by the care and respect with which animals of all sorts are cared for by the doctors and their staff.  We identify with the pet owners, of course, and worry with them and grieve with them, but are equally moved by the distress a farmer feels for a heifer as she labors or for a horse as it nears its last days.   Farming is tough, and farming in central Michigan is not for the faint of heart.  Farmers with little formal education, not much in the way of sophisticated banter, good natured relatively uncomplicated men and women, talk about their animals with simple affection.

Jan Pol is a veterinary savant, capable of intuiting on-the-spot diagnostic insights based on years of hands-on experience with all sorts and conditions of creatures.  By hands-on, I mean hands-in, more often than not.  Whereas we had once been unnerved at the thought of slipping on a long pair of plastic gloves in order to invade a horse’s rectum, it now seems all in a day’s work.  I’ll admit we don’t get the full effect of nursing a bloated cow into belching trapped gas, and I suspect the smells of the farmyard might be tough to ignore, but plunging in to grab an unborn calf’s hooves, dragging the just born to its full length into a bed of straw, rubbing it until it yowls and stumbles to its feet and finds its mother, remains a remarkable accomplishment, even if we witness it every night as the microwave pings.  The frequency with which Dr. Pol or Dr. Brenda or Dr. Emily arrive with chains to pull the trapped calf from its mother , however, does cause us to wonder how many cows survive birthing.

Part of the attraction of the show for us is that Dr. Pol and his staff are authentically invested in every interaction.  Yes, they are pros, and yes, the sorts of tasks they perform are tasks they have performed for years, but there is nothing pro forma or unfeeling in their approach to the six year-old whose guinea pig is failing or the rancher whose horse’s teeth have to be filed.  4H kids raising pigs to be shown at the State Fair get as much attention as the owners of a huge dairy farm.

We started late.  The Dr. Pol we first met is seventy-two years old, slowing down slightly, but still vaulting fences to escape a maddened bull, still gamely shoving a prolapsed uterus back into place with little help from an understandably inconvenienced cow.  He is a hard-working man who wears the world like a loose garment, finding good humor in almost every encounter, encouraging owners and animals.

In a way, we are watching an extended love story.  Pol meets an abandoned Newfoundland dog, takes its face in his hands, holds it in his gaze, and adores it.  He’s a realist and often makes pragmatic decisions about treating animals, but he respects each one.  He pushes his glasses up, moves close, and meets each animal as a friend, even when the work to be done will not be pleasant.  On those occasions when he or his team have to put an animal down, it is done with profound respect and gentle care.  He is an energetic, strong man, but his shoulders slump as he walks from the side of animal he has lost.

Then, as the next patient arrives, his smile returns and the work begins again.

The other vets are equally impressive, if slightly less charismatic.  Dr. Brenda answers every call with solid good sense and unfailing willingness to do whatever it takes to save her patient.  Of the three, she seems to be most frequently making the house calls that bring the possibility of being trampled.  Our only question is why strapping farm hands are willing to let Dr. Brenda wrestle a boar to the ground by herself, syringe in one hand, and boar in the other; come on, fellas.  Dr. Emily was clearly a good student and a knowledgable vet who has learned the rough and tumble of large animal veterinary care from a mentoring Dr. Pol.  Is she as willing as the others to work in the muck?  Apparently, as she wrestles still-born calves to the hay well into her own pregnancy.

We have made this show a regular part of our dinner routine because it is real and predictably straightforward.  The election and its aftermath left us battered and bruised, in part because every story we watched arrived with sound and fury and the full force of political conviction, carrying hopes we may have endorsed, but so weighted with certainty that when the votes were counted, we felt bamboozled.  The reporters for the news outlets we admired were sincere and meant well, but we can no longer hear their accounts without seeing the filter through which it is presented.

Dr. Pol is what he is, an unassuming, hard-working man willing to put his hands, well, anywhere.  He works with creatures great and small for owners who love their animals.  Some probably share none of our political beliefs, but we can see them at their best, hoping Dr. Pol can find a way to keep a loved animal alive.

Time to get out the TV trays.


Forgive Me?

Forgive Me?
I seem to ask for forgiveness quite a lot these days.  I continue to err, of course, and maintain a high degree of self-certainty which has never served me well, no matter how convenient it appears in the moment, but the frequency with which I petition for pardon has definitely increased.  It’s entirely possible that I’m becoming more bull-headed and piling up obvious glitches in personal relationships , but I think I’m also more aware of the damage that I do in recognizing one of my many missteps and yet leaving an apology unextended.

So, forgive me. … but there is a world of difference in asking for forgiveness and expecting forgiveness, a gap between “forgive me” and “forgive me?”, between expectation and apology.

Consider the very familiar “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams, an imagist poem, or a found poem, or an a-tonal poem, or a fairly meager apology.  I can’t imagine offering an apology with a preface, “This is just to say …  I borrowed your car, wrecked it,  and left it in  New Jersey.  Forgive me,” but perhaps craft mitigates injury.
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
William’s poem leaves much to the imagination; we can’t know if the tone is meant to be playful, profound, apologetic, deflective, or informative.  Nonetheless, we can walk away with the conviction that the person swiping the plums has asked for forgiveness, no?
 But no.  “Forgive me; they were delicious” is a statement, at best an explanation.  “Yes, I took the plums, but you may be obliged to overlook my insensitivity to your needs in that I found them delicious.”  Not much of an apology.
And about apology.
A shuffle of archived episodes of This American Life brought me to an episode I think about four or five times a week, “Apology Line”.  Here’s the description of the episode as presented by Ira Glass when the episode was rebroadcast in 1997.

” Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today’s program, apologies. Stories of people struggling to apologize against some difficult odds. We’ve arrived act two of our show…, “Dial S for Sorry.”

In 1980, a New Yorker named Allan Bridge set up a telephone line that he called The Apology Line. And the way it worked was that you could call and confess to anything you wanted and you’d be recorded. Or you could call and you could listen to other people’s confessions. And over time– this is all pre-internet days. Over time, the whole thing turned into this little community of confession. People recorded messages responding to each other’s apologies. Mr. Apology, Allan Bridge, would leave messages responding to messages himself. Or sometimes he would call callers off the line and talk to them.”

Some of the apologies are fairly innocuous, some are appalling, and some are devastating.  A caller lists the various violent and dangerous acts he has perpetrated on teachers, schools, governmental buildings, and individuals.  The shift to a slightly higher degree of injury (fire bombings) is delivered with little inflection.  The call ends on this note:

“I’m sorry for the way I’m calling right now. I’m calling by way of a phony credit card. I’m sorry for harassing the teacher in school. I feel bad about it. I’d like to have a new lease on life.

What else? I’m sorry for just harassing a lot of people. For causing pain to my family. I felt so sad I was sick. I was sick by it. That’s all I have to say. So long.”

A runaway checks in:

Hi, I’m a runaway and all I want to say is that I’m kind of sorry that I left. See, I’m 15 and I saw your number in the newspaper. When I saw it, I had to call because I mean, you walk around on the streets all day long just looking for someone that just might say, hey, want a place to go? Come with me. They’ll give you food and everything. And they won’t ask or anything back. That’s all I want. I guess I take up too much time on the tape. But I just got to talk.

A phone call allows a surviving son to admit that he extorted payment from his dying mother, charging her $5.00 for a glass of water, $10.00 for a sandwich.

The call that caused me to pull my car to the side of the road came from a man whose confession was coldly lacking in affect.

“I’ve never told anyone this except my shrink. I accidentally killed my younger sister when I was a very small child and it’s haunted me all my life because I didn’t really mean it. It was just a game to me and I was really too young to realize what I was doing. And I was putting her head inside a plastic garbage bag and putting a rubber band around her neck just to see her face turn blue. I guess it was a lot of fun and I didn’t mean anything bad to happen. But I guess I didn’t realize what would happen if I did this too long and she suffocated. I hid the plastic bag and I went out of the house. My parents weren’t home. And they never found out. They thought it was crib death. They never found out I did it.

I’ve never been able to tell them. I think it would hurt them worse than losing her to find out that I did it. I kind of wish my parents could hear this tape, but I guess they never will.”

I guess it was a lot of fun.

Let’s be clear.  That’s NOT an apology.

While there is value in confession, even the sort of anonymous confessions made on the Apology Line, an apology begins with the understanding that harm has been done, moves quickly to the assumption of responsibility, and then to an expression of regret, followed by an open-ended willingness to do what is necessary to make the situation right.

It’s human nature to hope that an apology will bring forgiveness, and it may, but an apology offered in exchange for forgiveness is essentially a transaction, hoping words are currency.  They aren’t.

I had to learn that my version of apology was often simply an excuse.  “I’m sorry, but that guy on the bus who stood on my toe made me so mad that I snapped at you.” That’s not an apology; it’s a defense of my behavior.

I was also the master of other equally bad apologies.

For example, I have learned that  adding the word “if” turns the responsibility for  injury back on the person I’ve injured.  “I’m sorry IF you took it that way.”    Uh, obviously my remark was taken as I intended it; I just hoped I could duck out of responsibility for it.

I could be even more offensively weaselish.  “Ok, I’m sorry I didn’t show up, but YOU are the one who wanted me to clean up the garage.” The unfinished end of the sentence is, “so it’s your fault.”

It’s a slightly more authentic apology when statements of regret bump into boundaries.  “I’m sorry I barked at you, but you kept leaning into me while I was trying to explain.”  I’m rarely healthy enough to say.  I’m sorry I barked at you.  I’m still trying to figure out how to express  myself when I’m uncomfortable.”

I may not be alone in not  wishing to be held accountable for my actions, but I think  I developed some advanced skill in pulling myself out of contact as consequences drew near.   I know I’m still withholding when I apologize so generally or so abstractly that there is no texture or weight to my apology.  The worst is flippant.  “Sorry about that.”  Only slightly better is, “I’m sorry for whatever it is that I’ve done. ” Marginally better?  “I’m sorry for everything.”  The shield is in place even as the words are  said.

I have had to learn that an apology demands clarity.  “I’m sorry I pouted and slammed dishes rather than talking about what was on my mind.”

The final level of apology has to do with contrition, authentic regret or remorse coupled with determination not to repeat the hurtful behavior.  In some cases, an authentic apology demands a next question.  “What can I do to make this situation better?”

It all comes down to this, if an amends is worth making, and they almost always are, authenticity, integrity, demands investment:  “I’m all in.  No matter what the outcome, I come to you to take responsibility for what I said, or did, or didn’t do.  Against all odds, and with no expectation, I ask you to consider forgiving me.”

Oh, and by the way, I bought more plums, so sweet and so cold.