“I feel like I’m gonna die!”
You shout with glee
Signaling that I’ve pushed you hard enough
At the top of the arc, it must feel
As though you will float away
Like a birthday balloon
Leaving far behind the sign, zip-tied
To the swing set, that reads:


Yet here we are, breaking the rule
Masks in pockets
On a January Saturday in the deserted park
Our potentially poisonous breaths
Visible in the freezing air
Before drifting harmlessly away

“I feel safe!”
You yell
That’s my cue to resume
The work of shoving you with such force
That you just might get blasted
Into the stratosphere on a path for the half moon
Hanging lazily in the early evening sky

240,000 thousand miles away
Gray and grim
Freed from the weight of our world
The man in the moon
Hasn’t got a drop to sip
And no virus to escape
No harsh word to let slip
Nowhere for fear to take shape

He has nothing to do
But reflect the sun’s light and
Inspire jealousy in the world below
Where a boy who knows dinnertime’s soon
Screams, “I feel safe!”
And so we are
Until further notice

— 30 —

Born yesterday

My dad was born yesterday, 70 years ago. A lifelong die-hard Cubs fan who reared me to be the same, he taught me to keep score and to watch out for the hit and run.

When the Cubs went up 3-1 against the Marlins back in ’03, he shelled out for Champagne. Game six came the day after he turned 54.

Finally — after the College of Coaches, Brock-for-Broglio, 1969, 1984, letting Maddux get away — the National League pennant was close at hand. Then we endured those soul-crushers together and kept the bubbly corked.

I waited a couple of years before drinking the Champagne to celebrate with my then-wife Karen the first pennant win for her hometown Houston Astros. Pa was not happy about that one.

“Dad,” I said, trying to explain, “we can’t wait around for the Cubs. Even Champagne goes bad eventually.”

So how could I ever forget where Pa was on that overdue November night when Anthony Rizzo squeezed Kris Bryant’s toss for the final out?

Well, he sat alone in his bedroom, tucked neatly inside of a plastic bag, nestled in an urn with a lovely Oriental pattern that his wife had picked out. In another room, she watched a soap opera on TV.

Die-hard Cubs fan, indeed, for more than 24,000 days. He died, hard — small cell carcinoma of the prostate — 190 days short of tasting the ultimate victory and embracing his only child.

Men at Work

For blocks around, the black and yellow towers
Soar above the construction site
Approach to hear the cacophony
Of grinding, hammering, shouting
Men at work

Look up for a glimpse of their project
Come closer and the view ahead’s obscured
By tarpaulin-shielded, chain-link fencing
Come closer yet to find
Not all is opaque

See the upturned earth where the new building
Will have its foundation
The broken-up rock and concrete that
Will be carried away
See immense machines marching and
Men at work
In their hard hats and reflective gear
Work gloves and blue jeans

This morning’s kindergartners
Scattered the playground at summer camp
Letting the sand slip through their fingers
And the cool wind ruffle their t-shirts
Grinding down their temporary towers
Hammering away at invisible inventions
Yelling away, but with their reasons
Deeply engaged in the earnest business of
Children at play

Back at the work site
Look about to find
A bald-headed old man
In a beat-up windbreaker
Use the fence to steady himself
And discover a spot
Where two posts
Are imperfectly joined
To offer an unimpeded view of
Men at work
That leaves the old-timer
Shining the ecstatic beam of a
Little boy

— 30 —

Hello, Simon

It’s been nearly a month since the birth of our second boy, Simon. The doctor notes that he is coming along quite nicely, thanks no doubt to the well-balanced diet provided by chef Mama Elizabeth. Lucas is learning all about what it means to be a big brother and performing splendidly in the role.

Simon emits many amusing noises and seems not quite yet sold on this whole being-on-the-outside thing. I don’t blame him one bit. As Randy Newman sings, “It’s a jungle out there.”

So who knows what adventures await? We’ll just have to hang on tight and enjoy the ride.

Simon hangs tight

Stay up to date on Simon’s progress (at least as much as can be told with photos) at this password-protected website. Friends and family, please send your request for access to the address below:

The Other Party

There is no one else
In this whole wide world
Exactly like you
No one who talks or walks
Precisely the way you do
Not a one who snuggles or smooches
Snores or snorts
Identically as you do

Because deep inside each of us
Composing us all
Is a special code that coins
The curl of our hair
The color in our eyes
The depths of our belly buttons
And the lengths of our eyelashes
It draws out our laugh lines
And shapes the way we tremble in tears

No matter what else occurs
You will have a place on this planet
A time through which you travel
That is your very own

We are each
In short

But —
It turns out
There are two
Girls named Avery
Celebrating birthdays
At this park district facility today
And we are at the wrong Avery’s party

That explains why
You did not recognize her
And why she is
Several years younger than you

My bad.

So, finish up your cupcake
Grab our gift
From the table
Wish the wrong Avery
A happy birthday

And let’s head next door
To the other Avery party
Where you will find cake
And Goldfish crackers too

– 30 –

Vantage Point

Often enough, I can fleetingly
Do as I am enjoined
And find in fatherhood a way
To see through bright new eyes
But look: The glimpse blurs
In the blink it takes
A preschooler’s toys to scatter
And I am reeducated in
Adulthood’s doleful knowledge

To be clear: I can feel
The fibrillating, unadulterated joy of
That sweet wave formed of flesh
Whose snapshots are finely focused
And shared with the adoring crowd
Yet I envision this fuzzy math that follows:
The inevitable findings that fathers are
Fallible, foolish, ultimately ephemeral

Here is a glancing truth, I suppose:
When cast from the correct vantage point
Nothing our vale of tears has to offer
Can sting more than the moment a sudsy drop
Of shampoo snakes its way down
The forehead, finding its collateral target
“Dry my eyes, please!” you beg
— So I do
Then you open them up to drink me in
And I do the same for you

– 30 –


Sunlight shimmering on the river water
Leaves me squinty-eyed on a Chicago summer day
The only kind that’s worth a damn in this dreary town
The ladies in their floral dresses
And the men in their short sleeves
Walk briskly toward their midday destinations
While the tourists carefully trace their steps
Speaking in foreign tongues and consulting
Their pocket computers

I take a spot near the Wabash Avenue Bridge
To sip my coffee and let the sun hug my skin
What a lovely day to feel so bereft
An architectural tour boat wades into view
And the guide tells about the building
Where I work, and I wonder whether to wave
It seems like the neighborly thing to be
One more welcoming sight, another
Connection across the skyline

“Yes, I see you down there,” I think, and raise my arm
To offer the gentlest, friendliest wave I can conjure
The nonchalant sort that doesn’t beg for notice
Or require any response
But up there go one, two, three hands
Threading the summer wind with their fingers
“Hello,” the hands say as the boat parts the waters
And their owners’ faces become the backs of heads
Yes, they saw me standing up here
With my back to the glass and steel

– 30 –

The Merest Pleasures

From now on, you say, whenever we come
To this hot-dog restaurant, I will give you
One of the white-and-red round candies that is in my bag
And, you explain, I will always bring two quarters
To buy a very bouncy ball from the machine where
You turn the silver handle really hard and then
Open the little door

There you go again, rewriting the rules
Bending the world to your will
Wrapping us around your sticky little fingers

Oh, for another first taste of peppermint
To feel its sweet sting on my virgin tongue
To twirl the dwindling disc from side to side
And bite off tiny shards that melt in my mouth
Oh, to set my buoyant ball on its maiden
Voyage to the ground with all the force
My little body could muster
Then bounding high into the sky
Taller even than the tree
That is in our front yard

Oh, to believe again that all I could ever want
Is within my grasp
To require the merest pleasures—
A mother’s voice, a father’s hand—
To know no limits, and to have felt
So few of life’s lacerations
Oh, to say a thing and my grown-up makes it so!
And, when crossing, to be warned about letting go

“What a lovely boy you have,” your Papa told me
As he closed the book on story time
You scooched off his lap, careful as you could be
To avoid the tubing from the oxygen tank
When sliding down his swollen, blood-clotted legs

Papa died, I say, because he had the kind of sickness
The doctors do not know how to fix yet
Then a special thing was done to make him so tiny—
It did not hurt, I assure you—
That he fits in a beautiful case up on Nana’s shelf
In the darkness of quiet time
You have asked and so I say
Papa is very small now
You are bigger every day

∞             ∞             ∞

The lawyer felt bad to ask about timing, but he did it anyway
“I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think he’s going to die tomorrow,”
I said, on the day before Papa died

That night we put on a fresh diaper and told him to get some rest
When the nurse went away, we laughed with relief
At another hospice day put to bed

“I love you,” I said, with a kiss on the head
And walked toward the door
The other words that we needed were already said
In the hospital two weeks before

The next morning, Nana called as I stepped in the shower
She said, “He’s not breathing—what do I do?”
I told her that’s what we expected

∞             ∞             ∞

From now on at dinner, you tell me, after four more bites
You will always get two treats from your treat bucket
Not just one, you explain, but two treats from the bucket
That has the lollipops and the chocolate eggs and the M&M’s
And the white-and-red round candies
Always and from now on

Before I was as big as I am now
But not so little as you are today
I thought about always and forever
Being stuck in a darkness that does not end—
I was afraid
Then I grew and grew and grew and grew
And learned that when you are dead
You cannot think or see or hear, taste or touch or smell
Wherever death is, you are not
It is quiet time, always and from then on
And I was pacified

Now I am all grown up (and out)
And I have too many days that bring me back
To what was and can never be
A day in the park, the crack of the bat
A trip down the slide and a shove on the swing
The plink of a piano and the pluck of a guitar string
So much I have is smothered by absence
That is present in every way
Papa is very small now
You are bigger every day

– 30 –

OK. Go.

Bob O'Reilly, 2004-2015

Bob O’Reilly, 2004-2015

It was nearly a decade ago that my ex-wife and I adopted Bob, and it has been one hell of a ride. He was a lover, a fighter, a tubthumper, the bearer of many names, a movie star and the star of a sermon (which, sadly, is not available online). He was, above all, so very present, typical of the Australian Shepherd‘s “velcro dog” tendencies.

Which has made it all the more difficult to bear his absence in the week since we put Bob to sleep, following his long struggle with canine renal failure. When doing training with Bob, among the commands I learned was one to release him from his sit, stay or down. “OK. Go,” I was taught to say in a nonchalant manner. The idea was — hey, you listened, you obeyed. Swell. Now you’re free. No big deal. Go ahead, run around.

OK, Bob. Go.

In that vein, let’s cap this off with a tune from Bob’s namesake.


Update: I forgot I had taken this brief video of Bob cavorting at the beach. What a find!

Traveling with Lee Sandlin

Lee Sandlin died earlier this month. What a tremendous loss. He was a fantastic writer, and I was lucky to make his acquaintance. Here’s an obit by Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader, the longtime home for his singular brand of narrative nonfiction.

A celebration of his life and work was held recently at Chicago’s Sulzer Library and his wife, Nina (@nsandlin) — a good friend of mine from our days together at the late, great American Medical News —  asked me to contribute some thoughts. Here they are below. I post them here principally for the opportunity to share a bit of Lee’s writerly genius, and to encourage you all to read as much of his work as you can, as soon as possible.

To read is to place your trust in the hands of another, typically a stranger. When you read, the general rule is that most of what you know, what you believe about a subject, what you feel and hear and see in the mind’s eye, is shaped by your guide, the author. There was no better guide than Lee Sandlin.

The road he led you down may have been full of pit stops and detours, but every one was worth all the while. In a world where the written word is defiled by inattentiveness and, worse yet, artlessness, he kept a great faith with himself and with his readers. And, boy, did his prose show you how to go. In “Wicked River,” he wrote:

There were no beacons or lighthouses or channel buoys on the river then; there were no official markers of any kind. Here and there someone would occasionally paint a warning or an arrow on a prominent rock to alert voyageurs to danger — but these were often the work of pirates, to trick boats into going aground. Nor were there any reliable maps. In that era, mapmaking, even at its best, was a mixture of supposition, obsolete or garbled information, and pure fantasy; the first rule of travel in the American interior was that only a fool trusted a commercial map.

But the voyageurs didn’t care. What did they need a map for? The land was so wild it was essentially impassable; anyone who didn’t go by the river didn’t go at all. In effect, the river served as its own map. A voyageur who needed to consult it had only to climb the nearest hill. There the route was unfolded, in all its blue-misted splendor: the great dragon tail of the river uncoiling through forested valleys and across the tallgrass prairies and into the vast shrouded swamps, glittering with ten thousand sunflecks, blurred by drifts of drizzle, blazing with reflected herds of brilliant cumulus, on and on toward the horizon. As far as the eye could see, the river was the only road.

I would give a pinky finger to write sentences so pure, so authoritative, so precise, so true. I feel lucky to have read them, and doubly fortunate to have had the opportunity to share with Lee how much they meant to me, thanks to my friendship with his lovely wife, Nina.

One could call writing like Lee’s majestic, or lyrical, those book-review workhorse words. Posh! I say. When we see nonfiction writing like this again (as will surely be rare), I suggest we call it Sandlinesque. That will be a true compliment. Thank you, Lee, for letting us travel with you. On and on, toward the horizon!