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 re-educated 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 –

Bridge

Sunlight shimmering on the river water
Leaves me squinty-eyed on a Chicago summer day
The only kind 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 thrust out 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

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!

Health care industry reacting to overtesting, overtreatment

Carla Johnson’s lede:

The American health care system wastes an estimated $750 billion a year, according to the Institute of Medicine. At a recent AHCJ chapter event in Chicago, four panelists discussed one source of that waste: unnecessary tests and procedures.

Moderated and organized by AHCJ member Kevin B. O’Reilly, senior editor of CAP Today, the panel looked at the issue through the lenses of doctors, journalists, health system executives and academics.

Read the whole shebang at the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Covering Health blog.

Here is Lucas

Today marks the one-month birthday of our son, Lucas. Elizabeth is doing a marvelous job ensuring that he is properly nourished, and he is growing quite beautifully. Lucas has so many looks. Here he is being pensive.

Lucas-Baby Bella-05

You can stay updated on Luke’s evolving appearance at his (password-protected) website. For access, please send your request to the address below. Thanks.

emailimage

Here is my new cubicle …

2013-11-04 10.00.29 … at the College of American Pathologists, where I started a position Monday as senior editor for a monthly magazine the college publishes, CAP TODAY. The publication focuses principally on clinical issues in pathology, laboratory medicine and laboratory management. So, I have a lot to learn. The job is out in the suburb of Northfield, so I had to buy a car to make the daily commute. It’s interesting work so far and, hey, free coffee! I will, as I’ve done with all my previous jobs, post links to my articles. Given the audience at which the publication is aimed, however, these stories may be less accessible to the general reader than most of my previous work.

Health care reads for Sept. 16, 2013

In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, Peter Frost reports that Illinois is way behind other states in getting the word out about buying insurance under the Affordable Care Act:

At the Minnesota State Fair last month, state employees handed out thousands of paperboard fans bearing pictures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox to promote Minnesota’s health insurance marketplace.

Over Connecticut beaches this summer, airplanes flew banners emblazoned with “Get Covered!” as teams below distributed free sunscreen packets as part of the state’s campaign to get more of its residents insured under the Affordable Care Act.

In Colorado, Oregon and a handful of other states, radio and TV spots have been running for weeks encouraging the uninsured to seek health coverage starting Oct. 1.

In Illinois so far? Mostly silence.

The whole shebang.

And in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait attempts to explain — at length — why Obamacare “continues to drive many Republicans to madness.” He begins:

The Republican party has voted unanimously against establishing the Affordable Care Act in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives, then voted some 40 times to repeal or cripple it; it has mounted a nearly successful campaign to nullify it through the courts and a failed presidential campaign that promised to repeal it; and it has used its control of state governments to block the law’s implementation across vast swaths of the country, at enormous economic cost to those states. Yet somehow, in the wake of all this, the party is consumed with the question Have we done enough to stop Obamacare?

The whole shebang.