My last photo with Dad

Posted on June 19, 2015
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This short piece was first published in The Daily Tribune on Father’s Day, 2002, in my old “Life Lines” column. It’s reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home

249570_10150280937670242_5875146_nIt’s my favorite photograph of Dad and me — one of those priceless family icons I’d rescue if the house caught fire.

Taken on Father’s Day in 1992, it reveals the totally uncomplicated relationship we’d enjoyed right up to the moment the shutter clicked. I use the word uncomplicated because I can’t think of a more lyrical way to describe my father or the way he lived.

Even when pop psychologists urged us to scrutinize our parents and find them suspect, I saw my dad as a sweet, patient man whose agenda was rarely hidden. He was the kind of guy who appreciated most people just as they were, and I think that’s what we all loved best about him.

But let me explain the photograph.

Dad and I were standing on my back porch, having just finished the surprise dinner I’d hosted for him and my father-in-law. Dad wore a pale blue-gray windbreaker and an outdated pair of glasses that somehow looked right on him. My hair was orange, thanks to a failed experiment with a drugstore highlighting kit. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the maples in our yard, and my mother was anxious to finish the film left in her camera.

Dad and I hugged tightly for the shot.

He was sixty-five and grinning — despite the grim diagnosis of degenerative heart disease he’d been given a few months earlier. At thirty-seven, I was newly unemployed and unsure of my career path. The travel magazine I edited for nearly six years had folded abruptly, dropping me off at midlife without a new map. Still, summer had arrived and we were optimistic. Dad’s diabetes was under control, or as he put it, he’d been “feeling pretty darned good lately.”

Better yet, the ball games were in full swing. It wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar season for the Tigers, but Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker were giving it their best. While I never shared my dad’s religious devotion to baseball, I still can’t hear the crack of a bat against a ball without remembering the old transistor radio he kept tuned to his games.

But there’s something else about the photo. Looking at it today, you’d never imagine the two of us had a major-league concern beyond what we’d be eating for dessert that evening. Nor would you guess that this 35mm print chronicled one of our last days together.

The inevitable phone call came two weeks later on a Monday morning: “Your dad collapsed in the driveway. The ambulance is coming.”

So this week I’m very grateful for that luminous Father’s Day afternoon ten years ago — grateful I hadn’t waited another day to throw my dad a surprise party. I usually postpone my good intentions, adding them to a long list of things I plan to do later. Later, when there’s more time…

“Today is the only time we can possibly live,” wrote Dale Carnegie, whose work my father read often and admired. I see now that Carnegie’s philosophy is gleefully captured in my father’s grin, which my mother wisely captured on film.

What is a “senior” citizen?

Posted on June 5, 2015
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Grow oldAre you officially a “senior” when your first issue of the AARP Bulletin arrives in the mail? Or do you become a senior when you earn your first senior discount at a movie theater or restaurant? And, while we’re at it, when does old age really begin? For the answers, check out my “Life Lines” column in the June issue of Michigan Prime, delivered this weekend with your Sunday Detroit Free Press. Or flip to page 5 to read it online.

Wisdom for graduates

Posted on May 23, 2015
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I always pass along good advice. It is the only thing to do with it, since it is never of any use to oneself.” – Oscar Wilde

FamilyphotonewIt’s graduation season. The flowering trees are in bloom, everywhere, and suddenly I’m flooded with sweet memories of my son’s baccalaureate ceremonies at Shrine High School (2004) and the University of Notre Dame (2008). Of course, I’ve got an album crammed with photos documenting both events. In one of my favorite pictures, Nate stands tall under incredibly blue skies. He looks proud, relieved, and a little awkward as he balances the mortarboard on his head.

This is the time of year when parents, mentors and elected officials like to pass along pithy nuggets of wisdom or advice to students who’ll be starting college or launching new careers. To all our local graduates of 2015, I send my very best wishes for your future. Meanwhile, here’s a rehash of the Post-graduate Survival Tips I wrote for Nate before he left for college ….

*Relationships, like cars, need regular upkeep. Maintain the good friendships you’ve made.

*Learn from your adversaries. The people who push our buttons tend to reflect qualities we dislike in ourselves.

*Encourage others to talk about themselves. You’ll make a great first impression and learn something new.

*If you settle for less, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Strive for decency and expect nothing less from everyone you hang out with.

*The notion that everyone is having a better time somewhere else is one of the world’s dumbest illusions. Refuse to believe it.

*Losing is a great character builder. If your best effort misses the mark, ask yourself what you can learn from the loss.

*Choose a career you can be proud to list on every form you’ll have to fill out.

*Be a community builder. If we can’t make peace with our neighbors, there’s no hope for the rest of the world.

*It can be lonely at the top. Be careful not to alienate loved ones while achieving your goals.

*Be thoughtful. Good manners were designed to make others feel comfortable and respected.

*Get enough sleep.

*Show up or don’t sign up. Make good on your word. Never volunteer out of guilt or for personal gain; give from the heart.

*Keep your faith, but learn about the great religions of the world. Never publicly criticize someone’s religious beliefs. Self-righteousness is a huge turn-off.

*Stay in shape; enjoy a recreational sport.

*Spend time alone. Creative ideas and solutions are sparked in solitude.

*Never leave your underwear on the floor. As every good room mate will tell you, neatness is essential in cramped spaces.

*Always take the high road. Admit your blunders and apologize if you’ve hurt someone.

*Return what you borrow.

*Go easy on the junk food. Pay attention to what you eat, where it came from, and why you’re eating it.

*Find your inner compass and stop seeking approval from others. Be too busy to wonder what other people think of you.

*Spend time outdoors. A walk in the woods is the best antidepressant.

*Splurge on comfortable shoes.

*Don’t limit your shopping to chain stores. Support local businesses and discover the heart and soul of every new location.

*Travel is the best way to learn about the world, but stay on the lookout for a place to set down roots.

*Savor your memories but don’t live in the past. Anyone who insists their high school or college years were “the best” is stuck in a rut. Life gets richer and juicier as you move on. Enjoy every minute.

A slightly different version of this column was first published in The Daily Tribune in May 2004, and is reprinted in its original form in my book, Writing Home.

Top photo: Graduation day at University of Notre Dame, May 18, 2008. Pictured are Andrea Benda (who became Nate’s wife in September 2012), Nate La Ferle, Doug La Ferle (Nate’s dad) and me.  

Memoir night at the library

Posted on May 17, 2015
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At the Royal Oak Public Library: It’s All About You: How to Write Your Memoir, Wednesday, July 8, 7:00pm. 

DSCN2101Join me for a summer evening discussion about the craft of memoir. Whether you want to write a personal essay for publication or a book for your family legacy, this talk will help you get started. We’ll work from my favorite “Map of Your Life” exercise, and discuss the secrets of staying out of the editor’s slush pile. New and experienced writers welcome.

Copies of my own memoir, Writing Home, will be available at a discount to attendees. This class is free to the public, but seating is limited. Advance registration required. Please phone the Royal Oak Public Library (248-246-3700) or visit www.ropl.org for details.

Yoga with my mother-in-law

Posted on May 9, 2015
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Zen 5Had you told me six months ago that I’d soon be practicing chair yoga or aerobic dance moves with my mother-in-law, I would have laughed out loud. In recent years, I’ve struggled to find a fitness routine that doesn’t strain my bilateral hip replacements. Everything I tried, from Hatha yoga to zumba, left me feeling sore, humiliated and eager for the classes to end….

To read the rest of my column in this month’s Michigan Prime, please click here and flip to page 5. The print edition is delivered monthly to subscribers of the Sunday Detroit Free Press.

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