so many years ago. Love it!
Steve Griak was a neighbor dad and a baseball coach. He and his family lived on the other side of the block down at one end. They had a modest house in a really nice neighborhood – so really not all that modest in the real world. Steve had a son, Mike, who was my age and one of my closest friends for much of my childhood. He also had a daughter, Susan, who I believe was my first kiss in a pile of leaves one fall. And he had another son, who arrived when we were twelve and so grew up entirely under my radar. And he had a lovely wife, Mary Jane. A beauty queen, if I’m not mistaken, and the quintessential mom. Her grilled cheese killed.
Me, Mike and Ben Johnson, a closer neighbor, just two doors down but a year younger, were the three amigos. We were all very different, but the proximity mattered, and we grew more alike, then mostly apart as adults. Mike connected me to Steve and Steve connected me to advertising; my first thought being, he gets to wear jeans to work.
Steve was an ad man, when it was cool to be an ad man, but he wasn’t Don Draper. More Bob Newhart/Robert Redford mix than Mannix. He was our baseball coach and a great one. He was patient and tireless and he rarely if ever, seemed even remotely perturbed. He made so many commercials that I remember seeing on TV as a kid and was reminded of those (and this great guy) with this video put together by Charlie Griak:
You know you have those books you were supposed to read but you never did – the great big classics – Moby Dick, anything by Tolstoy, some great early feminist novel, but you never did and while you feel some sort of guilt, you also know that there are a billion books and you cannot be expected to know all of them and if someone wants to call you out on one book then screw ‘em.
That being said, you absolutely HAVE TO READ “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I was obliquely aware of it and especially in the praise of it. I knew it was a “war novel” and while I’ve enjoyed novels with war in them, I was no aficionado. But still it was impressed upon me that this book was IMPORTANT. And it is.
I finally nabbed it from my mother’s bookshelf while we were preparing her move and eventually picked it up to actually read. A slim little book so I figured, might’s well have at it.
This book has changed my life. I think I needed to be transported through amazing language to the dirty, wet, filthy, angry, bloody, stinky, trenches of war. This book does that. And while I know that modern warfare is different, I can only assume that many of the same emotions and fears and bewilderment that Erich Maria Remarque felt are also felt by terribly young, modern soldiers as well. War is war.
It stopped me in my tracks. I always knew war was bad and opposed it mostly as again, a modern, basically aware man, but this flung it all right up into my perfectly safe – thanks to soldiers, and diplomats, and peaceniks, and generally good people – face. I know I can’t know what any soldier in the blaze of war goes through, but this guy gives you a pretty fucking good idea in this book. And to say, it ain’t pretty, would be pantywaist’s clever turn of a phrase. It’s blood ugly.
It shames a person for so many reasons; we’re part of the humanity who creates these situations, we make war. But also because I’ve never had to experience what the soldiers do – not the fucking generals, by the way – but the frontline slugs. I’ve always been basically physically perfectly safe, I’ve never lacked a meal or something to eat, alcohol is always available and affordable. But not for these guys; not at all.
A piece of bread, a sip of cognac is everything. Especially after a day of shelling and explosions, dismemberment and splashing blood, looking into the eye of the man you are about to kill. That’s the cutting edge of life, at its worst.
I read much of this in a comfortable chair overlooking a glistening Lake Superior, safe and sound. But read a book that struck the fear of our manmade devils right into my heart.
So there’s quite the kerfuffle about Pope Francis bagging a bit on the childless couples who act like their dogs and/or cats are even remotely decent substitutes. And I get that that is maybe a bit old school Catholic style. But I’m right there with him! I’m so tired of my childless friends talking about this new restaurant or that great band they saw. Screw that! How about you procreate – as we were all meant to do! That’s the only reason why you’re on this earth – the only real reason! Everything else is window dressing! That pottery you do? Whatever. The music you make? Fun, but ultimately pointless. All those great art shows? You wouldn’t miss them if you never saw them.
And yet the rest of us – the beaten and down-trodden who carry the future of the world on our shoulders and our credit cards – double-down, the women go through the amazing sacrifice of giving birth and the two of us (hopefully) feel the tectonic shift beneath our feet and realize that one now true truth: It’s no longer about me any more, it’s all about you. I live for someone else.
And you with your hip concerts and surprise trips to Costa Rica! You with your spotless houses and planned dinners! You with your facebook posts about all the kidless fun you’re having! You!
Have you ever cupped your hands to catch the puke of a little girl? Realized long after changing a diaper that you had poop beneath your fingernail? Have you ever listened to the banal goings on of a six-year-old orator on a car trip for 2.75 hours? NO, YOU HAVE NOT! And even if you have you could leave the little pains in the ass behind when you head home to your great new awesome HBO series binge-a-thon!
Yeah, I’m jealous. Really jealous. You got it made. I’m screwed. But you got to admit I got it right with the whole evolution thing. Crap out kids – the genetic coupling, halving yourself. Passing on the genes. Only the strong survive. That’s the only real reason we’re here. The rest is window dressing.
But I got to admit that your windows look awesome, god damn it.
So my buddy was telling me about somebody he knows who somehow knows one of the really, really big Hollywood producers, like, just hugely big, like, you know, worth bajillions of dollars and produces movies and tv and whatever, whatever it is they do, and in that sick Hollywood culture people would literally just drop down on their knees and suck his dick to just to get him to read or to look at their, you know, script or to get it produced or whatever so and the guy is you know and he, and he lives it and acts it and he’s so absolutely full of himself to the point he’s just this bizarre Hollywood sick shit, you know, like, this guy, you know, I mean, he just absolutely believes he is as big and as amazing as these people treat him and they do. And what’s so interesting about that is he knows this person who knows this producer more closely and in fact has spent time with him at his home once a year for like thanksgiving or something and the guy this producer guy is the same at home and the people around him at home treat him the same way as the Hollywood sycophants all do so this guy’s life is like it’s as sick at home as it is elsewhere he’s so absolutely full of himself that, that, that, that no matter where he is he has to be sort of treated this way, and acts this way, this sense of, you know, this sense of, deserving, that he deserves all of this, I can’t think of the word there, but … and so, and so, and so I’m thinking about this and thinking god, how do you get like this? How can you possibly be that way? And so I’m thinking about it and I was struck by a really weird thought that so if you took this guy and everything he’s created, like everything he’s created – all the tv shows and all the movies and everything he’s done and everything he’s created and you just could somehow just erase it from history or just pluck it out and throw it away as if it never existed, and what struck me about that is that the world would not be any worse off – at all – like not at all, like nothing would be affected in the world some other movies or tv shows or whatever would fill in there and if we did not know what we’d seen, even if we enjoyed one of his movies or whatever greatly, even if we knew that, but if we didn’t know and it wasn’t created, it would have zero effect on the world. Like none whatsoever! But if you think about this if you took one teacher out, or one nurse out, and what they’ve done in the world, you know, it would have a very profound effect on the people who, who learned from them – or they cared for or whatever, you know, it would be a hugely profound effect, and it’s the same like with our sports stars, I mean, we pay these guys like millions of dollars to like run down the field, or like slap a puck really hard , or kick a ball or do whatever it is, you know, but if you take anyone of these billionaire, millionaire, I guess, sports stars out and the world would be none the worse at all – like, not at all. Nothing would be affected. Zero. Zilch. It’s like we pay the most money, in a lot of cases, it’s now always true, but in a lot of cases, to the people whose effects, true effects on the world and our lives is the least, I mean, think about that, we pay the most money to the people whose effects on the world, truly profound and meaningful effects on the world, are the least, that blows my mind. That just blows my mind.
So I’m thinking more about this and realizing there are really two types of jobs. Those that on some light level affect the world and those that affect it immediately and profoundly and forever. I’m of the former. I work in marketing and while it’s important for me and my clients, if everything I’ve ever done was suddenly erased, not a whole lot would change. But if my brother would similarly disappear, all of the work he’s done to help people’s vision would also disappear. The Target CEO, not much. The Target employee who helped me find the very important gift I was looking for, yep. Entertainers, absolutely not. Plumbers, yes.
This isn’t very well thought out, but am I serious about it? Yes, I am.
Happy Birthday, Dad. You’d be 83. I graduated in 82 – not sure there’s a connection there, but I like numbers so I see something obliquely significant. The universe works on numbers – physics – so maybe that’s where we need to look to look beyond our insignificance.
83 years on this planet has to be a win. I know it is as a dedicated Sunday obituary reader. I see the numbers – the ages – the multitudes in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and now 90s, so I know that lasting into the land of the octogenarian is a win.
A win for you and a win for all of us. To love someone and then have them for so long is exactly what we live for. Early deaths are tears in our lives, our families and our psyches. They serve a purpose – they remind us of the fragility of it all, but they rip at our souls. Old deaths show purpose. They remind us of the reasons we fight to stay alive – not only for us but for the people we love, and more importantly, who love us.
We loved you – love you, but the distinction is profound. I’ve yet to pick up your ashes. I know they’re perfectly safe where they are and I really don’t know what on earth to do with them, despite our plans to do something earthly with them.
I’ll never forget the births of my children. That’s about as profound a moment as you can experience. Everything about me dissipated. It was now entirely about them. All selfish desires went from life to just plain selfish. But then again, it is about me and how I live my life for them. You did that for me. You lived your life to make certain we were provided for. Not that you didn’t live your life for you, you did! But underlying whatever you did was the knowledge that you had us and would provide for us and then make certain we lived our own lives.
Well done, old man! Happy Birthday! Your birth led to mine and your mind made certain I lived a good life. I am working – struggling – to do the same for my kids. It’s a struggle, you know/knew that. But it’s worth it. For living for yourself is one thing, living for others is a multitude of things.
Back in 2003, as our elected officials were all cheerleading our invasion of Iraq, it seemed so blatantly obvious to all of us that if we did, eventually the civil war that is happening right now would certainly come to pass and it blew our minds that they didn’t see that. Not a one of the regular folks I talked with believed Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” and lo and behold we were right. Not one of us believed we could bomb the country of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into some sort of submission without creating a huge power vacuum that would be filled with the same terrorists and radicals we purported to be fighting against, and lo and behold we were right again.
None of us liked Saddam Hussein, and Saddam Hussein, no doubt, ran the place with a hot iron fist, but he was also obviously in no position post-Kuwait to be any real threat to the region, let alone the United States. In addition, he hated Al Qaeda, or religious zealots of any kind (he seemed to believe that there should be no god before him), and would not tolerate anyone who would threaten the stability of his country, for that matter. Remove him and they will move in, we said, which they did.
One passing glance at the history of the entire Middle East and one should have been able to suss out that our bombs and “nation building” would not lead to some sort of shiny democracy a la the United States. It staggers the imagination to believe that they believed it themselves. These were not stupid people so the real question is why did we really invade Iraq? The oil? Payback for W’s dad’s war? Anger that we didn’t take him out then and there? Or maybe this Sunnis kill Shiites and vice versa over and over is exactly what they wanted. Who knows? They know, but no one is about to tell us.
Everything’s blooming! It’s Minnesota at its – finally – best! We wait through autumn, when we’re not waiting at all, and in fact, wondering expectantly at the big brown die-off, through the darkening fall, then Christmas and New Year’s and a slight warm reprieve from the deepening doldrums, and then the real winter, the one that stays long after its welcome, through February, March, even April, May. This year was brutal on our souls. Brutal and unforgiving, unstoppable. The strongest among us whined like kids kept out of the carnival.
But here it is! Glorious! Yet we always forget. Every year. Holy shit! A flower! Green grass! Like we’ve never seen it before. The soil lets loose its gases, which hop us up like goofballs. The air mists moisture, smells sweet, coats our lungs. The flowers shock and bushes burst. The trees all leafy, some big blooms above, fluttering, breezy, then petals scatter all over the ground. Soft, sweet snowflakes, warm and oily.
It’s just June 2nd. Twenty days to the actual Solstice. So much summer to enjoy! We feel guilty. Haven’t we had enough already? Let’s not get fancy. We’re better than this. Stronger! Forgetting the brutality we’ve just suffered, suddenly so forgiving. It wasn’t that bad, right? I know you’ll do it again, but I forgive you this one time. Because now is good – really, really good.