Walter Joseph 1920 – 1993

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This is my father.

He passed away 21 years ago on July 29.  The news came in a long-distance phone call from Florida as I sat at my desk grading final papers at the end of the summer semester.  My younger sister Liz stammered softly into the receiver, “He’s gone.”

I think of him every year at this time, given my tendency to focus on dates, track anniversaries of different sorts, and to mark other events in time.    This tracking of dates and turning points, I believe, is an effort at self-understanding, a desire to understand how events have impacted my life and my relationships.

The father-daughter relationship is probably only second in complexity to the mother-daughter relationship.  And while I might wish my connection with my father had been just a little bit different, more emotionally close, I will suggest that he loved me in his own way, and in the best way he knew how.  I have come to this conclusion over time.

The illustration above was created by one of my father’s  co-workers in a Miami advertising agency.  Like any good caricature, it captures, with the requisite exaggeration, the outstanding qualities of its subject.  The moppy head of red hair, the ill-fitted shirt covering his thin frame, the stooped posture over the drawing table, the weary eyes and ever-present cigarette, were all Walt Kerwin.  I love this drawing because it so clearly represents who he was.

And since the 21st anniversary of his passing is just about here, and he is on my mind, I thought I would share with you how he shaped my childhood … and how his legacy is evident in my life now.

He was a tall, slender, quiet, rather shy man.  He was an artist and a professional photographer.  He was a master advertiser.  He was a World War II veteran and a recipient of the Purple Heart.  He was a swimmer and a tennis player.  He was creativity personified.  He could build anything.   He liked a good drink, which bruised him in a number of ways.  He quit cold turkey.  I remember that day.

I miss him.

Here are my most vivid memories of this man.

Shoulder rides during my youngest years.   I remember feeling so high, if a little unstable, lacing my fingers under his chin and hooking my legs around his back, my body loping and swooping with each long-legged step down the hallway toward the kitchen.

He taught all his children how to swim.  Good God, the patience.  I remember the smell of his skin in the pool and loving to skim my palm back and forth along the top of his crew cut.  He was a trooper, because in the early days of those swimming lessons I swallowed a fair amount of water… only to up-chuck it later in the session.  He was particularly patient during one post-chocolate ice cream session when I couldn’t keep it down.  This was probably one of our quicker exits from the hotel pool during a trip to Florida.  His shoulder rides in the water only served to spawn my love for chicken fights — two against two or the one-on-one inner tube version.  I can’t recall laughing so hard and long under other circumstances … a dangerous past time when under water.

He developed a nightly story and prayer ritual with my sister Liz and me before we went to sleep.  We fought over whose bed he would sit on while he held our hands as we lay on our sides facing each other.  He gracefully accepted our announcement one evening that he needn’t participate in this activity anymore, as we had determined we had outgrown it.  My face flushes every time I remember this.

If teaching six children how to swim wasn’t enough, he taught us all to ride bikes as well.   Sensing I was on the threshold for two-wheeler balance, he wordlessly removed his grip from the seat of the bike, standing and watching as I peddled along the street, leaving him behind.   There is a positive correlation, of course,  between the adult hand-removal and the child’s sudden clue into the solitary bike action, followed by the requisite wobbling and fall.   In all subsequent efforts, as I improved in my balance, he’d whisper,
“Now you’re talkin’!”  I loved hearing that.  I share this anecdote in my child development classes as a great example of scaffolding the  learning process.

He continued this tradition many years later when he bought a bike for his granddaughter, my niece Laura, and fitted it with training wheels, contributing to her introduction to bike-riding as well.  I’m not sure who delighted in this past-time more — him or her.

My father loved his camera, and was never without an instrument at the ready.  He took countless pictures of us as children, especially at holidays.   During one Christmas season in Atlanta, he balanced the tripod in the living room, set a timer on the camera, and directed us to run to the sofa and quickly take a seat before the camera snapped our image.  There are hilarious shots of us from the back, catching us mid-run in our holiday finest, lurching toward the couch in several failed attempts to beat the timer.  We did finally succeed, though we appear a bit stiff-smiled and winded in the final shots.

My father could build just about anything.  He constructed a tiny tree house in our backyard, a sandbox, a swing, and he made a pair of stilts for Liz and me from scraps of wood left over from a work project.  We loved showing them off.  That was an integral element of the cool factor with neighborhood friends.

He took many business trips to the Caribbean to carry out advertising assignments for his firm.  He always sent post cards and brought home gifts every time.  We were so greedy, barely giving him a chance to enter the house before chiming predictably, “What did you bring us????”

His creativity was humorous and charming.  At Easter he drew sophisticated cartoon faces on the eggs for our annual yard hunt.  At Christmas one year he constructed a  small rotating Christmas tree from miscellaneous objects.  He suspended it from the ceiling, and it made a humming sound as it slowly twirled.

One year he spray-painted a pair of his shoes green for a St. Patrick’s Day office party.   My mother admonished him not to wear them … though I believe he probably stashed them in the car after changing back to another pair of shoes.

When I was in high school, he helped me build a life-size can of Raid bug spray as a float for a half-time show during a home-coming football game.  The theme was “Raid the Raiders, ” a missive to the  opposing team.  I crawled inside the giant tube and pressed the lever on a fire extinguisher to emit white spray at appropriate intervals.  I felt especially with-it, walking methodically along the running track that surrounded the football field.  He took my initial idea and improved on it delightfully.  He may have enjoyed it even more than I.

And he taught me how to drive, too.  Are you getting this picture?  This man taught six children to swim,  ride bikes, and to drive motorized vehicles.  How he survived these tasks alone I will never know.  I am personally responsible for causing him some anxiety at the start of my own lessons in the school parking lot.  I blame it on the recently-developed  power-brake system in most cars of that era, though.  In my first effort to use the brake system, I placed my foot firmly on the pedal, only to have my father throw his head back against the head rest, slam the heals of his hands on the dashboard, pump-brake against the floor boards with his foot, and shriek that I had all but sent him through the windshield.  I thought the lesson was over.  But he soldiered on.  Later, he taught me how to parallel park at the end of our street.  He positioned two cemented pots several feet apart, complete with colorful orange flags as visual markers.  I can state with confidence that I am one fine parallel parker as a result of this tutorial, and to this day I  line up the center of the hood with a static point in the distance, as taught.

Later in life, my father bought a motor boat, which became a source  of pride and joy for him.  He loved racing around on Biscayne Bay and motoring us through the Port of Miami.   At the start of Christmas break of my junior year in high school, we arranged  to have him and my sister Mary Dee  pick me up at the sea wall at school.  No dock.  No pier.  He just slowed the boat down, gently lined it up against the wall, and I jumped in as thought this was a daily activity.  I was Super Student that day.  Enormously cool.

When Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida, he stoically hunkered down in the house, located just outside the anticipated flood area for this devastating storm.  He was fine, unhurt, and later sent all of us a series of carefully assembled photos documenting the storm’s aftermath.  In one photo he showed how grass and leaves had actually forced through the tiny squares on the screen door in the front of the house, only to stick to the wooden door in scattered microscopic bits.  That’s how powerful the winds were that day in August 1992.

He bought a green Corvette, too.  I think he loved that car almost as much as he loved the boat.  Yet he had little opportunity to drive it, as he died the following year.

Important things my father left me:  an appreciation for fine-point black felt tip pens; the charm of limericks, both clean and bawdy;  the usefulness of a ready supply of white paper for drawing or a necessary project; the fun of a naughty joke; the benefits of list-making; the wonder of people-watching; a well-cared for yard and home; a love for coffee; a tendency toward fastidiousness; the benefits of overly-planned road trips; the value of re-filling the gas tank get when it dips to a quarter full; the pay-off in arriving at the airport 90 minutes before departure-time; a love of cartoons, and a gene here and there for drawing; the soothing qualities of swimming; a de-fault position for caution; and the telling of a good story.

I’m glad he was in my life as long as he was, with all the accompanying complexities of our relationship.

Thanks, Dad.

 

So … how did your father shape your life?

 

Promises, Promises

Asian Woman Smiling

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make.

No, really.  It’s alright.  Accountability … personal responsibility … making amends … you know, those full psychological integration reminders that buzz in your brain like those feathery microscopic gnats that inevitably swoop up your nose or land in your mouth?

OK.   Let’s get to it.  In my April 1, 2014 blog post, “I’d Even Wear a Toga if it Would Help my Yoga,” I stated that I would try an approach to meditation that I’d read about in Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love.  At the time, I said I would do this as a two-week experiment, and then report my experience to you.

Now, I’m sure you remember, and you have been politely waiting for my follow-up.  You are both kind and patient.  The truth is, I failed in my efforts after a mere two days.

By way of reminder, I referenced a passage in Gilbert’s book in which she discusses the fairly negative perspective on yoga conveyed by her medicine man, Ketut Liyer.  He says,

“Why they always look so serious in yoga?  You make serious face like this, you scare away good energy.  To meditate, only you must smile.  Smile with face, smile with mind, and good energy will come to you and clean away dirty energy.”

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I recall those my two shallow efforts at sitting still with my eyes closed.  Rather than take enough time to focus, I got caught up in how I must have looked, sitting there quietly with a smile on my face.  It felt awkward.  How should I smile?  Should it be a slight smile?  Open-mouthed or close-mouthed?  A grin?  This actually mattered to me.  As if someone was there to watch and offer a critique.   At one point I wanted to burst out laughing.  Talk about your over-thinking.

There was no conscious decision to discontinue trying — I think I simply never fully committed to the effort.

African American Male Smiling

Then …  the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months and the seasons changed, and the memory began to gnaw at me.

You know, like that mossy feeling your teeth get when you  don’t brush them for several weeks?  Or the discomfort you feel when you put your shoes on the wrong feet and you are just too busy to switch them?   Or when you put your underwear on backwards and you don’t realize it until you are in the middle of an important  presentation?   Or that feeling you get when you’re talking to someone at a public occasion, and the person has one of those dry flaky boogers hanging out of their nose, and it comes fluttering all the way out of their nasal cavity –  with each exhalation –  retreating back up the nasal passage with the next inhalation, only to re-appear again and again all evening long until you just want to shriek or crawl under the table because you can’t bear to let them know what’s happening and you must do everything in your power to hold your dinner down?

Anyway, it was really starting to get to me.  I had not kept my promise.

But recently, I returned to  a yoga DVD that I hadn’t used in a while, and I noted that throughout the routine the instructor wore a gentle, pleasant smile – very inviting.  She modeled serenity.  Then I played a new video, recently purchased, and noted that the instructor not only smiled throughout the routine but directly commented on the power of a smile to influence attitude and confidence in managing challenging yoga poses.

White Woman With Gray Hair Smiling

That did it.

So here I am, returning to my pledge to attempt two weeks of quiet smile-meditation.  I’m putting it in writing:

I, Sheila Kerwin, pledge to try daily smile-meditation for two weeks, from July 22, 2014 through August 5, 2014, and to report my experiences to you , my Esteemed Readers, within 5 days of completing this two-week project.

Fingerprint

(Not my actual thumb print, but you get my meaning.  My thumb’s not that big.  This is closer to the scale of my big toe.)

Sheila Kerwin, 7/21/14

So … a smile begets motivation.  A smile begets confidence.  If you can smile, you can smile!

And who cares what you look like when you are smiling with your eyes closed!  That’s not the point!

Allow me to close here by taking a page from my favorite self-help guru, Stuart Smalley, who reminds us to resist “stinkin’ thinkin’:”  I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

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My smile meditation project begins in twelve hours.

So now you know what I’m doing to fight that dirty energy.   What are you doing?  C’mon, now!  Share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Smoke, Therefore I Am

Close-up Photo of Person Smoking

A friend and co-worker had just returned to campus after making an initial recovery from a bout with pneumonia.  We were about to begin our catch-up meeting, when I asked her how she was feeling.

She looked down and slowly shook her head.  Her eyes filled with tears.  She had landed in the emergency room a week before with what doctors initially thought might be a blood clot in one lung.

The wake-up call had come.  Her doctor told her she had to quit smoking.  This was her second attempt, after doing so several years ago following a struggle with bronchitis.  She’d not had a cigarette in one week, and it was weighing on her heavily that morning.

She explained that the her effort to quit was more painful emotionally than physically.  “It was my identity for 40 years.”  While she had her favorite points in the day for a puff, the change in her early morning routine was perhaps the most difficult.  No more cigarette with that first cup of coffee as she prepared for work.  This was torture.

Ash Tray with Cigarette Butts

I complimented her courage and stoicism.  She explained how she was trying to make it through each day.  She said again that  smoking being an integral part of her identity for all of her adult life.  I suggested that perhaps her effort to quit would allow her to re-fashion that identity.  Her response:  “Bullshit to that.”

OK.  Conversation turned to her memory of her mother struggling to quit smoking as well, and how her mother had often declared she didn’t want that “simple pleasure” taken away from her.   I couldn’t help but think of my own mother and father as she shared this anecdote, since our parents were from the same heavy-smoking generation that hardly thought twice about lighting up under just about any circumstance.

It had been some time since I’d considered my parents’ smoking habits, and how this lifestyle choice not only did serious damage their health but cut their lives short.  They both began smoking in their late teens, and built up a 2-3 pack-a-day habit.    My mother experienced several serious health problems, including a heart attack, a cancerous tumor in her jaw, and eventually a cranial aneurism that took her life at the age of 69.  My father died a year and a half later of complications from emphysema.  He was 71.

Cigarettes, and all related symbols were ubiquitous during my childhood.  Smoking was still considered glamorous.  Movie stars peered into the camera with a cigarette dangling precariously from their lips.  Frank Sinatra and all the members of the Brat Pack smoked while they sang (and often drank) before live audiences.  Cigarettes were marketed to women directly, also.  (Remember the Virginia Slims jingle?  “You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby.  You’ve come a long, long way.”)

Even children’s candy reflected this lifestyle.  My friends and I were convinced we had  entered Cool-dom as we puffed heavily on our candy cigarettes, sucking our cheeks in tightly, and knocking our heads back  as we exhaled the sugar-smoke.

Popeye Candy Cigarettes Poster

But these products were quickly abandoned for the real thing, as they were simply too readily available.  I took my first gamble in fifth grade, as it was a suggestion by Chris, my next door neighbor, and because I was tall enough to reach the cartons of Marlboro and Alpines stored on top of the refrigerator in our kitchen.  Marlboro was my father’s cigarette, while my mother preferred Alpine.

Marlboro Cigarettes   Alpine Cigarettes

I sampled both, finding Marlboro harsh, and selecting Alpine for its lighter effect, and, probably,  to identify with my mother.  I was the main cigarette supplier for my band of four friends who I’d played with since kindergarten.  We’d always had the run of the neighborhood, but when it came to smoking, we ventured into the woods north of our street, an forest thick with beautiful pine trees that would eventually be cut down for new home construction.  We lit up among the trees and hardy kudzu vines, standing around or sitting in a circle, feeling secretive and dangerous.  I became adept at striking a match with a careless ease, and practiced inhaling smoothly and exhaling through my nose, even as the vapors burned my nostrils.  The initial buzz that centered at the back of my head would eventually give way to mild nausea as we moved to a second or third cigarette.  Chris’ compliment of my dragging style motivated me to practice other cool habits, including talking with the cigarette in my mouth and holding the smoldering stick between my forefinger and middle finger distractedly, as if it belonged there.  Holding it too tightly would only broadcast “newbie” to the entire planet, after all.

But smoking indeed made me feel important … cool … rebellious. This was about the extent of my childhood rebellion, though.   As a naturally sensitive and pretty well-behaved kid — it was my personal experiment in being bad.

We were never caught.  No trees or pine beds were harmed in the making of our youthful smoking habits.  Talk about dumb luck.

This activity had a short shelf-life, though I can’t recall why.  Perhaps it faded as we got a little older, and our friendships shifted.

Smoking wouldn’t emerge as an interest again until my first year at college, when I returned to the habit for a short time.  It took a fairly goofy turn during a trip to Great America when my room mates and I purchased those enormous cigars that about the size of a human fore arm, and attempted puffing on them.  Besides the obvious phallic symbolism that unleashed our immature laughter, they were simply horrible.  We may as well have been trying to smoke soggy tree leaves.  And we came close to burning our eyebrows off, as well.

Giant Cigar

During this time I recalled my mother admonishing me years earlier to never take up smoking as she had.  “It’ll ruin your singing voice,” she warned.  I don’t think I abandoned the cigarettes for that reason so much as for the expense and the general stench and nausea that they produced.  The impact of the habit on my parents’ health had not yet fully emerged, but would in the next year.  Those events likely fixed my decision to abandon cigarettes.  Had I not, I’ve a feeling the I would have been a chain-smoker.

My parents’ social experience with smoking began to change around that time, though, as well.  Smoking was losing its cachet, at least in areas of Miami where they lived.  People were beginning to request non-smoking areas in restaurants and other public areas.  My mother told me that one evening when she and my father went out for dinner not one but two different couples asked to be seated elsewhere to avoid the smoke from their cigarettes.  They actually felt embarrassed enough to leave the restaurant.

Over time, I have somehow lost my own tolerance for smoking and second-hand smoke.  Call me a wimp, but my throat gets scratchy within moments of talking to someone who is smoking or who has recently finished a cigarette.  Nausea and headache usually follow.  So I avoid it when possible.

The friend I described at the start of this essay knows this about me and accepts me anyway.  Before she launched her effort to quit smoking, if we were out together I would simply sit upwind and she’d point the cigarette away.  Not a perfect solution, but a thoughtful effort.

And here’s the thing.  Smoking cessation must be one of the most difficult personal challenges a person can face.  In my own family, all  but one sibling took up smoking, for various periods of timer.  Three of us smoked seriously for  a while, and of those three, one kicked the habit using hypnosis.  Whatever works, right?

I can’t argue with my friend’s characterization of her lifestyle habit as part of her identity.  She may feel that this identity is under siege now that she is quitting.   But I will argue that she is indeed recreating her identity by making this very fundamental change in her life.  She has made a choice.

Wavy Cartoon of Woman Who Recently Quit Smoking

She feels like this right now.  But at the time of this writing she is completing day 26 of her journey.  And that, my friend, is cool.  Way cool.  Coolosity.

Image of Healthy Lungs

Happy lungs are on their way.  Buh- bye, pneumonia.

I would argue, further, that this makes her a super-hero.  It qualifies her for  entry to the X-Men Community.   And when you are one of the X-Men you must have a super-hero name.

I dub thee Pulmonique.  With your newly-developing lung power, you will be able to run and jump and laugh uproariously and skip rope and leap tall buildings and literally blow someone away who is getting on your nerves.

Accept the name.  Embrace the new identity.  You have all my admiration.

You go girl.

 

 

 

My thanks to Yvonne, for her permission to share her experience in this essay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Fighting, No Biting!

chielllini-suarez-bite

Well, dear readers, if you have not been residing in a cave or under a moss-covered hollow log deep in the forest, you’ve heard a little something recently about a talented Uruguayan soccer player by the name of Luis Suarez, and his behavior in the June 24 match between Uruguay and Italy during this year’s  World Cup.

No, you say?  Tell me about it, you say?  Come on, now.  Even I, a soccer-challenged fair-weather fan of the sport, have read a little something about this match.

Well, OK, pull up a chair and let Auntie Sheila tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a soccer player named Luis, who played for his team from Uruguay.  Luis was a very good player, and he loved the game very much.  He was always very happy when his team won games.

But there was a problem.  Sometimes, when Luis played, he would bite a player from the other team.  When his team played Holland he bit a player from that team.  He was punished for biting.  He wasn’t allowed to play for the next seven matches.  Another time, when his team played against England, he bit a player from that team, too.  He was punished again.  He couldn’t play for the next ten matches.

Then came time for the most important event for soccer players everywhere:  the World Cup.  All the very best players from all over the world came to Brazil to play many soccer games, to find out which team was the best of all.  They played many days, and ran and ran and kicked the ball and smacked it with their heads and tripped and fell down and ran some more and sweated a lot.  This is why they were all in such good shape.

One day, Luis’ team from Uruguay was playing a game against Italy.  It was a very tough game, and if Uruguay lost they would be out of the competition and couldn’t play any more and would have to go home.  Luis did not want to lose this game.  He did not want to go home.   When he and an Italian player, Claudio Machisio, both tried to kick the ball, Claudio turned around, and Luis jumped on him and bit him on his shoulder!

Claudio pulled his shirt down to show everyone the bite marks on his shoulder.  Luis rolled and rolled on the ground and squinched his eyes shut and held his teeth with his fingertips.

Luis was punished again.  He was not allowed to play with his team for their next nine games.  Plus, he was not allowed to play any soccer at all for four months (that’s like not being able to play from Halloween all the way until after Valentine’s Day).

Luis said it was an accident.  He said, “I hit my face against the player, leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth.”

Claudio forgave Luis.  He said, “I have no feelings of joy, revenge or anger … I believe the proposed formula is excessive.  I sincerely hope that he will be allowed, at least, to stay close to his team mates during the games because such a ban is really alienating for a player.”  Claudio is pretty emotionally intelligent, if not a bit loquacious.

Luis is on a long time-out from soccer.  If he hadn’t bitten, he could still be playing the game he loves so much.

Let’s think about some other things Luis could do instead of biting, OK?

When he gets angry, or worried about losing the game, he can take a deep breath to help calm himself down.

He can use his words.  He can say, “Hey!  I’m gonna take that ball away from you!  I’m gonna kick a goal!  Hey, look at that pink elephant over there!  Ha ha!  Made ‘ya look!”

He can say, “I’m really worried that we might lose this game,” or “I’m angry that he got the ball away from me.”

He can talk about the happy feelings he has when he wins a game and the angry feelings he has when he loses a game.  When he loses a game and feels angry, instead of biting, he can pound some play dough or tear up some scratch paper or kick the ball around until he feels calmer.

He can ask his parents or his teacher to read him the book, No Fighting, No Biting! by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak.

If Luis tries some of these ideas, he will know that it’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to bite when you’re angry.  Biting hurts.  It’s not OK to hurt yourself, other people, or to break things when you’re angry.  It’s not always easy to do that, though, because our feelings can be very strong.

But if Luis tries really hard, and plays more and more soccer games without biting, he will be an even better player. More important:  he will learn how to be a good sport.

That’s a big job.

So this story doesn’t really have an ending.  What do you think Luis will do while he is on his time-out?  What do you think he will do when his time out is over and he can play soccer again?  Share your ideas!

And remember:  No fighting, no biting.  Peace and love.