Keeping it Real (Inspiration Series, Week 28)

Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, made his expectations clear after a racial incident at the school.

There’s no such thing as a slow news day anymore. One of the challenges, as things seem to move ever-faster and feel ever-crazier, is to sift among the latest headlines and pick up the stories that resonate beyond the latest person to say something nuts.

I don’t know a lot about General Jay Silveria’s past. His Air Force bio and online snippets talk mostly about his military career – 32 years of service and leadership in some of the world’s most dangerous spots. He was Vice Commander of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and previously served as Deputy Commander USAF Central Command. He’s logged more than 3,900 flight hours and received numerous honors, including the Pentagon’s highest award for service outside combat.

My guess is that the General didn’t expect to make headlines – the high-ranking men and women of the military seem to share a humility that doesn’t seek attention. They put their troops first, their country first. And so, when he confronted an incident at the Academy’s preparatory school, he likely wasn’t thinking about how far his response might reach.

“Incident” is a nice word for the racial slurs that were scrawled on the dormitory-room message boards of five black students. As he gathered all 4,000 cadets, along with 1500 faculty and staff members, the 3-Star General was blunt. 

“That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, it has no place at USAFA, and it has no place in the United States Air Force. You should be outraged, not only as an airman, but as a human being.”

It was a 5-minute speech that didn’t shy away from recent events and the racial tensions they represented. He mentioned the NFL protests and Ferguson, and referenced a talk by the Dean following the march by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Silveria was very obviously angry. His tone relayed the seriousness of what had taken place and he was in no mood to do anything less than condemn it. And yet, even with the classic military gravitas in place, the General spoke to higher goals. 

“But I also have a better idea, and it’s about our diversity . . . It’s the power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this country, that we come from all races, that we come from all backgrounds, gender, all make-up, all upbringing. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”

It was striking. With no exposure or real understanding of the military, I’ve always simply seen it as this narrow place of rules, regulations, and prescribed behavior that allows no deviation. They say, you do. But even as Silveria denounced what had happened, he took the time to openly acknowledge wounds that have become a national topic of conversation and communicate a vision for the academy that looks forward.

So much of the time, we look to eliminate the things that make us different. I know that as someone who yearns for a conflict-free life, it is often most comfortable to quietly urge peaceful resolution at all cost. It has made me a generally nice person, but too often, it leaves me hesitant to speak out or make waves. 

By not just reducing a racist act to an ordinary infraction – and by actively extolling the very diversity it tried to destroy – Silveria took center stage as a leader who could be trusted to value each cadet’s history and the strengths that come from their individual life experiences. The goal is not simply to melt everyone down into a monolith, but to create a team where each person contributes to a greater whole.

Putting a point on it all, the General advised his audience to take out their phones and record what he had to say next. It was a simple message for those who couldn’t deal with his vision. For me, the get-along girl, it was a ln important reminder of the impact a few unambiguous words can have:

“If you can’t treat someone from another race or different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

No further words needed. If you missed the complete speech, check it out here. 

Advertisements

Superheroes Never Sleep   (Inspiration Series, week 27)

Take the imagination of George Lucas and mix it with the stamina of George Washington and the whimsy of Jim Henson, and you get Marcus Stricklin.

The first (and only) time I saw Marcus Stricklin was in a Vegas hotel. It always surprises me a little, realizing that though it feels like I’ve shared many experiences – wonderful and tragic – with him, we’ve shared the same air space just once. Despite the brevity of our meeting (which, in fairness, included the most kickass wedding of the 21st century), i don’t exaggerate when I say he’s had a pretty profound affect on me. 

I won’t give a bio on Marcus – he’s a brilliant storyteller and doesn’t need me for that. In fact, he’s written about his past, including the challenges of a childhood spent as a self-professed geek who sometimes caught the attention of 6-foot-plus dudes that could only be thwarted by genius. I highly recommend finding him on Medium, where he’s told some of the best tales – he reaches back into his life and makes you feel like you were with him through each experience. 

I don’t think I saw him without a smile during the wedding weekend. When we got back home and did the requisite friending on Facebook, I soon realized that this guy, this writer, was the real deal. 

He seemed to put out copy as if it was the easiest thing in the world. I’d wake up at 7:30 in New Jersey and be so proud of myself for an early start until I saw that Marcus – three hours behind in Arizona -had already begun. I worked on never-to-be-completed stories as he developed scripts, then cast, filmed, and produced them. I’ve always been a bit of an Eeyore, but suddenly there was this long-distance Tigger, bouncing around and doing everything I said I wanted to achieve. 

And then, Marcus hit a slump. For reasons I didn’t yet understand, he was sad, and seemingly unable to shake the demons. A mutual friend let me in on the fact that the happy guy I’d met was, in fact, a much more complicated man with dark shadows that threatened to overtake him. His beloved brother had been killed. He lost his mother way too soon, and “enjoyed” the kinds of fraught relationships with other family members that tend to send us writers to the page or to the bottle. 

I can’t say whether Marcus has been on any benders, at least not that kind. But he has shared the traumas of depression, of loss, and of feeling as though there are no good things left to say. There was a time when it seemed that despite being adorable and brilliant, he might not find his way forward to the kind of life his brother and mother would certainly wish for him.

And then, like all good superheroes, he rose back up, even finding the girl. But she lived across the country – and came with three young kids! My inner self, schooled on the art of not taking risks, watched in both amazement and fear as Marcus’ relationship with Natasha (who I’ve never met but kinda adore), grew and grew some more.

He was moving. She was moving. I could barely keep up, but next thing I knew there was a wedding coming! The guy who a few years earlier had lamented his singlehood was now not just going to be a husband, but a father of four, giving his son Jordan a gaggle of giggly girls to love and to adore him. 

They married. They moved their new family to Arizona. And Marcus began to chronicle the craziness of his newfound joys – from a near-disaster at White Barn to YouTube cooking videos with the kids. Life seemed to have reached a high point. 

But all good superheroes have an equally persistent nemesis, and Marcus’ demons did not go quietly. He actually quit writing during his engagement, and it took more than two months to get back, when his creativity decided it would no longer be imprisoned. And back he roared –  he was soon writing, directing, and once again serving as a mentor and role model to his many fans, friends, and partners. 

That’s another strength – encouraging everyone around him. Whether as a script doctor, producing partner, or director, he stands by those willing to take the leap. From dusk to dawn, he’ll be on set or online with ideas, motivation, and an insistence on getting the work done. 

I’d already pretty much confirmed Marcus’ greatness when word came that he and Natasha were adding on to their family of six. As if part of a movie script, these two incredible families, already bonded, would now share a tiny new soul that connects them at an even deeper level. It should surprise no one that when Finnegan Mario (for his father’s beloved brother) Stricklin entered the world, he was toasted and feted as the son of a superhero should be. 

Many of my inspirers have been people who choose. While huge swaths of us mortals wait for the sign, for the right time and circumstances, the brave ones forge ahead. Not just though blue skies or across green fields, but through the mud of disappointment, the valleys where darkness pervades. They may take a moment to wallow, but there is always a next step back onto the path and into the light.

As I work to become one of these people, I give a toast today to the ones, like Marcus,  who remind us that superheroes are not just in the movies – they are in our lives and ready to help us uncover our own best selves. 


Dear Mom (Inspiration Series, Week 26)

The one word that seems to sum up Mom’s impact on the world is kindness.


Dear Mom,

I’ve been writing this year. Well, to be honest, I was writing until, somewhere in July, I kind of stopped. 

It’s my first attempt at something significant in awhile – a blog series on people who’ve inspired me. After a good start, I missed some weeks, then more. I realized getting stuck seemed to happen most when I tried to pick people who had done great things, as opposed to ones who touched something in me. 

No one touches me, even all these years later, more than you. It’s crazy to think that this month, you will have been gone for 35 years. I only had you in my life for 14. And while your absence doesn’t cause the same deep pain it once did, I think about you all the time – who you were, what you’d think of the world, and how things might be different if you’d been here longer.

What choices might I have made if I hadn’t spent a third of my childhood with someone battling alcoholism and depression? If you’d been able to work on your dreams, would I have been able to create bigger ones for myself? Though I can’t know if I’d have had more confidence, felt less fear, I believe that having your guiding hand on my shoulder could have helped me be a bit braver, more excited about the opportunities that lay ahead.

Instead, a mix of grief and natural reticence led to a lot of “comfort” decisions. I eschewed taking chances for safety, and while there are things and people I can’t imagine my life without, I still wonder about what might have been had I pushed myself, found more courage when confronting challenges.

This blog… as I mentioned, it’s about Inspirers – people who, through word or action, make me think about doing more, being more. I’ve had Dad, and Nana & Granddaddy, along with some famous people as subjects. And now, it’s time for you, the woman who, despite her short presence in my life, has probably influenced me more than any other person.

It sounds weird, but I don’t have any concrete memories of you. I can’t hear your voice, and am not really able to picture you, even as I do other people from those early years. Perhaps it’s trauma; someday, perhaps I’ll be able to pull the images out. But here’s the thing, and what led me to choose you as my Inspirer this week. As far from 1982 as we are, there are a lot of people who do remember you. And many are still in my life.

When I posted your picture on Facebook to commemorate your birthday, the response was fast and remarkable. Person after person commented – and whether it was as a Girl Scout leader or a neighborhood mom, the consensus was pretty clear. 

You made people feel special. They recalled how our house was always open to all the kids and how there was always a friendly face to welcome them. Girls remembered the crafts you taught, guys remember you and Dad serving as chaperones on great weekend outings. 

I believe that the remembrances are a tribute to you, to the values you instilled and the way you lived and loved. Because you did it so clearly and openly, there are many here to attest to your wonderful legacy. 

You were sweet, they say. Kind and warm. I remember someone once remarking that you had a soft spot for kids and animals and that nothing angered you more than their mistreatment. Those who needed your caring, and perhaps a smidge of protection, were extra special to you.

Your welcoming nature, though, was even more important in ways I’ve only recently learned. I was so happy when kids my age moved onto our block. Now I know that some in the neighborhood weren’t thrilled with a black family moving in. It warmed my heart to hear how you made sure they knew they were welcomed by our family. 

So many people have told me that they loved our annual New Year’s Day open house – another example of your hospitality – that featured your reubens and onion sandwiches. They’re still being made by many. I had lunch with one of your best friends awhile ago. She gave me one of your recipe index cards – that bubbly handwriting is one thing I do remember well, I treasure it.

Though there were things that took over your life – things I likely will never fully understand – I take pride in your acts of bravery. Marrying a “foreigner,” being the first in your family to move away from your childhood home to what must have seemed so far away. And then, after starting your family in New York City, relocating to Teaneck, a town that was making a name for itself – it may not have been perfect but it was mighty special, and something I’ve only begun to appreciate. 

Genes are an odd thing. Though we spent a short time together, I believe that I am very like you. I know we have the same look – people commented on how much this picture I used of you looks like me. 

But I got more than your eyes and premature gray. I inherited a sensitivity (sometimes it feels like fragility) that means I get frustrated easily, especially when things seem unfair or it seems people are being mistreated. I cry pretty quickly – over tv shows, diary entries, and pictures of you as a young woman. I take great offense if I feel I’ve been wronged and wonder if you did. I’ve gotten better at forgiveness, though can still be very stubborn. Does that sound familiar? 

Your family has grown, Mom, in ways that might have been hard to imagine 35 years ago. Your descendants include a stunning mix of the most beautiful people, every one of whom you would adore. I wonder if you could have imagined our diversity when you set down roots… I have no doubt you’d be proud. 

When I turned 45, I visited your grave. Outliving your lifespan felt odd. I thought it might bring closure, but it was tough – there was no path to follow anymore. It made me realize just how young you were. There was so much left to do. 

It was actually easier in the old days, when I could hold on to anger at you for abandoning me when I needed you most. But though I still don’t fully understand what happened and why, I do get feeling so badly that it just doesn’t seem worth the fight. It can be exhausting. I wish we could have helped you more back then, told you how much we needed you to keep fighting.

The thing that keeps me going – and I haven’t shared this much – is this feeling that, somehow, I’m doing this for both of us. Trying to conquer our shared challenges, trying to find fulfillment that I’m not sure you ever did. Your oldest kids took care of the children thing, to wonderful effect. My job, it feels like, is to reach into the heart that I think I share with you, to take our vulnerabilities and turn them into strengths, then find the resiliency that will help me achieve my goals.

So even as I continue to mourn – and I expect I will until my own last day – I also give thanks for a mother who left me and many others inspired by her kindness, ability to comfort, and commitment to those in need. These are lessons that flowed from you and I will do my best to keep them going. 

We are all better off for having you in our family tree, our neighborhood, our lives. They are thriving thanks to the love your spirit continues to nourish.

Until we meet again,

Peege 


The Genuine Article (Inspiration series, No. 25)

Once she’s in your life, Kim is the kind of friend you wonder how you ever did without.


Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I find myself thinking more and more about the people in my life and how they got there – whether it’s a childhood friend or someone met more recently, all of our lives are filled with these stories of connections. They make great tales in group settings and long after the original meeting, we can turn back to them to reaffirm our loyalty.

I don’t remember exactly when Kim Roots and I first started working together. But there wasn’t a doubt that she brought a lightheartedness (along with wicked writing skills) and good nature to an office always on deadline. No matter how hectic her schedule or what she was called on to do, she seemed to handle each assignment with grace and good humor.

For me, for all kinds of reasons, it was a weird time. Not sure I was in the right place, increasingly stressed about other stuffing my life, it sometimes felt like a challenge just getting to the end of each workday. Doubts I had about my abilities seemed to be contagious, and from above came increasingly frequent feedback that – well, let’s just say it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Things came to a head on a Friday morning, when a mistake turned into a public dressing-down that my frazzled self couldn’t handle. As soon as it was over, I fast-walked out of the room and down into the stairwell, sobbing. I don’t remember a whole lot about the next hour or so; I do recall clearly the first person who come to see if I was okay. 

Kim. She stayed long enough for me to pull myself together; her calm, reassuring voice helped me down off the proverbial ledge and was about the only thing that kept me from tossing my entire sense of self-worth in the dumpster outside. She may not have realized it at the time, but we were bonded after that.

I think there’s some kind of mythical thing, where, when you save someone’s life, you’re responsible for them. While I didn’t hold her to that fantasy obligation, I was smart enough to hold on to Kim, even after leaving the company the next week, when I decided there was just no turning back. And over the subsequent decade (which is a reminder that time freaking flies), I’ve come to realize how much there is to admire about this most special person.

For her first major act of kindness to me – critical as it was – is but one example of the way she lives her life. Kim is one of those people who not only supports everyone around her, she serves as a role model for living one’s best life. 

She is a doer. From yoga to spin cycling to traveling cross-country for work, it’s hard to imagine exactly when she sleeps. And as if having a family (including daughter Grace, who doesn’t even yet know how lucky she is) and hectic job isn’t enough…

The. Woman. Does. Triathlons.

I thought it was incredible when she ran the NYC marathon a few years back And then, there was Kim on Facebook just this month, holding Grace and smiling before setting off to run/bike/swim (in the Hudson!). I am no athlete, but I know that these things don’t happen in a vacuum. So while she was being Mommy, rushing around to interview TV stars, and surely holding a half-dozen more roles, she found the time to train for something most of us wouldn’t ever consider.

I’ve alluded to her career already. She’s gone from covering soap operas to hanging out with the casts of major series. Whether she’s one-on-one with an actor, hosting a show panel at a conference, or goofing around in a group shot, there’s one constant theme. Kim always looks happy.

And not the “I see the camera” kind of happy where everyone has that practiced smile ready. It’s genuine, and she emanates a “how did I get this lucky?” air that makes you cheer for her rather than be jealous. 

Kim brings people together. At her wedding, I got to reconnect with people who I didn’t have much chance to say goodbye to after my abrupt job departure. I even made new friends, including one who I adventured home with in the pouring rain, laughing and once again grateful for my Kim connection. 

It’s not just me. From her social media you quickly get the sense that she is spreading her unique brand of positivity – which embodies sweetness and sincerity that never feels false or exaggerated – across a whole lot of circles. Kim’s got her work crew, her family crew, her exercise crews (multiple) – you won’t be surprised that among her myriad activities she also regularly does charity events, pulling in her “Haul Buns” teams to make them all that much more fun. 

The other part of her personality, nearly as inspiring as her commitment and stamina, is this mixture of confidence and humility that is utterly charming. I believe Kim’s proud of all she’s accomplished, but she retains a wonderment about it all that is infectious. She’s far more prone to self-deprecation than self-promotion, and  quick to note those who’ve helped her achieve her various victories. She is as genuine as people come, the embodiment of what people mean when they say someone is “down to earth.”

I sound like a total fan girl, I know. And I apologize in advance to Kim, who will never see this coming and would never ask for the attention of even my small blog. But the admiration is real, and so is my gratitude. 

With all of the people who move in and out of our lives, it is easy to stop seeing each one for their unique gifts and talents. We all need people in our lives who not only remind us of the goodness around us, but of the goodness within us. When I spend time with Kim, I come away feeling better about nearly everything. She makes possibilities seem probable and challenges downright exciting.

Everyone should have a Kimberly Roots in their life. I’m really glad I’ve got the original.


  


Man of the People (Inspiration Series, week 25)

Jimmy Carter’s energy and commitment to his fellow man have only gotten stronger over the course of his 92 years


I’ve been slacking – big time. Old habits have been kicking at the door and, without thinking, I opened it. Thus a spate of weeks with no Inspirer and, as is always the case, lost momentum that makes getting back into gear like restarting a diet. 

But I committed, and if I must now play a bit of catch up, so be it. Surely the folks I’ve been chronicling would do no less. They conquered (some continue to) far more than simple laziness, and it is in their honor that I rededicate myself to this yearlong project.

Where better to regain traction than with a man who, after a humble start in life, made his way to the highest office in the world – and after he finished with it, went on to do even greater things? 

Born in 1924, James Earl Carter grew up modestly in Plains, and later, Archery, Georgia. He fulfilled his first dream in 1943 when he was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was while there that he would meet and fall in love with his sister’s friend, Rosalynn – they married shortly after he graduated in 1946. 

As a member of the Navy’s fledgling nuclear submarine program, he saw the devastating potential of atomic energy when he led the cleanup after a partial meltdown at Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories. It was an event that shaped his thinking and led him to cease development of a neutron bomb in the 1970s.

Carter began his political career in the early 1960s, as racial tensions in Georgia intensified after the Brown vs. the Board of Education anti-segregation ruling. He became a prominent member of the community and when a state Senate seat opened up on 1963, he ran, with Rosalynn providing sharp political instincts. Though fraudulent voting cost him the race initially, he challenged the results and won a new election. 

A few years later he would run for Governor, and lose. But he had learned to play politics well, positioning himself as a populist as ran against mainstream Democrats. And though he made a priority of civil rights – including an increase in appointments of African-Americans – there were other decisions made to keep conservative supporters happy that were decidedly not progressive ones. Carter reinstated the death penalty (which he later said he regretted), but also pushed education reforms aimed at helping poorer communities. 

He was a relative unknown when he ran for the 1976 Democratic nomination for President – but he beat his primary opponents and in November he beat Gerald Ford to become the 39th Commander in Chief. It was a difficult time economically for the U.S. and around the world, there was turmoil. Carter brought Israel and Egypt together to sign the Camp David Accords, then faced a horrific challenge when the Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Teheran – 52 Americans were held as hostages for 444 days, and not released until after Carter had lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.

He returned to his peanut farm (which he had placed in a blind trust to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest) after the devastating defeat. It’s difficult to contemplate how one returns from such a loss; but like many of my Inspirers, it didn’t take long for his next mission to appear. 

For it is in his post-presidency, now the longest in history, where this ex-President took on causes and global challenges in a way that he never could as America’s chief executive. He established the Carter Center in 1982 to work on issues such as eradicating diseases across the world. The Center has also monitored elections and supported human rights defenders from Haiti and Bosnia to Ethiopia. In 2002 President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work “to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development” through The Carter Center; he is unique in receiving the award for his actions after leaving the presidency.

Among all of President Carter’s good works, he is perhaps best known for his alliance with Habitat for Humanity.  He and Rosalynn worked on their first project in 1984 and according the the organization’s website:

“To date, President and Mrs. Carter have served with over 92,260 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair 3,944 homes.”

As advocates and fundraisers, the couple has helped Habitat to become internationally recognized and their rallying of volunteers has been essential to its growth. Pictures abound of the former POTUS on job sites, not merely serving as a famous face but as a hands-on participant in building houses that change the lives of those who move into them. He has been part of constructions throughout the world, including across the United States (from New York City and Chicago to Memphis and Miami) and in the Philippines, South Africa, and Haiti – 33 years of giving families in need a foundation from which to grow and thrive.

Not one to court the press, President Carter did make news recently when, on his latest Habitat project, in Canada, he was taken to the hospital suffering from dehydration. It was rather amusing to see a few people criticize those who had “allowed” a 92 year-old man to be in that position – they obviously don’t know much about him and his determination. I know I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell him to take a break.

One of the reasons this particular post took awhile is that as I looked to mark Independence Day a few weeks back, the founding fathers confounded me. There is much greatness in them for sure, and gratitude for what they created. Still, their other great legacy – that of enslaving a group people who were turned into commodities, setting the stage for atrocities that still linger – reared its head every time I thought about how to frame them.

Jimmy Carter is by no means a perfect man – surely this is one of the first things he would say about himself. But at a time when there is ever more emphasis on big personalities, loud arguing, and seeking of attention, his steadfast commitment to those in need – and his use of his position to help them – is unparalleled, certainly for a former head of state. 

He speaks to those of us who wonder about our purpose and whether it’s in our power to make a difference. Whether one shot of greatness is all each of us gets, or if it’s possible that beyond what seems to be the pinnacle of success, there is much more to give, and to gain. 

I say “I’m tired” a lot. After I’ve walked a few miles, or sat in front of the computer for too many hours, I complain (sometimes silently, sometimes not) about aching legs or eyes, about how there’s not enough time in the day for me to get all of the things done I say are important. 

Perhaps the next time I am tempted to that frame of mind, I’ll be smart enough to pull up this post and remind myself of the nonagenarian who, after a full lifetime of service, continues to give his all, each and every day. 


The Truth Seeker (Inspiration series, week 24)

Tim Russert wasn’t there to make friends – He was there to get to the bottom of the issues.


History demands truth tellers. For as much as we humans may aspire to be and do good, there is a millenium’s worth of examples of our never-ending capacity to do quite the opposite. And so, throughout time, we have relied on a relatively few souls to dig beyond what is being said to what is actual and true. In a world where communicating information can be done by anyone, our trust is tested on a daily basis.

And so, to honor my chosen profession (despite not being an active practitioner myself), I selected for this week a man who made his name not just for great reporting an punditry, but for his commitment to the truth. 

I’ve heard more than one person on TV lament the loss of Tim Russert. As voices clamor for bigger audiences and layers upon layers of information cloud the facts, it is difficult not to wonder who he would be talking to and what he might be able to unravel. 

Born in 1950 in Buffalo, NY, Russert brought a clear-eyed, practical approach to news and politics, perhaps a natural response to a sturdy, blue-collar upbringing. After graduating from law school he worked as chief of staff to Senator Daniel Moynihan and chief counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo. In 1983 he made the switch to broadcasting – by 1989 he was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and two years later, talked to host Meet the Press. 

It was there that Russert truly made his mark,  as he took the show from a half-hour to an hour. He also injected greater depth, as seen though longer and well-researched interviews with high-profile political players. There were no easy questions when one faced Tim Russert. Just clear ones, with the expectation that the answer would be as clear. If not it was sure to be challenged.

In 2000, he confronted Senate candidate Hillary Clinton on her 1998 responses to questions about her husband’s behavior in the White House, calling them out as “misleading.” (Clinton said she didn’t know they were true when she said it). 

Four years later he challenged George W. Bush for saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and they were the reason for invading that country. And in 2008 it was Russert’s questioning that led to Barack Obama’s rejection of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in 2008.

There were plenty of “gotcha” moments on his Meet the Press. But that was the thing. They really weren’t, not in the sense that they were unfair or in any way inaccurate. They were simply a clear sign of a journalist who’d done his homework and would not be daunted by the title, history, or reputation of any guest. And he wasn’t shy about his intentions to cut through the talking points – no one could say they didn’t know what to expect. 

When he died suddenly in June of 2008, it was as though an actual light had been turned out. This voice, this mind, who had gone after the truth for 16 years on Sunday mornings, would no longer be there to get the answers the public sought. The outpouring, from colleagues and subjects (even the adversarial ones) told the story:

CBS News “Early Show” Co-Anchor Harry Smith: ” Man,  did Tim Russert love politics. He ate it, lived it and breathed it. His knowledge of it was organic, internal and genetic. It showed in his every broadcast, in his every debate appearance. He was not afraid, nor was he intimidated. And because he was so good at what he did, we were the beneficiaries. He was in that chair for us, and we were damned lucky he was.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: “He was one of the smartest, toughest television news journalists of all time. And he was an astute student of American politics. I can say from experience that joining Tim on Meet the Press was one of the greatest tests any public official could face. Regardless of party affiliation, he demanded that you be straight with him – and with the American people who were watching.”

Nine years later, in a world where truth feels malleable and integrity can seem rare, Russert’s presence is more missed than ever. Listening to the chatter — and the obfuscation — it is hard not to imagine people sitting opposite Tim on set and trying to get past him with spin. Would he yell, I wonder? Or laugh at the absurdity? How would he get to the truth?

Part of my decision to steer away from hard journalism. I think, was knowing that professionals like Russert had it covered. They set a high, high standard for the rest of us. Whether interviewing the President of United States or a local official, those at the top of the field are both experts and students, constantly learning so that no subject could get past them with a sly response or non-answer.

Though he was not here nearly long enough, Russert’s left a legacy that we can still look to – we can demand more of our leaders, and of our journalists. They are often the public’s most visible ally in the quest for facts. 

As citizens, it is all too easy to leave governance to those who choose it as a career; questioning takes time and requires us to be engaged even when it’s not convenient or comfortable. But if we are to preserve our democracy, and this republic that has been handed down over 240 years, we must be willing to stand up and demand more. To ask the hard questions, fact-check the answers, insist on integrity both in action and word from those elected to lead us. 

It’s true we don’t always have direct access to them ourselves, and so we will always need to rely on people we trust to help us keep our representatives accountable. And so today, in addition to remembering Tim Russert, I thank all the journalists who forego the niceties to hold the feet of politicians to the fire when it matters most. They are invaluable and the best are irreplaceable. 


My Dad, the Artist (Inspiration series, Week 23)

Dad on his wedding day, June, 1962

My father never really fit the traditional American father mold – probably because he wasn’t American by birth at all. He was Swiss, and retained a certain European-ness, in his tastes, his speech, his clothes – he loved football but would never have been seen in a jersey (I don’t recall him ever wearing a t-shirt).  He was even cool when smoking – he preferred Benson & Hedges, the brand from London. He had monogrammed shirts and loved James Bond. To be fair, he did also have a fondness for Jack Nicklaus and John Wayne.

What set Dad apart, other than his clothes and his accent, was his creativity. Though he earned his salary in marine insurance, he had an artist living inside him, one who came out often, around the holidays, on birthdays, and even on vacation.

He was famous for his Christmas cards, which were made by hand each year. From a pen and ink rendering of our Teaneck home to linoleum block prints featuring Christmas trees and wreaths, a Roland Rueger original was something to treasure. Many people kept them all and continued to display them year after year.

His handwriting added to the beauty of the things he made. One year, when a dollhouse from Santa to my sister and me would be late, Dad penned a letter from him to let us know. It was impeccable and left no doubt in my mind that it was, indeed from the North Pole.

When a good friend and neighbor turned 40 in 1976, Dad wrote a poem for him that was silly and slightly bawdy. The family has it to this day.

Knowing his love of jigsaw puzzles, that same family presented him with an all red one as a joke. I’m not sure how long it took him, but he finished it – then promptly turned it into art, scrawling graffiti and having it framed, then returning it to the gifters.

Dad’s art came out on my birthday, too. He would take fingerprints of each partygoer and under his pen they became animals – fluffy rabbits, a duck – that he would carefully place in a little wooden circle frame. I still have one of mine.

There was perhaps no better outlet for his talent than the beach, where we’d spend two weeks every summer. Dad could only get time off for one, and by the second morning was usually on the sand before most of us were up.

He made us race cars, big enough to sit in and good for hours of fun, especially when the waves were too big or I just didn’t want to get wet. The details, from the wheels to the lights and dashboard, were stunning.

The highlight of vacation, though, was the sandcastle. Dad would haul out his equipment – buckets, shovels, and all of the little carving and shaping tools – and get to work. He was at once serious and light, totally focused and yet peaceful, in a state of calm. Back and forth he’d go to the ocean to fill a pail with water, stopping only for lunch and perhaps a quick swim.

Crowds would gather as they realized this was to be no ordinary structure. Kids would get too close and I’d want to warn them off. The pride was overwhelming. This was my dad building, doing something that was so obviously better than anything around.

The castles came complete with moats, bridges, windows, and towers. They were huge, at least in my memory – big enough to imagine myself in as the princess. I don’t have tons of memories from childhood, but I can picture Dad walking around his creation, sculpting staircases and trees with the wet sand he’d let drip though his hands. It was magical.

Watching him draw was too. He’d sit at the dining room table, instruments in hand, and it was like another person emerged. One day when I was about 12, I found a big red book of Dad’s – the “Famous Artist’s Course,” a correspondence class that taught the basics and then some. It was a sign to me that though art may have been a hobby for Dad, it was also very real and deserved a commitment. Over the years I’ve worked through bits of it. Perhaps that will be my next project.

The circumstances of life meant that time with my father- especially as an adult – was limited, and there are days when the unsaid words and experiences hang heavy in the air. If I could do it again I would open up more, share more, and for sure, get him to talk more about the art he made and what it meant to him. Though I can’t do that, I can remember the very real artistry that ran through his veins and thus, through mine. I can work to fulfill my own creative dreams, in honor of the man never let go of his.

I believe that art – whether done as a painter, a singer, an architect, or a landscaper – runs deep in the genetics of humans. The desire to express ourselves is always present, and we each seek our best and most natural path to do just that. It is one of the most indelible marks of a life well lived. I am forever grateful for a role model whose artistry left a huge impression on me and spurs me to nurture my own.

I miss you, Dad, today and always.


%d bloggers like this: