Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Drive to Indiana




Fall is, by far, my favorite season. It used to be Winter, but as I have gotten older Fall has taken its place at the top of the seasonal heap. Summer is too full of sweat. Spring is way too flashy for someone like me. Winter is a close second to Fall, but it lacks the feeling of change that I have come to like so well.




I especially like a long drive alone in the car in the Fall. Loud music, beautiful sunlight, colorful hills, and that feeling of change in the air—what is better?

So I was in absolute heaven two weeks ago on a Friday afternoon that was the Platonic ideal of a Fall Friday afternoon. It was 61 degrees, the sun was shining, there was a light breeze carrying the smell of the fires people had lit in fireplaces all over Upstate New York that morning to take the chill out of their living rooms, and I was alone in the car, driving 520 miles across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and part of Indiana. I had a local, low-power radio station on and the DJ was just nailing it.

It was one of those public stations that gives the small-time DJ latitude to play whatever the hell he or she wants to play. This particular guy was playing the Avett Brothers, the Kinks, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Regina Spektor, and Wilco. While driving west on Route 79 I was transported to another plane. It was one of those moments where, even in the moment, you are aware of how stinkin’ good it can feel to be alive.

And then I heard the first few notes and hummed lines of the Paul Simon song “Slip Slidin’ Away.” (This song is one I have written about before. Immediately, thoughts of my Dad drifted in with the music. He died a few months ago, fairly unexpectedly while cutting the grass. Thinking about him and hearing the line “believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”  led me to think about my own death, whenever that will be. And, oddly, these thoughts of death didn’t really take away the great feeling I had about being on a road trip in the Fall. Instead, they co-existed right alongside each other. In fact, the awareness of death actually made the happiness stand out even more pronouncedly. It was never more clear to me than in that moment how the pleasure and the pain of life are inextricably bound to each other.

The pain makes the pleasure even more valuable; and the pleasure makes the pain more endurable.

Our awareness of our own death is just baked right into the mix.  Ain’t none of us gets outta here alive. And while this truth sucks more than any of us can put into words, it is also this very suckiness that makes the good moments so much richer and deeper and better. Nothing lasts. Summer turns to Fall. Things die. People die. And it hurts like a kick to the gut when somebody good in your life dies.

Fall contains all of this and what I feel in the Fall makes me feel more alive than any other season.

This, in the end, is why I like the Fall so much. And yet, even as I write this, that moment in the car is already two weeks old. And it too is slip slidin’ away.



Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zephyr Teachout For Governor

I am a political junkie.  I was a child during the Vietnam/Watergate era and my political consciousness formed while the country was steeped in dissent and scandal. My entire large family voted Republican. I, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with Richard Nixon or the Republicans. At seven years old I was pulling hard for George McGovern because, to my seven-year old mind, war was bad and he would get us out of the war.

Sadly, most American voters did not feel the way I did and McGovern was crushed by a Nixon landslide. It was a couple of years later that the corruption and lies of the Nixon Administration brought down his Presidency and led to his resignation in disgrace.

Those early events formed the heart of my political identity. Mixed in with a real reluctance to commit American troops to uncertain causes with unclear objectives is a deep distrust of political power and those who misuse it.

The governor of New York does not have much say in issues of war and peace, but the governor of New York does have a lot of influence on the ethical climate of the state. By this measure, Andrew Cuomo has been a failure and has not earned a second term. Cuomo ran as someone who would clean up the mess that is Albany. After the arrests of several state legislators and the refusal of the New York State Senate or Assembly to do much about ethics reform, Cuomo launched a Moreland Commission to investigate corruption, charging the commissioners to “follow the trail wherever it took them.”



Turns out, he was not really serious about that last part. Whenever the commission’s investigation took them anywhere near Governor Cuomo or people who were strong supporters (i.e. big donors) Cuomo’s chief of staff sent word that the commission should back off.  There is a long and damning article about Cuomo and the Moreland Commission here. After several months of hard work and frustrating walls thrown in their way, it became clear that the Moreland Commission was not  given the room it needed to do what Cuomo had promised the people of New York it would do.

And then, to reward the Assembly and Senate for working through a tricky budget negotiation in a way the Governor approved of, Cuomo simply pulled the plug on the Moreland Commission. He thanked them for their good work and sent them home, their “good work” mostly incomplete.

That one action told me all I need to know about Andrew Cuomo. He is not serious about reforming the ethical cesspit of state politics and he never was. The Moreland Commission was just another tool of power to get the legislature to do what he wanted. It was a threat he wielded and then took away. It seemed no one in the state was willing to take on the entrenched corruption that taints both sides of the aisle in Albany.

Into the void of ethical leadership stepped Zephyr Teachout. She is a Fordham Law Professor and she is running against Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York. She is an expert in corruption and has made a career fighting for the underdog. On Tuesday, September 9 she will have my vote against Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary. I am not voting for Zephyr Teachout as a gesture. I believe she can win. Party primaries have notoriously low turnout. A challenger with a passionate base of support can beat an uninspiring incumbent.



And that describes the situation in New York today: an uninspiring incumbent (who seems to be calculating the best path to take to steer himself to the Presidency) is facing off against an optimistic and inspiring newcomer whose followers are growing more and more excited about her chances of unseating a disappointing Andrew Cuomo.


If you live in New York and are a registered Democrat, please join me on Tuesday, September 9 and vote for real reform of New York’s culture of corruption. Vote for Zephyr Teachout for Governor.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Father is Making Me Sing Duran Duran

My father died two weeks ago while cutting the grass.  It came as a surprise and I am still a bit off balance. His absence hits every once in a while with no obvious cause, leaving me a little short of breath as I go about my day.

I am no fan of Duran Duran, but I have been singing a song of theirs in my head for the past week at my job and in the car and while shopping at Wegmans. The song is called Ordinary World. It was not one of my dad's favorites. In fact, I would be shocked if my father had any idea who Duran Duran was. His taste ran to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. But the chorus of Ordinary World has always struck me with far more of a wallop than a cheesy early 90s pop song should.

At root, it is about going through something shattering and then realizing that the rest of the world has simply gone on without you. You have been broken and the world has paid no notice.  Everyone else has just gone on with their ordinary lives. And, in fact, you will need to go on with your ordinary life, as well.

A friend sent a message last week talking about how hard the death of her father struck her a year ago. She said that it has continued to reverberate in many surprising ways over the year. Her note drove home to me how utterly common and, at the same time, how utterly devastating the death of a parent is. Most everyone goes through it, and most everyone finds their way back to the ordinary world after a while.

And then we see them a few months later and they look the same as they always did. What we can't see is the scar and the pain and the something missing that will never be filled again.

My father was a good man. I knew him for 48 years and I cannot think of one time where I thought, "That was not an honest/thoughtful/caring thing to do or say, Dad." Not ONE time.  In many ways, he was the man I strive to be. Below is a draft of the eulogy my brother Mike delivered at the funeral last weekend. My father was a good man and I will miss him every day.


"This funeral mass brings together everything and everyone Jerry Dawson loved. His family and friends are here, his brother knights are here, many people he helped in a hundred small ways are here, and it is taking place in Saint Mary Magdalen Church--a church where several of us Dawson kids were baptized, received our first holy communion, and acted as altar servers, where both Jerry and Irene served on the Board, and where Jerry married Irene more than 50 years ago.


The Church meant so much to dad that it is not hard to think of a life for him different than the one he had. In fact, it is pretty easy to imagine him entering the seminary as a young man and becoming a priest. He truly did love the Church and Jesus’s message of eternal life, and he loved the idea of living to serve others.

But that future did not happen for dad. Instead, he met Irene Michaels at a Young Catholic Adults dance and, if he did have any thoughts of a calling to the priesthood, those went out the window after one dance with Irene. He was smitten. She was pretty smitten, too. When he asked Irene’s parents about marrying their daughter, they had one condition: that he first get a job that could support a family.

The young Irene held him to the same standard—in fact, she wrote up a contract for Jerry to sign that held him to attaining a certain level of income in their first years of marriage. Dad had just started working for John Hancock and mom is not saying what the conditions of the contract were, but luckily for all of us, he reached her goal.

Sales was perfect for dad. He loved to talk to people—as many of you can attest---and selling insurance gave him the chance to have long conversations with new people just about every day.

Some people get into sales because they see it as a way to get rich.  That was not my father.  Dad sold insurance because it helped support his quickly growing family and because he truly believed in the value of what he was selling. He believed it made people’s lives better.

And in the end, that was always his main goal—he wanted to make people’s lives better. He did so by selling insurance. But he also did so by becoming active in the union representing his fellow salesmen and women. When he earned a promotion and became a manager in Long Island and then back in Delaware, he took many new salespeople under his wing and mentored them with patience and love and conveyed to them some of his faith in the good work they did and in the products they sold.

Dad often worked ten or twelve hours a day. Yet somehow he managed to make it to just about every baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, and softball game we played through many years of Catholic League games for Jerry, Chris, me, Rich, Teresa, and John.

All six of the Dawson kids could probably tell a story about the time our father embarrassed us a bit with his very vocal support. (But we were also glad he was there.)

When we started having kids of our own, he did the same for the grandkids. He loved his grandchildren and was as proud as a man could be of each and every one of them. Dad truly meant it when he said one time that he was rich in the things that mattered most—he had the love of a good woman, he had a pack of kids who were off in the world living lives he was proud of, and he had nine grandkids who were everything he hoped they would be.

At 55 dad decided that the changes in the insurance business were not changes he could live with, so he took early retirement. It was then that his life took a different focus. He became active with the Knights of Columbus and this group gave him an outlet for his many ideas on how to help spread the Catholic faith to which he was so dedicated. He eventually held many statewide offices with the Knights—including State Deputy.

Mom can certainly attest to the importance of the Knights to dad and to how meaningful they have made the last many years of his life.

It is impossible to sum up a person and a life in a few words. If we were to try to do that for Dad, it might be something like: he loved to sing (even though he often didn’t really know the words), he loved to dance, he loved to revel in his kids and grandkids, he loved to be helpful, and, mostly, he loved mom.

Basketball coach John Wooden once said, "the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." Our dad took this advice to heart.

This week mom has said a few times that it is as if someone came and just erased dad away.

It does feel that way.

But if you look around this church today you will see that dad touched many people in his 73 years. No one can erase away the conversations, the bad jokes, the help, and the love he has shared with all of us. We will miss you, Dad."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

18 Years of Books

I met my wife in January of 1995 when she walked into CafĂ© Jones, the coffee shop where I was the late-shift barista. It was well below freezing that night in Billings, Montana and the shop had been empty for an hour or two. I was getting ready to close up early when I heard the door open and looked up to see two women come in, cacooned in layers of cotton and wool. My reaction was NOT love at first sight. In fact it was much more of a feeling of annoyance. Instead of getting to shut down early and go home, now I was going to have to stay for a while and dirty up the espresso machine I had just made sparkle.  Even worse was the possibility these two women might want food, which would cause even more mess in the now-spotless food prep area.

But then, as the two women removed hats and gloves and coats and claimed a table for themselves, something about one of them caught my eye.

Less than 4 months later, we were talking about getting married.

Today marks 18 years since we said our vows and drove away from the church in Grandma Nita’s mint green Ford. This post is a simple “Happy Anniversary” to the love of my life, Erica.

It is impossible to sum up 18 years of marriage, so I am not going to even try. Instead, I want to write about one thing that we have done since before we were even married. It is something we have done alone together in bed, in a car and on trains and planes and boats, on mountainsides in Montana and in quiet parks in Connecticut. We have even used a computer to do it a few times while one of us was traveling. It gives us both great pleasure.



Of course, I am talking about our tradition of reading out loud to each other. Ever since the spring of 1995, Erica and I have always had an out-loud book going. We generally alternate who chooses the book and we also switch off who reads and who listens. I have a very clear memory of Erica reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams in the back seat of her parents’ car as her father drove to Miles City, Montana—heading for my first exposure to the craziness that is Easter with Erica’s enormous extended family. As the main characters headed inevitably for a sex scene, Erica blushed a bit to be reading those words within earshot of her parents and we put the book aside.

In the years since, we have read some truly great books this way.  A few that stand out are Oscar and Lucinda, Possession, The Fool’s Progress, The Shipping News, The English Patient, Winter’s Tale, and the entire Harry Potter series. Occasionally, we will start a book that is unfinishable. A few in this category were Accordian Crimes and Freedom. To be a good out-loud book, a book must be good, (of course), but simply being good is no guarantee that a book will make for an enjoyable listening experience. Writers like Philip Roth have sentences that are too long and it is easy to lose the thread if his words are not on the page in front of you.

The best out-loud books have a strong story with characters who are easily differentiated. Extended meditations on anything, especially those with many parenthetical asides and tangents, make it hard to listen. A pet peeve of mine that has developed over the years is when an author will give a character a line of dialogue and then, AFTER the line is spoken, add a descriptor like “he said in a whisper.” When I am reading the book out loud it would be helpful to know the line is delivered in a whisper BEFORE I read it at full volume.

As it has become easier to watch excellent tv shows on demand on the Internet, our out-loud book tradition has taken a hit, but we are both committed to getting it back to its rightful place in our marriage. There is something intimate about reading a shared book to another person—most of us already know that from being kids and having a story read by a parent or older sibling. Anyone with kids knows how special it can be to curl up on the couch with a child and a book and create a world for a little while.

Our out-loud books helped Erica and me create a bubble around ourselves while we were on our honeymoon, camping all around Portugal and reading a non-fiction book about Christopher Columbus and the Age of Explorers. It has been true ever since. When she was pregnant with Isabel and we were preparing a bedroom for our new-baby-to-be, we were reading the first Harry Potter books out loud. Erica painted some Winnie-the-Pooh characters on the walls of Isabel’s room and as she did, I sat on the futon and read all about the Boy Who Survived and He Who Shall Not Be Named.

On long drives out West and in heavy traffic back East, the hours are so much more enjoyable with Erica reading a good book out loud. I remember hearing one of Carl Hiaasen’s very funny novels while driving from the Florida Keys up to airport in Miami for an early morning flight. It is a way to share something at the end of a busy day, a way to have something to say to each other even if we are not feeling especially connected, and a way to be close. Sometimes it is a way for us both turn our minds off and forget about something stressful so that we can fall asleep.

I can’t say exactly how many books we have made it through in this way, but it must be well over 100 by now—probably far more. I don’t normally give marriage advice. Every marriage is its own thing and to presume to know anything about what two other people should do in their marriage is crazy. (I have a hard enough time knowing what I should be doing in my own).  But I will give this one piece of advice and you are free to take it or leave it: pick a book and read it out loud with your partner before this summer is over.  Just give it a try and see if you like it. I think you might.


I joked with Erica last night that our 18 years of marriage have given me 15 or 16 of the best years of my life. Truly, each of the 18 has been a gift. Erica, you make my life interesting and challenging and exciting and I cannot wait to see where we go from here.  Our out-loud book is just one of the many things that makes life with you so good. Happy Anniversary, habibi.