Called to service

Note: This entry is adapted from a piece that first appeared on my old site in June 2009.

Some of you will find this entry too long. Skip it, then. Some of you, though, are in a place not unlike the one in which my husband and I, now find ourselves — that is, the edge of a yawning chasm of uncertainty; the place where our children are about to step off and we… well, we must wave goodbye, hoping we’ve done more right than wrong and averting our eyes so no one sees us cry.

If you’re in that place, perhaps you need to read this entry as much as I needed to write it.

By late 2003, many people knew that our son, J., was committed to the idea of a military career. I’ve told this story so many times before that perhaps you would appreciate hearing it from his perspective, instead. The following is excerpted from one of several essays he prepared for a summer program at one of the service academies a couple of springs ago:

Do many applicants point to September 11 as the defining moment in their call to serve their country? My commitment dates well before that. In fact, I can trace the precise path of my call to serve from my childhood interests in (all right, obsessions with) firefighting, police work, and the armed forces to my participation in the Young Eagles program sponsored by the Tuskegee Airmen. On September 8, 2001, when I flew out of the now defunct Meigs Field in Chicago, I was an eleven-year-old boy with dreams of service. When I returned half an hour later, I was a young man with plans (partially formed, colored with the excitement of flight, but plans, nevertheless) to pursue excellence through a career in service to my country.

The dark weeks that followed September 11 only cemented those plans, and in the intervening years, I have carefully considered each branch of our nation’s armed forces as I have pursued my somewhat unconventional but always rigorous education….

These “childhood interests in (all right, obsessions with)” military service had focused nearly exclusively on the Marine Corps by the end of 2003, which explains how Making the Corps (Thomas E. Ricks) and Keeping Faith (John Schaeffer and Frank Schaeffer) ended up on my nightstand. J., and later, my husband pressed the first book on me; I pressed the second on them. Told in the alternating voices of father and son, my recommendation narrates one young man’s experience on Parris Island. But what resonated with me — what stays with me still — is Frank Schaeffer’s voice. You see, throughout the text, the young recruit’s father remains somewhat perplexed about his son’s choice. Why, after all, would a smart kid with good college entrance exam results and a comfortable middle-class background choose to enlist after high school?

A good question. The short answer? Apparently, because that’s what he feels called to do.

While most people knew that J. wanted to serve, few knew how ardently he hoped to enlist in the Marines when he finished his high school studies.

Would you pause for a second to consider what his hopes and dreams might have meant to the parent-teacher who had given her son an education — hell, a life — full of films, good and great books, conversation, Shakespeare, science fiction, astronomy, theater, art, music, martial arts, Latin, the City of Chicago and all of its wonders, a personal library, courses in everything and anything, and more, so much more? It about killed me. I selfishly (ignorantly? angrily?) thought, I spent all of this time, talent, and treasure for him to become… cannon fodder?!? No. No, no, NO!

My husband and I believed — foolishly, as it turns out; lovingly but, in the end, foolishly, futilely — that we could steer J. to something… safer. Yes, and we thought we could help him make a choice that would be more explicable to family and friends, most of whom are (generally) well meaning but (apart from a dear one or two) somewhat set in stereotypical thinking (i.e., “Smart, well-bred young men go to college after a successful high school career”). Perhaps we, too, were somewhat set in stereotypical thinking, hmmm?

“Operation Gentle Push” (OGP) began in 2006, then, when we (often, I) would talk to J. about other branches of the service, options for military training while enrolled in a conventional four-year-college program of study, and, yes, service academies. OGP gathered momentum with J.’s applications to the summer program referenced above and, later, to the service academy itself. It hit a roadblock with the arrival of a thin envelope in mid-April 2008, but it didn’t officially become a failed mission until about two weeks ago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

J. registered at the local college for what served as his senior year of high school. As a dually enrolled student, he took eight classes that academic year, earning twenty-three college credits. (He audited an upper-level math course first semester or his total would have been twenty-eight.) He also continued working as a swim team coach, swim instructor, and lifeguard, averaging fifteen to twenty-three hours a week during the school year, forty to fifty hours a week in the summer.

During that year, he completed the admission process for the service academy OGP had led him to, but obviously not with the fervor one would expect from an applicant to such a prestigious institution. Earning a spot requires a “fire in the belly” approach. Was there was even a coal in J.’s stomach? I don’t think so.

Even so, his response on receiving the thin envelope in April 2008 was a blend of brief, mild, and surprised disappointment (and, yes, relief, although we only recognized that in hindsight). After all, he had not been rejected once in eighteen years. He has led a somewhat charmed existence, moving from one endeavor, area of interest, and pursuit to another with success, grace, and a great deal of affable comfort and acceptance. In short, he is not accustomed to someone telling him, “No.” A day later, though, he invested in an excellent computer upgrade to work on his burgeoning game design and development interests and carried on with his semester. He had already told us in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t earn admission to the academy, he intended to complete his degree at the local college and either get a job or enlist.

Not in the Marines, though, right?


Phew. Crisis averted.

Look. You need not lecture me on the dangers, hazards, and sacrifices of the other branches of service. As one friend recently said, “He may actually be safer in the Marines than in the Coast Guard,” which was the branch of service we preferred for J. since we had known a high school friend who enjoyed a wonderful — and wonderfully safe — career in the Coast Guard. In fact, all of the men and women who serve put their lives on the line. It was parental ignorance that prompted us to favor one branch over another. It was our way of saying, “Not my child,” when, in fact, they’re all someone’s children. Moreover, it was parental foolishness to think we ever had a choice.

And the irony is not lost on me. I prided myself on my ability as a parent-teacher to tailor studies, adventures, and life in general to the needs, interests, and abilities of my children, and I was certainly confident of my ability to let my son decide and do for himself. Yet confronted with this particular choice of his — one that was neither impulsive nor ignominious, by the way — I balked. I interfered. I even — GULP! — manipulated, getting a little weepy at the mere mention of Marines.

What were you afraid of? you wonder. Please. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I was — what I am — afraid of. Reflect for just one moment on all of the mythology and lore that the words “Marine Corps” inspire and then tell me that fear is not one of your first reactions to the idea that your son or daughter may wish to become one of the few, the proud.

Every once in a while, J. would mention that the USMC recruiters had been at the college, which prompted my knee-jerk response: “You can do whatever you want, of course, since you are an adult. But you did promise to finish school first. And I thought you were planning on a career in the Coast Guard.” To which he would always offer a placating, “Yes, Mom. I will finish school first.”

My husband and I both agree that this, at least, is critical. With J.’s unconventional education, a college degree, even an associate’s, will serve him better than a homemade transcript when he enlists. Of all of our assertions and manipulations, on this point alone, I remain unwavering. But, oh, how we tried to persuade him to consider transferring to a four-year college. “With your grades! Why wouldn’t you transfer?” At one point, we even talked up UPS, which offers earn-as-you-learn programs.

Nothing seemed to hold the same appeal for him as the U.S. Marine Corps, though.

And, finally, anticlimactically, simply, two weeks ago, I let him go.

I was reading in bed when he came to wish me good night. I mentioned that his Fall 2009 tuition was due soon, which led to something about his “plans” — a regular, albeit uncomfortable, conversation-stopping topic that I felt compelled to worry, like a pimple on otherwise unblemished chin.

“You’re still planning to enlist in the Coast Guard after graduation, then?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“But that’s not really what you want to do,” I ventured. And my heart stopped in my chest. Because in that moment I wasn’t his mother. I wasn’t his teacher. I wasn’t even his friend. I was just a person who loved him and wanted him to be, if not happy, then at least himself, whoever that might be.


“What you really want to do–“

“Is become a Marine,” he interrupted, not rudely, just… animatedly. “Hell, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

No, it’s not! I wanted to shout. I felt a flash of petulance push past my better self. You wanted to be a rock-n-roll policeman! I wanted to scream, to embarrass him. I have the pictures! And you wanted to be a lifeguard! For Christ’s sake, David Hasselhoff was your feckin’ role model!

“That’s still all you want to do?” I said calmly, ignoring the petulance. “That’s what you really want to do?”

“Oh, yeah!”

“Then do it. If you can stand there and tell me that’s what you most want to do in all the world, then do it. I won’t ever mention it again. Just promise me,” I hastily added, “that you’ll get the degree first. PLEASE. With honors.”

“You’re serious!?”


“Oh, my God!”

And so it goes.

Always a good man, he became, in that instant, unequivocally, his own man.

J.’s work pace slackens just a bit in late July / early August, so he hopes to meet with a recruiter then. He graduates in December; I think that means he will leave in January. I’m sure I will be moved to post more as we move closer to that last stop on the parenting train. Until then, I will leave you with just two more things.

The first is from an email message. M.C. writes:

I’ve been a reader of [my old site] for some time now. As a reader, thinker, autodidact, and potentially homeschooling mother (my son is only 2), I enjoy your entries very much. Your “On the Nightstand” feature is a favorite as a source for new ideas and material even though my own to-be-read pile is always overflowing. I have never felt the urge to comment before, and I do not usually engage strangers in conversation, but I could not help notice [J.]’s reading choices this month. I had to share a related story.

Thirteen years ago I was a newly married starving college student. My husband, who was the brilliant-but-lazy type, managed to overcome his so-so classroom experiences with a near perfect LSAT score and secure admission to Georgetown Law School. Everyone was so proud! He then did the unthinkable –- he turned it down to enlist in the Marine Corps as a basic rifleman. Friends were astounded. His mother was appalled and disappointed. People thought he was wasting his talents and his life. Understand this was before 9/11 so even the excuse of heroic patriotism was pretty thin. They just didn’t get it.

Challenged in a way he never had been before, my husband tried out for the elite reconnaissance field, made it, and served with the unit featured in Generation Kill (before the war, but many of our friends are mentioned in the book). More than a decade later he is now an officer, finished up a tour as a Recon platoon commander last year, and is currently an infantry company commander leading Marines in a dangerous part of Afghanistan. He is good at his job, finds challenge and meaning in his work, and there is one less lawyer in the world. Not surprisingly, many people still don’t get it.

If [J.] is considering the military I want to applaud him. The military needs intelligent, educated, and motivated people. A lot of people won’t understand but hopefully there are at least a few who will get it. If he is just curious, then I applaud that, too. The military is a diverse and interesting environment and I hope that popular literature and the new expanded GI Bill will cause more young people (especially those from middle class backgrounds) to consider it a viable experience. Best of luck to him whatever he chooses to do with his life.

It was a letter from a stranger that arrived at precisely the moment I needed it. Thank you.

The second thing is this:

We’re letting go of them from the moment they arrive, but today it felt a little all-at-once to me. A little “Wait! Stop! I want to get off!” A little like watching his back as he loped into the elementary school a little more than a decade ago.



Come back.

Come back.

It’s fine. It’s all right. We did well, it seems. He’ll be great. Today the cicadas will hum, and the grackles will rob me (again!) of all our good seed. And my daughters will make art and make me laugh. Night will fall, and then tomorrow will be here.

And so it goes.

But, in focusing on the moment I’m in right this second, I realize that sometimes a job well done feels like a terrible loss.

An empty place.

An unheld hand.

Wait. Come back.

Go. Be well. Be good. Be kind. Work hard.

Come back.

Note: This entry is adapted from a piece that first appeared on my old site in June 2009.

At the University of Michigan Museum of Art

I captured the images above during a recent visit. From the top left:

1. Detail from Jacopo del Casentino’s Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels (circa 1325)
2. Detail from Eastman Johnson’s Boyhood of Lincoln (1868)
3. Detail from James McNeill Whistler’s Sea and Rain (1865)
4. Detail from John Francis Murphy’s Landscape (1880)
5. Detail from Max Ernst’s At the Crossroads (1955)
6. Two Girls Reading (Pablo Picasso; 1934)

Old school

Over the weekend, we inventoried the Christmas decorations. As I’ve mentioned before, Christmas is not my favorite. My daughters relish the holidays, but since we adopted Rosie (a.k.a., the “crazy cat”), the ornaments we began accumulating in 1986 and the pretty tree I purchased when we moved to the forever home have remained in the attic. Now that my daughters have a place of their own, it seemed like the right time to pass Christmas along to folks who will give it a proper home.

While we were up in the attic, my husband and I ended up tidying — donating a number of items, discarding a few others, and, as in the case of my old camera kit, bringing some things back into the house proper.

The Minolta X-700, a Christmas gift in 1983, was a regular companion until about 2002, but after I received my first digital camera, well, it didn’t get out much… and then it ended up in the attic. When my interest in photography waned a few years ago, I took fewer and fewer photos, until I eventually began making do with the just the iPhone or iPad. Good enough, I reasoned.

As I unpacked the kit, though, I remembered the reliably wonderful images the Minolta yielded. Perhaps with too large a dose of nostalgia and too little of reality, I fondly recalled waiting for photos to be developed, wondering if I’d accurately captured this expression or that mood. So I ordered some film and some A76 batteries.

Maybe I can make a bit of holiday magic.

How’s the weather?

It’s been two weeks since it last rained. In that time, our weather has swung from snow to sun, from overnight frost to temperatures in the high seventies. Most folks we’ve encountered on our daily walks over the last week have remarked on the beautiful weather. My husband and I love autumn and winter proper — cold nights, short days, and all — but we nodded and waved: Yes, lovely. Weather talk is, after all, simply an acknowledgment that we’ve seen one another, a verbal wave.

Although… when we homeschooled, our family kept logs of the weather and temps, listened to Tom Skilling’s extended radio segment, and regularly reviewed ten-day forecasts. My daughters even took a meteorology course at the local college. Weather colored our days and interested us enough to learn about it, to weave it into our narrative. Even now, we regularly compare predictions and daily high and low temperatures. Weather talk is, of course, a way to bridge the distance, a verbal hug.



This image was taken last August, when we visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. How the time has… yes, flown.

Now that our daughters live within a five-hour drive, we are able to see them more easily and more often: We were out earlier this month and plan to return in early September, if travel restrictions permit.

Where did the last year go, though?

It’s August.


When the afternoon light achieved the autumn-approaches slant on the living room floor earlier this month, I called the company that services the heater and air-conditioner to schedule our annual clean and check. The tech we prefer is older and, concerned about his health, has greatly reduced his time in the field, so a new tech was assigned to our routine maintenance appointment.

He arrived on time, but the mask he wore looked like the dust protection my husband and I use when cleaning the garage, and his non-stop patter all but spelled “Look at my germ-laden droplets!” in the air around his face, so while our favorite tech may enter the common areas of house, the new guy was confined to the utility area. Trying to ensure he did what needed to be done from six feet away was tricky, but I caught two issues that would have resulted in a return visit that first cool morning in October. (Fingers crossed that there were only two.)

We are also catching up on postponed medical and dental appointments. I joked with my husband after one of my appointments that I would have rather been that up close and personal with my hair stylist (no, I haven’t been to the salon since February) than with the lab techs and radiologist. Haircuts are optional, he reminded me; healthcare is not.

In other news, with the Women of Trachis, I reached 159 books read this year.

Lanny (Max Porter; 2019. Fiction.)
Not as memorable as Grief Is the Thing with Feathers but worth reading. Related article here.

The Trial (Franz Kafka; 1914/1925. Trans. Breton Mitchell 1999. Fiction.)
Nightmarish and brilliant.

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath; 1963. Fiction.)
According to the Jackson bio I finished last month, Plath’s autobiographical novel was inspired by Hangsaman. Serendipity / synchronicity / synthesis abounds: I read Ted Hughes’ Crow earlier this month because it informed Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.

The Old Guard, Book One: Opening Fire (Greg Rucka; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
After hearing about the Netflix movie on NPR, I decided to watch it. As I said to my husband, what I would have loathed at a theater was harmless enough for a Saturday night couch date. Rucka also pens the Lazarus series I follow, so I decided to read the book.

Zone One (Colson Whitehead; 2011. Fiction.)
Review here.

He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect. He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me. He had the ammo. He took them all down.

We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

Philoctetes (Sophocles; 409 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
Women of Trachis (Sophocles; 425 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
Read in anticipation of another Theater of War production.

Survivor Song (Paul Tremblay; 2020. Fiction.)
I loved A Head Full of Ghosts and thought The Cabin at the End of Woods was a solid page-turner, a perfect poolside read. So was this. As many other readers have noted, his prescience about just how badly we would fumble the response to an outbreak was more than a little eerie.

There and back again


This photo was taken on the way to Michigan from Massachusetts. I think we were crossing the Hudson but freely admit that most of the trip was a well-organized blur.

Last Wednesday, we returned home after driving from Illinois to Massachusetts to Michigan and back to Illinois. The last bit was in an empty sixteen-foot rental truck, along a construction-riddled route, during a torrential rainstorm. Perhaps fickle gods thought Covid 19 too weak a trial for us and decided to strew additional challenges across our path.

Well, we persevered and have largely recovered our respective grooves, Mr. Nerdishly and I. Our cats, who were boarded at a tony kitty hotel that I once innocently (and obviously mistakenly) referred to as the Pussy Palace, recovered their equanimity much more rapidly than I could have hoped and certainly more quickly than I, who needed several sleep-ins before feeling like myself again.


Since my last list, I’ve finished four books, bringing my total to 139 books read to date.

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Mary L. Trump; 2020. Non-fiction.)
This was the soundtrack of most of the second leg of our travels (Massachusetts to Michigan); I finished listening during one of our walks once we returned home. I agree with this reviewer: keenly observed, well written, and “the most convincingly empathetic chronicle of Donald Trump I’d ever read.”

A Separation (Katie Kitamura; 2017. Fiction.)
This was well-reviewed by critics but not necessarily by readers, if the mixed reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are an indication. I really liked it, though. It reminded me of The Third Hotel (Laura van den Berg), a book I read and admired in 2018.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; 1774. Trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan; 1990. Fiction.)
Yes, he’s troubled and self-absorbed, but I don’t belong to the reading club that maintains we must like the protagonist to like the book. I will say, though, that I am old enough to have wanted to be “quite severe” with Werther, to insist that he get a grip and meet a few more suitable companions. Heh, heh, heh.

p. 9
There is a certain monotony about mankind. Most people toil during the greater part of their lives in order to live, and the slender span of free time that remains worries them so much that they try by every means to get rid of it. O Destiny of Man!

Antigone (Sophocles; 441 B.C. Trans. Ian Johnston; 2016. Drama.)
Read in anticipation of an upcoming Theater of War production.