It’s been almost a year since I nearly drowned.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that every choice I made leading up to the incident (as I like to call it) played a part, and that by the time I took my first step into the ocean that morning, something bad was bound to happen.

To begin with, while I am (normally) a strong swimmer, I am a novice surfer. I wasn’t entirely familiar with the break I intended to surf that morning and my lack of experience blinded me to signs that should have kept me on the sand. I was also (admittedly) out of shape. Finally, at the start of last summer, I made the ambitious commitment to surf every day; I needed to rebuild my conditioning and the promise, audacious as it was, was supposed to give me the leverage I knew I would need. So, on a cloudy morning last June, when I surveyed the aggressive posture of the ocean, I was undeterred. Longboard tucked under by arm, I waded into a choppy, heavy swell, mentally patting myself on the back for being so committed.

The spot I picked features a rock jetty that extends about 100 yards into the water. It was constructed decades ago to protect the Ventura shoreline from too much erosion while at the same time creating a calm community beach. Local surfers congregate beyond the jetty in a spot they call the Dredge.

I had no intention of surfing the Dredge. The regulars there, some of the best surfers in Ventura, are territorial about the spot and would have disdained an unfamiliar, inexperienced 54-year-old clogging up their lineup.

My plan was to stay on the other side of the jetty and catch whatever scraps rolled my way. I didn’t expect to catch much, if anything. My goal was to start slow – work my way back into shape by paddling around by myself. If I caught a wave or two, all the better.

I paddled out a good 50 yards north of the the jetty. My inexperienced eyes judged that to be a sufficient cushion to paddle through the current and the crashing waves to the calmer water beyond.

Waves hammered me as I tried to paddle out, however, and progress was slow. Every time I came close to getting clear of the crash zone, another wall of whitewater pushed me back. Meanwhile, the current was nudging me closer and closer to the rocks.

It all happened quickly. I stopped paddling for a moment to catch my breath and relieve my burning shoulders, and suddenly, the jetty was right next to me. I could smell the earthy, briny odor. I could see the moss and the oily black muscles covering the concrete and rocks. I could hear the water slapping against them.

I knew at this point that I was in trouble. Exhausted, caught between a strong current and a wall of rock, I bobbed up and down on my board like a cork. My best chance was to gather whatever strength I had left and paddle hard to clear the jetty – get over to where the experienced surfers were lining up. But I was already out of time. The current had pushed me close enough to touch the rocks. I remember placing my hand on their slippery surface, hoping to push off and use that momentum to propel me around the jetty.

But then another wave came. It swelled under my board, pushed me skyward, and threw me back first into the rocks. The impact slammed into my shoulder, my hip, and my arm. My board shot off in some other direction.

After the water rushed past me, I took a quick self-survey. Not too bad. No horrific injuries as far as I could see, although I couldn’t see a lot. I was wedged ribs deep between the rocks. I considered trying to climb the jetty to safety, but the rocks would have been too slippery even if I had the time to try. It was going to take all my strength just to get out of the rocks.

I tried to wriggle free, but I was already out of time. A second wave – a much larger wave – began to rise and curl toward my position. My instincts told me to crouch as low as possible and cling to the rocks. Maybe, I thought, they would shield me from the impact.

Not so much.

The swell hit from below first, pushing me out of the rocks like driftwood. I could feel myself ascending, and then the wave bent over my head. I was suspended. I could feel the weightlessness and I remember thinking, “This isn’t going to end well.” Above me was a wall of water and below me were rocks.

I heard the next sensation more than I felt it – a loud BANG as my body slammed into the jetty. Saltwater forced its way into my nose and down my throat. I tumbled, backward at first, then flipped once or twice as I pinballed between the rocks. I didn’t know which way was up. I didn’t know where the next impact would land – my head, my face, my spine. I was sure I was about to die.

The surfers beyond the jetty could not see me at all, so there is no one I can ask to explain what happened next. All I know is that when my head broke the surface of the water, I was about 10 feet clear of the jetty – not far enough to be safe, but still alive and at least no longer trapped in the rocks. My board, still tethered to my ankle, floated maybe a dozen feet away. The shore lay about 50 yards in the other direction.

I was beyond exhausted. I needed my board to keep me afloat, but I lacked even the energy to reach down and grab the leash to pull it toward me. My wetsuit felt too tight. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t take a breath. I was hyperventilating. I didn’t know the extent of my injuries. I was in shock. All I knew was I needed to get to shore or I was going to drown. And I needed to get away from those rocks.

I have spent most of my life on the west coast, and more hours in the ocean than I can count. I have never feared it. I have always wondered at how a good swimmer can get caught in a riptide and be lost at sea. In those moments just after the ocean spit me out from the rocks, I gained a new understanding. I could see the shore, tantalizingly close. And yet, try as I might, I could not beckon it any closer. My muscles had nothing left to give, and the tide was pulling me in the other direction.

“Breathe, Bob.” I told myself. And that helped. With each slow, deep inhalation I could feel a little life return to my arms and legs. I couldn’t fight the current and get to the beach, but I could keep my head above the surface.

It was in these moments that I seriously began to contemplate death. I thought about not making it home to my wife, who didn’t even know I had gone surfing that morning and who was probably still asleep. I thought about my daughters and the moments of their lives I would miss. I thought about some of the things I had always wanted to do with my life that would never happen.

I didn’t try to make any deals with God. Out there, at the mercy of the waves, the tides, and my weakness, I found a sense of calm. My situation, dire as it was, merely magnified a truth I had long-ago acknowledged. I was no less in control of my life or my safety or my future in that moment than at any other moment. I could have chosen not to surf that morning. I could have been nestled under my blanket at home instead, and if that was my moment to leave this world, I would have left it just the same. The fear and panic I was feeling was a reaction to the circumstances, not to the reality. Out there on the water, helpless as I was, I found comfort. If this was my day to enter eternity, then it was my day.

Two factors led to my escape. The first was that there was no third wave. The sea was calm after my second collision with the rocks. That was a mercy.

The second was that I stopped trying to swim to shore. I knew I couldn’t make it. I also knew that on the other side of the jetty, there were surfers. If I could get to them, they could help me.

I turned around and swam out to sea. The jetty was mere feet to my left, but I was out of options. Within seconds, I could reach my board – another mercy – and a few seconds later the current, which I later learned acts as a conveyer belt if you are within a few feet of the jetty, carried me past the tip of the rocks. With one arm wrapped around my board, I was able to side stroke my way to relative safety on the other side.

Now the waves and the tide were working with me. They pushed me shoreward. I half paddled, half drifted past the Dredge’s strong break and into the soft cove of Marina Park Beach. I got about 10 steps out of the ocean and collapsed on the sand, sucking air, retching, and taking stock of my injuries.

My left side was a mess – lacerations across the top of my left hand and wrist, and a chunk of skin gone (along with my surf shoe) from my left foot. My wetsuit was sliced along the outside of my right thigh, and I could see the slice had penetrated my skin. My right shoulder was scraped up and already bruising. The bruising on my hips took a couple of days to emerge.

After about 20 minutes, the bleeding mostly stopped, and enough of my strength returned for me to pick up my board and go home.

I was never so grateful to walk through my front door – although Debbie was not pleased to hear my story. She has only ever tolerated my surfing and would rather me trade my surfboard for a boogie board – or an innertube.  

I’m undecided about that. But if I were to stop surfing, it wouldn’t be out of fear.

It took several months to heal, and by then the weather had turned too cold (for me) to do any surfing. And it feels like it has been raining here since January.

But it’s nearly May now, and the sun has returned to our little coastal town. I see surfers almost every day now, and I wonder when I’ll take my turn.

I’m curious what emotions are waiting for me out there. For that reason alone, I know I have to do it. So I guess I’m actually not undecided – at least I’m not as I write these words. I will surf again, albeit with some hard-earned lessons applied.

I won’t go by myself, and I have already promised Deb to pick a spot far away from any type of rock formation. I’ll make sure I’m in some semblance of cardiovascular shape before I enter the water.

I’ll pay attention to what the waves are telling me.

I’m already starting to do that – I look for the signs every time I walk along the coast. I listen to their rumble every night now that it’s warm enough to sleep with the slider open.

What I see and what I hear are the same as I have always seen and heard. The waves are well-named; their greeting is as friendly to me as it has always been. Even their crashing sounds to me like an invitation – one I’ve never been able to refuse.

I’ll answer soon.



This piece was presented as the forward to “Sonder, Vol. 8,” a collection of memoirs written by my writing students.


I was halfway to work on a January 27 morning when I got the call. I had been listening to my old graduation party playlist that day, and it was Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book” that bore the brunt of that first interruption. It was the first of many.

Through my car speakers I could hear my wife’s voice. Something like my wife’s voice. It was louder than usual, urgent. There was too much energy behind it. At first, I thought she was trying to tell me some exciting news and was tripping over her tongue to get it out. I strained to catch the words.

They came out in a frantic tumble and I only caught two: “Roger died.”

My mind latched onto them. Did I hear correctly?


“Roger died.”

Roger, the second of my wife’s three older brothers. Roger, who would pick a friend up at the airport in the middle of the night on a moment’s notice without complaint. Roger, never much cared about owning a home but routinely gave his weekdays and his weekends to help a friend put a new roof on his … or a new set of cabinets, new copper plumbing, a pool, a new deck.

Roger, who was great to talk to if you were tired and didn’t want to do anything more than nod at the appropriate places – the one who everyone agreed was the most audacious loudmouth they ever met … was gone.

 I don’t remember much after that. For some reason, I continued on to work. I had classes to teach, and I’d already driven half of the 60 miles.

I didn’t last long. By the time I finished explaining to my morning Tuesday-Thursday class that I wouldn’t be holding class next week, the initial shock was wearing off. In its place came this smothering weight of emptiness. I knew then it would be a while before I tasted “normal” again, and that “normal” would be different.

I canceled the rest of my day classes and was back home in an hour.

I do not have the right words to describe the moments I shared with my wife when I got there. I think maybe some moments are meant to remain private. We embraced. We wept. That is enough.

I decided to hold my Journal and Autobiographical Writing class via Zoom later that evening. Since we only meet once a week, I couldn’t afford to fall so far behind. It was unlikely that the following week’s class meeting would take place.

It seemed the right thing to do, and it was.

We read the scene vs. exposition assignments that evening – me in my daughter’s room, which doubles as my office when she is away at university – and the eight young women enrolled in the course logging in from who knows where to bring their first bits of writing to the group.

I talked awhile about writing and about language. I’m sure I talked about the writing they shared – what worked. What didn’t. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that for those few hours I felt … not normal … but something. I felt cocooned, like the grief of the day, expansive to the point of pushing out everything other than dread, had mercifully lifted. Listening to their words and interacting with them about the craft of writing, one of my true loves, was a balm.

A few days later, Debbie and I were in Tahlequah, a small town in northeastern Oklahoma, where Roger spent most of his life, and where Deb and I spent the first two years of our marriage while I went to grad school.

There were so many reunions (I hadn’t been back in years), joyous under any other circumstance, but this time they were drenched with tears. Roger’s three daughters, Dondi, Dee-Dee, and Diamond. His five surviving siblings – two brothers (David and Billy) and three sisters (Reta, Darla, and Debbie). His grandchildren. His ex-wife. His longtime companion, Liz, who calls him the love of her life, though they never married. Still, it was on Liz’s couch that Roger breathed his last.

And then there were his friends – too many to list – and so many more that couldn’t come because of a snowstorm.

Roger wanted to be cremated, so there was no body – just this crazy picture of him in an Elvis Presley suit and dark sunglasses – the suit was also present at the memorial. Dondi, his eldest, gave the eulogy.

She reminded us all of Roger’s humongous heart and of his bohemian approach to life. A “nomad,” she called him, then reminded us that even Jesus Christ said of himself that he had nowhere to lay his head.

It could be said that Roger had no permanent home. But that would be wrong. If home is where the heart is, then Roger had a home wherever he went. His heart covered all the territory. It had room for everyone.

After the memorial we went to Reta’s place to eat and reminisce. Deb’s 92-year-old mom, who is bedridden most days, even came out in her wheelchair for the occasion. I don’t believe she understood why we were all there, but I count that a mercy.

Toward the end of the gathering I realized I had foolishly neglected to take pictures, so I tried to make up the time. I pulled out my phone and darted from family member to family member.

“Reta, come over here next to Darla and Deb.”

Deb, go stand next to your mom.”

And then, wanting to get a shot of Debbie with her older brother David, I said this:

“Hey Deb, come take a picture with your brother, Roger.”

It was out of my mouth before I could catch it, and it reverberated over the entire room. Everyone heard it. We all felt it. We all wished it were true.

Deb and I were supposed to begin our drive back to California the next day, but the snowstorm that had blown in was still dumping, and we were forced to delay. As a result, I was still at Debbie’s cousin’s house on Thursday night, when class was supposed to meet again.

I confess now that I had intended to cancel that meeting, but the delay, and maybe something else, changed my mind. I Zoomed in from a downstairs office and was greeted by eight familiar faces in little boxes on my laptop. I was so happy to see each of their smiles, to hear the concern in their voices for me and for my family. Again, the balm of their presence and of the opportunity to hear and talk about writing began its work.

Coincidentally, the memoir assignment that week was to write about a friend or family member. They were beautiful pieces, written with surprising sensitivity and vivid detail. Neither of these things is usual so early in a semester. I don’t know if it was obvious to my students or not, but each one put me – emotionally raw as I was – on the verge of tears. I could barely hold it together to give my thoughts on their work. And yet, I logged off that night with a sense of joy and optimism and purpose.

I have reflected much on why that is, and my conclusion is that there is something magical about the act of writing deeply and sharing it with others. There is something magnificently affirming to read well crafted, honest renditions of another human being’s experiences – even if, or maybe especially if, they are painful.

No one is alone. No one is the only one. Whatever it is, we have felt it. We can relate. We can give comfort and through another’s words, we can be comforted.

That is the lesson of Journal and Autobiographical Writing. That is the gift that this class and this wonderful group of young women were to me in the spring of 2022.

What follows is what they have chosen as their best work, so there is no need for me to prattle on. I believe it speaks for itself, and that it speaks loudly.

The words that follow are a celebration and a balm. They are a confession and a regret. They are joy and sadness.

They are, more than anything, a gift.

20191224_191546 Originally published in the The Santa Clarita Signal, 2002

Not that I’d ever want to rename Christmas, but I’ve often thought it could be considered a second Memorial Day. After all, isn’t this a day of remembrance?

Spiritually speaking, it certainly is, but even for the staunchest agnostic, Christmas is a day to look back – to remember old friends, lost loves and happy times. Any old holiday can create memories. But Christmas captures them. It holds them fast and preserves them like no other time of year.

Maybe that’s why I find myself in such familiar surroundings today. I’m at my parents’ house, where I’ve spent all but two of my 35 Christmases. Today, I’ll go to church, open presents and eat too much turkey with the people I cherish most.

Like every family, we Dicksons have our traditions. The tree always arrives late and my dad can often be found spending Christmas Eve in the yard, stringing lights in the dark. I usually brave the cold with him, lending a hand where I can and throwing out words of encouragement.

This year’s tree saga was especially memorable. After toting the tree 20 miles on the top of their van, my folks decided to push their luck and stop off at the mall for some last minute shopping.

Halfway into the parking garage, they heard a bang and the tree, which did not clear the overhang, ripped away from its bindings and rolled into the road.

My dad said he considered leaving it where it fell, proclaiming to passers by, “You see that? It’s my last Christmas tree!”

One of my personal traditions consists of sifting through piles of old stuff – newspaper clippings, pictures, letters from friends and a mish-mash of sentimental trinkets I keep in my old room.

I tell my family every year that I’m looking for something I need, but they’re not fooled. They knew before I ever admitted it to myself that that box of odds and ends is, for me, a precious window on the past. They know that in the event of a fire, that box is what I’d carry out first.

I hope this Christmas finds you with a full nest. I hope your home overflows with as much pandemonium as mine no doubt will. Just remember to make your memories good ones because they will last.

And if this Christmas finds you in a lonely place, take heart. Pick some good memories out of your box and dwell on those. They are the presents you wrapped for yourself in years past, for a day such as this.

Blow off the dust and pull off the bows. Tear into the wrapping and savor whatever’s inside.

Let your memories remind you how much things can change.

Originally published in the The Santa Clarita Signal, 2003

Last Wednesday, I woke up in my wife’s body – sort of.

For starters, my 3-year-old daughter, Melissa, jolts me out of sleep by tugging on my foot – my foot and not my wife’s, as is her custom.

    The sound of running water informs me that Debbie, my wife, is awake and that she’s skipped the three or four steps in her morning routine that include feeding and watering our two daughters.

    Things are seriously out of whack at the Dickson house.

    Somewhere between “Daddy, I’m thirsty” and “Daddy, I want cereal,” I remember that it’s getaway day for Deb. She’s escaping to Orlando to see a friend get married and I’m skipping the next six days of work to play Mr. Mom.

    I promised myself and my kids an adventurous week of park trips and bike rides, but it’s already Saturday and the fact that I’m writing this story while the girls watch “Jumanji” in the other room is pretty clear evidence that I haven’t exactly followed my master plan.

    I should have known from the start that planning every detail would be impossible. My first clue came the first time I attempted to get my second-grader, Darragh, to school on time. The Interstate 5 was a parking lot. A mile or so into my crawl, I limped off in search of swifter passage – which I never found.

    The week has played out like a tug-of-war ever since, with myriad occurrences – planned and unplanned – anchoring one end, and me on the other, pulling desperately to hold it all together.

    I’ve torched a frozen pizza, spilled juice all over the car and, with Melissa, visited what seems like half the public bathrooms in Southern California.

    I’ve discovered the point of drive-through coffee shops and marveled at the predatory nature of mothers jockeying for position when it’s time to pick up their kids from school.

    Most of all, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the “soccer mom.”

    I never cared for the term to begin with because it reeks of a professional elitism I’ve always found distasteful, as if the woman who makes it her life’s work to manage her own home and raise her children sits lower on the totem pole than the woman who packs a briefcase instead of a diaper bag.

    Even before my head hit the pillow Wednesday night, I was convinced that Debbie’s job is much more demanding than mine. I work in a world of deadlines, but they are nothing compared to the pressure I’ve faced since my wife flew east.

    Cook, clean, feed. Drive, drop, prepare. Sort, stack, fold.

    Shop for dinner, but cut coupons first. Bathe the kids, but not too close to bedtime or they’ll go to sleep with wet hair. Check the homework, help with the school project and pick out tomorrow’s outfits. Just be sure to check the weather first or you’ll be adding a trip to the pediatrician to next week’s list of errands.

    The to-do list is endless and the stakes are so high. If I miss a deadline at work, I may hear some grumbling from my boss. But missing a deadline this week means Melissa goes hungry or Darragh misses a test.

    The clock is indeed the oppressor of the stay-at-home mom, but it is a necessary evil. Now I understand why every room in my house holds at least two clocks and why Debbie often wears her watch to bed.

    And the demands go beyond the obvious. Exactly where in your day timer should you make room for imperatives like “play with the baby” and “make sure your toddler knows you love him as much as the new arrival?” What happens to your precious schedule when your 3-year-old asks you to teach her the alphabet?

    “Soccer moms” do it all day. They do it every day. My saving grace is knowing my shift ends Monday night. I’m fighting exhaustion – that and the nagging sense that I ought to be doing better. But it all ends soon.

    Debbie and her fellow full-timers enjoy no such respite.

    I’m looking at the untouched stack of books I brought home for my “vacation” and I can only laugh – almost as loudly as I now laugh when I remember the Saturday mornings I’ve magnanimously agreed to “watch” the kids while Debbie rushes off to coffee with friends.

    I don’t mean to paint a bleak a picture of what a full-time parent faces. This week has been full of wonderful moments too trivial to put into print, yet monumental enough to remember forever.

    It’s been fun to hang out with my baby and discover that she actually does play with all the toys and games I’m always stepping over and insisting we should give away.

    It’s been great to ask my oldest for help and truly need it and even better when she gives it so proudly.

    On Friday we were all stuck in traffic coming up Highway 5. The delay was putting a crimp in my plans for dinner and forcing me to push back the kids’ bath until Saturday morning.

    As I was contemplating what to cook while wondering if I should take the Old Road, Melissa flashes me a flower she’s drawn on her MagnaDoodle sketchpad.

    “I drew something for you, Dad,” she says.

    Then Darragh speaks up.

    “You know, Dad, this week hasn’t turned into such a catastrophe after all,” she says.

    I smile in response to both of them and sit a few inches higher in my seat.

    The work’s been much harder than I ever imagined, but the pay is tough to beat.

Fault Lines

It has become fashionable to criticize Generation Z. According to the experts we lean on for such insight, they are the generation that diffuses the intensity of their focus across a dozen interests and calls it multitasking. They crave affirmation but eschew effort. They pour hours into social media while remaining socially aloof. They are interpersonally introverted, technology addicted, and hopelessly stressed out. They are easily offended and defensive, yet they are eager critics. They rarely read, but will devour a season of their preferred drama in a weekend. In argument, they prefer pathos to critical thinking, and at work, they expect to be valued for who they are, not for how well they perform.

When I read those critiques, or when I hear them from colleagues in the teaching profession, or even when I hear the voice in my own head drawing similar conclusions, I am always tugged back into reality by two cords of rope.

The first is a class called Journal & Autobiographical Writing.

For seven years, I have taught this course at my university. For the first few renditions, my students were members of Generation Y, or the Millennials, depending on who you ask. I have had a front-row seat for the transition to Gen Z, and I must admit that students in 2021 are different than their Millennial predecessors. I used to consider those generational labels – and the stereotypes that accompany them – to be more based in marketing theory than in substantive truth, but not anymore. Each generation is like its own continental plate. They exist side by side. They comprise the same terrain. But look a little closer and the fault lines are not difficult to spot.

Journal & Autobiographical Writing offers a different perspective. In this classroom, students write about themselves. Week after week, they produce short reflections about their lives. They share recollections of joy and disappointment – of heartache and heartbreak, of love and loss, of hope, humor, and hurt.

This semester, students wrote about leaving a university for the last time, of a near-fatal river rafting mishap, and of an 18-hour car ride from San Francisco to Montana with a sibling prone to car sickness. Through the words these students brought to class, we walked the beaches of northern and southern California, smelled the musty dampness of fallen leaves on a farm in Washington state, and we visited the Swiss Alps. We felt the devastating numbness of losing a father unexpectedly, and we experienced the sad, slow descent of a loved one fighting ALS.

We helped an old blind woman to her seat at a refugee camp in Ecuador. We experienced the sweet attention to detail of a new bride describing her husband. We saw a dog eat a birthday cake, and a group of friends flirt with a waitress at a diner. Our car broke down on the way to an audition. Grandma injured herself playing soccer. Our pasta was bespoiled beyond saving by a well-intentioned, but misguided cafeteria employee.

We visited soccer stadiums, walked familiar streets near home, and learned the Latin names for plants and how to coax them into the fullness of their beauty. We even went to Harry Potter World and came home with the wand that chose us.

Through it all, what I learned – or really what I remembered yet again – is that what is most striking about all generations is not the differences, but the similarities. We are born into the respective decades of God’s choosing, and whatever number corresponds to each of us will, to some degree, define us. And those differences are beautiful.

But there are experiences that transcend time. There are threads common to the human condition that cross those generational fault lines. And it is those threads that are the true focus of what we discovered – or rediscovered – in Journal & Autobiographical Writing. It is one of the great and wonderful ironies of a course like this one. We share our unique experiences through memoir, and in so doing, we discover how much we have in common.

Generations will always pit themselves against each other. It is a favorite pastime to draw lines, make maps, and grab territory. It is embedded in our darker nature to find the differences and rush to claim the high ground.

Therein lies the second cord of rope that always yanks me back from indulging in the generational stereotypes: memory. I am from Generation X, and I remember what the other generations had to say about us. We were the latchkey kids, the cynical children of divorce, pollution, and the Cold War. We watched too much MTV and we didn’t have any attention span, either. We were lazy. We were self-absorbed. We were supposed to ruin the world.

Well, we didn’t … and neither will Generation Z.

I don’t claim to know the depths of Gen Z, of what makes them truly tick or precisely how they will shape the world they are destined to inherit.

But I do know they are human – human in every way that matters and in every way that will ever matter.

That’s more than good enough for me.



(Originally published in June, 2008)

I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was about 10.

I lost my faith in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy around the same time.

But I never stopped believing in Superman. How could I? He lived in my house.

The Superman under my roof didn’t wear a red cape and boots. On most days I’d spy him in a white shirt and a tie, carrying a briefcase out the door before anyone else in the house was even out of their slippers.

I always suspected he was Superman because he fit the description so well. He was the fastest person I knew. I raced him on countless occasions and never came close to catching him except for the times he let me win.

As for strength, he was liable to swoop me off the ground at any time and lift me high enough to touch my back to the ceiling.

And I know he had some kind of x-ray vision because he always knew when I was telling the truth – and when I wasn’t.

He could fix any break, kill any spider and win any game. He possessed enough smarts to teach me math and enough patience to teach me how to hit a baseball.

And within the thick, brown leather belt he wore on most days, he held the power of motivation. I can count on one hand the number of time he used it for anything besides securing his pants. But I never, ever forgot it was there.

He also held the power to take away my Big Wheel, my bike and later, my car keys.

As I began making friends, I discovered a secret. They lived with Superman, too. All of my friends swore they did.

My dad owns a grocery store. 

My dad’s a heart surgeon. 

My dad played football in college. 

The boasts were big and they were sincere. Superman lived in everyone’s house, apparently. Secretly, though, I knew the real Superman lived in mine.

I didn’t hold that conviction forever, of course. Neither did my friends. By the time we were adolescents, the hero of our stories had become us.

There is nothing maudlin here. Dads can’t be Superman forever. Children grow up and parents grow old. It has always been that way. It’s supposed to be that way.

But we suspend those rules on special occasions, don’t we?

I used to rail against Father’s Day for being artificial; it was probably the brainchild of some greeting card company marketing executive, right?

But Father’s Day isn’t really about the cards. It’s about putting the red cape back on Dad’s shoulders.

My dad is in his mid-60s now and so most of the Superman claims I used to make about him have ceased to be true.

He’s not the fastest guy on the block anymore; if we were to race again, I’d probably win nine out of 10. OK, maybe six out of 10.

He’s still strong, but not strong enough to lift me to the ceiling. That’s a treat now reserved for his grandkids – the smallest of them, anyway.

He’s not Superman in the way the comic books describe Superman. From the vantage of age and experience, I understand that he never was.

But the point is, I believed he was once. He knew it, too. So did your dad. Most dads do – and they accept that responsibility.

They try to live up to the impossible standard of Superman.

Forget the kryptonite of fatigue and financial responsibility. Forget the demanding boss and the need to hang out with the guys.

The best dads give it all up to play Superman as long as their children are willing to believe. Longer, actually.

Eventually, they all hang up their capes, but there’s a special strength to be found in that surrender, as well.

A father myself, I’m now the one trying to impersonate Superman. Like most dads, I fall on this side of Clark Kent most of the time.

But retired supermen make great advocates for weary fathers. “No dad is perfect,” they will tell you. “But children are able and eager to find the superhero behind the mask.”

There’s powerful encouragement in that advice. It’s more powerful than a locomotive.

I guess that’s a superpower dads keep for life.



It is no secret that human beings determine value through limitation. Advertisers have utilized the principle for decades, luring consumers with “limited supplies” and “limited time offers.”

Economists live by this principle as well. The law of supply and demand means as much to the investor as the law of gravity does to the rocket scientist. We all experienced it this spring, when suddenly people were standing in line to pay double or triple for a few rolls of toilet paper.

We value that which is in limited supply. Or, rather, we value that which we recognize to be in limited supply. It can be confusing.

Time, for example, may be our most precious commodity. But it is abstract. We can’t put it in our pocket or deposit it into our bank account. We only acknowledge it as a commodity when it runs short.

When I was a boy, my dad told me that nothing is more valuable than time because it is limited and also (most importantly) because it is non-renewable. Bob Dylan, in one of his more playful songs, once sang, “Odds and ends, odds and ends. Lost time is not found again.” Dad and Dylan are right, of course. We all know this intuitively. But out here in the real world, we live as though we have forgotten.

Reminders come occasionally, and usually, they are carried on a tide of great loss.

Even as I write this, my wife is probably saying goodbye to her mother for the last time. She drove to northeastern Oklahoma two weeks ago because her 91-year-old mom is dying. When she got the call from her older sister that prompted the trip, it did not matter to my wife that she had seen her just months before, or that her mom might not even recognize her when she arrived.

She decided to drop everything and go because she knew that her mother’s time on this earth was running out. More to the point, the time she had left to spend with her mom – to say what she wanted to say and share what she wanted to share – was nearly gone.

Limitation teaches us what is valuable. The first cookie out of the bag is good, but we don’t savor it the way we savor the last one. As a child, I habitually lavished long stretches of summer days doing next to nothing, only to cram the final week leading up to school with as many trips to the mall and to the beach as I could.

There is a paradox in all of this, though.

We value what is limited: Money, time, even toilet paper. However, is this principle exclusively true, or just a trick of perspective and faulty measurement?

The principle of scarcity teaches us to chase after and safeguard that which we perceive to be limited – at least the tangible commodities. For intangible commodities like time, we can only lament their loss.

However, isn’t it true that the genuinely valuable things in life are both infinite and unlimited? Love, compassion, empathy, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness. There are no limits to any of these. They are renewable. They are self-sustaining and even self-perpetuating. Loving people today actually makes it easier to love them tomorrow. And if that love is reciprocated, the capacity to love grows exponentially on both sides of the exchange. Show people kindness and empathy and more often than not your kindness and empathy are reflected, even multiplied.

If any limits are attached to these virtues, they are self-imposed; removing them is always a choice.

We are powerless to control the limitation placed on the commodities we universally value. All the planning and hoarding … all the scheming and saving are busywork we give ourselves as a paper shield against fear.

All the while, in the choice to exercise our most noble virtues, we hold within us a never-ending, exponentially multiplying trove of treasure. It is limitless in both volume and in its potential for good in this world.

To unleash this treasure, we need only to teach ourselves to think differently about what is valuable and why.

Diamonds are valuable because they are rare. Oxygen, on the other hand, is everywhere.

If you could only have one, which would you choose?

Twin towers tribute

This was published on September 11, 2002


The phone isn’t supposed to ring at 6 a.m.

That was the first thought to skitter across my mind one year ago today. The first of too many.

I thought about my family in New York — my cousin who worked inside one of the World Trade Center buildings and survived. I thought about my uncle who, until he retired three months before the attack, had served as the head of security for the Commodities Exchange, also located within the World Trade Center.

I thought about how two years earlier my wife, my daughter, and I rode the elevator to the “Top of the World” to gawk at the city below, take pictures and collect souvenirs. I couldn’t convince my 3-year old that she was actually seeing the Statue of Liberty because she thought it looked too small.

I thought about what might happen when 9 a.m. arrived on the West Coast. I sent my little girl to school a year ago today, but I didn’t want to.

Like everyone else, I thought about the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. I cried. I prayed. I called my mom and dad. I flipped from one channel to the next for no good reason. Maybe I was hoping Rather or Brokaw or Jennings would break in and announce that none of it had actually happened — that I could go back to sleep.

But it did happen. The phone rang at 6 a.m., and good news always sleeps in.

Of all the things I thought about on that day, the one thing I didn’t think about was sports.

A year ago today, I stopped caring about pennant races and home run chases. I forgot all about nickel defenses and play-action passes. It was as if someone had opened a valve in my mind and everything that made me a sports fan came flooding out. The enormity of the tragedy was too much for me to absorb and I needed to make room.

Whatever the reason, sports had to go.

I’m glad the NFL canceled its games that week, and I’m glad baseball followed suit.

We had no business cheering for our teams in the wake of so much suffering. No one had the stomach for it, anyway.

The respective sports seasons eventually restarted, but I don’t think anyone came back to the stadium or ballpark with the same fervor. We fans have always known we were watching games. We enjoyed the illusion that those games meant more than they did, but we knew better and what happened a year ago today made that obvious.

So here we are a year later and where do we stand?

Our favorite teams will take the field tonight and thousands of us will show up to cheer them on.

Some people think that’s inappropriate. Not me.

Watching a game on this bitter anniversary won’t make me or anyone else a bad person. There isn’t an American on the planet who isn’t mourning today. Some more than others, yes. But we are all mourning in our own way. We’ve been mourning for a year.

Going to a ball game on this particular day doesn’t change that.

And I know that somewhere in the world, people are celebrating today. They’re celebrating the day the United States took it on the chin.

They’re cheering and singing and dancing, and when I see them tonight on CNN, I’ll probably mutter something unpleasant under my breath.

One thing I won’t do, however, is give them something else to cheer about. I won’t rend my garments while they celebrate and I won’t wear sackcloth while they cheer.

Not today. Not ever.

I may never again be the kind of sports fan I was before last year, but I’ll never be the same kind of American, either. October is coming to my country and that means I’m watching baseball.

One of the most striking things I saw during a day full of unforgettable images appeared while I was walking through the mall. The place was eerily vacant. A small assortment of vendors dutifully remained open, but most had left.

As I made my way past the gated stores and abandoned vendor carts, I stopped in front of Prints Plus. The gate was down and the store was empty, but the last person out had left a poignant message.

On the other side of the gate stood a lone print, mounted and framed and placed on an easel. It bore a black and white photograph of the New York City skyline at night. The twin towers dominated the shot.

Majestically, defiantly pointing toward heaven, those beautiful buildings dwarfed every other skyscraper in Manhattan.

In many ways, they still do.