Friday, August 2, 2013

Run, Rabbit, Run

From the time I was in junior high school every Memorial Day and every Labor Day my family, and other families we were close to, would go camping.  We would camp in the meadows near a castle called Stronghold. It is a Tudor-style building that sits high on a limestone bluff overlooking the Rock River. The castle was originally built in the late 1920s by a man named Walter Strong, who at the time owned and published the Chicago Daily News.  He considered it his personal refuge from the pressures of work and a summer home for his family.

The way our crowd camped was not as traditional as some people do camping.  Some people did sleep in tents, but most of the families brought RVs and pop-up trailers and circled them like some crazy homesteader’s ring.  We had elaborate fold-out chairs and tables and dining tents.  During the day we would play lawn games, touch football and lie on blankets doing crossword puzzles.  Sometimes we would take long walks on the paths through the woods or maybe take a canoe out on the river. We would swim in the castle’s pool and play tennis or basketball on its courts. In the evening we would have cocktail hour and then sit down to dinner.  At night we would sit around the fire, talk and sometimes, when some of us were older, and the younger kids were off playing games in the dark, have dirty joke marathons.

My sister, Stacia and her friend Wende always seemed to manage to position themselves on the side of the fire where the smoke was going.  When it got in their eyes they would always cry out “Run rabbit, run!”  Somewhere in their childhoods they had heard that made the smoke change direction.  One of the people at camp was a man named Norm. He was a retired oil executive, who always brought to camp this giant silver Gulfstream trailer.  At cocktail time he would holler to his wife, “Polly!”  She would then come out of the trailer and hand him a martini. I would laugh and he would say, “Well, she makes them the best. Better than I could.”  One night when Stacia and Wende were closing their eyes and saying, “Run, rabbit, run,” Norm went over to them and said, “You know, girls, a better way to get away from the smoke is to move to the other side of the fire, out of the breeze, and get a few steps back.”

I have a lot of great memories of camp.  One of my favorites is when my future wife first came.  One of the other families had this huge, incredibly stupid but affectionate black Labrador, named Abby.  Abby loved to play fetch.  Whenever anyone said, “Abby, ball,” she would jump up and come running.  Sometimes she would be lying in the shade of a picnic table and she would bonk her head or almost upend the thing.  At night my mother had Karen sleep with my sisters in their camper while I and any other boys had to sleep either in a tent or in the back of my parents’ van on an air mattress.  One night me, one of my siblings, and some our friends stayed up late by the fire, drinking beer, and laughing.  When it came time to go to where we were sleeping we passed by the family camper where Abby was sleeping.  Someone jokingly said, “Abby, ball.”  Chaos ensued. The camper started shaking, rocking and tipping like it was going to go over and people started shouting “No, Abby, no! Down, Abby!”  We ran to our tent.

During another camping trip my dad asked me to take a walk with him.  We went out on one of the paths to a spot called Inspiration Point.  Inspiration Point is not some kind of lovers’ lane.  It is the spot where Mr. Strong’s son, David, built a small brick tower so that he could look out over the river and down to the nearby town.  It is quite a magnificent view.  I said to my dad, “You really love it here don’t you?”  He said “Yes, I do.  It gives me a chance to take a break and find some peace for awhile.”  We stood for awhile and looked out the beautiful landscape in silence.  Then he said to me, “Looks like you’re doing pretty good these days, moving up. “  I said “Yeah, I think I’m doing pretty well.”  He asked me “Are you still thinking about going to back to graduate school?”  I said, “No, I’ve pretty much given up on the idea that I’m going to be an English professor or a writer.”  He frowned. “Why?” I said, “I have a family to take care of now.  I’ll probably go back to school at some point but now it will be in business.”      

We left David’s Tower and started walking back towards camp.  As we got close he said, “Karen says you are working a lot of hours.” I said “You do what you have to if you want to get ahead.”  As we finished our walk he said. “Let me give you two pieces of advice.  Don’t let what’s in your briefcase define who you are, because if someone takes that away someday, what do you have left?  Second, beware of stress.  Stress can destroy a lot of stuff and it can kill you.”  I nodded my head and said that I would.  After the weekend was over I went home and promptly ignored his advice for most of my life up to now.

Throughout my corporate career, once I embraced that this was going to be what I would be doing with my life, I became obsessed with being “the guy,” the smartest boy in the room, the one who was going somewhere.  If someone asked me to do something or go somewhere I never said no.  I worked constantly.  On a family vacation once, Karen threatened that if she saw me on my laptop or Blackberry she would throw them both into the ocean.  On the outside I tried to appear as calm and collected as possible but on the inside I was really a roiling and boiling pot of stress.  I tend to internalize things because I don’t like to look weak.  Although, like a pressure cooker when you turn it up too high or leave it too long it has a tendency to explode.  Sadly, when I did eventually explode it was usually at home in bursts of irrational anger at very small things that hurt the feelings of my family, the people I love most. 

When I reached the summit of where I thought I wanted to go and became vice president at a large non-profit organization, my boss at the time who is a very kind, compassionate and wise man had me in his office one day and he said, “Tom, you need to let go of some things.  You are adjusting to a new world with Parkinson’s and I am worried about you.  I want you to take some time off and think about things.  I don’t want to hear from you for a week.”

That was at the end of summer. While I was at home my daughter, Meredith, put a tent in the backyard and threw blankets and a large futon cushion in it so they could emulate camping.  We had a bonfire and s’mores.  The girls played games in the dark.  We had a great time and laughed a lot. Meredith was supposed to take the tent down the next day but like all young teenagers she got distracted and did not.  That night when I took the dog out for the last time I could feel myself getting angry.  I thought to myself, “We have to get this down or it will kill the grass.”  Then suddenly as I looked at the tent; it looked very inviting.  I went back into the house and started doing some things. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be in that tent.  I finally grabbed my e-reader, some chips, some iced tea in a travel mug, and I went out and crawled inside it. I spent the night there reading and then slept peacefully, for the first time in a long time, until morning.

I think Norm’s, my dad’s and my boss’s advice is right. Saying “run, rabbit, run” does nothing. Sometimes when smoke gets in your eyes, you have to move to another side of the fire, out of the breeze, and take a few steps back.  You need to have something, someone, or some place where you can find respite and peace to think about who you really are and what things define you and are important to you.  Then, when you can, let go of the rest.