Category Archives: Human Interest

With Family Afar, Thankful for An Unlikely Friendship

From a distance, the 350 pounds Jim Bowen packs into his thick, muscular frame appear menacing. A shaved skull and elongated Van Dyke beard edged with the first trimmings of grey only add to the suggestion that he must be a bouncer at an edgy Daytona Beach bar.

As Jim approached my wife’s Aunt Annette, he pulled open the passenger door and reached in to extricate her from the passenger seat. She looked up at him, reached immediately for her inhaler and prepared herself. Sharp, relentlessly combative and attractive despite a series of medical misfortunes, Annette knows the routine. The long-ago Miss Otis Air Force Base turned world-roaming travel agent has been widowed for more years than she cares to count and, equally challenging, now requires daily living assistance thanks to a shattered hip too dangerous to replace.

Jim gently wedged his thick hands under her arms and waited for her to move her legs to the side before slowly lifting her from the car and carefully spinning her into a waiting wheelchair. It was my first trip to visit Aunt Annette since she lost her ability to live independently, a tough adjustment for such a strong-willed woman.

Jim Bowen with Aunt Annette
Jim Bowen with Aunt Annette

That Annette is accepting the adjustment is partially a testament to Jim. Through several years of physical turmoil that have turned even more troubling in recent months, Jim has been her protector, her friend, her handyman and, more recently, her escape from confinement.

In many ways, they are opposites:

  • Jim dwarfs the petite Annette in physical stature.
  • At 51, Jim is youthful and vigorous. A lifetime of battling Lupus never slowed 74-year-old Annette in the way recent challenges have confined her.
  • Since moving from Upstate New York to the Atlantic Coast of Florida as a child, Jim has rarely departed the area other than during his six years of Air Force service. Annette enjoyed decades of world travel with Uncle Ed. She set off to Antarctica not long after his passing, never afraid of overseas adventure.

The unlikely relationship between Jim and Annette formed initially at the Moose Family Center, a lodge dedicated to raising money for the Mooseheart Child City outside of Chicago and Moosehaven retirement community near Jacksonville, Florida. A regular at the Moose Lodge who has taken on leadership roles at times, Jim worried when Annette hadn’t been around for too many days.

One of Jim’s checks found Annette in the midst of a serious medical emergency. In stubborn fashion typical for her lineage, Annette refused to allow an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Jim drove her instead. In the years since, he’s taken on a substantial role for Annette’s physical wellbeing, along with simply being her friend.

During the day, Jim toils at his single-man construction and handyman business. Several times each week, though, he turns into driver, bill payer, confidant, care provider and personal shopper (with coffee-flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream her clear priority based on my freezer check).

Annette’s handful of blood relatives reside 800 or more miles away and are able to visit only infrequently, as are several other relatives connected through her departed husband. Her nuclear family is too small and spread out to provide the assistance that close-knit, extended families historically delivered in difficult times.

Through a series of challenges, Jim’s concern and attention has helped save Annette’s life and, just as importantly, her mental health. The men and women at Kist Assisted Living who rotate in to help Aunt Annette with her daily needs do incredible work (including, in small world fashion, the sister of a man my wife has worked with for more than a decade). Even so, their attention is split among multiple patients. Jim’s visits are dedicated to her.

Jim doesn’t need to do this. There’s no family connection, no sense of religious obligation, no commitment to remuneration though Aunt Annette certainly tries to return his generosity when possible. He sacrifices some of his infrequent leisure time, a valuable asset for a single man, in order to take care of his friend Annette. He is gentle, patient and able to endure the routine needling from her that is traditional to family encounters. It turns out, he’s also well prepared, having worked for several years at an assisted living center before the heartache of losing too many residents who became his friends weighed so heavily on him that he decided to pursue a new path.

As nuclear families shrink and spread out, it’s relationships built on true friendship borne out of chance encounters that increasingly sustain people in times of need.

When I joined my wife and in-laws in a recent visit to Aunt Annette to spend time with her and share stories of times past, it was my first chance to meet Jim. It’s reassuring to see in Jim a gentle giant of a man who cares and worries more frequently than we ever could from our distance.

Jim Bowen is a difference maker in this world, making life better one person at a time. It turns out that he’s the antithesis of menacing.

When Pasties Appear on Guys’ Weekend

Staring at the pasties we caressed in our hands, we weren’t sure what to do next.

Do we envelop them in our mouths, wrapping our lips as far around as possible? Is it better to nibble at the edge while maintaining a firm handhold?

For the rest of the story, read my blog at the Huffington Post.

One hint. This photo plays an important role.

Launching over Volkswagen Rock in Piers Gorge with best friends Dave Steel (front left), me (front right), Mike Collins (middle right) and guide Forrest Smith on the Wild Ride.
Launching over Volkswagen Rock in Piers Gorge with best friends Dave Steel (front left), me (front right), Mike Collins (middle right) and guide Forrest Smith on the Wild Ride.




Leaving NYC Without My Wife

Manhattan skylineSweat dripped onto my glasses as my wrenched right arm stretched up the bottom of one sofa section, holding a nut in place while my left arm extended to twist an ingeniously minimalist tool. Pains reached every muscle when I earlier passed the one-man torture test otherwise known as dresser assembly. Still, backaches from the 20 hours I spent putting seven pieces of IKEA furniture together over Labor Day weekend were easy in comparison to what followed.

When I left New York’s Long Island City Wednesday afternoon to drive home to Illinois, I left someone very important behind: My wife, Cathy. Granted, I’ve known this day was coming since early June. That’s when she received an offer to take on her dream challenge; a chance to test all of the skills she has developed and honed since skating into her teenage years. I knew she needed to take it, and encouraged her to do so. I’m proud of her, happy for her and know that making this move is what is best for her.

Besides, now that I’m pursuing what I love as a struggling writer (the writing is the enjoyable part), I couldn’t logically argue that she shouldn’t pursue her dream. It doesn’t make it easier. Cathy has actually been based in New York for two months already, but the permanence of setting up her new apartment struck a bit harder than I had hoped during the drive home.

I’ve had time to come to grips with our separation. Logically, I know I have nothing to complain about. Military spouses go months and even years without seeing each other. We were separated for nine months at the start of our relationship while I was in Washington, D.C. and she was finishing up at the University of Illinois. The longest we are likely to go without seeing each other is three weeks, maybe four when she gets into her crunch season at work. We’re even likely to meet in places with more options for entertainment than Zanesville, Ohio, the host city of many of our early relationship dates.

Time has made it easier to alter my life plans and my mindset. It’s tough to not have her around, but knowing I’m not missing her at night gives me more freedom to connect with others and engage in activities she would just as soon skip. When we met in Washington, D.C., during July, I drove so I could hike in Western Maryland (Rocky Gap State Park) and in West Virginia (Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks). On the way back from New York this time, I stopped to hike up ski trails at Camelback Mountain in Pennsylvania and spent a few hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland. It’s easier to accept the separation if I use some of the time apart in a way I find nourishing.

Why don’t I just move out to be with her full-time in Long Island City? The easy answer is that Cathy works long, hard hours and enjoys that pace. At least until I build up a new network, I would be lonely if Long Island City was my home base. I do have friends in the area and plan to re-connect during extended trips over the coming months and years. But most of my days would start in 587 square feet that offer more difficult access to the dozens of forests, parks and lakes I frequent for sunlight, exercise, writing and simple enjoyment of peace and nature.

I also try to avoid situations that could spiral the wrong direction. Having dealt with severe depression as a teenager, I’ve since learned important behaviors I can control to preserve my mental health. Maintaining connections with people I enjoy is important. Our daughter, the youngest of two, is a six-hour drive away at Mizzou, but I can see her more frequently from here than I would if I were based in New York. Our son is home. I enjoy our time together, particularly after having worked too many hours through his and our daughter’s childhoods. I also relish being part of a large family concentrated around Chicago, connections that would be far tougher to maintain from long distance.

So I’m focusing my energy on making this move work for both of us. We’ve had great visits since Cathy moved, spending more real time connecting than we had in a long time. Perhaps, after 26 years of marriage, this physical separation can bring us closer. Unquestionably, we are off on a new adventure.

We will build our altered life together one step at a time. Without pre-packaged tools and instructions, I don’t know exactly how it is supposed to turn out. I’m sure I’ll put a drawer liner in upside down or dent a surface from time to time, but I’m determined to make our life strong, stable and, hopefully, more than just a bit beautiful.

On my 50th, 50 Reasons to be Grateful

Reaching the half-century mark today seems an appropriate time to reflect on some of the reasons I have to be grateful in life.

To make it simple, I’ll go with 50 reasons, though I make no promise these are the most important. Having gone to Target earlier this week to pick up two items, only to need to walk aisles to remember one of them, I’m sure I’m leaving many people, places and events off that belong. In no particular order, I am grateful for:

  1. Suffering no long-term injuries and making at least one shot in each game while playing two-on-two basketball last night with my son, daughter and a very talented college basketball player. My son was not as grateful to be stuck with me as his teammate.
  2. Gelato in Italy.
  3. Doing a substantial amount of my writing and taking long walks at the Morton Arboretum and in other forest preserves and outdoor settings. I also appreciate the ability to support the Arboretum on its Advisory Board.
  4. The literally hundreds of accidents in life narrowly averted, including last Saturday when a gray convertible tried to run me off the highway while doing what must have been more than 100 miles an hour. I’ll leave the letters out, but Illinois plate ending in 9619, this is directed at you.
  5. Mike and Dave, with whom I’ve shared more than a few rounds of misguided adventures, and who, more importantly, have been good friends for the past 35 years.
  6. Colleagues, staff and mentors whose hard work, enthusiasm and creativity contributed to my corporate career and ability to retire early. There are literally hundreds of standouts.
  7. Congressman Terry Bruce, who gave me opportunities in my 20s that changed my life, and the many extraordinary people I worked with in his office.
  8. The police in St. Charles, Illinois, who exercised restraint with their weapons 32 years ago when they thought that our teenage plastic toy war games were an armed theater robbery and only weeks later that our retrieval of golf balls from the Fox River included a burglary stop because we walked through someone’s yard. A special shout out to everyone who sang “Happy Birthday” to me in the St. Charles jail as I turned 18 while the police were figuring out that nobody had actual weapons.
  9. Even the truly awful bosses I’ve had, who taught me much about how I did not want to behave.
  10. Aurelio’s Pizza, and my wife for making it a family tradition.
  11. People open to having fact-based discussions on political issues without severing friendships.
  12. A large family with all six brothers and sisters enjoying the time we have together, and the many nieces and nephews who make family gatherings surprising and fun.
  13. Apple fritters at Fleckenstein’s Bakery in Mokena.
  14. All of the teachers and coaches who molded me, and all of the coaches and teachers who molded our children, with a particular thank you to Stu Mansfield who taught me that only my best was good enough.
  15. Childhood camping at Woodhaven Lakes.
  16. Unrelated adults who helped me grow up. Deacon Stan and his wife Gay, Jim and Sharon, Ken and Betty, and so many more.
  17. All of the remarkable people who are no longer with us, but whose lives have touched me. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, classmates, Dad, Mindy, Shorty, Deacon Stan and too many more to list here.
  18. Writers who’ve educated my mind and influenced my thinking.
  19. Giving life a chance, even when I felt ready to give up.
  20. Shannon’s dog Snoop, who pawed my head at 5:15 this morning to demand to be taken on a walk. He barely made it outside before making it clear why he needed to be outside. Glad I brought a bag. I think it’s his way of saying Happy Birthday.
  21. The opportunity to see beautiful places, particularly when work paid for the visit.
  22. The Daily Illini, and all the remarkable people I met working there.
  23. New Orleans food. Café du Monde. K-Paul’s. Commander’s Palace. I could go on, but it would make me hungry.
  24. Tennis (playing) and soccer (watching) with Eric.
  25. Outdoor sports my wife will do with me, particularly whitewater rafting, tubing and ziplining, none of which require leg movement.
  26. The men and women who have protected our country, particularly those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s a shame the abuse so many have taken, from those who targeted the soldiers during Vietnam to those prioritizing bonuses over patient care at the VA.
  27. All of the remarkable friends and family who have helped me with my books.
  28. Oktoberfest in Munich with my brothers and a friend. Hefeweizen.
  29. Skydiving and other extreme living with my daughter Shannon.
  30. My son Matt’s humorous jabs from nowhere, which contribute endless laughter to family discussions.
  31. My parents, whose love and lessons still guide and provide strength. Even though 18 years have passed since Dad was able to state his lessons, I still hear him when I’m making a crucial decision.
  32. Mom’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and apple crisp.
  33. Any day that includes street paella and hiking in Montserrat.
  34. Carol for giving me my first kiss behind the bingo sign at St. Matthew’s School in second grade.
  35. In-laws who accepted me with none of the challenges I hear some suffer from the families they marry into.
  36. The opportunity for reflection as I walked the prison grounds on Robben Island and thought about the life of prisoner 46664.
  37. Everyone who forgave me when I failed them. There are so many.
  38. Hot showers. Having lived even for short times in places with no hot water expanded my appreciation for this simple pleasure.
  39. Whoever invented eyeglasses, Ben Franklin for inventing bifocals, and whoever created the progressives my old eyes need to enjoy all of the beauty on earth.
  40. My wife Cathy for catching up last night on her commitment to cook one meal every four years. If she stays back on schedule, I only need to wait 30 months until my next home-cooked meal that I don’t prepare.
  41. Eddie Murphy and every great comedian who followed in bringing laughter to days that needed it.
  42. People who’ve helped me find my greater purpose in life.
  43. The founders of our nation. Despite some critical flaws, the Constitution and Bill of Rights established principles of governance the world had not seen, and which enrich my life today.
  44. Twenty-six years of marriage and the wisdom to help us through the next chapters in our lives.
  45. Our extra kids who’ve joined us in our home at various times. Each has enriched our family.
  46. My Mom for her decision to ignore medical advice and have me anyway. I wasn’t always sure she made a good decision, but I have no doubt now that I’m grateful for the decision she made.
  47. The Chicago Bulls, Blackhawks and Bears, for giving me reason to enjoy sports despite being a born and bred Cubs fans.
  48. Words in anger swallowed rather than said.
  49. Seven layer dip and seven layer cookies.
  50. Lucky breaks, often following years of hard work.

Body Inequality Requires Government Intervention

While sweating off a third set of bicep curls this morning, it struck me that rapidly widening body inequality screams out for government intervention – a realization clearly sharpened by our weekend family cookie exchange.

I left for the exchange with double batches each of carrot cake and pumpkin-chocolate cookies and returned after over-indulging in beer, Sloppy Joes and turkey salad with what must be 20,000 calories on a pure pleasure platter. Nearly 15,000 of these calories remain screaming at me, demanding continuous consumption from their unconcealed perch on our kitchen counter.

Less than 48 hours after the cookie exchange concluded, I’ve already gained six-tenths of a pound. Undoubtedly, I will gain more weight before I rid the house of the platter and its constant temptation. My futility now clear, I realize that diet and exercise is an illusion – perhaps even a delusion intended to distract me from my rightful demand that we all should appear equal. Under our current laws, I will never achieve full body equality with the many Americans who are always able to look great regardless of their behavior. I diet and exercise more than at least some of these people, though admittedly that hasn’t always been the case. Given this inequity, I am launching a campaign to demand that new laws be passed to ensure body equality.

Even with the efforts I’ve made, it’s clear there are other people who have less belly fat, fewer chins and zero evidence of unattractive man boobs in the post-shower mirror. Add to this body inequality tufts of back hair, white spots in my meek beard growth and a two-inch vertical leap and it’s clear that we live in a world with body unfairness so deep that government must step in to eradicate these discrepancies.

The new laws must force people who are thin and muscular to immediately cut their exercise levels and adjust their food consumption until their body mass index reaches the average. If stopping exercise and expanding fat intake doesn’t bring down the top 20 percent – and particularly the best-looking one percent – to average appearance, then government may need to intervene to inject fat from volunteers directly into these former body elites. Once we’ve brought the top 20 percent to the average, we’ll need to reset the target and push the body fortunate down to this new and further-lowered average to ensure we keep moving closer and closer to true body equality.

Of course, body equality can’t all be fixed with a simple body mass index adjustment. Good teeth are an element of attractiveness and I don’t have them. Government could easily step in to fix this inequality by requiring those with good teeth to wear sugar caps on their teeth until each person reaches an appropriate number of cavities. I would have had fewer cavities if I had flossed and brushed my teeth more as a child, but there are plenty of people who have far fewer cavities with substantially less devotion to dental hygiene than I have had so this cavity-expansion requirement makes eminent sense. Fixing this element of body inequality will create a better-balanced appearance playing field, a critical element of creating global fairness.

Tall men historically advance faster in the business world than short men, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Blink. Thirty percent of male Fortune 500 CEOs, according to Gladwell’s research, are over 6’2” tall, while less than four percent of American males achieve this height. I’m only 5’11”, so the legislation I’m advocating requires the government to develop surgical techniques to ensure that no American male is taller than 6’0”. The average American male is 5’9”, so this is a particularly generous provision of my proposed legislative package, allowing for some people to remain taller than others simply because of the DNA they were fortunate to inherit at birth. Of course, surgical techniques must also be developed to allow the shortest Americans to have their height adjusted upward. It is essential that this aspect of the height adjustment be done painlessly for those at the lowest end of the height scale.

Clearly, I am no supporter of equal body outcomes ideology, the body equivalent of communist political ideology. If I did believe in equal body outcomes, I would adjust my legislative proposal to demand that plastic surgery be mandated to ensure that we are all perceived as equally attractive to a panel of innocent children. This move, though, would require all Americans to go through a constant series of appearance adjustments until we achieve this equity utopia. However, experts tell me that transferring some redistributable appearance assets from the good looking to those at the bottom end of the appearance scale may not be enough to sustainably bring some of us up to the appearance average. Change of this magnitude doesn’t seem necessary at this point, but I do believe we need to keep the option open in case too many body inequalities remain and a majority of Americans feel less than body equal after this first legislative package is adopted and fully implemented.

I hope you’ll consider joining me in my legislative quest for better body equality in the United States. I am far from the first to recognize the inequities of our current system, which allows individuals to maintain full rights to the DNA they receive at birth and to benefit individually from their own diet and exercise. Government must step in to force the transfer of appearance assets to create a fair society in which I feel more comfortable. If you join me in my effort, a world where no one has a beautiful body for us to covet or envy is within our reach.

Nearly 13,000 calories are still screaming my name. If we succeed, my consumption will have only modest impact on the new body equality average index, so don’t expect the platter to last long.

Nelson Mandela, A Great Service to the World

A look inside the Robben Island cell where Nelson Mandela spent most of his prison years.
A look inside the Robben Island cell where Nelson Mandela spent most of his prison years.

Just a few years ago, as I was looking into Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell, I thought about what a remarkable man he was to have suffered the loss of his freedom, the denigration of his humanity and the battering at his soul only to forgive his oppressors. He realized that uniting his nation was the only way forward that would not end in further terrible pain. As a guide who had been imprisoned with Mandela showed us the quarry where work dimmed his sight, the tiny garden plot he was allowed and, worst of all, the menu that segregated prison food by race, I could only think how few men would have reacted by becoming the humble servant as President that he became of his nation. His death is a great loss to the world. His life was an even greater service.

Even prison menus were segregated by race prior to Nelson Mandela's victory.
Even prison menus were segregated by race prior to Nelson Mandela’s victory.
Quarry where Robben Island prisoners worked.
Quarry where Robben Island prisoners worked.

Five Questions to a Better Life

While writing regularly over the past 18 months, I’ve realized that five questions I don’t hear contemplated often enough continue to focus my thoughts about people, the future and even my beliefs. These questions are many of the same ones I’ve considered for decades in a perhaps less-conscious way in business, government and my personal life.

Killarney National Park, Ireland
Challenging my perspectives is important.

All five help me challenge myself and understand others, but require deep, deliberate reflection:

1) What information and arguments prove that I’m wrong?
2) When asked to choose between two alternatives, can I find a third approach that works better?
3) Have I considered how a person’s perceived economic and emotional interests affect what they do or tell me?
4) What can I do to achieve the outcomes I desire, regardless of the obstacles placed in front of me?
5) Do I even have the base capabilities to achieve what I’m trying to achieve?

With a bit more detail, here’s what these questions mean to me: Continue reading