The courage to chase dreams
A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.
But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.
“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.
Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.
Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.
I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.
One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.
I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.
I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.
Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.
What Would Theodore Roosevelt Do?
In 1895 anti-Semitic German politician Hermann Ahlwardt came to speak in New York City. Local Jews were very upset and there was political pressure on the police department not to provide Ahlwardt any protection. The police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, made sure to provide the visiting speaker with an adequate police escort; he also made sure that every officer in that security detail was Jewish. There was no better response than what Roosevelt did, and his gesture symbolized New York’s and America’s commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
This President’s Day, it is worth our time to look at who we consider our favorite president. For me there is no question: Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and was one of our greatest presidents.
There’s something for people of all political persuasions to like in Teddy Roosevelt. He believed in a just and fair America that respected the environment and he believed in a united country not beset by the kinds of divisions lesser leaders have allowed to fester. He supported women’s suffrage and also wanted America to be a forceful leader in the world with a very strong military He fought against monopolies, passed important laws keeping our food and medicines safe, and created national parks that protect millions of acres of land to this day.
Theodore Roosevelt came back from great tragedy that stalled his political career—his wife and mother died on the same day—and was the youngest person ever to become president. While most former presidents today cash in on their notoriety with lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, Theodore Roosevelt went on a South American safari that nearly killed him after losing the election of 1912. He was a war hero who braved Spanish cannon fire on San Juan Hill. He also once delivered a lengthy speech after being shot!
Few people in public office today could pass the character test and compare favorably to Roosevelt. He held to a code of honor that is unknown among most people we know in public life. Though he was born in to wealth and privilege that could have shielded him from hardship, he purposely strove to make himself strong and do things that were difficult. He lived his life for constant adventure and self-improvement. He was an avid reader and martial arts practitioner.
Truth, character, loyalty to the country above your immediate or self-serving interests: these are concepts that may seem quaint or get a lot of lip service, but Theodore Roosevelt lived them and expected America’s leadership to. Have our leaders lived up to the ideals Roosevelt set? How many of us can claim the levels of character and boldness that Roosevelt had? In my dreams I’m half as bold.
Though he is more closely associated with Oyster Bay on Long Island, Teddy Roosevelt was born in New York City. A few blocks from where I work in Manhattan is Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace. Sometime soon I will take time to visit and contemplate on American greatness and how we might improve upon it. In this and all matters of life, it pays to ask: What would Theodore Roosevelt do?
New York City will be here forever
In March of 2001, I saw a procession of people marching behind a fire engine down a street in Greenwich Village. I followed to see what was happening. It was a 90th anniversary commemoration in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which remains one of the deadliest event of its kind in New York. Firefighters stood at attention near their fire engine as people read the names of the 146 young women who perished.
Less than six months later, the September 11 attacks became the deadliest day in New York City history (displacing not the Triangle Shirtwaist fire but the General Slocum disaster, which killed more than 1,000 people).
What lesson I take from the September 11 attacks is that New York City’s spirit can’t be defeated and that New York City will be here forever.
The crucible of city life creates a population that can’t be broken. While crime is lower, it doesn’t mean survival has gotten easier. People are too busy to be scared, and New York was back up and running in less than a week. We pause to honor the dead but realize it would be an insult to the memory of those lost for us not to continue our lives.
Terrorist work to create fear in a population, which makes it all the more pointless for them to attack New York, a city that overcame collective fear a long time ago.
What we keep from the attacks are the demonstrations of our valor and courage. Every year in September, people come from around the world to run or walk the Tunnel to Towers 5K, which traces the route of Firefighter Stephen Siller, who ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel on September 11th to get to the site of the attacks where he gave his life for our city. Firefighters from every corner of the globe will often run in full firefighting gear as Siller did. If you’ve never taken part in one of these, you owe it to yourself to do. You won’t regret it, I promise you.
One of New York’s greatest punk bands, The Bullys, lost a founding member, Firefighter John Heffernan, in the attacks. Every year they commemorate his life with an awesome punk rock show. The defiant sounds of blaring punk rock and The Bullys incessant musical “fuck you” to all manner of poseurs and pussies defines New York more than weeping and flowers, though those have their place too.
People I had worked with, immigration inspectors at J.F.K. airport, went to Manhattan on their own time to do what they could, people lined up for hours on end to donate blood. New Yorkers stood on the West Side Highway into the wee hours of the morning to thank first responders heading home from long shifts on the pile. These are the images and lessons I remember about New York City from those days.
New York City is older than America. It was a force on this continent before it was even New York. It will still be here two thousand years from now. Live in it to the fullest or leave.
Giving a lesson in how to live
Nine years ago, I met some of my family at the airport and took to the skies to get to Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion was my aunt Alice’s wedding to Dave Siewert. The wedding was outdoors in the summer. Despite it being one of the hottest days of the year, it was a breezy and pleasant afternoon and everyone had a great time.
Because they lived far away, we didn’t get to see Alice and Dave very often, so whenever they were in town it was a special event. When they were visiting for the holidays, a group of us met in midtown Manhattan the day after Christmas so Alice could take Dave to a Broadway show. Normally I avoid the heavily tourist parts of midtown like the plague, and even more so around the holidays, but my Aunt Alice is no ordinary visitor, and this is where she wanted to take Dave.
A few years ago Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and not given more than a few months to live. It was a raw deal by any measure. He and Alice had already had their share of medical woes together including heart disease and a previous bout with cancer.
He lived years longer than his doctors expected, and he didn’t waste a minute of time. Dave refused to let his diagnosis define his life other than to spur him on to live more of it. He and Alice headed west and went on some epic road adventures.
Family and friends followed Alice and Dave’s adventures through social media. They posted their amazing photos of the places they visited and Alice wrote wonderful accounts of their time together. The last time I saw him, which was, sadly, at a family funeral, he appeared in good spirits. He had grown his hair out long. Doctors had told him his hair would fall out from the chemotherapy but it hadn’t yet.
The medical news didn’t get better. There were multiple setbacks with treatments that didn’t work or that had to be stopped. But Alice and Dave continued to travel and enjoy the beauty of the American West. They would take a weeklong trip and then be back for treatment before hitting the road again.
This past weekend, family scrambled to get flights to Madison, Wisconsin for Dave’s memorial service. The family tracked his health through Alice and when it looked like things were nearing an end, some of my aunts caught the first flights they could to be there.
While he had been in deteriorating health, Dave never stopped living. He was getting out and about and riding his bike whenever he could. He faced death with a grace, dignity and determination that serves as a great example to the rest of us.
It is easy to talk about death and the brave ways you want to face it. We often think of it in terms of facing a violent threat or hurtling headlong to a dramatic end. It’s impossible to know how we’re going to really face death, because it usually confronts us in a quiet doctor’s office or in front of people who know us and all our faults and frailties.
Dave showed us that even though we can’t control when and how we will die, our end can be one of our own making if we have the courage to do so.
I count among my many good fortunes having a strong family that is fast to mobilize for one another in times of need. Dave has kept us to a very high standard and demonstrated how to live life with unlimited strength. With his love of life and ability to face death with unimaginable courage, Dave Siewert made my family better, and we owe him a debt of gratitude.