Friday, September 27, 2013

It's Good Out There

I met an old friend for lunch Monday in Toluca, about halfway between Ottawa and Peoria. The Italian restaurants we hoped to eat at, either Mona’s or Capponi’s, were closed. We might have known but neither of us checked. As a result, we ended up at a tavern. Funny how that happens. I joke with people that even though I’m retired I stay busy which “keeps me out of the taverns.” Yet there I was.

We both had the ultimate burger which in addition to a big ground beef patty included ham, cheese, bacon and a fried egg. It may have been their ultimate burger, but it was not “the” ultimate burger, if you know what I mean. But it was good, as was the beer. Better yet was the conversation.

We talked about child welfare, which created our friendship, but soon we were discussing our own lives, neither of which are now wrapped up in work. It reminded me that we have more in common than we know, all of us, but we fail to realize our commonality because we guard our private thoughts, our persistent concerns, our fears, our shortcomings, as well as our gladness. When we are able to shine even a little light on them, giving those close to us just a peek at what we hold so closely, we find we share like thoughts. My friend and I found some of that commonality there, in the uncommonly bright light illuminating an old small town tavern over the noon hour. There was a time, because of our relationship as working peers, that we would never have risked anything so personal. Retirement changes that. Count it as one of the benefits; a new opportunity to be your real self rather than who others expect you to be. Retirement is not just tapping a pension or social security. It’s finding a new kind of freedom.

On the way home I took the slow route of two laners, blacktops and hard roads, rather than the faster interstate. The sky was bright and blue. In the flatness of the fields combines were working, harvesting the stubby stalks of seed corn plants. Those fields go first. The soybeans and regular corn won’t be far behind. If the coming of fall hasn’t hit you yet drive out into the country. The color of the corn, only an occasional splash of green now, yellows and browns dominating, will make fall real for you. Soon those fields will be empty, and winter will set in. It goes so fast. I went through Wenona on Route 17 before skirting Streator and heading North on the Kangley blacktop, through the town which bears its name, cutting over to Route 23 on an East/West road somewhere out there, and entering Ottawa from its South Side. It was good to be back on the blacktops.

I came from a little town, on a farm outside it actually, like those I passed through, so I like to see how they’re doing. Off the highway, with no reason to go there unless its home or the home of someone you love, those little towns are for me a sort of a barometer of life as I used to know it. I’m glad to report they’re doing OK. There’s still a hardware store in Toluca. You can get a fairly good deal on a push power mower there, parked outside the door on the empty sidewalk. Wenona has four new street lights on its single business block and has filled its empty store fronts with that common retail place holder, the antique store. In Kangley they put down fresh gravel in the parking lot of the tavern that serves the great prime rib on Saturdays. In each town the buildings are virtually all painted or sided. The lawns are mowed, there are few if any ramshackle properties, and small town life seems alive and well. Could the recession have been kind to small towns?

Because small town life is not for everyone, it may not be for you. You can buy a house for a lot less money than in the city, and pay less property taxes, but don’t move out there without a dependable vehicle. Part of what you save on shelter you will spend on transportation. When the price of gas goes up it hurts small towners a lot. Many drive twenty miles or more to a supermarket. And then you have to drive back. Food deserts were first born in small town America when the independent grocers closed up shop. That was forty years ago in my little town of Danvers.

Yes, it is hard to get a latte out there. Casey’s General Store is the rural version of Starbucks/Seven Eleven/the bodega on the corner rolled up into one, with gas pumps. Often it’s the only thing open. You won’t be finding a gluten free croissant and a tall skinny pumpkin spice cappuccino at Casey’s. More like machine brewed regular or decaf and a glazed donut. If you’re lucky you might come upon something exotic like French Roast with hazelnut flavored creamer that doesn’t need to be refrigerated (do you find that creepy?), and a crème filled long john with chocolate icing. And you can get a slice of pizza, the pepperoni and cheese glistening with grease under the warming light, anytime of the night or day. When you live in a small town you get used to being at home and staying there. You’ll get to know your neighbors and you’ll find some that will do anything for you. However, everybody will know your business. In some of those small towns on flat ground, if you stand in the right place, or get into a tall building (if there is one) you can see all the way through town to the cornfields on the other side. In the winter you are never far from the big quiet empty which makes up most of rural Illinois and is always waiting for you. If you don’t’ like it don’t go there. I find it calm and peaceful.

I drank in all that comforting small town and big empty feeling as I took my time driving home. I’m trying to slow down. Being late, which assumes the need to be somewhere more or less at an appointed time, I drove fast for most of my past thirty five years, all the years I seriously worked, and took the quickest possible routes. Before cell phones, although I appreciated the privacy of driving, time in the car seemed wasted. I minimized it by going as fast as possible. I stayed in the office getting things done until the last moment and rushed to my car to speed to wherever I needed to be next. It saved time. Plus walking into a meeting on time or late allows you to avoid the obligatory small talk and chit chat that happens before the agenda takes hold. Not that there’s anything wrong with small talk and chit chat…. All right, yeah, I hate small talk and chit chat.

The other day as I approached a four way stop the car to my right sped up, almost stopped well before the intersection, and having applied the brakes before I did, plunged through the intersection before me although I had gotten to the stop sign first. I used to do that every chance I got. What did it gain me, five seconds? I also camped out in the left lane of the interstate ten miles over the speed limit and railed at slow drivers, flashing my headlights at them and passing them on the right if they refused to change lanes. It’s hard to look around when you do that. Makes it difficult if not impossible to appreciate the trip. Before I got serious about accomplishing something by working at a job; when I was travelling, hitchhiking and riding busses, I realized the value of going slow and taking in the view. But I forgot. I got busy. Now I’m trying to remember how it feels not to be.

And that ladies and gentlemen, that little road trip to Toluca and back, was the highlight of my week.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Kids in Lock Up

It’s hard to see kids locked up. This week I visited, as a volunteer of the John Howard Association, the Illinois Youth Center at St. Charles, operated by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The John Howard Association advocates for prison and justice system reform by encouraging the adoption of enlightened public policy while at the same time ensuring government adheres to the policies now on the books for incarcerated people. We toured the many buildings that make up the campus of St. Charles, those still in use that is. A number of buildings are old and ramshackle, awaiting demolition. Demolition costs money, however, and money is in short supply at St. Charles, which is ironic.

St. Charles the community is one of the tonier and more affluent western suburbs. It is believed that the municipality of St. Charles looks longingly at the sprawling 100 year old plus wooded campus of the former “reform school”. It would make a great municipal golf course, a site for big lot suburban houses, lots of things. They have nibbled at the edges over the years. A road to a St. Charles city park now shares the way to the visitor’s entrance where we entered the facility. As soon as that road ends and the state’s road begins (you know when you pass by the tall chain link fence with the shiny concertina wire) you notice the change. Potholes abound. It’s like an island of poverty in an otherwise upscale neighborhood. People from my town go Christmas shopping in St. Charles. When I hear the words St. Charles I don’t think of the cute downtown, the stores that smell like cinnamon, and the big houses with three and four car garages. I think of kids doing time, their lives suspended, their futures bleak.

When you arrive at St. Charles and stand in front of the bulletproof glass window, signing the clipboard and showing your ID, you see behind the officer in charge a rack of leg irons. They are of various sizes, for various size legs, with chains of different lengths. Leg irons, like hand cuffs, are used to control people you don’t trust. There may be a fair amount of trust at St. Charles between the adults and the kids detained, but it’s hard to see for all the security. Security looks to be the number one concern at St. Charles. It goes with the territory I guess. It is a prison after all. It was once a boy’s school, when we thought about boys differently or perhaps when boys were different.

In the early 1900‘s the boys at St. Charles, institutionalized and living away from their parents, a few of them orphans, many of them dependent on others due to their family’s poverty, some of them delinquent and involved with Illinois’ new Juvenile Court Act, created in 1899, lived in the big old brick buildings now abandoned. They tended farm animals, raised crops and gardens, dug a pond (still there called Boy’s Lake), went to school, and learned trades and occupations. Rather than trying to change the environment in which those boys lived, helping the families into which those boys were born, perhaps believing they couldn’t, policy makers put their faith, and Illinois’ most vulnerable kids, into institutions. It was child welfare and juvenile justice rolled into one.

That all changed in the sixties. By and large children who were abused, neglected and dependent were placed in unlocked facilities, increasingly in the family setting of foster care, while delinquent children were placed in locked institutional facilities. I don’t know what year the chain link fence and concertina wire was installed around the smaller perimeter of what is now the campus of St. Charles, one of now six (last year eight) “Illinois Youth Centers” operated by Illinois’ Department of Juvenile Justice. St. Charles and its counterparts in Kewanee, Chicago, Warrenville, Pere Marquette, and Harrisburg are now, for all intents and purposes, prisons.

That is easy to forget. Staff drive us, a group of seven or so volunteers, in a van from the gate and the imposing fence to the nicest building on campus, the administration building, for a briefing. It stands under tall shade trees. There we talk about kids on paper, through reports, as they are affected by policies, in the light of recent changes. As other institutions closed St. Charles’ population grew. Staff were transferred, unions were engaged in the process, adjustments were made. Transportation of young people is much increased among the now fewer institutions in order to get kids to court appearances in their home county. We talked about kids without seeing kids, by talking to adults charged with their care, and then we went to lunch.

We ate in the cafeteria with the youth housed there,and they were anxious to talk to us. No sooner had I put my plastic tray on the cafeteria table than two boys were talking to me, telling me their story, expressing their concerns. The food was better than my last visit there. We had meatballs on noodles in brown gravy, mixed vegetables, and red Jello, all eaten with a spork. I’ve had worse. A twenty year old who had been paroled was still incarcerated because no safe place can be found in which to release him. His family was not approved, and no alternative has been located. Another young man had an issue with the bookkeeping around monies sent him by his family. I took notes, told the truth about our ability to impact the system that governs the facility, and promised to do what we could.

From there we went to the special placement cottage, fewer kids, more staff, where kids with special needs were housed. A group of guys were playing spades. One of them admitted

“I only play cards when I’m in here.”

“How many times you been in?” I asked.

“This is my third,” he said. I looked at his hand, the fan of cards he held close to him. He was holding the Queen of Spades, and was intent to unload it.

There were 283 boys locked up in St. Charles the day we visited. 123 of them, 44%, were parole violators. Those are kids previously released only to return. The population is up sharply from a year ago. St. Charles absorbed most of the boys formerly housed at Joliet’s now closed JJ facility, as well as its staff.

We went to the school library, a large room with not enough books. Books are largely donated. Old encyclopedias abound. There is no librarian, no computers, and no internet access. It never seems to get better.

There are two yellow lines taped on the hall corridor floor which forms a large square. Security guards are stationed in the corners. Teachers occupy only some of the rooms on the perimeter. Not nearly enough teachers. Vacancies are plentiful. As a result instruction time for the kids is down. Boys going one way space themselves out and walk slowly on the outside yellow line and boys going the other way do the same on the inside yellow line. If they stray from the line they are reminded by staff to return. Many walk with their hands clasped behind their back holding a slip of paper they will give their teacher.

There are computers in two rooms, where students work on self paced closed networks of GED or Credit Recovery software. An eighteen year old boy from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago clicked quickly on the screen to show me his progress in various subject areas. He was proud of being close to completing the English and Math requirements. He explained that his profile looked bad in Social Studies only because he hadn’t spent much time in that area and had failed a test.

“I think I’ll be graduated by Halloween,” he said. “Thanksgiving at the latest.”

“What happens after that?” I said.

“Nothing.” There is no post high school academic instruction in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

“When do you get out?” I asked.

“Next summer maybe, if I can keep my good time.”

We visited reception. We visited other stops that boys make along their journey of acclimating to institutional life. We ended our tour at the confinement center, which is located in the infirmary. I try to pay most attention to close confinement and conditions of close confinement at these facilities. It is close confinement that defines incarceration. It is the escalating loss of freedom that embodies what it means to be locked up and controlled.

There are four forms of solitary lockup. Two cells exist just inside the door of the building where kids can be brought initially to be evaluated or until a decision can be made. A sort of a time out room. A disgruntled boy in handcuffs was placed into one of those rooms right after we entered the building. Boys can be kept there no more than 59 minutes. At that time he must either be returned to the general population or transferred into one of the other three types of confinement.

Suicide watch is next, a perimeter of small cells clustered around a single control booth with big windows. Youth are placed in suicide watch for obvious reasons, for expressing suicidal intent. One young man was in this unit and was in the process of receiving medical attention from a staff nurse. He had learned of a death in his immediate family and injured his hand punching a glass door. The cells of youth on suicide watch are checked every five minutes and psychiatric staff see and engage those kids frequently.

Crisis watch is a similar type of confinement, adjacent to the area used for suicide watch, where boys are locked into individual cells and monitored individually, but for reasons other than the risk of suicide. Both these types of confinement exist primarily for the protection and safety of young people.

The last type of confinement is purely disciplinary and punitive. It is raw lock up designed to control and punish boys who break the rules. On every visit when I ask why young people are locked away in solitary confinement the answer is the same. Fighting and assaults. Fighting refers to violence between boys. Assault primarily means boys attacking staff. Punitive solitary confinement is used every day, the length of time boys are held in confinement is measured in days not hours, and the setting is what you might imagine. This unit is not built for observation. It is designed to isolate. It is a single hall, rooms on both sides, a slot in the drawer a cafeteria tray can be slid through for feeding, a solid door, very little glass. A grid of small holes is drilled in the door to permit talking. The sound of their voices in the cells is muffled. Bedding is taken away during the day. There is a raised concrete platform and a stripped down metal toilet. That’s it.

“Can they get reading material in there?” I ask a staff member. He looks at another staff member, who nods, and says

“Yeah, as long as it’s soft cover.”

If they can get books or magazines, the boys locked up on that day didn’t. Their cells were bare. They simply stood at the doors and looked at us. I talked to one boy.

“How long you been in here?” I talked through the little holes in the door.

“Three days.”

“Why are you in?”

“They say I was fighting but it was horseplay. We was just playing, but somebody got hurt. But I didn’t hurt nobody.”

“You been in here before?”

“Yeah. Two weeks ago.”

“When you think you’ll get out?”

“I’m hoping tonight. I don’t want to do another night in here.”

We don’t yet know how many kids have been disciplined with solitary confinement how often, how long, and for what offenses over time. That report is coming. But I personally hope to see that staff in Illinois are using conflict resolution techniques, finding ways to help kids mediate and resolve conflict, rather than locking kids up. Security is important. Everybody knows that. Punishing kids by locking them away for days by themselves is demeaning. Everybody knows that too.

While involved in my church community as the reader on Sunday this verse was part of the lectionary. It’s Hebrews Chapter 13 verse 3. “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill treated, since you also are in the body.” It’s a verse made for a John Howard volunteer. Years ago I was touring a similar lock up at a time when no kids were confined and I asked the staff member accompanying us on our tour if I could be put in the cell. I entered the cell and sat down on the concrete bunk. I asked him to shut the door and lock it. I stayed there for about ten minutes. My bathroom is bigger than that cell. It was terribly quiet and I felt very alone. I remember distinctly being glad it was daytime.

So if you’ve finished your Christmas shopping in St. Charles, and its getting dark on that nice street by the Fox River, and you’ve gathered with your friends in a bar or restaurant, and are having one of those hot mulled wine drinks; think of the Illinois boys who are locked up for days not far away, down that short hall, deep in the institution, in those small cells. That is the essence of Illinois’ Juvenile Justice system. That’s where our policies take us in the end. We have to do it better.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sing Out

In the fall of 2008 I took a class on Creative Non Fiction Writing taught by Brooke Bergen at University of Illinois Chicago. I had a heart attack that spring and was determined to do something for myself outside work. I talked it over with my board president and promised if it interfered with my job at YSB I would drop the class. Each Wednesday I’d leave work about 3:30, drive to Joliet where I’d catch the Metra train to LaSalle Street Station, ride the CTA Blue line to a stop near the UIC campus, and walk four blocks to where our class met. There was a great Vietnamese joint next to the building where class was held. If I got there early enough I’d have an entrée off their giant menu and a bubble tea or fruit smoothie. If not, I’d eat after. It made for a long night but it was the best night of my week. There were thirty or so people in my class and not a child welfare worker in the bunch. Most of the students were young. Their experiences varied widely as did their writing. I learned a lot. The class and the required writing assignments gave me purpose outside my work. When the class was over I felt something was missing. While I later found a way to incorporate regular writing into my job I lost my weekly break from the norm.

That’s when I joined choir at my church, First UCC at the corner of Columbus and Jackson in Ottawa. Choir practice is also on Wednesday night, 6:00 p.m., for an hour. I quickly began to look forward to it. As I did when I attended writing class, I scheduled around it. If a committee wanted to meet on Wednesday I just said “Sorry, I have choir” just like I used to say “sorry I have class.” And that was that. It was easier than I thought.

I was usually late to choir, which was not unusual. I was, and am, often late to many things. I’ve found it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we like to think. When I parked my car and made my way to the church I would usually hear the piano already playing upstairs in the choir room, and I’d look up and see the lights through the choir room windows. They guys sit in the back row. Sometimes I would see the head and shoulders of my choir mates and an empty spot where I usually sat. I’d start whistling the tune they were singing and continue as I climbed the stairs. I was always glad to be there. It became the new best night of my week.

I hadn’t sung in a choir since Junior High at the Presbyterian Church in Danvers. That choir was short lived. I think we wore out the choir director. The idea was for the junior high kids to later join the dwindling adult choir when they entered high school. That never happened. The adult choir remained a group of old women and a few old men and the high school kids wanted nothing to do with it. As junior high singers we saw practice primarily as a time to goof around. We were often loose in that big old church, swiping food from the kitchen, chasing each other through the basement, discovering dusty rooms we didn’t know existed. We sang in church from time to time, and as I remember the songs got simpler and simpler because we were so averse to real practice. We hated the robes. I feel sorry now for the woman who volunteered to be our leader. I’m afraid we made her look bad.

So when I joined choir forty five years later it was not as an experienced singer. In fact, I can’t read music. I joined as someone who loved music and needed community outside work. I knew the people in the choir because I went to church with them. But I didn’t know how much I would come to enjoy being part of a group with a common purpose.

As far as the sheet music goes I thought perhaps I would learn more about the notes on the lines and the odd marks, symbols, and obscure foreign words that have for so long puzzled me. I haven’t. I know generally the notes go higher as they go up the parallel horizontal lines and lower when the reverse occurs. And I’ve learned that the notes not filled in must be held longer, as must the ones with dots behind them. But I’m completely thrown trying to figure out when to go back to pages previously sung, and when to drop out and not sing. So I keep a pencil in my folder and write “Don’t Sing” or “Sing Here” or “Back to Star.” I draw big stars at the beginning of the repeated parts. I don’t know why the music makers don’t do the same. I need sheet music for dummies. I mark up my music quite a bit. If I’m lucky, when we repeat a song in future years I get my own music back and I’m ready to go.

But in truth, the sheet music for me is mostly the words and I take my cues from the director and the people around me. It’s very hard for me to sing parts because I naturally want to go with those singing the melody. Once in a while I can find my note from the many piano notes that fill the practice room, but not often. So I train my ear instead to focus on the guy or guys beside me singing the same part and try hard to follow them, singing just a shadow, a millisecond possibly, behind them so I can hit the right note. If they go off on a bad tangent I go right with them.

When it all works, when we are singing harmony and hitting the right notes I hear us blend our voices into something that sounds so good, a sound none of us could create on our own, I get the real feeling of choir. I like being part of a bigger group, following not leading, blending not standing out, singing my part, making the group sound good as a whole. Sometimes it gives me goose bumps.

There are times when the lyrics are beautiful. Some of our choir pieces are taken from ancient biblical texts, some lyrics are modern, but when they do it right the song writers, whatever their inspiration or source material, put meaningful words and beautiful music together to create something that instrumental music or poetry alone can’t. I get emotional sometimes when I sing. And I sure as hell forget about whatever was bothering me as I drove towards the church. It’s hard to do it well, and I concentrate on doing it as well as I can. When I do so I leave my troubles behind. For at least an hour a week, life is all about music.

Not that we don’t still screw around some. Our choir practices generally have several periods of laughter, one of us poking fun of another, laughing at our mistakes, taking exception to some comment. It’s light hearted. They guys have fun in the back row as do the women up front. Sometimes the choir director asks us to get back to work but not often. We’re a fairly cooperative group for the most part. I for one am much improved since junior high. I may not have met the complete standard for adult maturity but I’m a lot closer than I once was.

The weekly practice pays off on the Sundays when we sing. Our purpose is to add meaning and by doing so enhance and be part of the worship experience for our church, which in the end is us and the people there on Sunday. If we’re lucky the lyrics coincide with the church calendar, the sermon, something going on in the church. We sing facing the people in the pews. They give us all the feedback we need. They like the songs we sing and the way we sing them. We can see it in the expressions on their faces. Do you hear live unamplified music in a small venue often? Do you sit within ten or twenty feet of a good piano or pipe organ and hear a skilled keyboard player crank out beautiful notes? Sometimes we bring in percussion-maracas, bells, tambourines, African drums. Sometimes we bring in accompanists-woodwinds, flutes, trumpets, strings. Those days are special, for those of us in the choir and those in the pews too. It’s like being in a nightclub without little tables and mixed drinks.

Being in church choir may be the closest I ever get to being in a band. Every practice and every performance makes me feel good. When we shut down in the summer I’m sorry it’s over and when we start up again in the fall I remember what a charge I get out of it. It is one thing to put music in your life, but it’s quite another to be part of putting music into the lives of others. I recommend it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

What's in a Name?

Using a method I know makes little sense, one that is admittedly imperfect and statistically flawed, I determine my odds of long life by checking the Tribune’s obituary section each morning to see if any McClures died the previous day. When none do I take comfort in knowing we, at least those of us in the immediate area, are all still healthy and alive. According to the Tribune, and by using this method and its logic, McClures hardly ever die.

Yet on Sunday a McClure’s obituary was in the paper. Let’s call him Carl. You get so little good information from Chicago Tribune obituaries. The death blurb about Carl told me this; he was a beloved husband, a loving father, a cherished son, a dear brother, and an adored uncle. It didn’t give his age. By far the best and most telling information in the piece was this “McClure will also be missed by his dogs Sally and Cocoa, his cat Edward, and 13 chickens.” Either he didn’t name the chickens or the Tribune refused to list them individually. Then too perhaps the Trib charges by the line and the family decided the chicken’s names were just not worth it. Could be Carl was much more into poultry than they. The obituary went on to say that memorials may be made to his son Jason’s education fund. I wrote Jason a check and sent it to the funeral home. I have a son who recently completed his education and I know how important it was for this McClure to have been able to help his children do that. I had a desire to know more about Carl. He was, after all, a McClure like me.

I searched for him on Face Book and found sixty four Carl McClures. Wow. And you think you’re one of a kind. None of the profile pictures resembled the man in the Tribune, though our profile pictures are now often no longer us, but rather acquaintances, grand children, pets, you name it. Something tells me Carl was not on Face Book. Probably too busy with his chickens.

I Googled Carl McClure and after a bit of a search found only two mentions of the Carl in question; the Chicago Tribune obit and a notice from the funeral home handling his arrangements. The notice on the funeral home’s web page aped the Tribune editorial but did add his age. Sixty one. Young. There were very few comments in the funeral home’s on line digital sign in book in which people say nice things about the deceased. That made me think that either Carl had a small circle of friends, or they didn’t have much good to say about him, or few of them accessed that web page. Either or all of those assumptions could be absolutely wrong for all I really know. The picture in the Tribune, repeated by the funeral home, was of a man much younger than sixty one. Carl McClure died, he was reportedly a good guy (beloved, loving, cherished, dear, adored and all that) and was into animals but what exactly was his life about? Why did his existence matter?

The first Carl McClure listed on Google, page one item one, was a partner in a Pittsburgh law firm smiling back at me in a handsome head shot wearing a nice suit. His responsibilities included “the management of the firm’s commercial collection practice, including the filing and defense of mechanics’ liens, foreclosure actions, replevins, involuntary bankruptcies and other credit related matters.” Replevins? Appearing next was software developer Carl McClure. Linked In, the business rival of Face Book, had an entry near the top, telling me there were thirty six Carl McClures on their system of pages. I clicked on that and recognized some of the Linked in Carls from the Face Book Carls. There was what appeared to be a pretty high powered Dr. Carl McClure, a urologist, with a practice in Florida. Then there was an Ohio Carl McClure on Twitter followed closely by a dentist Carl McClure in Miami and another in Ft. Lauderdale. The Carl McClures just kept coming, but I discovered nothing more about my Carl McClure, my Illinois neighbor who passed away at age 61. Of course I could have subscribed to an online service that would have allowed me to dig deeper and find Carl’s credit score and no doubt much more about him, but I refused to pay.

I think what we get on Google are the people, mostly self employed, who need to be known. Google, or at least the results of Google searches on the first few pages, has apparently become another way to advertise rather than a pure search resource. You can have a pretty big online name, and a presence, but to do so you have to promote yourself. My Carl, the deceased Illinois Carl, wasn’t one of those guys. Carl, who he was, and why his existence mattered, remained a mystery to me.

Take the name Dave McClure as an example. Google Dave McClure and you will find the first fourteen Google screen shots (and is anyone still reading past fourteen screens?) to be virtually all about Dave McClure the rich venture capitalist from Mountain View California. He is the famous creator and owner of 500 Hats, a notoriously successful funder of startup tech companies. This Dave McClure is a publicity monster. I watched a video interview of Dave McClure conducted by a woman who fell all over herself searching for superlative adjectives in her introduction, fawning all over the guy, who appeared to be a pretty ordinary and balding young man who happened to hit it really big in some world I know nothing about.

One Silicon Valley web site described Dave McClure as “‎Geek, Marketer, Hustler, Investor, Dancer, Blogger, Troublemaker, and Sith Lord.” I don’t know what a Sith Lord is but it doesn’t sound healthy and I’m glad to say I’ve never had it. You could discover practically nothing about any other Dave McClure. Only three other Dave McClures made an appearance on Google’s first fourteen screens. The three Dave McClures whose lives were acknowledged are: David L. McClure, Associate Administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration, a CPA Dave McClure who consults on organizational development, and Dave McClure the basketball player who played for Duke from 2005-2009 and is now playing in Lithuania. Dave McClure the Sith Lord dominates my name. I don’t show up. And Carl from the Chicago area showed up among the Carl McClures only because he died. I conclude that Carl wasn’t famous. I’m glad really.

I have in my lifetime met three other Dave McClures in person. The first lived in Bloomington around Franklin Park when I lived on Franklin Avenue near Illinois Wesleyan. He was middle aged businessman of some kind and a small plane pilot. I used to get his mail by mistake from time to time. The first time I received his mail it was an advertisement for a fly in breakfast. I took it to his house and rang the door bell. Dave McClure answered the door.

“Hi. Are you Dave McClure?” I said.

“Yes I am.”

“So am I,” I said. “My name is Dave McClure.” I paused and made eye contact with him to gauge his reaction. There wasn’t much.

“Apparently I got some of your mail,” I said, handing him the advertisement.

“Well, what do you know,” Dave McClure said. He looked down at the folded and stapled paper flyer.

“Tell you what,” he said. “If you get any other mail for me, give me a call.” He fished around in his wallet and gave me a business card. “I’ll tell you if it’s important and if it is I’ll send someone to get it. This, for example, is junk mail.”

“That sounds good,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said.

With that he closed the door. That was the end of it. Face to face with another Dave McClure, and it was a non event. It meant nothing to him. I’m not sure it meant anything to me. I thought it might have though. I was anticipating something. Whatever that might have been, it didn’t happen. He was just another guy.

I met my second Dave McClure in Minnesota. I was on a family vacation driving to a resort on Little Ball Club Lake outside Deer River. As we passed through the little town I stopped at a bait shop, bought some lures and fishing gear, and paid for it with a credit card. The shop keeper saw my name on the card and said

“What do you know? There’s a Dave McClure that lives in this town too.”

I thought nothing of it and went on to the resort. It had been a long drive and the first thing we did after greeting the resort owner and unpacking the car was to get into our swimming suits and take a swim off the dock. I was fooling around with the kids, throwing them up in the air and letting them drop into the water, when a man I’d never seen walked out on the dock. He walked as close as he could to me and said

“Are you Dave McClure?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well I’m Dave McClure too! It’s very good to meet you!” I rarely use exclamation points but he was definitely talking in an exclamation point kind of way, loudly and excitedly. “My friend at the bait shop called and told me you were here!”

I was in the lake up to my chest and he was on the dock but he walked as close as he could to me, squatted down, and stuck out his hand.

“I want to shake your hand Dave McClure!”

I felt as if I was being congratulated for something I didn’t do. But being congenial by nature I waded over and shook his hand. He was one of those guys who continues the handshake too long.

“So how old are you Dave?” While he said this he was still shaking my hand. And with that he began a series of probing questions designed to get to know Dave McClure from Ottawa quickly, followed by answers to his own questions pertaining to him, Dave McClure of Deer River, so that I might know him equally well. Dave McClure of Ottawa was forty, Dave McClure of Deer River was thirty seven. I had two kids, he had three. We’d both gone to college. Dave McClure from Ottawa was an English major while Dave McClure from Deer River was psych major.

“Can you believe we both work for not profits!!” said Dave McClure, his face the embodiment of amazement and wonder.
He worked with developmentally disabled adults and I worked with troubled kids. There was no getting away from the guy. My wife minded the kids in the lake and I climbed up on the dock. That was a mistake.

“Dave I can’t help but see as you were walking up here you have a bit of a limp. Is that your ankle causing you problems?”

I thought it was both odd and in poor taste that he brought up my bum leg but I responded by saying

“Yeah, I broke it skiing. It never healed right.”

“My god!!” Dave McClure from Deer River said. “I’ve got a bad ankle too!!”

With that he hauls up his pants leg, pulls down his sock, and shows me a big scar just above his ankle bone.
“I had a motorcycle accident!!”

I truly didn’t know what to say.


I caught my wife’s eye in the lake and she was beginning to giggle. I was trying not to. They guy went on and on. He gave me his address and phone number. He wanted to know if he could bring his wife and kids to meet me later on.
I said no, that we were busy. I said we had a pretty hectic schedule when you got right down to it, and that I was glad to have met him and would be in touch with him, maybe, when I got home. I thanked him for coming to see me. He just stood there on the dock smiling. At what seemed to me an opportune moment I said goodbye, turned, dove off the dock headfirst into the lake, and swam out to where my kids were. I waved at him from out there, and then swam further away. Finally he went back to his car and drove away.

I met a third Dave McClure in the Las Vegas airport when our name was called on the public address system. We walked up to the counter at exactly the same time reporting that we were Dave McClure. We looked at each other and laughed. They wanted him. That Dave McClure was an engineer from Texas. He was a nice man and our conversation was short.

From these encounters I’ve learned there’s little to a name. Why I wanted to know more about Carl McClure, because we shared a surname, I have no idea. Google can’t tell us who a person is any more than Face Book can, or Linked In, or anything else. We are truly known only by the people that love us and are close to us. We are known by our family and our friends. We exist and are important, we have meaning and create meaning, for relatively few people in the world. But those people matter greatly.

Our public persona? What is it really? Who we are to strangers? Who is Dave McClure, venture capitalist and creator of 500 Hats? For all we are able to read on line we really don’t know. He could be a wonderful person or he could be a dick. You would have to be with him to make that judgment. You would need to hear his voice, see his smile, listen to his words, and observe him interacting with others. We might think, from what others say or write about another person we haven’t met, that we know him or her. But do we? Can we? I think not.

I think we should concentrate on those people we can see, hear, and touch. We should focus on those people we communicate with and who respond in kind. I think that is where the important part of our life is really lived. I think that is where and why our existence matters.

I hope you had a good life Carl McClure. I hope your son makes it through college and that your family remains close. I’m sorry I pried into your identity. I hope you made arrangements for all your pets, especially your nameless chickens, and that they go on unfazed by your absence. Your pets will no doubt have an easier time adjusting to life without you than the people who loved you. Rest in peace Carl McClure, whoever you are. Rest in peace.