Saturday, November 30, 2013

Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity

“Today is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

This is a quote from my Dad’s book Odditude.  Incidentally, if you’ve not read my dad’s books, you are missing out.  They are not just good, they are life-changing.  Seriously.  Go read them now.  They’re at the library.  You have a library card, right?  No?  Go get a library card.  We live across the street from the library.  My dad went once a week.  He loved to read. He loved getting things for free.  The library supplies both these things. 

Also, his books can be bought on Amazon: new and used.  My favorite is The Junk Drawer Corner Store Front Porch Blues, but The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice Cream God is a favorite for many.  You should read it.  Now.

Where was I? Ah, yes…

“Today is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”  Today would also be my dad’s 68th birthday. 

Of course, the obvious choice is to feel sad about today.  Today is a sad day for me.  My dad was a charismatic, hard-working, intense and amazing person; and he is gone and I miss him every day.  Holidays, birthdays, etc. make his absence more real, standing as markers of his time not on this planet. 

Today it reminds us that he will not see 68 or 69, or 70 or 80 or any more days or years.  He is gone, and that is permanent.  He didn’t show up and surprise us today to blow out his candles and laugh about a terrific joke he played.  The party is over.

The obvious choice is to feel sad. Another choice is to feel mad.  I think back on Thanksgiving last year, on my dad’s birthday and Christmas and I am angry we can’t have those days again.  It is very difficult not to want the life you had before—the life you loved, and can’t get back.  It is easy to hate the person you were a year ago, because she was so happy not knowing the future, and you can never go back to being that person.

That’s another choice.  It is not just “okay” to choose to be angry and sad, it is necessary.  It is the only way to work through a tragedy and to take steps forward; but make no mistake: it is a choice. I’m not denying we all have visceral reactions to days on the calendar, to old pictures in frames, to songs on the radio; but we choose the feelings we hold onto, we choose our actions.  We choose to hold grudges or make friends, to eat nutella or walk on the treadmill, to believe in the possibilities of the future or to hold on to the pain from the past.

My dad’s death just happened.  It was not his choice or mine… it just happened.   But what happens next is up to me.  Every day each of us chooses to get out of bed, knowing in our hearts that we live in a terrifying, beautiful, awful, ephemeral world.  We know that we may never have the pleasure of getting out of bed again, because we can’t know we will be here tomorrow.  It’s always a guess.

Every day we have on this planet is a gift.  My dad had about 24,000.  That’s more than many, but still not enough.  It’s never enough—not 24,000 or 50,000 or a million—we always want more. But, we can’t choose more days; we can only choose better, fuller days.

So, today I choose to be sad and to be angry, because I need that; but I also choose to be hopeful. As my dad wrote, “Hope is the joy of planning for, but not knowing, the future.” I am planning to be happier and lighter as time goes on, and hoping that today is just one of thousands of “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” that lie ahead for me.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


I recently went to the birthday party of Jack, a little boy I babysit for. He was turning three and after he blew out his candles his mother asked him what he wished for.  He replied,


“Oh.  You wished for a puppy?”

“No.  I wished to be a puppy.”

When I was a kid, on every candle I blew out on every birthday cake, every coin I threw into a fountain, every shooting star, I wished to be a famous actress.  When I was really little I wished to be a famous actress and…like a famous actress and a teacher, or and an astronaut… and president… and  a princess.  I understood that to be a Princess, I would need to be part of some Grace Kelly type scenario—my parents weren’t kings and queens and I have no royal heritage, so I’d have to marry into it.  Even at four I dreamed big, but pragmatically.

Now, I still wish to be a movie star… it feels a little less pragmatic now, I guess, but I don’t care.  I dream big… shit, I still dream to be a movie star and president (if Reagan can do it, anyone can).  But there are some things I want that I don’t wish for.

On the phone with my mother last week we were talking about my dad, and she said,

“Don’t you just wish that he was back with us?”

And I told her, 

“No…  I don’t wish for that.  I want it, but I don’t actively wish or pray or ask the universe for something I know I can never have.  I pray to be healthy, to be happy, and for my friends and family to have the same.  I wish for dad’s happiness wherever he is, and that if some part of him goes on, I wish for that part to be close to me. But, I don’t wish for the impossible.” 

I don’t wish to be a puppy.  But still…

A few days ago, I passed a huge display of Father’s Day gifts in a window on Fifth Avenue, and I had one thought, “My dad is dead, I should get him a present.”  It was all one thought.  I didn’t forget my dad was gone, in fact, that was why in that moment I felt I had to get him a Father’s Day gift.

This thought was an involuntary thought—the kind of thought you have and then need to explain to yourself.  You’ve had this kind thought—it’s like where you think something horrible and immediately feel guilty for thinking it, because the thought popped up without your control or even consent.  This wasn’t an awful thought, just a foolish one.

I felt like if I bought him a gift he would be here to accept it.  Like if I had a present and I went home to give it to him, he would be sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me to hand it to him, and he would react the way he’s reacted to every gift I’ve watched him receive in my entire life, “Oh wow!  This is great!  This is really neat.  Thank you so much!”  He would say it in an exited, awed, whisper-shout voice that he had for such occasions… a voice I hear now only in dreams.

It’s like Snow White says (you didn’t think a Disney princess was going to tie everything together, did you?) “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”  There are the things I know I want: things I ask for, pray for, wish for…. And then there are things that you wish for without knowing—things that your heart wishes, that your soul yearns for and that are manifest only in dreams, and are completely visceral rather than logical. 

This is why you walk up and down the aisles at Duane Reade looking for the perfect Father’s Day card...Why you buy it even though you know you don’t have anyone to give it to.

This is why a part of me hopes that when I go to babysit Jack on Thursday he comes running down the hallway wagging his tail.  I mean… I know he won’t… I guess I don’t even really hope that…It’s silly, not only because who would want to be a puppy if you could be a spoiled three-year-old on Upper East Side, but because it’s just… not going to happen.

But I think I’ll find a stamp.  Just in case.   

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Only Make Believe

My grandfather Pop-Pop’s favorite song was “Only Make Believe,” from the musical Showboat.  It is a love song where the leading man implores the leading woman to pretend that he loves her, for indeed in reality he does.

The idea of pretending something until it is real is something that I think about a lot as an actor.  I just came off of a show where I played a super angsty teenage girl named Lisa.  Once or twice (ish) after the show I went home, saw my boyfriend and without thinking I would Lisa him: roll my eyes, say “whatever,” and be in an unreasonably contrary mood.  Then I would realize I was being an asshole, apologize, and remember that the drama needs to stay onstage.

I’m really good at pretending.  Sometimes too good. 

It is easy to pretend my dad is still alive.  It is easy to pretend that the last three weeks never happened.  Sometimes so easy that for a little while I convince myself that everything is still fine. 

As an adult I’ve gone four and five months without seeing my dad—we would talk for a couple minutes every few days, but sometimes it would be weeks between really good, long conversations… So now that I’m back in New York, my routine feels normal. 

When I read my dad’s books, and see his picture, he is almost as present for me as he was during certain times when he was alive plus, he is at the front of my mind.  I talk about him a lot (which I always have, but probably do more now)… I enjoy talking about him, reading his words…It makes him seem very near.  It makes me happy.  It makes me forget, and I slip quickly into a land of make believe.

The stages of grief that we all know: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—in the last few weeks I have felt moments and/or hours of all these things.  But what has surprised me is the intensity of each of these feelings… especially the intensity of denial.

Joan Didion (whose books I must admit I’ve not read), evidently wrote about the insanity and derangement that comes along with grief in The Year of Magical Thinking.  And it’s true.  I am insane with grief.

I slip into my crazy dreamland of make believe and I am fine.  My dad is alive, my family is happy, everything is as it always has been.  Sometimes I still imagine my future with my father, the places we’ll go and things we’ll do.  Then, something will happen: a show will come on that he used to watch or someone will say something I know he’d find interesting, and then for a second I will remember.

Then I have choices.  I can use my excellent pretending abilities to flick away the reminder of reality or I can force myself into a moment of acceptance.  To do this, I think of the most morbid things I can: how I imagine my father looked when my mother found him, helping her pick out the last suit he will ever wear, touching his cold hand at the memorial, looking at his closed coffin on a bier in the snowy sunlight.  But, these things don’t always ring true—they seem like some alternate universe… different from my safe land of make-believe, but still unreal. 

So, to break the dream of make believe, I think about our broken dreams.  I remember watching “Father of the Bride” with my dad when I was eight or nine, thinking he was so like Steve Martin… wondering if he’d cry on my wedding day.  I think about how my sister and I talked last month about what our kids would call our parents… I re-read the e-mails he sent me, reminding me to send him material for a new play or feedback on a piece he was re-working.

Then I remember, all over again.

The hardest part of my day when I was at home in Wisconsin was waking up.  Not because I so dreaded the day, but because for a split second when you wake up, you feel happy, everything seems fine—then, you remember everything, and it’s a little slice of the hell you experienced when you first heard the unbelievable, earth-shattering, life-altering news. 

This is the thing about being in New York.  In New York the reminders of my dad are not everywhere all the time like they were in Wisconsin.  So, my make-believe skills have improved, giving me more moments of happiness.  However, this means I wake up all day long—all day the self-preserving actress pretends that I am fine… literally pretends my dad is still alive… that he’ll call… that I’ll tell him this or that later… and then I have to stop.  I have to wake myself up from the dream a dozen times a day. I have to remind myself I can’t spend my life playing make believe, I have to make myself believe the truth.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life's Not Fair. So What?

Below is a copy of the eulogy I delivered on January 20th, 2013 at the funeral of my father John R. Powers.  What I said was a little different, as I discovered at the pulpit that I was missing the last page, so I had to wing it... but I came pretty close.  

I think the ceremony itself was really lovely.  It was held at Chapel on the Hill in Lake Geneva with Pastor Bob Bardin overseeing everything.  Our pastor, Keith Aurand spoke as did several of my father's friends: Michael Brandwein, Jim Quinn, Chuck Thomason, Marie Martin (on behalf of Libby Mages), Matt Kramer (on behalf of Tom Dreesen), as well as his sister Margo, my sister Joy and I.  We had lots of nice music, some hymns led by Denise Olson, Gordon Wisniewski singing my parents' song "I Could Write A Book," I sang my dad's favorite song "Once Upon a Time" from The All-American, and a trio of trumpets (Ray Ames, Amanda Krause, and Greg Bunge) played "Danny Boy."  

At the end we all released balloons outside of the church, attached to letters we had written to my dad.  There were maybe a hundred white balloons with red strings, and even though it was freezing cold, they all floated, together in one group so high until it looked like they turned into stars.  

It made me think of one of my favorite quotes from "The Little Prince," 

"In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night..You, only you, will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me."

My eulogy, as you will read, is full of quotes.  All of them my dad’s.  His words are italicized.  I hope they bring you the same comfort they bring me.

For Those Who Loved My Dad

“Life’s not fair.  So What?”  It was the title of one of my dad’s one man shows and a personal mantra, “Life’s not fair.  So what?”  So many things seem so very unfair to me just now, but I can’t help but hearing my father’s voice, “So. What?”  There are a lot of reasons for me to feel angry and slighted but there are so many more reasons to feel proud and grateful that John R. Powers, playwright, novelist, speaker, Emmy Award winner and man about town was my dad.

My dad was a public speaker, but in many ways, a very private man and last year I told him that if he died tomorrow there would be a million things I wouldn’t know about him.  My father wrote, “every moment on this planet is a privilege” and that’s how he lived.  So, he didn’t waste a moment writing me an e-mail telling me a little bit about himself.

First of all, I was a very unhappy child as best I can remember.  No one's fault.  I was a rotten athlete and sports, especially baseball, were big in my neighborhood.  I was a terrible student.  Also,l had very few friends.  I was an even bigger pain then than I am now.  So, in the major three areas of my life, sports, school and social life, I was a loser.

In high school, an all-boy high school I was very unpopular and missed a lot of days of high school.  I just did not fit in and I was never that crazy about male company.  However, I took an interest in the opposite sex the moment I discovered which one was opposite.

In freshman year, I failed music appreciation  (the only student in the history of the school to do that) and Latin.  In sophomore year, I failed Geometry.  The last quarter of senior year, I had done a complete turn-around and managed to end up on the Honor Roll - that was the only quarter you got to keep your honor pin - some jerk must have been on the honor roll for 15 quarters and, the last one, missed it and didn't get to keep the pin.

In four years of high school, I took gym class twice.  The rest of the time I dodged it. I needed exercise like I needed another hole in the head.  In fact, the original title of my first book was inspired by a remark the school coach made to me.  "Memoirs of a Smart Ass." 

My mother was the big one on education.  My father drove a bread truck for many years, then sold used cars.  He was a very ambitious, hard working guy.

Both of my parents always told me I was going to college even though my grades indicated otherwise.  I guess when you tell a big enough lie long enough, someone will believe it.  As I said before, I wasn't too bright.

Enough for now. 

In a brief biography that I found among my father’s things, he wrote the following.
I grew up, went to school and worked on Chicago’s South Side.  I have also worked various jobs throughout the Chicago area.  Having graduated in the bottom three percent of my high school class, I was rejected by over thirty-five colleges and universities.  I was eventually accepted by Loyola University and attended their Rush Street campus.  I also worked four hours a day (and full time during the summers) paying for my college tuition.  Since I spent approximately three hours a day commuting from Chicago’s South Side, most of my studying was done on Chicago’s public transit system.

In addition, I have worked in Chicago area television, have been eligible for two Emmy Awards, and won both times.  I hold a PhD from Northwestern University.  My dissertation topic was the media career of Studs Terkel.  I have taught on the elementary, junior high and university levels.  For many years, I was a professor of Speech & Performing Arts at Northeastern Illinois University.  For the past twenty years, I have been a professional speaker, and have, with my wife raised two daughters.

And I know the story from there—although for the record, he ended his biography by outlining mine and my sister’s achievements.  Like anyone considering publishing his work cared where his daughters went to college—but that kind of thing mattered to my dad.  That kind of thing made my dad proud.

My parents met when my mother was in the cast of “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”  They loved each other so much that they argued about trivial things all the time.  Someone as passionate as my father, that’s how you know they love you.  He cared enough to fight, about who needed to drive the car, and which day they should fly out for this trip or another, and a million other things. 

My father wrote about the four reading groups in his school, from top to bottom: The cardinals, blue jays, robins, and lastly my father’s reading group: the sparrows.  He often said, that while he was a sparrow, he married a swan.

My dad said that we are all teachers all the time and my father taught me a million lessons.

“Life is a gift; this is supposed to be fun”

And who had more fun than my dad? Taking out our boat, playing tennis, perfecting his basketball shot from the sidewalk, eating $2 burgers at Champs, taking my sister and I to the park, playing board games after dinner, making shadow puppets in his office. Who told more jokes?  Who laughed louder?  And as my father often said, “Laughter is the perfect prayer.”

“The World is a sea of chaos, each day bringing a new wave of opportunities”

My father was ambitious and driven and always looking for the next way to be better.  He believed that life was learning and learning and learning was life and you should always be getting better at something. He worked so hard at everything he did—not only as a writer and speaker, but as a husband and a father and a friend.  My father would have said, he was not a workaholic, he was a love-aholic, because he loved what he did, and that made him a truly lucky man.   He firmly believed that you should never walk a road that doesn’t lead to your heart, and he lived by that advice.

“You are not truly an adult until you consider all the children of the world yours.”

My sister and I are certainly reflections of my father.  He recently wrote to me, “Dear Jacey, you are not the apple of my eye.  You are the orchard.”  But, my father felt a responsibility to be a teacher not just to Joy and I, but to every child he met.  He co-signed loans for two young men at the local high school to guarantee that they could attend college.  He would read The Polar Express every Christmas at Caribou Coffee on Main Street.  He enjoyed volunteering his time.  This year he rang the bell for the salvation army, he served meals at The Methodist Dining Hall at the Walworth County Fair, and he played the banjo while my mother sang Christmas Carols for the elderly in nursing homes. That’s the kind of guy my father was.

“The world would be a better place if there were fewer air conditioners and more front porches.”

My dad loved our front porch.  He loved a good view.  My mother always felt the view was skewed by the street and the cars, but to my dad that was part of the charm.  He loved that there was life around him while he worked in his rocking chair and that he could wave to everyone who passed him by. 

I was recently asked why I love being an actor, and I answered that it’s because I really love people, and that is something I got from my dad.  My father was a people person.  I cannot tell you how many people I called to tell of my father’s passing who said, “I can’t believe John is gone.  He was my best friend.”  He touched the lives of so many people but more than that, he became involved in the lives of so many people.  He has many acquaintances, but nearly as many best friends.

“Labels are for bottles, cartons, and cans, not people.”

My father had what the Sun Times referred to as “a blue collar aversion to pomposity.”  My dad didn’t care if you were the president or the postman, he treated you as an equal.  He would say, “I can either learn from someone or judge them, but I can’t do both. One eliminates the possibility of the other.”

“Hope is the joy of planning for, but not knowing the future.”

Just a few weeks ago, my father and I were discussing religion and he said, “I don’t get atheism.  Where’s the fun in that?”  He couldn’t understand a commitment to the idea that there was nothing bigger than us.  He drew the following comparison: if you put a watch in front of a dog, he won’t be able to read it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t 2:30.  It made sense to me—time is all around, and the dog is living in it and experiencing it, even if he doesn’t understand it.  And, I think my dad believed or maybe hoped that God was like that—all around us, something we’re experiencing every day that’s just a little beyond our grasp.  He always said that he hoped there was something more, someplace where he would see his parents and his brother again.

“Each of us is a rock that sends ripples through generations.”

Every day I see my dad in the things that my sister and I do: for better or for worse.  His strength, his ambition, his cynicism, his sensitivity, his ability to capture the essence of a moment on a page—I think Joy and I both do that in our own ways.

“Today is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”

My dad lived every day like it was his last.  From the time he was a child, he had a keen sense that we were not going to be here forever.  At the age of five he decided he wasn’t going to use salt, because he already used ketchup, and he didn’t want to waste days of his lives asking for people to pass condiments.

He wrote about how his grandfather would tell him, that when he sat down for dinner he should look around at those faces and cherish them, because there was a first time, and there will surely be a last.

He would go on to say, “There is a first time and a last time for everything, but sometimes you don’t even get that.”  I think of all of the things and moments that my father is going to miss, and of course I think… life’s not fair, but I’m lucky, because my dad’s voice echoes in my ear: so what?

I feel so lucky to have his voice with me, and I know the advice he would give to me and Joy and my mom:

“Sometimes to get where I want to go, I have to start where I don’t want to be.”

“I am strong enough to lean on others.”

“Nothing is wrong with having to start over, but everything is wrong with not starting at all.”

My father worried all of his years growing up that he was a loser, but looking around here at a room full of his family and friends, people who loved him who were changed by him, I know he would be as content as my constantly in motion always improving father could be.  I also know what he said about winning and losing,

Winning isn't anything. You can live an entire lifetime and never win, so it can't be that important. But losing is as much a part of life as breathing...Live long enough, you're going to lose jobs...and friends...and family. And dreams. Losing, and learning to go on and live again, is the only kind of winning that truly matters.”