My Great Aunt Tootie


Great Aunts are nice – they’re like having another grandmother who can spoil you, look out for you, and be outlandishly proud of your accomplishments. Mine did.

My favorite Great Aunt was a tiny little woman – maybe 100 pounds at her peak – with boundless energy and a smile that showed all her teeth and was often paired with her wonderful laugh. She was one of a kind. She passed away earlier this year and she is missed.

She was born Marge, but somewhere along the line she got the name “Tootie.” Everyone in our clan has a nickname, and I mean everyone. I’m still not sure how she got that name, but I know she made me feel special every time I saw her.

Aunt Tootie often watched me when I was a little boy, when my Mom would be off working. I was a round-faced boy with brown hair and big brown eyes, a little runt who ran fast and loved to play outdoors. I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Tootie and my cousins, doing who-knows-what in the backyard, but always something fun. She fed me along with her kids and whoever else was around the house. She threw me in the bathtub, she tucked me in. She hollered at me when I was being a pest (which was not as often as some people think).

It was just me and my Mom back then, when Tootie was a big part of my life, and I was a frightened little fella who was terrified of being left alone. Not sure why, but it was something I really feared. There was this time Aunt Tootie took me to the dime store and I got separated from her. Probably drifting away to look at some toy or book. I was scooped up by an employee who asked my name and announced it over the store intercom, asking if anyone had lost me. Tootie kept on shopping until she realized it was me everyone was making a fuss about. I had told the man my full name, and she didn’t realize it. To Aunt Tootie, I was “Danny Boone.” My eyes were filled with crocodile tears when she came and claimed me. She loved telling that story.

There were the times I would sneak into Aunt Tootie’s backyard and wriggle myself under the fence and steal stalks of rhubarb from the neighbor lady. My cousins and I would wash them off under the garden hose and munch on them, our faces contorted from the tartness. Or I’d sit on the porch and talk with Pee Wee, the funny little fisherman who lived across the street.

One of the favorite memories I have of Tootie is the music she played. Her house always seemed to be filled with music, usually country music – the old country stars like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and my favorite: Johnny Cash. She would play and replay Cash’s greatest hits for me, dancing around the kitchen. She sure loved to dance.

Dancing wasn’t the only thing that got her moving. On Sundays when the Evink Family gathered at the public park in Otsego, she was one of the most active members in the family softball game. She was so slim she could turn sideways and disappear, but I remember her whacking that ball a distance that startled everyone in the field. Sure enough, after a base hit, her laugh would soon follow.

I had milestones in her home: my first birthday party; my first tooth was lost there, under a card table when someone was chasing me and it loosened in the ruckus; and my first stitches came after I slid on Tootie’s wonderfully shiny kitchen floor and cut my head open on a cat food can. If I scrunch my face now you can see still see the scar.

The “great” thing about “great” aunts is that they can love you and take care of you and spoil you and dote on you, but you aren’t usually around them so much that you get irritated with them like you do your parents. I mean, aunts and uncles are like having all the good things about parents: the treats, the laughter, the gifts, the inside jokes, without the bitter aftertaste.

My first electric train set – still one of the best gifts I’ve ever received – came from Aunt Tootie and Uncle Toby. I played with it there on her living room floor and beamed with pride as I was the master of the track. With a press of a lever, I sped the train around the tracks – woosh, woosh, woosh. It even had a whistle!

Those childhood memories are something you never forget, and I’ll never forget Aunt Tootie.

Every time someone calls me “Danny Boone”, every time I hear Ring of Fire, and every time I see a yard sale, I’ll remember her. And I’ll smile, because many of the best times of my childhood were when Tootie was around.

Remembering My Dad


The first time I saw him I thought he was a fireman. He was in a black uniform with a white cap.

But I learned he wasn’t a fireman, he was a sailor. He met my Mom and then completed a triangle of our family. If my Mother will forgive me, it was a good thing he did. It’s not that my Mom wasn’t a capable single parent, but she had to do it all before he came along. After he came into our lives things didn’t get easy, but they got easier, and we had someone looking out for us. Any examination of where we were before and where we ended up would show how drastically things improved for us once my Mom and Dad were married. We ended up going places we never would have. I was 10 when the man I thought was a fireman entered our lives.

Sometimes heroes are not defined by what they are but rather by what they are not. My Dad was not a bad-tempered man or a drunk. He was not mean or vengeful. My Dad wasn’t jealous or petty, he wasn’t inconsiderate. He wasn’t violent or a womanizer or a liar. He wasn’t a loafer. He wasn’t arrogant and he didn’t belittle others. He wasn’t selfish with his time.

In many ways he was a simple man. He entered the United States Navy when he was 17, embarking on what would be two decades of service. He sailed all around the world – had the ink on his arms to prove it – and he never seemed to look back. If you asked him where he’d been, he’d shrug and say “I was there.” He was proud but he wasn’t brash. He enjoyed western novels and shoot-em-up movies and boxing. He would watch boxing with me and he’d be on the edge of his seat swaying his torso from side to side, as if he himself was fighting in the ring. He didn’t discuss philosophy or art, but he had a core philosophy of fairness and hard work, and his art was his ability to tell stories. Often it wasn’t until the final sentence that you realized his story was a joke. Then his eyes would get wide and his smile would tell you that he GOTCHA!

That art of story telling is what made him so personable. Everywhere he went, he knew someone. At the restaurant, at the gas station, the VFW, the county fair. Those people skills helped him in his second career in the Navy, when he helped young people into the service.  With his enthusiasm and honesty, he guided them into a new life of opportunity. He was a sailor on dry land, but he was a jolly one who was so good at recruiting new sailors that he spent almost as much time doing that as he did tying knots.

When I first saw him he was a young man – younger than I am now – and he was in his prime. He wasn’t slim but he wasn’t fat. He had short, skinny little legs, but his body was solid. From the knees to his shoulders it appeared he was one big muscle. If you ever wrestled him you would marvel at the strength of his grip in his hands and arms. Once he had you, you could not get out. He gathered my Mom into his arms and he never let go.

No, my Dad wasn’t a fireman. But heroes are often defined by what they aren’t. Firemen assume responsibility for others, they work long hours, they are away from their family. They protect us and they make us safer. They put others before themselves. They are heroes.

I wasn’t wrong that day. In a way my Dad was a fireman. I’m just glad I got to see him in action.

100 Pieces of Advice for My Daughters


I have two daughters. Both are brown-haired and blue-eyed: a lethal combination for boys and fathers. Both are funny, in very different ways. One can cross her eyes, the other cannot. I’ve been thinking a lot about them and what sort of people they will grow to become. This article is addressed to them. Five years from now, 10 years from now, 35 years from now, I hope some of this will be useful.

This was originally written in 2010 and revised in 2011. It has since been revised modestly.

  1. Practice being a good listener. Nothing will teach you better patience than being an active listener. Look people in the eye when they’re speaking too.
  2. When you know more than the other person, don’t let on. It’s better to appear amazed by what they know than to seem like a know-it-all.
  3. Be careful in choosing your friends. Often they will be your greatest source of support, even more than family. However: never blindly follow them.
  4. You do not need a man to validate your worth.
  5. Love is a fickle thing, and I certainly cannot give expert testimony on the subject, but I do know this:  honest communication is very important.
  6. Bad things happen to EVERYONE. It’s how we react to them that matters.
  7. Shun drugs of any kind.
  8. When you’re right, no one will remember. When you’re wrong, no one will forget. Deal with it.
  9. Be suspicious of the motives of the government and organizations. If it has a treasurer, think carefully before joining it. In fact:
  10. Avoid politics. You’ll be happier staying away from the partisan rhetoric.
  11. Exercise regularly and make it a part of your everyday life. When you feel like you can’t possibly deal with the stresses of life, physical exercise can pull you through.
  12. Study hard at two things: writing  a coherent sentence and speaking in public. Once you’re in the real world trying to get a job, it’s not what you know that matters, but how well you communicate.
  13. Learn the rules of grammar in order to avoid embarrassing mistakes. People judge us by the way we speak. Don’t make mistakes concerning “your” and “you’re”, “too” and “to”, and the like.
  14. Do something that satisfies your creative urges. This is critical to happiness. If you can make a living doing this, all the better.
  15. Refrain from killing, even a spider. Scoop the little thing up and set it outside.
  16. When standing in line, let the person behind you go ahead. Make this a habit.
  17. Wherever you are, however much time you can give: volunteer.
  18. Don’t make someone a priority who considers you an option.
  19. Don’t ever stay with a man who hits you. Or cheats on you.
  20. Ask old people to tell you their stories.
  21. No rich person has ever built a physical thing. Every amazing thing ever designed by mankind was built by the working class. The Empire State Building was built by immigrants, the Great Wall of China was built by surfs, and the Great Pyramids were built by slaves. When possible, spend time with the working class and find out how they accomplish amazing things.
  22. Whatever you are spending time thinking about, you are becoming.
  23. Have the courage to go to a movie alone.
  24. Remember that harboring a resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.
  25. Find a spiritual path that works for you and practice it. I’d suggest it have practical steps and tools that you can apply to your life. Blind faith, without practice, is not a spiritual path.
  26. Happiness comes from inside YOU, not from external factors.
  27. Learn how to do simple household repairs, this will save you money and give you something to do with your idle weekends.
  28. Read.
  29. Don’t crack your knuckles or bite your fingernails in public. Also: don’t fidget.
  30. Try never to borrow money, but lend it freely if you can afford to never see it again.
  31. Match your belt and shoes.
  32. Avoid caffiene.
  33. Make sure to move away from your hometown at least twice.
  34. If you must drink alcohol, never drink it at a work function.
  35. Listen to the Beatles, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash.
  36. At their core, there’s no difference between the two major political parties.
  37. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by “gadgets” – set aside your phone when in company. Be present with the people you’re with.
  38. Learn to iron your clothes and enjoy the simplicity of it. You’ll look nice, too.
  39. Surround yourself with people who are funny.
  40. Don’t indulge in sex for just the pleasure of it. Have standards and discriminate.
  41. Read Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and other classics that intrigue you.
  42. When it comes to learning history, don’t worry so much about when and where, but learn why.
  43. Never accept a job based on money. And don’t marry for it.
  44. Be advised that much of our history is the story of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. Racial and religious intolerance are a human condition that has only one cure: compassion.
  45. Never drive when you can walk.
  46. When it comes to humor, leave people wanting more.
  47. The simplest explanation is often the most likely.
  48. If you become an aunt, be the aunt who always sends a birthday card.
  49. Paying taxes is not  patriotic. Neither is waving a flag or wearing a red, white and blue hat.
  50. Speaking of that, symbolic gestures are generally bullshit.
  51. Hold hands.
  52. Speak up for yourself, because rarely will anyone else do it for you. But be humble.
  53. Make your bed every day, if for no other reason than it means you’ve accomplished something before putting your shoes on.
  54. If someone steals the credit, or you fail to get the credit you deserve, don’t mention it. Get over it.
  55. Every once in a while wear pretty bows and ribbons in your hair.
  56. When you kiss, touch a part of the other person’s face with your hand.
  57. Travel as much as you can, especially when you’re young.
  58. If you like someone, you should tell them. (In its simplest form this means: give people compliments. In a more complicated sense this means: tell people close to you that you love them, don’t have regrets in your personal relationships.)
  59. Try not to watch too much television.
  60. Learn two or three clean jokes that you can tell if you’re asked to make a speech or toast for any occasion.
  61. In regards to speeches: be brief.
  62. If the dorkiest boy in the class asks you to dance, politely thank him, and then dance with the poor fellow.
  63. Recognize that just because people may have been in jail or prison, if they have paid their dues, they deserve a second chance. We all make mistakes.
  64. Having said that, consult your father and mother before dating a felon.
  65. Be advised that if you ever meet your heroes, you’re likely to be disappointed.
  66. When faced with a difficult decision, take time before acting. No harm in giving it another day, week, or month. Sometimes the best action is no action.
  67. When in a serious relationship: commit.
  68. Don’t burn bridges. You never know when you’ll see someone again.
  69. Have the strength to ask for help. It’s not courageous to “go it alone.”
  70. Nurture a reputation of being someone who can be counted on.
  71. As soon as you can, when you start to earn money, have some of it automatically withheld and deposited in an investment account. Do this and you will be astounded by the accumulative power of compound interest.
  72. Be prompt.
  73. Try not to wear a lot of makeup.
  74. Don’t classify people as good or bad. We are all good and bad.
  75. Don’t scream at or hit your children. A parent shouldn’t be feared. A parent should be a safe haven to a child.
  76. Always, always do these three things for your children: open your home to them, loan them money, tell them the brutal truth.
  77. Make loud sandwiches with crunchy things on them, like potato chips, celery, and onions.
  78. Avoid using the word “um” and other forms of lazy speech.
  79. Speaking of that, there’s nothing wrong with a pause in conversation.
  80. Don’t steamroll your way through life. When you act like a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
  81. Don’t play video games.
  82. When it comes to relationships don’t proceed based on arbitrary timelines. If it’s the right chair, it doesn’t take long to get comfortable in it.
  83. Three luxuries it’s okay to spend money on: travel, clothing, and pastry. Three luxuries you shouldn’t spend a lot of money on: cars, gadgets, coffee.
  84. Good: calling your mother and father once a week. Better: sending a handwritten note to your parents for no reason. Best: including your parents in one of your favorite activities.
  85. Write handwritten notes, you’ll be remembered for it because no one else does.
  86. Don’t be one of those people who hates to have your picture taken. Look at the camera, shift a little to the side, lift your chin up slightly, and smile like you just heard a funny joke.
  87. Once you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ve stopped learning.
  88. Give compliments – to people you know and to total strangers.
  89. When you meet someone new, don’t ask “What do you do?” It’s lazy. Ask them what their favorite book is, or where they last went swimming, anything but “What do you do?” Avoid answering if someone asks you.
  90. Don’t read beauty, gossip, or advice magazines.
  91. Love your siblings, someday they may let you live in their guest bedroom.
  92. Try to make sure you have a few thousand dollars stashed away somewhere for an emergency. Somewhere other than a bank account.
  93. Don’t cover hardwood floors with rugs.
  94. For some stretch of time use public transportation. It will give you a chance to see some interesting people.
  95. Apologize swiftly and move on.
  96. If the person who loves you doesn’t have your back, move your back.
  97. Take care of your teeth.
  98. Avoid cliches: in written word, in speech, and in deed.
  99. Be more concerned with your character than your reputation.
  100. Everywhere you go, no matter who you meet, let them be happy.