face lifting

AgeMachine1500

Sometime in the 1970s, when cosmetic surgery was first being discussed on the nightly news as an elective procedure for those who could afford its extravagant price tag, my sisters who were gathered around the black-and-white TV in the kitchen dismissed the idea completely.

“I’d never do that,” they scoffed, extolling the ’70s all-natural look, “when I grow old, I want to do it gracefully—like Lauren Bacall.” They always referenced someone like Lauren Bacall (who only would have been in her fifties at the time), never Aunt Bea or Granny from the Beverley Hillbillies or any of the other women that most of the population ages into resembling.

At that point in the conversation, my mother turned from the kitchen sink with a wistful smile. “I don’t know,” she interrupted, “look at this.” Continue reading “face lifting”

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time capsule to my teenaged self

Dear Jim, Hello from 2015.

I’ll bet that sounds downright Jetsonian to you as a 17-year-old in 1975.

So I’ll settle one big question at the outset: we do not have flying cars.

There is, come to think of it, something called a personal computer that I know you’ll appreciate for at least a couple of its features in particular: it will check your spelling for you. Hold your tears. I know you’ll love that.

And then there’s the Internet, which is also hard to describe, but it will eliminate the need for the family’s old Encyclopedia Britannica. And there’s a whole lot of, well, anything you might ever want (publicly or secretly) on the Internet, such as movies and music and travel guides. And, umm, well, let me just say, kids your age today aren’t even thinking about agonizing over how to convince the sales clerk at the 7-Eleven to sell them a copy of Playgirl.

Yeah, I know about your secret Playgirl stash.

See, I’m you, grown old. I’m you 40 years from now.

Continue reading “time capsule to my teenaged self”

real christmas stories

true lies

Santa came to our house on the eve of Christmas Eve each year, the night before December 24th, a whole day earlier than for everyone else I knew. My mom explained to us that there were way too many people in the world for Santa to visit on one night, so he had a special Christmas Eve list and we were on it. We also opened our presents ahead of tradition on Christmas Eve night, right after dinner, not the next morning like everyone else. But we didn’t ask for an explanation for that difference, not after waiting an entire day, from dawn to dusk, with unopened Christmas presents in the house.

Yes, later when we were older we learned that mom had practical reasons for breaking with tradition. She wanted to avoid squirmy children at church on Christmas morning. She had learned that, whether presents were opened right before or immediately after church, they danced too much in the eight wee little heads she needed to keep calm through Christmas morning mass.

Continue reading “real christmas stories”

f*ck

Last week a friend posted a Gawker video of consummate New York actress Elaine Stritch saying “fuck” while on the Today show to promote Shoot Me, the new documentary about her life.

I actually don’t understand why hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford were so surprised, except to fain chagrin for anyone in the home audience who was offended by it. But I suspect most people would have been more surprised if Stritch had not said “fuck.” She has built a long career on being herself—a crusty New York broad who speaks her mind with unapologetic gusto and humor—and everyone knows it.

My comment on my friend’s post? “Everyone should say ‘fuck’ on the Today show.” Continue reading “f*ck”

kempster all-saints day

This week, many people have celebrated All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Days, but my family has one more of its own: November 5th.

It started back in 1888, when my father’s father Edward Llewellyn Kempster was born on that day. And it remained a major day of celebration until grandpa’s death in 1990, having lived to be 101.

But only a few years later in 1995, my mother died on November 5th, followed over the next couple years by two of my father’s siblings—my uncle Brenton Kempster and my aunt Mary Kempster Hand—both passing on that day in subsequent years. Continue reading “kempster all-saints day”

un-fair pigment: red hair, pale skin and mercurochrome


The first little paint stroke of Mercurochrome to my upper lip seemed like an interesting idea at the time. I, after all, had grown my first mustache and beard over the summer of 1972, between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. To my adolescent mind, it was a badge of maturity that went with leaving behind Catholic grade school and the redneck bullies I had endured for eight years. The next day would be my first day at Rockhurst High School, Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, several miles and mindsets away from the Hickman Mills area where my family lived just at the edge of where the suburbs met the cornfields and hunting woods. Grateful to be moving on, I had spent the summer gearing up for what I hoped, if not was almost certain, maybe, would be a new life, and part of the passage included not shaving for three months just to see what kind of beard I could grow.

Continue reading “un-fair pigment: red hair, pale skin and mercurochrome”

the whisker on my earlobe

My Dad and I, circa 1960.

My dad would have been 97 years old today. To remember him, I’m posting a piece (more an anecdotal memory than a story) that I wrote several years ago before his death. Happy birthday, funny man!

This morning while plucking a hair from my earlobe as thick as a chin whisker I recalled my childhood visits to the barber with my dad. Saturday mornings belonged to my dad and me during my grade school years. He and I got out of the house, where my mother and six sisters ruled the roost, not to go fishing or hunting or do little league or some other typical father-and-son activity, but to do the weekly household grocery shopping.

Continue reading “the whisker on my earlobe”

seeing god naked

Fontana del Nettuno, Bologna

The handsome Italian flight attendant unfolded the cloth napkin and rested it across my lap, with big smiling Caravaggio eyes that toyed with me for the moment. Bob and I had left Verona at 4 a.m. to race through the foggy Northern Italian countryside in our rental car and arrive at Milano’s Malpensa airport just short of two hours ahead of departure, only to find that Alitalia had overbooked our flight and we might not have seats.

Bob was miserable. He had picked up a cold in Verona, or Modena, or possibly even in my favorite Bologna. So driving through the dark and the fog to arrive at an airport that seemed to be accessible only by a series of farm roads with foreign names like “deviazione” and “non accessibile” had been stressful, to say the least, and multiplied when we learned at the ticket counter that we might not get on the plane at all.

Continue reading “seeing god naked”

what are you doing new year’s eve?

My best, bittersweet New Year’s Eve memory is that of my parents dancing around the living room to Guy Lombardo “Auld Lang-Syne” or Glenn Miller’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” By the time they were raising me and my younger sister, the last of their eight children, they didn’t often find much time to dance. They both were working two jobs. The economy in the 1970s was much like it is today. Mom’s health issues were just beginning to manifest themselves, and Dad was approaching 60. And yet dancing on New Year’s Eve seemed the most natural state for them. After all, that is how they met.

Continue reading “what are you doing new year’s eve?”

working-class heirlooms

mom portraitMy sister Sally’s return address stuck out on the corner of the padded parcel envelope that someone had crammed into my mail cubby in the faculty lounge. I removed my gloves and carefully extracted the package from its tight squeeze, fearing that Christmas cookies, or what have you, might have been crushed. It was that time of year again. From Thanksgiving to New Years, my large family sent small gifts and packages to my work address in the City (the postal service in Brooklyn was not to be trusted), and most times the people at the elementary school knew better than to cram a package of cookies into a five-by-five-inch cubby.

As I freed the last corner of the envelope from the metal rim of the mailbox, I could tell that the contents were not crumbly at all. Rather, whatever was inside felt soft and pliable, like a small quilt or pillow. Continue reading “working-class heirlooms”