Two weeks, in the books

A full ten days of the school year have now concluded. Having been hired to come in for second semester last year, this is my first full year at my current high school; it has been an interesting perspective of getting new information along with new-new teachers and staff, but with the IMG_20160801_094409advantage of having already spent half a year here learning on the fly.
So far, so usual. I give you…my new crop high school students.

From the Ralph-Malph-“I-still-got-it!’ department:

It took less than an hour into day one of the new school year to make a mark.

Three of my homeroom seniors were having a light-hearted dispute. A young man said, in mock-whiny tone, “Mr. Lucker – can you please tell this girl to give me my juice back.” The young woman next to him held up a small bottle of apple juice. As I walked over, another young woman chimed in that “I gave him the money for that juice!” I approached, sized up the situation, said to the girl holding the juice, “Miss, are you bullying this young man by taking his juice and not giving it back?” They all immediately picked up on my tone. “No, I’m not bullying him…I’m just not giving him the juice.”

“So…you are telling me that you took this young man’s juice that this other girl paid for?”

All three nodded in solemn agreement.

“Well, this is easy. I have some little cups over at my desk. We can just split up the juice three ways…”MM_Product_Share_1200x630_AppleJuice_10flozBottle

“Ohhhhhhh, no!” exclaimed the financier of this escapade, snatching the bottle of juice from her surprised friend and walking way, noting “There is not enough juice in this bottle for all THAT!”

Solomonesque, I was.

No matter what grade level I am teaching, I like to start off using a set of writing prompts that I can use to explain a deeper thought process than what they normal employ. One of my favorites is this:

‘If you were a school supply of some sort what would you be? A ring binder or folder – a keeper of interesting information? Would you be loose leaf paper that new ideas can be created on? Maybe you are an eraser that fixes problems. Would you be a highlighter or a pen or…? Think about what kind of person you are and then describe yourself as a school supply.’

For the most part, my sophomores basically regurgitated the suggested angles, with a few noteworthy twists. To wit:

“If I were a school supply of some sort I think I would be a highlighter. I feel like highlighters are a little too much because you can simply underline. I feel like a person that does too much when I could just say things as they are. They just make things prettier and that’s how I am.”

“I would be a pen. I can relate to being a pen because a pen is just in its shell and then it pops IMG_20160806_115901up to write.”

“I would not want to be a highlighter because they do the most moving.”

“I would like to be an eraser but not to fix errors. Just to make everything very neat.”

“I would be a notebook. People could write notes in me and important information. You will come back and look over what you wrote in me. I am used as a vital resource in everyday school life.”

Well, honestly I don’t like the idea of being a school supply…because basically you get used up and thrown away.”

We have potential here.

Week two found us settling into routines, and my senior homeroom getting to know me a bit better, purely by osmosis. One morning, as I was signing something for a student while another kid asked me a question. The acoustics in my room are pretty good, amplifying nicely, and when I answered the question, I apparently came across a bit differently. (Full disclosure: I began my career as a radio announcer, but these kids know nothing of my previous life.)

“Mr. Lucker, You know what you sound like? You sound like the guy on ‘Price is Right’ who tells about the prizes.” Without even lifting my head up from what I was signing, I simply replied (with earned authority) ‘Youuuuu have just won a trip. TO. The. Baaaaaa-HAMAS!” A brief moment of stunned silence was quickly followed by puzzled excitement

“Wow!”

“See?! I told you!”

lets-make-a-deal-doors“Mr. Lucker – that was awesome!”

“You the dude who tells what prize is behind what door, aint you?!”

“Tell me I won a car!”

“Ummmm….o.k….” The bell was just beginning to chime, “You have just won. A. BRAND! NEW! CARRRR!!!”

Laughing, the seniors spilled into the hall, wishing me a good day, saying goodbye. A potise-and-ralphfootball player was just shaking his head as he left, but I could hear him as he went down the hallway, repeating over-and-over to the confused looks of other students and of staff: “You. Have. Won.  A BRAND! NEW! CAR!”

Yeah.

I still got it.

Spiritual roadie

Traveling solo for an extended period is always a bit weird; being away from my wife, sons, and dogs – my own bed. This summer found me roaming from my current base of New Orleans back to my hometown stomping grounds of the Twin Cities, as I was helping my mother get situated in a new living arrangement, and I had a lot going on. Definitely a working trip for me – six very full weeks’ worth of work

Not that there weren’t some advantages.

After eight years in the southern climes, one thing I love about the Midwest in the summer is sleeping with the windows open. Fresh air, when you can’t get it regularly, especially at night, is a true joy. Not having to work around the schedule of others made the myriad of things I pizzaneeded to accomplish a ‘my schedule, my call’ kind of deal. Same with eating. I probably had more pizza than I should have, and got to experiment with different frozen varieties while ordering a few times too many from a favorite place. There is also the fact that you never have to negotiate custody of the TV remote – which was primarily key for having as much baseball on as possible, especially my hometown Twins.

Flying solo also allowed me some Sunday flexibility in going to church – so I basically went on tour this summer: two states, four cities, six churches, one nursing home chapel. Save the chapel and two of the churches, were I visited a former pastor and his family in one case, our niece in another, I had some personal/historic ties to all the others.

Full disclosure: my list includes both New Orleans churches that I attend, and I hit them on stmark2successive Sundays before leaving town; plus, one of the Minneapolis churches on my list I made it to twice, the second go-around by personal invite from one of the pastors, our niece, who wanted me to hear her preach one Sunday. Definitely one of the highlights of my tour…

Lollapewlooza ’16.

I figure every decent band tour has a name, so that’s what I came up with: Mark’s Lollapewlooza tour. Catchy, right? I’m considering having a shirt made, though no physical Lollapewlooza 16souvenir is really needed. Barnstorming a variety of different churches helped me cope with all the craziness I was dealing with, but it also allowed me some much-needed perspective on where I’ve been, where I am, where I am headed spiritually.

My on-the-road Sundays were truly Sabbath days, for the most part. I was able to go to church somewhere in the morning, taking the afternoon to wind down and regroup a bit with a leisurely lunch and some Twins baseball, pay a visit to my mom, come back, have some dinner, and catch some Sunday night baseball. (The only real glitch there was when the Yankees were on ESPN. I don’t want to watch the damn Yankees. Ever.) I suppose I could add CHS Field to my Lollapewlooza list, as I spent a glorious Wednesday even there watching the St. Paul Saints play, but that is another story entirely.

One thing Lollapewlooza really wasn’t was nostalgic.

Even though my family and I once attended Park Avenue UMC in south Minneapolis, my visit to their ‘early riser service’ held no wistfulness. The music was great, the lay sermon was spot on, and it was nice to just see the place. I popped in, listened, contemplated, headed out to my second stop for the day, Minnehaha Communion Lutheran (MCLC, for short) just a couple of physical miles away but light years from Park Avenue in tone and style. That is not a judgement on my part. The two congregations both have a strong presence in their respective neighborhoods, but vastly different demographics and approaches to service. As it should be.

I enjoyed my visit to MCLC, and upon arrival, I was immediately met an old friend, who was passing out bulletins and had recognized me when she saw me drive up. We got to chat a bit both before and after the service, and she brought me up to date on who was still around – a lengthier list than I might have thought. All good. She also introduced me to one of the current pastors, and I was able to strike up an interesting conversation with a current board member, and he seemed to enjoy my historical take on the place – a perspective that is rather unique.

I chaired the committee that created Minnehaha Communion, back in 1994.

At the time, I was a young, brash thirty-something congregational president of Holy old HCLCCommunion Lutheran Church; a typical for the time aging (demographically and physically) financially struggling, old-school congregation. Roughly a mile-and-a-half to our south was Minnehaha Lutheran, whose situation mirrored ours. The decision to merge started out casually, then became real very quickly. I was elected as chair of the merger committee for two very obvious reasons: nobody else wanted to touch the job with a ten-foot-pole, and there were movers-and-shakers who felt I was young and malleable enough to be able to be manipulated. The former is indisputable; the latter was quashed right away, as I was young, astute, and headstrong – plus, our Holy Communion congregation was made up largely of elderly, savvy, take-no-prisoners women to whom I was a communal grandson.

The oldsters had my back.

To the amazement of everyone from the synod bishop on down, we completed the merger process (including selling the Holy Communion building to a new, just starting out congregation) in just a year – that was twenty-two years ago.

Fast-forward to Lollapewlooza ’16 and MCLC is now a healthy, vibrant member of their Longfellow neighborhood, having absorbed another struggling Lutheran church into their fold about ten years ago. I sat there in a pew at MCLC and couldn’t help but notice the large banner IMG_20160626_105432on one wall, noting the names of the two original churches, and their dates of operation, and the date of the new ‘Minnehaha Communion Lutheran Church EST. 1994.’

I felt a reasonable sense of pride in that, and not a little astonishment that the place was going strong. Pretty cool, though I will admit to a bit of angst on one point: the name. From the get-go, I thought we should go with an entirely new name for the merged entity, but that was not going to fly. And Minnehaha Communion was the least clunky combination we could come up with. One of the only battles I lost, but hey, won the war and here MCLC still stands.

The politics and mental gymnastics of pulling off the merger were draining, and after we got the job done, I had to step away for a while. That was when my wife and I started attending Park Avenue UMC – mostly as a compromise choice, as the first few years of our marriage we had been in a bit of flux, she coming from a Baptist background, me being Mr. Lutheran. In the end it all worked out for the best. So that Sunday morning was less a trip down memory lane, more a touching-base with some of my faith roots.

Gotta know where you’ve been to understand where you are.

Mill City Church is a growing congregation based in a north Minneapolis school building. They are a young, extremely active in their neighborhood, and very contemporary in mood and style.

Did I mention they were young? Not just the congregants, but the staff, of which my niece Anne IMG_20160612_110300is a part of, as the youth pastor. My first Sunday in town, I stopped in for the service unannounced and surprised her afterward. Later that week, she called and asked if I could be in attendance on June the nineteenth, as she was preaching. So that is what I did. She was wonderful. It was a personal, emotional, and exhilarating sermon.

I was drained. Fortunately, the Twins were on that afternoon, and smacked the Yankees around, 7-1. kepler-homerun-fuehrt-twins-zu-krimi-sieg-image_620x349The game and the pizza were great, then I took a nap, with the patio door open. That was about as good a Sabbath as I could conjure up.

Isanti, Minnesota is about a forty-five-minute drive from my mother’s place in suburban north Minneapolis. I made the jaunt up that way on Fourth of July weekend to visit the pastor and his family, who were our pastoral family in the small town in rural Minnesota which we lived before moving to New Orleans. A few months after my family and I left town, Jim took a new call to plant Spirit River UMC in a rapidly growing (“Are we rural or are we urban?”) area that has a lot of challenges – many related to changing demographics and growth.  We all share the ‘moving on’ experience. A few years after forming, they purchased a defunct banquet center to house spiritrivertheir congregation and outreach. It is a different worship experience to be sure: people sit at large, round tables, in comfortable banquet chairs.

Spirit River reminds me that churches are not buildings. Hope Christian Church, my non-denominational hang out in New Orleans, is housed in what used to be a theatre, in a large, century-old warehouse shared with a Hopeused furniture store and a t-shirt shop I would describe both Hope and Spirit River as funky and functional, and both are very contemporary in their respective worship styles.

The weekend I visited pastor Jim and his daughter, the congregation was having their newly-traditional, most-of-the-congregation-is-gone-for-the-holiday hymn sing; right up my alley, as while I don’t have a problem with contemporary services, and am not wedded to liturgical certainty, modern praise and worship music is not at all my thing. Give me ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ on alternating Sundays, and HowGreatThouArtI’d be good. Maybe something from the soundtrack of ‘Godspell’. So my timing to go to Isanti was perfect, and after church I went to lunch with Jim and his daughter Stephanie, and got to listen to the Twins on the radio driving back to suburbia.

It was a satisfying final stop on Lollapewlooza ’16.

What have I learned from the spiritual side of my road trip summer? Not a whole lot of new insights, but a lot of reminders of how faith can be a burden lifter, mind clearer, refocusing tool. That seems pretty basic, but we frequently lose sight of that; I think sometimes doing the same thing in the same way every Sunday, faith becomes rote and oftentimes ineffectual.

I admit that there were a few Sunday mornings this summer where going anywhere was not high on my list at all, but knowing I had limited opportunities to do some things I wanted to do, I just did them. I am glad that I did. Glad I saw the folks that I did, fortunate to have heard the messages they had for me – both congregationally and personally.

This summer also helped me reconfirm what I do and don’t like in a worship service, and that I am something of an anomaly in that I appreciate and enjoy a good, spontaneous, free-flowing contemporary church service, doing so with older music (hymns, seventies folk, you know – united-methodist-hymnalgood stuff with high lyrical quality) would be my ideal – even by a funky, electric house band. That hybrid is hard to find consistently, so I go with what I have at hand. I also realized that while the off-beat (theatres, banquet centers, nursing home chapels, public school auditoriums) have their own Lutheran BOWquirky charm that can get you to think differently about the worship experience and the place in a community of the church overall, sometimes plopping your keister into a good old-fashioned, varnished, walnut pew (St. Marks, MCLC, Park Avenue) and hearing someone crank up a grand piano or an organ touches the soul a whole lot differently.

I discovered that the roots of my faith run deep and are intertwined. I left Minnesota and IMG_20160731_122320headed back to New Orleans, tired and unsettled, as I didn’t get done nearly as much as I thought I should have, but in reality, got more done than I should have logically been able to accomplish. Spiritually, I headed south feeling refreshed.

There is a lollapewlooza to be said for that.

History, in person

I am thinking today of my mom’s great aunt, Maybelle Sivertsen.

Having watched Hilary Clinton accept her nomination last night, and seeing all the posts on Facebook – especially from women – history came to life for me.

Born in 1898, Maybelle was an intelligent, raucous, bawdy, charismatic, charming and always elegant woman of deep faith,who was married to a prominent doctor, but her own life resume was pretty impressive in its own right. Among her many suffragettes2proud accomplishments were being a suffragette, and the work she did in helping women achieve the right to vote.

There is a family photograph from a cousin’s wedding in the mid-70’s. It is in my aunt and uncle’s basement, at the afterparty. Maybelle is seated in a chair in the corner, hands in front of her on the head to the cane she then used. She is sitting up bolt-straight, and is obviously in mid-oration. It is a picture that perfectly captures Maybelle as I knew her, but it is not what makes the fuzzy, Instamatic shot so memorable.

Sitting at her feet – some cross-legged on the linoleum floor, one or two crouching, all in their powder-blue tuxedos, many with long, ‘hippie hair’ – are the groomsmen from the wedding. Their heads are all tilted upwards as they are focused on Maybelle, and a couple of the more visible of the young men’s faces carry looks of awe. I have no idea what she is regaling them about; even in her mid-seventies, she was abreast of all the current issues and had definite opinions about all of them. She was a progressive, all-in for civil rights and equal rights.

Whatever she was saying the rapt attention of those young men. I totally get that.

Maybelle always had time for me; in part because she made time for everyone, in part because, more than most of my immediate family, I loved history and loved hearing (and telling) stories. At about the same time the photo was taken, America had just ratified the 26th Amendment giving eighteen-year-olds the right to vote. I was still a few years shy of eighteen, but Maybelle wanted to make sure I was crystal clear on the importance of that newly-minted right – a right that was obtained a lot more peacefully than was her’s.

From a woman who had personally worked, a half-century before, to get the 19th Amendment ratified, giving her suffragettes1entire gender the right to vote, I heard the gravity in her plea, the hopeful tone. In Maybelle’s eyes, this was a logical progression, just another step, and the right to vote was something I should cherish, and take very seriously.

I still do.

So the morning after watching history unfold on television, I am thinking of my great-aunt Maybelle – the suffragette. Somewhere, she is seated in a chair, sitting elegantly, proudly…her hands clenched firmly atop the head of her cane.

She is beaming.

Travelogue

Six summer weeks on the road, traveling from my New Orleans base back to my Twin Cities home turf. Let’s call it a ‘working vacation’…that I now could use a vacation from.

The trip itself was mostly a success, but while living in the south, sometimes a return to my Midwestern roots leave e scratching my head. Vice versa upon my return.

I was able to document some of the quirkier things I ran across. Maybe it is because I have spent the past eight years in a region where the odd is commonplace and celebrated, but some of these things I encountered seemed misplaced – especially some of the gastronomical quirks.

IMG_20160624_173647For example…barbeque hummus? Yeah, a Midwestern take on Middle Eastern staple that even I would think thrice on before trying. For real overkill, I suppose you could use barbeque flavored chips for your dipping/sopping option.

Even in the barbeque-happy south, grilling peas seems a cultural mismatch. It is also mildly disquieting that there is a certain ‘that aint kosher’ element to this little snack.

In downtown Minneapolis, I pulled up alongside a food truck – not unusual. The cuisine? That’s different.

In Minnesota parlance, where fishing is almost a faith, I used to refer to sushi as ‘lure on a plate’ which was usually IMG_20160602_131031greeted with a nod of acknowledgement. Now I guess the saying would have to be ‘bait on a tortilla’.

Or in true Minnesotan, ‘Minnows on lefse’.

Speaking of fishing, there is a small, family-run hardware store right by my mom’s new apartment, and as I frequently needed hardware items or tools to fix something at her old house, or prep something at the apartment, I became something of a regular. My first stop, the window signage caught my eye, but it wasn’t until my next-to-last (73rd but who’s counting?) stop that IMG_20160629_145402I said something almost pithy about ‘duct tape and nightcrawlers’ to the clerk at check out.

She sighed, glanced over her shoulder at the ‘live bait repair’ window paint job, with resignation and said,  for what sounded like the ninety-sixth time,“Yeah, they didn’t think that one out very well”.

Honestly, I did not see the upper-pane labeled ‘screen and window’ until at least the fifth time I passed by.

Off-beat signage always interests me, though this theatre marquee in Minneapolis is spot-on, local language wise.
IMG_20160623_084516

 

 

On the other hand, I don’t know the genesis of this little gem I saw posted behind the counter of a neighborhood café where I was having lunch with a couple of old friends, but it definitely has a New Orleans/Mardi gras vibe
IMG_20160603_114359

But this t-shirt? Definitely a Midwestern thing.IMG_20160628_122559

 

 

 

That hopefully stays right where it is.

I need to get back to my unpacking. More on-the-road shenanigans hiding between the dirty laundry and stolen hotel towels. So…

Later, kids.

Encounter

06/24/16

I was leaving the assisted living place we moved my mom into yesterday, and stopped by one of the big day rooms by the entrance; volunteers were setting up for a book giveaway – one thousand books, free to anyone who wanted one. I had seen them earlier on one of my multiple trips between mom’s new apartment, the center office, and my car outside, and they encouraged me to have my mom (an avid reader) come down – a good way to ease into her to new surroundings.

As I was leaving, the woman I had spoken to earlier waved at me, and asked if my mother would be coming down. I went in, picked up our chat from earlier, all the while she was lifting stacks of books out of a Rubbermaid tub. She told me the books were all donated, free to anyone, and I should help myself. I laughingly told her I was a high school English teacher and writer, and had way too many books already. Thanking her nonetheless, I was getting ready to leave, just as she sat one more stack of books on the table in front of me.

“Oh my God” I said, startling her a bit. The top book on the stack was a book of Bill Holm essays, ‘The Music of Failure’ – one of his I did not already have. “Bill Holm was one of my professors in college! A huge influence on me.”

(Seventeen-years my senior, his typical, thunderous greeting for 46-year-old me was ‘Nice to have another old fart in class’!) He could be appropriately (or sometimes not) bombastic at any moment.

“Well then…you should have this”. the woman said, handing me the book.BillHolmbook
I was more than a little taken aback.

On the road for nearly a month now, twelve hundred miles from New Orleans, trying to help my mother navigate this new phase of her life, from independence to assisted living, has been a roller coaster; ups, downs, loop-de-loops, wild turns- all really fast. Even though things have gone about as smoothly as possible for the situation, it is has been stressful for all concerned and at times and more than a few times you think ‘get me off this ride’. Hence a recent spate of Bill–like rants; some serious, some in mock-jest, some crazed takes on the vagaries of the universe. Some just to blow off steam at nothing or nobody in particular. I just stood there looking at the book and I started to laugh. The volunteer said, “Go ahead. Take it. Really something that it’s a guy you know, huh”?

Yeah, a guy I knew.

Of all places to find him again: a very nice, assisted-living place in upscale, suburban Minneapolis. Bill would surely have something to say about corporate, commercialized aging. I can only imagine eloquent tangents. I was still laughing and shaking my head in bemusement as I thanked the woman and headed for my car, the sudden gift of a book of essays to read tonight. I am not at all sure if this is the ghost of Bill telling me to ‘rock on’ or ‘chill out’ – or maybe, ‘keep it up, you old fart’.

I’m just grateful he stopped to say ‘hello’.

Reprise: Happily, Less Full of Phil

07/13/16

I learned just today of the passing of a great poet and incredibly influential teacher: professor Phil Dacey. I was finishing up college as a middle-aged non-trad, Phil was in his last year of teaching before retirement, and he helmed my first class at Southwest Minnesota State University. The year – and his tutelage – I will not forget. I wrote this piece four years ago.  Rest very well, Phil. You will not be forgotten.

MLL

This year provided one of the best last-day-of-school experiences I have ever had; certainly the best in the four-years since my mid-life career change placed me in front of various New Orleans high school classrooms.

The fact that I am slated to start the next school year in the same place I ended the previous one is a celebratory first. Being recognized for the accomplishments of my students via their test scores, developing a strong set of professional relationships at a place I really enjoy working and being part of a team-oriented environment all puts a decidedly different spin on reviewing the past year and looking ahead to the next. Add in the fact that I did most of what I did this year on the fly, being hired a month into the school year at a ‘turn around’ school, and there is a lot of personal and professional satisfaction to be had.

But there is another, doesn’t-show-up-in-the-grade-book stat that points to a successful year: I’m running low on my supply of Phil Dacey’s old poetry journals.

Phil Dacey

Phil is a poet, and a pretty darn good one  http://www.philipdacey.com/ . I first met Phil in the fall of 2003; he was one of my professors in the writing program at Southwest Minnesota State University, and I had the immense good fortune of catching him in his last year before retiring after over thirty years of teaching. As a forty-four year old ‘non-trad’ in a top-notch college writing program, I had a different take on things than my peers, and a different appreciation for some of the different verbal proclivities of some of my professors – Phil included. I was often the only student in the room chuckling at an obscure aside.

I spent my first semester back in school after a fourteen-year layoff in Phil’s very intense poetics class, where we spent the semester working our way through an 810 page volume entitled Poems for the Millennium; the University of California book of modern & postmodern poetry. A book and a class like that can either ignite or squelch a love of poetry. In Phil’s hands, we got to explore. And love. (Well, mostly love) poetry of all kinds.

Phil’s plan for retirement was to move from the plains of southwestern Minnesota to the confines of a New York City apartment. This required divesting himself of a massive collection of books, journals and other poetic paraphernalia amassed over a forty-plus year stretch as a student and teacher, and his preferred method of disposal of these goodies was hallway distribution to anybody who wanted them.

An added, tactile bonus to my first year at SMSU.

It became a routine of many of us: swing by Phil’s office to see what he placed in boxes or simply stacked outside of his office door under a Magic Marker-scrawled ‘Help yourself’ sign. While I snatched a few hard-cover books from my daily office drive-bys, I concentrated mostly on the myriad of poetry journals Phil was releasing from dusty shelf captivity and back into the wild.

I fancy myself a poet, and to be hanging out with and learning from poets like Phil and other SMSU notables every day was an experience that I was soaking in and enjoying to the hilt. The fact that I was also expanding my library exponentially on a weekly basis was just frosting on the cake – though a source of dismay to my wife, who was not a fan of my pack-rat tendencies in general.

But there was a method to my madness. As Phil and his fellow poet-profs reminded us regularly, if you’re going to write poetry, you need to read a lot of poetry. So I did.

To say Phil’s collection of journals was eclectic was an understatement. There were mainstream and underground selections, slick, university press journals and crudely mimeographed, hand stapled tomes and everything in between. Some were very high-brow, many were themed-endeavors of some sort, a lot were outright weird. Many of them were sent or given to Phil for review and were autographed with personal notes; many of them also had Phil’s notations covering much of the margins. (One thing I don’t think I ever told Phil was that I learned as much about his evolution as a writer and evaluator by reading his commentaries on the work of others as I did from actually reading his poetry.)

Most of these journals dated from the 1970’s and 80’s – apparently Phil’s heyday for such poetry publications, both in terms of volume and breadth of styles and topics. While there were a number of slick, professional looking entries (mostly from prestigious university presses) most of them were modest budget and fairly small and thin; thirty, forty pages or so in length, most about the size of a Reader’s Digest.

By the time the ‘03-‘04 school year and Phil’s career as an official teacher had come to a close, I had amassed a sizeable chunk of his journal horde – a couple hundred volumes, tightly filling three copier-paper boxes.

Phil retired and I went on to graduate in 2006 with a B.A. in literature and creative writing and an impressive personal library of books my professors had written augmented with a whole lot of interesting poetry journals prominent and obscure.

Fast forward to 2008. I moved with my wife and two sons to New Orleans to step into a new life as an English teacher in one of the worst public school systems in America, while at the same time  my wife was transitioning to become a special education teacher. While we left behind corporate careers and shed much of our stuff, I made sure my library (including aforementioned poetry journals) came with me – for professional as well as personal reasons.

While I had visions of some sort of initiating some sort of inner-city-Dead Poet’s Society-love-of-words epiphany for my students, courtesy of my personal love of poetry and my rather broad collection of non-mainstream poetical works, it has yet to materialize.

At least, the way I envisioned it.

Over the past four years, beginning with my first-year-of-teaching, aged 13-to-17, New Orleans ward-loyal, gang-banging, ankle-bracelet-wearing eighth graders, through last year’s 8th, 11th and 12th grade New Orleans East charter school wannabe toughs, to this year’s batch of struggling west bank (some well over age) sophomores and juniors, those journals have been trotted out at least a few times each semester, whenever poetry rears its mischievous head on our curriculum.

They get us out of the standard textbook’s American Literary Canon and mainstream stabs at diversity, and sets us off on some very different planes. (Oh sure, I still give them a dose of Whitman and Dickinson, and I love Frost so they get a bit of him, too, but we go off on some…definite roads less traveled.) It’s funny what kids will connect with.

Poetry overall is exasperating for my students. They are frequently confused with poetry in general, as the idea of interpretations varying widely from person to person frustrates them; they seek concrete yes/no answers, and poetry – good poetry- doesn’t often offer that singular certainty.

To top it off, in Mr. Lucker’s class, wildly different poetic interpretations (as long as they have some rational basis) are celebrated, further adding to my student’s consternation. Whether they are more frustrated with differing viewpoints, or my embrace of multiple viewpoints…I haven’t figured that out yet. I can tell you that my students test scores have been pretty good, and that when it comes to reading comprehension, my students score quite well. I attribute some of that to our reading a lot of poetry.

I don’t pander to the (often) lower common denominators of basic metaphor and simile examples in the textbooks. Phil’s old poetry journals help me go further than that. I like getting out those journals into my students hands – they’re different. They are compact, and for the most part, don’t look like the typical turn-off-their-interest book, especially once the students open them – often the most difficult part of the equation.

But my stash of old journals is shrinking.

I noticed as I packed up my room last week that I am down to my last copier-paper box of Phil’s poetry journals – and not a quite full box, at that. Over the past four years, many of them have disappeared into the bookbags of my students; many of them under some sort of subterfuge (I’m not sure I could ever accuse a kid of ‘stealing’ poetry, so I let ‘em go) and many go to kids asking if they could keep a particular journal, or specific poem. (Instead of letting a kid who asks to ‘tear out one poem’ from a journal, I tell them ‘just take the whole book.’) A few of the journals have basically disintegrated from classroom use and abuse, but for the most part, they have simply found their way into a student’s hands and head. Where they end up…?

I think Phil would be okay with that.

Making poetry accessible was, and I would think still is, important to Phil. Nowadays, it’s important to me, too. So even though my supply of poetry journals is running low, I figure the box I have left should get me through the next school year. It’s been fun while it lasted, and hopefully some of those kids got something out of whatever little volume they took from my class.

It is not what I had planned when I began collecting Phil’s old journals, but then again, what poet ever plans a really good poem?

Had a ball, to a tee

Baseball is prominent in Lucker family lore: my wife and I come from families of ardent baseball fans, and we met in the summer of 1991 – our dating life was intertwined with the World Series run and eventual championship of our hometown Minnesota Twins.

The following summer we were married, had a baseball-themed reception, took 60 relatives and wedding party members to a Twins game the day after the wedding, then followed our heroes on the road to Chicago and Milwaukee as a baseball honeymoon. We will celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of all that this summer.

But some of our greatest shared baseball memories don’t come from sitting in the cheap seats, or hanging out in a bar celebrating a World Series game two triumph with delirious strangers. Ours are far superior.

They come from our time on the field as t-ball coaches for our sons.

Amy and I spent four years as co-coaches for various teams our sons Willi and Sam played on, emphasizing fun and love of baseball over competition, and loved it all. We introduced not only our kids, but a number of others in south Minneapolis and Marshall, Minnesota, to grand additions to the grand old game such as pre-game bunny-hopping and conga-lining-around-the-bases warmups (10 minute warm-up periods were mandated by the Minneapolis park board – they didn’t say HOW to get them ‘warmed up’) to every-kid-wraps-up-practice-with-a-homerun, along with innovative team (and individual player) cheers and so much more.

Eldest son Willi is now a college sophomore, Sam the younger a high school junior. Willi’s teammates are also in college (or, in at least one case, a college grad!) and I see young kids in our New Orleans neighborhood in their t-ball uniforms, I can only think back…and smile.

The place was Sibley Park, in south Minneapolis. The time was post 9/11, jittery, uncertain 2002. It was the summer of the Bobbleheads – the greatest group of young ballplayers to ever cross a chalked baseline. No names have been changed because nobody’s innocence is threatened – only enhanced. What follows the chronicle of the magical season, as recorded and distributed at the time, from April through early June, in the Baseball Diaries – an emailed extravaganza that was the forerunner of this blog. It is a bit lengthy, but worth it.

Settle in for some baseball magic, in its purest form.

04/30/02
Dear Diary:

As the legendary Jack Morris said just before pitching 11 shutout innings in game seven of the 1991 World Series, “In the words of the immortal Marvin Gaye, let’s get it on!”

The above, I believe, is the Bartlett’s Quotations version of a double play.

This year’s dual-Lucker coached juggernaut is known as the Bobbleheads. The name stems from last years tee-ball experience with the SIBAC Tornadoes, where at least once per game one of the assembled parental or grandparental units would comment that “With the kids running around in those big, oversized batting helmets, they all look like bobble-heads!” First practice was tonight, and it went well. We caught some throws, we even caught a couple of batted balls, and not one kid ran to third base instead of first. We also kept the swarming of multiple fielders to hit balls fairly low, and registered just one “double wicket.” (A hit ball that cleanly makes it through two sets of infielder’s legs, ala croquet, while also eluding their gloves.) The new team cheer was a big hit, too.

Our SIBAC BOBBLEHEADS shirts should arrive tomorrow, just in time for our opening game against Hiawatha Park. We will try to refrain from extending our hands to the other team at home plate while uttering the phrase, “Hiawatha! We’re the Bobbleheads.” We’ll try really hard not to do that.

It’s always “A great day to play two!”

Goodnight, Diary.

autographed bat

 

05/02/02
Dear Diary:

Well, we celebrated a successful season opener on all fronts. The Bobbleheads had a rip-roaring grand time over at Hiawatha Park. It appears that our reputation is growing as we had three new kids sign on last week, and we got a little surprise when we met our Hiawatha opponents.

When their coach introduced himself to me he said he had never coached tee-ball before. He was a veteran of cubs, midgets and for the last few years, four pitch. He described himself to Amy and I as “really in the dark about how tee-ball works.” Not to fear I told him, just follow our lead. The Hiawatha kids were already a little taken aback at our calisthenic routines, but the parents and other crowd members seemed to enjoy it. The game itself was…an experience.

There wasn’t time to explain step-by-step what we were going to be doing, so we had to wing it. We were the visitors, and batted first so I was up at home overseeing. This made it convenient to simply yell out everything to everyone as loudly as I could. The first inning consisted of me yelling out instructions like “OK, coach Dan at first base! Reeeememberrrrr every kid who gets to first gets a high-five!” Followed by “Coach Bruce! Remember that evvvvvery kid who gets to third gets a high-five!” As I was at the helm at home, I took care of home plate-high fives.

By the time Hiawatha batted in the bottom of the first, their coaches pretty much had it down. Every kid getting to first got a high-five, every kid getting to third got a high-five, every kid getting home got a high-five. Every kid got multiple, well deserved, high fives. All in all a pretty smooth game in front of a large and boisterous crowd. (Hiawatha is a busy park next to a busy lake.) After they batted one of the Hiawatha kids asked what the score was. I announced/yelled out that after one inning of play, we were of course, tied “A bunch…to a bunch!” All concerned seemed satisfied with that answer.

Add in our conga-line base running warm up, five (count ‘em, five) different renditions of the “Gooooo Bobbleheadssssss!” cheer and game ending glove slaps, and I think you’ll find that tee-ball at Hiawatha is gonna start looking a bit different in the weeks ahead.

Spreading the word is what we’re all about. Its tee-ball gospel, the Bobblehead way!

Til the next time then, blazing new trails – the Bobblehead Way…

Regards,

Us

autographed bat2

 

05/16/02
Dear Diary:

With glorious sunshine and temps in the 70’s, weather the likes of which we haven’t seen for the past couple of weeks, spring returned today to the Twin Cities. It enabled the Sibley Park Bobbleheads to make their home-opener even brighter.

After squeezing in a practice between showers and then missing a game last week due to a deluge, it was good to be back on the Sibley aggregate basking in the glow of our fans and the sun. Resplendent in our fire-engine red shirts with SIBAC (Sibley Athletic Club) BOBBLEHEADS splayed in dazzling white across the chests we took on our brethren, the SIBAC TWINS.

Katie the park director was on hand getting us set up, and she informed us that the Twins were missing both their regular coaches for the night. She also said that their fill-in, Coach Chris, wasn’t well versed in tee-ball. Not to worry, I told her. We were ready to “Spread the gospel of Sibley Tee-Ball” just as we did a few weeks back at Hiawatha.

After filling in Coach Chris and his parental volunteers on the basics, I went back to our third base bench to address our parents. I explained that like in our first game, we were going to have to lead by example as our opponents were once again inexperienced both on the field and on the bench. I told them why I would again be yelling for both teams to hear me. Just so they knew the score, I had prefaced my remarks with “Lest you guys think I’m some sort of raving ego maniac…”

Play ball!

We batted first, doing wonderfully. Batting fifth tonight was Bailey, a ruddy kindergartener with reddish blond hair and freckles. He’s got game, and seems to enjoy the whole experience. As I was helping Bailey get settled in the batters box, I heard a chant break out from our bench: “Bay-LEE! Bay-LEE! Bay-LEE!” As I turned around to look, every parent gave me a shrug and an “I-didn’t start it” look. Seems that one of the kids did, and it took hold pretty quick. Bailey looked at me, blushed, rolled his eyes and said “Ohhhh man!” He then singled to short. The Twins just seemed puzzled by it all.

The rest of the inning went well until it was brought to my attention that I had overlooked young Joey, and that he hadn’t batted. As we were already taking the field I informed all concerned that we would just bat Joey at the beginning AND at the end of the second inning, and everybody was cool with that. Joey is a quiet kid. He is also the youngest and smallest kid on the team, but he can play. When the top of the second rolled around, Joey was seeking out a helmet and a bat, and I stage whispered to the kids on the bench that what they did for Bailey might be kinda cool to do for Joey. By the time Joey and I got to the batters box, the third base side of the field had erupted in the chant of “JOE-ey! JOE-ey! JOE-ey!” Looking somewhat BMOC-ish, Joey grinned at me and said “Oh boy!” before rapping a single to third.

That was all the encouragement the Bobbleheads needed. The rest of the inning was peppered with spontaneous chants for every kid from when they walked to the tee, til they hit the ball.
“SE-bast-YUN! SE-bast-YUN!”
“Han-NAH! Han-NAH!”
“MAHL-lee! MAHL-lee!”
“Ray-CHEL! Ray-CHEL!”
“Bay-LEE! Bay-LEE!”

There was a slight pause as our number six hitter came to the plate, as the lack of rhythm in “Wiiiiiiiil! Wiiiiiiiil!” sort of threw them for a loop, but they recovered nicely for “ANGE-gel!” “KEIR-nan!,” “Ti-ah-ZA!” and “JOE-ey!” one more time.

All in all, Diary, it was a great night. We played well, looked great, sounded awesome.

The kids were happy, the adults seemed impressed. And we helped the SIBAC Twins learn a few things. Like pre-game calisthenics are a must, especially frog hopping and then group running of the bases. They now know that wrapping up each inning with a home run is cool, too. It took them awhile to remember to give high fives at first and third, but they finally got that down pretty well. They still seemed puzzled when we applauded them at the beginning and the end of the game, and they need some work on their game-end glove slapping. They also had to be re-assembled quickly for the traditional high-five line of congrats after the game, but they did quickly come up with their own cheer. Now Diary, I know I am biased, but to be honest with you, “Tee-ball rules!” just doesn’t have quite the same panache as “Gooooooo Bobbleheads!”

Bobbleheads rock. Wait, I take that back. We bobble!

Goodnight Diary.

 

05/23/02
Dear Diary:

Please pardon the indulgence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shirts this spring. The new Bobbleheads tee-shirts, bright red with bold white lettering across the chests; the wide eyes of recognition when the kids got them – “Hey! They even have numbers on the back!” I remember thinking briefly, that wouldn’t be such a bad shirt to have for a grown up.

Apparently, I am not alone.

At least a couple of parents have inquired about getting one, and we have even had a couple of Baseball Diary readers who have expressed an interest. Then on Tuesday night I walked into the park building to check out a tee and some bases, and was confronted by Sarah of the park staff. “Hey coach! We hear you guys are going to order big Bobbleheads shirts! I want one!” Turns out other park staff does too, including Katie the Park Manager. “Everybody loves ‘em,” she told me. “What can I say? You guys picked a really cool name!” Dale the park equipment guy called St. Mane sporting goods, and if we have enough interest we can get the shirts for the big kids at about eleven-bucks a pop. Bobblehead mania; coming soon to a torso near you.

Goodnight, Diary.

05/29/02
Dear Diary:

Sometimes life just happens, and we’re the better for it. Such was tonight’s Bobbleheads adventure.

Our scheduled opponents from Corcoran Park never showed up. Their coach had called Katie the Park Director yesterday telling her that this might happen, and she had cautioned me last night at practice. Having been forewarned, we arrived at Sibley #5 tonight with two alternatives to keep our charges occupied and to give them a suitable challenge as well.

5:45 arrived and no Corcoraners to be found. I announced to the assembled eight kids and nineteen moms, dads, grandparents and friends that as we were apparently opponent-less, but that I had come armed with plans B & C, just in case this had happened. Plan B was to take whatever Corcoran kids showed up, mix ‘em with ours and split into two teams. Now as our eight were the only ones on hand, 4-on-4 didn’t seem like a real enthralling idea, so after discussing it with fill-in coach (and team dad) Tom and getting his thumbs up, I proposed plan C:

The Bobbleheads versus their parents.

To their credit, the moms and dads were game; nobody had to be coerced, and most seemed genuinely enthused by the idea. The Bobbleheads themselves seemed mostly bemused by the prospect. All of them save young Keirnan, who ambled up to me after the announcement that plan “C” was a go and said, “Coach, don’t you have a plan ‘D’?!”

Coach Tom and I had decided that the Bobbleheads would let the parents bat first, and we took our spots in the field. It seemed that most of the kids were trying not to laugh at the parents coming up to bat, which was hard because some of them looked pretty funny squeezed into those smallish batting helmets. In all three moms, four dads, and one grandma batted – in a few instances escorted on their jaunts around the bases by younger Bobblehead siblings. Much whooping and hollering was heard from the parent’s bench, so we knew they were really into it.

It occurred to me midway through the top of the first that the ages of five, six and seven were good ones for watching parents (try to) play tee-ball. The looks of pride on the faces of each Bobblehead as his or her mom or dad (or grandma) hit the ball, ran to a base or thrust out arms in exultation upon reaching a base were the equal of any similar looks those same parents have had for their kids over the past month.

I spent the night stationed as the third base coach for Bobbleheads on offense and on defense, where I was privileged to overhear some of the great asides of the night.

Such as Rachel’s “Oh there’s my dad, he’s gonna do something goofy.” And showing mild disappointment when he didn’t. There was Keirnan’s repeated plea “Can’t you find a plan D?” Add in Joey’s mile wide grin when both his mom and his dad were on base simultaneously, Hannah’s incessant giggling, Bailey’s “Wow, my MOM!” when she got a hit, and Mali’s shear awe and pride at his grandmother gamely batting and running to first.

I personally declare plan ‘C’ a success. To use a common phrase from our household, “Hey, we’re making memories here!”

So to a red-shirted kid, the Bobbleheads as beamed with pride as moms and dads hit and ran with aplomb, shook their heads in disbelief when they missed catches and throws in Three Stooges-like grandeur while in the field, and just generally hammed it up. No petulance about “parental embarrassment,” no kid telling mom or dad to get off the field, nobody getting mad. Just the shared sheer joy of watching moms and dads goof off a little.

Now that’s tee-ball the Bobblehead way.

Good night, Diary

Us
(PS: Just between you and me I really don’t think Keirnan wanted a “Plan D.”)

autographed bat2

 

Thursday night, June 6, 2002. Late.
Dear Diary:

An era came to an end Thursday night. This probably goes against most any dictionary definition of the term era, but where the Bobbleheads are concerned, that’s kind of how this six-week season felt. This was one special group of kids and parents, Diary.

We said our goodbyes at the season-end potluck for the two tee-ball and two four-pitch teams from Sibley. Eight of our nine stalwarts showed up – and Bailey’s folks stopped by with a thank-you card and a gift certificate for the Coaches Lucker on their way home from the doctor where they had found out that Bailey had strep. They didn’t bring him in, but I went out to see the poor guy in his car seat. He was looking pretty rough until I gave him his participation ribbon and certificate and his sheet of Official Bobblehead Cards.

Bobblehead Cards are way cool, Diary.

Rachel’s dad Dan had brought his digital camera to our last game, and he took action pictures of the squad. Then with the help of his trusty computer, he whipped up a great set of baseball cards – just like real ones, with team name, player names & numbers and great shots of the Bobbleheads in action. Then he printed them all up in glorious color and stuck ‘em in three-hole punched plastic sleeves like real card collectors use. Each kid (and Amy and I) got a set and man, you should’ve seen their faces!

Thanks, Rachel’s Dad!

I don’t know that I have ever been tempted to apply the word noble to a bunch of five, six and seven-year olds – but these guys certainly were that. Never had to scold anyone of them in six weeks of practice or games; never an admonition to stop something, never an altercation amongst the kids themselves. They came every week; they came to play every week. They showed joy in the game, glee in each other. And dang, Diary – they could play! They could all hit like crazy. Heck, everybody batted 1.000 with multiple home runs.

We will remember the way the girls played the field (so to speak.) Week in, week out Angel, Hannah and Rachel all made great plays defensively. Kiernan and Sebastian can also flash some mean leather. Bailey was everywhere, every game – smiling ear-to-ear every minute he was on the field. Will’s love of leading calisthenics was matched only by his ease at being distracted by crawling bugs and other stuff in the infield dirt. He misses a lot of plays, but he sees more of things and life than most. And you gotta love Joey and Mali, the two youngest, two littlest guys we had – and with two of the biggest hearts on any diamond, anywhere. It wasn’t lost on me that the name chanting for batters by their teammates from the bench started with a spontaneous, enthusiastic focus on Joey and Mali.

At the end of the potluck we coaches each got to introduce our team and hand out their ribbons and certificates. I explained to the crowd our penchant for high-fives every time a kid got to first, third or home. We got in one last high-five as each kid came up to get their stuff and then we ended our team turn in the spotlight with one final group crouch leading up to a cacophonous “Goooooooooooo Bobbbbbbleheads!!!” I personally will admit to a couple of tears, and could rat out more than a few parents who were dabbing at their own eyes.

Funny what you’ll get from a bunch of tee-ball playing kids.

That’s it for now, Diary. See you next year.

Us

bobblehead bat

May, 2016.
Dear Diary

Epilog.

Alas, there was no ‘next year’ as we moved out-of-town. While I do know at least one set of our parents went on to spread the Bobblehead gospel at another south Minneapolis park, save for my own son, I have no idea where any of these kids are now, but I’d like to think that somewhere, deep down inside each one of them, at least a little bit of the joy of being a Bobblehead still remains.

Because man…could those kids play ball.

autographed ball2