Word(s) of love

I am a writer and English teacher, and I do not consider myself a grammar fanatic, though I do of course love language, and am fascinated by all of its nuances. I am a firm believer in the idea that the American English language is a living, breathing, constantly evolving organism, and that what may have been true ten, twenty years ago, in some cases may have no place in the language today.

Don’t believe me?  Get ahold of any English textbook from fifty or one-hundred years ago, and do a quick compare-and-contrast.  Rules, especially in regards to language in all its permutations, are made to be broken. Not all rules, all the time, certainly – but many convheartsof them, much of the time.

Many of my fellow writers and (mostly) English teachers will surely disagree with my basic premise, but I ask for their indulgence.

Now that you know my baseline, let us partake in today’s lesson:
Valentine, Valentines, or Valentine’s.

In terms of proper use, this one is sort of the ‘their, they’re, there’ of romance, so strap in for the ride, kids.

First off, from the website Grammarist:

‘The standard spelling of the holiday that falls on February 14th is Valentine’s DayValentine is singular and possessive, so it takes an apostrophe s. This is how it is spelled in edited writing everywhere.

The day is named after Saint Valentine. It is his day, hence the possessive. Because there has been only one of him, it wouldn’t make sense to pluralize his name. Of course, one could argue that Valentine now has two alternative senses in which it can be plural—namely, (1) the person one loves on Valentine’s Day, and (2) a Valentine’s Day card—and in light of these, it might make a little sense to spell the holiday Valentines Day. Nevertheless, the form with the apostrophe is the more common one by a large margin.’

Ummm, I respectfully disagree with their logic, in terms of contemporary usage.

Let’s be honest: who is actually spending February 14th celebrating St. Valentine?

Yeah, I thought so. Both of you can skip the rest of my pseudo-tirade.

The possessive form (Valentine’s) makes sense if you are celebrating in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran traditions, and you are into the whole martyr aspect of good ol’ St. V – but f you are a contemporary, twenty-first century, Hallmark cards, candy-stvaland-flowers sort of person, the possessive form makes little sense for most of the populace. You give not a whit about the saint, but you damn well should about your valentine (Valentine?).

If you know what is good for you.

Because, you, my friend are actually celebrating your Valentine. Hence, ‘Valentine Day’ makes a lot more sense to me, linguistically and logically, than the possessive ‘Valentine’s Day’. Of course, you could argue that throwing that pesky apostrophe in there makes it all about the day being all about YOUR Valentine, and it being ‘his’ or ‘her’ day – but then, that leaves you out of the equation entirely.

In a (grammatically) and overly possessive way, anyway.

Then, of course, there is the also ubiquitous ‘Valentines’ day – no apostrophe, so no possessiveness implied, but a plural nature that screams, in a less-than-romantic imagery, ‘I’m a play-ah!’ If you consider yourself as such, that is all well-and-good, but making ‘Valentine’ into ‘Valentines’ thereby demotes your Valentine from singular, val1appreciated, lover to part of  a throng – not exactly romantic (in most circles) and not to be confused with thongs, which are reasonably effective gifts for your Valentine, not so much for all of your Valentines.

And if you are doing your February fourteenth shopping, in bulk, at Victoria’s Club, we will have to talk privately about a few other things.

And that is my case for the etymological superiority of ‘Valentine’ day over ‘Valentine’s’ or ‘Valentines’ day.

Eat your chocolate hearts out, grammar fanatics.

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Antipasto!

Dinner with my Valentine;
wine and Sinatra
Fine haiku-be-do-be-do

– Mark L. Lucker
© 2018
http://lrd.to/sxh9jntSbd

He had it in the bag

A true tale of romance, in time for Valentine’s day…

I spent the bulk of my thirties working at the Holiday Inn Metrodome in Minneapolis. The 260-room hotel was a very nice, well-run property right off the edge of downtown, and along with the usual array of business travelers and sports fans, it’s setting in a vibrant theatre and restaurant hub made us a prime locale for many a romantic getaway roses6for locals.

Ahh, romance.

A world-class schmoozer, I had mastered the art of making myself indispensable to my hotel guests. As a bellman, van driver and concierge rolled-into-one, I would greet guests, get them settled in, all while providing as much assistance as I could for needs logistical and practical: dinner suggestions and reservations combined with transportation to-and-from via one of our hotel vans were easy ways to make a special impression and cultivate great relationships with guests.

My most memorable tale of hotel romance had nothing to do with Valentine’s day; it actually began one Friday afternoon right after Labor Day.

I had just come on duty for my three-to-eleven shift when a middle-aged guy pulls up at the front door. I greet him warmly, he returns the pleasantries, we introduce ourselves and I walk-and-talk him to the front desk. There is only one clerk on duty, and she is with another guest – my ideal scenario for getting to know my guests. I ask him the purpose of his visit, which turns out to be a surprise weekend getaway for him and his wife, commemorating both their twentieth wedding anniversary, and his wife’s recent work promotion.

His pride was quite evident.

I noted that he was there by himself, in response he explained that his wife was working until five, and that he wanted to get checked in and get everything ready in the room so he could pick her up at work, then bring her right to the hotel instead of home – a big part of the surprise, as she was under the impression that they were simply going out for dinner with friends. He had gone to great lengths to set up the whole ruse and hoped she would share his excitement.

He was delighted to hear about our personalized van service. He already had dinner reservations made, so I quickly firmed up transportation to and from dinner. I also offered to drive him to pick his wife up at work downtown, but he wantedroses9 to pick her up himself and play out his scenario; she wondering all the while why they were driving a route that was not sending them toward their south Minneapolis home.

I immediately liked this guy’s style.

We went out to the man’s car and unloaded their luggage; one suitcase for each of them, the man commenting that he had his sister-in-law pack his wife’s bag, so everything she should need for a romantic weekend getaway would be in place, and would actually go together appropriately. He had obviously done his homework and seemed quite confident about it.

My kind of guy.

Along with the suitcases, I took charge of a gift-wrapped box of chocolates and a cooler filled with ice and beverages. As I loaded the last of the items on the luggage cart, the man carefully reached into the front seat and pulled out a brown shopping bag, the top rolled over neatly, and creased tightly. Handing it to me, he said simply, “Here, Mark, roses7please put this on the top – and be very careful with it. But don’t squish it!”

It was very light and I couldn’t imagine what was in it, but I held it carefully in my right hand while steadily guiding my loaded luggage cart through the lobby, onto the elevator, and up to the fourteenth floor and room 1429 – one of our two ‘honeymoon suites’ complete with whirlpool for two, elevated bed and panoramic view of the Minneapolis skyline.

I gently placed the brown paper bag on the bed, set the cooler on the floor in the corner, and the suitcases on luggage stands while he proceeded to case the joint. He was very pleased with the room and the view, and when I asked him if there was anything else I could assist him with, he looked at me sheepishly and made one of the more unique requests on record:

“Yeah, do you have a few minutes…” he paused, adding, cryptically, “…are you very artistic”?

Assuring him that, as an artist and writer, I had the expertise – though I could not imagine what I would be using it for. With an excited smile, he grabbed the bag off the bed and thrust it back into my hands. “I need your help spreading these around the room!”  I opened the bag, peered inside.roses10

It was a shopping bag full of red rose petals, harvested from his wife’s backyard garden.

The next few minutes involved some impromptu interior decorating teamwork, as we brainstormed how to scatter the rose petals for maximum visual effect. We agreed a path of petals leading from the door to the raised-bed area and a branch off path toward the hot tub was a must. The bed itself would, of course, need a liberal upholstering of red, but that clashed garishly with the teal and rust colored bedspread. My solution was to do a nice turn-down of the bedspread; the fleecy beige blanket underneath made a much less cluttered, more neutral canvas for our rose petal artistry.

It started looking pretty sharp.

roses1He then realized to his dismay that we were out of rose petals. He had wanted to save some for sprinkling in the hot tub and for…something else he had in mind but would not divulge. With disappointment, he asked if we could pick up some of what we had already scattered and redistribute them, but I had another thought: there was a florist nearby that could probably accommodate our extra-petal needs fairly cheaply. I also offered a half-joking suggestion that maybe he could even get his wife a corsage for the evening out.

He liked that idea – a lot. We went downstairs, got into a hotel van for a three-minute ride.

Hearing my telling of the guy’s story, the staff at Riverside Floral was all over this one – adding their own flourish. Ten minutes later we were on our way back to the hotel with a prom-like wrist corsage, a plastic bag full of red rose petals, and some sound advice I have kept on hand to this day: don’t put the rose petals in the hot tub until after the water had cooled a bit.

Warm water, so we were told, would just make the petals shrivel up.

An aside: the rose petal tutorial came in handy not just that night, but a few other times with other hotel guests; I had the idea, and knew where to get them.  Plus, through the years I have been roses8able to casually drop the advice into few random conversations with people looking for that little something extra in the romance department. Good information always serves a purpose.
But I digress.

We returned to the hotel, I double checked with room service to make sure the champagne the guy had arranged for with his reservation would be on ice and in the room by five; already done. He and I then said our goodbyes, and he graciously thanked me both verbally and monetarily. I then made sure I was the driver for their six-forty-five van run to the restaurant.

As curious as I had been about the bag, I was even more interested in the love interest of our story.  A few hours later…

I saw them get off the elevator and got my first glimpse at his wife. She, too was middle-aged, svelte, shoulder-length roses3blonde hair, wearing a stylish, basic black dress, hip, black pumps…and a wrist corsage she kept glancing at quizzically. The dress was simple and stylish, appropriate and definitely not in high-school-homecoming dance way, which made the corsage seem a bit whimsical. Her sister had pulled together a very nice, stylish ensemble.

The corsage drew some curious looks.

Her husband and I exchanged waves as he stopped by the desk to take care of something, and she walked over to the bell stand. She looked at me, graciously held out her hand while shaking her head and barely suppressing a smile. “And you must be Mark, the guy who helped with all of…this.” She held up her flower-bedecked left wrist, twisting it around to see it from all angles.

“Yes, ma’am. I guess I am.” I said with a smile. “And how are you this evening?”  Her husband walked by, said “It’ll be just a minute” and disappeared into the gift shop.

“Well” she said, a bit incredulously, leaning casually on the bell stand counter. “I feel a bit like I’m going to the prom. And I haven’t been to a prom in over thirty years.”  She held up her left arm again, twisting it back and forth a few times, perplexed. “I understand this part was all your idea”?

“Umm, yes, ma’am…I guess it was. With help.” I replied with a slightly embarrassed chuckle.

She shook her head, smiling. “Let’s seeeeee. You, my sister…I wonder who else is in on this?” I could only shrug in roses2honest ignorance.

To my relief, her husband emerged from the gift shop and said, “I see you’ve met Mark!”

“I have” she responded, with a chuckle. I got the impression that she was finding the whole situation a bit ridiculous, and didn’t want to hurt his feelings or ego. We got into the van, had an uneventful drive to the restaurant and I picked them up after dinner and returned them to the hotel. They were both very gracious, and he was, once again,  a very generous tipper.

At evening’s end (at least my portion of it) she had not yet mentioned the rose petals.

The next afternoon I was standing in the lobby and the wife walked up to me, greeting me warmly, and extending her hand. She seemed far more at ease than in our first meeting. She confirmed that I was scheduled to drive them downtown for shopping and sightseeing, then she thanked me for roses11helping her husband set up her surprise weekend. I asked her if everything was okay with the room and with her stay overall, if there was anything else I could do to make their stay better.

It was all I could do to not hint at anything concerning roses.

“Oh, everything is just fine” she replied, cheerfully, adding, “Last night…was… just…just…” she trailed off, seeming a bit sheepish, and at a loss for…more genteel words. “It was all wonderful. Last night was…wonderful. Everything was….”

She paused, looking at the floor, seeming a bit embarrassed, then adding with a chuckle “The wrist corsage was a bit much. And the roses in the hot tub…”

She shook her head and smiled, then sighed deeply. “And I understand you helped with sprinkling the roses, and even getting some of them”?

“Yes, ma’am. Your husband’s idea. I just helped him get some extra petals. He brought most of them with him.”

Her eyes opened wide, she shook her head ruefully and chuckled “Ohhhh, yeah. He told me all about THAT! Those rose petals were from MY garden, did he tell you that? I work hard on that garden!”

Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure where this was going. But at least she was still smiling, still shaking her head in disbelief.

“You know, I was going to deadhead those roses for fall this weekend, anyway” She paused, looked at me with mock seriousness. “If this had been in June…you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. The only flowers here would be for his funeral!”  She laughed heartily.

“So it’s okay, then”? I asked.

“Oh, It’s fine. I’m sure he deadheaded them properly”. She stood there for a moment, shaking her head again and laughing to herself. “This was just so not ‘him’ – getting my sister involved, planning a surprise weekend…rose petals…corsages…” her voice trailed off. “Crazy.”

I could not disagree.

“It’s been a really great weekend. Thank you, Mark”. She grabbed my hand gently and shook it –vigorously, warmly.

“You’re welcome. And congratulations on the promotion”.

“He told you about that, too?”

“He said it was part of the reason for the celebration along with your anniversary”.

“Wow.” Was all she could muster at that point. She seemed more than a little surprised that I had that information. She just stared at me.  “Wow” she repeated.

Her husband came off the elevator, waved, walked up to us. “Ready to head downtown”? I asked jauntily. We got in roses12the van. The whole drive there I couldn’t help from glancing at them in my rearview mirror: when they sat down, she pulled him close to her side, her arm intertwined with his, her head on his shoulder. Sitting side-by-side on the bench seat of that garish green Ford Econoline van, you may have thought I was driving a couple of Hollywood hotshots to a red carpet somewhere in a shiny black stretch.

Looking in the mirror, I knew the shoe was now on the other foot: he was the one who seemed genuinely surprised.

I, for one, was not.

‘Kids, don’t try this at home. Again.’ A Valentine vignette

We were young, we were broke….we were living in rural Iowa, for cryin’ out loud.

My roommate Jim had a girlfriend, and one Friday night he was going to impress her with a nice, home cooked meal and an evening of romance. This necessitated me finding somewhere else to be for the night, which was no problem, but his plans also included a bottle of wine to go with his home cooked feast. That was a bit of a problem.

SEE: ‘we were broke’, above.

A plan was developed to overcome both limited funds, and lack of quality and variety (fancy-schmanzyism, as the locals might say) in the local municipal liquor store wine selection. Keep in mind this was Marshalltown, Iowa 1979 – stocking both Mogen David and Boone’s Farm qualified as ‘wide selection.’ The solution to Jim’s dilemma seemed to be simple: what couldn’t be procured could be made.

I’m not really sure how the initial idea unfolded, but our plan seemed sound when concocted in our living room – ‘concocted’ being the operative word here.

Part one of our scheme was to procure the container, and Jim had a friend who worked at a nice restaurant and got Jim an empty French wine bottle – cork included.

French! Even better than Jim had hoped for – and it had the cork, to boot.

Jim cleaned out the bottle, and then we made a trip to the grocery store for the ingredients necessary for one bottle of Jim’s date-night wine; Welch’s grape juice, a bottle of vodka, a box of Alka-Seltzer tablets. And a funnel.

Returning home to our apartment, we poured a couple of small glasses of the grape juice, in varying amounts, then added the vodka. A quick sampling led us to the conclusion that a 50/50 mix was pretty close to real wine – real French wine – save for the fizz.

Sophisticated palates such as ours would know this, right?

Taking the funnel, we carefully filled the empty (French!) wine bottle half-way up with the Welch’s, and then he filled most of the remainder of the bottle with the vodka.

Jim then got a couple of packets of the Alka-Seltzer, and opened a pack of two tablets. We had to break them to get them down the neck of the bottle, and once inside they began to fizz and foam, threatening to overflow the bottle, before settling down. Two tablets didn’t seem to add enough fizz (maybe for a chintzy domestic, but not for decent French) so he ended up opening two more packets of Ala-Seltzer and repeating the procedure until our little instant-ferment seemed to fit the bill. A couple of sips convinced us both that we had hit upon the recipe for im’s night success.

Jim was able to get the cork snugly back in the bottle, and the bottle into the fridge for proper chilling. (I know what you’re thinking; red at room temperature. Not this bottle, baby!)

One bottle of Jim’s Impress-A-Chick; vintage, Thursday – under four 1979 dollars!

Jim’s date night went off without a hitch – his home cooked meal, the accompanying wine both a big hit – though their evening ended a bit earlier than he might have wished. You see the wine was cheap and easy, the girl wasn’t.

Resolute

New Year’s resolutions are not a recent phenomenon – in fact, the practice of beginning a new trip of the earth around the sun has its roots in ancient Babylonia.

A recently uncovered document in the papers of Thomas Jefferson shows that even he had his doubts about certain aspects of his life and that he endeavored to change them, even going so far one year as to put these pronouncements to writing.  Scholars are currently assessing the validity and provenance of this document, but most of those who have seen the original agree it is Jefferson’s own hand that wrote the document that is reproduced, word-for-Jeffersonian-word, below.

It is a basic template still is use today for those trying to better themselves.

(Note that this is apparently a rough draft, replete with grammatical errors, and Jefferson’s own, written asides – presumably he edited his draft at a later date, though the final document has yet to be discovered. It is a bit lengthy – boy, could that man preamble.)

INEBRIATED, January 1, 1775

The Unanimous Declaration of Me

When in the Course of human events (Life, 101) it becomes necessary for one to dissolve the bands which have connected them to their bad habits, bad outcomes, and general lack of success or forward movement, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of others requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation from these old, destructive ways, and give doing better the ol’ college try.

Here we go, then.

I hold these truths to be self-evident, that I was created, that I am endowed (not to brag) by my Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I have pursued, to be sure, but have not always captured my prey— but to secure these rights, resolutions are instituted among Men such as myself when a new year arrives, those resolutions deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, me — That whenever any Form of behavior becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Guy to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new behavior, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. At least until the second week of January.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate – wait!  Prudence isn’t here, she left the party early, so I am doing my own transcription!   that bad habits long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Therefore, resolved, hereby, that in the year ahead, I should state my claims and points more succinctly.

But when a long train of self-abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism of self-crumminess, it is my right, it is my duty, to throw off such behaviours, and to provide new ideas for their future security in place of the old ones that aint working so hot. Hence, this declaration of determination to change for the better henceforth the year ahead of 1775.

— Such has been the patient sufferance of those around me; that I get my doodie together and such is now the necessity which constrains me to alter my former Systems of Self Government/Control.

For instance, I should trade gluttony and ale for more roughage and juice drinks. To this end, I bought myself a juicer at ye after Christmas Norfolk docks bazar.

The history of my present behaviours generally sucks – a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over my life. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world, I will eat less, drink less, exercise more and continue swear off my use of the product of tobacco – grow it, don’t blow it.

Except for occasional use of the unusual, greenish variety proffered by my good friend, F-Ben-jammin’.

I have refused Assent to Laws and Logic, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. But when I’m good, I am very good, tho when I am not so good I am not good at all. I can, and will, do better!

I have forbidden myself to pass personal Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till my Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, I have utterly neglected to attend to them. be it resolved that I do better with items of import, not just what I want to do when I want to do it. I have long been too much a davenport slug of the garden variety.

I have refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. ‘My way or the highway’ needs to be more forthwith and inclusive of the opinions of others.  Sometimes I need to just shut up.

I have called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with my measures. Sometimes I can be a real ass. I need to do better – especially when hanging out at C-hall with the guys.

I have obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers. I need to be less judgmental of others, except in cases when absolutely necessary – Madison and Hancock notwithstanding.

In conclusion, I resolve the upcoming for the new year ahead:

Depriving myself of excessive carnal pleasures and whatnot, to the goal of extending and enhancing my self-control in all facets of life. Excepting the periodic consumption of the food known as pizza. Pizza stays.

That transporting myself beyond the boundaries of Monticello be more by foot, less by horseback or carriage

I will endeavor to be less Mercenary to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized family.  I resolve to spend more ‘quality time’ with stated familial members – say in games of ninepins, playing cards, or Colonopoly.

In every stage of these self-Oppressions I have Petitioned for Redress in the humblest terms: this coming year, I shall succeed where in the past I have failed after short periods of the passing of the calendar, therefore I have appealed to my native justice and magnanimity, and have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence, hence this document of self-revelation.

Oh, I will also hold and hold others, as I hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends. With the exception of my pitiful neighbors, the Crown-loving Johnsons.

I, therefore, the Representative of my own countenance, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of my noble intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of my own free will, solemnly publish and declare, the support of this Declaration of Resolutions for 1775, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, I pledge to myself good Fortunes, and sacred Honor.

T. Jefferson,

Monticello, Virginia

1/ January/1775

 

– Mark L. Lucker
© 2017
http://lrd.to/sxh9jntSbd

A toast

A flute of champagne24102
contains
one million bubbles.

Toasting a new year –
fresh starts
beginnings, endings,
transitions –
see each bubble
as a moment
each individually
tantalizing, collectively
rising rapidly,
quickly dissipating

Gone

short-lived
effervescence
sweet anticipation
swiftly departed
memorable

Savor each bubble –
the tingling of
remembrance
tickle of anticipation
moments reveled in
quickly gone

let each beguiling
moment refresh
your palate
the sweetness
of what was
flavorful temptation
of what is to come.

– Mark L. Lucker
© 2017
http://lrd.to/sxh9jntSbd

The Christmas Pageant

Where are they now?  Every year around this time…I do wonder.

Speaking of wonder…

Some twenty-five years ago, I was involved with a small, urban Minneapolis Lutheran church. We were an aging congregation with only about fifteen kids (including toddlers)  in our Sunday school on a regular basis; this included three kids from one family – one of whom was 14 and confined to a wheelchair due to Multiple Sclerosis.

What we lacked in group size we more than made up for in spirit.

When it came time to put together our annual Christmas program (the traditional Joseph & Mary story) we had very few options for Mary, as most of the girls participating were only seven or eight. Except for Sheri, our 14-year-old girl with MS, who desperately wanted to be involved with the program, which we said we would definitely make happen in some form.

Sheri was certainly capable of taking on Mary; she was vivacious, articulate, had a great speaking voice…but her wheelchair was problematic. The role required Mary to enter from the rear of the church and make her way to the front during the opening narration. Admittedly, much of this was set up by tradition and for dramatic effect, and we certainly had other options, but limited maneuvering room. While we had a ramp up the one step in front of the pulpit area (or ‘stage’) there wasn’t a lot of room for extras like a motorized wheelchair to turn or do much once you were up there.

My friend Mark Knutson and I were in charge of the youth committee, and we had given the idea some thought. When the full committee met to put together the program, the first item of business brought up was a request from Sheri and her mom to get her involved in the program, which Barb, the woman directing the program was nervous about.  One of the other women on the committee suggested Sheri would make a great Mary, noting that her motorized chair made that impractical, adding “Maybe she could sit off to the side and narrate”.

As a writer, the idea of the story being told first-person intrigued me.

Mark had a better idea.“What if we made Sheri our Mary, and disguised her wheelchair to look like a donkey”?  he proposed to surprised looks around the table. “We could cover her with blankets, and my brother-in-law is an artist, and I can get him to paint a couple of plywood donkeys that we could mount on the sides of the chair”.

After a few moments and some surprised looks,  Barb asked, “Do you think anybody would mind?”

Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Who cares if they do?” And just like that, the decision was unanimously accepted. Yes, it really was that quick, that simple.

The evening of the pageant, it was hard to tell who was more excited; Sheri or her mom and dad. At least until the audience – including all four of Sheri’s grandparents – showed up. The grandparents sat in the front row, beaming with joy, as it was the first opportunity that Sheri had been given to truly participate in something like this in a major way. Mark and I had better-than-front-row-seats to it all – our own roles in the pageant: we were costumed as manger oxen, wearing homemade, long-snouted masks and kneeling in the small choir pen off to the side of the pulpit. We were there for pseudo-authentic manger atmosphere,  but also with hidden scripts handy to prompt any of our frequently forgetful young actors.

Our Mary needed no such assistance.

Sheri did a fabulous job, and between the plywood donkey cutouts, and the blankets we laid over them and Sheri, in her motorized wheelchair, it truly looked like Mary slowly moving through our candle-lit, church-aisle Bethlehem on her donkey led by Joseph; an incredibly Christmasmoving moment I remember vividly. It was a small space; looking out at the audience from behind oxen masks from our choir-manger, I could see people wide-eyed, some dabbing their eyes.  Holy Communion Church also had great acoustics; you could hear the gasps and murmurs of awe.

By the time the program drew to a close, tears were running down a lot of faces.

Sheri’s  family was so grateful, expressing their thanks repeatedly for us ‘taking a chance’ and ‘letting’ Sheri be involved. We told everyone the truth; Sheri was our first choice and only logical option. As I added with a smile, to hearty laughter from Sheri and her family, “The fact that she came with her own donkey…was just a bonus”.

‘And a little child shall lead them’.

 

Santa Fidelis

“‘Twas a Wednesday before Christmas, and all through the mall
tho no children were present, this day topped them all…”

Some twenty years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa in suburban Minneapolis. As I was neither the natural size, age or type (nor naturally hirsute enough for the role) I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours – late morning, midday.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school student/photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash; we were Santaland rookies, all. This particular day, we hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so, though we did a lot of waving and yelling ‘Merry Christmas’ to assorted passers-by. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight that was interesting, but not really of the season: walking towards us down the center of the mall was a tall, young, U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; alongside  him was a petite, simply dressed woman, maybe forty-five, fifty years old.

It quickly became obvious they were indeed headed right for us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids. I watched the young Marine, who glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.brookdaleholiday1

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, as Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated. Unless you are a twenty-year-old Marine having his picture taken on Santa’s lap.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave, and his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments: a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her only son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and, per what the young Marine told me, and what his mother shared with Susie and Jen, she wanted only one other thing in the world for Christmas: nice pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women  – and then me – he said had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So thus began a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon, just the five of us: Susie, Jen, proud mom, Santa…and the Marine.

This was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat awkwardly but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously.

After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.”

I smiled, quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot. “Sorry about what?” I asked, robustly Santa-like.

brookdaleholiday4“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed.

I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it.

The scene played out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing-it-up, trying to help the guy out with his discomfort. After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine.“O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.”

He glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He was loosening up a little, though that was countered a bit as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide; guess it’s not every day you see a Marine sitting on Santa’s lap. He smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-small talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.” which was a high school within walking distance of the mall.  I nodded, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked sports with the young man, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras for a time; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the fevered looks on many of the women in the crowd, she wasn’t the only one) finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine.

“Thank you, Santa, sir.” He said crisply, with just a hint of relief, in what I believe was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette for the situation.

Then, bag of pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd quickly dispersed.

To my understanding, the young man was probably breaking protocol by wearing his dress blues in such a setting. But in the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to more than a few Marines to not one objection. Younger Jarheads tend to dressbluehatlook at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs’ if their own situations. Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly.

All have agreed at my story punchline: it’s a pretty unique take on ‘Semper Fi’

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles about mall Santas, the at times heartbreaking requests they get, the funny things kids say, that sort of thing, and I invariably think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet, suburban Minneapolis mall.  Sometimes in conversation, someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

I can always take things in a slightly different direction – with the story of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

Listen to your body

Two weeks ago Sunday, I had a heart attack. By Monday, I had learned a lot about a number of things; first and foremost, pay attention and listen to your body. I am glad I did.
A synopsis.
Sunday morning, just past nine. I was working on my laptop, and checking the time, as I was going to get dressed, and be out the door just after nine thirty to go to church. I was just wrapping up what I was typing, noting that it was 9:05, and I felt a weird pain behind my breastbone.
This is not an unusual are of pain/discomfort for me, as I have a touch of arthritis on an upper rib, and sometimes, especially when I have been physically active, the tendons and muscles running across the are become inflamed. I can usually massage out the resulting muscle knot with my fingers, and sometimes throw on an ice pack.
But this was different.
It was not an intense pain, but it was steady, and noticeably different. I cannot describe exactly how it was that much different, but I knew it was out of the norm. I figured I would let it go for a few minutes and see, but then I felt two pin-pricks on each side of my jaw. That, I knew was not right, even though they lasted just a few seconds and were not radiating to/from anywhere. Then, I felt the same sensation is each shoulder, and even though it lasted only a second or two, and was again not radiating, I knew I should get into the hospital.
I woke up my wife, who had dozed off while reading, and told her I needed to get to the ER. We quickly got dressed, informed our son Sam about what was going on, and got in the car for the fifteen-minute drive to the hospital. While getting dressed, I felt a minor wave of nausea, so quickly popped in a TUMS.
The drive was fine, until the last few minutes, when the pain in my chest intensified a bit; not tremendously, but enough so that it was noticeable. I was not, at this point in great pain, but I knew something was way off.
Two minutes later, we pull up to the Oschner ER door, Amy goes to park the car. It was a blustery fall morning, cool and windy, but when I got out of the car and stood up, I felt flushed. When I walked in through the automatic doors, the desk staff commented on the cold wind blowing in. I walked up to the desk, gave them my info and insurance card, and they had me go sit down. I still felt ‘off’, but was not in appreciable pain. The clock on wall said 9:45.
A young triage doc named Lance quickly called my name, had me sit and took my BP. He looked at the reading, then immediately ushered me into a room about ten feet away, where he hooked me up to an EKG. he asked how long I had been having this pain, and I said, “It started just after nine” to which Lance responded, “And you came right here?” We finished, he walked me out and told me to take a seat in the waiting area. Amy had just walked in from parking the car, so this all (BP, EKG) happened very quickly. Lance said he would be right back, and I took the chair next to Amy.
By now I was very warm, and as I sat next too Amy, the pain started to intensify – actually, the pressure in my chest started to intensify, which led to pain all throughout my torso. A few minutes later Lance reappeared with a wheelchair, and said “Mr. Lucker, let’s go.” By now I was feeling rotten; chest pressure, I was hot, starting to become nauseous. As Lance started picking up speed with the wheelchair, it was like being on a carnival ride; I was relieved because the rushing air was cooling, but my nausea was getting worse. It seemed like a reasonable trade-off.
Lance then turned sharply into a big exam room, and I counted at least eight people there, including a blonde woman who immediately introduced herself and said, “Mr. Lucker, Hi, I’m doctor —-, and we’re going to get you taken care of.” I, unfortunately, can’t remember her name, but she was incredible.
It was just like on TV; the doctor who had introduced herself was obviously the maestro, conducting the crazy medical symphony; directing some staff members, asking for various stats from others, and talking to me directly, pointedly, calmly. One of the first things she asked was the same series of questions I got from Lance, with almost the same response: “How long have you been having this chest pain?” and “And you came right in to the ER? That’s good.”
This pattern repeated itself, but with variations once the catheter lab guys and cardiac surgeons got involved: “How many hours ago did the chest pain start?” followed by obvious surprise when I replied, “about nine this morning” – every time the question was asked an answered, the doctor would glance at the clock, then verify my response with something along the lines of, “So just in the last hour or so?” to which I kept responding, “Yes.”
At least six times that I remember, I went through this routine with a doctor – and that was just between my arrival in the ER, a trip to the exam room, and then being wheeled into the cath lab; a bit more than an hour, all told. Over the next day or so, I had the same conversation over and over, with other doctors and technicians, and all four of my stellar ICU nurses.
The response was always one of surprise, and clarification was always sought, accompanied by a glance at whatever clock or watch was handy. Turns out, I am something of an anomaly.
I listened to my body.
What I have come to learn from the excellent doctors and nurses who have been caring for me is that most people in my situation do not listen to their own bodies, and wait – sometimes too long – to take their situation seriously and seek medical attention.
I know this, because I later asked, noting my surprise that doctors kept phrasing the question in terms of hours; “How many hours were you having this pain before you came in?” and seeing their surprise when I replied, “about forty-five minutes before I got here.”
I listened to my body.
The medical professional said that most people wait – either because of denial or fear. A quick bit of research on what the pros told me was easily confirmed; one NIH study I quickly found showed that 69% of heart attack patients had delayed seeking treatment for their symptoms.
This quote from the NIH study:
‘The most important causes of having delay were: “hoping the symptoms to alleviate spontaneously”, “attributing the symptoms to other problems other than heart problems”, and “disregarding the symptoms”.’
I listened to my body.
I cannot imagine what would have happened had I not. Had I waited, or just blown everything off, or headed to St. Marks, the worst part would have hit somewhere else other than the ER. I would not have been two minutes away from a team of professionals, one of who immediately placed a nitroglycerin pill under my tongue and told me to hold it there. Had I not been in the Oschner ER when this episode escalated…?
I listened to my body.
Most people, faced with similar circumstances when it comes to their heart, apparently do not.
I am not writing or sharing this just to share my story; there are much better, more amusing, more curious parts of it to share from a storytelling standpoint. I am sharing this because I was very fortunate, in large part because I realized that something wasn’t anywhere near right – even though I really didn’t feel ‘all that bad’ at the time.
I listened to my body.
Oh, and ignoring or downplaying heart symptoms is not just a stubborn-male attribute. One of the more interesting statistics I found when doing some basic research? Women are more likely than men to delay treatment.
Thankfully, I listened to my body.
I hope this encourages you to listen to yours, too.

The Bird

Thanksgiving 1979 found me in living in on my own in Marshalltown, Iowa and working at KDAO radio. I was going to be working on Thanksgiving, but what was cool was that my friend Rick Hunter was going to be joining me, on his holiday break journey home to Colorado from chefcollege life in Minnesota.

An actual guest! A real opportunity to make a full-fledged Thanksgiving!  A couple of cookbooks supplemented with phone calls home to mom in Denver to help iron out some nuances and I was ready. I was nineteen and knew my way around a kitchen, having worked in a professional one for most of my high school years.

O.K., I was a dishwasher. Still, I picked up more than a few tricks-of-the-trade.

With Rick scheduled to arrive sometime Wednesday, I thought I could get a lot of stuff done on Tuesday. Mom had confirmed my planning, but she also added a key point: thawing the bird. My initial plan was to pick up the turkey on Wednesday and be ready to go, but mom cautioned that thawing was a time-consuming process, that should start on Tuesday at the latest.

The bird.

As a Thanksgiving gift from the radio station, every staff member got a fifteen dollar gift certificate to the local Fareway store, and a gift certificate for a free, ‘up-to- twenty-pound’ frozen turkey.

Perfect.

The gift certificate covered the bulk of the non-poultry essentials: cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans, and gravy. Marshmallows, a box of instant mashed potatoes, a pumpkin pie, an apple pie, a package of a dozen (big) bakery chocolate chip cookies. Rolls, a jar of olives, a jar of pickles, a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing and a pound of Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage so I could duplicate my mom’s fabulous sausage stuffing rounded out the grocerieslist.

We also needed appetizers: cheese, sausage and crackers.  Just like mom would do it at home.  I also picked up a bulbous turkey baster, a six-pack of Coca-Cola, and a disposable aluminum turkey roaster. Fifteen bucks went a lot farther in 1979 than it does today. My out-of-pocket was less than three bucks.

Oh yeah. The bird.

Getting a free turkey was a big deal. Small market radio was not lucrative. Plus, popping into a store with a gift certificate from the radio station was a sign of small town prestige and celebrity. The dang things were a full sheet of parchment, like a stock certificate. People at the store knew who you were.

The key phrase here was  ‘up-to-20 lbs.’ This, of course, meant I could have chosen pretty much any turkey, but in my 20-year-old mind, the gift certificate screamed, ‘Free twenty pound turkey’.

Never look a gift bird in the mouth.

I picked out a prime, nineteen pound, ten-ounce bird; the twenty pounders all gone by the time I showed up at the store Tuesday afternoon. Arriving home as pleased hunter-gatherer, my next turkeyraw1order of business was to get that rock-solid bird thawed.

Dilemma one.

My apartment was on the third floor of an old bread factory where the former executive offices had been made into apartments. The rooms were spacious, with high ceilings, funky old moldings, and big water and steam pipes snaking their way through the place. But in redeveloping, they furnished the kitchen like an efficiency apartment; the gas stove was one of those old, narrow jobs with burners so close together, that if you were cooking more than one stove-top item at a time, you could only use small saucepans and angle the handles oddly so they would stay on the stove. The single compartment porcelain-sink-on-legs was so small the plastic dish drainer I got when I first moved in barely fit in it.

Where to thaw a 19-10 bird?

The refrigerator was small and filled with other stuff. I had a cheap, Styrofoam cooler the turkey dwarfed – that left the bathtub. What they had skimped on in the kitchen, they made up for in the bathroom: a Chester-Arthur-sized, cast iron, claw foot tub with single spigot that took roughly 20 minutes to fill to take a bath in. Or to get enough water to cover a twenty pound turkey to thaw.

Dilemma solved, provided I didn’t need to bathe.

The bird bobbed placidly in the filled tub, though I periodically had to refresh the water level. The rubber drain stopper was cracked and not very efficient, and the large, cast iron radiator next to the tub accelerated evaporation.

I called mom to update her on my progress to date, commenting about the hassle of filling the tub to thaw the bird.

“Couldn’t you just put it in the refrigerator or a cooler?” she asked quizzically.

“Nope” I replied, “It wouldn’t fit.” There was a pause.

“Well, how big is the turkey?” I told her about my free, nineteen-pound, ten-ounce bird. There turkeyraw1ewas another pause.

“What the hell are you doing with a twenty pound turkey!?” I knew that tone of exasperation.

“It’s what the station gave me.”

“For two people!? I thought it was a gift certificate. Couldn’t you pick out your own turkey!?”

“Yeah, I did. It was a gift certificate for a twenty pound turkey – so that’s what I got.”

“Oh, Mark!” She was trying to be cross. She was snickering (sort of) as I heard her turn away from the phone and exasperated, tell my father, “Mark has a twenty pound turkey for he and Rick.”

I heard my father reply dryly, “I hope they like turkey sandwiches.”

My mother then calmly tried to explain to me that even for the six guests she was expecting on Thursday, she did not have a twenty-pound bird, and that I had better make sure I had plenty of aluminum foil to wrap leftovers in.

foil(Extra foil had not been on my shopping list. I ended up needing two full large rolls of Reynolds Wrap.)

Wednesday arrived, as did Rick. The bird continued to bob and thaw.

My Thursday plan was to wake up early enough to get the turkey in the oven, prep whatever else I could, get to the station for my 10-to-2 shift, come home, watch some football and hang with Rick, and feast.

Getting the turkey in the oven was the biggest issue.

As noted, my oven was narrow. I plucked the bird from the tub, and began prepping it by cleaning it, taking out the gizzards, buttering it, seasoning it, stuffing it, etcetera, without incident. Rick awoke, joined me in the kitchen, observed the scenario and said, matter-of-factly, “Is that thing going to fit?”

Well, wasn’t that spatial.

The turkey didn’t fit – at least not at first shove. Fortunately, I had a disposable aluminum roaster and the sides were pliable enough to be bent on both sides, plus get scrunched up against the back of the stove. It took some extended shoving and pan bending, but we got the bird into the oven without getting ourselves burned.

That oven was wall-to-wall turkey.

A good turkey needs to get its moisture regularly, and I had devised a plan that would benefit everyone: the ‘KDAO Bird Watch.’

JackLaLanneEvery twenty minutes on-air I would announce “It’s KDAO Bird Watch time!” and remind people that it was time to ‘baste those birds’ – leading them through the process ala Jack LaLane with the mantra, “And baste, one…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…” as I then smoothly segued into the next record. Sometimes we basted on the beat of the music.

(It was a public service and programming success to the extent that, much to the bewilderment of Paul, the guy on after me got phone calls of complaint when he failed to announce the bird watch every twenty minutes, and he was also later blamed by some listeners for dried out birds.)

It was one fine, juicy turkey we indulged in that afternoon….save for the leather-tough burns on the outside of each drumstick, where they had spent their roasting time shoved up against the walls of the oven.

We ate, watched football, called high school friends in Colorado, ate some more. On Friday, Rick hit the road for Colorado with a load of turkey sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies and I can’t remember what else. If memory serves, he took the offered sandwiches grudgingly, as he appeared to be turkeyed out. Me? I had no such qualms…until about mid-December.

turkeydoneTo this day, I enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers almost more than the initial meal.

Mom was right about the foil, dad the sandwiches. Every last nook and cranny of my meager freezer was stuffed with turkey (pun intended) and the last frozen pack made its way out for freezer-burned consumption on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, 1980.

My best advice for a successful Thanksgiving feast? It’s pretty simple, kids: “Baste! One…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…””