To absent friends

 “I miss my friends tonight, their faces shine for me,
The clamor of their singing like some mad calliope.
Still ringing through the Lion’s Head until the morning light,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…

– Tom Paxton, ‘Comedians & Angels’

My fortieth high school class reunion weekend commences tonight – two evenings and a Sunday afternoon of remembering, reflecting, reconnecting; relationships reconstituted and South 2rejuvenated. For some of us, festivities have already begun; coming into town a few days early, staying with friends:

Coffee and donuts with a friend, followed by a solitary, reflective walk through an old neighborhood.

Longtime besties and their respective spouses getting together.

A spontaneous, uproarious, karaoke outing lasting til the wee hours.

Old flames on a long-pined-for dinner date.

But tonight is our initial group outing; a mixer at a tavern near our old school. Beer and pizza, lively conversation. Scorekeeping; who is here, who isn’t, will be duly noted – some solemnly, some with a measure of relief.  Some will not be remembered by many, as it is in a large school, with over four hundred-fifty graduates. The actual tally can be a daunting Screenshot (12)eye opener: just over four-hundred located, 39 deceased, 42 listed as ‘missing’.

Casualty numbers from the war of time.

Toasts will be offered to those not with us, a few tears will be shed, some rueful laughter; memories will be shared.

“A song for every season, a smile in every fight,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

My hope is tonight will not be one dedicated to mourning, but of celebration – of what those no longer with us meant to us, individually, collectively.  We were more than classmates, not just friends. We were, in many way family.  Make no mistake, those no longer here left their marks.

Great anecdotal stories, heartfelt toasts, tears shed: legacies not taken lightly at this stage of life. The indifference and sadness of youth has given way to appreciation for what – who – was lost, and what gifts and opportunities those of us who have preserved, survived, have been allowed to enjoy.

“I wonder where they are now – could be anywhere
in hell, or California, or back in Sheridan Square!
They left us where they left us, so we put o ut the light,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

Some of those we will raise a glass to were not even members of our class, but dear friends a year ahead of us, a year or even two behind. Part of us, members of our ’77 family.

“Each one drained a parting glass and sailed out to sea,
And what a crew of rogues they made, in gleeful anarchy!
They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

Comedians and angels, indeed. Also rouges and connivers, charmers and brusque ne’er-do-wells. Not always the easiest to live with, not often recognized or saluted. The South 3innocuous, the brash; those humble, and the ego-driven that often drove us.

Like I said, family.

The list of those no longer with us is lengthy, and the names vary in memory and significance to each of us, but on behalf of all of us still here, still carrying the banner of the class of 1977.

Godspeed, my friends.

And thanks to you all.  We miss you, and hope we’ve done you proud.

“They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight.

Comdians and angels…I miss my friends tonight.”

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

Backroads

Old habits of youth die hard, but are easily resurrected.

It is July; the heat of the summer of my fifty-fifth year and I am walking along IMG_20140722_141823 - Copy - Copya northern Minnesota country road much as I did nearly a half-century ago. As I walk, my attention centers on the gravel at my feet, though I alternately glance furtively at the wind-swayed birches to either side of the road.

But I am concentrating on the rocks and stones that I trod.

I am seeking two specific kinds of rock; white quartz, and shiny silica, favorites of my youth. In part it is a mental exercise to see if my powers of observation are still as keen as my youthful days of filling up partitioned whiskey boxes with various stones, neatly organized.

It does not take long for old behaviors to kick in, though to be fair, milky white IMG_20140722_144451 - Copyquartz is amongst the most common minerals in the world, and the alluvial and glacial till that paves rural Midwestern roads is as ubiquitous and unquestioned as the air itself.

I walk these woods whenever my family and I return home, no matter the time of year. I am walking today not so much to rekindle my youth, but as a comfortable respite from a hectic and at times stressful summer off, away from my New Orleans classroom where I teach high school English.

What was supposed to be six weeks of part-time employment, touching base with friends and family and general decompression concluding with my daughter’s wedding before an early August return to prepare for the new school year has been something else entirely.

IMG_20140722_142338 - CopyAhh, the best laid plans.

An unexpected death and subsequent funeral, car troubles, a stove conking out and needing replacement, a broken nose (not mine) and an array of other fits and starts have turned the summer into one more of mental gymnastics and retooling in many respects than relaxation and rejuvenation.

On the other hand, there have been unexpected and heartfelt reunions and revelations, surprising others seeking my input and counsel, some genuine and spontaneous moments I would not have predicted but am very grateful for.

It is all about perspective.

The first draft of this missive is being written in a black leather-bound journal given to me just the other day by dear friends of over thirty years. It belonged to their son, who died tragically this past spring at age twenty-two. The journal is (or at least was) empty save for two quotations about writing taped into the front and back covers. His parents had discovered this particular journal along with a number of others of various styles, sizes, bindings – mostly blank, awaiting their calling. In addition, there were dozens of filled notebooks and journals: poems, stories, quotes, song lyrics. Thoughts and ideas, random musings.

They are overwhelmed by the volume of books and have not had time to read through much of it as yet. The sheer number of filled notebooks is staggering to them, but I get it. I, too, have stacks of notebooks and journals filled with…life.

This one they wanted me to have, and I am grateful. I only hope I am up to the challenge of filling it properly.

The gift touched me, even more so now that I have it with me, outside in the IMG_20140722_193805 - Copysummer sun. The heat warms the leather, releasing the richness of its aroma. The scent permeates the pages themselves, as does Aidan’s presence, mingling with the fragrance of good wood pulp – the kind that makes an elegant, gliding, scratching sound when creased by the tip of a sharpened pencil.

The sound of words filling the page keep time with the rustling birch leaves. Orioles and chickadees provide backup harmony. Aidan played guitar.

We sat yesterday, his father and I, in Aidan’s room, taking it all in. The poems and song lyrics painted on the walls, the journals. Leafing through page after page of Aidan’s thoughts both ordinary and profoundly mundane. Sad and amusing, poignant and quizzical.

I knew Aidan all of his short life. I was, in fact, one of the first non-family members to hold him, though as families we had not seen each other much the past few years. He spent most of his life in and around the northwoods of Minnesota, and of Lake Superior. His relationship with nature was solid. Mine is deep but comes and goes; a city kid who spent the summers of youth on a northern lake, and only periodically returns to the woods for family visits and vacations, I don’t have the same relationship with nature that Aidan did.

IMG_20140722_144427 - CopyAs I walk along I take note of the freshness of the familiar; wild daisies and ferns, scrub and Norway pines, the ever-present birch trees – to me the most fascinating of trees in part because of the bark. The duplex in Minneapolis where I spent the first ten years of my life featured a large birch in the backyard. At the age of seven I nearly killed it stripping off its lower bark in order to make an Ojibwe canoe as I had learned about in school…

The rocks around me are in no such danger.

On Aidan’s dresser sits a large mayonnaise jar filled with crystals. I looked at them for a bit as we sat in his room, put my hand in the jar and picked up a few, running them through my fingers. They reminded me of the milky quartz I had collected those many years ago – though without the spiritual aspects that seem to go along with crystals. At least in theory.

The chunks of quartz that I am kicking up today, that I am picking up and putting into the torn off corner of a plastic grocery bag that I have lined my cargo shorts pocket with, are asymmetrical chunks and in varying sizes. Most are dirty, there is nothing terribly unique about any of them. But they are remindful.

I am back in professional youthful rockhound mode; I walk the gravel road with purpose, taking it all in, observing, catching a glimpse of white or shiny mica, or some other oddity, picking them up in stride, filling my bag-lined pocket. I am twelve again, walking through the woods, picking up rocks just because they are cool, communing with nature and then stopping to write about it.

Notebook filling, the old-fashioned way.

The afternoon is fading and I turn to head back to my brother-in-law’s house. I am now walking mostly westward, into the latter-day sun; the small pieces of
mica in the gravel glint in a way I have not noticed before. The white lumps of quartz take on a shinier quality, and thanks to the angle of the sun I even find IMG_20140722_150810 - Copysome less common rose quartz pieces mixed in the aggregate.

I am back at the house with a full pocket and a beginning to be filled journal. It is a good start.

Aidan, we hardly knew ye. But in some ways, I know you better now than I ever did before.

Tabulating

I just finished writing and sending an email to an old friend. Though we haven’t seen each other in a number of years, modern technology has negated much of the distance and filled in the gaps; email and blogs were not part of the lexicon when Keith and I first met and cellphones were still more a status symbol than necessity.

So yes, it’s been a while.

This time I was writing Keith at the behest of his wife, who has gracefully and compassionately been using email over the past few years to keep us all abreast of Keith’s battle with pancreatic Cancer – a journey that now has him in hospice care in another state. His wife’s latest update tells us that while there are many things he can no longer do well, his ‘one constant companion is his iPad on which he reads books and email.’ She has noted in previous updates how much comfort and enjoyment such messages bring Keith.

I am gratified that I can oblige.

Technology has certainly changed all of our lives dramatically over the past few years, for better and worse. It certainly makes situations like this more immediate; an email is received, responded to and then read in a very short time frame. There is something to be said for immediacy – and for Keith not having to try to read my handwriting.

Knowledge is power – and powerful.

Just this past weekend I learned of the death of the father of a good friend from high school; she had been keeping people posted on her dad’s situation since he entered hospice care a week before. It obviously brought her some comfort to be in electronic communion of sorts with a lot of people, and hopefully the ongoing responses help bring her some comfort.

Such is the age we live in.

Thirteen-plus years ago, my wife was on five weeks of bed rest in Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis, trying to prevent the very premature birth of our son Sam. In order to keep friends and family in the loop as to what was happening, every couple of days I sent out an email detailing the latest medical developments. This enabled me to quickly get out information to a lot of people, and also resulted in responses that, in those CPU’s and tower days, needed to be printed out at home and brought to Amy in the hospital.

This turned out to be a valuable tool in stemming her boredom and disconnectedness.

The longer she stayed bed ridden, the more involved the responses became, and the more valuable they were to her as a comforting reading material. Those emails and the touching responses ended up in a ring binder that was not only a source of heartfelt concern and inspiration, but as a diary of sorts of our hospital stay – nearly three months overall, by the time Sam was born and when he finally came home.

It’s a wonderful, organically occurring keepsake, our ‘Sam Binder.’

Fast forward thirteen years: it is a fairly regular occurrence for me to be sent a link via email or Facebook to someone’s CaringBridge site, and the opportunity to quickly reach out to friends in crisis. A recent situation involving the father of a good friend of my wife’s, who was injured in an accident allowed the opportunity to offer support even without being there physically. Sometimes it’s for someone who we only know tangentially – but even those moments allow us to reach out to the persons or families we know more keenly.

These are all good things.

Though it would be easy to simply dash of an email response, hit ‘send’ and go about day-to-day life, I don’t believe most people are like that. For the most part, I think my generation (tail-end baby boomers) view this form of community as a welcome development. Even my mother regularly passes along CaringBridge and church prayer request updates from her circle of friends and generational family members that I am acquainted with.

The personal list of cyber-connections in times of need is a lengthy one; a friend of forty-plus years whose son has leukemia (thankfully now in remission); another friend from the same vintage in has struggled for years with severe diabetes. He and I chat on line often and it gives me the chance to check in, see how he is doing, offer up some encouragement, share our faith journeys with one another.

It’s good for both of us.

There are other friends with various health issues who have yet to join the technological revolution, and I must admit to a sense of frustration in having to keep track of things via phone and snail mail. This is especially frustrating for a friend of mine who lives in another state and suffers from Parkinson’s; he frequently has a full answering machine – a source of frustration on the occasions when I do think to give him a call.

I can always call back, though I admit to a certain degree of frustration and forgetfulness in that regard.

I have found it personally and professionally beneficial to keep up with technology, for many reasons I never envisioned. Though I am pretty handy with a wide array of software, accounting has never been my thing – with our without a computer. But I can certainly say that there aren’t many weeks that go by when simply hopping on-line gives me a pretty good accounting of my personal blessings.

Which reminds me:  I need to make a phone call or two.

From the Marchives*: ‘Kids, don’t try this at home. Again.” A Valentine’s Day Vignette

*Revisiting a popular post from Valentines past

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.

A young musician comes to town

Last week some friends of ours from Minnesota came to New Orleans for a visit. Ed, Roberta and their fifteen-year old son Thomas use their fall break every year to take in someplace different – this year, New Orleans was their destination.

Ed and Roberta had been here previously, Thomas had not – though the story of his conception at the landmark Hotel Monteleone provided a marvelous moment of teen I-don’t-really-want-to-hear-this-story over coffee and beignets our first gathering. in the French Quarter.

I’m pretty sure that moment wasn’t the high point of the visit for Thomas, but I think I know what was: our Friday night roaming the Marigny district, taking in the music and sights of Frenchmen Street – where serious musicians and music fans can be found.

While Bourbon Street enjoys a well-deserved world-wide reputation for its entertainment venues of all kinds (musical and otherwise) Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood that butts up against the French Quarter, is known for its intimate musical venues, street musicians, and all-around eclecticism of locales and denizens, is the preferred locale for many locals when it comes to hearing great music. (http://www.frenchmenst.com/)

Into this environment stepped young Thomas, a budding musician in his own right, a guitar player and drummer in a band back in Minnesota.

It was about six on a Friday evening, and Roberta, Ed and Tom had arrived on Frenchmen a little before us. We met in front of a club called the Spotted Cat, because there is a local musician we wanted them to hear who was playing. Unfortunately, with two teenagers and a pre-teen in tow (Tom and our sons Will and Sam) we were limited in our options, as many of the venues don’t allow anyone under twenty-one at all, and some don’t allow minors on Friday or Saturday nights. Such was the case at the ‘Cat.

But one of the joys of Frenchmen is that you don’t necessarily need to go in to a place to partake in the music; small, intimate clubs, doors wide open, the music and ambiance spilling out onto the age-old sidewalks block after block; you can catch a lot just roaming the street, even at that early hour. Plus, this is New Orleans, so the ubiquitous plastic ‘go-cup’ allows a certain portability of beverages that most cities don’t offer. It’s all part of the local charm and ambiance.

One club we stopped at held sit-down potential; an employee at the door told us we could come in, but as we started to sit down, the bar manager informed us she couldn’t seat the boys on a Friday– but she did have an easy alternative.

She motioned us to a couple of small tables by the window, and said the boys could use her ‘bench out front’ and we could order them Cokes. She then proceeded to lead the boys out front to an ancient, charmingly nicked up and initial-carved wooden bench in front of her club, where two middle-aged white gentlemen were sitting quietly, and adroitly and tactfully started shooing them away.

“Okay, fellas. You gotta go – I’ve got paying customers!”

“Why we have to go?” replied one of the men, puzzled.

“I told you; I’ve got paying customers, so you guys gotta go somewhere else.”

“We gotta go?”

“Yep. Paying customers tonight.” The men looked at her for a moment, then, with some feigned resignation, relinquished their spots and ambled off down the street.

Our visitors seemed a bit taken aback by the rather matter-of-fact nature of the I-can-accommodate-you-let-me-shoo-the-vagrants-away-first encounter, but in the thirty-seconds all of that was transpiring, Thomas pointed down the street to a club called Maison where he said the woman he spoke with at the door before we arrived said he would certainly be allowed in.

“Let’s go.”

The club is a place that my wife and I had walked by before on previous visits, but had never been in. As advertised, the young woman at the door told us we would all be welcome to come in and sit down, at least for the first full set of the night. (One of the great things about Frenchmen is that most clubs offer non-stop music from late afternoon on through closing at two a.m. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, the early sets are usually lesser knowns and wannabees, often playing just for tips. Still, it’s all great music; there are no bad acts on Frenchmen – and that includes the street performers.)

The staff pushed together a couple of tables in a prime locale, and all seven of us settled in to listen to the end of the opening set; a group of late twenty-somethings playing contemporary jazz. We ordered a round of drinks and settled in.

Tom took a seat with his back to the wall and a clear view of the small stage and began intently watching every move of the four guys on stage. Visually, here wasn’t much to see, at least from my perspective. This is just great music, with serious musicians just playing; no pyrotechnics, no crowd-rousing between song babble, just the guys playing.

That’s Frenchmen Street in a nutshell.

Watching Tom through the ending twenty-minutes or so of that set was fascinating; he was taking in every little moment. His eyes would get especially animated during the lengthy solos, and I watched his eyebrows rise and fall with every unique bass groove or drum riff. Meanwhile, my boys had a different tack; fifteen-year-old Will, a budding drummer in his own right, was moderately  invested but still spent a lot of his time texting while twelve-year-old Sam observed with the detached glare of a newspaper music critic. After three years of living here, they are more used to music just being there; no big deal for them.

Talk about seeing something through a new set of eyes.

Tom was obviously soaking everything in; the music, the musicians, the venue. Between songs I watched him looking around at the centuries old brick walls of the club, the elongated, polished wood bar, the constant stream of customers in and out of the place. He also seemed fascinated by the clinical efficiency of the transition between sets; the first group finished, they passed the tip jar while they packed up their stuff and made way for the next group and set – all seemingly in the blink of an eye.

There is no wasted time or effort here. Once a group is done, they pack up and get off, while the next group is setting up. There are no roadies, no lengthy intermissions – they keep the customers in their seats and buying drinks and the music flowing with quick, smooth transitions.

We enjoyed the end of the early set, had some appetizers, and sat through the first half-hour or so of the main set of the night before departing, as Tom and his family  had a Saturday morning flight home. By the time we left, the late afternoon sunshine had been replaced by the darkness of night washed in the romantic glow of subdued neon; again, none of the touristy, garish gaudiness of Bourbon Street. By this time, the streets were filled with people roaming from club-to-club, music of all kinds was wafting from every doorway.

They had parked their rental car about three blocks from Maison, and in that three block walk we eavesdropped on jazz in a number of different forms, plus some soulful, horn-tinged R-and-B, a bit of reggae, a dose of Cajun swamp rock and  some seventies rock.

And that was just the acts in the clubs.

That three-block stretch also included a wide array of street performers; two different (style/tone/street corner)  folk guitarists, a solo violinist, a klezmer-tinged jazz sextet, a guy playing a coronet, a stray flaminco guitarist and a group of eight musicians huddled together in a corner doorway playing jazz-flavored classical music. This lineup featured a bearded guy wearing a dress, sitting on a chair playing his accordion. Quite well, I might add.

Tom caught a glimpse of the guy and his attire before I did and it provided this typical newcomer-night-in-New Orleans exchange: “Umm, that guy is wearing a dress.” Me, casually and unmoved, “Yeah, I guess he is.”

It was quite an interesting, truly New Orleans walk.

After getting them to their rental car and saying our goodbyes, we passed by the same group on the way to our van. The bearded guy and his seven friends were still playing away, though he had set the accordion down and was now playing a saw. Yeah, your basic Stanley short-cut jazz saw.  Quite well, I might add. Tom should have seen what we saw, the guy in the dress, playing his saw.  Even without that, he saw and heard plenty on his night on the ‘Nawlins scene.

So with apologies to Dr. Seuss, a salute to Tom the young musician:

“I took off from school,

went to New Orleans

Dad saying to me,

“Thomas, keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.”

But when I tell folks where I’ve been

And what I think I’ve seen,

they look at me and sternly say,

“Your eyesight’s much too keen.

“Stop telling such outlandish tales.

Stop turning minnows into whales.”

But it’s a true story, and has quite a beat,

When I say that we saw and heard it

all on Frenchmen Street.”

Aged to perfection

I felt like such a grown up Friday night.

I’m fifty-two years old, but that’s how I felt spending time with an old friend talking into the wee hours of a July Saturday morning. My friend Mark lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and graciously opened his home to my wife, two sons and I for an evening layover as we made our way back to New Orleans from a week-long trip to Washington, D.C.

I could not have scripted a better last night on the road.

Mark and I became friends nearly forty years ago at South High School in Denver, Colorado – light years both physically and ontologically from our current home and life locales. A friendship that began on the common ground of South’s vaunted drama department has morphed over the years into something I can’t explain and won’t even try. Near daily Facebooking over the past few years, and regular emailing prior to that, has kept us in touch and even deepened the relationship.

After arriving at Mark’s condo and relaxing for a bit, we all went out to dinner at a very cool pizza place called The Mellow Mushroom, a place with a 60’s/70’s hippie motif, including wait staff adorned with tie-dyed shirts. The distinctive aromas and visuals made it easy to be mentally transported to 1977, our senior year at South. Sitting across the booth tabletop from one another was a flashback moment – our key hangout during high school was a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor – adding a certain funky symmetry to the evening even though the pizzas going by looked little like the pizzas of our teenaged palates.

While the setting took me back, the food was a good metaphor for the differences in our lives then-and-now. This was not a teenage choice between pepperoni and sausage, sausage or pepperoni; this was pizza for grown-ups! Mark ordered a red-skin potato pie topped with ranch dressing and sour cream (pretty good) while Amy and I split a Caesar salad pizza, a garlic pie topped off with (yep) Caesar salad and Roma tomatoes (very tasty). The boys played to predictable youthful form, sticking with more traditional fare; peperoni and bacon.

Give ‘em a few decades.

The conversation and great food flowed freely between the five of us, and after dinner and a tour of downtown Lexington, we returned to Mark’s place for more conversation and relaxation before a night’s rest and hitting the road back to New Orleans on Saturday morning.

As the evening progressed, son Sam turned in for the night as did my wife. Fifteen-year old Will hung around as an active participant in the proceedings, and Mark was only too happy to pick up on a couple of my memory threads and was happy to elaborate on them for my son’s benefit. Watching Will listen intently and quizzically to Mark fleshing out a different-perspective-picture of his father as a teenager was immensely entertaining.

As to any insights truly gleaned, you’ll have to take that up with Will.

Will’s evening ended (so I thought) when I sent him up to bed clutching the Samurai sword Mark had gifted him, only to find him still awake and admiring the sword when I went upstairs to go to bed about four a.m. Very cool.

Left alone to our own devices, the conversation between Mark and I flowed easily and ran the gamut; sports to politics, current geography to Internet relationships, plus our kids, jobs, dreams and aspirations. Life stuff, ‘now; stuff. Mark and I talked on into the night, each accompanied by a glass he periodically refilled with Woodford Reserve bourbon – a hand-crafted, small batch bourbon; the good stuff. No cheap-hooch harshness here, no burning or after-taste, a spirit filled with nuance. Subtle and very smooth.

This was not my daddy’s whiskey.

The bourbon flowed as smoothly as the conversation, augmenting the experience, not driving it. We aren’t twenty anymore, grabbing a twelve pack and seeing how many are left at the end of the night. This was a slow, savor it experience. Woodford is a sipping bourbon that someone took the time and effort to cultivate into something not run-of-the-mill. A conversational sipping bourbon that needed to find its own way to fruition, aging slowly to maturity, a mellow blend of flavors that goes down easy and leaves a lingering, satisfying impression.

That bourbon is a lot like our friendship.

We did very little true, hard-core, remember-when reminiscing. The here-and-now of our current lives is far more relevant and interesting to each of us; the life stories we are writing now much richer than the refined and reconstituted tales already told. We both realize that our high school experience, rich and cherished as it was, absolutely helped shape us – but definitely does not define us.

Not that we didn’t meander down memory lane a time or two – but those were brief sidetracks, mostly centering on bringing each other up-to-date on mutual friends one of us had kept closer tabs on than the other – and some of it was purely for Will’s enlightenment and amusement. We also talked about friends and teachers now departed, people who had a major impact on our lives, what they meant to us, how those experiences play out in our lives still.

Grown up stuff.

But this was not really a night about the past – been there, done that – it was mostly about today and tomorrow; what is to come. I think we both have a good appreciation for where we are in life, both know that there is still a lot more to come, a lot more to do and experience. More than what was, we talked a lot about our respective kids, a little about the vagaries of growing older. Life still to be lived.

My kind of Friday night: good friend, good bourbon, good conversation, all punctuated by an ample supply of hearty laughter. It was a great night that faded softly into an early morning bedtime, only to be rekindled again over a couple of mugs of fresh, black coffee a few hours later. Five hours or five years, we can seamlessly pick it up where we left off.

My family and I hit the road to New Orleans late Saturday morning, but not before snapping a few pictures and sharing a few more laughs. I left satisfied and grateful for the experience. My night in Lexington wasn’t so much about the memories of shared past, but the memory of that night with my friend Mark is certainly worthy of itself being remembered.

You see, special friendships are like exceptional, handcrafted and well-aged bourbon. They should be sipped, shared and savored whenever possible. With good friends, of course.

Here’s to ya, pal. And thanks for the memory.