Disguised as good ideas

It is Halloween season, and as always, I hope to be invited to a costume party.  So far, my mailbox remains Charlie-Brown-on-Valentine’s-Day empty, but I am hopeful.

Being a positive-thinking, proactive kind of guy, some costume ideas are definitely in order so I am not caught totally off guard – though the thought that, should I ignore Halloween altogether, I will get an invite has crossed my mind.  Worst-case scenario here, maybe someone else can utilize some of my ideascostume_party_iii.

This being a political year like no other, I’ll stay away from any of that craziness.  That whole scene is scary enough without my participation. besides, who needs a brawl (or verbal, Facebookish harangue) while at a party?

If I do end up getting invited to a costume party, it would be in concert with my wife so it would seem prudent to consider a couples costume idea or two as part of my brainstorming.

She will probably cast a more dubious eye on that particular concept.

 

There are a world of possibilities that go far beyond renting Yogi and Cindy bear costumes (too old school)  Antony and Cleopatra (too pedestrian) or Grant Woods American Gothic (too dangerous, see: pitchfork) plus, I  am not shaving my head, so that’s another nada.  F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald have potential, but Scott was clean-shaven and I don’t think I want to go there, though I could see my wife Amy as Zelda.  Some of that would work in our native Midwest – not sure about our current, New Orleans locale; we’d need something more universal.

Maybe is we still lived in (their and our) native Minnesota, people would know who we were. New Orleans? Not so much.
250px-grant_devolson_wood_-_american_gothic
The pitchfork would be a party liability, safety wise, though it would be handy to hold multiple hors d’oeuvres

In the past, Amy shot down going as the best couples costume idea that I have ever seen.

Some years ago, I was at a costume party with some friends, and there was a young couple there that nobody could quite figure out at first. The young man was about six-one, dressed in a tight-fitting, dark brown body suit; the woman was a good foot shorter, very petite, and was wearing a snug white bodysuit stuffed with foam rubber. They each had a rectangular piece of cardboard with dots on them attached to their backs, and periodically they would have people stand back so they could run to the center of the room and embrace. They were, of course, a s’more.

Ehhh…no. So sayeth my wife.

Back on the literary front, I could try to talk her into going as the Venus de Milo and me as Ernest Hemingway, her biographer, billing ourselves as the “Original Farewell to Arms” – though the Venus get-up would probably impair her ability to easily partake in any culinary delights or libations, which would not go over very well.

Scrap Papa and muse concept

We will probably just have to go as separately costumed folk, sans connective theme. In fact, Amy might just prefer that.

There are options aplenty, of course.

If I could find a pair of grey long johns and some knee-high red wool hunting socks, I could glue dollar-store Barbie dolls all over me and go as a chick magnet – though with recent political events being what they are, I think I’ll file that one away for…never.

I do have an old, red, shortcut tuxedo jacket that passes as a matador’s uniform – though I would need some sequins or a Bedazzler. That could be fun as the evening progresses and people get a bit more…loosened up. I could walk by with a swoop of my cape and a pseudo-Latin dialect, telling pretentious-sounding people, “That is bull! Ole’!”

Probably not.

Contemplating costume ideas, I took a good look at myself in the mirror and that’s when it came to me: Sigmund Freud! Let the beard grow out a little bit, add some gray, get a big cigar, a pocket watch and a nice vest from Goodwill, then brush up on my best Viennese dialect. I can walk around introducing myself: “Hell-lo. I am Doctor Zigmund, Freud. I oonderstand you are having zum trouble vit your… zexxxxx?”

There is your primo costume, party-conversation starter double-play.

This seemed workable, so I dug up a picture of Freud and then went looking for one of myself to use in this blog post. Taking most of the family photos leaves me out of most of them, so my pickings on the ol’ hard drive were rather slim, and none too complimentary, save one.  And there was my costume idea, jumping off the screen and into my head:

Mardi Gras Sigmund Freud. freud-2

Vest, cigar, Viennese dialect – I could wear crinolines instead of pants; very southern, in a Freudian slip sort of way.

Or is that mixing too many costume metaphors?

This whole thing is still a work in progress, so I am very open to suggestions. Please act now; this operator is standing by.

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Duty

The old man stood peering down orderly rows of white marble. Matching in color with the rectangular monuments, wisps of his thin, white hair fluttered in the breeze. Two birds chirped from the branches of a distant tree, and in the distance, he could hear a crow. Couching gingerly on sturdily worn knees, he read the names etched in the headstones on either side of him; one he knew, the other, based on sparse, chiseled information, he felt he could have. He stepped back, looked up and down the crisp row of stones, turned on his heel, and stepped between the two, coming to swift attention.

Passersby would have found it a strange sight; an old man, standing at attention between two graves, facing the cleanly polished, unadorned side of other headstones. He would have appeared to be facing the wrong way to read 2_Fort_Snelling_Looking_Southeastanything on them. He was not.

The idea had just come to him to stand, one more time, in formation, with comrades. He had never done, or even thought of doing it, before today, before right now.

He thought back to the fateful end of his basic training as a paratrooper, his last jump from a plane, one final practice jump before his unit was shipped out; the jump where he landed awkwardly, shattered his left leg, ending his dreams of combat, nearly ending his career in the army. Only the intervention of an influential friend of his family kept him from getting the deserved, but loathed,  honorable, medical discharge. One week to the day before his release from the hospital, his unit had jumped behind enemy lines for the first – for some, the last – time.

For three of his old unit, including his best buddy, it was their only jump that counted. Now, here they were, back in formation. It all came back to him.

Three weeks in traction, followed by grueling physical therapy, and he was bound not for discharge, but for a desk job, somewhere. A hard-to-swallow, better-than-the-alternative option. He had hoped to go back to some sort of active duty role with a combat unit, but his leg was too badly damaged for any of that.  He could walk just fine, not totally without pain, but the puzzle pieces that were his left leg would balk at much more extensive rigor. The thought of sitting behind a desk held little appeal, and there were no other logical options.  Then, nearing the end of his hospital stay, he overheard someone in the mess hall mentioning mortuary duty. Unsure of what that meant, but pretty sure it did not involve a desk,  he decided to investigate his prospects there.

The colonel in charge of the unit he was assigned to was skeptical at first; very few men eagerly volunteered for the duty, and of those that did, many couldn’t hack it. The washout rate – even more than in paratroop school, he learned – was high.  He quickly came to understand why, though he never once thought of asking to transfer out. The work was, in almost every regard, as fear-laden, emotionally controlled, as jumping out of a plane had been. Just as difficult, too.

But, more than he felt would ever be the case behind a desk, it was humbly rewarding.

On his first assignment, on a train, escorting a fallen soldier to a small town he had never heard of, he encountered a Navy Chaplain, a slightly older man than he, who was on the same mission as he, for one of his own; a seaman, killed in battle. The two men spent precious hours talking about their respective jobs – their ‘calling’ the chaplain termed. He also said it was their ‘missionary field’ – to serve, spiritually as well as militarily which took the young soldier by surprise. As a boy, he had heard stories in church and had helped collect pennies for, church members doing missionary work – carrying out their ‘mission’ – but he could not bring himself to see his new job in the same light.

Until now, meeting the chaplain, he had considered himself just a soldier, carrying out his orders.  As he was soon to learn first hand, this duty was, to be sure, not just an assignment. Where once he had dreamed of being assigned to dangerous missions, and the potential to be a hero, the young soldier eventually came to refer to his work in the same vein as did the chaplain – this was his mission, in every sense of the word.  As the train rumbled through the night, the two men found they shared many a common bond; big city boys, amused at the naivete of many of their more countrified, fellow raw recruits they had encountered, and whom they now counted as friends unlike those they would ever find in their respective cities.  They shared many of the same experiences growing up; major league baseball games, gritty neighborhoods, subway trains, and cosmopolitan outlooks. They were kindred spirits, and the young soldier laughed at the similarities the two men shared, the stories they told each other.  With the exception of one story the chaplain told him that the soldier could never push out of his mind,  even if he had wanted to.

The chaplain told the younger man of his despair in not knowing what to say to a grieving family disappointed that their son died in a simple training mission, and not in the perceived glory of actual battle. The young man had served honorably and had earned promotions earlier than most of his peers, yet the family, for some reason the chaplain couldn’t grasp, felt cheated. Though it had been a year since he had brought the sailor IMG_7637_1200home to his final rest, the chaplain was still troubled by the family’s reaction, their outright disappointment, and his lack of answers for the man’s family. He wondered, he whispered repeatedly, if time had lessened their disappointment in the fate of their son.

As he listened intently to the chaplain’s story, the young soldier thought he knew something of what he family meant about disappointment, though he could never articulate that at the time. Nor could he tell the chaplain how he came to be there, on that train, escorting home a soldier who had died in battle. Nor could he say anything of the envy he felt – had felt until that moment – until the chaplain’s story of the disappointed family. Suddenly, he felt a little guilty for his misplaced jealousy for a dead man. In the years since, he had thought often of the chaplain, and of that story.

He thought about the chaplain again, standing here, amidst the fallen, grateful for having met him when he did, the first time he had escorted a young man home. He stood there, in the breeze, and let the memories come; the chaplain, the train ride, the young corporal he brought home to his grieving, but appreciative family. The first, nowhere near the last.

Time, and the soldier’s  experiences in the graves registration unit had softened, then eventually erased, his frustrations with never having jumped in combat.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times he had escorted a fallen serviceman home to a family. He had been one only two men in his thirty-man platoon to request to stay in graves registration when his tour was up. The rest had enough after one go around – those that didn’t transfer out early; it was difficult duty, impossible to describe until you had done it – something not for anyone or everyone.  There was no animosity or derision directed towards the men who left, silent admiration for those who stayed.

Bringing the dead home was not something every man was equipped for.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times. Big cities, small towns; the Northeast, the Midwest, the south and the mountain west. He had seen it all, through train windows, and mortuary sedans.  He had stood at attention at gravesides in small family plots alongside country churches, and in obscure corners of gritty, urban cemeteries that seemed to be cities themselves. He had become well-versed in services simple and profound; high masses and elaborate, afternoon-long prayer services.  He knew of being an outsider – the only person in attendance of his skin color, the only one in the room not of the denomination, not versed in the way they sang their hymns, how they said their prayers.  He had seen somber eulogies and been an invited, at times even honored, guest,  at a variety of wakes, reviewals, and repasts.  The routine for any and all of them came naturally to him, and he was determined that every wooden casket he escorted was treated with proper respect. At every destination stop, he was the first one off the train. The short hop from top step to station platform was just like the step out of a plane as a paratrooper.

Only for this duty, he never had a parachute.

After ensuring the dignified removal of each casket from the train, he would meet with the local mortician and escort the soldier to the mortuary. Sometimes the family had gotten word of their arrival and would be at the train station; at other times he carried out his duties in anonymity, contacting the family only after arriving at the funeral home. Over time he became conversant in the routine of the local mortuary staff; identifying the remains, preparation of the body for initial viewing by the family. The decisions laid out for each situation: open casket or closed, dress uniform or favorite suit for interment. Every situation different, every situation the same. No matter where, no matter who.

Death, especially in combat, knew nothing of the victim: black, white, rich, poor, city, country. Death was death, grief was grief. There was a finality as universal and as individual as each soldier he escorted home. The longer his mission, the deeper he felt his duty a calling.  Just as the chaplain had said that first night on the train.

He came to know intimately the unchanging, never-the-same-twice, liturgy of saying goodbye to a soldier: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Hebrew, atheist – every variation of each.  He had heard the 23rd Psalm spoken in more than a dozen native, immigrant languages, and knew who would favor lengthy oratory, who would quickly move through a few prayers and simple readings. Ironically, having no musical talent whatsoever,  for years, he could impress friends and family with his uncanny ability to recognize most any wwii imageChristian hymn by its first four or five notes.

There were standing-room-only crowds, audiences in name only and times of hastily recruited, unknown, volunteer pallbearers.

High church, tent revival, ten-minute graveside homily – he had seen them all. Men of various cloths; elaborate robes, simple, white collars, plain brown suits, and bib overalls. He knew which model rifle an honor guard was using from the clattering of shell casings hitting cemetery grass in the unison of the salute of a graveside volley, and knew instinctively when the trumpet player had never before played ‘Taps’ in public.

He remained, through his life, amazed at the gracious thankfulness expressed by grieving families.

There was often a family gratitude – a realization – that, as tragic as the situation was, at least their soldier, their loved one, was coming home. He lost count of the number of times that family members would tell of another family they knew, who received word of the death of a soldier who was now at rest on some foreign battlefield somewhere, or of a sailor lost at sea, or an airman who went down with his plane. Those families would never have the opportunity, to say goodbye, to have a place, right there in their hometown, to physically grieve.

It never ceased to amaze him that so many of these families that he met in their darkest hours, were aware that they, in a great many respects, were among the fortunate ones. That, he always felt, was the most humbling thing of all.  The wind picked up, the chirping birds had taken flight from shaking branch.  The day was growing cooler, and he smiled.

That was all a long time ago, he reminded himself. He smiled for a moment, remembering his sixtieth birthday, and the atonement gift from his wife and children; a free fall skydive, strapped to a young Marine.

He thought back to his last jump in uniform, and the excruciating pain of his rehab and shattered leg. He thought of the despair known only by a young man who had his dreams suddenly, irrevocably altered by events, and reflected with the wisdom of an old man on how those changes had worked out.

Though he had never fired his weapon at an adversary, he had fought many, sometimes brutal battles; the dignity of returning a fallen soldier was not always smooth, rarely without some sort of unexpected incident or reaction. Ill-fitting uniforms, incorrect insignia, stuck-in-traffic or lost-on-a-country-backroad honor guards were recurring obstacles. There was dealing with the pain, bitterness, or denial of families; the blank faces of young widows whose dreams and plans were now gone and the uncomprehending-the-magnitude small children, fascinated by the pomp of death, confused at the sadness displayed by the adults.

He often thought of a chaplain on a train, and myriad other travelers who, seeing his uniform, would engage him in fascinated conversation until their discomfort of his assignment came into play.

He had fought the battles as he had been ordered, emerged from them all with scars. Victorious and without regret. He had done his duty.

He came to old-man, near-parade rest for a moment, before turning to the headstone of his old friend, where he snapped off a lingering, still crisp salute. He had escorted his buddy only briefly; the walk from the front of the church to the hearse, then from hearse to gravesite.  he valued every moment as no one else could.

There was pride, and great honor in what he had done for all of those years.  No, there were no ribbons, or medals to share with children, grandchildren – none of the stories of heroism that his friends got to tell, that other children and grandchildren got to hear.  But the stories he did have to tell, that he did share with family, friends, were told with solemnity and grace. With dignity and honor. He told people, quietly, and without personal pride, how he did his duty, and why each and every soldier he escorted was deserving of all the respect he could give them in death.

He knew more about finality in all its forms than most anyone and was grateful, thankful of the opportunities he had been afforded, the chance to serve in a special, meaningful way, his fellow soldiers. His fellow man.  Hoping he had been the warrior he needed to be, at the time people needed him, he stood quietly, nodding his head. He was proud of the work he had done, he could admit that to himself. And so he did, for the first time ever.

Then, turning on his heel, he walked steadily between two rows of symmetrical marble stones, and went home.

To dye for

Easter eggs always make me chuckle. Not the inside-joke or special treat hidden inside a movie or video game ‘Easter egg’ – not the trinket filled, plastic variety, but real, from a chicken, dyed-with-food-coloring-tablets-and-vinegar Easter eggs, in all their splendor.

Some years ago I lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was a member of the local Jaycees chapter. We hosted an annual Easter egg hunt on the grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home; a sprawling, hilly landscape dotted with Civil war cannon2cannons and statues of various ilk – ideal hiding places for eggs.

And man, did we hide eggs.

The egg boiling and dying took the better part of the week, as did the stuffing of plastic eggs with candy and trinkets. On the appointed Saturday before Easter, we showed up early in the morning, two hours before the start of the event. Taking care to avoid places rabid egg hunters might trample, we avoided neatly manicured flower beds, but pretty much everything else was in play. We used every nook and cranny of statue bases, shrubs, antique cannons, trees…you get the idea. We had two pickup trucks filled with eggs, and we used the bulk of those two hours making sure things were distributed over a wide area.

When we looked back over the scene from the high ground where the hunt would begin, we could see a smattering of eastereggs3color here-and-there, but for the most part we knew we had concealed the bounty well. Then the kids arrived, roughly one hundred of them, none older than nine. They had their baskets and bags clenched tightly in their hands, the starter got ready with a countdown to let them loose, and long-term Jaycees suddenly flipped their wrists to check their watches, and the starter yelled “GO!”

It was over in forty-seven seconds; an impressive Biblical-in-scope-locust-swarm-in-OshKosh-B’gosh had stripped the grounds of anything pastel in color and/or plastic in nature.

Over. Done.

Clean as a whistle Kids were wandering aimlessly, finding nothing else, carrying looks of everything from utter joy to bewilderment: ‘YESSSSS!” to “I got nothing.”grasss3

In less than a minute.

There were other activities for the kids to partake in elsewhere on the grounds, and as the kids departed, baskets of goodies in hand, some of the Jaycee vets of egg hunts past started strolling the various cannons and statuary, and I overheard multiple variations on a theme.

“How did they find THAT one?!”eastereggs4

“They found the one in the cannon fuse hole.”

“Didn’t think they’d find the one I hid THERE!”

“Yep, they plucked us clean again.”

I have not seen anything like it in the thirty-plus years since.

Since my muse is egging me on…

When my daughter Lindsay was two, we helped her dye Easter eggs, and to her delight but eventual boredom, we whipped up an extra dozen to give to our staff at the small town radio station I managed.

eastereggsThe Thursday morning before Easter, I stuck a whimsically decorated egg into each staff person’s mailbox, including a bright, purple egg into the slot labeled ‘Don Thomas’. In reality, ‘Don’ was Tom Shumacher, a middle-aged, part-time announcer at the station. Uncle Tommy (as we sometimes called him) was a quirky guy with deep bass radio voice and a hearty laugh that got ample use, as his sense of humor and inability to keep a straight face were both easily triggered.

I made the plain, bright purple egg special for Uncle Tommy, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t get his egg confused with one of the eggs for the other staff.

Because Tom’s egg was the only one of the batch that was not hard-boiled.

I had learned that Tom liked hard-boiled eggs, during a conversation about our respective family Easter plans. I figured giving Tom and only Tom an egg would have seemed suspicious, so I came up with the plan to color eggs for all to basically legitimize my prank.

As I envisioned the gag, there were three, highly possible outcomes:
1. He decides to eat the egg at work, cracks it open, makes a mess, we all have a good laugh
2. He takes the egg home, gives it to his (then) wife to make egg salad with, she cracks it open and, as a woman with a droll sense of humor would find her annoyance overridden by the amusement
3. Tom takes the raw egg home, and somehow his teenaged son Patrick gets a hold of it, cracks it open, and responds with confusion

You know what they say about the best-laid-egg/plans.

I had not considered option number four: that Tom, finding the egg to be quite colorful, would bring it to his sister, a resident of a local long-term care facility, to brighten up her room during the holiday season. To top things off, he had also taken with him the little die-cut cardboard chicken to hold the egg (I had put some of those in the mailboxes, too) so the egg could stand on the table in her room for all to see.

Eggsactly what happened.

One of the staff nurses came in later that afternoon, complimented Tom’s sister on how lovely the egg was, to which she replied, “Well, it will just go to waste here, why don’t you take it home for your little girl?” The nurse, very appreciative did just that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Tom returned to the station the next afternoon to help record some commercials. There were still a number of eggs sitting in mailboxes, which prompted Tom to thank me for the nice purple egg. Keeping a straight face I said, “Oh you’re welcome….” I paused, as comedic timing is everything, before adding, “How was it?”purple-easter-egg-38169082
“I don’t know. I gave it to my sister. Thought her room could use some holiday cheer.”
“Are you headed back over there today?” I asked, hopefully.
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Do you think she’ll eat it?”
“No, she doesn’t like eggs and it’s been sitting out.”

I figured I needed to spill the beans (or, in this case, let him in on the intended yoke) to which Tom responded with gut-busting laughter. Once he caught his breath, he calmly said, “I’ll just call over there and make sure the nurses tell her not to eat it.”

He was still laughing.

He made the call, explaining to the nurse that there was a purple egg in his sister’s room he wanted to make sure she didn’t try to eat. There was a pause, Tom waited. A minute later the conversation began anew.
“It’s not? Oh, realllllllly…” he started chuckling. “O.K., thanks a lot.”

He returned the phone receiver to its cradle and, between guttural chortles explained that his sister no longer had the egg, that she had given it to a nurse to bring home to her daughter, and that the nurse in question was off all weekend, not returning until Monday.

By the end of relating his phone call with the care center, he had tears in his eyes from laughing. I was laughing as well, but figured there would be some eventual blowback on this – and there was, but nothing bad. As the story eastereggs5eventually made its way back to us, the nurse brought the egg and it’s holder home, her daughter displayed it on the counter, as mom suggested she not eat it since it hadn’t been refrigerated. The girl agreed, but somewhere along the line, the girl grabbed the egg to show to someone, dropped it, and it went ‘splat’. Child and mother cleaned up minor mess, the mom simply figuring somebody goofed, and colored a raw egg by accident.

By the Tuesday after Easter, the story of the wayward egg had made the rounds of the care center, Tom’s family, and the WYRQ staff, all of whom seemingly found the story more odd and/or dumb than amusing, causing Tom to find it even MORE amusing with every retelling, especially when he related the dialogue, starting with his sister and the nurse.

“That egg you gave me was raw.”
Broken-egg-on-the-floor“I know. I’m sorry. My brother called and told me it wasn’t cooked, but you had gone home already.”
“Why did your brother give you a raw egg?”
“He didn’t know it was raw. It was a gift from his boss.”
“Why would his boss give him a raw egg?”
“I think it was supposed to be a joke.”
“Oh.”

Although, I could have laid a gigantic egg with this gag, Uncle Tommy and I at least amused ourselves (and occasionally, others) with the story for many years after.

And as far as Easter egg stories go, “Ebbeddaebbedaebbedda! That’s albumin, folks.”

raw-eggs

 

 

Listing, while shopping

New Orleans offers ample opportunity for St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelry – no big surprise: any given Thursday here offers the same. But for those of us of the middle age persuasion who no longer fit the ‘party animal’ designation, there are other, quite viable (and cheaper) options via which to get our ‘party on’.

cartsLike grocery shopping.

Today I was out and about, and I needed to swing into the grocery store for a few items, so I swung into a Rouses Market I don’t normally frequent, simply because it was handy, and I was there. As usual, I entered through produce, and had to go through the liquor/beer/wine department on my way to frozen foods. While I was making my innocent swing through libation land I was accosted by the sampling women.

‘Accosted’ might be a bit strong.

Attractive, personable women with the souls of carnival barkers made up the sampling force, their small tables were strategically stationed along main aisles and offering-up regulation shot glass size samples (none of this thimble/communion wine sip-size) of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey, three types of Guinness beer and ale, and Bailey’s Irish Cream – all of which are on special this weekend, of course. So much for my five-minute quick in/quick out – it’s like getting off the interstate and taking a scenic drive.  But instead of a panoramic view from an overlook, I became engaged in a couple of amiable product-virtues conversations with the aforementioned sample ladies.

It seemed impolite simply to chug-and-run.

It isn’t just at the locally-based Rouses that I have encountered this holiday weekend phenomenon, as Winn-Dixie offers the same holiday-themed samplingsampling opportunities. The days before Christmas were a bonanza of egg nog and flavored rum variations.

It occurred to me that I had written of such a similar experience as this one and I had, in a Facebook post last summer:

“I just got done with the pre-July 4th family grocery shopping excursion and must say it was quite busy and…festive. Got most everything on the list and enjoyed most of the samples. The margarita mix was good as was the tequila. Tried five of the eight available wines; one of the reds was particularly boring. Of the two rums, the citrus was very tasty. Also tried both vodkas, which took a little longer as there was a chatty woman with a product survey, but she valued my feedback and asked for more detail. For the record, the cherry vodka was very good, the sweet tea vodka…not so much.

With any luck, Amy will discover she forgot to have me get something and I may have to go back to Winn-Dixie to get it.”  bag

So if you are ever in our town over a holiday – any holiday – party on. And don’t forget the milk and eggs. Or you’ll have to go back to get ’em. Maybe even in separate trips. To different stores.

It’s just something else to love about New Orleans: you can go grocery shopping and be half in-the-bag long before anybody gets a chance to ask, “Paper, or plastic”?

Showing some resolve

“When a person is accountable to someone else for doing what they said they would do, they get stuff done. They make changes they’ve been toying with for years. They reach their goals.”

– Shana Montesol Johnson

Accountability. People can’t help you with achieving anything if they don’t know what you dorothy-galeare trying to achieve. Dorothy would still be roaming around Oz if she hadn’t shared her goal of going home with everyone around her, after all.

Some of the items on the list that follows are one-shot deals, others are lifestyle choices I am consciously making that will require sustained effort. And accountability.

The things on this list are obviously personal, some are professionally oriented. Some of them are slam-dunk, one-planned (2)shot deals while others will require stick-to-itiveness and more concerted effort and accountability. Some of the entries are spiritual, many are fairly esoteric.

New Year’s Resolutions? Not in the traditional sense. I think of this as more of an ‘Intention Martini’- positives are the gin while the not-to-dos are the vermouth. And I like my resolve dry, very dry.

Throughout the coming year, feel free to prod, cajole, remind, opine, encourage, support, and reassure me should I stray or simply get lazy from carrying out the objectives set forth below.

Without further ado:

Do’s, Don’ts and ‘Ehhh…I dunnos’ for 2017

Write more.Photo0541

Read more. For fun.
Blog more frequently.

See more movies.
See more good movies

Coin a new phrase, at least once each fiscal quarter.
Be never enough to be too much of a good thing.

More baseball.

Keep my ‘eyes on the prize.’ Unless I am eating out of a box of Cracker Jack.

Finish at least two major writing projects, submit them for publications.

-.-. — — — ..- -. .. -.-. .- – . -… . – – . .-. .-.-.-

Build a better, quirkier vocabulary.
Utilize said vocabulary.
Without excessive, superfluous verbiage.

Be inspiring.

Avoid saying ‘paradigm.’
Unless being sarcastic.

Insert tab ‘A’ into slot ‘B’ with impunity

Keep in mind that sometimes, less is more. More or less.

Write a mantra – in Dr. Seuss style rhyming couplets. Use it.Mack

Keep experiencing

Avoid referring to others as pedantic.
Avoid being pedantic.

Walk more.

Don’t immediately disregard real-life deus ex machinas.

Write more.
Read more. For fun.
Blog more.

“Don’t perspire the piddly stuff.”

Adopt ‘Do-overs done right’ as a pseudo-credo.

More music, less static.FW412c
More poetry.

Fill my spare change bottle. Multiple times.

Make regular, daily contributions to my blessings jar.

Love more
Like less
Eschew vacillation.

If it aint broke, don’t try to fix it. Especially if it is someone else’s.

Dream.
Teach others how.

Pay it forward
Cash-and-carry.

Take a penny, leave a penny.

Sing to grandson Felix via Skype.
Don’t sing to anybody else via Skype.

Don’t say that I’m ‘thinking outside of the box.’ Unless brainstorming with someone who actually lives in a box.

Learn to tie a bow tie.
Wear a bow tie from time to time.

Edit better.

Lose the additional 3.2 pounds I didn’t by the end of 2014.
Don’t reclaim the 16.8 pounds discarded in 2014.

Engage more actively in the Shalom of others.

More baseball.
More poetry.

In 2017, I will measure twice, cut once. Maybe measure three times, on occasion.

Read more books to grandson Felix via Skype, including bedtime stories.
Read bedtime stories via Skype to anybody who asks nicely.

More prayer.MD3
Less frustration.

Yell less.

Use the word ‘repugnant’ once in a while. As a noun, gently.

Practice succinctitude. With brevity.

Mentor more.
Engage better.

Write more. Read more. Blog more.

More to come, coming soon. Always.ONLY o.k. sign (2)

Keep promises
Keep issues in perspective

Find other roads less traveled. Take them.

In 2017 I will endeavor to….

Look both ways before crossing
Close cover before striking
Look before I leap
Think before I speak
Think after I speak.

Check local listings,
Void where prohibited.
‘Serving suggestion.’

More baseball.
More poetry.

Honor an urge.

Procrastinate less. Or at least, less often.
Partake in more rainstorms.

Go camping
2017Go bowling

Live faithfully

Right some wrongs
Make amends

Live a life worth living.

Happy 2017

 

The Christmas Pageant

Hard to believe a quarter-century has passed. Each Christmas I wonder; where are all these folks now..?

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’.

 

Photograph of Christmas Past

Some  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 photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash, we were 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, and took pictures of  each other. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight not really of the season: walking down the center of the mall was a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, middle-aged woman.

It quickly became obvious they were 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!” chirpped 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.

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: pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women 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 and trying to help the guy out. 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; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the looks on 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 think was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette.

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 quite a few Marines. 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 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 think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet mall.  Sometimes in conversation someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

Those articles and conversations always make me think of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

“You’ll bob yer eye out, kid!” A Christmas Party Tale

Some twenty-plus years ago, when I was thirtyish and divorced, a co-worker and I decided to become roommates and we rented a small home in the Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale.

Emphasis here on ‘small’.

John Lloyd, my new roommate, had one prized possession that had to be a part of the new set up: a full-sized, 1960’s vintage pool table he had inherited from his grandparents. What better edifice for a hip bachelor pad than a pool table? One problem: the pool table occupied our entire dining room and still jutted a solid foot-and-half into the living room. Even then, when shooting from wall-side of the table, or the dining room wall end, you had to hold your cue at an 81-degree angle in order to shoot.

John 'Minnesota No-Trans-Fats' Lloyd, circa 1990
John ‘Minnesota No-Trans-Fats’ Lloyd, circa 1990

We quickly learned to improvise; our expertise at ‘nose pool’ (using your nose as your cue) became legendary.

Having moved in late that summer and thrown a swingin’ house-warming party that co-workers and friends were still rehashing, we logically decided a Christmas party was the next ‘must’ for the first holiday season in our cozy abode.

John and I were co-workers at a small radio station in another Minneapolis suburb. ‘Small’ again comes into play; the station was by no means a player in the Twin Cities market. What the station lacked in basic amenities, technical quality and signal strength, it more than made up for in ownership and managerial dysfunction and sheer comic relief.

What kept the place functioning and an enjoyably quirky place to work was that we also had a very talented, close-knit and fun-loving staff: a dandy core-group for a top-notch party, as we had proved with our summertime housewarming.

KANO radio  boasted a truly eclectic mix of old-school broadcast veterans winding down their careers, and twenty-something guppies straight out of broadcasting school with dreams of stardom via underdeveloped reality checks, and a recently laid-off, then retrained, forty-something, mid-life career change newbie finally living his dream.

A typical week of management and oppertional chaos at KANO made WKRP seem like a weekend in cloisters.

This was no wine-spritzer and brie crowd; radio people genetically predisposed to being allergic to the mundane. Add in their assorted significant others, and a few folks from other parts of our various lives, John and I had invited quite the eclectic and enthusiastic crowd. They wanted, and now expected John and me to deliver, plenty of party action.

Thus was born the centerpiece event of our epic Christmas House Party: Bobbing for Pine Cones.

We had started planning this extravaganza not long after the summer soiree. Somewhere around Halloween, when bobbing for apples was en vogue (Anoka, where our station was located,  proclaims itself ‘The Halloween Capitol of the World, so we had a lot of experience with such things) the idea occurred to us that this whole bobbing thing had some definite Christmastime applications – with a few holiday modifications. The first tweak we made was to replace the autumnal apples with the more festive, holiday-oriented, easier-to- grip-with-yer-lips pine cones. Secondly, we knew boring old, not-all-that-competitive (or interesting) water also needed replacing.

eggnog_09_400With eggnog.

Pure genius, it was. What, we agreed, would say – shout, even –  ‘holiday party fun!’ more than bobbing for pine cones in turkey roasters filed with eggnog?

Don’t strain yourself trying to answer that question.

The night of the party came, and with it, all the high expectations for a rockin’ around the Christmas tree good time. We were truly able to deliver, due in large part to a factor we didn’t have for the house warming party: his name was Jim Holt.

Jim was a fairly recent addition to the station, fresh out of Brown Institute of Broadcasting (the alma mater of both John and I, and a number of other colleagues) but more worldly than most. Jim was a married guy in his early forties, and being a disc jockey had been a dream of his for many years. He had been working in the construction business, and when the company he worked for went belly up, he used the opportunity to go back to school and be retrained as a broadcaster, of all things, eventually winding up on our doorstep at KANO where he used his business acumen in sales during the week, and picked up weekend and evening shifts as a part-time announcer.

He was having a kid-in-a-candy-store blast and we were glad to have him.

Jim was neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. He was certainly a radio neophyte, which we seldom let him forget, with a wide array of on-air pranks and booby traps pulled on the guy, but he was much farther along the chronological and maturity scale than most of the rest of us.

At least, in some regards.

Okay, he was older than most of the rest of us. He reveled in the role of rookie/old dude; for Jim, it was 1969 all over again – only done better this time around.

pinecones3We had set up the Bobbing for Pinecones as an eight competitor, three-round tournament – poster board tourney bracket taped to the dining room wall to document the fun. Jim arrived fairly early with his wife Kathy, and signed up eagerly for the bobbing. Kathy, as she was during the whole mid-life career shift for her husband, could best be described as…warily supportive.

The party zipped along quite nicely for a couple of hours; food, libations, and laughs in abundance: at one point, John counted over 30 people in attendance. Sardines-in-a-can analogies ran rampant and getting from one point of the house to another meant holding your food and/or beverage high above your head, lest you find it smashed into your chest. About ten o’clock, we got folks quieted down and announced that it was time for the big event; Bobbing for Pine Cones.

We asked those that had signed up to step forward (most actually did) while friends helped us spread out plastic all over the living room floor. Then we brought out the aluminum turkey roasters and the pine cones, placing them on top of the plastic, as we explained the rules: contestants were to kneel in front of their roaster, hands behind their backs, and using only their mouths, were to bend over at the waist, and pluck as many pine cones as they could in one minute from the roaster, dropping them onto the plastic next to their tubs, then repeating the process until we said “times up!” A good sense of balance was crucial. We had an ample supply of pine cones, and would continue to add them to each roaster as play continued, should someone pluck their entire supply of pine cones. (Nobody did, though Jim came close in round one.)

I’m not really sure if people didn’t read the sign-up sheet closely, or maybe we even forgot to put it on the poster – who can remember? I was pretty sure that we had told people, and maybe they just forgot, about switching out the water for egg nog, but when we brought out the nog and started filling the roasters, there was definite surprise and apprehension from some of the participants and a noticeable uptick in the level of crowd anticipation.

Of the eight bobbers, there were a few I didn’t know; dates of various guests who decided to sign up on a whim and were never seen again dating those coworkers. (Go figure.) Our station engineer Dan Zimmerman made it through round one, if I remember correctly (Dan was hard to forget; competitive eggnog bobbers should probably crop their beards/goatees before a eggnogwithnutmegcompetitive event) but the true break out star of the night was Jim Holt.

We got the first two competitors lined up on the floor, gave a countdown and said “Go!” to instant shouts of encouragement and exclamations of “Ewwww” “gross” and “nasty” from onlookers. Things quickly got a little…umm….messy.

But hilarious.

Once the competition started, we realized a few things very quickly; it is one thing to dunk your head in water, and inadvertently suck some in, then come up for air. It is a whole different thing when you accidentally inhale stuff the consistency of rich, creamy, dairy-fresh holiday eggnog – It is a much different sort of gasping for breath.

We also learned that a human face hitting a tub of eggnog with any velocity makes more of a ‘bluorp’ sound than a splashing noise.

The first round went pretty quickly, as most of the competitors had little natural ability at the sport, or were just laughing too hard to effective bob/grab/drop.  Not so, our pal Jim. He took to jim-h-bobbing-1-19881bobbing in eggnog like a young penguin takes to belly sliding on ice. Truly a natural.

After successfully plucking a pine cone with his mouth, he quickly dropped it on the plastic and went back for another. It was never a contest; the competition was just not up to matching Jim cone-for-cone during a round, beer-for-beer between rounds. Plus, he was one of those athletes whose natural charisma just showed through, which got the crowd quickly on his side. Jim would come up for air at the end of a round, shaking like a wet St. Bernard – his sopping, floppy moustache spraying the crowded-around onlookers with ‘nog. It was a glorious thing to watch.

From as far afar as you could get in a house that small. You don’t sit in the front row of the Shamu show at Sea World and expect to stay dry. Same principle applies for pine cone bobbing in eggnog.

After the first two rounds, we were ready for the championship. Jim and the other finalist had another beer, as we prepped the tubs with fresh eggnog for the finals; nothing but the best for our competitors. We also had a slight competition ‘tweak’ for the finals; just like the World Series, or the Super Bowl, any great sporting event needs a little ‘sumptin’ sumptin’ for its championship round.

nutmegWe had nutmeg.

The nutmeg was meant to spice things up, of course. Which it did in unexpected ways. What, after all, is eggnog without a sprinkle of nutmeg on top? It is traditional serving method and we felt it only fitting that the finals of our little event should be…showcased a bit. Plus, it added a touch of holiday class.

And, unwittingly, a sneeze factor.

Once the final round started (two minutes, not the typical one – twice the fun for the finals!) We learned very quickly that inhaling large quantities of nutmeg makes one sneeze, and that adult males sneezing into tubs of nutmeg-laced eggnog makes something akin to eggnog ‘depth charges’ as little geysers of eggsnot were flying up from the living room floor with each sneeze. (Spreading the heavy plastic over the living floor was a very smart move on our part).

Jim of course, won going away. It was quite a show.

Fortunately, our friends and other guests were agreeable to helping us clean up the mess – so the party could continue, if nothing else. At the end of the night, a sticky, haggard Jim proudly clutched his oil filter and trophy as designated-driver/wife Kathy walked him out to their car, shaking her head in awe. Or disbelief. It was hard to tell.

End of the party, not end of the story.

As was related to us later by a still incredulous Kathy: At about 2:30 in the morning, Jim wakes up screaming that he can’t open his eyes. Kathy gets up with him, and realizing that her husband indeed, cannot open EggNogGrouphis eyelids fully, takes him to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital. There, the attending E.R. doc determines the problem; Jim had forgotten to remove his contacts before the festivities, and some traces of eggnog and nutmeg had apparently dried on them, essentially gluing them to his eyelids.

I do not know the correct medical terminology for this condition.

As Kathy related the story later, the doc and the nurses just shook their heads and tried not to giggle while they repeatedly flushed Jim’s eyes with saline solution before sending him home with a bottle of Visine and a suggestion to take up other forms of holiday recreation.

Who knew.

So this year, as always, I will indulge my own passion, quaffing a tasty mug or two of cold eggnog, toasting along the way the competitive spirit of bobbing, friendships forever (and eyelids temporarily) bonded. Here’s to John; best roommate I ever had. Here’s to my old KANO pals; “Good times, gooood times, my old friends”.

Oh, and here’s to you, Jim, wherever you may be today.

pinecones4

A little free advice, should you want to enliven your holiday gathering with a BFP event. Bobbing for Pinecones is an exciting, competitive, engaging spectator sport with broad appeal and very accessible in strategy and performance to a wide range of ages and talent levels. Just go easy on the nutmeg, and don’t forget to have competitors read and sign the ‘wearing contacts’ waiver.

Just sayin’.

 

Thankful, grateful, hopeful

Recent Thanksgivings have found me in this spot musing on watching my Facebook feed as people debate being ‘thankful’ versus being ‘grateful’ – a semantic back-and-forth that, due to being the writer and English I am, I have taken more than cursory interest in.

This year, as you might expect, is quite different in tone, due in large part to our recent election.

Not terribly unusual in-and-of-itself, but this year is different; the divisions and emotions are far more raw, due in large part to two very unpopular (by most everyone’s estimation) presidential candidates, and, I believe due also to the fragile psyche of the American populace. Politics has always been partisan; our reaction doesn’t have to be, and if we are being honest, should not be. – if we, as America, are who we claim to be.

This Thanksgiving, there are too many people who will not be spending time with family directly because of the way people they normally break bread with did, or did not vote this election.  Some people have made the choice to stay away on their own, others have been asked to not come, to not be part of the divisiveness, many are staying away from traditional settings to not expose their children to familial discord that, for whatever the reasons, can’t or won’t be controlled or curtailed in the name of family.

Therein lies a new, great American tragedy.

There are those of us who will not be with family today due to simple geography or finances – absent by circumstance, not choice.  Others will be missing from their spot at the table because of service to others; military personnel, first-responders, medical workers.  The list is substantial.

Those who are distancing themselves by choice because of politics may have very legitimate concerns; previous history of conflict, distrust, old wounds people do not want reopened.  Some may have underestimated the capacity of family members to not engage in dinner table divisiveness, and some are so angry they are staying away out of pure rage.

More is the pity.

Most of us who lived an appreciable amount of life have come to realize that sometimes there are no second chances, there will be no next year’ or even ‘next time’ – or even tomorrow. Nothing is guaranteed except that many of those who will not be with family this year, by choice or by circumstance, will not have another opportunity to make it up; life just doesn’t work that way.

There are no do-overs.

My family and I fall into the because-of-logistics-and-finances not-being-withfamilyy category; distance, travel time and cost are the only things keeping us from being with loved ones today, and even were that not the case, we would be with family knowing full well that the political divide would be wider than the array of foods lining the center of the table.   But we would work through it, civilly and hopefully without lasting damage.  Come Christmas, we will hopefully prove that theory.

Which brings me back to the thankful-versus-grateful issue that I first dove into a few years back.

Curiosity drove me to Merriam-Webster where I found that being thankful and being grateful have some very unique connotations, to wit:

To be thankful is to be conscious of benefit received.

To be grateful is be appreciative of benefits received.

The distinctions are important. Am I conscious of the blessings in my life? I hope so. Am I grateful and appreciative? That is something I ponder.

Consciousness is pretty straightforward, and my list is a lengthy one starting with my loving, healthy family; wife, sons, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. My extended family and in-laws. Friends old and new. Health, shelter, a full pantry and refrigerator. For a loving G-d, for a country where I can live freely. These are some of the people and things I am conscious of and thankful for, but rarely think of in such terms as thankfulness. Except on days like today.

Am I appreciative of all of these things? Probably not as much as I could or should be.

Bigger picture. There is much, as Americans, that we are conscious of, and should be thankful for, but I think take mostly for granted. In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted an iconic series of oil paintings entitled The Four Freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Those are enduring things that resonate (or at least, should) more strongly today than ever.

four-freedomsThere is nothing new or unique about these musings on what to be thankful for; every fourth Thursday of the year we are awash platitudes from various points and perspectives, Hallmark cards to social media, everything in between. Hence the debate I alluded to: are we thankful, or grateful.

Thankful or grateful? We all know we should be one or the other for something or another – our culture tells us so every November.

Still, when it comes right down to it…

I am grateful today for my life, what it is today and what it was and who it was that got me here: family, friends, mentors, past and present. I am grateful today for the memories of those who have been a part of my life at every step, but who are no longer here physically. I am thankful to live in a time and a place where technology allows old friends to find me, new friends to enrich my life. The ability of all of them to reach out in support – theirs and mine. To ask for and offer advice and comfort, to share a laugh or kind word when most needed.

I am grateful and thankful for the love of family. They help teach me humility, to see beyond myself.

I am thankful for the children in my classroom, for they teach me patience and understanding.

I am grateful and thankful for friends who are hurting and who have suffered loss, for they teach me compassion, and allow me to share it.

I am grateful for the gift of discernment, which allows me to see where I can do better, understand that I always can.

Mostly I am thankful and grateful for G-d’s grace in my life, as all of the things I am thankful for and appreciative of stem from that grace. I am happy and blessed to be who I am, where I am today. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Peace.

Mark,
Thanksgiving 2014, 2015, 2016

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. Stil, 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…””