Shades of Black and White

It was late summer, 1979, and my friend Johnny was dying.

Our star fullback in high school, heavyweight wrestling champ, all around BMOC, sat there before me, slumped, in a wheelchair in his parent’s Denver living room. His once chiseled, athletic frame was basically down to half of the 215 pounds he burst through opposing defenses with just three Johnny 6autumns before. His purple South High jersey with the white number thirty-three hung loosely over him.

He looked like a man holding a purple tarp.

A virus he had contracted had attacked his heart, and he was awaiting a transplant. He looked old –  sounded very old. To my twenty-year-old self, Johnny’s  raspy, croaked-out whisper was more jarring than the visual. That Johnny Wilkins voice – Barry White-like booming bass, full-throated and billowing in laughter – was unrecognizable; a voice that, added to his physical maturity always made him seem much older than the rest of us, was now the gravely crackle of an old man.

But the perpetual Leprechaun-mischievous glint remained in still-vibrant eyes.

Johnny2It was only when I sat down in front of him and he smiled, his eyes joining his mouth in playfulness as usual, that the Johnny I knew like a brother was again visible. His smile was even more pronounced, as it split the sagging skin of his jowls that had lost their elasticity, into something approaching Johnny normalcy.

We talked.

Though I remember the day vividly, I oddly cannot tell you what we talked about in any great detail; he wanted to know my travels since we had graduated in the spring of 1977, and get an update on the whereabouts of some mutual friends is all I remember. He told me of his illness, what he had been through, how excited he was to be n the transplant list.  His mind was sharp; whatever medications he was on had not dimmed his intellect or humor. He was still Johnny.

He was still Johnny.

I was one of two classmates who had come to see him since his illness; the other was Terry Tuffield, a kind and beautiful girl who Johnny and I shared a bit of history with. Knowing I had a crush on her, he had begged me to let him set us up on a date, but I had adamantly ordered him not to intervene, preferring to ask her myself and never having to think of her doing him a favor by going out with me. This became a running joke through our senior year and is still one of the more amusing episodes and fond remembrances’ of high school; especially his insistence in asking me to let him talk to her and my repeated, publicly-made threats to kick his butt if he acted on my behalf.

The absurdity of the 145-pound white dude threatening his black, locker-partner Adonis drew more than a few raised eyebrows on multiple occasions – usually the school lunchroom. These exchanges were always punctuated with a stern look from me and a sonic-boom laugh in response from Johnny.

We were, in almost every aspect of late 1970’s high school life, an odd couple.

The irony of sitting in the Wilkins’ living room, knowing that Terry was the only other visitor from our high school days was not lost on me then 0001or now. That Johnny died less than a month later has always left me thinking that the Rebel visitor list ended with just the two of us – though I cannot be sure.

Life is funny like that.

I had been to Johnny’s house once before, in March of our senior year. I picked him up at his house and we went to Denver’s City Park to hang out for the day. We were preparing to graduate and we discussed plans for the future; college football at the University of northern Colorado, and eventual marriage to his long-time girlfriend Gloria for him; my impending summer departure for a year of broadcasting school in Minnesota. Our senior prom, various escapades to that point were bantered about while cruising City Park Lake on a rented paddleboat.

One small piece of our conversation that afternoon stands out to me to this day: Johnny’s casual mention that I was the first white friend that had ever come into his home. It was an observation, nothing more. My response, I believe, was no more than ‘Oh’ and it was left at that. At least until a year later, when Johnny, who had erroneously learned that I was back in town and dropped my house.

As he later related the story later in a phone call, he walked up, rang the doorbell. The door opened, and there stood my father, middle-aged white guy with glasses, all of five-five, who looked up at the hulking black dude with the bushy beard in front of him and said simply, “Oh, you must be Johnny.” Acknowledging that he was, my father then said, “Well, come on in!”

Johnny roared with laughter recounting the story later, finding my father’s initial statement – and its casual nature – both jarring and hysterical. His being asked in and hosted by my parents with conversation and lemonade for the next hour or so was stunning to him. It seems that mine was the first house of a white friend that he had ever been asked into, and I wasn’t even there for the party. Johnny typically roared with laughter when I explained the obviousness of my father’s initial assumption/greeting: “You are the only big, bearded black guy I know.”

Life is funny.

Our personal string of racial firsts ended with Johnny’s death in August of 1979. He was twenty-one.

I am now thirty-five years removed from that Denver living room and this story has come rushing back to me today. A mid-life career change, and I am a high school English teacher at an inner-city high school in New Orleans. It is my seventh year of teaching here and I have pretty much encountered every issue that traditionally plague poverty-stricken communities and their schools.

As I write this, I am sitting in the front seat of a school bus rumbling down a highway in rural Louisiana, helping chaperone a group of schoolbusseniors on an overnight retreat. There is another teacher on the bus with me, two others follow in a car. Of the forty-two souls on this bus, I am the only white person. I sit with my back against the window, looking over my shoulder at row upon row of young black faces, and I wonder.

What would Johnny think?

I am new to this school. As a first-year-here guy, I get tested by my students on a regular basis. Most of them have not figured me out yet, especially those I deal with only tangentially. Another teaching newcomer to the school is Mr.K, a history teacher across the hall from me – it is also his first year as a teacher here, and we share most of the same seniors, so we are able to collaborate and share notes on students, and I mentor him a bit. We have come to be seen by many students as best of friends, and this idea has been cemented, I believe, by the fact that students constantly, to the shared bemusement of Mr. K and I, confuse the two of us.

Mr. K is tall, thin, bearded, and wears glasses; he is half-my age. I am five-five with beard and glasses, old enough to be his father. Yet on nearly a daily basis, I get called Mr.K. and he gets called Mr. Lucker. Usually students correct themselves, and will often apologize – sometimes profusely and with a sense of embarrassment. Mostly not, but sometimes.

The confusion has become a running joke between Mr. K, myself, and a few other staff members – black and white – who don’t find the constant confusion at all odd. Mr. K and myself? Color us ‘bemused’.

Looking now at the young faces behind me, swaying and bouncing up and down as we traverse a curvy two lane highway, I wonder about a lot of things. They are engrossed in every sort of electronic engagement, a few sleep with their heads tilted awkwardly on pillows against bus windows. I wonder if any of them had ever been a racial first for someone, as Johnny and I had been. There are a select few who I believe have contemplated such scenarios as they prepare to head off to college, although most of that is naiveté born of circumstance; outside of school, there are few white people with whom most of my students interact with any sort of regularity. Many of them will go off to college and be stunned with the diversity they encounter. I wonder what their reactions will be.  I have had other students, from other area schools, who have returned to regale us with stories of suddenly finding themselves thrust into a world not-so-homogeneous as their high school or their ‘hood.

There are many firsts on their horizons.

Over the past six-plus years, when students have brought up the racial aspects of our teacher-student relationship it is usually brought up with a tone of curiosity rather than accusation. They are trying to figure me, or other white teachers out. At the (much larger) school I taught at the three years prior to this one, black students would occasionally ask me to explain white student behavior in some way, which I would usually try to deflect, and use classroom techniques to get them to do their own analysis of the situation on the premise (and observed belief) that teenagers are generally teenagers.  Their basic curiosity was skewed by their knowledge base of those different; television shows about tweens and teens.

Usually the biggest looks of surprise (and the rare verbal exclamation of surprise) comes when I very purposely counter any talk of stereotyping Johnny 5(‘white people don’t…’ or ‘black people are…’) with a rejoinder that labeling groups of people is, in my classroom, automatically racist in nature, then adding something along the lines of “Well, I think most of my black friends would probably disagree with your generalization.”

Even amongst the most stoic, nonchalant of my students, there is almost always a sense of astonishment that I have (and had, as a teenager) black friends. I would go so far as to say that the most common reaction to this revelation is incredulity, mixed with skepticism, and some of my students adamantly stick to their initial belief that I am lying about having friends of a different skin tone.  Those are sometimes jarring moments, when a student digs in their heels on such an issue, but such situations almost always lead to some positive discussion and food-for-thought. For them and for me, I hope.

I don’t know precisely why this all comes to mind today, during a kidney-busting bus ride through the countryside…then again, maybe I do. At least on some level.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye. But I’m still learning from our much-too-short time on earth together.

Color me contemplative.

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A passed torch

I’ve become the old guys I grew up around.

My youth was filled with a fascinating blend of old timers that I joyfully gleaned much of what I needed to know about life by just hanging around with all of them. They were mostly retired, blue-collar guys; my grandfather worked on an assembly line making gramps-and-his-son-bowling-team-that-went-to-national-tournamentbatteries, and we had close family friends – integral parts of my childhood and life – plumbers, house painters, storekeepers and tractor makers, among them.

I learned about life through their eyes and thick, immigrant-dialect-honed English; specific and pointed advice was given when needed, but most of the lessons learned were implied; eye contact, a raised brow, a nudge or a nod during an event or incident of some sort that I instinctively knew meant I should be paying attention because I just might learn something.

I have now become that nudge-and-nod (though nowhere close to retirement) guy.

The other day I was at the chiropractor getting an adjustment. The doc is a good guy, twenty-six years young, and we chat amiably while I get my treatment. I was lying on my stomach while he worked on my back, and he was having trouble adjusting the exam table. After a moment of struggle, he got it to lock into place where he wanted, then joked, “That’s the most difficult thing I do all day.”

“I suppose a lot of people think that your job is kind of easy – spending your day massaging backs” I replied, as he continued working out my shoulder kinks.

“Yeah, kinda” he chuckled, adding, “They see me for twenty minutes at a time, then leave, and figure that’s what I do all day – wait for people to come in, spend twenty minutes getting them adjusted, then go back to doing whatever else I do.” He cracked a couple of vertebrae into place.

“People don’t realize what goes into a job like yours. You know the story of the guy and furnace1the busted furnace?”

“No, I don’t think so” he replied, bending my spine the other direction.

“It’s winter, and the guy’s furnace goes out. He calls the furnace guy, who comes over, looks around for a minute, then takes a hammer out of his tool box, whacks the furnace, and it starts running again. He puts the hammer back, then hands the guy his bill for a hundred dollars…” I feel a nice, loosening jolt to my neck. “The guy looks at the bill and says ‘a hundred bucks!’ All you did was whack it with a hammer! The furnace guy nods and says, ‘Yeah, that’s ten-bucks for the hammer tap, ninety bucks for knowing where to tap.”

The doc stops. Even though I am face down on the adjustment table, I can see him with my peripheral vision, hands on his hips, thinking. “Wow. That’s a great story” he says with surprise, “I never heard that before.” He starts back in on my neck

“It’s a good analogy for you.” I add.

“All the time I spent in school – yeah, it is. ‘Ninety bucks for knowing where to tap.’ I’ll have to remember that story. I’ll use that.”

“Feel free” I say as another disc gets pushed into place.

Just passing it on.

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

 

Onward

Faded are July’s warmth, summer’s cheers. Supplanted now by sundry, encroaching hints of cooler days; forgotten expectations, procrastinated chores now mothballed, he can only now muse without dwelling on what won’t be. Could-have-beens and maybes aren’t statistically meaningful; they never po2really were, except to others in relation to their expectations and dreams on his behalf.  The math was never his thing – nebulous nature of those with good intentions notwithstanding.  Regret is not something that taints him; he does not feel his talents wasted. He recalls every crucial moment as it was, for what it was.

Unburdened by excuses, unwilling to pass blame. Treasured character trait; a gift not wasted.

It was what it was, nothing more to be read into any of it. Done with. Droll, philosophical meanderings passé. He did what he had to and could – more than expected, less than some feared – and it has all come down to this: seasons of joy, of youth, of expectations – dwindled. He takes energy and solace in their uncertainty of numbers. Youth cannot serve that master. He revels in coming autumn and finds it no burden as winter creeps in to bury and renew. Spring will be welcome, but no more or less than its brethren. Seasons, as is their nature, gladly provide strategic resets.

No, it was not always this clear.

Memories are not sustenance; this he knows for fact. Cheers he once accepted have faded, substitutes and replacements have taken his place on various stages. He knows as many have forgotten as remember him. The field of honor which he once ruled by force and triumphant jousting he now benevolently maintains, in supportive peace. The thought occurs that maybe the soul is autumn grass; wearily vibrant, going wearily dormant by design. Ingrained need of a respite.  The patriarch emeritus he imagines smiles in triumph, allowing for sly winks to various fates.

He zips his coat, turning its collar turned upward against the gathering, refreshing winds of fall. He leans willingly, comfortably into the loving embrace of the breeze, securing  his resolve. The air is quiet, save the wind. He is at peace with the simple knowledge that spring will, someday, for whatever it’s own reasoning, return.

But for now, time is pleasingly in his comfortable grasp; he now understands its tenuous and uncontrollable nature. Time can be tucked safely away like a pocket watch in a vest, allowing him to stroll through the lovely, dark, and deep woods without fear of reprisal from any promises not kept.

– Mark L. Lucker
© 2016
http://lrd.to/sxh9jntSbd

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Motion pictures are a part of our culture – no more so than in the famous lines, rejoinders and catchphrases that quotes5immediately jump off the screen and into our cultural lexicon.

Who among us hasn’t at one time described a strange situation with “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” or ‘Show me the money!”.  “Houston, we have a problem” you hear quite a bit, usually at work, though it is not a movie quote, per se, but a real-life quotation used in a movie.

Ever turned to an alleged sidekick and said “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”? That one is quotes6certainly a classic, and while I personally have the Oliver Hardy down-pat…but it always seems a little condescending to be passing off the blame for something, and then I feel guilty.

Many of these just come naturally, without thinking, because they are so ingrained. But there are those great moments where using a great movie line just seems to fit. Or not. I’ve never quite been able to pull off Ratso quotes8Rizzo during a crosswalk altercation with an over-aggressive driver; the accent is all wrong and I end up sounding more suave Kevin Spacey than manic Dustin Hoffman: “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”

“You takin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” Admit it; you’ve done it – just like DeNiro.

My home state is Minnesota, and as I spent three years on the campus of the University of Minnesota, there have quotes10 quotes11been ample opportunities to slam our archrivals just to the east, Wisconsin. Especially when wearing U of M gear, it is easy to summon a hearty, derisive and sneering, “Badgers? We don’t need no badgers! I don’t have to show you any stinking badgers!”

Maybe that one loses something in translation of time and place.

“Here’s looking at you, kid,”May the force be with you” and “Go ahead, make my day” and are way too cliché to carry much conversational weight anymore – though I can sometimes summon up a darn-fine Clint Eastwood in letting one of my high school English students know he has gone jussssst a bit too far by leaning in and whispering the reminder, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Subtle, but effective. Used sparingly.

A classroom quotes12staple I always have at the ready (with perfect Strother Martin dialect) “What we’ve got here is fail-yure to comm-un-i-cate.”

I’m probably not alone in this one, but “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” was a line I once quotes13hoped (like a lot of other American males) I would get chance to utter, but it may be past its freshness date. I’m thinking now, at this stage of middle age, that if I am in the type of situation where I would be truly saying this it would be, at its very best, a dicey proposition all the way around.

Using famous movie lines I will admit to freely and unapologetically doing, but there is a whole other set of classic quotations that I would someday like to be on the receiving end of. Not the cliché or paraphrased stuff – ‘You can’t handle the truth!” or “I love the smell of napalm/coffee in the morning.”

There are some great movie lines I long to hear said to me, in proper context and in earnest.

For example, someday I would love to be the recipient of a heartfelt, “I love you, Spartacus.” Maybe if I changed my quotes7name to ‘Spartacus’ (Marktacus?) it would give someone the idea…though I would hope if someone ever does say that to me, it would be on merit than campiness. While hopefully I’ll never be in the position of leading a slave rebellion, you would think some sort of leadership opportunity on a large-scale could be in the offing. Just once, with feeling: “I love you, Spartacus.”

Equally esoteric I that I have long harbored the dream that someone will feel compelled to honestly tell me (about whom or what I am not entirely sure) “If you build it, he will come.”quotes15

I probably have a better shot with baseball than the rebellion/leader thing, though I suppose getting into the next presidential race is always an option.

Those situations could crop up at any time, but there is a big one I hope to be hearing someday, well down the road – from the end of the classic On Golden Pond;“Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it. You’re going to get back on that horse, and I’m going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we’re gonna go, go, go!””

quotes14
My wife and I (hopefully) circa, 2043

Hopefully, it is not said in response to a heart attack or disorienting walk.

If my wife is reading this, she will hopefully do the math and realize that, if we play it age-wise like in the movie, she has roughly twenty-six years or so to master the clipped, Katherine Hepburn New England parlance. If she can master that more quickly…

A guy can dream, right?

Hey, most days I can be Henry Fondiash. Humphrey Bogartesque, too. What I really need at this stage of my life is a Captain Renault; a rakish friend who, at some point in time, will redirect his about-to-nail-my-rear-to-the-wall quotes4minions to simply “Round up the usual suspects.”

“Louis, (or whomever) I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Would, of course, only be fitting and proper in response.

Of course, the one I really long to hear in real life I would never really hear, as it would be said about me to someone else, either in regards to the job of my dreams or a publishing deal: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” It’s all about the context, I suppose – go all Don Corleone on me, just in a less nefarious way. And with better intentions. Maybe in a Captain Renault sort of way.

“Ebbedda, ebbedda, ebbedda, ebbedda – that’s all, folks!

quotes 3
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saQJ8z4714w

2015: Showing (and Telling) Some Resolve

“When a person is accountable to someone else for doing what they said they would do, they get stuff DrothyGale (2)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 are 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 2015

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.2015b
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.Feixreading

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 2015, 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.

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 2015 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.2015a

Go camping
Go bowling

Live faithfully

Right some wrongs
Make amends

Live a life worth living.

Happy 2015

Signature2

The Legend of Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher

“Opening day of baseball season is like the first night of your honeymoon. Once that first pitch opening daysmacks into the glove, everything and anything is possible. Plus, you get to live it all over three, four, five times or more that day and you goo to sleep smiling”

-Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher

It is that most serendipitous and melodic harbinger of the end of winter – baseball. Spring training has wrapped its languid flow in Florida and Arizona and the teams have dispatched too locales from coast to coast. Optimism reigns as fans return like Capistrano Swallows to major league ballparks in an effort to get their initial, anticipated glimpse of the year at their favorite teams, beloved veterans and highly anticipated newcomers; to soak in the sun and think of the possibilities of what the new season will bring.

Opening week.

Their first chance since fall to experience baseball…to talk baseball in something more than wistfully nostalgic tones for last year or unbridled optimism in the unseen for the year ahead.

Talking baseball takes on a fresh urgency this time of year.

It was with this backdrop that I made a pilgrimage to a local watering hole for the chance to talk baseball with a true baseball legend. A man who knows baseball, the game of life.  I found him sitting alone in a booth, nursing a tap beer.  His business card lay on the table in front of him, facing the spot across the table from him. My seat on the mountaintop. He motioned me to sit down, gracefully extended his hand. We shook, he motioned for me to take his card.

BrooklynIt reads, simply, ‘Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher’ in elegant, 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers uniform font.

Now while Mr. Plato knows life and knows baseball, he does not see himself as a great thinker – more an observer of and ruminator on life and how it relates to all things baseball. I have quoted Mr. Plato frequently throughout the years in various forms, but more importantly, I have taken his wisdom and utilized it to full effect. The opportunity to sit down and speak with him face-to-face was not to be passed up.

I could not if I had tried.

Over beer and salted-in-the-shell ballpark peanuts, I spoke with (mostly just listened reverently to) Mr. Plato about some of his views on baseball and life. What follows is a sampling of our conversation covering a broad array of topics baseball.

“Mr. Plato, sir” I began, a bit nervously.

“Call me Home. But not ‘Homer’ – people should know that ‘Home’ isn’t ‘short’ for anything, and I do not write epic poetry. I simply observe it.” He smiled knowingly.

scorecard“A two-to-six putout, as it were.” I replied, thinking myself clever.

“Leave the philosophizing to me, kid.”

“Sure thing. Where do we start…”

“And don’t call me a ‘baseball card.’ I don’t do jokes or puns.” His tone had an impish quality.

“Yes sir, Mr. Plato.”

“Call me ‘Home’.”

Moving quickly on, I asked Mr. Plato when he first knew he had a gift for offering perceptions. He leaned back in his chair, and in one smooth motion he reflexively pried open a fresh peanut shell with his thumb and rolled the two peanuts into the palm of his hand before popping them in his mouth, all the while never breaking our eye contact.

“Back in the day – I was in high school -we were being coached on how to steal a base. I made a joke; something about ‘my mom told me I shouldn’t steal stuff’ and my teammates laughed, but the coach wasn’t amused. It kind of just took off from there. I just modified mama’s advice a little bit to fit the situation.”

baseball“Mama always told me, never lie and never steal…unless you can put yourself safely into scoring position with less than two outs and one of your big hitters coming up.

“Do you have kids?” I asked, figuring that much of Home’s advice needed a ready target, like a catcher framing the plate.

“I have nine.”

“What kind of advice do you give them?”

“Only the best kind.” he replied with a grin and a wink.

baseball2“Ask any infielder; bad hops are a part of the game of life. Even the easiest looking play can be set awry by a stray clump of dirt. What counts is how you handle the bad hop. If you don’t catch it, stay calm, knock it down, pick it up. Stick with it; you can still make the play.”

“Bad hops are indeed a part of life.” I agreed.

Plato nodded. “I always try to remind my kids that sometimes, even the best of situations can provide a challenge.”

I nodded, writing it all diligently down in my notebook.

“Everyone who has ever played the game has done it – lost a ball in the sun. Life is like that; even the best and brightest of days can sometimes blind you to what you need to do.”

“Sound advice.” I was jotting that down furiously. Home was on a roll.

peanutsbaseball-1“Being proactive is good, but you also need to know how to react when things go awry. There are always going to be bad hops and off-target throws coming at you; always expecting to have to react to the unexpected, then reacting expectedly to the unexpected, is what separates the all-stars from the guys who ride the bench.”

“I’ve read that one before. Heck, I’ve tried to live it.”

The Old Philosopher seemed pleased. He nodded knowingly. “That’s good.” He replied confidently,without ego, taking a healthy sip of his beer. I was eager for more.

“What else can you tell me about how to live life?”

“You can argue with the umpire whenever you want, but you’ll rarely prevail – and you might get tossed from the game. Sometimes the victory comes in just letting him know you disagreed with his call in a respectful way. Stay in the game. Keep disagreements civil, and pick your battles wisely. The next time you step up to the plate, forget the last at bat ever happened.”

Louisville Slugger“That’s good stuff, Home.”

“Thank you.” He cracked open two more shells simultaneously, rolling the four peanuts around in his hand, ala Captain Queeg – without the angst.

“When the game is on the line, you can be caught looking. Don’t rely on the umpire to decide the outcome, never take a called third strike for the last out of the game. Go down swinging.”

“Another classic, Home.” I was soaking in not just the wisdom but the masterful peanut shelling. “In all my years of ballpark peanut eating, I’ve never mastered the one-handed shelling like you have.” I ventured.

Home looked down at his hand, cocked an eyebrow as he threw the peanuts into his mouth. “It’s all in the grip” he said matter-of-factly. Just like throwing the perfect curve ball.”

Made perfect sense. I had never mastered the curve, either.

Home checked his watch; It was getting late. “Before we go, can I ask you about self-confidence?”

“Self-confidence.” He took a breath, repeated the phrase slowly as a smile creased his face.

baseball3“There are two outs, and you have two strikes against you – what do you do? You step back, make eye contact with the pitcher, smile at him. Then give him a wink, a quick nod, smile again, step back in. Nothing so unnerves an opponent as your self-confidence. You’ve got him right where you want him.”

Home paid the tab and we got up from our table, walking into the crisp, spring air. I could swear that in the distance, I was hearing a faint roaring of a crowd.

“Thanks for your time, Mr. Plato.”

“Home.” He reminded me gently. “You’re very welcome.” The old philosopher smiled, adjusting the brim of his vintage Dodgers cap.

“Any last thoughts?” I asked knowingly.

“You know why is baseball played on a diamond, son? Like the stone, a baseball diamond needs diamondto be cut just so to shine just so perfectly so. In both cases, it’s a sparkling thing of beauty when done just right, no matter what the setting is.”

I finished writing, adding the last period with a penciled stab, I closed my notebook.

I nodded, we shook hands. I watched him walk away into the darkness, and I swear I could hear, from somewhere, the gentle lilt of a ballpark organ, a gruff voice hollering ‘Play ball!’ the cheers fading into the night.

HiDef

A new year tends to bring life into sharper focus.

Failures and regrets of the year passed, feigned anticipatory enthusiasm for what lies ahead; milestones of various dressingroommirrorilk, things left undone. Reflections in mirrors that are sometimes more fun house than Broadway dressing room predominate, preoccupy, border on and at times become, blind obsession. Metaphors predominate in private thought, public proclamation: blank canvases, clean slates, an empty room.

Then the ball drops at midnight.

Looking ahead to the future with or without a crystal ball or tea leaves is tricky business, as unbridled optimism bests pessimistic reflection in emotional and intellectual new year sumo matches – especially if you like what you crystalballseersee in your self-prognostications. Much lies ahead, and it is all anxiously anticipated with glee, the past notwithstanding, reality an inconvenient, ignored nuisance. You have filed away the flotsam of the year-that-was like an old tax return. Been there, done that; someday distant, you’ll simply throw it away, stuffed in with some other no-longer-needed documentation.

Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.

Out with the old, in with the new…lives, relationships, homes will all to be repaired and refurbished. At least, that’s the plan. Personal improvements need to be made, changes that will be to your betterment – that much is certain. You know what needs to be accomplished and so you lay the groundwork, anticipate and minimize potential setbacks, confident in your ability to ‘carry on.’ Loses and gains are planned with haphazard meticulousness. Nice, neat, clean. Hey, you got this.

The best laid plans…

eyechartHindsight is 20/20, presumptive foresight is generally myopic. Honest insight is going through the eye chart methodically, working through and around the cataracts of self-doubt and lack of self-confidence – seeing clearly the differences between the F’s and the P’s.

Its o.k. if you need to stop and focus on the chart, but don’t blindly guess.

Hang all the inspirational posters around you that you want, but know that pictures of cats or long-distance runners grimacing while holding a death-grip on a symbolic baton (what is being passed to whom?) – regardless of the simple, pseudo-inspiring verbiage or font – produces only income for the publisher, not real motivation or revelation for you. You need to change, want to change; always know that you can change. But a list of declarations, pledges and promises tacked to your refrigerator with a magnet are no better than the realistic aspects of what you are trying to accomplish, and a well thought out plan for accomplishing them.

And always have a plan ‘B.’ Just in case.

Set realistic goals and be conspicuous and vocal with your plans to achieve them. Get encouragement when you can, Whackamole2from whoever you can. Don’t succumb to doubt or capitulate to momentary setbacks. They will each rear their ugly heads – play Whack-a-Mole on them with reckless impunity.

New year advice is plentiful; Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, doctor’s office brochures. Fortune cookies, Facebook memes, well-meaning friends. They all have their places, simply as reminders that change is needed, that now is as good a time (but not the only time) as any. They are nothing more than reminders.

But you already knew that.hidefgraphic

‘Practice makes perfect’ has an abysmal success rate as a philosophy, but has found its niche as a notorious catch phrase. Practice perfection? You have to first learn a skill before you can practice it to any degree of success. You can’t rehearse to be flawless, but you can refine your flaws into more typical qualities. Change negatives into positives, know your limitations and don’t obsess perfection.

Ideas and ideals get lost quickly in the shuffle of the ides of any make-myself-better-January.

Use both successes and failures as benchmarks. Become acquainted with both, treat each with healthy respect and ample does of humor. Neither should be taken too seriously or passed off lightly. Contrary to what contemporary society may tell you, every accomplishment is not cause for celebration, every stumble is not a call to go back and start over.

All things in moderation.

Your new year’s resolution needs to be in as many pixels as you can muster, live and in brilliant color. The best a crystal ball can give you is this for your 2014: February will follow January, March will come next…it culminates in December. What you see is what you get.

etchasketchLife is an Etch A Sketch. Don’t like what you’ve drawn? Shake it up, erase the picture, draw it again.

Carpe diem; today is simply tomorrow’s yesterday.

I teach English in an urban high school. A poster with the proverb below hangs in my classroom. I have used it in various forms to prompt reflection for writing, and as a counterpoint to various attitudes in both what we read and what we experience in real life. It is great perspective for a new year.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a debate that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle between two wolves is inside us all. One wolf is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

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.

Portability

Graduation from high school
meant moving on, getting on
with life, trying something new
somewhere else – leaving

Graduation gifts were practical
to the situation; a typewriter,
a briefcase, cash, sage advice…

a contradictory set of luggage,
gifted by mom and dad.

Not wanting me to go, knowing
I must; wary, hopeful, resigned
questioning all the inevitability
that raising children nurtures

A matched set of five brown
vinyl bags; two suitcases, under-
seat tote, garment bag, shaving
kit, all filled quickly, portaged
across multiple states, stages,
careers, life transitions – stuffed
with the tactile accoutrements
of a life, with room remaining in
corners and zippered pouches
for moments, memories. A life.

A few quick Junes from now
my eldest son reaches the same
well-trod crossroads, whether to
go or to stay will not be the point;
moving on a given, a goal reached

The temptation will be to send
him on his way much as I was; a
laptop, a briefcase, cash, debit card
and a large, sleek, shoulder-carry,
nylon duffle bag along with prudent
counsel to travel light while still
taking it all in; to bring it with him
when he comes back, take it all
with him when he leaves again, but
most importantly of all, to use it
along the way, carry himself well