Antipasto!

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

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

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He had it in the bag

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

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

Ahh, romance.

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

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

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

His pride was quite evident.

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

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

I immediately liked this guy’s style.

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

My kind of guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It started looking pretty sharp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corsage drew some curious looks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s okay, then”? I asked.

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

I could not disagree.

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

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

“He told you about that, too?”

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

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

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

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

I, for one, was not.

From Here to…There?

My wife, two sons, and I are headed to a couple of days at the beach, on the beautiful Gulf coast of Mississippi.  Bay St. Louis is a quaint little town with neat shops and cafes and soft, fine beach sand.

Some well-earned R-and-R in the midst of a hectic summer.

While we will be spending some quality family time, my wife and I plan on a little ‘us’ time – one of our two-nights there will be a date night, just the two of us; a kickoff to the celebration of our twenty-fifth anniversary in a few weeks.

We may have to reconcile some plans and expectations of our evening for two. The dinner part should be easy, but after that..?

I am pushing for a Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr, ‘From Here to Eternity’ finale to the fromhereto2evening, but my wife is dubious.  I have broached this idea on previous beach trips, but those were day-excursions, not overnight, and there were always others around.  But this time, things are different.  It still might be a bit of a hard sell.

My wife can be adventuresome at times, but for this, she is thinking more along the lines of a toned down, middle-aged Frankie and Annette, beach-blanket-bingo sort of thing – minus the singing to her parts. To me, that is more a chaste, ‘just friends, golly-gee-whiz’ vibe, but I could probably be persuaded as a last resort. Before getting to that innocuous, innocent fromhereto3point, though, I would be propose something more ‘Blue Hawaii’-ish – but she remains unimpressed with my Elvis impression, so that may be a non-starter from the get go.

One thing for certain: I don’t have the patience for grabbing a stick and going all Pat Boone in with the sand – too G-rated and namby-pamby for a date night, though that set-up might serve as a romantic prelude and an ‘aww, sweet’ moment for other beach goers earlier in the day.

Put that one in column ‘BB’ (Boring, but…)

I am going to hold out as long as I can for the Lancaster/Kerr scenario – even though I haven’t got the jawline, I know we can pull this off.  Among my selling points?  We can keep our swimwear on all day, and we’ll already have sand in weird spots, so I’ve got the primary, ‘too messy’ argument countered – along with most others I can anticipate.

fromhereto4The risk of jellyfish-as-third-wheel intrusion is negligible. I think.

The gulf water will be quite warm, even in the evening.

We are not too old for this.

‘You are not Burt Lancaster’.  Well, okay, I can’t counter that one. But I have his voice and hand mannerisms down pat.

Whatever we come up with will be very nice, but will probably end up more ‘Gilligan’s Island’ than ‘South Pacific’ but hey, a guy’s gotta give it a shot, right?

Wait a minute.

The ‘Gilligan’ thing might have legs – just like my wife, and like Mary Ann. Hmm.  In fromhereto1reality, they couldn’t have been on that island too long being all coconut-pie-platonic, could they?  And how did they always have meringue for those pies?  Under the circumstances, I’m thinking if Mary Ann went to the trouble of whipping up a batch of meringue in those conditions, she was going to be using it for more than slapping on top of a pie.  Besides, if it was just about the pies, Gilligan would have weighed close to two-fifty by the time they were rescued.  I can swing by the store and get some meringue to throw in the cooler.

I wonder if my wife has anything gingham in her closet?

I have just hit on the perfect alternative plan for beach-blanket BINNNG-GO!

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.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”

A recent Saturday evening found us out for dinner with a group of about twenty friends from church. It was a pleasant evening to sit in the courtyard of New Orleans’ Parkway Tavern enjoying the po boys, the conversation and fellowship. I was sitting next to Pastor Eric, and he and I were talking to some of the college kids from our youth group, who were sitting across the table.

A couple of them suddenly jerked their heads up, looking surprised, and Eric and I both turned around to see what was behind us.

There is small, roofed overhang on one side that shields the courtyard staff work area. On top of the roof was a black cat that apparently frequents the restaurant. He was nonchalantly sitting there, flicking his tail and licking his chops, apparently awaiting some sort of table scrap pouncing opportunity from our group.

I matter-of-factly went all Groucho Marx on the gang, stating definitively, “You know, a black cat crossing your path is a sure sign the animal is headed someplace.”

There was a pause, as the college kids digested the logic before nodding silent approval.

Pastor, Eric, who at ten years my junior and over a year as my pastor, is just starting to really get used to such stray utterances, turned and looked at me and said, “So is that what you do – just sit there passing out sage advice?”

“Guess so” I nodded, “About twenty years earlier than I had planned on, but yeah, it is what I do these days, pass out sage advice.” I paused. “Though sometimes it’s more…you know, tarragon advice; a bit more subtle with some complexity.”

Eric just looked at me, shook his head, went back to his po boy, sort of smiling.

I think I get prayed for more than some of the others.

The other day a purple pen I had in my pants pocket began leaking, soaking through the cotton lining of the pocket, and leaving me with two big, round purple splotches on my upper right leg.

It looked, in the mirror, like those U.S.D.A. stamps they put on sides of beef, so the natural inclination while getting ready for bed that night was to show my wife, then ask, seductively, “So, honey, what am I? Select? Choice? Prrrrime?”

“Ummm, suurrrrrre” she said, nodding in puzzlement, “One of those.”

On the plus side, she could’ve just said, “Alpo factory.” Theres an app stamp for that.

Mooooooooving on to….

October’s Household Quote of the Month:

“I’m thinking ahead here. My paranoia is getting the best of me.” – Will Lucker, 15 going on 37

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                As happens so frequently, while looking for something complete unrelated on the Internet, I stumbled across this, and now have the perfect wedding gift idea for most any couple: Twister sheets.I also have some twenty-fifth anniversaries to be noted over the next few years, so what I’m looking for now is a set of sheets based on the game Operation.

For gift giving in between those two chronological points, perhaps some matching his-and-hers Ouija board boxers.

Or maybe just send a card.

Until the next time, then.  Have a happy.

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.

Father’s Day, 2011

Father’s Day. T-shirts that say ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ coffee mugs emblazoned with the similar (‘number 1’, ‘best’ ‘all star’ dad sentiments). Neckties given in abundance, most only worn by a dad because it came from one of his children. A Sunday in June filled with corny greeting cards – or overly sappy, sentimental ones. A dinner out at dad’s favorite cheap restaurant. Deference not usually granted in discussions. Tradition.

A big deal, to us dads.

Like for most, Father’s Day is a day that has changed dramatically in focus and thought process for me throughout the years.

When I was a kid, I eagerly awaited the day, as I always had something unique to give my dad, and that his reaction (or over reaction) would always be amusing or pleasing, and always worth the effort. This is not rose-colored glasses nostalgia; the cache of stuff given by me to my father over many years was discovered as I went through his belongings following his death when I was 27.

This included the set of reddish granite cuff links and tie bar I made for him with the rock tumbler and polisher I got from mom and dad one Christmas.Granite not a precious stone used in jewelry you say? I beg to differ. There was also a tiny bottle of ‘Hai Karate’ after-shave purchased years before at a large department store during a ‘secret shop’ for parents, chosen in secret by me and my elf escort, given with aplomb, used by dad once, never to be smelled again (I later got some Hai Karate for myself; I know why it was a one-shot, one-dab deal).

There was also more ‘mature’ gift or two; from my junior high days, the plastic egg head-on-a-stick figure stuck into a small flower pot with a small sign proclaiming something humorous and related to having a drink. (Hey, it was the 70’s) I also found some of the more yuck-inducing cards I had given him through the years, and could easily see the evolution of our relationship from kid and dad to more adult father and son. I remembered the trepidation as I once gave my father a more, umm…risqué card, and how he laughed heartily, then looked at me strangely, realizing, I am guessing, that our relationship had moved to a new and different level.

My last Father’s Day with my father came just weeks before he died of cancer. He had been Ill for a time I don’t remember much of the details, but I do remember thinking this would be the last card I would be buying him, and that I spent an inordinate amount of time choosing the funniest card I could find. My father was an aficionado of all types of humor, and it was a well-received card, much more than any maudlin sentimentality would have been at that point.

Oddly, that’s all I remember about the card of that Father’s Day.

By the time my dad died, I was a father myself; my daughter was two, and at the stage where her mother chose the card and gift. It wasn’t many years though, before I was on the receiving end of the unique, child-chosen homage trinkets and I began to amass my own collection of Father’s Day totems. It also became clear very quickly that she, too, spends more time than most in choosing a greeting card.

A few years later I was divorced, and my mother had remarried. My Father’s Day now included the ‘step father’ section at the Hallmark store (yeah, I am one of  those people – I take greeting cards seriously; my daughter comes by it honestly) and the Father’s Day cards and gifts I received were delivered during weekend visits.

Times change, Father’s Day changes.

Eventually I fell in love, remarried, and had two boys, who are now 12 and 15. Over the past nineteen years of marriage I have gone from being the non-custodial dad blending a new family to new dad again with mom-chosen gift and cards to present day, where the boys pester me about what I might like for a gift, then miss the obvious-to-me hints I drop on Facebook or stick with magnets to the refrigerator door.

Nearly two-decades ago, Father’s Day was an odd hodge-podge of emotions, with a young, transient daughter who inherited my knack for quirky, endearing gifts and off-beat, humorous cards that she has retained and refined. She will hopefully find a lot of these herself in a box someday and wonder aloud “He saved that?”

Now, the cycle will begin anew; my daughter is expecting a child of her own in November. Next June will come another, new and improved (if that’s possible) version of Father’s Day.

Ahh, as they say here in New Orleans,”It’s all good.”

Fortunately, I am still picking out those step-father cards , though I long ago just skipped the specialty section and just get something that says ‘Happy Father’s Day’ with humor. Or an e-card. (Check your email on Sunday, Gary!)

Ecards. Times do change.

In my half-century plus, I have learned that Father’s Day isn’t just about dad.

My father’s parents both died before I was born, my mother’s mother when I was four. My mom’s father (always ‘Gramps’ to me – I don’t ever remember calling him ‘grandpa’ or anything else but Gramps) was an engaging and integral part of my life until he died, just a few years before my father did. I remember fondly family vacations the four of us took; the Black Hills, Colorado, Wisconsin Dells. The year I lived with him while going to Brown Institute. Great times.

Gramps, too, held to an eclectic collection of treasures I had given him throughout the years; rock jewelry in the same vein that I had given my dad, along with a collection of handmade ashtrays and coasters from my encase-things-in-clear-acrylic phase in my early teens (less noisy but more smelly than the rock tumbler, my parents frequently used Christmas gifts to encourage my creative side) and candles from my more regrettable candle-making years, plus a couple of lopsided beer-bottle beer glasses from the year after I got a bottle-cutter kit. (keep in mind, it was the 70’s)

Some of these goodies were stashed away, but many were on prominent display in Gramps’ small apartment – including the eight-inch alligator with coins and stamps from his native Norway enclosed and visible all along the gator’s back and tail. No, there are no alligators in Norway. Yes, it is a rather ugly looking thing. But I made it, for my grandpa, and he kept it out and on prominent display for a lot of years.

There was also Ivar, at whose lake home in northern Minnesota I spent a dozen joyous childhood summers with he and his wife. Many of my friends from that era were surprised to learn years later that I wasn’t their grandchild, just a family friend. He too, left a collection of stuff from and made by me. he too, apparently, had a penchant for ugly candles he never burned. And beer glasses couldn’t drink from.

My dad, Gramps, Ivar – all are long gone from the scene, all missed on Father’s Day….at least, missed in a physical, wish-I-could-see-you-again sense.

As dads and stepdads, granddads real and ‘adopted’ go, I hit the mother (father) lode.

I was truly blessed in that regard, and their presence in my life one of the greatest of all Father’s Day gifts I have or will ever receive. They aren’t trinkets stuffed in a dresser drawer, aren’t sitting dusty on a shelf in a living room. I do have some of their physical artifacts, but the good stuff is all where it can’t be seen, but is always in use.

Best of all, I can use what they left me and partake in one of the grandest of American holiday traditions: re-gifting.

Happy Father’s Day.

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

First Love

The young ballplayer drags his bat to the plate, leaving a neat,
shallow furrow in the dirt in which the seeds of success are now
sown; there is purpose to his gait, no fear. He is resolute.

He practice swings the bat in a warped, pendulum loop while his
oversized, red plastic helmet acts a boa constrictor trying to
digest his head. Dogged determination shapes the boys eyes

He stands beside home plate, tongue protruding from the lower
left corner of his mouth in intensity; his face drawn in pseudo-
sneer, he spreads his feet, digs toes firmly into the sacred dirt

The boy is ten.

He looks every bit the ballplayer; body language poised – just
shy of cocky; seriousness finger-painted in bold red dirt streaks
across the white script team name adorning his uniform shirt

His bat slowly rises, coming to rest on his shoulder as he fixes
a nearly-hardened gaze on the adversary forty-six feet ahead;
takes a deep breath, wrinkles his nose to move the sweat off

The pitcher looks at him, cocks his arm, throws. Bait not taken;
a ball! The bat in the boy’s hands wobbles alongside his head,
goes still a brief moment as the next pitch approaches before

whipping violently from his shoulder, thrust in a swept-sword
arc at the hurled sphere coming; arm muscles strain, elbows go
straight, torso and hips spin wildly, eyes close as bat meets ball…

Momentum causes the boy to teeter briefly, before an ungainly
burst from the batter’s box sends him lurching toward first as
the ball, like a flat stone on water, skims the infield dirt, kicking

up four quick puffs of diamond dust and the boy’s thought is of
only one thing; the sudden grandeur of a double – a double! – as
he rounds first, and the ball comes to a stop in the outfield grass

The boy playing right field for the opponents charges in, plucking
the ball from the turf where it has come to rest while in the same
odd, Quixotic-windmill motion he catapults it toward second base

Then it all happens so fast.

The boy has ducked his head rounding first, doggedly running
fast as he ever has or ever will, only looking up in time to see the
ball jutting from the webbing of the glove suddenly before him

the sight alerts the boy’s baseball instincts to his only option;
intuitively he launches his feet out from under him, left leg fully
extended, right leg tucked beneath him, curled at the knee

his left buttock slams into the dirt with a cloud of dust, his body
sliding to a stop a full foot in front of second base, he sees the
glove smack his shin, hearing a soft, excited voice; “You’re out!”

Lying there looking up into fading afternoon sun he can make the
silhouette of his vanquisher; arms raised in exultant triumph, ball
in one hand, glove the other, and a look of surprised satisfaction.

From flat on his back he lifts his head to focus, and through the
dissipating cloud of grit the face of his rival comes into soft focus
from beneth her frayed bent cap brim. No gloating countenance,

the gentle face is a wide smile, large eyes – framed by two tightly-
braided, long, dangling, swaying pig-tails; near the end of each
dangle shiny plastic barrettes the exact hue of her cap and jersey

There is an oddly comforting lilt to her voice saying “You’re out!”
He doesn’t hear moans of disappointment from his team’s bench.
Still on his back, chin on chest, he smiles, repeats; “You’re out.”

His head flops back on the dirt. She leans over him, still holding
the ball, hands on her knees, he again repeats, “You’re out.”
The girl nods. “Yep” she repeats with a broad smile, “You’re out.”

From that moment on, though he will often try, he can never quite
accurately articulate or explain to anyone (even himself) his inate
passion for baseball, his true love. His love of the game.

A revision from the dusty recesses of the Marchives: Valentines Poem #2

Poets have often
likened love
to roses
summer days
other sundry
natural
phenomenon

I see love in
more esoteric yet
practical ways;

love is tartar sauce.
It looks like hell
you have no idea
what might be in it
yet you always
seem to find
it tasty.