The laughter never fades

Father’s Day. A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

A bit pretentious of a title for a holiday, but it is what it is. ‘Dad’s Day’ just doesn’t have the panache – except to me, because I had my dad.

Dad died in 1986 – now more than half my life ago, which is an interesting realization to come to – I have lived more of my life without his physical presence than with.  In a way, that makes no sense to me.

It’s quite natural to wonder what he would think of the here-and-now; what his family has become, his grandchildren, great- grandchildren – life in general, the world in which we all live.

I don’t need to think too hard to reach a definite conclusion; he would see my life as it is today with a sense of pride, but also a heightened level of amusement and bemusement.

My dad wasn’t highly educated, topping out the formal end of things with a high school diploma,  but he was knowledgeable and well read, a man of continual curiosity about the world.  He would have some definite opinions the recent state of affairs of the country and it would be a blunt, probably sarcastic, enlightening and entertaining – LOL commentary. He would have appreciated his grandchildren’s fairly sophisticated interest in things social and political.

Life would still be pointedly funny, as would he

Aside from all of the typical moments I regret my dad and I  missed getting to share  – the wife and children of mine he never met, my career and creative and milestones, the man I have become – one thing I get oddly  wistful about is the fact that my dad and I never got to sit down in front of a VHS or DVD player and watch funny movies.

That many sound funny as a major regret.

Dad was an aficionado of comedy. He spent the bulk of his working years as a television station film editor in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then Denver. This was back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, when television was still a fairly new and burgeoning entity, and most places had only four-or-five channels to choose from, and aside from their network programming, had lots of local air time to fill.  TV stations ran a lot of old movies; my father edited them to fit time frames and insert commercial breaks. He loved movies, and did some community theater work himself in his younger, pre-me days. He also made a few appearances in front of the camera at both stations he worked at; as a menswear model in Minneapolis, and for a number of years in Denver as Santa Claus.  Dad was gregarious, willing to try new things and to have fun.

Dad knew comedy.

Most of all, Dad knew comedy and loved a wide array of comedic films and performers. Comedy of all kinds, actually. A favorite stand-up comedian’s appearance on a show noted in TV Guide or the newspaper listings and the television was thus appropriated for that time frame: my first, youthful experiences with ‘appointment television’ were comedic in nature. Comedy (and humor – a distinction, to be sure) and an appreciation for things humorous, was a trait he passed on to me, though we had somewhat divergent viewpoints on what/who was funny, and who wasn’t.

Hence, my regret over his not living to see the home video age come to full bloom.

Born in 1916, Dad’s early experiences with comedy were vaudeville and silent films. He was a fan of silent stars Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, and also the Keystone Cops. When I was a teenager, any public television salute to either of those guys was duly noted and watched by my dad, and since we only had one t.v. in the house, me too.

I easily came to share his admiration for most of it.

Dad’s true passion, the guys he found funniest of all, were Laurel and Hardy. They were his heroes – especially Stan Laurel, the skinny straight-man of the classic duo. My dad did a pretty good Stan Laurel impersonation, and even as a young kid I was aware that I was  seeing a different look in my dad’s eyes when we watched Laurel and Hardy versus other movies or shows.

Stan and Ollie

Nostalgia is funny; sometimes you look back on something fondly, and wonder why, but this is truly not one of those times. I still enjoy watching Laurel and Hardy – probably even more so now that I am older, and grasp far more of the subtle nuances of their humor – the verbal mastery of the language of humor, the pathos in the true to life friendship that their humor (even when absurdist) came from.

I always laughed along with dad when watching Laurel and Hardy; now I know why he laughed much harder at some things than I did.  I now laugh at the same things he did.

Watch a Laurel and Hardy short sometime, and you will see that even the physical, slapstick humor has a certain humanity to it, a gentleness. Chaplin is much the same, and Chaplin  I also get in a much different way now than I did as a kid.  Dad liked Charlie, and even portrayed him a couple of times for costume parties.  He had Chaplin’s waddle and cane twirl down pat.

We did diverge, at times.

In a very different vein, Dad loved The Bowery Boys; I got quickly bored with their antics. Abbot and Costello did nothing for dad, I found them mildly amusing – though they don’t wear as well as the years move on, so maybe my sense of humor is aging like good wine – or my dad’s.

Larry, Moe, Curly. Soitenly.

Dad loved the Three Stooges – about as far removed comedically from Laurel and Hardy as you can get, in some regards. There is little subtlety in the Stooges and their eye poking-head smacking mayhem, but my dad enjoyed them tremendously,  as do I, as do both my sons – his grandsons. There is something timeless in a pie in the face or a poke in the eye.  Don’t believe me?  As an adult, I have, by way of actual demonstration, won a couple of bets on whether or not a pie-in-the-face would get a laugh in most any public setting.

Dad would be proud.

But while I grew up sharing dad’s appreciation for Laurel & Hardy and the Stooges (among others) we parted ways over the Marx Brothers.  I was, and still am, a big fan; dad didn’t really find them funny, which is one thing that has always puzzled me.  All he could say in response to my not-concealed disappointment was that he just didn’t find them all that funny.

Funny how serious a guy can get about a disagreement sbout what is funny with his dad.

Nairobi Trio
Ernie Kovacs Nairobi Trio

As well read and cerebral as my dad was in terms of comedy and satire (both on-screen and in real life) the Marx Brothers would seem to be a natural for him. Oh, he watched some Brothers stuff with me a few times, but it just wasn’t really his thing. When I was in high school, PBS resurrected Groucho Marx’s  ‘You Bet Your Life’ quiz show from the fifties and ran them on Saturday nights. I became hooked, and dad actually found Groucho Marx to be a funny guy, much to my relief and vindication of sorts. He still never really cared for their movies, though. Conversely, when PBS resurrected  Ernie Kovacs old shows, I was puzzled as what Kovacs bits he liked and which ones he really didn’t. The Nairobi Trio did nothing for him, had me in stitches. Subjectivity reigns.

When asked on his deathbed if he was finding it difficult to leave this life, acclaimed actor John

dad jewelry
Dad’s favorite cuff links; comedy and tragedy masks – along with his Laurel & Hardy cuff links, and his comedy/tragedy ring.

Barrymore was quoted as saying, “No. Death is easy; comedy is hard.”

I get that.

Even though we didn’t get to plunk down in front of a t.v. with a handful of classics in black-and-white on DVD, my dad and I shared numerous moments of comedic television brilliance through the 60’s and 70′, and had quite lengthy and spirited debates about who and what was and wasn’t funny.

Comedians were prevalent on television when I was growing up, and not just late night with Johnny Carson; The Ed Sullivan Show, the Carol Burnet Show, Flip Wilson – there was always somebody funny on. He loved (and I came to appreciate) Myron Cohen and Morey Amsterdam; he couldn’t stand Buddy Hacket or Shecky Greene, puzzled over my love for the insult humor of Don Rickles or the confetti-throwing antics of Rip Taylor. We both liked Jonathan Winters, and I could stay up late with him on non-school nights to catch Carson when a comedic favorite was scheduled.

Dad was not so old school that he couldn’t enjoy contemporary stuff: he would sit with me on Monday nights and watch The Monkees. He enjoyed the antics, tolerated the music.  Looking back, this makes more sense to me; while I used to equate The Monkees humor with the Stooges, viewing them now, I see much more of the love and affection of friends evident in Laurel and Hardy.

TV of the time of my youth was something my dad and I got to share.

Here’s Dan and Dick

Sitcoms we mostly agreed upon and enjoyed watching as a family: The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in The Family and M*A*S*H* were favorites.

Dad also loved Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and my daughter Lindsay, now in her thirties, became a fan watching Laugh In reruns in her teens. She now owns some DVD’s compilations of Laugh In and uses a number of the shows memorable lines regularly in her personal repertoire, which would please my father to no end – probably even more than it amuses me.

SwedishChef
“Eeety beety chunkerdere bork bork bork…”

But the quirkiest bit of humor/comedy that my father and I shared was The Muppet Show.

The Swedish Chef in particular always sent him convulsing with laughter, and he really enjoyed Rolf the piano playing dog. And Fozzie Bear and Kermit, of course.  But the Swedish Chef was a whole different level of gut-buster for my dad.  No, he wasn’t Swedish himself, but marrying into an extended family of Norwegian immigrants and their Swedish cohorts,  he could somewhat identify.  I think.   The Muppet Show aired five nights a week at six-thirty, and if there was a particularly intriguing guest star that night, we had dinner on t.v. trays in the family room – a treat generally reserved for Apollo blastoffs or something equally noteworthy. Or to watch The Muppet Show.

Movies is why I really regret my dad missing out on the home video era.

One of the few ‘grown-up’ movies I ever saw with my dad in a theater was The Pink Panther Strikes Again, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My father loved the earlier Pink Panther movies, and thought Peter Sellers was brilliantly funny. I had only seen bits and pieces of the earlier films on t.v. and was unsure what to expect from a whole movie of Seller’s antics.

It was a memorable experience on a whole lot of levels, as I never saw my dad laugh as hard or as frequently as he did that evening in a Denver movie theater.

Two things vividly stand out in my mind from going to sse that film with my father. One is a scene in which Clouseau is chasing a villain, and exits a hotel as the bad guy drives off. Clouseau summons a waiting taxi, jumps in the back seat, and in his French drawl yells at the rotund cab driver to “Fullow that caaaaar.”  The overweight cabbie responds by looking at Clouseau blankly, shrugging his shoulders, then jumping out of the cab and running down the road – following the bad guy’s car. The camera then cuts back to a close up of Seller’s face, mostly his eyes and eyebrows, as Clouseau realizes the result of his order.

It was the late 1970’s, dad had recently had heart surgery, and was laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Seriously, I did.

I could watch that scene a hundred times and laugh just as hard as he did then.

The other thing of note from that film has less to do with my dad, and more with my relationship with my sons. A few years ago I rented the original Pink Panther movie and my sons and I  watched it together. My dad loved one particular scene, and my boys do now too, and they have been able to watch that particular bit over and over via YouTube.

Assassins are trying to kill Inspector Clouseau. One assassin disguised as Clouseau enters his hotel room, while another assassin follows and kills the first assassin, hiding in the bathtub, thinking it is the real Clouseau. When the lovely Russian assassin, Olga, enters, she declares her love for Clouseau and seduces the second assassin in a dimly lit room. He leaves and then the real  Clouseau arrives, moving throughout several rooms turning on lights and turning off others while Olga is doing the same in his wake. He’s befuddled as to what is happening with the lighting and even more surprised when he gets into bed with some “cold hands.” Olga thinks she is with the same man, and a confused Clouseau then escapes to the bathroom, where he now finds the body of the first assassin in the bathtub.

To this point in the scene, there has been no dialogue. Clouseau goes to the phone and calls the front desk, matter-of-factly informing them of what he has discovered.

“Hello?… Yezzz. There eez a beautiful woman in my bed, and a dead man in my bath. Thank you.” Again, a close-up shot of Clouseau’s face – a pause, then his wide-eyed look when he realizes what he has said – the subtle, played straight absurdity of it all, makes the whole scene.

“Heeelo? Izs dis zee front desk?”

That line has become a piece of family folklore.

Whenever we check into a hotel room, one of the Lucker males is sure to pick up the phone and intone, in suave French accent, “Hello?… Yes. There eeze a dead man in my bathtub, and a naked woman in my bed. Thank you.”

With any luck at all, we remember to hold down the button on the phone so the call doesn’t actually go through.

Treasured keepsake hand-me-downs from my dad. Or at least, of my dad.

He would find that wonderfully amusing.

Blind sided

The other night, son Will, the high-school-junior-to-be, was assisting me with a handyman project. We had to hang two new blinds in our living room windows, after removing the hardware for the old, broken ones. Those with engineering degrees need not apply.

We got this.

One of the blind brackets needed to go in the inside far right corner of the window box, which was problematic because it caused me to use my cordless drill with my left hand, and I am not left-handed, (though Will is. Next time, he gets up on the barstool!) Add in the fact that I had to get the elongated screwdriver drill bit up through a hole in the bottom of the bracket, and it was a hassle, and I was having little success.

So I did what I usually do in such situations, which is to devise a plan ‘B’ on the fly.

In this case, that meant a (seemingly) convoluted maneuver of using a regular screw driver and a dry wall screw to start an extra pilot hole to hold the bracket in place for a moment, then holding it in place with a regular screwdriver. Add in the fact that I was doing this while standing on a bar stool and not a step-ladder, using a sectional couch for occasional balancing purposes…

I glanced back and down at Will and saw his quizzical look as I asked him to hold the drill for a moment. Hence, as I turned back to futz with the new blind bracket,the following conversation.

“Yeah, this little set up probably has my junior high shop teacher rolling over in his grave.”

“You said that about him last fall when we were working on my I.R.P. project.“

“Well, he probably still is.”

“I hope he’s had a chance to stop spinning for a while, get a break.” replied number-one-son, quite dryly.

“Yeah, well, one can hope. Hand me the drill.”

Mr. Clark was my junior high shop teacher, circa 1975; a stereotypical former Marine with a barrel chest and buzz cut and an ‘inside voice’ that could overpower a running band saw. He usually carried a slim, steel ruler with which he was known to whack perceived miscreants on the rear end with – but never while a piece of equipment was running. Safety first, dontchaknow.

As you might presume, Mr. Clark was also a stickler for details and doing things the ‘right’ way. I am quite certain using a barstool instead of a step-ladder would not have been okey-dokey protocol with him. I figure I’ve spun Mr. Clark around enough the past couple of decades that he has permanently scared away all the local moles.

“So do you think he is still spinning, or spinning again?” asked Will, ever-so-chipper, as I exchanged the drill for the second bracket to position, scooting to my left, pivoting on the barstool, and balancing one foot on the back of the other sectional couch.

“I think I have given Mr. Clark enough opportunities that by now he has bored his way out of his grave and is probably encroaching on the neighboring plot. Buzz cut acts like a drill bit.”

“Think he’ll get much farther?” Will said dryly, his implication perfectly clear.

“I think if I tackle too many more projects like this he’ll move far enough that either G_d or the Devil figures he’s making a break for it,”

“Nice, dad. Really nice.” Will deadpanned with cocked eyebrow as he passed me the drill.

Okay, that may have been a little excessive, even by my standards. I suppose before I go making pronouncements such as this I should clarify one thing above all others.

Is Mr. Clark even dead?

‘Chicken is chicken. Parts is parts.’

A friend recently posted a note on Facebook concerning her young sons voracious appetites, bemoaning the fact that her first-grader could “apparently eat a whole rotisserie chicken by himself!’”

Ahh, rotisserie chicken.

At one time or another, we’ve all had the need for a quick meal. If you are really in a rush, you can go the convenient but less than healthy fast-food route, or you hit the grocery store deli area for something already prepared and ready for you to just grab and bring home. One of the more popular grocery store grab-and-go’s are those golden brown, rotating slowly on the spit chickens.

As they are known in our house, ‘Barbarian Chickens.’

When our now sixteen year old son Will was seven, we picked up a rotisserie chicken for dinner one night. While setting the table, washing hands, etcetera, we put it in the center of the table, and Will stared at it quizzically, sitting there in its black plastic container with the clear top. He knew what it was, but he was used to having his chicken served on a plate, cut up, so was a bit puzzled. His younger brother Sam was non-plussed awaiting whatever was put on his plate.

We opened the steaming carton, cut the chicken up and served it without incident that night; Will ate it without any vehemence whatsoever that night, nor any of the others that we opted for a deli bird.

One chicken night changed that.

Will and Sam had been at daycare, where they had seen a movie in which a character goes glutton and messily gorges himself on a large turkey leg. Having also previously seen a commercial for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in which a corpulent king poses with a large drumstick, Will politely (and ironically) asked if, the next time we had rotisserie chicken, he could eat it ‘like a barbarian’ – ripping the drumsticks off with his bare hands before chowing down.

Seemed like a one-and-done deal to me,so, why not?

A few nights later, we brought home both the boys and a golden brown, hot and juicy chicken fresh off the grocery store Ferris wheel. There was a palpable excitement as we set the kitchen table, and once we sat down and said grace. Will asked if he could he could have at it, and we said yes.

We removed the clear lid of the chicken container, and Will dove in – grabbing the drumstick closest to him and yanking it. And then yanking it again. Fortunately, the bird was tender and easily separated from the bird’s thigh on that second yank. Will looked at it triumphantly for a moment, then dove in doing his best-as-could-be-expected-for-a-seven-year-old Henry VII impersonation, tearing (plucking?) meat from bone with a gleeful smile.

Thus was born, as it is known in this household to this day, ‘Barbarian Chicken.’

Fast-forward some seven, eight years and we were now living in New Orleans. To supplement my teaching income, I was working part-time as a cashier at an upscale neighborhood market that had a large deli department and a loyal following or their prepared foods – expecially rotisserie chickens. The store featured different seasoning combinations of the rotating fowl, and they were quite popular not just for dinner, but as the base for a good New Orleans staple – the stock for gumbo. It wasn;t uncommon for customers to buy five or six chickens at a time.

One night one of our regular customers came in and we were chatting as I scanned her three birds, making a comment that she usually only purchased two. The woman shook her head and told me that they were all destined for gumbo prep, as her kids ‘didn’t like the chicken anymore’ which she attributed to a ‘pickiness phase’ by her three kids, ages eight-to-eleven and lamenting the kids disinterest, as she and her husband both liked the chicken.

“My boys love it when I bring home Barbarian Chicken.” I remarked casually.

“What did you call it?” the woman replied with a laugh as I bagged her fresh asparagus and kale.

Explaining the story to her, she nodded and I could see the light-bulb clicking on. She paid for her groceries, then asked if she could leave her cart behind my register briefly. A few minutes later returning with three more chickens purchased at the deli.

“I’ll let you know how it goes” she said enthusiastically as she headed out the door.

A few nights later she there she was in my line with another load of groceries, sans chicken this time. She said she was glad I was working because she wanted to tell me when I told her  my story about ‘Barbarian Chicken’ she knew she could get her kids into the concept with exactly that sales pitch, and that it had worked like a charm. Her husband found the dinner-table Phillistine angle odd but effective, as their once bored-with-rotisserie chicken-boys chowed down with gusto on the re-branded ‘Barbarian Chicken.’

And they weren’t the only ones.

In my time at the store, I frequently recommended our rotating birds to many a stumped-on-what-to-fix-for-dinner mom, along with the Lucker-family label for the treat. It wasn’t long before store customers were coming up to my register with multiple roasted fowl and reminding me that it was “Barbarian chicken night at our house.”

I wonder if Bananas Foster got started this way?

I no longer work at the market, and the whole gluttonous role play thing is only a memory. Will is now sixteen, Sam thirteen, and on the rare occasions we have barbarian chicken, both boys handle it in a refined manner more reminiscent of Henry Gibson than Henry VII – though they still refer to it by its more romantic moniker.

That’s just how we roll. How the chickens roll.

Or at least, how they rotate.

Like Son, Like Father, Like Wow, Man

“You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

That’s a phrase my thirteen-year old son Sam uses dryly when a topic comes up and I refer to something from the past, or throw in some sort of archaic phrase like ‘groovy’ into a dinner table conversation.

One of Sam’s favorite treats is a cold Dr.Pepper; so much so that he has, on a few occasions, been given twelve packs of the stuff as a birthday present. We limit his consumption of pop to just a couple a week, usually our Friday night family ‘Pizza Picnic,’ and/or if we are at some special event or gathering, so it really is a treat for him, and a gift that keeps on giving.

The other night at dinner my wife and I were discussing coffee, and Sam got to musing about how when he was an adult, he didn’t think he would drink coffee, and would probably stick to Dr. Pepper and root beer as his beverages of choice, adding, that maybe sometime, somewhere along the line, he would want a hot beverage of some sort, but didn’t think it would be coffee.

“Well” I said, “You could always heat up some Dr. Pepper. It’s pretty good that way.”

“Dad, who would ‘heat up’ Dr. Pepper…or any kind of soda?” as he shook his head dismissively.

“We did with Dr.Pepper. Put it in a pan and heat it up, add a lemon slice.”

An incredulous stare and cocked eyebrow were, for a moment, his only response. Then, “Annnnnnnd why would you do that?”

“Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“This was your idea, I suppose?”

“No. They marketed it like that for a while back in the sixties.”

“They did not.” Sam replied dryly, with just a hint of skepticism. He knows this is dangerous ground, as I had, some time ago, proved to him that the Mr. Potato Head toy of my youth was far superior to the plastic, pre-drilled holes version of today, because you needed to use a real potato. (See my post from last August: https://poetluckerate.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/kids-don%e2%80%99t-try-this-at-home-or-not/ )

“You really made…and drank… hot Dr.Pepper?”

“Yep.”

He furrowed his brow as I continued eating. Before adding a dismissive, “You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

One of the great things about the Internet Age is that things like this don’t have to become ‘because-I-said-it-was’ ‘no-way-I-don’t-believe-you’ things; a few keystrokes on the ol’ laptop, and presto!

Proof. It took all of about forty-five seconds.

As his mom and older brother cleared the dinner table, I went to the computer and summoned Sam. He looked at what I had pulled up, shook his head. “O.K. “You young kids and your crazy ideas.” As he walked away he calmly and defiantly stated, ‘I’M not gonna be trying it.”

I smiled with satisfaction, leaned back in my chair. The Internet: “You young kids and your crazy ideas.”

More memorable (and enticing) than warm Dr. Pepper.

Digging in the Dirt Pile of Memories

The other day I was standing on the front porch with my sixteen year old son Will, waiting for his family car pool ride to school, sophomore year now in the homestretch. I was on spring break from my school and was savoring the opportunity for a little morning one-on-one we don’t normally have; younger son Sam and wife Amy were already off to their respective schools.

Mug of coffee in hand, I watched Will sitting on the porch swing, organizing his contemporary teenager-self: loaded, full-size backpack, small, nylon pull-string backpack, insulated cooler lunch bag, personal electronic device (with ear buds dangling from his neck) and cellphone. His school I.D. badge and flash drives dangled on lanyards beneath his beatnik-hearkening goatee. He was texting his girlfriend and I could see him smiling beneath the brim of his ever-present grey baseball cap.

Leaning against the porch post and looking down the block I motioned to the big pile of dirt two lots down; another new home for the neighborhood as the post-Katrina revitalization continues. I jokingly mentioned that the big pile of dirt made me want to “Get some old Tonka trucks and go play in the dirt for a few hours.”

Will finished his text and glanced at the dirt pile. “Do you remember that crane we had in our yard back in Marshall? That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, remembering the homemade wood-and-steel contraption: a small, square, carpet-remnant covered seat attached to a couple of wooden runners hat made it look like a really small sled – except for the two-foot long arm with a two-levered metal crane bucket attached to it. One lever made the crane arm extend, the other made it curve inward like a hand and wrist, which allowed the actual digging to occur. A kid could sit on the thing, dig a hole, swivel around (360 degrees, even!) dig another hole, then another. Homemade and won by Will’s uncle Ted at a church raffle after his own sons were past sandbox stage, we placed it in the sandbox beneath the ‘crow’s nest’ of the big, wooden playset we had built in our backyard when we moved to Marshall, Minnesota – when Will was seven.

Will gleefully dug a few holes in his day with that thing, as did three-years-younger brother Sam. We more than got Ted’s dollar raffle ticket worth out of it.

“You remember that thing, huh? Uncle Ted won that in a church raffle, if I remember correctly.”

“That’s where we got that? From Uncle Ted?”

“I think so.” I nodded, taking a sip of my coffee. Just then, Will got a text from his girlfriend Lien. Without looking up from his cellphone, fingers flying on the tiny keyboard, he added, “That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, and got to thinking…

A few years before the crane, some friends of ours found a swing set being dismantled and put on the curb by neighbors. With their help and a borrowed pickup truck we got it, took it apart and brought it to our yard in south Minneapolis.

Nothing fancy, just two plastic swings on chains, a short sheet-metal slide, a plastic glider and a swinging trapeze. Four-and-a-half year old Will was fascinated by the prospect of the pile of spot-rusted metal actually morphing into a swing set. He would pick up the yellow seats and then stare at the pile of tubing with a quizzical look on his face. But a few dollars’ worth of new nuts, bolts, bushings and three hours of re-assembly later, there it was.

The shiny new hardware stood out more than the rusty old ones, highlighting its age and hand-me-down nature. No matter. It became Will’s pride and joy, the thing that he most looked forward to coming home to. Even after full summer daycare days in the park, with the big swing sets, Will wanted to come home to “his playground.” On Saturdays, Will would take his lunch outside and eat it while sitting on his favorite swing (the one next to the trapeze.) It became a focal point for Will’s friends on the block, and became a trusty companion when they weren’t around. It was also a refuge on those days when the world got a little gloomy, and many were the nights it barely got to rest while dinner was consumed.

Came our first snow, and I hadn’t removed the swings yet. It didn’t much matter. Our parka-clad boy brushed off the seats and got in a few minutes of action before dinner, and another ten or so after, till it just got too dark. The cool air accentuated every creak of the metal, chains and “S” hooks that made it all work. Spring eventually returned and become summer again and Will continued swinging away until we moved, leaving the swing set out on the curb for someone else to claim as their own – which they did within a day.

Once we moved, Will had his big, wooden playset and his gift-crane…

“Here come the Worthylakes.”

Will’s carpool had swung into view from around the corner, and in a few quick seconds he, seemingly in one, fluid motion and without getting tangled in multiple lanyards, effortlessly threw on both backpacks (lunch bag clipped to the big one with a carabiner) adjusted his cap, stuffed his PSP into his pocket, threw his arm (with hand still clutching cellphone) around my neck, gave me a hug and said “Love you dad” before bounding down to the steps and out to the S.U.V. at the curb.

“Love you, bud. See you this afternoon.”

“Bye.” He threw the farewell over his shoulder, hopped into the backseat, gave me a quick wave as they drove off.

I took another sip of coffee and went inside, lacking any old Tonka Trucks ® and figuring I had had my dirt pile enjoyment for the day anyway.

Building a More Varied Vocabulary in 2012, Lesson 1

I recently got another lesson in accidental parenting – one of those I-didn’t-know-he-had-picked-that-one-up from youngest son Sam, nearly thirteen. While driving back to New Orleans from our Christmas in Minnesota, Sam was laying casually in the back of our mini van playing a video game, and something that occurred apparently surprised him. His blurted response?

“Son of a Bisquick pancake!”

I take complete ownership of the phrase, I know where he got it and I smiled with something resembling satisfaction, I suppose, as  (I believe)  I coined the phrase somewhere back around the turn of the century.

But until Sam’s recent vanclamation, I wasn’t aware he had picked up on it, though to be honest, he used the abbreviated version. The full phrase is actually, ‘Well I’ll be a son of a Bisquick pancake!”

To be sure, there are far shoddier rejoinders he could have uttered, and there are much worse (in my opinion) examples of phraseology that have somehow made their way into daily American vernacular and that I hear kids Sam’s age and younger uttering daily: ‘Oh snap’ and ‘Flippin’ coming immediately to mind.

We’ll just add “Son of a Bisquick pancake!” to the Thesaurus of Luckerisms available to the general public. It’ll be dog-eared in the volume somewhere along with these perennial favorites:

FAAA-reee? Did somebody say FAAA-ree?”
“I hear ya cluckin’ big chicken!”
“Hey, buddy! Only one shade of green in this town!”
“Somebody get that, it might be a phone call.”

As it is a far more versatile phrase along the lines of the former (‘FAAA-ree?’ of course referring to any situation where you are getting something for free, and the ever-affirming/esteem building ‘chicken’) and not nearly so limited as the two latter (‘green’ when you’re stuck in traffic behind someone who won’t move when the light changes, ‘phone’ obviously the choice of phrase whenever a phone rings) I see a bright future for this latest ‘Those Linguistic Luckers!’ innovation.

As we are not seeking a copyright, feel free to use it yourself. You’ll be surprised at how quickly and easily it will flow into your daily conversation: “Son of a Bisquick pancake!”

It’s as versatile a phrase as the product it borrows from. Play with the inflection in various forms for better effect and more conversational flexibility. You’ll find the phrase can be used to connote everything from basic surprise, ala Sam, to outright repugnance with someone or something.

And best of all, it’s not like your swearing. ‘I’ll be a son of a Bisquick pancake!’ doesn’t even nudge the needle on the vulgarity meter, so have at it with gusto.

I’ll make a prediction: About a week after reading this, you will use this new-found vocabularic gem without thinking about, and only when you realize what you have said (possibly due to a puzzled look from a fellow conversant) you will place your hands on your hips, and with some sense of wonder/disgust proclaim, to nobody in particular:

“Son of a Bisquick pancake! Lucker did it to me again!”

Post-it-Notes and scrap paper notations from throughout the year that were scrunched up and stuffed in my pants pockets and forgotten about. The ones that didn’t go through the laundry.

One of my favorite overheard  lines of the year: A guy was sitting in a New Orleans restaurant nursing a beer and waiting for his order, complaining that the beer was cheap but wasn’t very cold, when the waitress walked up with his po-boy and said, “Here – wash your beer down with this.”

Things to ponder in the coming year:
There is no ‘I’ in team, there are no carbs in coffee.
Meringue’ is what sits atop a pie; ‘merengue’ is a dance. Both involve elaborate whipping techniques, both are more entertaining with partaken in with a partner.

When I pull underwear out of my dresser drawer, I feel like I’m headed off to camp: my name (well, DAD) is written in bold, indelible Magic Marker on all the tags.

Such is life in the household when you have a teenager who is now taller than you, and wears some of the same sizes in certain apparel. I’m guessing in the next year, my youngest son, soon to be thirteen, will add further to the labeling and sorting dilemma.

One of us is going have to change brands, styles or laundry.

Around here we don’t sort and our laundry as much as we collate and calibrate it.

Speaking of matters familial, one night, while still only fifteen, Will made a statement about something that made no sense to the rest of us. His response to our blank stares and silence?

“I’m thinking ahead here. My paranoia is getting the best of me.”

I know my kids are really getting older when…
I had to bribe soon-to-be-thirteen Sam to play ‘Auto Bingo’ with me on our recent trip home to Minnesota.  Kid won two bucks, really got into it. We had a good time. Well worth the investment.

One of my favorite students is a tall, lanky African-American junior who is an average student, but really picks up on nuance and subtly better than most of his peers.

I stand in the hallway outside of my class during every passing period, and ‘Alan’ almost always greets me at the doorway with a bump-ready fist or a handshake, and a hearty, “Yo, Mr. Luckerwhat’s up?!” to which I one day responded, “My blood pressure.”

This got him to stop in his tracks, think for a moment, and as the light bulb came on over his head, he smiled, shook my hand and his head, replying “Dawg…” with a chuckle as he took his seat.

This has become a near daily ritual, and depending on his mood, the ‘Dawg’ now takes on different inflections and meanings: ‘Dawwwwwg’ with a guttural growl of agreement indicates ‘I hear you man.’ “Dawg!” with a yelp of surprise says, ‘You can’t be serious!’ Dawg…?’ in questioning tone means, ‘What did those ninth graders do now?’

He won’t be in any of my classes when the new semester begins, but I hope we will see each other in the hall from time to time, and that he continues to dawg me. Pun intended.

One of the things I miss about not working in the food service area of the grocery store was getting to take po-boy orders, and hollering them out to the kitchen while I stuck the order on the wheel.

This was especially true when there were a large number of elderly customers around the counter area, because they would always giggle when I hollered out, “Six inch hot sausage – dressed!” as I rang the bell.

Old people are funny when they giggle…just because a bell rings.


Finally…

Just for kicks, one day I ran my blog homepage through a translation website – just to see what it might look like, should any of my Norwegian relatives or long-lost members of my Russian lineage track me down in cyberspace; it has an interesting look in Cyrillic.

It was all fun, but I really liked seeing my blog in Italian. In Italian, I am known as ‘maestro.’

I kind of like that. ‘Maestro’ Mark Lucker. A big ‘thumbs up’ for the romance languages.

Oddly, though, my blog wouldn’t translate into Dutch or Greek – I am apparently incomprehensible to those cultures. This is ironic, as many of my English readers say when reading my stuff, “It’s all Greek to me!”

Now that statement will probably land me in Dutch for perceived political incorrectness.

Let’s hear it for my last official puns of 2011.

Happy New year to you and yours, from me and mine.

Til next year; Ciao, kids!

Santa Thoughts for a Grandson’s First Christmas

Yes, Felix. There is a Santa Claus.

Or in the case of the Family Lucker, there are numerous Santas.  Not to mention a pervasive spirit of Santa Claus and what he represents.

In the late 1800’s, a young girl named Virginia wrote to New York newspaper editor Francis Church asking ‘if there really was a Santa Claus.’  Her letter and his response were published and have become classics.  But our Santa isn’t necessarily the metaphoric and mystical Santa Claus that Church wrote about. 

And, as you will see as we stroll through family pictorial history with ol’ St. Nick, the Luckers, in their own quirky and unique way, sort of embody Santa Claus in the true American way: it is an oddly varied, sometimes-not-all-that-photogenic, what-were-you-thinking sort of rouges gallery of holiday tradition.

Let’s start at the beginning – or at least, my beginning.

Back when I was a  lad, Santa was found waiting in big Dayton’s department store  in downtown Minneapolis. My mom, your great-grandma, trotted me down to the store ever year for their annual Christmas displays and obligatory picture.

As the photographic evidence shows, I was a fairly stylin’ dude for the time (the early 1960’s) and that the representative Santa’s were a rather eclectic bunch. The first guy appears to be in the process of passing out; I believe the guy in the middle has just directed a kid to smile for approximately the 3,000th time that day, and the guy on the right appears to be hung over.

Fortunately, my mom was not obsessed with the whole pictures-with-Santa-every-year thing, so this is about all there is of my youthful history with Kris Kringle.

But of course, it doesn’t end there.

By the time I was in junior high, we lived in Denver, and my dad worked at KWGN television as a film editor. A community theatre veteran and all-around-ham, he was eventually recruited to portray Santa once a year for a daily live, hour-long local program the station did called ‘Denver Now.’ The host of the show was a wonderful woman named Beverly Martinez, and every year she devoted a show to a ‘giving for the holidays’ theme and would have Santa as a guest along with children of KWGN staffers, and at the end of the show he would give a little toy to each of the kids. Beverly said many times that once she got my dad to be Santa, she would never consider anyone else for that yearly job.

I still have a couple of the wind-up toys he gave away one year, Felix. I’ll let you play with them when you’re a bit older. I also have the wrist band of jingle bells he wore during those broadcasts, and I get them out each December. You’ll get to hear them very soon.

My dad did the Santa gig for ‘Denver Now’ his last six or seven years at the station before retiring, and it was always a high point of the season for him – one year in particular. The winter I was a junior in high school, our drama department at South High was doing a children’s theatre production of ‘Sesame Street’ and somehow Beverly got wind of it. She asked if a couple of costumed characters from our production could come and be on the Christmas show along with Santa. Allen Schultz, the guy who played Cookie Monster, and me as Oscar the Grouch, were the only two able to make the live broadcast.

It was great publicity for our production, and a great experience for all of us. Allen recalled the whole episode fondly as a high-point of high school even at our twenty-year class reunion, and as for me, it was the only time I ever appeared ‘on stage’ with my dad. It was a great, goofy morning.

For so many reasons: Thanks, Beverly!

As time goes by, Santa makes other sporadic and sometimes curious appearances in our Lucker history.

Your mom got her turn on the big guy’s lap a few times; case in point to the right.  I’m sure your mom has other Santa-related pics to share, as she is a big aficionado of all things Christmas, though with your recent arrival, maybe that’s less of a focus this December. Next year, you’ll have just turned one? Oh, baby! It’ll be something, I’m sure. You’ll love it.

There is a Santa and your mom episode that while, not visually represented here, deserves some mention. For four years I played Santa on WYRQ radio in Little Falls, Minnesota. The station sponsored an annual ‘Letters to Santa’ promotion in which kids dropped off their letters at various businesses while trying to win a new bike, and then we read those letters on-the-air every weeknight; an elf and an announcer  in studio reading the letters, Santa supplying commentary and occasional ho-ho-ho’s over the phone, ostensibly from his North Pole workshop, being the basic premise.

It was a fairly straight-forward promotion when I arrived as the station manager, Santa saying ‘Oh sure’ and ‘That’s great’ and ‘Yes, yes,’ a lot as the letters were read to him, but it turned into something entirely different with me on the phone in our living room as Santa and my morning on-air partner Damian Dupre back in studio ‘A’ as letter-interpreting  ‘Sparky the Elf.’  The madness escalated rapidly the first year– to the point where a nightly twenty-minute show ballooned to a forty-five minute long surrealistic, comedic, ad-libbed romp five nights a week for a month. (Station management hated it, but the sponsors and listeners loved it; the letters kept flowing in, and we kept reading them.)

‘Irreverent’ grossly understates our take on the whole Santa and Elf mystique.

Egged on and set up for gags by the extraordinarily talented and extremely demented Mr. Dupre as high-pitched Sparky, my radio turn as Santa was described as everything from ‘overly caffeinated’ to ‘manic.’ Al the while, your mother was usually right there in the living room, observing her father warily, as he sat in his easy chair, screaming Santa and elf jokes wildly into the telephone, while periodically jangling a large set of gold jingle bells and yelling “HO-HO-HO!!! ” to punctuate a punch line. Any rather, uhh, skewed ideas she has about the whole Santa Claus experience likely stems from that pre-school through kindergarten holiday era of hers.

While there is some photographic evidence of this yearly escapade somewhere, it is the audio that is most telling, and probably a little much for your young ears. Someday, lad, someday.

After a couple-of-decade hiatus, my picture-taking with Santa returned in a somewhat different form, but a familiar locale. Here I am (below) with Grandma Amy, visiting Santa at the downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s. The picture on the left is from 1991, the year Amy and I met. We went to see the Dayton’s display that year, which was the Pinocchio story, hence the red Pinocchio hat I bought her. On the right is our obligatory ‘1992 first Christmas as married geeks’ shot to serve as the companion piece for the ’91 picture. (Grandma Amy is a mighty good sport.)

We still have the Pinocchio hat in one of the plastic Christmas tubs in the attic. You’ll get a chance to wear it someday, if you want. It goes nicely with my dad’s wristband of jingle bells.

Speaking of those jingle bells, here’s a little secret I’ll share just with you, Felix: the elasticity has long since been wrung out of those bells, but I sometimes carry them in my pocket during December, professing ignorance of the source when someone says, “Does anybody else hear jingle bells ringing somewhere?”  Usually, it’s only someone I happen to be walking close to who can hear them, muffled as they are in my pocket, and others in the vicinity react with puzzlement at the question. It’s just my little tick to slyly spread some holiday cheer.

Santas, Santas everywhere.

When Amy and I were first married, Santa popped up in some different situations. For instance, he made an appearance (in much different ways and personas) at two Christmas parties we threw at our house in Minneapolis. As I mentioned, Santa is all about diversity.

Santa Kenny was a friend and co-worker. He was stationed on our front porch and greeted people as they arrived, bringing a very hip, urban flavor to the proceedings. Once all the guests had arrived, Santa Kenny moved into the living room and sat in our big, green Adirondack chair, and people spent the evening their conversing and having their pictures taken with Santa. Many of our friends had never met a black Santa before. After that memorable night, they had the pictures to prove that they had.

The following year, Santa Don, my cousin’s son, took over greeting and picture-taking duties. A younger, more suburban take on St. Nick, Santa Don held his own from the same chair, dispensing holiday gift ideas and jokes that many of the older (over thirty) guests didn’t get.

Both Santa’s were big hits in their own, very unique ways. (One thing Luckers can do better than most, Felix, is throw a decent party. This is another heritage you have been blessed with.)

Oh, you might notice the hats laying in Santa Kenny’s lap. They were pilfered from Brookdale Shopping Center, where I had taken a part-time gig that year as a mall Santa. (The hats were actually tag-board reindeer antlers with ‘BROOKDALE’ across the front headband. Some white labels and a black Sharpie marker turned that into ‘LUCKERDALE” and were quite coveted mementos from a holiday party and picture session at the Lucker’s.)

I played the mall Santa role for one holiday shopping season, and that was plenty. Not being the prototypical Santa physically, I sported lots of make-ya-sweat foam rubber underneath the red suit, and nearly fried my vocal chords trying to keep my voice in the lower octaves for hours on end. But it was good money, a lot of fun, and I cherish the experience. I even got to wear my dad’s wrist bells.  And I got to keep the wig and beard.

You know, Felix, it wasn’t until I started looking at all of these pictures together that I noticed some of the striking similarities in them. It’s not just about ho-ho-ho and smiling for the kids and the camera, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff to take care of. For example…

The shot on the left is ‘Denver Now’ Santa in 1981, making his yearly post-broadcast visit to the KWGN office staff. On the right is Brookdale Mall Santa with number-one-elf Marji in 1996. Interestingly, Santa appears to be, in his various incarnations, something of a ladies man.

And for future reference, Felix, girls simply  love a guy in uniform.

Another similarity; both Santas also had to deal with children less than enamored of being in his presence…

As time went on, your uncles Will and Sam came along, and they, too, got their turn with Santa pictures – sometimes more successfully than others. To wit, this is one of those ‘what was everyone thinking’ Santa shots:

 

 

 

On the other hand, sometimes Santa can get it to all come together and get pictures that really capture the essence of someone. Better shots of (L to R) uncle Will and uncle Sam in their much younger days, and what they look like now:

Yeah, uncle Will is wearing a camouflage Santa hat.

 

 

Finally, here is a side-by-side of my dad and I in our respective Santa roles, some fifteen years apart. Notice any family resemblance?

Maybe someday you or maybe even Will or Sam will add another holiday mug shot to the gallery.

Felix, I of course have no idea when or where you will encounter Jolly Old St.Nick in your life, but I’m pretty confident you’ll make each other’s acquaintance in some form or another. Santa is a good friend to have, embodying as he does, a lot of the goodness in the world, and a lot of the magic that is childhood.

He’s a pretty cool dude. And don’t get all hung up on all that one-and-only stuff; as you can see from all the above, there is no such thing as a singular Santa. Santa is wherever you need him to be, whenever you need him.

To paraphrase Francis Church, “Yes, Felix, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to our life its highest beauty and joy.”

And a few laughs along the way.

Merry First Christmas, Felix.

Past his/my freshness date

My grandson-to-be Felix is, at this writing, some five days removed from his expected due date and still in utero. This, of course, has created much consternation amongst a wide range of folks – most notably his mother, my daughter Lindsay, and his dad Brad.

As is the apparent norm in this modern technological age of ours, the updates on all-things Felix have come via frequent Facebook updates on the young man’s stubbornness in joining us in the world. While Facebook allows wide, quick dissemination of news, it is also provides a wide-open responsorial forum for commentary.

It’s been fun.

For most of us, anyway. Lindsay might just roll her eyes at this stage at any ‘fun’ comments.

Aside from Facebook, text messaging is of course another source of instantaneous checking in. Knowing this, and getting a slight sense of exasperation from Lindsay as the week wore on, I tried to keep my Felix inquiries to just a couple of  light-hearted texts each day.

Brevity was almost as difficult as the waiting is.

Others got in on the act; son Sam the-seventh grader got out of school the other day, immediately flipped on his phone and texted Lindsay this quick query: “Any word yet on my uncleocity?”

A SIM card micro-chip off the old block.

Meanwhile, back at the grandpa-in-waiting’s Facebook homepage, I was endeavoring to keep my peeps posted on the latest goings on and…clarifying a few things to wit:

Mark Lucker
has mentioned a few times, in passing, that now-overdue-a-day first grandchild Felix will be fourth in line to the Lucker throne. Yes, there is, indeed, a Lucker throne – though we refer to it as the ‘king chair’ or ‘birthday chair.’ It is a treasured heirloom that resides in a corner of our dining room until a special occasion, when it moves to the head of the table and the guest of honor gets to sit in it for the day. Sometimes, we even decorate it for said special events. Inquiring minds may or may not have wanted to really know this…

On Thursday, the poet in me took a shot at updating the situation with a kicky and  topical  haiku:

Mark Lucker watched pot not boiling
patience is not my virtue,
overdue grandson! 😉

But Friday, my early morning update showed me to be more antediluvian than my young-and-hip mastery of grandfatherly social networking would indicate:

Mark Lucker just wants to say, to grandson-to-be Felix: “Olly olly oxen free!”

As I had been posting early in the morning, I would get to share these mini-gems with the family before heading out to work. My ‘olly olly oxen free’ prompted a look of quizzical disdain from Sam, and prompted me to add the explanation, “You know, when you’re playing hide-and-seek…”

“Yeah, I know, dad…but that’s a ‘your generation’ thing. People don’t say that anymore.”

“What? Sure they do. You have to when you’re playing hide-and-seek.”

I’ve never said it, and I never heard anybody say it.” He began blithely pouring milk on his cereal, as I turned to my six-years-my-junior wife for validation.

“Yeah, I don’t think I ever said it. I have heard of it, but Iiiiiiive never said it. Don’t think I ever heard it used.” She took a bite of her raisin bran and continued reading the paper.  Son Will the high school sophomore was, fortunately, still in the shower, and totally missed out on this one.

“Harumph.” I shook my head and headed out the door.

At school, I was relating the story to my colleague across the hall, a fellow English teacher and self-professed word geek just a few years younger than me. She, too, claimed she never said the phrase, nor could she recall ever hearing it in personal H&S usage.

She did  allow hopefully that she had heard it on t.v. or in a movie, “Probably a Leave-it-to-Beaver episode, or something like that.”

‘Something like that.’ A Leave-it-to-Beaver episode.  Sigh.

Gosh, Wally – I mean Felix –  you gotta get cracking and get out here. I am apparently getting more outdated with each post.

Olly olly oxen free, dude.

Quash the squash

We had stir-fry for dinner the other night – with a bit of a new twist; we added some sliced squash to our usual chicken-vegetable combo.

I still don’t like squash.

In this particular instance, nobody really did. As they were fairly large and distinctive, they were easy to pick out from the cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and chicken. Dinner was going smoothly for the four of us, until I made mention of the confirmation of my dislike of squash:

“Goes to what I’ve been saying for years, ‘I never eat food that is also a verb’” I stated with conviction.

Sam, our seventh grader, quickly cocked an eyebrow and looked at me suspiciously. “So then why are you eating chicken?”

“Ummm…”

“Do you really say that – that you don’t eat food that is also a verb?” he continued “…because you eat a lot of foods that are verbs.”

“Yes, I have said that. Mostly in regard to squash and peas” seeing the look in Sam’s eye, I quickly added “but I suppose there are exceptions to every rule.”

“And what about rolls?” Sam was on a roll. ” What about the ribs we had last night? You know, you can rib people. You roll stuff. If you’ve really been saying you don’t eat foods that are also verbs, there is a lot of stuff you shouldn’t be eating.” He continued with his dinner, wearing a smirk of victory.

“That’s right, and what about getting in a pickle” interjected my wife, pseudo-helpfully.

“You do love pickles, dad, and we all like Spam” added Sam. Meanwhile, fifteen year old Will just shook his head and kept on chowing down.

“Got any more of these or would that just be egging you on?” I replied, dryly.

“You’re eating chicken right now. And you do fix steak once in a while.”

“Okay, I see your point. We’re really milking this. Maybe I should just change my saying to ‘I never eat a vegetable that is also a verb.”

“I think so.”

The following night at dinner, the food conversation was briefer.

“Hey, Sam! Did you realize that ‘verb’ is a noun, and…?”

“Yes dad” he said with obvious disdain, “everyone knows that.”

I still don’t like squash.  And some other vegetables.