First letter to a new grandson

It’s hard to believe it has been four years since I first penned the missive below.  But it has been. My grandson Felix turns four on Tuesday. In looking back over my initial thoughts at this wondrous event…well, not much has changed. Except everything has.  All for the good. Time flies, and flying with Felix?  That is not flying – it is soaring.  Happy birthday, dude.
Love,
Grandpa Mark

*    *    *    *

11/18/2011

Dear Felix:

First off, let me welcome you to this wild, wonderful world. Yeah, it has issues – always has and always will. Maybe as time goes by, you’ll be one of the ones fixing the problems. Still, it’s a great place to hang for the next century or so. Make it count for something.

Your parents have been really amazing awaiting your arrival – later than predicted as it may have been. Though you were something of a surprise, they have embraced you from the get-go with more gusto than I would have thought, and we are quite proud of them.

That gusto and clarity of purpose says a lot about both of them. They have been very impressive. Let this be your first  life lesson from grandpa: don’t under estimate people…especially the ones you love.

Your parents are really quite remarkable, both as individuals and as a couple. Your mom is my daughter, so I obviously know her very well. She’s pretty cool, and she chose well when she chose your dad – he is very cool, too. I take a fair amount of pride in her making that choice, though I can take absolutely no credit for it. Pride in your kids is something special to experience, Felix; pride in your parents is a wonderful gift, and I hope you have, hold and treasure it.

You’ll come to love them both as much as we all do, more so, in fact. I’m sure it  took you all of about, oh, say twenty-five seconds, once you got past that where-the-heck-am-I entrance-disorientation.

Felix, you are being born into a theatrical clan; your mom your dad are true theatre geeks, just as I was and as my father was – though neither my father or I have or had the depth and breadth of the passion that your parents do. Along with that passion comes a whole unique cadre of like-sentiment folks that are your parent’s friends and peers and that are eagerly waiting to embrace you. Let them.

You have grandparents to whom you are the first such member of your new family generation. They will attempt to spoil you. Allow them the privilege. Being first also means you will be a leader of your generation. When the time comes, lead with purpose, compassion and a sense of humor.

You have two teenage uncles who are also eagerly looking forward to getting to know you. They have favorite toys and movies and loads of life experience they want to eventually share with you; they plan on showing you the ropes, and how to be a guy. They’re both pretty good at that in some very different ways, so let them teach you what they know. Someday you’ll be able to tell them “Its okay, fellas – I got this” and fly solo. But in the meantime, take advantage of every moment of them that you can. And always keep their numbers on speed-dial.

Their old wooden trains and blocks (Will and Sam aren’t that old, so the paint is safe and all) are boxed and handy for when the time comes. Low-tech, I know, but I can’t wait for the day when they show you how to fit together those train tracks, and stack a few primary color squares and rectangles. They can’t wait, either.

I know; in time. We’ll get there. Let’s get started with some grandfatherly advice and stuff you need to know:

First of all, have faith. Need proof that there is a God? He has blessed us with you, your mom and your dad. Proof that God also has a sense of humor? He has blessed you with all the rest of us.

Remember to say ‘I love you’ frequently – to pretty much everyone. And mean it.

You can be tough and be gentle, often simultaneously. It is not as difficult as some would lead you to believe.

Roll with what you’ve got, improvise when you need to. Admire the finished product no matter how cumbersome it looks or functions.

Oh, your mother hates The Princess Bride. We’ll have to watch it at our house.

Moving on….

There is a popular phrase about not being constrained in life, and living in the moment: ‘Dance like no one is watching.’ It’s good advice that, as your grandfather, I heartily endorse. Even if, like yours truly, your dancing looks more like a man being attacked by a swarm of bees than it does dancing, pretend nobody is watching…and then dance even harder when you know that people are watching.

While we’re on the topic, there was a very popular song a few years back by Lee Ann Womack, called  I Hope You Dance. The song includes these lines:

“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean;
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens…
promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance…”

Amen to all of the above sentiment, kid. I really hope you don’t sit out too much in life, and that you’ll always try to dance. And sing, too. Maybe you could use a more contemporary take: treat life-like every day is commando-karaoke.

Okay, as metaphors go, that last one may need some work. But its good practice now to start realizing that not every pearl of wisdom you get from me is going to be fully cultured.

While we’re on the topic of music, there are some songs you should know, and I’ll try to teach them to you. (Your dad is the musician; he’ll be able to take you places with music I never could. Enjoy that ride.) That being said, there are best learned as grandpa/grandson duets and CD singalongs. Puff the Magic Dragon, for one, Marvelous Little Toy for another, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Oh, and The Unicorn. Your uncle Sam likes really that one, so I’ll try to get my Irish dialect back on track for you so we can all do it up right. We may have to turn that duet into a trio act.

About music. Someday when we’re driving in the car, I can see the family rule about the driver choosing the radio station or CD getting bent for you, especially once you start riding shotgun. It’ll be your call, of course, but it would be nice if you developed a taste for the 1960’s. Your mom really likes The Monkees, and other good stuff from my era, and she also shares my affinity for The Rat Pack; Frank, Dean, Sammy. I think you are genetically predisposed to some Sinatra-coolness factor anyway so it should work out. Cross-generational music appreciation is something we are definitely used to and in favor of in this family. Savor it.

Your dad has a wide range in musical tastes, so you’re likely to experience a lot, musically. Take it all in…from all of us. But always march to your own drum beat.

But you know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if you decided you liked jazz…and The Beatles. We can work it out as you get a little older.

I do have one inviolate music-in-the-vehicle rule; there are certain songs that you cannot change stations or tracks during, or turn the car off on…EV-VER. Hey Jude and Let it be are on that short list along with Turn, Turn, Turn. And, of course, American Pie. If we are just getting home from somewhere and we hear Don McLean start in with the opening trill “A long, long time ago…” on the radio, we will circle the block twelve times if need be to get in all 8:14 of American Pie.  Deal with it.

Felix, don’t ever be afraid to ask for help or advice; the world is not always a do-it-yourself-at-all-costs endeavor. There is strength in numbers…and usually better stories to tell and people to share them with once it’s over. Share the experiences of life.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be independent, far from it. But here is a little secret you should know: the best kind of independence comes from self-assurance, and self-assurance comes from the confidence to know yourself and your own limitations and know that there will always be others who have knowledge and expertise you can utilize. Seeking out the counsel of others is a sign of strength, not weakness. Anyone who tells you otherwise has little of the former, tons of the latter. Ignore them.

By the way; although the lesser version is generally palatable, real cheesecake is made with ricotta cheese, not cream cheese.

‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer – so every once in a while you can surprise them with a big, sloppy smooch on the cheek.’  That’s a grandpa paraphrase. You may encounter the original version; mine is more…functional.

Another popular adage you might hear is “Eighty percent of life is simply showing up.” Now while I mostly see the value in that, I think the advice I have given your mother for years is even more applicable to life in general: “Be good…or at least be prompt.”

Oh yeah. Your mother (and probably the rest of us) will periodically and inadvertently introduce you to the growing and evolving thesaurus that are ‘Luckerisms’ – our family’s own, rather unique set of catch phrases and interjections for all occasions. For example, by the time you are old enough to understand what a ringing phone is, you’ll have also learned the correct thing to yell out across the house in response. (“Somebody get that – it might be a phone call!”) When riding in the car with your mother and stuck behind someone at a stop light, you’ll also learn something about traffic light colors most people don’t ever  think about. (“Only one shade of green in this town, buddy!”) Like I said, it’s a thesaurus not a mimeographed handout.

“Oh yeah, baby grandma.” That one will someday be explained to you by Will and/or Sam.

I hope you are able to blaze your own trail to the things that satisfy you in life. I’ll try to be supportive, even when and if I don’t understand where exactly it is you’re coming from. Hey, it’ll happen. But I’m always open to trying new things and different points of view. Hopefully you will be, too.

Dude; spontaneity rocks.

Another key item: people will always think they know what’s best for you, even when they don’t. Follow your gut instincts.

While we’re talking about self-awareness, don’t ever confuse bravado with taking a stand on principle. You can always be Don Quixote. Just make sure you have a fully capable Sancho Panza along for the journey, someone you can always count on to come up with sharpened lance and a well-rested mule.

Inspire loyalty.

You’ll always need some down time along the way. When you’re not blasting your way through life, you should know that porch swings and reclining chairs are great venues for grandpas and grandsons and sharing things. Things like sunsets and summer evenings, fall afternoons and spring rains, a cold Coke or some sweet tea, good books and chats about…stuff. Guys stuff and, you know, other stuff. Porch swings and recliners are also excellent stuff-contemplation vehicles.

Of course, Coke…not Pepsi.

Recliners are especially good places to hang and watch and listen.

Music of all kinds. A Prairie Home Companion, CNN, Turner Classic Movies. The Marx Brothers, Spongebob Squarepants and all three Toy Story movies. The original Star Wars trilogy. Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Three Stooges, Davey and Goliath. A little Vivaldi is nice sometimes, as are sports. Baseball, football and hockey, to be sure. Basketball only if you insist. Hey, it’ll still be my recliner.

Recliners and porch swings are also the best spots for stories that we can make up on our own. And also good spots for a choice a corned beef sandwich on good rye bread. With mustard. (Just needed to fit that sandwich in here somewhere.)

By the way, porch swings are very neat places to hang out and take naps on during rainy days – with or without a grandpa. Better with, but that’s one of those you can also savor on your own whenever you get the chance. While naps on rainy days are great, walks in the rain might just be greater. We will have to go on some rainy-day quests for the perfect puddle.

And, contrary to what your mother (and my mother and  most any mother says) puddles are cool. So is mud.

Porch swings are also good locales for learning the finer points of brief literature: limericks, haikus…nursery rhymes the ‘Lucker Way.’ When the time comes your mother can explain what Old Mother Hubbard really went to that cupboard for and I’ll take it from there.

Along with porch swings and reclining chairs, there’s a lot to be said for small boats. Fishing ranks right up there as a good stuff-sharing and story-telling time. Fishing is also one of the few times in life when people expect you to fib just a little bit. Take advantage of such times with nature, and always keep in mind it’s called ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching’ for good reason.

Speaking of fishing, there is another piece of homemade advice I distribute fairly freely. ”Always strive to be like the biggest, fattest bass in the lake – know when to not take the bait.”

Restraint and that whole gut-instinct thing come into play here. You’ll figure it out.

There are a few secret wishes I have for you; I hope you like baseball. And going camping. And pizza. Annnnd…cheeseburgers. Not the lame, limp, fast food variety but some top quality, inch-thick, pressed-by-hand, fresh-off-a-grill cheeseburgers. And be creative with the cheese, Felix; there is far more to life than just processed American. Taste it all.

And somewhere along the line you’ll get to learn and taste a little something my grandfather taught me many years ago; the joy of dipping a sugar cube into a cup of coffee, then sucking the coffee back out of it. Mmmm-mmmm. You’ll find it’s the little things, Felix, that make life so special.

In closing, you should know that as you grow up you’ll hear many wild and wacky stories about your family. If they sometimes sound too outrageous to be true…you’re probably being too much of a skeptic. Embrace your familial eccentricities. Grow with them. You’ll learn to love them and those us who possess them. A little head shaking in disbelief is okay – as long as you keep smiling through it and don’t ever do it with disdain.

Single best advice I can give you, Felix? Hang out with grandpa whenever you can, for as long as you can. You’ll learn stuff. But I’ll learn so much more and you’ll teach me. It’ll be exciting for both of us.

We’ll start to get to know each other soon, the rest we’ll work out as we go.

Oh, and have somebody print this missive out and put it in a ring binder for you. We’ll be adding to it as time goes by. ;-{)

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Memories of Christmas Present, Cheerful Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Sunday before Christmas found me in a shopping mall in Rochester, Minnesota, waiting in line with my grandson Felix, aged two, to have a picture taken with Santa. We were there with his mom (my daughter) and his dad, and my wife Amy, plus my sons Will and Sam – Felix’s eighteen and fifteen year old uncles, respectively.

'The Cajoling of Felix' December, 2013
‘The Cajoling of Felix’ December, 2013

The line was moving efficiently, there were enough of us to rotate on keeping Felix occupied, so there were no issues there. The idea was that Felix would do a solo picture with Santa, and then we would have a shot with Felix and St. Nick joined by Will and Sam.

Felix wasn’t all that interested, and out-of-camera-range cajoling wasn’t getting it done.

He wasn’t horribly distraught, just didn’t want to sit still for Santa. So, we went to plan B, got the uncles up there, and got a nice shot of the foursome, then

Sam, Santa, Will, Felix - 2013
Sam, Santa, Will, Felix – 2013

decided to go the Felix as a solo route. He still wasn’t thrilled, so his mom had to join the shot, much to her chagrin.

It was a fun time for me, watching the various interactions; daughter, sons, grandson, all trying to get a picture or two taken. Pretty cool stuff, and I’m a guy who knows kid and grandkid cool.

And really great Santa pictures.

From the musty, holiday-scented archives of this blog, here is a favorite true tale of Christmas. I hope you enjoy it – again, or for the first time:

Nearly twenty years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa….

As I was neither the natural size nor age (nor naturally hirsute enough) for the role, I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, scratchy, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school photographer, Jen. We hadn’t taken a picture in an hour. As we talked about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, brookdaleholidaymiddle-aged woman; unique, but certainly not the most unusual sight at Brookdale Mall during the holidays.
Until it was obvious they were headed straight to us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the couple, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids with the woman and the Marine. I watched as the boyish Leatherneck glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I was thinking…

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, while Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, awkwardly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated…unless, I suppose, you’re a self-conscious, twenty-year old Marine being asked to take a picture with Santa.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave; his widowed mother was very proud of his recent dressbluesaccomplishments, which included a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and there was only one other thing in the world she wanted for Christmas: pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

He told me had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So there we were on a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon: Santa and the Marine.

Keep in mind that this was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, marineshatPolaroid-you-wait-to-develop-then-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. The young Marine and I had some time to get acquainted.

My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat uncomfortably but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously. After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, sitting ram-rod straight while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.” I smiled and chuckled, as much as being referred to by a Marine as ‘Sir’ as the situation itself.

santa hat“Ho-ho-ho!” I replied, as Jen readied the next shot.

“Sorry about what?” I asked, as sympathetically Santa-like as I could.

“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed. I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it. “Don’t be.”

The scene continued to play out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to relax and lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us repeatedly to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing it up and trying to help the guy out a little.

ornament3After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine, “O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.” I nodded forward while Jen readied another shot. My favorite Jarhead glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir” he replied, the nervousness softening in his voice.

He was loosening up a bit, though that was being countered as by a small crowd that had gathered, eyes wide, buzzing with curiosity. I guess it’s not every Christmas you see a Marine in full dress blues sitting on Santa’s lap. The Marine smiled self-consciously as it dawned on me what the real issue might be. I made more Santa-and-client small-talk while Jen snapped away.

“Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said evenly, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.”(a high school within walking distance of the mall.)

I nodded acknowledgement of his predicament, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked Vikings football with the young man, tried not to add to his self-consciousness by chuckling at the situation, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took us fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras; they were wonderful.) As his mom was paying Jen for the pictures, and newly Marine-smitten Susie finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine warmly.

“Thank you, Santa…sir.” I believe that was proper-holiday-protocol-Marine-speak.

His nervousness gone, he wore a proud, Marine-on-duty, restrained smile.

Then, bag of Santa pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd parted, then quickly dispersed.

In the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to a number of Marines. Younger Jarheads tend to look at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs.’ Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly. A few have welled up hearing the story.

Most have agreed it’s a pretty good, unique take on ‘Semper Fi.’semperfi

The young Jarhead is pushing forty now. What became of him and his mother I of course have no way of knowing. But somewhere, on someone’s mantle, or in an album somewhere there is a cherished, probably yellowing Polaroid of a young Marine, sitting with Santa…

As for me, every year the question comes up in conversation: ‘What’s the best Christmas present you ever got?’ That question is impossible for me to answer, but the story I can tell about one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a (small) part in giving?

That’s a gift that fell right into my lap.

christmas

“Yes, we have no bananas”. But we do have the trees.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HygopC4S5W0    I am always on the lookout for good deals, and while driving around New Orleans one early August Sunday, I spied a potted palm tree sitting on a curb with a sign that said ‘Free Banana Palm.’

Deals don’t get much better than that.

A palm tree to decorate for Christmas is something my wife had an expressed an interest in, but while they are in plentiful supply in these parts, they are rather pricey. (O.K: in the interest of full disclosure, since moving here, she has wanted an inflatable palm tree to put Christmas lights on. But for me, why go plastic when you get the real thing?) I had been periodically hunting for a palm, but the ones I had located for free on Craigslist were in the 15-20 foot tall range and were free “if you remove it”. As I am more lumberjack than catch-and-release arborist, this was an option I had passed on numerous times.

Free, in a large pot, was right up my alley. Well, somebody else’s street, actually.

As I couldn’t get the thing into my van solo, I returned home, put our trailer-hitch platform on the van, and recruited my sons, aged 13 and 16 to help capture the beast in the wild and return it home for transplanting in our front yard.

Let’s just say, at first glance the boys were…dubious. Said thirteen year old Sam, “And we want this thing because…?”

But after some rather, uhh, creative, sweat-inducing tree wrangling, we got the vaunted (and heavy) potted banana palm home. Actually, it turned out to be four banana palms; the big one in the center of the pot, and three smaller sprouts in varying stages of growth. This was an even better deal! Four for the price of free, save a little sweat equity. Added bonus: some other funky, sub-tropical flowers had also taken root in the pot. Sweet!

Once home, my wife shared the doubtful look her sons had donned just a few minutes before upon meeting the tree(s). Nonetheless, within a couple of days I had the big palm from the center of the pot transplanted on the boulevard in front of our house, and was then immediately confronted by family members all asking the same question: “Why’d you plant THAT one?”

Though the largest, most mature of the four, the one I chose to transplant looks a little worse for wear. As sixteen year old Will said, “Its dead. Or about dead.” I didn’t think it that critical, as there were some new, small green shoots poking out of it. I likened it to the Christmas tree Charlie Brown and Linus bring back to the Peanuts gang in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ – it just needed a little T.L.C. ala Linus and his blanket.

Unconvinced looks were again shared by wife and progeny.

One key reason I planted that particular tree (besides its being the tallest) was that I thought it had the potential to rebound nicely out of the pot and actually in the ground. Plus, I planted it to fill up a hole where an old tree trunk had been decaying and sinking since Katrina took out the original tree itself. Knowing that even dead trees can have extensive root structures that can regenerate, I figured the banana palm would take root and (hopefully) thrive. Transplanting it was quick and simple, except… required being staked down just to keep it upright. I began to see that my family’s skepticism may have been justified.

Over the last month or so, we have watched that scrawny little banana palm do pretty much nothing but survive.

I trimmed off the dead and broken leaves, and the one primary leaf (yeah, singular leaf) that remained perked up a bit, but that was about it. The new little green sprouts stayed that way; new and little. But like with Charlie Brown and Linus, the little tree seemed to be growing on my own FamilyPeanuts. Jokes about its appearance were made on a fairly regular basis by sons and wife, though they were interspersed with grudging admiration for the banana palm’s tenacity. So I decided to just call it CBT (Charlie Brown tree).

Then, last week came hurricane Isaac, and a three-day evacuation for all six of us (including both dogs). Upon our return to our New Orleans neighborhood, we saw plenty of storm damage, including some very large trees that were ripped from the ground and thrown about just blocks from our house. This increased our anxiety about our home, as we had no idea what to expect. With trepidation and collective breath held, we turned onto our block…

…and there was our little banana palm, still standing, in front of our undamaged house.

Much to the amazement of Will, who’s incredulity only increased as we saw the toppled fifty-foot pine across the street that fell into our neighbors yard, “How could that stupid little thing stay standing through a hurricane?!”

How indeed, with no blue blanket wrapped around its base.

I quickly explained the whole small object/wind resistance thing using the mast of a ship analogy: with the sails down, there is little for the wind to catch, but with the sails unfurled, the wind has plenty to get hold of. (He is taking physics this semester, so he got it – at least on a scientific level.) But Will was even more shocked at the survival of CBT when he noticed the pounding our neighbor’s elephant ears plant and our whatever-it-is-I-got-from-Leslie-and-Ina’s-yard plants took.  Coleslaw on stems, basically, was what those plants were – just a few feet away . But our CBT was still hanging tough. Will just shook his head.

Now that we have been back a few days, have cleaned up the sticks and other stray debris, and since my school is still closed a few more days, I thought it would be a good time to finally swap out CBT for the more hearty of the other three still in the pot.

But CBT seems to have other ideas. The dang thing has taken root.

A tree that two weeks ago needed bracing appears to have hunkered down against Isaac and settled in for the long haul. It does not want to budge. This morning I removed the rope tethers, and it stayed standing upright. I grabbed hold of CBT and shook it; it barely wiggled. I shook it more vigorously; it stood there, defiantly.

Upon further inspection, I noticed that there is some fresh green down toward the bottom, some bark is growing back, and the leaf (yeah, still just one leaf) shredded by Isaac has started to regenerate nicely. I think CBT is gonna be A-O-K.

That still left me with another banana palm that was showing some signs of vigor now that his pot had more room, so I figured we can get him going in his own little plot of real estate and see what happens. As of today, our second little banana palm (as yet unnamed) has been transplanted a little further on down the boulevard from CBT. The new model stands at 45 inches tall as of today, but I’m willing to bet most anyone a burger at Bud’s Broiler that a month from now, on October sixth, that newly relocated banana palm will stand 55 inches tall, same height as me.

Provided we don’t get any more hurricanes.

By December, I am hoping that one of our two palm trees is hearty enough to help fulfill my goal of giving my wife a real, decorated New Orleans Christmas palm tree. So, with apologies to Joyce Kilmer:

I think my wife will have no qualm
stringing lights on her new banana palm

Below(L to R)  What my wife initially wanted to hang Christmas lights on, what we are trying to achieve, what we hope to avoid.

x

‘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.

Synonym or Symptom

Pet phrases. Most of us have at least a few family idioms; odd turns of phrase they use on a regular basis due to the fact that they have been indelibly imprinted on the brains of said family members. Usually, these expressions are frequently uttered without conscious thought or awareness of the speaker.

Use of these phrases in and around domestic situations have a wide array of side effects, including, but not limited to or mutually exclusive of any combination thereof; amusement, annoyance, bewilderment, exasperation, confusion, disorientation. Family catch phrases can also result in bemusement, confusion, and occasional outright hostility.

Mostly, they are great familial touchstones.

From time to time I have dropped some of these sayings from the Lucker household into some of my blogs and articles. While I usually attempt to put the phrase into some sort of context, I frequently asked for further clarification or, in some cases, where it came from.

Here, for the first time in one locale, and for future reference for grandson Felix,  are some of the key phrases the Lucker family has, continues to, and will hopefully, in generational perpetuity, use and nurture. Each entry includes approximate date of coinage with etymology noted. (I am an English teacher.)

FAAAreee? Did some-body say FAAAree?” entered the Lucker lexicon in the early 1990’s when I was co-hosting a Saturday morning radio show about casino trips (whole other story) with old buddy Mike Iverson on a radio station in suburban St. Paul. It was the early days of Native American casinos in the Midwest, and in their frenzied competition, offered cheap bus rides with loads of enticements to get people to go to their casino. (Rolls of slot quarters for the slot machines, free steak dinners, etc.) Mike would begin explaining what your ten-dollar bus ticket would get you; upon his utterance of the word ‘free’ I would respond with “FAAAreee? Did somebody say FAAA-reee?”

The phrase has morphed from its intended use into an all-purpose phrase whenever one encounters something being given away. Has waned a bit, but is still very popular with daughter Lindsay.

Etymology: WLKX radio Saturday Morning Casino Show      First recorded use: circa 1993

“Hey, buddy! Only one shade of green in this town!” is a situationally limited phrase for use when you are behind someone at a red light, the light turns green, and the vehicle in front of you doesn’t move. There is some flexibility here as it can be used by either driver or passenger. Lindsay, now 28, discovered that this phrase had been imprinted in her temporal lobe in her high school days, when she found herself blurting it out while riding with friends.

Once in state of dormancy, this phrase has taken on new life with the now ubiquitous problem of people checking text messages at stop lights.

Etymology: Family car trips with my father      First recorded use: Early 1960’s

“I hear ya’ cluckin’ big chicken!” is a flexible phrase that can be used to show agreement, support or congratulations. A big part of its flexibility is in how simple inflection changes and tone can convey empathy: any enthusiastic version shows excitement, while a more melancholy take can show agreement and empathy with someone’s disappointment.
Someone: “That was the worst ninja ballerina movie I have ever seen!”
You: (In your best Eeyore voice, head nodding in agreement) “I hear ya cluckin’, big chicken.”

Etymology: unclear or not remembered      First recorded use: Mid 1990’s

“Its Mexican restaurant weather; chili today, hot tamale.” is actually a variation on a phrase uttered frequently by an old Swede that I knew growing up. Hot weather would cause him to take off his hat, wipe his balding dome with a bandana, and say, repeatedly “Hot tamales, hot tamales.”

In the early days of my radio career, I modified the phrase for occasional use in weather forecasts for days when the weather was changing from cold to warmer; “Chili today, hot tamale.”

Etymology: Ivar Andren, Old Swede      First recorded use: Original ‘hot tamales’ early 1960’s; present version, early 1980’s

“It’s warmish” is a fairly recent addition to the family thesaurus, only coming into use when we moved from Minnesota to New Orleans. Subsequently, northern visitors have commented on the summer heat and humidity with pointed exclamations like ‘Geez, it’s hot!” to which the mind-over-matter counter to any perceived meteorological discomfort is an acknowledging, “It’s warmish.”

“It’s warmish” had its first use was in response to repeated commentary on June heat and humidity by our college age friend Stephan Immerfall, who helped us drive down here on our relocation. He took to the phrase, and brought it back north with him. Though ‘Warmish” has fallen mostly into disuse in Minnesota, we still utilize it regularly here in New Orleans. Especially when explaining weather to visitors from out-of-town.
Visitor: “Man! Its 97 degrees with 83% humidity! This is crazy!”
Any relocated Lucker: (nodding in agreement) “Yeah, it’s warmish.”

Etymology: Moving & transitioning  to New Orleans      First recorded use: 2008

“Oh yeah, bay-bee grammmaw!” was uttered by my youngest son Sam, now thirteen, when he was a toddler. He had been running around saying, “Oh yeah, baby” and one night we wanted him to say it to his grandma Mickelson, who was on the phone. The resulting, “C’mon, say ‘oh yeah, bay-bee’ for grandma” came out of Sam’s mouth as “Oh yeah, bay-beeee gram-maw!” and the phrase stuck.

To this day, even grandma Mickelson uses the phrase “Oh yeah, bay-bee grandma!” as a gleeful expression, such as when drawing the cards that give her a win in a card game, for example.

Etymology: Son Sam, who picked it up at daycare and modified it      First recorded use: 2001

“Somebody get that, it might be a phone call.” is a phrase my father used from time to time, much to my mother’s chagrin and annoyance. I picked it up (the phrase, not the phone) and used it in much the same way as my father (when a telephone would ring) much to the annoyance and puzzlement of most people.

Lindsay also found this one had stuck in her head while working her first job as a teenager, in a video store. She was stocking VHS tapes on a shelf at the far end of the store when the phone at the desk rang, prompting Lindsay to pop up and loudly proclaim, “Somebody get that, it MIGHT be a phone call!” This caused store customers to stop their browsing and look at her quizzically, as her coworkers did likewise.  This phrase is among the most frequently used in the Lucker lexicon.

Etymology: My father to me to Lindsay to Will and Sam      First recorded use: Early 1960’s

“Well don’t that just curdle yer milk!” is a general purpose show astonishment or incredulity at something incomprehensible; usually the behavior or utterance of another person. I picked up this little gem during my first job in radio in little Nevada, MO, from my friend and co-worker Jeff Tweeten.

This phrase had a longer shelf life and higher recognition factor when living in the rural Midwest, but can still elicit the ocassional nod of agreement from bystanders.

Etymology: Hanging out with Jeff in rural Missouri First recorded use: 1978

“What’s that got to do with the price of eggs in Cleveland?” is simply a more workable, Lucker family version of the traditional ‘What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?’ retort to an irrelevant suggestion. Especially for the younger generation, eggs are more easily relatable as an analogy than tea, as Cleveland is more graspable as a concept than China.

While other foodstuffs and geographic locations have been improvised here, in the Lucker household eggs/Cleveland prevail. Though we all eat eggs, none of us have ever been to Cleveland.

Etymology: South Minneapolis Workforce Center      First recorded use: 2001

“While you’re up…” is a dinner table phrase used when everyone is sitting down and eating, and someone either needs something that wasn’t brought to the table or the dogs need to be let inside, or the fan turned or…? This is a functionally ironic term as it is used only while everyone is sitting down.

“While you’re up…” has occasionally been used in a pique of pure laziness in other rooms in the house and at times other than dinner, though that behavior is generally frowned upon.

Etymology: Family dinner table      First recorded use: Early 21st century

“Who would do that?” is a phrase daughter Lindsay came up with in her teens in collaboration with her stepmother Amy, and is usually used to poke fun at me for some perceived foible, misstep or oddball idea. Inflection varies and greatly alters the trajectory of meaning; “Who would do that?” is the more emphatic version, though “Who would DO that?” is the far more commonly used version.

The phrase has become a staple of family verbiage for all members.

Etymology: Custodial weekends      First recorded use: Mid 1990’s

“You young kids and your crazy ideas!” is a typical Lucker family response to something inexplicable or just plain weird. It is usually uttered in a tone of faux-condescension, mild sarcasm or gentle, tongue-in-cheek scolding…though at times in complete exasperation. It is typically spoken mostly by the two youngest members of the family and directed at either their parents or, once in a great while, at each other.

‘YYKAYCI’ is frequently used to highlight parental use of an archaic phrase or recounting of some childhood recipe or food like. Usually by  youngest son Sam.

Etymology: Sam Lucker, solo    First recorded use: 2011

There you have it; a short compendium of Lucker family verbiage. As we hold no copyright on any of the phrases listed above, have at them without fear of legal retribution. Print a copy and keep this guide handy if you’re coming to visit or planning on any verbal contact with the family. This guide can also serve as a good template for getting your own family’s linguistic quirks recorded for posterity and future generation’s edification.

You’re welcome.

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.

Eternal spring

“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” – Former major leaguer & Author Jim Bouton

Life is a scorecard; an encrypted story in exotic-to-the-unwashed hieroglyphs, easily and quickly translated by those versed in the language. We can excitedly tell the detailed story.

I’ve been told – more often than I can count – to take a walk.

I have sacrificed.

Took lots of pitches and touched all the bases. Made it to a few when I probably shouldn’t have, gotten thrown out when I tried to take an extra one…often experienced the thrill of sliding in safe at home.

I have played the field and struck out in love. My ears have echoed with the cheers of the crowd and have felt the sting of their boos.I have made may share of errors.

There are times when I have been left stranded, others when I have been benched. I have been shelled, and pulled for a reliever who could close out what I started.

I have made more than a few long, slow walks back to the dugout.

Ah, but the home runs have been plentiful.

I loved the game and life – and it returned the favor far more often than it could let me down. Oh yeah, a few pennant races broke my heart – but isn’t that life in a nut shell? I’ve had good winning streaks and a few tough loses.

There have been brush-backs, bean balls and I’ve thrown and been thrown more than a few curves in my day.

Hurled a few biting changeups of my own, too. Others will tell you there are times when I’ve been a real screwball.

Sometimes I’ve had to play hardball. I have usually won.

I have been thrown out, tagged out, shut out.

I have balked.

I have loved the game – my life – it has returned the favor.


Now, the grass is greener than ever, lush and rich; the sky is always a vivid blue. In my mind I can always I feel the breeze on my face, breathe in the aroma of oiled leather, hear the distant crack of solid horsehide colliding with polished ash.

Someday I’ll be rounding third and headed for home, with someone waving me on. I’ll know then as I do now that it’s been a grand and glorious event, an extra-innings affair to remember; a ninth inning grand slam in every sense.

It’s hopefully a long time before I need to come out of the game, many years before I’ll need a curtain call to acknowledge the home crowd, tip my hat and then disappear, headed for the clubhouse to hang up my gear for the last time.

Not now, not today.

It is spring again.

Hope, potential and promise fill the air, a game has yet to be lost.

A long, blissful summer awaits. There will be highlights and losing streaks, rainouts and glorious days you’ll hope will not end. For now, the joy is in simply taking the field again.

As Ernie Banks always says, “It’s a great day to play two!”

Characters who helped shape mine (#1 in a series) The Grocer

It is well documented that scents and smells are among the most powerful of memory triggers; I have to believe that sounds cannot be far behind.

When I began teaching, I purchased a set of self-inking stamps for classroom use, one of which I use on a daily basis: my red thumb. The thumb stamp has become one of my most versatile and effective tools with the high school kids I teach, as I use it during certain class work times to quickly update students. A ‘thumb up’ is for encouragement, a ‘thumb down’ is a silent indication they need to get on track, a ‘sideways thumb’ is my ‘rethink this’ signal – a true student agitator.

My students all know the thumbs and their meanings, and I hear about it quickly if I am not making the rounds with my stamp when they think I should be. Many will react a table or two away if they hear my now-familiar ’ca-chick, ca-chick’ stamping sound, and start writing faster.

My students periodically work in class from literature workbooks that are nicely self-contained; a literary selection, sidebar questions on every page, more extensive written work at the end of the selection. This format allows me to do a fast check of the day’s work, stamping quickly as I go through a pile of workbooks. Students can get a variety of thumbs on a given selection. If a student hasn’t done any of the work, I can blow through the selection with a rapid fire series of thumbs down in all the blank spots.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I have been doing this for quite some time, and never gave it a whole lot of thought. A few days ago I was sitting in my classroom going through some workbooks of a particularly difficult pair of students that refuse to do any work. I had tried dealing with them during class, but knew that not a thing had been written in either book. Sure enough, as I started thumbing through them, everything was blank.

‘ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

And all of a sudden, it was 1965 and I was six years old, in a SuperValu grocery store at 34th and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis; light-years literally and figuratively from my current home base of New Orleans.

The store was one of the first supermarkets in the neighborhood – huge, for the time. It was a clean, crisp shop owned by the Williams family; Joe, Marian and Randy. My parents preferred shopping at the new Red Owl supermarket a few blocks further down Chicago Avenue, but Ivar and Lila, the elderly couple that owned our duplex shopped at SuperValu. They were my de-facto grandparents in so many ways, and they would babysit me on Friday nights when my parents went bowling. Friday night was also their grocery shopping night, so after dinner, we would pile in to their red-and-black ’58 Nash-Rambler station wagon to load up for the week.

Ivar was good friends with Joe Williams, the store owner, and always referred to him as ‘Super Joe.’ Ivar was an immigrant Swede who gave all sorts of people nicknames as a course of generational, immigrant habit, I think. Every time we were in the store, the two of them would strike up a conversation while Lila and I began cruising the store aisles. One of Ivar’s many nicknames for me was ‘Little Squirt’ – usually just shortened to ‘Squirt’ – a nickname that the startched-white-apron-and-paper-hat wearing Joe then adopted whenever he would see me; “Hey, Squirt! How are you today?”

The store was also right across the street from Horace Mann Elementary School, and once in a while I would  be in the store after school with someone or another. Super Joe always greeted me heartily, which was impressive to any other kids who happened to be around: I knew Super Joe and Super Joe knew me! (This was on display vividly during Thanksgiving of my first grade year, as our teacher, Mrs.Kime, brought us all to the store to shop for a Thanksgiving feast we then prepared at school. Joe told everyone I knew the store so well I should be leading the tour and explaining things.)

Friday night bowling was a big deal for my parents, and for me: an evening with Ivar and Lila meant having dinner and going grocery shopping, maybe watch a little television or play Chinese Checkers before bedtime if we got back early enough. May not sound like much, but it was a rockin’ Friday night for me, usually kicked off with Lila gathering her shopping list and coupons and Ivar announcing in a sing-song, Swedish-tinged, “Time to go see Super Joe!”

Every trip to SuperValu with Ivar and Lila followed the same basic script: Ivar and Joe would chat, Lila and I would start shopping, Ivar would catch up to us, and I would then be on the lookout for Super Joe. Once any eye contact was made with Joe, I would immediately dash to the aisle where the baking supplies were.

The bottom shelf on one side of the baking goods aisle was reserved for all of the big bags of flour and sugar, the twenty-pounders and such. (Hey, people were still baking from scratch a lot in 1965) Once I reached the baking goods, I would find an open spot on a bottom shelf, then squeeze myself into it, pulling my knees up against my chest, and resting my chin on my knees – sort of like during a fallout shelter drill at school. It was usually a tight fit, but they didn’t call me ‘Squirt’ without cause.

Within a few seconds, I would hear Super Joe walking down the aisle, wondering about what the price of flour was that week. A furtive peek around the bag of Pillsbury Gold Medal that I was huddled next to revealed Super Joe standing at the end of the aisle, drawing his shiny silver price stamper from his holster and adjusting the little wheels on it to the correct price. The wordlessly, but usually humming or whistling to himself, he would make his way down the aisle stamping the bags of flour with their correct price:

Ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

When he arrived at my locale, his only acknowledgement that I was scrunched up there was, in one single, smooth motion, to place his hand on my head, smack the back of it with the price-stamper, and continue on down the rest of the aisle, wordlessly heading on to some other part of the store.

‘Ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’ fading into the distance.

At this point, I would get off the shelf and run to catch up with Ivar and Lila, wherever they were in the store, and ask them to check the price on the top of my head, to which Lila would usually say “I think you’re worth more than that!” while Ivar would reply, “Ya, I tink it’s about right!” That usually got him an “Oh, Ivar” mock-scolding from Lila. We would then finish our shopping, get our S&H Green Stamps, and go home.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

1965 was also the year that Ivar and Lila retired, and moved to their lake place north of Brainerd, in Minnesota’s north woods: Horseshoe Lake was the locale where I spent my summers for the next dozen years. As my family usually shopped at Red Owl, I didn’t see Joe nearly as often.

But we weren’t through with Super Joe. He and his family visited us at the lake from time to time, and a few years after Ivar and Lila moved north, Joe and his family followed suit; they bought a small town grocery store in resort country about an hour’s drive from Ivar and Lila’s place. Both families remained friends until Joe’s untimely death a few years after that, when I was  thirteen or fourteen. I had experienced death before, family members and close friends, but I remember this was the first time I had grieved for someone that I really had no strong, tangible connection to. He was just a good guy that I knew from going to the grocery store with Ivar and Lila.

I have no idea why Super Joe and his price stamper escapades all came back to me the way they did, nearly fifty-years after the fact, sitting in an empty classroom in Louisiana. I use my stamper frequently. But return to me they did, and it gave me a smile when I needed one, being less than thrilled with the performance of my students.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I don’t know how the flour-bag routine got started, not sure why it still resonates so strongly with me today, it just does. Ivar and Lila were a huge part of my life; de facto grandparents who hosted me at their lake place for the entire summer every year of my youth. The relationships made and the life lessons learned over all those years are immeasurable. The old SuperValu store? Now an inner social-service outreach center. Super Joe Williams? A nice guy we used to buy groceries from who took a couple of minutes each week and once on a Thanksgiving shopping trip to make a kid feel special.

That’s all there is to the story, really. Just a childhood memory that returned at the oddest of times, triggered by a now oddly familiar, new yet retro sound. Or maybe its just a fun-filled Friday night remembrance.

Whatever it is, you just can’t put a price on it.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

First letter to a new grandson

Dear Felix:

First off, let me welcome you to this wild, wonderful world. Yeah, it has issues – always has and always will. Maybe as time goes by, you’ll be one of the ones fixing the problems. Still, it’s a great place to hang for the next century or so. Make it count for something.

Your parents have been really amazing awaiting your arrival – later than predicted as it may have been. Though you were something of a surprise, they have embraced you from the get-go with more gusto than I would have thought, and we are quite proud of them.

That gusto and clarity of purpose says a lot about both of them. They have been very impressive. Let this be your first  life lesson from grandpa: don’t under estimate people…especially the ones you love.

Your parents are really quite remarkable, both as individuals and as a couple. Your mom is my daughter, so I obviously know her very well. She’s pretty cool, and she chose well when she chose your dad – he is very cool, too. I take a fair amount of pride in her making that choice, though I can take absolutely no credit for it. Pride in your kids is something special to experience, Felix; pride in your parents is a wonderful gift, and I hope you have, hold and treasure it.

You’ll come to love them both as much as we all do, more so, in fact. Im sure it  took you all of about, oh, say twenty-five seconds, once you got past that where-the-heck-am-I entrance-disorientation.

Felix, you are being born into a theatrical clan; your mom your dad are true theatre geeks, just as I was and as my father was – though neither my father or I have or had the depth and breadth of the passion that your parents do. Along with that passion comes a whole unique cadre of like-sentiment folks that are your parent’s friends and peers and that are eagerly waiting to embrace you. Let them.

You have grandparents to whom you are the first such member of your new family generation. They will attempt to spoil you. Allow them the privilege. Being first also means you will be a leader of your generation. When the time comes, lead with purpose, compassion and a sense of humor.

You have two teenaged uncles who are also eagerly looking forward to getting to know you. They have favorite toys and movies and loads of life experience they want to eventually share with you; they plan on showing you the ropes, and how to be a guy. They’re both pretty good at that in some very different ways, so let them teach you what they know. Someday you’ll be able to tell them “Its okay, fellas – I got this” and fly solo. But in the meantime, take advantage of every moment of them that you can. And always keep their numbers on speed-dial.

Their old wooden trains and blocks (Will and Sam aren’t that old, so the paint is safe and all) are boxed and handy for when the time comes. Low-tech, I know, but I can’t wait for the day when they show you how to fit together those train tracks, and stack a few primary color squares and rectangles. They can’t wait, either.

I know; in time. We’ll get there. Let’s get started with some grandfatherly advice and stuff you need to know:

First of all, have faith. Need proof that there is a God? He has blessed us with you, your mom and your dad. Proof that God also has a sense of humor? He has blessed you with all the rest of us.

Remember to say ‘I love you’ frequently – to pretty much everyone. And mean it.

You can be tough and be gentle, often simultaneously. It is not as difficult as some would lead you to believe.

Roll with what you’ve got, improvise when you need to. Admire the finished product no matter how cumbersome it looks or functions.

Oh, your mother hates The Princess Bride. We’ll have to watch it at our house.

Moving on….

There is a popular phrase about not being constrained in life, and living in the moment: ‘Dance like no one is watching.’ It’s good advice that, as your grandfather, I heartily endorse. Even if, like yours truly, your dancing looks more like a man being attacked by a swarm of bees than it does dancing, pretend nobody is watching…and then dance even harder when you know that people are watching.

While we’re on the topic, there was a very popular song a few years back by Lee Ann Womack, called  I Hope You Dance. The song includes these lines:

“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean;
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens…
promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance…”

Amen to all of the above sentiment, kid. I really hope you don’t sit out too much in life, and that you’ll always try to dance. And sing, too. Maybe you could use a more contemporary take: treat life-like every day is commando-karaoke.

Okay, as metaphors go, that last one may need some work. But its good practice now to start realizing that not every pearl of wisdom you get from me is going to be fully cultured.

While we’re on the topic of music, there are some songs you should know, and I’ll try to teach them to you. (Your dad is the musician; he’ll be able to take you places with music I never could. Enjoy that ride.) That being said, there are best learned as grandpa/grandson duets and CD singalongs. Puff the Magic Dragon, for one, Marvelous Little Toy for another, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Oh, and The Unicorn. Your uncle Sam likes really that one, so I’ll try to get my Irish dialect back on track for you so we can all do it up right. We may have to turn that duet into a trio act.

About music. Someday when we’re driving in the car, I can see the family rule about the driver choosing the radio station or CD getting bent for you, especially once you start riding shotgun. It’ll be your call, of course, but it would be nice if you developed a taste for the 1960’s. Your mom really likes The Monkees, and other good stuff from my era, and she also shares my affinity for The Rat Pack; Frank, Dean, Sammy. I think you are genetically predisposed to some Sinatra-coolness factor anyway so it should work out. Cross-generational music appreciation is something we are definitely used to and in favor of in this family. Savor it.

Your dad has a wide range in musical tastes, so you’re likely to experience a lot, musically. Take it all in…from all of us. But always march to your own drum beat.

But you know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if you decided you liked jazz…and The Beatles. We can work it out as you get a little older.

I do have one inviolate music-in-the-vehicle rule; there are certain songs that you cannot change stations or tracks during, or turn the car off on…EV-VER. Hey Jude and Let it be are on that short list along with Turn, Turn, Turn. And, of course, American Pie. If we are just getting home from somewhere and we hear Don McLean start in with the opening trill “A long, long time ago…” on the radio, we will circle the block twelve times if need be to get in all 8:14 of American Pie.  Deal with it.

Felix, don’t ever be afraid to ask for help or advice; the world is not always a do-it-yourself-at-all-costs endeavor. There is strength in numbers…and usually better stories to tell and people to share them with once it’s over. Share the experiences of life.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be independent, far from it. But here is a little secret you should know: the best kind of independence comes from self-assurance, and self-assurance comes from the confidence to know yourself and your own limitations and know that there will always be others who have knowledge and expertise you can utilize. Seeking out the counsel of others is a sign of strength, not weakness. Anyone who tells you otherwise has little of the former, tons of the latter. Ignore them.

By the way; although the lesser version is generally palatable, real cheesecake is made with ricotta cheese, not cream cheese.

‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer – so every once in a while you can surprise them with a big, sloppy smooch on the cheek.’  That’s a grandpa paraphrase. You may encounter the original version; mine is more…functional.

Another popular adage you might hear is “Eighty percent of life is simply showing up.” Now while I mostly see the value in that, I think the advice I have given your mother for years is even more applicable to life in general: “Be good…or at least be prompt.”

Oh yeah. Your mother (and probably the rest of us) will periodically and inadvertently introduce you to the growing and evolving thesaurus that are ‘Luckerisms’ – our family’s own, rather unique set of catch phrases and interjections for all occasions. For example, by the time you are old enough to understand what a ringing phone is, you’ll have also learned the correct thing to yell out across the house in response. (“Somebody get that – it might be a phone call!”) When riding in the car with your mother and stuck behind someone at a stop light, you’ll also learn something about traffic light colors most people don’t ever  think about. (“Only one shade of green in this town, buddy!”) Like I said, it’s a thesaurus not a mimeographed handout.

“Oh yeah, baby grandma.” That one will someday be explained to you by Will and/or Sam.

I hope you are able to blaze your own trail to the things that satisfy you in life. I’ll try to be supportive, even when and if I don’t understand where exactly it is you’re coming from. Hey, it’ll happen. But I’m always open to trying new things and different points of view. Hopefully you will be, too.

Dude; spontaneity rocks.

Another key item: people will always think they know what’s best for you, even when they don’t. Follow your gut instincts.

While we’re talking about self-awareness, don’t ever confuse bravado with taking a stand on principle. You can always be Don Quixote. Just make sure you have a fully capable Sancho Panza along for the journey, someone you can always count on to come up with sharpened lance and a well-rested mule.

Inspire loyalty.

You’ll always need some down time along the way. When you’re not blasting your way through life, you should know that porch swings and reclining chairs are great venues for grandpas and grandsons and sharing things. Things like sunsets and summer evenings, fall afternoons and spring rains, a cold Coke or some sweet tea, good books and chats about…stuff. Guys stuff and, you know, other stuff. Porch swings and recliners are also excellent stuff-contemplation vehicles.

Of course, Coke…not Pepsi.

Recliners are especially good places to hang and watch and listen.

Music of all kinds. A Prairie Home Companion, CNN, Turner Classic Movies. The Marx Brothers, Spongebob Squarepants and all three Toy Story movies. The original Star Wars trilogy. Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Three Stooges, Davey and Goliath. A little Vivaldi is nice sometimes, as are sports. Baseball, football and hockey, to be sure. Basketball only if you insist. Hey, it’ll still be my recliner.

Recliners and porch swings are also the best spots for stories that we can make up on our own. And also good spots for a choice a corned beef sandwich on good rye bread. With mustard. (Just needed to fit that sandwich in here somewhere.)

By the way, porch swings are very neat places to hang out and take naps on during rainy days – with or without a grandpa. Better with, but that’s one of those you can also savor on your own whenever you get the chance. While naps on rainy days are great, walks in the rain might just be greater. We will have to go on some rainy-day quests for the perfect puddle.

And, contrary to what your mother (and my mother and  most any mother says) puddles are cool. So is mud.

Porch swings are also good locales for learning the finer points of brief literature: limericks, haikus…nursery rhymes the ‘Lucker Way.’ When the time comes your mother can explain what Old Mother Hubbard really went to that cupboard for and I’ll take it from there.

Along with porch swings and reclining chairs, there’s a lot to be said for small boats. Fishing ranks right up there as a good stuff-sharing and story-telling time. Fishing is also one of the few times in life when people expect you to fib just a little bit. Take advantage of such times with nature, and always keep in mind it’s called ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching’ for good reason.

Speaking of fishing, there is another piece of homemade advice I distribute fairly freely. ”Always strive to be like the biggest, fattest bass in the lake – know when to not take the bait.”

Restraint and that whole gut-instinct thing come into play here. You’ll figure it out.

There are a few secret wishes I have for you; I hope you like baseball. And going camping. And pizza. Annnnd…cheeseburgers. Not the lame, limp, fast food variety but some top quality, inch-thick, pressed-by-hand, fresh-off-a-grill cheeseburgers. And be creative with the cheese, Felix; there is far more to life than just processed American. Taste it all.

And somewhere along the line you’ll get to learn and taste a little something my grandfather taught me many years ago; the joy of dipping a sugar cube into a cup of coffee, then sucking the coffee back out of it. Mmmm-mmmm. You’ll find it’s the little things, Felix, that make life so special.

In closing, you should know that as you grow up you’ll hear many wild and wacky stories about your family. If they sometimes sound too outrageous to be true…you’re probably being too much of a skeptic. Embrace your familial eccentricities. Grow with them. You’ll learn to love them and those us who possess them. A little head shaking in disbelief is okay – as long as you keep smiling through it and don’t ever do it with disdain.

Single best advice I can give you, Felix? Hang out with grandpa whenever you can, for as long as you can. You’ll learn stuff. But I’ll learn so much more and you’ll teach me. It’ll be exciting for both of us.

We’ll start to get to know each other soon, the rest we’ll work out as we go.

Oh, and have somebody print this missive out and put it in a ring binder for you. We’ll be adding to it as time goes by. ;-{)

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.