Everything is on the table

Our kitchen table is an heirloom in training.

Sitting alone at this table with open notebook, a pen, and a fresh cup of coffee in the early morning light of day I can, with an angular glance, see the extensive preparation and practice for remembrance that it has already put in. At a mere sixteen-years, the table is hardly an antique – yet its smooth, blonde-maple surface is already pockmarked with the memorable nicks and ruts left by stray utensils and homework-prodding pencils – stray treatises to family,  assorted Christmas cards and letters.

All embossed in memory and maple.

My wife and I assembled the table the first night we lived in a rural, southwestern Minnesota Victorian we had just moved into from big-city Minneapolis; a new board-with-legs for our small-town fresh-start. The nondescript table fit perfectly in our new, multi-windowed, breakfast alcove; perfectly seating the four members of our family.  While we read the instructions, inserting the right bolt into the right hole, our boys, then seven and three, were tucked soundly into sleeping bags in the bare living room, as our furniture still in transit. We labored to assemble the table, determined to have a place at which to properly commemorate our first meal together in our new home and community.

The last screw was secured in the final chair leg just after two a.m.

Today, a decade-and-a-half later, when the southern sunlight of our now-home in New Orleans smothers it, you will see the signs of the life the table has nobly earned in service to our family. Worn spots mark each place setting. Plates and bowls of china, paper, and plastic have been repeatedly set down, slid around, eaten upon, picked up again – sometimes dropped. A knot on one end of the table has dried out, a small crack has now settled into a browned notch out of the edge. If you put your face close to the table’s edge and look at its surface, you can trace the hard-scrabble pencil indentations of the two boys who completed their homework each night 100_49891while mom or dad prepared dinner.

Look more closely and you can find a worn two-digit, kindergarten math problem overlaid with something more algebraic, far more recent.  The ancient nine-plus-three-equals-eight-no-twelve is still bold from the pressing of a hot dog-diameter pencil; the more recent equation made by a more elegant and confident ink pen.

The table has made its way south with us.

A million small lines zigzag the surface;  swooping in graceful curves atop the now-worn maple, resembling a vacant skating rink in January. Every member of our family has triple-axeled this table countless times to the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of each of the others. It is a spot of triumph, of place of individual and group confession, reflection, renewal. It has hosted countless meals, endless discussions, prompted numerous revelations; it has echoed the laughter of day-to-day  100_4986life, heard the solemnity of nightly prayers of thanksgiving and praise, sorrow and intercession. It has been spilled on, bumped into, lived on, all the while quietly, steadily. Always smoothly supportive.

It has served us well.

Some ten years ago, we uprooted our brood again – this time to New Orleans. The table that once bore mostly pedestrian, traditional Midwestern fare has become attuned to hosting more exotic and at times experimental and quirky meals of gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish.  I am certain the resulting changes in dietary spills and slops has only served to enhance the preservation and aging process of the maple; it is a seasoned patina – the spice of memories – adding character to the worn, blonde, wood

The table is loyal; it has been almost exclusively devoted to our immediate family; guests have usually necessitated a shift to the more expansive, less lived-on, dining room table.  It, too, has stories to tell, but nothing approaching the quantity of those with that our kitchen table could regale us. And now, our time here is coming to a close; both boys have graduated high school, one has completed college as well,  while the younger begins his collegiate experience. We are headed off on new adventures, different adventures.

Our inexpensive-when-purchased, still not priceless, D.I.Y. table will accompany us.100_4979_00

Boys who once needed help to scootch up their chairs now find little elbow room to spare when we are all together. The table’s chairs creak a bit beneath their more considerable heft. Still, neither of them has asked if we will ever get a new kitchen table, or why we just  can’t eat in the dining room. The table has adapted nicely over the last few years from a haven of group work, to more solo time with family members; a boy with a bowl of cereal and spread out newspapers or school project is now more common than then the full-fledged mealtime family foursomes of the past.

The table also spends more time sheltering two aging dogs seeking the relaxing companionship of their boy’s stocking feet –  adept as each has become at absent-minded, foot petting.  Both dogs are equally content to lay there, just soaking in affection, less time frenetically awaiting dropped crumbs from younger, less observant boys,  who used to provide ample treat-pouncing opportunities.

Mealtimes are cozier than they used to be, though this is just a phase of sorts. Our sons have more hectic schedules, and sporadic all-of-us-home home evenings often find us in the living room, munching pizza and binge-watching Netflix – another family ritual once confined to Friday nights, now preciously savored whenever we can scrounge one up. One son still lives at home; mealtimes for three of us frees up some of that vaunted, and coveted, elbow room, though probably to some occasional chagrin on our part.

Soon, the table’s adaptability will again be tested,  as the term ‘table for two’ will be de rigueur.

Someday the table may serve in an entirely different capacity – maybe a first-apartment-hand-me-down for one of the boys, or maybe someday many years down the road and to the 100_4977puzzlement of a spouse, a much-wanted keepsake for one of them.

Not that they are likely to ask about its eventual fate now, but if they do I can just tell them, to their confusion and my satisfaction, that this little kitchen table is, indeed, our heirloom in training.

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The Bird

Thanksgiving 1979 found me in living in on my own in Marshalltown, Iowa and working at KDAO radio. I was going to be working on Thanksgiving, but what was cool was that my friend Rick Hunter was going to be joining me, on his holiday break journey home to Colorado from chefcollege life in Minnesota.

An actual guest! A real opportunity to make a full-fledged Thanksgiving!  A couple of cookbooks supplemented with phone calls home to mom in Denver to help iron out some nuances and I was ready. I was nineteen and knew my way around a kitchen, having worked in a professional one for most of my high school years.

O.K., I was a dishwasher. Still, I picked up more than a few tricks-of-the-trade.

With Rick scheduled to arrive sometime Wednesday, I thought I could get a lot of stuff done on Tuesday. Mom had confirmed my planning, but she also added a key point: thawing the bird. My initial plan was to pick up the turkey on Wednesday and be ready to go, but mom cautioned that thawing was a time-consuming process, that should start on Tuesday at the latest.

The bird.

As a Thanksgiving gift from the radio station, every staff member got a fifteen dollar gift certificate to the local Fareway store, and a gift certificate for a free, ‘up-to- twenty-pound’ frozen turkey.

Perfect.

The gift certificate covered the bulk of the non-poultry essentials: cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans, and gravy. Marshmallows, a box of instant mashed potatoes, a pumpkin pie, an apple pie, a package of a dozen (big) bakery chocolate chip cookies. Rolls, a jar of olives, a jar of pickles, a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing and a pound of Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage so I could duplicate my mom’s fabulous sausage stuffing rounded out the grocerieslist.

We also needed appetizers: cheese, sausage and crackers.  Just like mom would do it at home.  I also picked up a bulbous turkey baster, a six-pack of Coca-Cola, and a disposable aluminum turkey roaster. Fifteen bucks went a lot farther in 1979 than it does today. My out-of-pocket was less than three bucks.

Oh yeah. The bird.

Getting a free turkey was a big deal. Small market radio was not lucrative. Plus, popping into a store with a gift certificate from the radio station was a sign of small town prestige and celebrity. The dang things were a full sheet of parchment, like a stock certificate. People at the store knew who you were.

The key phrase here was  ‘up-to-20 lbs.’ This, of course, meant I could have chosen pretty much any turkey, but in my 20-year-old mind, the gift certificate screamed, ‘Free twenty pound turkey’.

Never look a gift bird in the mouth.

I picked out a prime, nineteen pound, ten-ounce bird; the twenty pounders all gone by the time I showed up at the store Tuesday afternoon. Arriving home as pleased hunter-gatherer, my next turkeyraw1order of business was to get that rock-solid bird thawed.

Dilemma one.

My apartment was on the third floor of an old bread factory where the former executive offices had been made into apartments. The rooms were spacious, with high ceilings, funky old moldings, and big water and steam pipes snaking their way through the place. But in redeveloping, they furnished the kitchen like an efficiency apartment; the gas stove was one of those old, narrow jobs with burners so close together, that if you were cooking more than one stove-top item at a time, you could only use small saucepans and angle the handles oddly so they would stay on the stove. The single compartment porcelain-sink-on-legs was so small the plastic dish drainer I got when I first moved in barely fit in it.

Where to thaw a 19-10 bird?

The refrigerator was small and filled with other stuff. I had a cheap, Styrofoam cooler the turkey dwarfed – that left the bathtub. What they had skimped on in the kitchen, they made up for in the bathroom: a Chester-Arthur-sized, cast iron, claw foot tub with single spigot that took roughly 20 minutes to fill to take a bath in. Or to get enough water to cover a twenty pound turkey to thaw.

Dilemma solved, provided I didn’t need to bathe.

The bird bobbed placidly in the filled tub, though I periodically had to refresh the water level. The rubber drain stopper was cracked and not very efficient, and the large, cast iron radiator next to the tub accelerated evaporation.

I called mom to update her on my progress to date, commenting about the hassle of filling the tub to thaw the bird.

“Couldn’t you just put it in the refrigerator or a cooler?” she asked quizzically.

“Nope” I replied, “It wouldn’t fit.” There was a pause.

“Well, how big is the turkey?” I told her about my free, nineteen-pound, ten-ounce bird. There turkeyraw1ewas another pause.

“What the hell are you doing with a twenty pound turkey!?” I knew that tone of exasperation.

“It’s what the station gave me.”

“For two people!? I thought it was a gift certificate. Couldn’t you pick out your own turkey!?”

“Yeah, I did. It was a gift certificate for a twenty pound turkey – so that’s what I got.”

“Oh, Mark!” She was trying to be cross. She was snickering (sort of) as I heard her turn away from the phone and exasperated, tell my father, “Mark has a twenty pound turkey for he and Rick.”

I heard my father reply dryly, “I hope they like turkey sandwiches.”

My mother then calmly tried to explain to me that even for the six guests she was expecting on Thursday, she did not have a twenty-pound bird, and that I had better make sure I had plenty of aluminum foil to wrap leftovers in.

foil(Extra foil had not been on my shopping list. I ended up needing two full large rolls of Reynolds Wrap.)

Wednesday arrived, as did Rick. The bird continued to bob and thaw.

My Thursday plan was to wake up early enough to get the turkey in the oven, prep whatever else I could, get to the station for my 10-to-2 shift, come home, watch some football and hang with Rick, and feast.

Getting the turkey in the oven was the biggest issue.

As noted, my oven was narrow. I plucked the bird from the tub, and began prepping it by cleaning it, taking out the gizzards, buttering it, seasoning it, stuffing it, etcetera, without incident. Rick awoke, joined me in the kitchen, observed the scenario and said, matter-of-factly, “Is that thing going to fit?”

Well, wasn’t that spatial.

The turkey didn’t fit – at least not at first shove. Fortunately, I had a disposable aluminum roaster and the sides were pliable enough to be bent on both sides, plus get scrunched up against the back of the stove. It took some extended shoving and pan bending, but we got the bird into the oven without getting ourselves burned.

That oven was wall-to-wall turkey.

A good turkey needs to get its moisture regularly, and I had devised a plan that would benefit everyone: the ‘KDAO Bird Watch.’

JackLaLanneEvery twenty minutes on-air I would announce “It’s KDAO Bird Watch time!” and remind people that it was time to ‘baste those birds’ – leading them through the process ala Jack LaLane with the mantra, “And baste, one…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…” as I then smoothly segued into the next record. Sometimes we basted on the beat of the music.

(It was a public service and programming success to the extent that, much to the bewilderment of Paul, the guy on after me got phone calls of complaint when he failed to announce the bird watch every twenty minutes, and he was also later blamed by some listeners for dried out birds.)

It was one fine, juicy turkey we indulged in that afternoon….save for the leather-tough burns on the outside of each drumstick, where they had spent their roasting time shoved up against the walls of the oven.

We ate, watched football, called high school friends in Colorado, ate some more. On Friday, Rick hit the road for Colorado with a load of turkey sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies and I can’t remember what else. If memory serves, he took the offered sandwiches grudgingly, as he appeared to be turkeyed out. Me? I had no such qualms…until about mid-December.

turkeydoneTo this day, I enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers almost more than the initial meal.

Mom was right about the foil, dad the sandwiches. Every last nook and cranny of my meager freezer was stuffed with turkey (pun intended) and the last frozen pack made its way out for freezer-burned consumption on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, 1980.

My best advice for a successful Thanksgiving feast? It’s pretty simple, kids: “Baste! One…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…””

A passed torch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a good analogy for you.” I add.

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

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

Just passing it on.

Onward

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

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

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

No, it was not always this clear.

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

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

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

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

Still politicking me off

I originally wrote this back in 2010 – not a presidential year, but still rather volatile, politically. Stumbling across it again now, I wondered if my gripes then differed from today.  I’ll let you be the judge, though I have added a few more contemporary comments, in bold italics.

October, 2010

I recently had a firsthand experience that outlines just how acutely American politics has gotten to the vapid, too-partisan-for-words, what-about-us-in-the-mainstream, point that it is now at.

The other day, my phone rang; picking it up, I was not surprised to hear a chirpy-sounding pollster/political operative voice on the other end asking me if I “had a moment” to answer a quick question. Before I could get the “Sure” out of my mouth, the young woman (no personal identification, party phonebankor PAC affiliation given) just jumped right in:

“Good afternoon, sir, I am wondering if you plan to vote on November second?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Great! Could you please tell me then, do you plan on voting for the Republicans, the Democrats or are you undecided?”
“Well, I plan on voting for some Democrats and some Republicans.”

Pause.

“Soooo….then I should mark you down as ‘undecided’?” she asked as a statement, in a puzzled tone.
“Not at all! I know exactly who I am voting for.”
“O.K….but will you be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats?”
“Some of each, actually. I haven’t voted a straight party line ticket for many years.”

Pause.

“So, I should mark you down as ‘undecided’.” She was quite certain this was the correct answer.
“No,I am definitely not ‘undecided.’ I will be voting for some Democrats, some Republicans.”
“O.K. – so you’re not undecided.” Her tone reverted to bewilderment, but at least it was a statement, not a tentative question.
“Not at all. I know exactly who I’ll be voting for. . . I can tell you I will not be phonebank2voting for the Republican running for the senate.”

“O.K….well…” it seemed as though she was checking her notes seeking the proper response to my, uhhh…independent streak, “…you’re not undecided.”
“No, I ‘m definitely not undecided.”
Short pause.
“Thanks a lot, sir. Have a nice day.”
“Thanks. You too.”

Click.

Again, I don’t know what organization, party, PAC, coffee klatch or bridge club she was representing – but there were a few things about the call that concerned me.

The first is that my answer should not have been seen as such an oddity.

Surely I am not the only person in the country who will vote for – GASP! – the best candidate (as I see it) for the job, regardless of party affiliation – or am I truly the last of a dying breed? I wouldn’t think my answer should have led to such consternation; flustered the woman completely, I did.  2016: I believe I may indeed be the last of a dying breed, and should photo-5-copyprobably be protected in a game preserve somewhere to prevent my extinction.

Secondly, given the state of today’s political landscape, why was I only given the ol’ Repubs/Dems option – even in Louisiana? It’s 2010, for crying out loud – no Tea Party, Independence Party, Tupperware party – nothing? (Not that any of those entities have much to offer me– except I could use some new storage bowls.) It’s just the principle of the thing: only offering bunting2me ‘will you be voting for the Republicans or the Democrats’?  makes no sense, though I especially liked her old-school ‘THE Republicans’ and ‘THE Democrats’. then again, maybe having principles is too old school for the modern electorate.  In 2016, here in the deeply red state of Louisiana, the Republicans running do not identify as such in their advertising; they simply geaux (sic) with “x-and-o, CONSERVATIVE for (whatever office)”.  I have yet to see a commercial here identifying a candidate as ‘Republican.’

All in all, it was a very strange call to be getting but certainly not the most egregious political intrusion of the season. Some other election year pet peeves? Let me count the ways we can make this a much more comfortable process.

1. Keep yours/ours/their religion out of politics – and vice versa. Yeah, we may belong to the same faith – heck, even the same denomination – but just because we share a pew on Sunday morning doesn’t mean I share your political stance. And it really ticks me off when you start talking politics over coffee, and you assume we all agree – because we go to the same church – and you continually use the pronoun ‘we’ in your pronouncements. Let me tell ya, guys…you seem like basically decent fellows, but there is usually no pogo3‘me’ in your ‘we’.  Six years later, I am attending two different churches regularly, and this is not an issue at ether. Though at one, people do not discuss politics at all, and the other is a more social justice oriented congregation, where differences are discussed and celebrated.  A much more comfortable scenario in either case.

2. Along the same lines is this sidebar to candidates; stop telling me you’re a ‘family values’ kind of guy. Who’s family? Aadams? Manson? Swiss Robinsons? It’s especially galling when you talk of ‘family values’ and your background includes dalliances with hookers, DUI’s or past domestic disturbance calls to your home. I’m all for redemption, but don’t play the family-values‘family values’ card – stick with issues, give me your solutions to problems – ya know, the stuff I really want my politicians to do. This is more true than ever – at least in regards to the phrase ‘family values’ which now has the linguistic value of a three-dollar-bill.

3. Quit demonizing everyone you disagree with absurd labels: Socialist! Darwinist! Illegal immigrant supporter! Racist! Anti-business! Muslim! Not a real (fill-in-the-blank)! I know, I know – shock value gets attention…when you are in the sixth grade. Grow the hell up, people. Yes, please do – as individuals, and as a culture. 

4. Oh yeah, while you’re at it, please drop the use of the word ‘pro’ from your electioneering. Pro-life! Pro-choice! Pro-guns! Pro-business! Pro-environment! Pro being pro-whatever-you-want-me-to-be! Per the fine folks at Merriam-Webster:

  • pro (noun) \ˈprō\  1.an argument or evidence in affirmation  2: the affirmative side or one holding it.

‘Affirmative side or one holding it’. By definition, you are implying that anyone who is not ‘pro’ like you is automatically ‘anti’ whatever you are ‘pro’ of. That is absolute nonsense. On any issue you want to be ‘pro’ on, there is pros-and-consplenty of room on the spectrum of logical, rational thought before you get to ‘anti’. (see number 1, above)  Does this one still hold true?  Absolutely. ‘Pro’ may be the single most misused word in American political discourse. 

You get the idea. The whole black/white concept of American politics is ridiculous, dangerous and stupid – and the results are pretty obvious. Our national debate should be taking place in the gray areas where most of us live – somewhere between the I’m- pro-this-and-you’re-anti-that-so-go-to-hell extremists.

As Walt Kelley’s  famous comic strip character Pogo famously observed, way pogo1back in the 1950’s, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In 2016 it remains true: we have, they are – and therein lies our greatest weakness as an American electorate:  we, they.  Very little ‘us’.

As in all of us.  As in U.S.  As in ‘We are all Americans’.

We need to start acting like it

Had a ball, to a tee

Baseball is prominent in Lucker family lore: my wife and I come from families of ardent baseball fans, and we met in the summer of 1991 – our dating life was intertwined with the World Series run and eventual championship of our hometown Minnesota Twins.

The following summer we were married, had a baseball-themed reception, took 60 relatives and wedding party members to a Twins game the day after the wedding, then followed our heroes on the road to Chicago and Milwaukee as a baseball honeymoon. We will celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of all that this summer.

But some of our greatest shared baseball memories don’t come from sitting in the cheap seats, or hanging out in a bar celebrating a World Series game two triumph with delirious strangers. Ours are far superior.

They come from our time on the field as t-ball coaches for our sons.

Amy and I spent four years as co-coaches for various teams our sons Willi and Sam played on, emphasizing fun and love of baseball over competition, and loved it all. We introduced not only our kids, but a number of others in south Minneapolis and Marshall, Minnesota, to grand additions to the grand old game such as pre-game bunny-hopping and conga-lining-around-the-bases warmups (10 minute warm-up periods were mandated by the Minneapolis park board – they didn’t say HOW to get them ‘warmed up’) to every-kid-wraps-up-practice-with-a-homerun, along with innovative team (and individual player) cheers and so much more.

Eldest son Willi is now a college sophomore, Sam the younger a high school junior. Willi’s teammates are also in college (or, in at least one case, a college grad!) and I see young kids in our New Orleans neighborhood in their t-ball uniforms, I can only think back…and smile.

The place was Sibley Park, in south Minneapolis. The time was post 9/11, jittery, uncertain 2002. It was the summer of the Bobbleheads – the greatest group of young ballplayers to ever cross a chalked baseline. No names have been changed because nobody’s innocence is threatened – only enhanced. What follows the chronicle of the magical season, as recorded and distributed at the time, from April through early June, in the Baseball Diaries – an emailed extravaganza that was the forerunner of this blog. It is a bit lengthy, but worth it.

Settle in for some baseball magic, in its purest form.

04/30/02
Dear Diary:

As the legendary Jack Morris said just before pitching 11 shutout innings in game seven of the 1991 World Series, “In the words of the immortal Marvin Gaye, let’s get it on!”

The above, I believe, is the Bartlett’s Quotations version of a double play.

This year’s dual-Lucker coached juggernaut is known as the Bobbleheads. The name stems from last years tee-ball experience with the SIBAC Tornadoes, where at least once per game one of the assembled parental or grandparental units would comment that “With the kids running around in those big, oversized batting helmets, they all look like bobble-heads!” First practice was tonight, and it went well. We caught some throws, we even caught a couple of batted balls, and not one kid ran to third base instead of first. We also kept the swarming of multiple fielders to hit balls fairly low, and registered just one “double wicket.” (A hit ball that cleanly makes it through two sets of infielder’s legs, ala croquet, while also eluding their gloves.) The new team cheer was a big hit, too.

Our SIBAC BOBBLEHEADS shirts should arrive tomorrow, just in time for our opening game against Hiawatha Park. We will try to refrain from extending our hands to the other team at home plate while uttering the phrase, “Hiawatha! We’re the Bobbleheads.” We’ll try really hard not to do that.

It’s always “A great day to play two!”

Goodnight, Diary.

autographed bat

 

05/02/02
Dear Diary:

Well, we celebrated a successful season opener on all fronts. The Bobbleheads had a rip-roaring grand time over at Hiawatha Park. It appears that our reputation is growing as we had three new kids sign on last week, and we got a little surprise when we met our Hiawatha opponents.

When their coach introduced himself to me he said he had never coached tee-ball before. He was a veteran of cubs, midgets and for the last few years, four pitch. He described himself to Amy and I as “really in the dark about how tee-ball works.” Not to fear I told him, just follow our lead. The Hiawatha kids were already a little taken aback at our calisthenic routines, but the parents and other crowd members seemed to enjoy it. The game itself was…an experience.

There wasn’t time to explain step-by-step what we were going to be doing, so we had to wing it. We were the visitors, and batted first so I was up at home overseeing. This made it convenient to simply yell out everything to everyone as loudly as I could. The first inning consisted of me yelling out instructions like “OK, coach Dan at first base! Reeeememberrrrr every kid who gets to first gets a high-five!” Followed by “Coach Bruce! Remember that evvvvvery kid who gets to third gets a high-five!” As I was at the helm at home, I took care of home plate-high fives.

By the time Hiawatha batted in the bottom of the first, their coaches pretty much had it down. Every kid getting to first got a high-five, every kid getting to third got a high-five, every kid getting home got a high-five. Every kid got multiple, well deserved, high fives. All in all a pretty smooth game in front of a large and boisterous crowd. (Hiawatha is a busy park next to a busy lake.) After they batted one of the Hiawatha kids asked what the score was. I announced/yelled out that after one inning of play, we were of course, tied “A bunch…to a bunch!” All concerned seemed satisfied with that answer.

Add in our conga-line base running warm up, five (count ‘em, five) different renditions of the “Gooooo Bobbleheadssssss!” cheer and game ending glove slaps, and I think you’ll find that tee-ball at Hiawatha is gonna start looking a bit different in the weeks ahead.

Spreading the word is what we’re all about. Its tee-ball gospel, the Bobblehead way!

Til the next time then, blazing new trails – the Bobblehead Way…

Regards,

Us

autographed bat2

 

05/16/02
Dear Diary:

With glorious sunshine and temps in the 70’s, weather the likes of which we haven’t seen for the past couple of weeks, spring returned today to the Twin Cities. It enabled the Sibley Park Bobbleheads to make their home-opener even brighter.

After squeezing in a practice between showers and then missing a game last week due to a deluge, it was good to be back on the Sibley aggregate basking in the glow of our fans and the sun. Resplendent in our fire-engine red shirts with SIBAC (Sibley Athletic Club) BOBBLEHEADS splayed in dazzling white across the chests we took on our brethren, the SIBAC TWINS.

Katie the park director was on hand getting us set up, and she informed us that the Twins were missing both their regular coaches for the night. She also said that their fill-in, Coach Chris, wasn’t well versed in tee-ball. Not to worry, I told her. We were ready to “Spread the gospel of Sibley Tee-Ball” just as we did a few weeks back at Hiawatha.

After filling in Coach Chris and his parental volunteers on the basics, I went back to our third base bench to address our parents. I explained that like in our first game, we were going to have to lead by example as our opponents were once again inexperienced both on the field and on the bench. I told them why I would again be yelling for both teams to hear me. Just so they knew the score, I had prefaced my remarks with “Lest you guys think I’m some sort of raving ego maniac…”

Play ball!

We batted first, doing wonderfully. Batting fifth tonight was Bailey, a ruddy kindergartener with reddish blond hair and freckles. He’s got game, and seems to enjoy the whole experience. As I was helping Bailey get settled in the batters box, I heard a chant break out from our bench: “Bay-LEE! Bay-LEE! Bay-LEE!” As I turned around to look, every parent gave me a shrug and an “I-didn’t start it” look. Seems that one of the kids did, and it took hold pretty quick. Bailey looked at me, blushed, rolled his eyes and said “Ohhhh man!” He then singled to short. The Twins just seemed puzzled by it all.

The rest of the inning went well until it was brought to my attention that I had overlooked young Joey, and that he hadn’t batted. As we were already taking the field I informed all concerned that we would just bat Joey at the beginning AND at the end of the second inning, and everybody was cool with that. Joey is a quiet kid. He is also the youngest and smallest kid on the team, but he can play. When the top of the second rolled around, Joey was seeking out a helmet and a bat, and I stage whispered to the kids on the bench that what they did for Bailey might be kinda cool to do for Joey. By the time Joey and I got to the batters box, the third base side of the field had erupted in the chant of “JOE-ey! JOE-ey! JOE-ey!” Looking somewhat BMOC-ish, Joey grinned at me and said “Oh boy!” before rapping a single to third.

That was all the encouragement the Bobbleheads needed. The rest of the inning was peppered with spontaneous chants for every kid from when they walked to the tee, til they hit the ball.
“SE-bast-YUN! SE-bast-YUN!”
“Han-NAH! Han-NAH!”
“MAHL-lee! MAHL-lee!”
“Ray-CHEL! Ray-CHEL!”
“Bay-LEE! Bay-LEE!”

There was a slight pause as our number six hitter came to the plate, as the lack of rhythm in “Wiiiiiiiil! Wiiiiiiiil!” sort of threw them for a loop, but they recovered nicely for “ANGE-gel!” “KEIR-nan!,” “Ti-ah-ZA!” and “JOE-ey!” one more time.

All in all, Diary, it was a great night. We played well, looked great, sounded awesome.

The kids were happy, the adults seemed impressed. And we helped the SIBAC Twins learn a few things. Like pre-game calisthenics are a must, especially frog hopping and then group running of the bases. They now know that wrapping up each inning with a home run is cool, too. It took them awhile to remember to give high fives at first and third, but they finally got that down pretty well. They still seemed puzzled when we applauded them at the beginning and the end of the game, and they need some work on their game-end glove slapping. They also had to be re-assembled quickly for the traditional high-five line of congrats after the game, but they did quickly come up with their own cheer. Now Diary, I know I am biased, but to be honest with you, “Tee-ball rules!” just doesn’t have quite the same panache as “Gooooooo Bobbleheads!”

Bobbleheads rock. Wait, I take that back. We bobble!

Goodnight Diary.

 

05/23/02
Dear Diary:

Please pardon the indulgence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shirts this spring. The new Bobbleheads tee-shirts, bright red with bold white lettering across the chests; the wide eyes of recognition when the kids got them – “Hey! They even have numbers on the back!” I remember thinking briefly, that wouldn’t be such a bad shirt to have for a grown up.

Apparently, I am not alone.

At least a couple of parents have inquired about getting one, and we have even had a couple of Baseball Diary readers who have expressed an interest. Then on Tuesday night I walked into the park building to check out a tee and some bases, and was confronted by Sarah of the park staff. “Hey coach! We hear you guys are going to order big Bobbleheads shirts! I want one!” Turns out other park staff does too, including Katie the Park Manager. “Everybody loves ‘em,” she told me. “What can I say? You guys picked a really cool name!” Dale the park equipment guy called St. Mane sporting goods, and if we have enough interest we can get the shirts for the big kids at about eleven-bucks a pop. Bobblehead mania; coming soon to a torso near you.

Goodnight, Diary.

05/29/02
Dear Diary:

Sometimes life just happens, and we’re the better for it. Such was tonight’s Bobbleheads adventure.

Our scheduled opponents from Corcoran Park never showed up. Their coach had called Katie the Park Director yesterday telling her that this might happen, and she had cautioned me last night at practice. Having been forewarned, we arrived at Sibley #5 tonight with two alternatives to keep our charges occupied and to give them a suitable challenge as well.

5:45 arrived and no Corcoraners to be found. I announced to the assembled eight kids and nineteen moms, dads, grandparents and friends that as we were apparently opponent-less, but that I had come armed with plans B & C, just in case this had happened. Plan B was to take whatever Corcoran kids showed up, mix ‘em with ours and split into two teams. Now as our eight were the only ones on hand, 4-on-4 didn’t seem like a real enthralling idea, so after discussing it with fill-in coach (and team dad) Tom and getting his thumbs up, I proposed plan C:

The Bobbleheads versus their parents.

To their credit, the moms and dads were game; nobody had to be coerced, and most seemed genuinely enthused by the idea. The Bobbleheads themselves seemed mostly bemused by the prospect. All of them save young Keirnan, who ambled up to me after the announcement that plan “C” was a go and said, “Coach, don’t you have a plan ‘D’?!”

Coach Tom and I had decided that the Bobbleheads would let the parents bat first, and we took our spots in the field. It seemed that most of the kids were trying not to laugh at the parents coming up to bat, which was hard because some of them looked pretty funny squeezed into those smallish batting helmets. In all three moms, four dads, and one grandma batted – in a few instances escorted on their jaunts around the bases by younger Bobblehead siblings. Much whooping and hollering was heard from the parent’s bench, so we knew they were really into it.

It occurred to me midway through the top of the first that the ages of five, six and seven were good ones for watching parents (try to) play tee-ball. The looks of pride on the faces of each Bobblehead as his or her mom or dad (or grandma) hit the ball, ran to a base or thrust out arms in exultation upon reaching a base were the equal of any similar looks those same parents have had for their kids over the past month.

I spent the night stationed as the third base coach for Bobbleheads on offense and on defense, where I was privileged to overhear some of the great asides of the night.

Such as Rachel’s “Oh there’s my dad, he’s gonna do something goofy.” And showing mild disappointment when he didn’t. There was Keirnan’s repeated plea “Can’t you find a plan D?” Add in Joey’s mile wide grin when both his mom and his dad were on base simultaneously, Hannah’s incessant giggling, Bailey’s “Wow, my MOM!” when she got a hit, and Mali’s shear awe and pride at his grandmother gamely batting and running to first.

I personally declare plan ‘C’ a success. To use a common phrase from our household, “Hey, we’re making memories here!”

So to a red-shirted kid, the Bobbleheads as beamed with pride as moms and dads hit and ran with aplomb, shook their heads in disbelief when they missed catches and throws in Three Stooges-like grandeur while in the field, and just generally hammed it up. No petulance about “parental embarrassment,” no kid telling mom or dad to get off the field, nobody getting mad. Just the shared sheer joy of watching moms and dads goof off a little.

Now that’s tee-ball the Bobblehead way.

Good night, Diary

Us
(PS: Just between you and me I really don’t think Keirnan wanted a “Plan D.”)

autographed bat2

 

Thursday night, June 6, 2002. Late.
Dear Diary:

An era came to an end Thursday night. This probably goes against most any dictionary definition of the term era, but where the Bobbleheads are concerned, that’s kind of how this six-week season felt. This was one special group of kids and parents, Diary.

We said our goodbyes at the season-end potluck for the two tee-ball and two four-pitch teams from Sibley. Eight of our nine stalwarts showed up – and Bailey’s folks stopped by with a thank-you card and a gift certificate for the Coaches Lucker on their way home from the doctor where they had found out that Bailey had strep. They didn’t bring him in, but I went out to see the poor guy in his car seat. He was looking pretty rough until I gave him his participation ribbon and certificate and his sheet of Official Bobblehead Cards.

Bobblehead Cards are way cool, Diary.

Rachel’s dad Dan had brought his digital camera to our last game, and he took action pictures of the squad. Then with the help of his trusty computer, he whipped up a great set of baseball cards – just like real ones, with team name, player names & numbers and great shots of the Bobbleheads in action. Then he printed them all up in glorious color and stuck ‘em in three-hole punched plastic sleeves like real card collectors use. Each kid (and Amy and I) got a set and man, you should’ve seen their faces!

Thanks, Rachel’s Dad!

I don’t know that I have ever been tempted to apply the word noble to a bunch of five, six and seven-year olds – but these guys certainly were that. Never had to scold anyone of them in six weeks of practice or games; never an admonition to stop something, never an altercation amongst the kids themselves. They came every week; they came to play every week. They showed joy in the game, glee in each other. And dang, Diary – they could play! They could all hit like crazy. Heck, everybody batted 1.000 with multiple home runs.

We will remember the way the girls played the field (so to speak.) Week in, week out Angel, Hannah and Rachel all made great plays defensively. Kiernan and Sebastian can also flash some mean leather. Bailey was everywhere, every game – smiling ear-to-ear every minute he was on the field. Will’s love of leading calisthenics was matched only by his ease at being distracted by crawling bugs and other stuff in the infield dirt. He misses a lot of plays, but he sees more of things and life than most. And you gotta love Joey and Mali, the two youngest, two littlest guys we had – and with two of the biggest hearts on any diamond, anywhere. It wasn’t lost on me that the name chanting for batters by their teammates from the bench started with a spontaneous, enthusiastic focus on Joey and Mali.

At the end of the potluck we coaches each got to introduce our team and hand out their ribbons and certificates. I explained to the crowd our penchant for high-fives every time a kid got to first, third or home. We got in one last high-five as each kid came up to get their stuff and then we ended our team turn in the spotlight with one final group crouch leading up to a cacophonous “Goooooooooooo Bobbbbbbleheads!!!” I personally will admit to a couple of tears, and could rat out more than a few parents who were dabbing at their own eyes.

Funny what you’ll get from a bunch of tee-ball playing kids.

That’s it for now, Diary. See you next year.

Us

bobblehead bat

May, 2016.
Dear Diary

Epilog.

Alas, there was no ‘next year’ as we moved out-of-town. While I do know at least one set of our parents went on to spread the Bobblehead gospel at another south Minneapolis park, save for my own son, I have no idea where any of these kids are now, but I’d like to think that somewhere, deep down inside each one of them, at least a little bit of the joy of being a Bobblehead still remains.

Because man…could those kids play ball.

autographed ball2

Baseball Hymnal

For true baseball fans, the months of February and March are equivalent in their intensity and anticipation as an eight-year-old wakes up the morning after Thanksgiving and begins awaiting the arrival of Christmas morning.

The move from winter doldrums to the idea of spring training sites coming to life all across Florida and Arizona is the transition from the gluttony-to-couch-hibernation of Thanksgiving to the rest of the holiday season – a joyous, springtraining1anticipatory harbinger of the great thing to come: a fresh baseball season.

And much like the end-of-the-calendar-year excitement, spring training starts with thoughts of thanks being given, ends with an opening day.

Ahh, spring.

A few Sundays back, I was driving with my wife Amy, and seventeen-year-old son Sam. My cheery mood was noted and I replied that it was based, in large part, on it being the day that it was pitchers and catchers spring reporting day for my hometown Minnesota Twins. This came on the heels of a chat the three of us had been having about something that occurred at Christmas. And since I had both baseball and Christmas on my mind…my family was spontaneously feted with song:

“‘Fill my mind with thoughts of baseball! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!”

This got me a ‘don’t-quit-your-day-job’ glance from my wife, and a verbal “Please don’t” from my son. Then, stopped at a red light, I asked for some assistance to complete this ditty:

“Out to the shortstop, skip, skip, skip…”

Silence. There were no takers or baseball lyricists in our van. Yet.

But, try as she might, my fellow baseball aficionado and spouse of twenty-three plus years could not avoid adding her
meshbagmusical change-up. A pause at a stoplight and the conversation was suddenly enlivened by Amy’s quick-thinking ‘carol of the balls’:

“Throw red stitched balls!
Hit red stitched balls!
Baseball is here!
Baseball is here!”

She ended with a deep sigh, then an apology to Sam – with the rueful disclaimer that after many years together, couples oddly but unwittingly begin to often think alike. By then, however, the damage was done. (Did I mention my wife and I had a baseball-themed wedding back in ’92 after having met during the Twins World Series run in ‘91?)

As the drive and the day continued, it occurred to me that baseball and Christmas have a lot in common: both are celebrated by a large portion of the populace – many with a certain, near obsessive vehemence – and both baseball and Christmas have components that are deeply ritualistic and spiritual in nature, and aspects that are purely secular. Each is celebrated with prescribed formalities and habits, each brings joy to many (and corresponding disappointment to some) hope to most all who partake. Each pursuit requires ample faith that is tested regularly.

The symmetrical intertwining of Christmas and baseball is as tight as the one-hundred-eight red stitches that hold together a regulation sphere of horsehide.

catchingballAnd speaking of horses (like your team’s best starting pitcher)

“Just hear those baseballs thwacking
and gloves-a-smacking anew!
No matter the weather
its baseball, and we are renewed!”

Until writing this piece, I never realized that two of my favorite Christmas songs (Oh, Christmas Tree and Oh, Holy Night) have some eerie similarities in rhythm:

“Oh baseball time,springtraining2
oh baseball time
your stars are
brightly shining…”

or

“Ohhhhhh, baseball tiiiiime….
…your stars are brightly shiiiiiiining….”

Oh-kay. Moving up a base, because that was a hit-and-run.

springtraining3“It’s the MOST wonderful time of the year!
With no cellar-dwelling, the coaches all yelling,

in get-in-shape cheeeeer…
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Admit it: you heard that sung by Andy Williams.

CurrierandIvesThough not historically accurate, this one is Currier and Ives all the way

“God rest ye merry baseball fans!
Let nothing you dismay!
Remember that in Cooperstown
was born our glorious game!”

Of course, while spring brings tidings of good baseball cheer and a new sense of optimism for the season ahead, there is always the powerful factor of longing and nostalgia to account for.

“I’m dreaming of an old baseballVintage-Baseballcrosby
just like the ones we used to throw
We played like our heroes, 
threw shutout zeroes
made all the catches when we dreamed.
I’m dreaming of an old baseball
just like the ones I used to throw…”

Fact: Bing Crosby was a huge baseball fan, and once owned a majority share of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Coincidence? I think not.

In closing, I offer a joyous wish all baseball fans can appreciate this time of year.

“We wish you a series season! We wish you a series season!
We wish you a series season, and a World Series win!
We hope you hoist the trophy! We hope you hoist the trophy!
We hope you hoist the trophy, while being sprayed with beer!
We wish you a year of home runs! We wish you a summer of fun!
We wish you lots of baseball….It’s time to playyyyyyyy balllllll!”vintagekids

So, in the memorable words of Twins pitcher Jack Morris, prior to his unforgettable, eleven-inning masterpiece, game seven of the ’91 series: “In the immortal words of Marvin Gaye…let’s get it on!”

Batter up!

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. ;-{)

@55

55 3I just celebrated birthday number 55 – as a friend so euphemistically put it, my ‘speed limit birthday.’

The Double Nickel. Stay alive, drive 55.

The 70’s called – they want their slogans back.

I’ll go with ‘Thrive 55.’ No copyright or datedness issues, plus it’s mine and I am. Thriving, that is.

55 2For the most part I am. My health, and that of my family, is good; we are all happy and in relatively good spots in our lives. I am keenly aware of this blessing as many long-time friends struggle with a myriad of different chronic ailments. Even the dogs got clean bills of health from the vet this week.

I am blessed.

Approaching this mid-decade birthday, I have been paying extra attention to my health and well-being. Having dropped thirteen pounds since January the first, I can honestly use my new, self-appointed nickname: Lean, Mean Aw-What-the-Hell? Machine.

O.K. it’s a bit clunky.

I am generally of the just-another-year mindset with birthdays, but this year seems to have a lot of quirky numerical significance of milestones and anniversaries.

bouquetWP_20140420_015It’s a busy year. My daughter Lindsay turns thirty in June, and is getting married in July. She does not wish to be reminded of the former and eagerly anticipates the latter. Her two-and-a-half year old son – my grandson – Felix plays a prominent role in the festivities and I am greatly looking forward to it all.

Felix is a bright kid; he has figured out how to call or Skype me when he gets his hands on his mom’s phone. We pick up where we leave off whenever we can.

My eldest son Willi graduates from high school in a few weeks; he was accepted into two top-notch universities and has settled on mortarboradwhere he will go. Thus begins the process of his nest-leaving.

Meanwhile, youngest son Sam is wrapping up his freshman year of high school on the upswing after hitting a few fairly typical first-year-of-high-school rough patches. He now begins the process of flying more solo than he has had to up until this point in life. Daily life without his brother around to torment, nurture, harangue, bicker with, cajole and love (in all directions and all combinations) will be an interesting transition for all of us.

I recently realized that fifty-five is a big deal in part because of all the stuff that happened 40 years ago, when I was fifteen, which I have been thinking about a lot because that’s how old Sam is now. Looking back, fifteen was filled with all sorts of good stuff.

Driving legally comes to mind.

By the time my driving privileges were codified by that little yellow paper permit in 1974, I had been behind the wheel of various66 Valliant1964 Yeep pickup vehicles for a few years during my summer sojourns to Horseshoe Lake in northern Minnesota. I had driven Ivar and Lila’s ’64 Jeep pickup, in which I had learned to drive a manual transmission (though for the first few years, Ivar had to work the clutch from the passenger seat) which I proved my clutch prowess with by mowing down a sapling at age thirteen. I had also driven their ’66 Plymouth Valliant, a zippy little automatic transmission number that was compact enough for the smallish, pre-teen me to handle effortlessly.

Fifteen was also the age at which Ivar let me use the Homelite chain saw, and it was also the summer I occasionally (VERY oHomelite chainsawccasionally) got a full bottle of beer to myself. A story for another (and from another, very different) time.

2014 is also the 40 year anniversary my first job…of the approximately 72 different employers I have worked for to this date. Unless you include all the different things I did and places I did them while employed by five different temp firms. And of course, there was all the stuff I did on the side and sometimes off-the-books. Add in all the fun and funky stuff and the number of gigs I have actually been paid for easily tops 200. (see my poetry blog for more on that: http://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/walking-down-sesame-street-with-studs-terkel-at-graduation-time/)

As Sinatra sings in my was then/still is now theme song, That’s Life, “…I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet…a pawn and a king…..”  

If it is not illegal, unethical or immoral, there is a good chance I’ve dabbled in it.

Fifteen, the summer of ’74, was also when I discovered that girls were…? Aww hell, that they were girls. Different but still the same girls as in previous summers. They were something entirely new and familiar.

Fifteen was also the age when I began filling notebooks with teenaged profundity on solo cross-country Greyhound jaunts from Denver to Minneapolis at the start of the summer and back again before school reconvened. At fifteen, I was old enough to roll Grehound SeniCruisersolo. Add in shorter Greyhound hops from Minneapolis to Crosby, Minnesota and back, and I put a lot of miles on those spiral notebooks. That was over two-thousand miles a summer of life and writing about it, experiencing a wide array of people, different places. Big city kid soaking in small-town stopovers and all-night truck stops. Best scrambled eggs and link sausage I’ve ever had were at a truck stop in North Platte, Nebraska, somewhere around two a.m. on a June morning surrounded by bus vagabonds and truckers, great conversationalists and monologists straining their necks to see just what I was writing down in my green steno book.

I had seconds on those eggs from the truck stop buffet, more sausages, too. They were great eggs.

When I wasn’t writing, I was watching and listening. Sometimes to my fellow travelers, sometimes to Sinatra or Dean Martin on the cassetterecorderlittle Radio Shack cassette player with the single earphone I had squeezed into my travel bag. Now and then I listened to all of the above simultaneously, and I vividly understood how movies soundtracks really enhanced the flow of a story.

Forty years have passed. An anniversary of a coming of age.

Fifteen was a crucial demarcation point for me. Now, here I am, some forty years hence.Sinatra singing

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king;
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing –
Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face…
I just pick myself up!  and get back. in. the. race!
That’s life…”

At fifty-five.

 

The Legend of Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher

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

-Home Plato, Baseball Philosopher

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

Opening week.

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

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

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

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

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

I could not if I had tried.

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

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

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

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

“Leave the philosophizing to me, kid.”

“Sure thing. Where do we start…”

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

“Yes sir, Mr. Plato.”

“Call me ‘Home’.”

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

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

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

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

“I have nine.”

“What kind of advice do you give them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks for your time, Mr. Plato.”

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

“Any last thoughts?” I asked knowingly.

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

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

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