@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.

The Thrill Is Not Gone

“Political elections are a good deal like marriages, there’s no accounting for anyone’s taste”.
– Will Rogers, American Humorist

Election day always makes me nostalgic; not for the things you might expect like civility, logic and actual hope that win-or-lose, my guys could work with the other guys. My wistfulness is more visceral.

I get sweaty-palms, heart-racing nostalgic for the adrenaline rush of being a reporter on election night.

I started my career in radio (first real, full-time, ‘grown up’ job) in 1978 in the town of Nevada, Missouri (spelled like the state but pronounced ‘Neh-VAY-da’) a town of some 10,000 folks ninety-eight miles south of Kansas City. I had moved there that summer from my native Minnesota after being hired to work at the local radio station, KNEM.

It was quite a cultural change after growing up in very urban Minneapolis and Denver.

Small-town/rural politics, I quickly learned, was quite different from the urban variety I had grown up with and dabbled in. In a small town there is no detachment for candidates or issues; everyone knows everyone on some level, and it is always personal; school board to county commissioner, assessor to sheriff. Win or lose, you will have to live together and encounter one another on a regular basis. The saying ‘all politics is personal’ is never more true than in a small town.

While election night 1978 was not a presidential year, it was a congressional mid-term, and there were a ton of local races, so it was shaping up to be a big night – my first as an on-air election reporter. Not that I had anchoring duties or anything; that role belonged to Ken White, the station owner, who had put KNEM on the air in 1949. He worked out of studio ‘B’ where we usually did all of our recording and newscasting from; it had a boom-mic and a big round table that allowed Ken to have all of the various accoutrements of reporting scattered all over but within easy reach, along with his cigarettes and ashtray. Ken was a diminutive, grey haired guy with oversized ears and a raspy, authoritative, smokers-voice; through the smoke-filled air of studio ‘B’ he resembled a Hobbit Edward R. Murrow.

The entire staff was involved with election coverage: Vernita the office manager handled the incoming phone calls (two lines!) from various officials while Tim and Rich, my fellow full-time announcers, were stationed at city hall and the county courthouse. As the new guy on the block I was relegated to the least desired, but right-up-my-alley, wire service duty tracking the regional and national scenes. This required me to station myself next to the UPI teletype doing a rip-n-read: tearing stories off the wire-service machine, then sitting down in front of a microphone in the control room and waiting for a cue from Mr. White to update anxious listeners on what was going with any congressional or senate races of note in Missouri and Kansas.

If you’re not familiar with a classic teletype machine, it was essentially a noisy typewriter in a large box that received news via a dedicated phone line before typing it out on 8.5 inch wide rolls of newsprint. The story came in, the machine finished typing it, you ripped it off the machine and headed for the studio – in our case, a full fifteen feet away. And woe be onto you if the typewriter ribbon in the thing either ran out or got jammed; there was no retrieving a missed story. Hence, a box of spooled typewriter ribbons next to the machine and extra rolls of paper beneath it.

KNEM was usually a pretty laid-back place – but not on election night. The excitement was palpable and with the phone constantly ringing, the teletype going non-stop and ringing like crazy itself as a series of bells indicated ‘bulletin’ status: the more bells, the bigger the bulletin. The damn thing rang constantly on election night. I can still close my eyes and here the typewriter keys clacking furiously, the return carriage banging out new lines of type, and the incessant dingdingdingding indicating big news.

I delivered no earth-shaking results that night (I actually got comparatively little airtime, and in very short bursts) but the frenetic energy and all-around excitement was intoxicating, even in a place where the biggest battle of the night was for county commissioner. It was live, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, late-breaking-developments radio.

I was hooked.

By 1980 I was in Marshalltown, Iowa where I had been working for small, local station KDAO before being hired to work part-time at KSO/KGGO in Des Moines. Even as a part-timer, I had built a good rapport with the news director there, and he promised me a role in election coverage. Unfortunately, I never got a shot at that. As luck would have it, in October I got what I thought at the time was my ‘dream job’ working for a station in my old summer stomping grounds of Brainerd, Minnesota, and they wanted me there in early November.

The evening of election night 1980 found me in my loaded-to-the-brim 1969 Plymouth station wagon leaving Marshalltown for Minneapolis; a roughly five-hour drive and the first leg of my move to Brainerd. Missing out on being a part of election coverage was a disappointment, but that isn’t to say I missed out on the excitement. Driving through the rural Midwest on election night in that era meant A.M. radio was my only companion featuring wall-to-wall coverage on a wide array of small town radio stations, all broadcasting earnestly and breathlessly live from county courthouses, Grange halls, fire station polling places and various party headquarters.

As the Reagan electoral blowout of Carter was not at all compelling, the local stations seemed even more intent on pumping up their local races.

While I never did hear of any municipality electing a dog catcher, I remember being mesmerized for a good ten-mile stretch of I-35 cruising through southern Minnesota, as two local-yokels used every ounce of gravitas they could muster for an extensive chat about the “Too close to call, hotly contested race for library commissioner”. They, unfortunately, faded quickly away into the prairie night, and I was forced to scrounge the dial for fresh political fodder.

The only non-political respite I was able to summon from my dashboard was when, about an hour south of the Twin Cities, I scored a late-night signal of a clear channel Mexican station. After a couple of mariachi numbers, an announcer came on with a commercial (as a radio guy myself, I knew commercial inflection when I heard it) speaking rapid-fire Spanish, the only words of which I understood were ‘Pepto-Bismol’. Due to the various inflections the guy was using on the ad copy (“PEP-toe Bizzzzzmol” “Pepto. BIZ-mollllll” “PEP -TOE BEES-MOL? Si”! to mention a few) I got to laughing so hard I had to pull over for a minute before returning to regularly scheduled driving and election returns.

That night of rolling through the darkness listening to the pulse of democracy just fed my election-night-action fire.

Fast-forward to 1982, and I was working at KKCM in St.Cloud, Minnesota. We had just launched the station, and had been giving the established local stations a pretty good run for their money both in our country music programming and in our news coverage. At the time, St. Cloud was a city of about 40,000 with surrounding suburbs bringing the population up to around 60,000. It was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the state, and a hotbed for all sorts of tightly contested legislative and county races, and a slew of local ballot initiatives concerning growth, annexation and all sorts of other local issues .As election time approached, we were also actively tracking mayoral and city council races in nine communities. To top it off, the city of St. Cloud sits on the apex of three counties: Stearns, Benton and Sherburne. This geographical oddity presented some unique municipal election quirks. Some of the cities precincts covered parts of two counties, but not all three; others covered different portions of a combination of counties. This had an effect on various legislative races, as well as voting for county offices. Ballots in neighboring city precincts a block apart  could look vastly different. Tracking these races was going to be a challenge.

Enter Les Kleven, our station owner and wannabe political numbers-cruncher.

Les was a curiously odd bear of a man; nearly three-hundred pounds with a rather squeaky voice that got even more high-pitched when he got excited (and Les got excited A LOT) he was a small town rancher-turned-radio tycoon hell-bent on sticking it to the ‘big boys’ of St. Cloud’s radio establishment. To this end, he had hired a great staff of top-quality professionals, including news director Mike Sullivan, who hailed from Chicago and new politics and political coverage from every aspect imaginable.  I was an announcer/reporter/public service director for the station, and Mike and I had a great relationship. He wanted me in the studio with him on election night to serve as his right-hand-man, keeping info flowing and spelling him on air from time to time. Mike had looked at the local geographic issues and had come up with a simple but seemingly effective set of spreadsheets to help track the myriad of races.

Then Les unveiled his new baby: a brand new, roughly the size of a Fiat coupe, Tandy computer. “This” said Les with great confidence, “Will be the tool that helps us kick everybody else’s ass on election night”!

It didn’t. Not that we couldn’t get the data input fast enough (Les was a keyboard demon) or that the miniscule screen couldn’t display data fast (or big) enough but mostly because by the time the even-large-than-the-computer printer spit out its voluminous dot-matrix precinct returns on the over-sized tractor paper which I then had to try and manipulate on the desk in front of me without blocking my microphone the results were already out of date.

I realized by Les’ second and third batch of ‘results’ that his numbers didn’t add up to the raw numbers we had already been reporting via our reporters and stringers in the field, and brought it to Mike’s attention. His solution was brilliantly simple: keep taking the reams of printouts Les was producing from his office and keep them in front of me so that it actually looked like I was using them. “Whatever you do” Mike warned me, “DO NOT throw any of those in the garbage or onto the floor! Make notes or something on them to seem like they are getting USED”.

That’s why Mike got the big bucks.

After I had unfurled a set of Les’ numbers once, they got crumpled and appeared pretty well looked over – like the map you can never get folded up and back in the glove compartment neatly. Add in some legitimately made notes and some coffee cup rings, and Les was never the wiser.  One lasting impression of that night and our data-or-lack-thereof was Les periodically bellowing in exasperation from his office “What about Sonia Berg”?!

Berg was a legislative candidate in one of those districts that covered parts of two of St.Cloud’s three counties; in some precincts there were no results to be had, which puzzled Les, and which also left a hole in Les’ data, which the Tandy apparently didn’t like and wouldn’t compute until you put something in, which we couldn’t do except for ‘zero’ and Les couldn’t/wouldn’t grasp that there were no Sonia Berg results for some precincts.

We got through that election night in fine style – and I do mean ‘through the night’ as Mike and I greeted Don the morning show guy and tromped through the morning reveling and recapping all the election action, toasting each other with a couple of cold Cokes after signing off our coverage about nine a.m…a mere fifteen hours or so after we had begun.

And “What about Sonia Berg”?! Became an uproarious KKCM battle cry for all situations in the months after our first great foray into electronic political journalism

There were other election nights at other stations for me, all exhilarating in their own different ways. By the mid 1990’s I was out of the radio business, save some freelance gigs, but had moved on into the hotel business as I worked my way through my first stint in college. Election night excitement was to be found there, as well, in a more personal vein.  There is nothing quite like a big city hotel that is hosting a campaign party for a major candidate on election night….

Except for maybe a radio station studio somewhere.

Election night 2012 will have me in front of the television, remote in hand, watching history unfold in front of me. There will be moments when my heart will race, my palms will sweat a bit, and I will be thinking, at least a couple of times, “Oh man, if only for a night”.

My kingdom for a microphone.
x

Signs of the times

Oh, sign, sign everywhere a sign
Blocking up the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign
Five Man Electrical Band, 1965

Oh meme, meme, everywhere a meme
clogging up my Facebook, beating on my mind
animals, politics, cutesy kids clogging up the scene
everything’s a statement, everything’s a meme
Me, 2012

Memes. We all get them, many of us have made them. Facebook, emailed, texted them. Memes are everywhere; cute, political, sarcastic. Pictures with a message, many that ‘go viral’ in our Internet age and end up coming to you from half a dozen different folks in far-flung corners of the world. Or Detroit.

I am not putting any memes in this posting. In the spirit of D.I.Y. and not being an enabler, I am offering you the raw materials to make your own meme(s). The supplied pictures are all from my phone, having been snapped, filed away, and rediscovered as I was trying to download new pictures on my phone and was accosted by the ‘Memory Full – Delete Some Items’ warning from my dumbphone.

Dive in, have some fun. See what you can come up with.

One more thing: Realizing that just the pictures might not be enough for some of you, there are also some random comments included – meme prompts, off sorts. They are not etched in stone. As food packages frequently read, ‘SERVING SUGGESTION’

Speaking of food…

I encountered this ‘Express Lane’ signage array in a Missouri grocery store last winter. Really befuddling for those with grocery-cart-approximation issues or general math anxiety, sweaty palms territory for the OCD crowd.  The outright indecision (1 -15, ‘About 20′) is definitively Midwestern.

This store does give you multiple options for ticking off the people in line behind you. Always nice to have choices.

My wife (who found this one and sent it to me) knows that the whole canned food/can food issue continues to bedevil me; in the Midwest, where I grew up, it is ‘Canned Food’ – presumably because it is canned. Or jarred, which is still referred to as ‘canning.’  In New Orleans, it is ‘Can Food’ – because, so I have been told, ‘Because it is food in a can.’ Admittedly not as compelling as the ‘pop’ versus ‘soda’ vernacular debate, but curious nonetheless. At this particular New Orleans grocery, the indecision is palpable.

Or not.

This sign is really indicative of nothing; it’s just the street I live on and I enjoy being able to tell people that (or in this case, write it) using a French dialect: “I leeeve on LOUeee zeee four-teeeze Street!”

I found this one last spring in a Mississippi gift shop. Nice reminder, as long as your kids aren’t yet old enough to read. I would take this particular warning to heart; the proprietor of the shop had a certain, ominous Deliverance quality to her.

And they serve the espresso there in Mason Jars…straight up. Buyer (or parent-shopper) beware.

This New Orleans billboard conjures up all sorts of interesting interpretations: costumed ushers, Kool-Aid and graham cracker communion, aw-shucks-and-brimstone sermons…

“I luv YEW….yew love MEEEE…” with Barney the Choir Director.

This is just a cool sign you will see all over New Orleans – phrase copyrighted by the artist, Dr. Bob. They are ubiquitous in public locales and in very high demand. Just a very cool sentiment.

‘Be nice or leave.’ 

I saw this one a few years ago at a campground in southern Mississippi and it made me laugh simply because of the placement of two seemingly unrelated signs. Then again, in whatever context you might read them, its decent advice.  I mean, you get a couple of shots of schnapps into your typical gator, and..

As my old friend Mark Preston put it, ‘Hey – “Gators Gone Wild.”

Conversely if you have a few, and you see a cute gator…just don’t.

F.Y.I.  – Do not ask local game wardens for clarification on the topic, “But what if the gator comes right up here to your tent?”

Finally, this bumper sticker. And if you have read this blog more than once, now you truly do!

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!”

Time Marches on Standing Still

The following piece, or rather – the following two pieces – are straight from the vaunted Marchives. The original entry, dated 08/10/08, was written just two months after my family and I moved to New Orleans, and a month after moving into the house we rented for the next two years. It was three-years after Hurricane Katrina.

The original posting pre-dates my blog, and was actually distributed via email, to those on my ‘Mark’s Missives’ list. I got a lot of feedback when I wrote the original piece; it seemed to really strike a chord with folks. I even hear from people I didn’t know, as the piece was passed along by others.

Fast-forward to February, 2010 for a short note that updates the original story. By October of 2010, we had moved from that neighborhood, purchasing a home less than a mile away. What’s funny is that I drive past our old place whenever I drive the afternoon carpool for Will and his buddy Joe, as Joe lives just down a few blocks from where we used to live.

A frequent reminder of…? I’m not really sure.

A new update follows the two original pieces. “It is what it is” as they say, some six and a half years post-Katrina. I hope you’ll give it a read.

August 10, 2008

A green garden hose hangs, coiled neatly on its holder. Its patina-green brass nozzle dangles, but no water drips. It sits quietly, at the ready for the mistress or master of the house to take up the call of the garden.  It is a call that will go unanswered, as it has for three years.

So it goes in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans.

There are at least three abandoned homes within a short walk of the house we are now renting that provide only slight variation on the tableau above. Adding to the eerie poignancy is the fact that in each case, the house in question sits alone in its dishevelment; neighbors have returned on either side of all of them having renovated or rebuilt their homes, bookending the stark abandonment.

The hose-hanging house is a brick rambler, probably three or four bedrooms. Looks structurally sound, but the windows are mold, dirt and grime streaked and from what little you can see inside, this property has been cleaned out of most personal belongs and furniture, but renovation it seems, is not part of the equation. Though someone has been mowing the grass and weeds, it stands in contrast to the neatly manicured lawns on the bulk of the rest of the block.

But their bright green garden hose still hangs at the ready.

Another home a block or two the other way looks even more worse for the wear; a two-story brick home that at one time was probably a bit more upscale in relation to other homes on the block simply sits awaiting its fate, whatever that may be, its garden hose at the ready. The home appears to have been mostly gutted inside, down to the wall studs, but there is no sign of any renovation activity. The brick facade is missing large chunks, plywood covers a few of the windows. The neighbors on either side have rebuilt and reclaimed their pieces of the neighborhood, but this home sits; the spray painted rescue markings on the front a tangible, ubiquitous community reminder of ‘the storm’

Yet another rambler sits with a debris filled backyard while the neighbors directly behind have built what appears to be a completely new, two story brick home. Their in-ground backyard pool and raucous sounds of kids swimming a jarring juxtaposition to the shell of a home with a looks-like-new, shiny green hose that has no pool to fill, no garden to water.

The Lakeview neighborhood was one of the earliest and quickest to begin recovering, but you don’t need to go more than a few hundred feet (literally) in any direction to find devastation and abandonment speckled haphazardly amongst the newly built homes, the renovated homes and the active construction and renovation sites; bustling activity co-exists in an odd symmetry with destruction and abandonment. It cannot always be the easiest or most comfortable of partnerships, but I have yet to hear a local resident complaining about the homes in limbo. They get it, they live with it.

Those that have rebuilt and reclaimed consider themselves fortunate.

Our house is an oasis on this side of the Argonne Boulevard; there is a vacant lot with a ragged foundation remaining on one side, followed by a newly renovated home, a boarded up place with remnant hose and another vacant lot on the corner. To the other side, three lots with varying degrees of foundation remnants sit between us and the newly renovated house on the far corner.

Stark reminders, all.

The owners of the renovated place we are renting have planted some new trees out front, and they need to be watered regularly. It is a pleasant evening chore that I enjoy, but after a couple of weeks of living in this neighborhood, I can’t simply go grab the hose and just water the new trees.

Maybe something more will grow here.

Tuesday, 02/22/10

Little has changed since I wrote the above 18 months ago. The ‘ragged foundation’ next door was just removed a few weeks ago, as the state prepares to auction off the property as part of their program to sell vacant lots to neighbors. Down on the corner, across the alley from the rebuilt home I mentioned, a new, two-story house is nearing completion. Aside from that, not much else has changed in our neighborhood from what I noted that August Sunday.

And three lots down, the green garden hose remains coiled neatly on its holder.

Monday, 01/09/12

Since that last update,a lot has changed, some things haven’t. Four of the vacant lots on our old block now have new, occupied homes on them. The two houses directly across the street have been happily renovated and moved into, as has another further down the block.

The house with the green hose remains as it did when I first saw them going on four years ago. The hose, now a darker green bordering on black,  still waits to water a garden long overgrown or that never will be.

Like I said, it is what it is. Not just here, but all over town. This is what as referred to in New Orleans as ‘the new normal.’ While many people would just like things like this – reminders like this – to simply be gone, they aren’t. On the other hand, for many people, these reminders are a ‘badge of honor’ of sorts.

For me, it’s just a poignant reminder of something I was never really a part of, but have helped tried to rebound from.
Peace.

Mark

Santa Thoughts for a Grandson’s First Christmas

Yes, Felix – there is a Santa Claus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course, it doesn’t end there.

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

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

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

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

For so many reasons: Thanks, Beverly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santas, Santas everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Yeah, uncle Will is wearing a camouflage Santa hat.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And a few laughs along the way.

Merry First Christmas, Felix.

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. ;-{)