Shades of Black and White

It was late summer, 1979, and my friend Johnny was dying.

Our star fullback in high school, heavyweight wrestling champ, all around BMOC, sat there before me, slumped, in a wheelchair in his parent’s Denver living room. His once chiseled, athletic frame was basically down to half of the 215 pounds he burst through opposing defenses with just three Johnny 6autumns before. His purple South High jersey with the white number thirty-three hung loosely over him.

He looked like a man holding a purple tarp.

A virus he had contracted had attacked his heart, and he was awaiting a transplant. He looked old –  sounded very old. To my twenty-year-old self, Johnny’s  raspy, croaked-out whisper was more jarring than the visual. That Johnny Wilkins voice – Barry White-like booming bass, full-throated and billowing in laughter – was unrecognizable; a voice that, added to his physical maturity always made him seem much older than the rest of us, was now the gravely crackle of an old man.

But the perpetual Leprechaun-mischievous glint remained in still-vibrant eyes.

Johnny2It was only when I sat down in front of him and he smiled, his eyes joining his mouth in playfulness as usual, that the Johnny I knew like a brother was again visible. His smile was even more pronounced, as it split the sagging skin of his jowls that had lost their elasticity, into something approaching Johnny normalcy.

We talked.

Though I remember the day vividly, I oddly cannot tell you what we talked about in any great detail; he wanted to know my travels since we had graduated in the spring of 1977, and get an update on the whereabouts of some mutual friends is all I remember. He told me of his illness, what he had been through, how excited he was to be n the transplant list.  His mind was sharp; whatever medications he was on had not dimmed his intellect or humor. He was still Johnny.

He was still Johnny.

I was one of two classmates who had come to see him since his illness; the other was Terry Tuffield, a kind and beautiful girl who Johnny and I shared a bit of history with. Knowing I had a crush on her, he had begged me to let him set us up on a date, but I had adamantly ordered him not to intervene, preferring to ask her myself and never having to think of her doing him a favor by going out with me. This became a running joke through our senior year and is still one of the more amusing episodes and fond remembrances’ of high school; especially his insistence in asking me to let him talk to her and my repeated, publicly-made threats to kick his butt if he acted on my behalf.

The absurdity of the 145-pound white dude threatening his black, locker-partner Adonis drew more than a few raised eyebrows on multiple occasions – usually the school lunchroom. These exchanges were always punctuated with a stern look from me and a sonic-boom laugh in response from Johnny.

We were, in almost every aspect of late 1970’s high school life, an odd couple.

The irony of sitting in the Wilkins’ living room, knowing that Terry was the only other visitor from our high school days was not lost on me then 0001or now. That Johnny died less than a month later has always left me thinking that the Rebel visitor list ended with just the two of us – though I cannot be sure.

Life is funny like that.

I had been to Johnny’s house once before, in March of our senior year. I picked him up at his house and we went to Denver’s City Park to hang out for the day. We were preparing to graduate and we discussed plans for the future; college football at the University of northern Colorado, and eventual marriage to his long-time girlfriend Gloria for him; my impending summer departure for a year of broadcasting school in Minnesota. Our senior prom, various escapades to that point were bantered about while cruising City Park Lake on a rented paddleboat.

One small piece of our conversation that afternoon stands out to me to this day: Johnny’s casual mention that I was the first white friend that had ever come into his home. It was an observation, nothing more. My response, I believe, was no more than ‘Oh’ and it was left at that. At least until a year later, when Johnny, who had erroneously learned that I was back in town and dropped my house.

As he later related the story later in a phone call, he walked up, rang the doorbell. The door opened, and there stood my father, middle-aged white guy with glasses, all of five-five, who looked up at the hulking black dude with the bushy beard in front of him and said simply, “Oh, you must be Johnny.” Acknowledging that he was, my father then said, “Well, come on in!”

Johnny roared with laughter recounting the story later, finding my father’s initial statement – and its casual nature – both jarring and hysterical. His being asked in and hosted by my parents with conversation and lemonade for the next hour or so was stunning to him. It seems that mine was the first house of a white friend that he had ever been asked into, and I wasn’t even there for the party. Johnny typically roared with laughter when I explained the obviousness of my father’s initial assumption/greeting: “You are the only big, bearded black guy I know.”

Life is funny.

Our personal string of racial firsts ended with Johnny’s death in August of 1979. He was twenty-one.

I am now thirty-five years removed from that Denver living room and this story has come rushing back to me today. A mid-life career change, and I am a high school English teacher at an inner-city high school in New Orleans. It is my seventh year of teaching here and I have pretty much encountered every issue that traditionally plague poverty-stricken communities and their schools.

As I write this, I am sitting in the front seat of a school bus rumbling down a highway in rural Louisiana, helping chaperone a group of schoolbusseniors on an overnight retreat. There is another teacher on the bus with me, two others follow in a car. Of the forty-two souls on this bus, I am the only white person. I sit with my back against the window, looking over my shoulder at row upon row of young black faces, and I wonder.

What would Johnny think?

I am new to this school. As a first-year-here guy, I get tested by my students on a regular basis. Most of them have not figured me out yet, especially those I deal with only tangentially. Another teaching newcomer to the school is Mr.K, a history teacher across the hall from me – it is also his first year as a teacher here, and we share most of the same seniors, so we are able to collaborate and share notes on students, and I mentor him a bit. We have come to be seen by many students as best of friends, and this idea has been cemented, I believe, by the fact that students constantly, to the shared bemusement of Mr. K and I, confuse the two of us.

Mr. K is tall, thin, bearded, and wears glasses; he is half-my age. I am five-five with beard and glasses, old enough to be his father. Yet on nearly a daily basis, I get called Mr.K. and he gets called Mr. Lucker. Usually students correct themselves, and will often apologize – sometimes profusely and with a sense of embarrassment. Mostly not, but sometimes.

The confusion has become a running joke between Mr. K, myself, and a few other staff members – black and white – who don’t find the constant confusion at all odd. Mr. K and myself? Color us ‘bemused’.

Looking now at the young faces behind me, swaying and bouncing up and down as we traverse a curvy two lane highway, I wonder about a lot of things. They are engrossed in every sort of electronic engagement, a few sleep with their heads tilted awkwardly on pillows against bus windows. I wonder if any of them had ever been a racial first for someone, as Johnny and I had been. There are a select few who I believe have contemplated such scenarios as they prepare to head off to college, although most of that is naiveté born of circumstance; outside of school, there are few white people with whom most of my students interact with any sort of regularity. Many of them will go off to college and be stunned with the diversity they encounter. I wonder what their reactions will be.  I have had other students, from other area schools, who have returned to regale us with stories of suddenly finding themselves thrust into a world not-so-homogeneous as their high school or their ‘hood.

There are many firsts on their horizons.

Over the past six-plus years, when students have brought up the racial aspects of our teacher-student relationship it is usually brought up with a tone of curiosity rather than accusation. They are trying to figure me, or other white teachers out. At the (much larger) school I taught at the three years prior to this one, black students would occasionally ask me to explain white student behavior in some way, which I would usually try to deflect, and use classroom techniques to get them to do their own analysis of the situation on the premise (and observed belief) that teenagers are generally teenagers.  Their basic curiosity was skewed by their knowledge base of those different; television shows about tweens and teens.

Usually the biggest looks of surprise (and the rare verbal exclamation of surprise) comes when I very purposely counter any talk of stereotyping Johnny 5(‘white people don’t…’ or ‘black people are…’) with a rejoinder that labeling groups of people is, in my classroom, automatically racist in nature, then adding something along the lines of “Well, I think most of my black friends would probably disagree with your generalization.”

Even amongst the most stoic, nonchalant of my students, there is almost always a sense of astonishment that I have (and had, as a teenager) black friends. I would go so far as to say that the most common reaction to this revelation is incredulity, mixed with skepticism, and some of my students adamantly stick to their initial belief that I am lying about having friends of a different skin tone.  Those are sometimes jarring moments, when a student digs in their heels on such an issue, but such situations almost always lead to some positive discussion and food-for-thought. For them and for me, I hope.

I don’t know precisely why this all comes to mind today, during a kidney-busting bus ride through the countryside…then again, maybe I do. At least on some level.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye. But I’m still learning from our much-too-short time on earth together.

Color me contemplative.

Conversation

“How many students of yours have been killed?” Her tone was inquisitive, non-invasive.
“A dozen” I replied softly, taking a deep hit on my bottle of Coke.

She sighed, audibly. “At least nine” I clarified. “Nine that I have seen the obit on, story on the news, newspaper article about. Nine.” I was running through the Coke more quickly than usual; it burned going down.  I continued. “That’s one for each school year I have taught in New Orleans. On the plus side, it’s been three years since I added to the list.”

I finished off the Coke, raising the empty bottle. “Cheers.”

“Why’d you say ‘a dozen’?”
“Nine I am sure of, but I have heard of another two, three. Always running into former colleagues and students, always hear, ‘hey – remember x-and-so’? He got shot.”

She sighed again, more uncomfortably. Her voice took on a nervous edge. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know how that makes me feel.” Easy to answer frequently asked questions.
“Sad.”
“Sadness is part of it.”
Sighing can be far more communicative than one realizes. “It’s not what you signed up for, huh?”
My turn to sigh. “Even if it was, who would believe it would really be…this.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “You saw some of them on the news?”
“Yep.”
“Wow.”
“Ten o’clock lead story, one kid. Morning paper is worse, though.”

This seemed to puzzle her, and I think she had run out of sighs. “Shocking to see a student of yours on the front page?”
“Ahh! My front page students have been perpetrators. Victims inside. Open up the metro section like the bomb squad handling a suspicious package. THAT”S what you want to do along with your morning coffee.”

“Your students ever kill each other?”
“Ohhhhh, no!  My front page alums are in a whole different class. Some are doing hard time, a bunch are doing -various times for various…infractions.”  Gallows humor isn’t always funny.
“How many of those?”
“That, I stopped counting.”

I was drumming my empty Coke bottle against my leg. We stood there, relative strangers, friends of a mutual friend making small talk because we really had nobody else to speak with, both being from somewhere else, originally, and finding our adopted environs to be quite different than anything we had experienced elsewhere. We had hit upon a mutual topic – careers in education. Now, we were each getting one.  Some party.

“Roughly how many kids in ‘I stopped counting’?” she asked, with trepidation.
“Really, I stopped counting. I meant that literally.”

There was nothing more she could ask, nothing more I could say. I could see in her eyes that she was looking for something in mine, but wasn’t finding it. Whatever it was she DID see, she seemed ill at ease with. Not seeing anything resembling an answer, she apparently thought it best to go looking for one.

“How does all that make you feel?” she prodded.
“Angry discouraged pissed off.” It wasn’t so much a varied list as it was a newly-coined, matter-of-fact adjective. “Disturbing thing is, ‘surprise’ isn’t part of it for me anymore.”

That was more than she seemed ready to digest. She found a fresh sigh, punctuated this time with a disbelieving shake of her head. We stood there, awkwardly filling the void of incredulity that permeated the whole concept of what it meant to be an inner city high school teacher. We watched others mingle, laughing at told jokes, work anecdotes. A few seconds passed, maybe an hour – who knows?

I started to speak and she looked at me intently. “I say the same thing every time I see a former student in the news – only thing I can think of to say: ‘What a fucking waste’.”
“Yeah. I bet.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Yeah. Nice meeting you.”

What a waste.

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.

Making my best pitch

I have a dead file, in need of its annual updating.

The file dangles in the front of our family filing cabinet, a red hanging folder filled with all of the important stuff my family will need for when I depart this mortal coil: the songs I want played, the songs I wish to have sung – the how-I-want-them-played-and-sung at my memorial service – dead-file-e1327109698717along with the scripture, quotes and poetry I want to be read, and what I want printed on the program.

Pretty basic, but important stuff.

My wife and kids know where this file is, they know that all that key info will be right there, as I am trying to be proactive, not controlling.  They are mostly okay with this arrangement, and though they don’t know what’s in it, they figure they will deal with that if and when the time comes.

Or, hopefully, my children will simply be able to pass on the whole thing to their adult children under the banner of ‘you cousins can all take some responsibility for grandpa/great family-tree-relationship-chart-free-pdf-templategrandpa/great-great grandpa here.’

Good Lord willing, that’s the way it plays out.

As is my custom, I review the file at the beginning of the year – though not as some sort of resolution ritual, or anything like that. I am always reminded to do this by all of the year-end/year-beginning, tax-and-estate planning reminders from every direction and the television commercials featuring thought-dead-already celebrities touting ’providing for your family’ with mail-order life insurance. Though sometimes I get those commercials confused with those of some other thought-dead-alreadys and their reverse mortgage ads.

Now there is a spiritual analogy post just dying to be written.

This year, I found as I reviewed the tattered red folder that there is one key piece of information that I keep neglecting to place in my dead file: I’ve got to tell them where the baseballs are.  I also remembered I actually have to purchase, and then partially prepare said  baseballs.

Yeah, the baseballs.

Anyone who knows me and my family will attest to our love of the game. My wife Amy and I began dating late summer, 1991, as our hometown Minnesota Twins were en route to their second World Series championship, and let me tell you, World Series victories are great new-relationship aphrodisiacs. The following year we got married and had a Twins-themed wedding reception, followed up by family members and the wedding party (60 of us, all told) going to the Twins-Brewers game the next day, after hich we (just Amy and I) followed the Twins on the road to Chicago and Milwaukee for our honeymoon

So yeah, as a passionate aficionado of all things America’s pastime, baseball will certainly be as much a part of my departure from this world as it is in my existence on this rotating-like-a-fine-change-up celestial orb.  My immediate family understands that, and figures they will deal with whatever zaniness I have in that red file folder when the time comes, though the one particular aspect they do know of gets the ‘hot potato’ treatment amongst daughter Lindsay, and sons Will and Sam. (Amy wants no part of my baseball bequest and has long since informed all the kidlets that this one will be totally on them.)

Somebody is going to have to put me in the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, actually, and far more feasible than other preferred options, like a traditional Viking viking-funeral-799141funeral.  The whole ship set ablaze and afloat (with my remains on it) while  in keeping with my ancestral roots and desires, is impractical and expensive (EPA permits and whatnot) and maybe just a bit pretentious. So while the whole Viking ship thing would be as exciting as an inside-the-park home run, my baseball brainchild is an easy, knock-it-outta-the-park game-winner.

That I hope doesn’t result in me getting knocked around.

Upon my demise, after everything donatable has been donated, organ and tissue wise, the rest of me will need to be cremated. That will leave me as a nifty little pile of ashes, which will then need to be handled in some way. As I have never been one easily confined to conventional parameters (literally or figuratively) I don’t see myself as sitting in an urn or ornate box on someones’ mantelpiece somewhere.  Bor-ring.

Hence the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, really. A set of regulation, major league baseballs will be purchased, then will official-major-league-baseballs-edbe autographed by me; some signed as ‘dad’ some as ‘grandpa.’ Then, when the time comes to stash the ash, each ball will have a small core drilled out of it, just big enough to contain some of my ashes. Once the ashes are placed in each ball, the hole will then be sealed up with the drilled-out core and some epoxy, and the baseballs will then be ready for distribution to the next generation(s).

The idea could catch on – a sort of national pastiming-on, if you will.

The great thing about me being ensconced for eternity in baseballs is not only will what’s left of me be suitable for display in a ball cube, on a mantle or in a memorabilia cabinet, I will also be able to remain part of the family in a tangible, practical way.

For years after I am gone, when my grandkids and great grandkids get together someone will baseball-ed3always be able to say, “Hey! Let’s go outside and play catch with grandpa!”

And we still can.

Ummmm….but please, no batting practice, kids.

“Because grandpa said so, THAT’S why!”

 

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B017LALIES

 

Showing some resolve

“When a person is accountable to someone else for doing what they said they would do, they get stuff done. They make changes they’ve been toying with for years. They reach their goals.”

– Shana Montesol Johnson

Accountability. People can’t help you with achieving anything if they don’t know what you dorothy-galeare trying to achieve. Dorothy would still be roaming around Oz if she hadn’t shared her goal of going home with everyone around her, after all.

Some of the items on the list that follows are one-shot deals, others are lifestyle choices I am consciously making that will require sustained effort. And accountability.

The things on this list are obviously personal, some are professionally oriented. Some of them are slam-dunk, one-planned (2)shot deals while others will require stick-to-itiveness and more concerted effort and accountability. Some of the entries are spiritual, many are fairly esoteric.

New Year’s Resolutions? Not in the traditional sense. I think of this as more of an ‘Intention Martini’- positives are the gin while the not-to-dos are the vermouth. And I like my resolve dry, very dry.

Throughout the coming year, feel free to prod, cajole, remind, opine, encourage, support, and reassure me should I stray or simply get lazy from carrying out the objectives set forth below.

Without further ado:

Do’s, Don’ts and ‘Ehhh…I dunnos’ for 2017

Write more.Photo0541

Read more. For fun.
Blog more frequently.

See more movies.
See more good movies

Coin a new phrase, at least once each fiscal quarter.
Be never enough to be too much of a good thing.

More baseball.

Keep my ‘eyes on the prize.’ Unless I am eating out of a box of Cracker Jack.

Finish at least two major writing projects, submit them for publications.

-.-. — — — ..- -. .. -.-. .- – . -… . – – . .-. .-.-.-

Build a better, quirkier vocabulary.
Utilize said vocabulary.
Without excessive, superfluous verbiage.

Be inspiring.

Avoid saying ‘paradigm.’
Unless being sarcastic.

Insert tab ‘A’ into slot ‘B’ with impunity

Keep in mind that sometimes, less is more. More or less.

Write a mantra – in Dr. Seuss style rhyming couplets. Use it.Mack

Keep experiencing

Avoid referring to others as pedantic.
Avoid being pedantic.

Walk more.

Don’t immediately disregard real-life deus ex machinas.

Write more.
Read more. For fun.
Blog more.

“Don’t perspire the piddly stuff.”

Adopt ‘Do-overs done right’ as a pseudo-credo.

More music, less static.FW412c
More poetry.

Fill my spare change bottle. Multiple times.

Make regular, daily contributions to my blessings jar.

Love more
Like less
Eschew vacillation.

If it aint broke, don’t try to fix it. Especially if it is someone else’s.

Dream.
Teach others how.

Pay it forward
Cash-and-carry.

Take a penny, leave a penny.

Sing to grandson Felix via Skype.
Don’t sing to anybody else via Skype.

Don’t say that I’m ‘thinking outside of the box.’ Unless brainstorming with someone who actually lives in a box.

Learn to tie a bow tie.
Wear a bow tie from time to time.

Edit better.

Lose the additional 3.2 pounds I didn’t by the end of 2014.
Don’t reclaim the 16.8 pounds discarded in 2014.

Engage more actively in the Shalom of others.

More baseball.
More poetry.

In 2017, I will measure twice, cut once. Maybe measure three times, on occasion.

Read more books to grandson Felix via Skype, including bedtime stories.
Read bedtime stories via Skype to anybody who asks nicely.

More prayer.MD3
Less frustration.

Yell less.

Use the word ‘repugnant’ once in a while. As a noun, gently.

Practice succinctitude. With brevity.

Mentor more.
Engage better.

Write more. Read more. Blog more.

More to come, coming soon. Always.ONLY o.k. sign (2)

Keep promises
Keep issues in perspective

Find other roads less traveled. Take them.

In 2017 I will endeavor to….

Look both ways before crossing
Close cover before striking
Look before I leap
Think before I speak
Think after I speak.

Check local listings,
Void where prohibited.
‘Serving suggestion.’

More baseball.
More poetry.

Honor an urge.

Procrastinate less. Or at least, less often.
Partake in more rainstorms.

Go camping
2017Go bowling

Live faithfully

Right some wrongs
Make amends

Live a life worth living.

Happy 2017

 

Photograph of Christmas Past

Some  years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa in suburban Minneapolis. As I was neither the natural size, age or type (nor naturally hirsute enough for the role) I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours – late morning, midday.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash, we were rookies, all. This particular day, we hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so, though we did a lot of  waving and yelling ‘Merry Christmas’ to assorted passers-by, and took pictures of  each other. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight not really of the season: walking down the center of the mall was a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, middle-aged woman.

It quickly became obvious they were headed right for us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids. I watched the young Marine, who glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.brookdaleholiday1

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

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated. Unless you are a twenty-year old Marine.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave, and his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments: a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her only son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and, per what the young Marine told me, and what his mother shared with Susie and Jen, she wanted only one other thing in the world for Christmas: pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So thus began a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon, just the five of us: Susie, Jen, proud mom, Santa, and the Marine.

This was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat awkwardly but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously.

After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.”

I smiled, quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot. “Sorry about what?” I asked, robustly Santa-like.

brookdaleholiday4“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed.

I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it.

The scene played out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing-it-up and trying to help the guy out. After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine.“O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.”

He glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He was loosening up a little, though that was countered a bit as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide; guess it’s not every day you see a Marine sitting on Santa’s lap. He smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-small talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.” which was a high school within walking distance of the mall.  I nodded, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked sports with the young man, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the looks on the women in the crowd, she wasn’t the only one) finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine.

“Thank you, Santa, sir.” He said crisply, with just a hint of relief, in what I think was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette.

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

To my understanding the young man was probably breaking protocol by wearing his dress blues in such a setting, but in the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to quite a few Marines. Younger Jarheads tend to dressbluehatlook at me   quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs’ if their own situations. Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly.

All have agreed it’s a pretty unique take on ‘Semper Fi’.

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles about mall Santas, the at times heartbreaking requests they get, the funny things kids say, that sort of thing, and I think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet mall.  Sometimes in conversation someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

Those articles and conversations always make me think of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

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. Stil, 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…””

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

Everything is on the table

Our kitchen table is an heirloom in training. Sitting here, with

Sitting alone at the 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 that it has already put in. At a mere fifteen 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  100_4990utensils and homework-prodding pencils – stray treatises and Christmas 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 to from big-city Minneapolis; a new board-with-legs for our small-town fresh start. It fit perfectly in our new, multi-windowed, breakfast alcove; perfectly seating the four members of our family.  Our boys, then seven and three, were tucked 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, when the sunlight 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. 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 very closely and you can find a worn two-digit, kindergarten math problem overlaid with something more algebraic, 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 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,  and smothly  supportive.

It has served us well.

Some eight 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; a seasoned patina – the spice of memories – add character to the worn wood

The table is loyal; it has been almost exclsuively devoted to our immediate family; guests have always necessitated a shift to the more expansive dining room version. I do not know how long we will live here in this house, this city; I do not know where the next stop on the journey might be.

I do know that the inexpensive-when-purchased, still not priceless, D.I.Y. table will accompany us.100_4979_00

Our college and high school boys who once needed help to scootch up their chairs now find little elbow room to spare, and the 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 aging dogs seeking the relaxing companionship of their older boy’s stocking feet –  adept as they have become  at absent-minded petting.  Both dogs are equally content to lay there, soaking in affection, less time frenetically awaiting dropped crumbs from younger, less observant boys,  who used to provide ample treat-pouncing opportunity.

Mealtimes are cozier than they used to be, though this is just a phase of sorts. Our eldest son is almost through college, and his periodic sojourns home usually find us in the living room, munching pizza and binge-watching Netflix. Mealtimes for three of us frees up some of that vaunted and coveted elbow room, though probably to some occasional chagrin on our part.

Another school year and 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.