The Bird

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

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

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

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

The bird.

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

Perfect.

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

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

Oh yeah. The bird.

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

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

Never look a gift bird in the mouth.

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

Dilemma one.

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

Where to thaw a 19-10 bird?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s what the station gave me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the turkey in the oven was the biggest issue.

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

Well, wasn’t that spatial.

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

That oven was wall-to-wall turkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First letter to a new grandson

Eight years later?  The self-rejoinder – coming soon to this space. 

11/17/11

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. ;-{)

Santa Fidelis

“‘Twas a Wednesday before Christmas, and all through the mall
tho no children were present, this day topped them all…”

Some twenty-five 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 student/photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash; we were Santaland 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. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight that was interesting, but not really of the season: walking towards us down the center of the mall was a tall, young, U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; alongside  him was a petite, simply dressed woman, maybe forty-five, fifty years old.

It quickly became obvious they were indeed 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!” chirped 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 having his picture taken on Santa’s lap.

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: nice pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women  – and then me – he said 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 uncomfortable with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing-it-up, trying to help the guy out with his discomfort. 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 for a time; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the fevered looks on many of 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 believe was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette for the situation.

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 more than a few Marines to not one objection. 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 at my story punchline: 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 invariably think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet, suburban Minneapolis mall.  Sometimes in conversation, someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

I can always take things in a slightly different direction – with the story of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

Everything is on the table

Our kitchen table is an heirloom in training.

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

All embossed in memory and maple.

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

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

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

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

The table has made its way south with us.

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

It has served us well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making my best pitch

I have a dead file, and it is 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, as I reviewed the tattered red folder, I added a note about where the baseballs are – and nobody has to look far: they are right next to the folder.  Nice to have a decent file cabinet wide enough for legal files – I can have my letter-sized files, and room along the side for a half-dozen baseballs, in their boxes. Where they will hopefully remain for a long time.

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 which 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 has been purchased, to be 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

 

Santa Fidelis

“‘Twas a Wednesday before Christmas, and all through the mall
tho no children were present, this day topped them all…”

Some twenty 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 student/photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash; we were Santaland 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. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight that was interesting, but not really of the season: walking towards us down the center of the mall was a tall, young, U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; alongside  him was a petite, simply dressed woman, maybe forty-five, fifty years old.

It quickly became obvious they were indeed 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!” chirped 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 having his picture taken on Santa’s lap.

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: nice pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women  – and then me – he said 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, trying to help the guy out with his discomfort. 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 for a time; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the fevered looks on many of 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 believe was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette for the situation.

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 more than a few Marines to not one objection. 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 at my story punchline: 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 invariably think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet, suburban Minneapolis mall.  Sometimes in conversation, someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

I can always take things in a slightly different direction – with the story 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. Still, I picked up more than a few tricks-of-the-trade.

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

The bird.

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

Perfect.

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

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

Oh yeah. The bird.

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

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

Never look a gift bird in the mouth.

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

Dilemma one.

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

Where to thaw a 19-10 bird?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s what the station gave me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the turkey in the oven was the biggest issue.

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

Well, wasn’t that spatial.

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

That oven was wall-to-wall turkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Burn, baby burn…”

Dr. Paul Ton, my high school history teacher, and one of my all-time favorite teachers, had a highly effective, piercing stare, and when a class was disrupted by something going on in the hallway he could really crank it up, and add a verbal whammy: at said upheaval, he would slowly turn his icy glare towards the door and intone, simply, “Burn, baby, burn…”

I don’t think he was on a health kick, nor was he a disco fanatic – even though it was the 70’s

“Burn, baby, burn…” had the intended effect when used by Dr. Ton back in the day, but it is also a useful mantra if you’re trying to drop a few pounds like me.

Perusing health and wellness sites on the Internet looking at various calorie and exercise tracking ideas, I found a wide array of tools and approaches to using them. I stick to well-known, reputable sites; major universities, known health care systems, major insurance companies. Most of these sites that have interactive, on-line charts as opposed to downloadable forms, especially since I’m really into this whole 21st-century-technology, battling calories thing.

“Burn, baby, burn…”

I love the places where you can plug-in key demographic figures like height and weight, and the site will promptly generate a list of how approximately how many calories you’ll burn doing whatever the activity is, for the given time frame; a nifty setup. I usually chose 10 minutes as a base increment for most any activity, as it’s easy to multiply.

What I find interesting is not so much the methodology, as most of the results I have received vary only slightly, which leads me to believe that they are all using the same basic algorithms and such, but each site has its own, unique spin on how various activities are categorized and labeled.

While most everyone agrees on the basic exercise like aerobics, jogging, and bike riding, for example, the sites break other things down so much differently, and go off in wildly different directions. For example, ‘dancing’ appears on most sites, and some even break it down into modern or traditional. That seems reasonable, though one site goes even further:

 

Come on. Will I really burn 50% more calories disco dancing than tangoing? I may have to verify that firsthand with my wife. Where is my old boombox…and a rose to clench in my teeth?

There is also this ‘everyday’ entry:

Frisbee: general 39.7 Frisbee: Ultimate 106

 

The differences between ‘ultimate’ and ‘general’ Frisbee I’ll buy, but they left off the third, most obvious option: playing Frisbee with your dog.  A bonus, with 2-for-1 fitness!

One of the great features about sites like this is the compare-and-contrast options; if you are looking for an entirely new exercise regimen, or to simply incorporate something new to keep you motivated, these sites are great. For example, at a glance I know that I can burn twice as many calories snowshoeing as I can snorkeling (Seems reasonable – though wetter snow would seem to be a crucial factor) I also learned that synchronized swimming burns 33% more calories than swimming in a lake, river or ocean (I’m skeptical, given currents, riptides, etc. in actual bodies of water versus synchronized bodies in calm, swimming pool water.  But, okay.)

“Burn, baby, burn…”

It’s the daily household activities section of these sites that I enjoy most.

Childcare and house cleaning are dead even, burn wise, according to the fine folks at one health insurance company site, at 39.7 calories burned in ten minutes (.7 calories?) Making your bed is fairly light on the burn scale, though you’ll knock off the cals twice as fast doing hospital corners as you would as a  couch potato watching General Hospital, no surprise there. For the household-activities record, ironing trumps them both, plus you’ll feel that great bicep-burn…if you forget to remove your shirt before you iron it.

But my favorite how-many-calories-you’ll-burn segment of these sites is always the romance and sex department.

“Burn, baby, burn…”

First off, most sites agree that you burn roughly seven calories for every minute of kissing; no allowances could I find on any site for intensity or form of said kissing, so we’ll stick with the fairly pedestrian seven cals, or approximately seventy calories for my little, math-friendly,  ten-minute time chunk.  Not bad, but I can probably do better. (The exception on this one was About.com, who put the 10-minute kissing burn at only 14.3 calories total. Who-or-what were they kissing for ten minutes?)

One major east-coast hospital website breaks the intimacy down as follows: ‘Sex – foreplay’ and ‘Sex – Intercourse.’ (Please pardon the graphic language).  Using my ten-minute mantra, this particular site breaks it down to only 19 calories burned on the foreplay (again, they aint doin’ it properly) but 56 for the actual getting-to-it. Seems reasonable, and follows most of the directives I’ve seen on building up steam (graded exercise theory, or GET) toward optimal workout efficiency at shedding calories.

“Burn, baby, burn…”

For the record, I generally stay away from websites with kitschy names like caloriesperhour.com, but do enjoy WebMD.com’s Fit-o-Meter. Befitting their exalted and mainstream place in cyberspace, they have a whole section devoted to the more genteel ‘Getting Romantic’ with three sub categories:
‘active, vigorous’,
‘general, moderate’ and
‘passive, light, kissing, hugging’

Now – who doesn’t like a little ‘passive romance’ from time to time?  Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.

“Burn, baby, burn…”

Finally, there was this particular health and wellness site listing – a bit of a head-scratcher for me:The fact that all of these things are listed under the heading ‘Daily Life Activities’ is interesting, but to tell me that a ten-minute game of four-square is going to burn three times the calories as ten-minutes of ‘moderate effort’ sex? (And they don’t even include the far-sexier, uses-a-pole, tether-ball alternative. Go figure.) I know what I’m proposing next ‘date night’: “C’mon, baby! We’re going to the playground! Forget soap-on-a-rope, we’re doing ball-on-a-rope!”

Funny thing about this whole calorie burning business; not one site I have seen has yet proffered a calorie-burn listing for ‘blog writing’.  Or, for that matter, blog research.

“Burrrrnnn, baby, burn…”

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.