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.

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Characters who helped shape mine (#2 in a series) The Professor

It would be cliché to say that some of the greatest teachers I have had in my life never stood in front of a classroom; the best lessons rarely came framed by chalkboard proscenium. One of the most unique teachers I ever encountered, I had  the privilege of seeing in action holding class for his solitary student in a south Denver donut shop.

I matriculated, pushing maple bars.

Ray Rector was an anthropology professor at the Denver University; I was the seventeen year old nighttime clerk at the Donut House, a small, ma-and-pa shop in a dingy, half-block long strip mall at the busy intersection of Illiff Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.

No ivy-covered hall of academia, except maybe to me.

I began working at The Donut House in the summer of 1976, just before starting my senior year of high school. Ray was a regular at the shop, which was just a five-minute drive from the D.U. campus, and he could be found there many evenings grading papers or reading, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Morning was the busy time of day at the shop; evenings providing the chance to eat donuts and write, as my more sporadic nighttime clientele consisted mostly of some local beat cops (who always got free coffee) the guys from the Chicken Delight restaurant down the block, and friends of mine from school. We would also get the stray D.U. student or two who would hang out and study.

And there was Ray.

We met early in my Donut House tenure. My usual perch in the evening was on a bar stool situated in the doorway leading from the donut frying area to the back office. This elevated vantage point was centrally located, and high enough that I could easily see over the glass display cases, affording me an unobstructed view of the front of the shop and door.

Sitting on the stool also allowed me to brace my right foot on the door jamb, so I could use my propped-up thigh as an easel for my notebook: ‘The Thinker’ in apron and paper sanitary hat.

This is how Ray saw me one night as he came in for coffee and a cruller. I had chatted with him a few times before, but this particular night I was apparently a little too much in what I was writing, and was a little slower than usual to react to the jingling bell of the door opening.

He greeted me with a chuckle, commenting on how engrossed I was in what he assumed was homework, when in actuality I was actually me writing a poem. Our casual small talk that led to this discovery piqued his curiosity, and he asked if he could read some of my work sometime.

‘Sometime’ became a regular thing.

I worked three or four nights a week at the Donut House, and rare was the week Ray didn’t pop in at least one or two of those nights. He became an ongoing reader and editor of my stuff, offering up elaborate, eloquent critiques from a little round table in a neighborhood donut shop.

That is, when he wasn’t grading his real/classroom student’s papers from the same table by the wall, or when he wasn’t regaling me with anthropological insights on all things word and language related. Ray loved words, as did I. The volume of my writing amazed him, and the quality impressed him. Every night I went to work I brought at least one or two of my notebooks along, hoping for enough time between raised glazed sales to get some good stuff down on paper, and in hope that Ray would stop in – not just to share my latest work with him, but simply to engage in fascinating conversation.

Ray was middle-aged and divorced. He had grown up in rural Oklahoma, traveled a lot, seen and done a lot, and was more than happy to share his stories and expertise. And I was a willing listener, soaking it all in. As an anthropology professor, he had a curiosity and interest in all things human-oriented. This included my regaling him with tales of my yearly summer Greyhound bus jaunts from Denver to my ancestral homeland of Minnesota, and all my summers at the lake. Tales of the northwoods and young love got special attention.

As interested as Ray was in my writing, the process of my writing fascinated him; tales of writing while watching Nebraska roll endlessly by through SceniCruiser windows, my purchase and reading of small town newspapers from various, obscure stops. Overnight layover stays in depots in Omaha and Des Moines, all perfect locales and people-watching, behavioral fodder for my writings.

My perspectives of small-town middle America as a city kid fascinated him, and his interest only intensified after I graduated and moved on to a career in small-market radio, and we continued our friendship via the U.S.P.S.

But that year wasn’t just about my writing; Ray was expanding my horizons.

As often as he was in residence at one of our tables with a stack of papers to grade or a book, he would frequently find himself engaging other patrons (D.U. students, my favorite beat cops, fellow professors etc.) in various lengthy and in-depth conversation on politics, religion, philosophy, sports and more over coffee and raised glazed. I was always invited to participate, which I did when customer traffic (or lack thereof) allowed.

A Formica topped Algonquin Round Table, littered with cake crumbs and sprinkles.

Learning of my Minnesota background, Ray familiarized me with the work of proletarian and feminist writer (and fellow Minnesotan) Meridel Le Sueur, gave me off-beat books on vocabulary building. We discussed my literary hero Sinclair Lewis, and Ray also introduced me to the quirky history of E. Haldeman Julius’ ‘Little Blue Books.’

(Beginning in the early 1900’s Haldeman-Julius began printing 3.5″ x 5″ pocket books on cheap pulp paper. The Little Blue Books were consciously directed at “Mr. Average Man.” Through them, for a nickel, he could buy works by Thoreau, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Sophocles and many more classics, along with contemporary scientific journals and Socialist-leaning political tracts. Haldeman-Julius called his books ‘A University in Print.’)

Ray gifted me with two-dozen of these classic little books as a graduation gift, and I still treasure them.

I have almost always been surrounded by people who encouraged and supported my efforts at writing, but Ray took it to a whole other level; he was my first serious editor – and a damn good, brutally honest one at that. Ray Rector didn’t teach me how to write, but he made me a better writer. And, I’d like to think, a better person.

That’s what the best teachers do, isn’t it?

My senior year of high school had a lot of high points, and one of those was a part-time job working nights at small donut shop. Off all the classrooms I’ve spent time in, The Donut House was one of the sweetest.

Ray and I communicated via mail and phone for a number of years before losing track of each other in the late 80’s. I’ve tried to track him down a number of times since using everything from the D.U. alumni association to a website for anthropological studies and the SSI Death Index, all to no avail. I’m betting he would see the Internet as the ultimate anthropological petri dish.

I’d love to reconnect and get his take on contemporary society – over donuts and coffee, of course.

I’d also like to show him my blogs; this one, and of course, my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/

And I’d like to tell him, after thirty-five years, I’m still taking his nightly parting words to heart: “Be well. And keep writing.”

Thanks for everything, Ray.  As we said in our donut days, “It’s in the bag.”

On the water front

Writers are always looking for a place to ply their craft in solitude, either in the name of art for art’s sake, or to get real work done, or to cure some sort of writers block. For many, it is also therapy; putting pencil-to-paper has saved me countless thousands in psychologist couch rentals.

For me, solitude near or on water is writers-block dam buster that releases the gushing torrents of thought that eventually make it into print….except when the result is a cheesy line like that last sentence.

A few years ago, I spent a good chunk of a summer afternoon sitting in a small paddleboat in the middle of a large lake in northern Minnesota. During a company retreat at a nice resort we had free access to the things, and during my free time one afternoon, I took a one out, paddled to the middle of the lake with my notebook and pen at hand, and began writing as I drifted.

It was a nice, contemplative afternoon and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, filling multiple pages in my notebook in my hour-plus just floating and writing. I came back to shore refreshed and ready for more meetings and workshops, while many of my colleagues returned frazzled and sweaty from rushed rounds of golf or games of tennis.

Having spent most of my youthful summers on a different lake not very far from where I was adrift in my yellow paddleboat, the water has always been a welcome respite – something I didn’t get to do much anymore in adulthood.

Fast-forward some seven years or so, I am now living in New Orleans, Louisiana – a far cry from the northwoods of Minnesota, but a state that I nonetheless feel a kinship to in terms of its affinity for and ability to provide all opportunities water related.

Not that I’ll be going out by myself in a paddleboat on some alligator-habitat bayou anytime soon – there are other options aplenty. This is not like a pastoral Minnesota lake, where the biggest danger might be a cocker-spaniel sized mosquito.

My family and I have lived in Louisiana for going on three years, but only in the past month have we indulged ourselves with trips to white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. (This is not as odd as it seems to those familiar only with Louisiana in a geography book. Look closely at a detailed map; New Orleans is not ON the Gulf – it is a good 50 miles upstream from where the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf itself.)

It’s one of the interesting aspects of living in a city people want to visit; you can play the tourist game with them and do stuff you don’t normally do or haven’t gotten around to yet. Hence two trips in the last month to the Gulf shore of Mississippi with visitors from first Germany, and now, Minnesota.

The white sand beaches of the Mississippi shore are just that – fine grained, beautiful, hot, white sand; the oil from the B.P. disaster last year is not an issue at this point. Plus, most of their local facilities have been rebuilt since Katrina, so there is ample, easily accessible parking, nice restroom facilities, wharfs to walk out on, that sort of thing. To be sure, there are still plenty of signs of hurricane destruction within view of the shoreline, but the area seems, on the whole, to be nicely on the rebound.

Both of our beach trips have been to the Bay St. Louis area, less than an hour drive from our New Orleans home. This past weekend saw us loading up the van with our lawn chairs, stocked cooler and such, and heading out for a day of fun-in-the-sun; the Louisiana/Mississippi variety of sun that already had northern-girl visitor Angie slyly questioning the sanity of why people live in such a place.

We stopped and had lunch at a nice little café with a view of the gulf, then scoped out a nice spot to make beach camp for the afternoon. Our boys, ages 12 and 15, took Angie on the obligatory souvenir seashell strolls up and down the beach, while my wife sat under an umbrella reading and enjoying the breeze.

I hopped into the surf, and was enjoying just floating around, letting the warm water and gentle waves roll me around a bit and working me back toward shore. One of the great things about the Gulf of Mexico is that it is fairly shallow along the coast; you can walk out a few hundred feet and still be only waist-deep in the water. I could wade out a bit, do my lounging fish routine, float back into shore.

Rinse and repeat.

After a while, with everyone else doing their own thing, I was looking for something different, something more; all that floating is rather taxing physically, as you are constantly fighting the waves trying to wash you ashore. I left the water, grabbed one of our lawn chairs, some pages from my travel composition book and a Sharpie marker, and headed back out into the surf. The paper and Sharpie were enclosed in a one-pound plastic coffee container with lid, which I had actually brought along so Angie-the-tourist could bring some beach sand back to Minnesota.

I got out about three hundred feet from shore, and plunked my nylon sling-chair into the sandy ocean bottom, then sat down in it. The water came up just over my waist, and I immediately noticed a benefit to my set up; the rolling waves pounded my back like Neptune’s masseuse. Very relaxing. The chair anchored me in a singular position and it was very comfortable. And therapeutic.

By this time, my fifteen year old son Will was post-swim toweling off by his chair, up on the shore. He looked at me quizzically, shrugged his shoulders and yelled “Why?” The definitive answer to that, of course, was “Hey, why not?” Will just shook his head and sat down to sun bathe.

I opened up the coffee canister and removed the lined paper and purple Sharpie, my thought being that a soothing situation like this would be a good cure for my recent writers block. I was sure my muse had some mermaid in her.

So I sat there for a bit, waves slapping my back like ‘an avuncular uncle at a family reunion’ (so sayeth my water-splotched notebook pages) and began writing. It is not as difficult to write sitting in the Gulf of Mexico waves as I might have thought, save the periodic jostling of writing elbow, which skewed my already iffy penmanship. Using a Sharpie marker helped; a plain old pen wouldn’t be up to the challenge. Even wave-induced smudges were still legible. Mostly.  

My time in the chair in the water was actually quite restorative, both physically and mentally, as my writers block was eroding with every wave. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing – er, sitting – as every once in a while a ‘more jovial drunken uncle at a family reunion slap on the back’ (notebook) wave would whack me on the shoulder, sending me leaning forward in my chair, while also causing water to cascade over my shoulder and into my lap. Fortunately, my reflexes are still sharp enough to get my pages mostly out of harm’s way, though the sea spray caused me to move dampened paper to the back of the stack and start anew on a fresh page a couple of times. There is also some smeared ink, but that is a small price to pay.

After about twenty minutes, I packed up my pages and marker in coffee can, folded up my chair and waded back to shore, refreshed and with the outline of a fresh blog post ‘in the can’ – literally and figuratively. The afternoon was waning, and it was nearing high tide so it was a good time to depart.

I had already experienced my high in the tide.

Tumbling

Dryer produces
unknown, extra hosiery.
Consensual socks?

First Love

The young ballplayer drags his bat to the plate, leaving a neat,
shallow furrow in the dirt in which the seeds of success are now
sown; there is purpose to his gait, no fear. He is resolute.

He practice swings the bat in a warped, pendulum loop while his
oversized, red plastic helmet acts a boa constrictor trying to
digest his head. Dogged determination shapes the boys eyes

He stands beside home plate, tongue protruding from the lower
left corner of his mouth in intensity; his face drawn in pseudo-
sneer, he spreads his feet, digs toes firmly into the sacred dirt

The boy is ten.

He looks every bit the ballplayer; body language poised – just
shy of cocky; seriousness finger-painted in bold red dirt streaks
across the white script team name adorning his uniform shirt

His bat slowly rises, coming to rest on his shoulder as he fixes
a nearly-hardened gaze on the adversary forty-six feet ahead;
takes a deep breath, wrinkles his nose to move the sweat off

The pitcher looks at him, cocks his arm, throws. Bait not taken;
a ball! The bat in the boy’s hands wobbles alongside his head,
goes still a brief moment as the next pitch approaches before

whipping violently from his shoulder, thrust in a swept-sword
arc at the hurled sphere coming; arm muscles strain, elbows go
straight, torso and hips spin wildly, eyes close as bat meets ball…

Momentum causes the boy to teeter briefly, before an ungainly
burst from the batter’s box sends him lurching toward first as
the ball, like a flat stone on water, skims the infield dirt, kicking

up four quick puffs of diamond dust and the boy’s thought is of
only one thing; the sudden grandeur of a double – a double! – as
he rounds first, and the ball comes to a stop in the outfield grass

The boy playing right field for the opponents charges in, plucking
the ball from the turf where it has come to rest while in the same
odd, Quixotic-windmill motion he catapults it toward second base

Then it all happens so fast.

The boy has ducked his head rounding first, doggedly running
fast as he ever has or ever will, only looking up in time to see the
ball jutting from the webbing of the glove suddenly before him

the sight alerts the boy’s baseball instincts to his only option;
intuitively he launches his feet out from under him, left leg fully
extended, right leg tucked beneath him, curled at the knee

his left buttock slams into the dirt with a cloud of dust, his body
sliding to a stop a full foot in front of second base, he sees the
glove smack his shin, hearing a soft, excited voice; “You’re out!”

Lying there looking up into fading afternoon sun he can make the
silhouette of his vanquisher; arms raised in exultant triumph, ball
in one hand, glove the other, and a look of surprised satisfaction.

From flat on his back he lifts his head to focus, and through the
dissipating cloud of grit the face of his rival comes into soft focus
from beneth her frayed bent cap brim. No gloating countenance,

the gentle face is a wide smile, large eyes – framed by two tightly-
braided, long, dangling, swaying pig-tails; near the end of each
dangle shiny plastic barrettes the exact hue of her cap and jersey

There is an oddly comforting lilt to her voice saying “You’re out!”
He doesn’t hear moans of disappointment from his team’s bench.
Still on his back, chin on chest, he smiles, repeats; “You’re out.”

His head flops back on the dirt. She leans over him, still holding
the ball, hands on her knees, he again repeats, “You’re out.”
The girl nods. “Yep” she repeats with a broad smile, “You’re out.”

From that moment on, though he will often try, he can never quite
accurately articulate or explain to anyone (even himself) his inate
passion for baseball, his true love. His love of the game.

Résumé

Paperboy.
Mower of lawns,
painter of fences;
ice-cream-scooper-
slash-soda jerk,
lumberjack.
Old- folk odd-jobber,
potato peeler
dishwasher
donut seller

Early vocations of a
professional amateur,
experience invaluable;
financed my adolescent
frivolity while banking
interest-compounding
life lessons.

I still make regular
withdrawals.

Radio announcer, sales
consultant, commercial
producer; census taker,
construction worker,
radio station manager.

Boss? For a time.

Different lessons from
more life lived; setbacks
professional, personal –
some debilitating.
Still the bills got paid.

Mostly.

Bellman, waiter, artist.
Driver of vans, limousines,
cars; passengers and data
hauled, coddled, delivered.
Security guard, file clerk,
receptionist, print maker.
Writer, announcer, tutor
…condom inspector?

Yes, I was.

Warehouses, factories, cafes.
Offices, loading docks, streets.
Vehicles, assembly lines, home.
Construction sites, studios,
laboratories and back rooms.
Restaurants, kitchens, hotels.

Service with a smile. Always.

Suits, uniforms, dungarees;
shirts, ties, lab coats, work boots
in prairie dog cubicle villages, dimly
lit, noisy, grimy, OSHA eschewed
houses of manufacture, shipping.
Blue collar, white collar, always
a ring around the collar.

Worked hard. Always.

Case manager, trainer of job
seeking and on-the-job skills; how
to find employment, how to keep it:
promoted, finally to professional.

Middle age, finding my true calling
the front of a classroom: high school
students looking at the adult world
skeptically, lacking the confidence,
missing the skills, high on bravado,
looking to me for all the answers.

Credibility an issue, as they see me
as privileged, incapable of relating
to them: their world, lives, dangers.

If it were only as simple as that.

Stepping in dogma

Faith is ego

True, deep, abiding
exclusionary faith
is your ego run amok

Blind faith is
egomaniacal, contrary
to belief , less about
submission, more
simple self-absorption
cum-righteousness

Believing is good.

Absolute certainty,
unfortunately,
is all about you

Less torch, more…Coleman-lanternish.

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 batteries, 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 the 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.

Transition

French Quarter coffee shop; ancient, transformed
corner building with a long view; cloudy morning
of post-Saturday revelry, mingling with locals – the
normal eclectic folks of ‘The Quarter’ just being:
an older man obliviously sketches in a large pad,
a young woman writes in her leather-clad journal,
there are multiple laptops in use, a wide variety of
newspapers strewn about, left graciously by others
on the tables; my battered pocket notebook slowly
filling up as my cup languidly drains

Gawker tourists slow down while passing, eyeing
through eight-foot windows the local flavor,
animatedly debating the merits of stopping in for
a true New Orleans coffee experience wondering,
in their own pseudo-Bohemian ways, their personal
worthiness, unaware they already possess it

I was that gawker once; stranger in a strange land,
outsider looking in, in awe of the mystique

Now, some five years later, I sit at a table turned,
so to speak; now I am on the inside looking out;
showing up just often enough, comfortable enough
in my status as local gawkee that I get the occasional
smile or nod from the many authentics I encounter

Not yet a true insider, I am enough at ease that I
blend in with the locals, also understanding well the
allure from the other side of tempered glass, grateful
that I succumbed to the siren song that is the city of
New Orleans, wondering how many of those gazing
from outside will eventually be as charmed?

I want to get up, invite them to come on in, or to tell
them just stay there for a while, to let me watch them
watching me fill my notebook, as I have coffee to drink,
and plenty of blank pages to fill with freshly inspired ink.

That explains it.

Profundity comes in a wide array
of colors, sizes, shapes, messengers.
It is concise, not trite, compassionate;
intellectually stimulating, bravura.
Well mostly, anyway.