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 while 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 life, 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.
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 puzzlement 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.
“‘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, Jen. 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.
“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.
“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 look 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.
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.
Some twenty-plus years ago, when I was thirtyish and divorced, a co-worker and I decided to become roommates and we rented a small home in the Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale.
Emphasis here on ‘small’.
John Lloyd, my new roommate, had one prized possession that had to be a part of the new set up: a full-sized, 1960’s vintage pool table he had inherited from his grandparents. What better edifice for a hip bachelor pad than a pool table? One problem: the pool table occupied our entire dining room and still jutted a solid foot-and-half into the living room. Even then, when shooting from wall-side of the table, or the dining room wall end, you had to hold your cue at an 81-degree angle in order to shoot.
We quickly learned to improvise; our expertise at ‘nose pool’ (using your nose as your cue) became legendary.
Having moved in late that summer and thrown a swingin’ house-warming party that co-workers and friends were still rehashing, we logically decided a Christmas party was the next ‘must’ for the first holiday season in our cozy abode.
John and I were co-workers at a small radio station in another Minneapolis suburb. ‘Small’ again comes into play; the station was by no means a player in the Twin Cities market. What the station lacked in basic amenities, technical quality and signal strength, it more than made up for in ownership and managerial dysfunction and sheer comic relief.
What kept the place functioning and an enjoyably quirky place to work was that we also had a very talented, close-knit and fun-loving staff: a dandy core-group for a top-notch party, as we had proved with our summertime housewarming.
KANO radio boasted a truly eclectic mix of old-school broadcast veterans winding down their careers, and twenty-something guppies straight out of broadcasting school with dreams of stardom via underdeveloped reality checks, and a recently laid-off, then retrained, forty-something, mid-life career change newbie finally living his dream.
A typical week of management and oppertional chaos at KANO made WKRP seem like a weekend in cloisters.
This was no wine-spritzer and brie crowd; radio people genetically predisposed to being allergic to the mundane. Add in their assorted significant others, and a few folks from other parts of our various lives, John and I had invited quite the eclectic and enthusiastic crowd. They wanted, and now expected John and me to deliver, plenty of party action.
Thus was born the centerpiece event of our epic Christmas House Party: Bobbing for Pine Cones.
We had started planning this extravaganza not long after the summer soiree. Somewhere around Halloween, when bobbing for apples was en vogue (Anoka, where our station was located, proclaims itself ‘The Halloween Capitol of the World, so we had a lot of experience with such things) the idea occurred to us that this whole bobbing thing had some definite Christmastime applications – with a few holiday modifications. The first tweak we made was to replace the autumnal apples with the more festive, holiday-oriented, easier-to- grip-with-yer-lips pine cones. Secondly, we knew boring old, not-all-that-competitive (or interesting) water also needed replacing.
Pure genius, it was. What, we agreed, would say – shout, even – ‘holiday party fun!’ more than bobbing for pine cones in turkey roasters filed with eggnog?
Don’t strain yourself trying to answer that question.
The night of the party came, and with it, all the high expectations for a rockin’ around the Christmas tree good time. We were truly able to deliver, due in large part to a factor we didn’t have for the house warming party: his name was Jim Holt.
Jim was a fairly recent addition to the station, fresh out of Brown Institute of Broadcasting (the alma mater of both John and I, and a number of other colleagues) but more worldly than most. Jim was a married guy in his early forties, and being a disc jockey had been a dream of his for many years. He had been working in the construction business, and when the company he worked for went belly up, he used the opportunity to go back to school and be retrained as a broadcaster, of all things, eventually winding up on our doorstep at KANO where he used his business acumen in sales during the week, and picked up weekend and evening shifts as a part-time announcer.
He was having a kid-in-a-candy-store blast and we were glad to have him.
Jim was neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. He was certainly a radio neophyte, which we seldom let him forget, with a wide array of on-air pranks and booby traps pulled on the guy, but he was much farther along the chronological and maturity scale than most of the rest of us.
At least, in some regards.
Okay, he was older than most of the rest of us. He reveled in the role of rookie/old dude; for Jim, it was 1969 all over again – only done better this time around.
We had set up the Bobbing for Pinecones as an eight competitor, three-round tournament – poster board tourney bracket taped to the dining room wall to document the fun. Jim arrived fairly early with his wife Kathy, and signed up eagerly for the bobbing. Kathy, as she was during the whole mid-life career shift for her husband, could best be described as…warily supportive.
The party zipped along quite nicely for a couple of hours; food, libations, and laughs in abundance: at one point, John counted over 30 people in attendance. Sardines-in-a-can analogies ran rampant and getting from one point of the house to another meant holding your food and/or beverage high above your head, lest you find it smashed into your chest. About ten o’clock, we got folks quieted down and announced that it was time for the big event; Bobbing for Pine Cones.
We asked those that had signed up to step forward (most actually did) while friends helped us spread out plastic all over the living room floor. Then we brought out the aluminum turkey roasters and the pine cones, placing them on top of the plastic, as we explained the rules: contestants were to kneel in front of their roaster, hands behind their backs, and using only their mouths, were to bend over at the waist, and pluck as many pine cones as they could in one minute from the roaster, dropping them onto the plastic next to their tubs, then repeating the process until we said “times up!” A good sense of balance was crucial. We had an ample supply of pine cones, and would continue to add them to each roaster as play continued, should someone pluck their entire supply of pine cones. (Nobody did, though Jim came close in round one.)
I’m not really sure if people didn’t read the sign-up sheet closely, or maybe we even forgot to put it on the poster – who can remember? I was pretty sure that we had told people, and maybe they just forgot, about switching out the water for egg nog, but when we brought out the nog and started filling the roasters, there was definite surprise and apprehension from some of the participants and a noticeable uptick in the level of crowd anticipation.
Of the eight bobbers, there were a few I didn’t know; dates of various guests who decided to sign up on a whim and were never seen again dating those coworkers. (Go figure.) Our station engineer Dan Zimmerman made it through round one, if I remember correctly (Dan was hard to forget; competitive eggnog bobbers should probably crop their beards/goatees before a competitive event) but the true break out star of the night was Jim Holt.
We got the first two competitors lined up on the floor, gave a countdown and said “Go!” to instant shouts of encouragement and exclamations of “Ewwww” “gross” and “nasty” from onlookers. Things quickly got a little…umm….messy.
Once the competition started, we realized a few things very quickly; it is one thing to dunk your head in water, and inadvertently suck some in, then come up for air. It is a whole different thing when you accidentally inhale stuff the consistency of rich, creamy, dairy-fresh holiday eggnog – It is a much different sort of gasping for breath.
We also learned that a human face hitting a tub of eggnog with any velocity makes more of a ‘bluorp’ sound than a splashing noise.
The first round went pretty quickly, as most of the competitors had little natural ability at the sport, or were just laughing too hard to effective bob/grab/drop. Not so, our pal Jim. He took to bobbing in eggnog like a young penguin takes to belly sliding on ice. Truly a natural.
After successfully plucking a pine cone with his mouth, he quickly dropped it on the plastic and went back for another. It was never a contest; the competition was just not up to matching Jim cone-for-cone during a round, beer-for-beer between rounds. Plus, he was one of those athletes whose natural charisma just showed through, which got the crowd quickly on his side. Jim would come up for air at the end of a round, shaking like a wet St. Bernard – his sopping, floppy moustache spraying the crowded-around onlookers with ‘nog. It was a glorious thing to watch.
From as far afar as you could get in a house that small. You don’t sit in the front row of the Shamu show at Sea World and expect to stay dry. Same principle applies for pine cone bobbing in eggnog.
After the first two rounds, we were ready for the championship. Jim and the other finalist had another beer, as we prepped the tubs with fresh eggnog for the finals; nothing but the best for our competitors. We also had a slight competition ‘tweak’ for the finals; just like the World Series, or the Super Bowl, any great sporting event needs a little ‘sumptin’ sumptin’ for its championship round.
We had nutmeg.
The nutmeg was meant to spice things up, of course. Which it did in unexpected ways. What, after all, is eggnog without a sprinkle of nutmeg on top? It is traditional serving method and we felt it only fitting that the finals of our little event should be…showcased a bit. Plus, it added a touch of holiday class.
And, unwittingly, a sneeze factor.
Once the final round started (two minutes, not the typical one – twice the fun for the finals!) We learned very quickly that inhaling large quantities of nutmeg makes one sneeze, and that adult males sneezing into tubs of nutmeg-laced eggnog makes something akin to eggnog ‘depth charges’ as little geysers of eggsnot were flying up from the living room floor with each sneeze. (Spreading the heavy plastic over the living floor was a very smart move on our part).
Jim of course, won going away. It was quite a show.
Fortunately, our friends and other guests were agreeable to helping us clean up the mess – so the party could continue, if nothing else. At the end of the night, a sticky, haggard Jim proudly clutched his oil filter and trophy as designated-driver/wife Kathy walked him out to their car, shaking her head in awe. Or disbelief. It was hard to tell.
End of the party, not end of the story.
As was related to us later by a still incredulous Kathy: At about 2:30 in the morning, Jim wakes up screaming that he can’t open his eyes. Kathy gets up with him, and realizing that her husband indeed, cannot open his eyelids fully, takes him to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital. There, the attending E.R. doc determines the problem; Jim had forgotten to remove his contacts before the festivities, and some traces of eggnog and nutmeg had apparently dried on them, essentially gluing them to his eyelids.
I do not know the correct medical terminology for this condition.
As Kathy related the story later, the doc and the nurses just shook their heads and tried not to giggle while they repeatedly flushed Jim’s eyes with saline solution before sending him home with a bottle of Visine and a suggestion to take up other forms of holiday recreation.
So this year, as always, I will indulge my own passion, quaffing a tasty mug or two of cold eggnog, toasting along the way the competitive spirit of bobbing, friendships forever (and eyelids temporarily) bonded. Here’s to John; best roommate I ever had. Here’s to my old KANO pals; “Good times, gooood times, my old friends”.
Oh, and here’s to you, Jim, wherever you may be today.
A little free advice, should you want to enliven your holiday gathering with a BFP event. Bobbing for Pinecones is an exciting, competitive, engaging spectator sport with broad appeal and very accessible in strategy and performance to a wide range of ages and talent levels. Just go easy on the nutmeg, and don’t forget to have competitors read and sign the ‘wearing contacts’ waiver.
Faded are July’s warmth, summer’s cheers. Supplanted now by sundry, encroaching hints of cooler days; forgotten expectations, procrastinated chores now mothballed, he can only now muse without dwelling on what won’t be. Could-have-beens and maybes aren’t statistically meaningful; they never really were, except to others in relation to their expectations and dreams on his behalf. The math was never his thing – nebulous nature of those with good intentions notwithstanding. Regret is not something that taints him; he does not feel his talents wasted. He recalls every crucial moment as it was, for what it was.
Unburdened by excuses, unwilling to pass blame. Treasured character trait; a gift not wasted.
It was what it was, nothing more to be read into any of it. Done with. Droll, philosophical meanderings passé. He did what he had to and could – more than expected, less than some feared – and it has all come down to this: seasons of joy, of youth, of expectations – dwindled. He takes energy and solace in their uncertainty of numbers. Youth cannot serve that master. He revels in coming autumn and finds it no burden as winter creeps in to bury and renew. Spring will be welcome, but no more or less than its brethren. Seasons, as is their nature, gladly provide strategic resets.
No, it was not always this clear.
Memories are not sustenance; this he knows for fact. Cheers he once accepted have faded, substitutes and replacements have taken his place on various stages. He knows as many have forgotten as remember him. The field of honor which he once ruled by force and triumphant jousting he now benevolently maintains, in supportive peace. The thought occurs that maybe the soul is autumn grass; wearily vibrant, going wearily dormant by design. Ingrained need of a respite. The patriarch emeritus he imagines smiles in triumph, allowing for sly winks to various fates.
He zips his coat, turning its collar turned upward against the gathering, refreshing winds of fall. He leans willingly, comfortably into the loving embrace of the breeze, securing his resolve. The air is quiet, save the wind. He is at peace with the simple knowledge that spring will, someday, for whatever it’s own reasoning, return.
But for now, time is pleasingly in his comfortable grasp; he now understands its tenuous and uncontrollable nature. Time can be tucked safely away like a pocket watch in a vest, allowing him to stroll through the lovely, dark, and deep woods without fear of reprisal from any promises not kept.
Friday was a ‘dress down’ day at school – pay five bucks for the privilege of wearing your favorite pro or college team jersey and jeans. Yee-ha! My inner city New Orleans high school kids know nothing of hockey, so I was interested in gauging their response to me wearing my U of M hockey jersey.
With the exception of one kid who said, “Ummmm…Michigan?” (detention, AND an automatic ‘F’ for him) the kids mostly got the ‘M’ for Minnesota part, because they know me well enough, but my favorite interaction was with one of my more thoughtful tenth graders, a gregarious kid who always shares his writing with the class, and who often ponders things before speaking – a rarity in my classroom.
“So, Mr. Lucker…Minnesota, right?”
“That’s where you went to college?”
“One of the places.”
“That a hockey jersey?”
“Yes it is.”
“You were a hockey player?”
“You played football.”
Pondering pause, trying to fathom, “You weren’t a basketballplayer?!”
Pondering pause, ‘I give up’ head shake, shrug.
“I was a mascot.”
Pondering pause, eyes growing wider.
“You mean, a suit and everything? A costume?”
Pondering pause, eyes still wide.
“Costume, big fiberglass head. I was awesome.” Pondering pause, scrunched-up face, look of confusion.
“What Minnesota is again?”
Pondering pause, head shake of incredulity.
“Damn, Mr. Lucker.”
He smiled, still shaking his head as he went back to his writing.
Mark. My first name, in plastic, on a small clip. People readily took to using it, too, all summer. Mostly folks I didn’t know. An interesting departure from my full-time gig, where students and staff alike universally refer to me as ‘Mr. Lucker.’
This summer fit right into my life’s working-guy theme. (English teachers are big on things like ‘theme’ in a narrative).
It was an interesting adventure.
I needed to make some money in my ‘off’ ‘ time and the chances of me doing it in my present locale seemed iffy, at best. Summer work is hard to come by in New Orleans, where, due to heat, humidity and threat of hurricanes, tourist season goes into a dormant period; here is not much temp or part-time work to be found. Hence my brainstorm: I would need to be in Minnesota for my daughter’s wedding come the end of July, so instead of (maybe) finding something then having to bail, why not work in my old hometown for the summer? I could stay at my mom’s, help her out with some stuff, get reacquainted with some old friends. I even lined up an art exhibit at Sisters Sludge, an old-stomping-grounds coffeehouse.
I’m clever that way.
During my previous career incarnations, I often supplemented my income with temp work through a variety of staffing services. In late spring, I contacted ProStaff – whom I worked for so long and so well for over fifteen years. An emailed resume and an office appointment to complete paperwork, and I was ready to go.
There was irony and symmetry in how that played out.
In short order, I got my first assignment: at a downtown hotel as part of the host staff for an international convention for management accountants. It was not the hotel where I had spent nearly a decade, but a hotel that I knew well. A temporary name tag in conventioneer plastic holder and I was set to go.
Working, essentially, as a mercenary concierge, I immediately took to the gig and made it my own. Like riding a bike, I quickly adapted and remembered why I enjoyed my hotel years. It was an enjoyable three days.
And, contrary to any stereotypes, the accounting folks were anything but staid, soulless, number-crunchers. They were, in fact, a lot of fun, and they were also helpful, as they allowed me to come back post-convention and take all of their high-end foam core signage that would have just been thrown out. Six-by-four foot sheets of top-quality stuff that come in handy in a classroom, and that I also used as the backing for some of the artwork I put together for the art showing.
The hotel was the ironic gig.
The symmetry came when fine folks at ProStaff then found me a longer term assignment working with an on-line university adapting materials for students needing accommodations. Interesting summer work for a teacher, very enlightening to get a different perspective on that end of educational accommodations. Plus, the unit was a fun-loving group and we had more than a few laughs. It didn’t hurt that, being a teacher, I understood the basic concepts of what we were trying to do as well as the terminology. It was a good, easy fit for a temp job.
Plus, I got to roam the downtown Minneapolis Skyway system and even got to have lunch at a favorite old pizza place, Ginellis, which was right where I had left it decade ago. The pizza is still outstanding.
Meanwhile partaking in my hotel and educational endeavors, I had continued to search for other options, one of which turned out to be product demonstrator for a large, local supermarket chain. Actually, it was a contract gig through a marketing firm that had just gotten the contract, and between my teaching experience and my background in customer service, the outfit eagerly signed me up, and sent me my demonstrator kit: a matching red cap and apron set, a debit card to purchase the items I would be selling at each assignment, and a clip-on name tag with ‘Mark’ in big, white font.
Dressed in black slacks and white shirt (a combination I am usually loathe to participate in due to its mundane sartorial aspects) I spent weekend days in various Cub Foods aisles pitching everything from high-end hot dogs to exotic cold cuts to Greek yogurt. The only dud assignment came in trying to interest customers in some new cereal varieties. They were tasty enough, but even I had a hard time trying to spin breakfast cereal with the term ‘digestive blend’ in the name.
Met some interesting folks, but never did run into anyone I knew, which was disappointing, because I had the opening line all set: “Off all the gin joints in all the world, you walk into mine.”
So it goes.
My favorite paid gig of the summer was serendipitous to say the least: I got to sell caps at Major League Baseball’s All Star Game at Target Field.
The Minnesota Twins were hosting this year’s extravaganza, and were seeking help during All-Star week festivities. Ironically, my wife, still in New Orleans, saw something about an All-Star game hiring fair on Facebook, and forwarded me the info. Much like with the food demonstrator gig, my background in the hospitality field got me the gig and the choice assignment in the stadium pro shop selling fitted caps. Far better than outside somewhere working smokey, messy concessions. I got a spiffy plastic name tag in bold black font stating MARK L with the notation ALL STAR GAME-TEMPORARY WORKERS. Nice.
Baseball is one of my passions, and the Twins are my team. This wasn’t my dream job, but it certainly was a primo assignment that was interesting and fun, plus got me back into mid-semester on-my-feet-all-day form with four nine-hour-days of cap-hawking. A sweet deal all the way around as I got paid for spending my days talking baseball with all sorts of folks.
And I learned something very comforting: there are plenty of grown adults with a poorer grasp of math than I.
Fitted hats (at least the sizing of them) befuddled more than a few of my customers.
Caps were in a large set of wooden cubbies aligned by size in 1/8 inch increments, starting at 6 ¾ and going up to 8. The whole fraction thing was a puzzle to many, as customers would as to try a cap in what they thought was their size, only to find it too small. This was the typical exchange that transpired (more times than I would care to count):
CUSTOMER: “Seven and 1/8 was too small. Let me try the next size up.”
ME: (handing them the 7 ¼ in their preferred design) “Here you go.”
CUSTOMER: “No, I said the next size up. That should be 7 2/8.”
ME: “Yep. Seven-and-a-quarter is the next size up from 7 1/8.”
CUSTOMER: “That should be 7 2/8 then, shouldn’t it?”
ME: “Yes sir. But 7 2/8 is 7 ¼
CUSTOMER: “How does that work? Won’t that be too small?”
ME: “If it is, we’ll just try 7 3/8 or 7 1/2.”
CUSTOMER: “Huh? Those seem like they would be way too big.”
ME: “Nope. We should be able to find one in that range that fits.”
It usually ended up as a mini, chapeau-oriented version of Abbott & Costello’s classic ‘Who’s on First’? routine, and the whole 1/8 and ¼ thing got people even more confused at the higher end of the size scale. For some reason, the jump from 7 ½ to 7 5/8 got people even more adamant that my math skills were deficient. Most were pleasant about it, but a few got somewhat riled – one indignant woman in particular who was convinced that the cap manufacturer had screwed up, in that the 7 ¾ hat her husband tried on was too small, but the 7 7/8 he tried fit fine must be mislabeled, because, “That is a much smaller size.”
Aside from playing fun-with-fractions with numerous customers, my favorite encounter was a husband and wife in their forties who came to me with an interesting dilemma: she wanted the quality of a fitted cap, but needed the ‘hole in the back’ for her pony tail to hang out, as a fitted hat just gave her ‘a lumpy head’. (The ‘hole in the back’ of course comes only with adjustable hats, as the ‘hole’ is the space above the adjusting strap.) Clear to the fact that no fitted hats would fit the bill (pun intended) the wife had resigned herself to an adjustable cap, though she didn’t want any of the ‘cheap or cheap looking’ styles.
She was trying on a lot of caps, and her husband seemed more exasperated, rolling his eyes as she modeled each. We chatted while she browsed, and then I remembered some dazzling, sequined Twins hats that I had seen in a remote cubby, as the Twins had moved much of their regular merchandise off to the edges to make way for All-Star logoed stuff.
I excused myself from the husband, went and found the hat I remembered, brought it to the wife, proclaiming proudly, “Here you go – pretty cool hat and with a pony-tail hole!” She eyed the cap, tried it on, turned around a few times, took it off, put it back on, checked it out in the mirror from different angles…as her husband turned to me and said, quite dryly, “ I really admire your initiative.”
Tattoos are all the rage. Personally, I have never had the urge to get one, and the more I work with inner city high school kids and with twenty-somethings adorned with them…
I really don’t care for the idea of somebody using my body as a Spirograph.
Walk into a tattoo parlor and ask the artist this: “What is the most common question you get about tattoos from new customers?” Their response? Almost universally, it is “What’s your most popular design?”
I have been spending the summer off from my New Orleans classroom in my hometown Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and have been doing a lot of temp work. It has been a few years since I have been consistently among a modern, corporate environment, and while it is enjoyable, I am ready to be back at work in a classroom setting. Much has changed, much is very different in the decade or so since I prowled the Skyways, hallways and streets of an urban downtown as a worker bee.
Technology is the biggest change – no real shock there. One thing it took me a few days to realize at the downtown Minneapolis firm I spent a week at as a temp is that file cabinets have gone the way of the De Soto. It was my third or fourth day at this firm and I was walking from floor-to-floor of nice apportioned office space-slash-cubical farms when I realized that there was not a file cabinet to be found.
Not one. At least, not that was visible.
I discovered that each cube had one…in the small closet on the outer edge of the cube. Are those paltry two-drawers even used? Oh yeah. For storing lunch bags and purses. And walking shoes for use during lunch breaks. And snacks, teabags, umbrellas, baseballs and Kuerig Coffee pods. Papers? Files? Anything officially work related? Not so much.
When I return to my classroom next month, I will look upon my old file cabinets with a new perspective.
Not that I am some sort of Luddite. On the contrary, one of the oddest thing about temping in an office is this summer is that my business casual attire of khakis, button down shirt and tie, just as in my classroom, I have had brief moments of panic and/or discomfort when I realize that I have forgotten to grab my flashdrive and I.D. lanyards.
My ‘teacher bling’ that is indispensable during the school year is not needed as an office temp.
As someone who worked in the corporate and for profit world for many years before moving into the classroom, I am truly a guy who straddles two communication eras. As a writer and artist, I favor good-old-fashioned paper – in files, or preferably, in ring binders. As a teacher in a contemporary classroom, I rely on technology. Virtually everything I do and work with at school is contained on the flash drives that dangle from my neck each day. Unlike many of my older teacher colleagues, I am very at home with my younger teaching peers when it comes to sharing ideas and material with the simple “Hey, can you put that on my flash drive!” I share as many resources and materials as I ask for, especially with younger, newer teachers that I help mentor; documents, videos, Power Points, stuff I find on the Internet that I don’t have a use for but think they might – you name it. It is very free-flowing.
But this summer, in shirt and tie? I feel naked without my flashdrives. I will be okay, but I do remain committed to being tolerant and forgiving of my Luddite brethren. (cough!) Paul.
From the things that make you go “Hmmmm…” department:
My recent temp gig at a higher education institution had me working on making classroom materials accessible to students with disabilities. As a teacher, I found it interesting to get a different view of educational accommodations. And it was kind of fun. Of course, as a matter of course, proof of a disability needs to be provided to legally allow for such things as adapting copyrighted text, etc. They school I worked at has had a rash of people claiming they need accommodations for dyslexia or other reading disorders, but when asked for the requisite documentation, many claimed to be self-diagnosed via ‘tests’ on the Internet or articles and websites they had come across and said, “Hey, that’s me!”
Just thinking out loud here: if you can take Internet tests, and read up on disorders to the extent that you can self-diagnose yourself with a ‘reading disorder’…
Do you really have a reading disorder?
I am not trying to be disrespectful. Just askin’.
One almost final note, all about perspective. Everything is relative, really. Like humidity.
A native Minnesotan, I have always liked humidity, which the upper Midwest claims to have a lot of due to all the lakes. Living in New Orleans the past six years, I have experienced humidity in new and spectacular ways. And I still prefer humidity (even ‘excessive’ humidity- which I have yet to encounter anyplace) to…not having humidity.
An unseasonably cold and brutal winter in the Midwest his given way to the other extreme; humidities in the (gasp!) 50 – 60% range with temps in the low 80‘s that pushes heat indexes into…the mid to upper 80’s. Wowsers. Minnesotans whining and moaning about how ‘humid’ it is.
This amuses me immensely. Not once in my time in Minnesota over the past month-and-a-half have my glasses fogged up making the transition from air-conditioned house/vehicle to some other environment. There is no condensation on the windows in the morning. And my favorite…
The ‘Feels Like’ designation in on-line or newspaper weather forecasts in Minnesota have rarely differed by more than three-or-four degrees. In New Orleans, the gap this time of year regularly triples that.
It’s all relative, though I am not related to any of them.
And finally, in keeping with our old/new, Ludditetonian theme….
Last Saturday I drove the sixty miles from Rochester to Minneapolis, using a stretch of highway I have driven for years, happily noting that not much has changed. One of the familiar sites is a large business just off the highway – an Amish Furniture shop/warehouse that has been there for years. What caught my eye and shoved one eyebrow skyward this trip, however, was the huge banner outside the establishment: ‘BARSTOOL SALE.’
Time for one of those cheesy Facebook quizzes: ‘Just How Amish are You?’
My first Monday back in my hometown of Minneapolis.
Reupping with an employer you haven’t worked for in over ten years is a bit like having dinner with a former lover. You start by discussing your separate, mostly unknown here-and-now’s before you move on to on shared pasts, getting each other up to date, filling in some blanks. Sometimes it is smooth flowing conversation; sometimes it’s a bit clunky.
Then you get a bit more comfortable, relaxed.
You also begin to remember all the good things you liked about each other ‘back in the day’ and why the relationship was so mutually beneficial…while also realizing why the relationship came amicably to an end, and just why it probably wouldn’t work for the long-term, then or now.
Or would it?
The folks at my favorite old temp service, Pro Staff in Minneapolis, have been gracious and helpful, and I am now officially back in the fold for the summer.
I can use the work, and I can do it. Jack-of-All-Most-Trades, master of a goodly percentage of them, proficient at the rest. A summer work fling would be just the ticket, with them or someone else.
If you need a writing or other creative project accomplished in a pinch, let me know. I am not a monogamous guy when it comes to earning some extra cash. If you are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and have some other sort of job or project you need handled, and handled well…hey, you know where to find me. I have wheels,desire, talent.
Have skills, will travel.
Hey, I won’t even expect you to buy me dinner first.
I just celebrated birthday number 55 – as a friend so euphemistically put it, my ‘speed limit birthday.’
The Double Nickel. Stay alive, drive 55.
The 70’s called – they want their slogans back.
I’ll go with ‘Thrive 55.’ No copyright or datedness issues, plus it’s mine and I am. Thriving, that is.
For the most part I am. My health, and that of my family, is good; we are all happy and in relatively good spots in our lives. I am keenly aware of this blessing as many long-time friends struggle with a myriad of different chronic ailments. Even the dogs got clean bills of health from the vet this week.
I am blessed.
Approaching this mid-decade birthday, I have been paying extra attention to my health and well-being. Having dropped thirteen pounds since January the first, I can honestly use my new, self-appointed nickname: Lean, Mean Aw-What-the-Hell? Machine.
O.K. it’s a bit clunky.
I am generally of the just-another-year mindset with birthdays, but this year seems to have a lot of quirky numerical significance of milestones and anniversaries.
It’s a busy year. My daughter Lindsay turns thirty in June, and is getting married in July. She does not wish to be reminded of the former and eagerly anticipates the latter. Her two-and-a-half year old son – my grandson – Felix plays a prominent role in the festivities and I am greatly looking forward to it all.
Felix is a bright kid; he has figured out how to call or Skype me when he gets his hands on his mom’s phone. We pick up where we leave off whenever we can.
My eldest son Willi graduates from high school in a few weeks; he was accepted into two top-notch universities and has settled on where he will go. Thus begins the process of his nest-leaving.
Meanwhile, youngest son Sam is wrapping up his freshman year of high school on the upswing after hitting a few fairly typical first-year-of-high-school rough patches. He now begins the process of flying more solo than he has had to up until this point in life. Daily life without his brother around to torment, nurture, harangue, bicker with, cajole and love (in all directions and all combinations) will be an interesting transition for all of us.
I recently realized that fifty-five is a big deal in part because of all the stuff that happened 40 years ago, when I was fifteen, which I have been thinking about a lot because that’s how old Sam is now. Looking back, fifteen was filled with all sorts of good stuff.
Driving legally comes to mind.
By the time my driving privileges were codified by that little yellow paper permit in 1974, I had been behind the wheel of various vehicles for a few years during my summer sojourns to Horseshoe Lake in northern Minnesota. I had driven Ivar and Lila’s ’64 Jeep pickup, in which I had learned to drive a manual transmission (though for the first few years, Ivar had to work the clutch from the passenger seat) which I proved my clutch prowess with by mowing down a sapling at age thirteen. I had also driven their ’66 Plymouth Valliant, a zippy little automatic transmission number that was compact enough for the smallish, pre-teen me to handle effortlessly.
Fifteen was also the age at which Ivar let me use the Homelite chain saw, and it was also the summer I occasionally (VERY occasionally) got a full bottle of beer to myself. A story for another (and from another, very different) time.
2014 is also the 40 year anniversary my first job…of the approximately 72 different employers I have worked for to this date. Unless you include all the different things I did and places I did them while employed by five different temp firms. And of course, there was all the stuff I did on the side and sometimes off-the-books. Add in all the fun and funky stuff and the number of gigs I have actually been paid for easily tops 200. (see my poetry blog for more on that: http://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/walking-down-sesame-street-with-studs-terkel-at-graduation-time/)
As Sinatra sings in my was then/still is now theme song, That’s Life, “…I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet…a pawn and a king…..”
If it is not illegal, unethical or immoral, there is a good chance I’ve dabbled in it.
Fifteen, the summer of ’74, was also when I discovered that girls were…? Aww hell, that they were girls. Different but still the same girls as in previous summers. They were something entirely new and familiar.
Fifteen was also the age when I began filling notebooks with teenaged profundity on solo cross-country Greyhound jaunts from Denver to Minneapolis at the start of the summer and back again before school reconvened. At fifteen, I was old enough to roll solo. Add in shorter Greyhound hops from Minneapolis to Crosby, Minnesota and back, and I put a lot of miles on those spiral notebooks. That was over two-thousand miles a summer of life and writing about it, experiencing a wide array of people, different places. Big city kid soaking in small-town stopovers and all-night truck stops. Best scrambled eggs and link sausage I’ve ever had were at a truck stop in North Platte, Nebraska, somewhere around two a.m. on a June morning surrounded by bus vagabonds and truckers, great conversationalists and monologists straining their necks to see just what I was writing down in my green steno book.
I had seconds on those eggs from the truck stop buffet, more sausages, too. They were great eggs.
When I wasn’t writing, I was watching and listening. Sometimes to my fellow travelers, sometimes to Sinatra or Dean Martin on the little Radio Shack cassette player with the single earphone I had squeezed into my travel bag. Now and then I listened to all of the above simultaneously, and I vividly understood how movies soundtracks really enhanced the flow of a story.
Forty years have passed. An anniversary of a coming of age.
Fifteen was a crucial demarcation point for me. Now, here I am, some forty years hence.
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king; I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing – Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face… I just pick myself up! and get back. in. the. race! That’s life…”