Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Package From Gramma

The college kids have only just gone back to school. It’s a little early in the term for care packages from home. But my daughter just got one from her grandmother—my mother-in-law—and reports the contents as follows:

“…an assortment of prayer cards, a blue ribbon, a pre-printed pad of grocery shopping lists, address tags with Gramma’s address on them, a blue holographic "Freedom is not free" bookmark, and a 2010 calendar.”

It was one of my mother-in-law’s storied, “Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink,” packages, where she chooses a family member at random and bestows the flotsam and jetsam of her life upon them. Not all her flotsam and jetsam—she has ninety years worth. Only as much flotsam and jetsam as she can cram into one of those “All you can fit in ships for $7.50” post office boxes.

Everything has a hidden meaning. We’ve all learned to interpret the stuff she stuffed in. The prayer cards, for example. They reflect decades of devout Swedish Norwegian Irish Lutheran Catholicism. She’s telling my daughter to go to church

And the blue ribbon is a grandmotherly affirmation—a kind of a “You go, girl” across the decades. The shopping list note pad is a reminder to eat well. The address tags scream, “Don’t forget to write,” and the “Freedom is not free,” bookmark is part civics lesson, part reminder for my daughter to read and enrich her mind.

My mother-in-law is the queen of subliminal gift giving— in care packages, on birthdays or at the Holidays.

One year, for Christmas, she gave her know-it-all son-in-law, a furnace blower motor she’d found under the basement stairs. Another year, all her son-in-laws got nicely gift wrapped packages of grocery store meat. Not premium steaks. Nothing aged or exotic. The store label identified it as something called, “Random Meat” and it was approaching freshness code expiration.

Sitting there, I had to agree with her. From where she sat as the family matriarch, I, a middle-aged son-in-law, was indeed, “Random meat.”

There is more. So much more. There’s a parable in every present and care package she sends. But it’s probably best I end this here. I have a birthday coming up and I don’t want her to go out of her way and get me anything too… well… you know… thoughtful.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A fond-yet-surreal State Fair memory

There was a time at the state fair—a matter of a decade—maybe two—when they parked a beautifully-painted, refrigerated semi just outside the entrance to the Midway between the beer garden and the grandstand. Inside was a very dead, very frozen whale—an orca as I recall—named “L’il Orvy”.

L’il. L-I-apostrophe-l.

The people who owned Orvy blared a sideshow-like, “Yowsa-yowsa” spiel over a set of tinny loudspeakers. You paid your money. You shuffled up a set of stairs, into the trailer, and there he was. Yessir. Sure enough. Li’l Orvy—a dead frozen whale.

You shuffled the length of his carcass, out another door, back to terra firma. Squinting after having been inside the trailer, you’d feel a little fleeced and a little conflicted. You’d just paid good money to shuffle past a dead whale.

I’ve wondered for years about the people who showed Orvy. Who were they? Where’d they get him? And where’d they get the idea to truck him from fair to fair?

I’ve imagined them pitching the loan officer at the bank on the idea of financing the truck and trailer.

“It’s a frozen whale. We’re gonna call him L’il Orvy. L-I-apostrophe-l. We’re gonna show him at fairs. People will pay good money to see him…”

I’ve imagined Orvy in his trailer, bouncing just a bit on the Interstate between all those state fairs, less exhibit than cargo now.

I’ve even imagined the couple home for the winter, fair season over—she sitting on the sofa, feet tucked up under her, watching TV—he in the lounger reading pack issues of Popular Mechanics—and Lil Orvy in his trailer, refrigeration unit thrumming on the far side of the barn where they can’t hear it from the house.

They’re probably retired now. I hope they’ve retired Li’l Orvy too. After hundreds of thousands of miles and all that freezer burn, I hope he’s thawed and returned to dust.

This year, when I go to the fair, I will visit Li’l Orvy’s spot.

I will buy a sno cone in his honor and shuffle a ceremonial shuffle.

“Rest in peace,” I will whisper to Lil Orvy as the sno cone syrup trickles over my knuckles onto that hallowed ground. “Wherever you are, rest in peace.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mother is Facebooking

There is a point in middle age where you and the latest technologies part ways.

Your dollar store reading glasses won’t pick up the fine print in owner’s manuals. You lose your way—and lose faith—in the bewildering maze of menus that drop down or pop up as you struggle to program the latest gizmo or gadget.

You start to doubt your digital self. Like Grampa Joad on the way to “Californy” in “The Grapes of Wrath”, you hunker down in the dust at the side of the road and say, “I aint-uh-gonna go. Nossir. I aint-uh-gonna go.”

This technological pre-senility shows up all but automatically In your forties. It shows up with such regularity you could set your watch by it, assuming, of course, you understood the instructions that came with your watch—or that you wear a watch at all now that cell phones show the time.

I mention technological pre-senility because I was on Facebook after supper last night. And, there, in a little box over to the right, Facebook was suggesting a new “friend”—My mother.

Mom. On Facebook.

I won’t tell you how old she is, but her profile says she graduated from college in 1943. She lists herself as retired, but she still drives over and volunteers at the library two or three days a week. She takes side streets now—her one concession to age, She has sworn off driving the eight-lane wide two-way drag race that used to be Main Street.

So much for technological pre-senility. Her peers are fighting for an extra prune whip dessert down the street at the home… My peers are beginning to think prune whip sounds pretty good. Meanwhile, Mom is out there networking with people 1/8th her age.

All you Baby Boomers feeling entitled to give up on technology take notice. And all you Gen-X’ers feeling electronically sorry for yourselves—suck it up.

We’ve got generations of technology to master before we sleep. If my Mom can Facebook, surely we can program that new hi-def TV. Or at the very least set the blinking clock on the hopelessly out-of-date VHS recorder just below it.

So c’mon. What are we waiting for? We’ve got technologies to master. If Mom can, we all can. Let’s roll.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In praise of teachers

There’s an exercise program on the stationary bike down at the gym called “Random Hill Climb.” Punch it in and the bike sends you off on a series of simulated uphill grinds—some easy, some harder, and one or two that bring you right to the edge of chest pain.

There’s a graph in the display on the bike that shows you what’s coming up. You can see the sadistically steep hills ahead—and fret about them long before you get there.

Sitting there the other day, pedaling, yet another Mount Everest looming, I found myself thinking this must be how teachers feel in August—looking ahead… seeing another school year only weeks away.

Here comes the grind. Time to grit your teeth and lean into it again.

New students. New parents. New routines and regimens. Bigger, ever-more-diverse classes. Smaller, ever-tighter budgets. No doubt about it—It’s all uphill from here.

And, this being an election year, candidates at all levels and from all parties will use you, your peers and your profession as red herring, political footballs and whipping boys. It’s amazing how problems are never the politicians’ fault—but how quickly they step in to take credit for any success.

I’ve logged almost two decades as the parent of school-aged kids. Almost two decades of projects, reports, and sitting in those small desks for conferences. Counting my own adventures in grammar school, this year will be my fifth trip through eighth grade. Not counting substitutes, music, gym and art teachers, that’s thirty-nine different classroom educators—from starry-eyed young idealists to grizzled old veterans. I have yet to encounter a single one who didn’t love kids and pour his or her heart into the job.

And it’s August in Minnesota again. Any day now, they’ll open the school doors and teachers will start moving stuff down summer-dark halls that smell of sweeping compound and floor wax, back into those timeless classrooms of theirs. The uphill grind will begin all over.

If you’re a teacher on the way back to school, while it may look uphill, I’m pretty sure the whole state says, “Go get ‘em. Dig in. Bear down. And here’s hoping this year lets you love what you do.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Any day now—along the edge of a bike path or beside a hiking trail—you’re going to come around a corner and find yourself face-to-face with the first red sumac leafs of autumn.

It will be ninety degrees out—a prefect summer day—and yet there it will be—a single sprig of red sumac leafs hanging among its still-green brethren— a sign of things to come—a shot across your spiritual bow.

“Repent,” it will seem to say like a cartoon panel street corner prophet. “The end is at hand.” The end of summer, I guess… If you take the short view…

But you’d have to be some kind of insensitive shmoe not to look at that first sprig of red sumac and contemplate how quickly everything else is going too—including Life itself. In that sense, the first red sumac sprig is a little kick in the butt from August to you.

You’ll stand there for a moment. You’ll look at it. You’ll sense Life trying to get your attention… Tapping the face of its watch… Jerking its head and rolling its eyes ever-so-subtly toward the door…

Another year. Another change of season… C’mon. Let’s go.

When you were in college, the first red sumac foretold a change of venue more than a change of season. In a couple of weeks you’d be out from under that tedious summer job, out from under your parents’ roof, and back at school with your friends where you really belonged.

Now, though, you and your college friends are burdened with routines and responsibilities and slumping through middle age. If the first red sumac of autumn foretells anything, it’s that in a matter of weeks your own college-aged kids will be going back to school to be with their friends where they really belong.

But there you will be—face to face with that first red sumac sprig. Locked in that simple, once a year, pas de deux.
The season won’t change. Not right away. But deep in your heart, something old and familiar will take that first step toward autumn. You’ll feel happy, sad, good—and for that moment at least—just the faintest bit blue.

Then your routines will set in again. And you and Life will simply move on.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

August Acorn Showers

(Excerpt from "A Porch Sofa Almanac)

Cool August night. Bedroom window open. Drifting off to sleep. Breeze in the old white oak out front.

All is right with the world – except for the acorns letting go. You can hear them succumbing to gravity a block away, carpet bombing the neighborhood, punctuating these late summer nights.

They clack on the gable, rattle down the shingles and plink off the gutter en route to the driveway below. They fall directly into the hosta bed – or onto the lawn – with a somewhat softer thud. I’ll rake them up later. Either that or the neighborhood squirrels will harvest them and stash them away for winter.

Every so often, one of them ricochets off the neighbor’s Corolla with a distinctive not-quite-clunk, not-quite-plink. Up in the bedroom, on the verge of sleep, I smirk a little.

The neighbor’s Corolla… Heh-heh-heh…

It’s not nearly as amusing when they plunk my car.

So many acorns. One tree produces thousands. Millions are falling all over town, littering sidewalks and bike paths, crunching under car tires.

They say Newton discovered gravity when a falling apple hit him on the head. I don’t buy it. I say he was probably thumped by an acorn. Only last Saturday, a guy I was golfing with got plunked good and hard as he teed up his ball in a shady tee box.

The August acorn shower. Like the annual meteor shower, or the first red sumac leafs, or the State Fair, or crickets in the night, or posters with the home town high school football schedule showing up in store windows along Main Street, or that vague sense that even now, mired in adulthood, you ought to be getting your things together to go back to school, the acorn shower is another little sign the season is changing.

Summer isn’t over. Not quite yet. But the end is at hand. The bell is tolling loud and clear – loud and clear as an acorn clanking off the neighbor’s Corolla.

The neighbor’s Corolla –


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nighthawking Facebook

There’s a famous Edward Hopper painting called “Nighthawks” that depicts three customers and a counterman in a harshly-lit all night diner in Greenwich Village in the 40s.

The diner isn’t especially warm or welcoming. It’s too bright. The walls are bare. There’s nothing to eat. It’s just two big coffee urns, those three people hunched over their java, and that counterman.

Still, it looks like a place to go if you couldn’t sleep and got up and went out for a walk—a place for people to be alone together.

I thought of “Nighthawks” around 3:30 the other morning. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up, walked over to the computer and got on Facebook.

And there they were—three people I’d friended—hunched over their keyboards—alone in this too-brightly-lit corner of the Internet.

There was my wife’s cousin’s wife— a grandma—alone in the night out in South Dakota. And a grumpy old Norwegian posting right wing political links from his condo down by Lake Calhoun. And one of my brothers, up and jittery about business. He’s been jittery about business for twenty years.

The Internet goes full-tilt 24-7-365. But it takes on a different ambience that time of night. No email pinging in. No tweets. None of the chatter that makes it all-but-impossible to thinks during the day.

It’s just you and the dark streets of Cyberspace. All that’s missing is a bluesy saxophone solo and the sound of lonely footsteps on the digital concrete.

In Hopper’s painting, light spills out onto the sidewalk, leaving you feeling conflicted as you look at it. Part of you wants to push into the diner, sit down and be alone with those people. Part of you wants to cross to the dark side of the street and hurry by.

You face the same conflict on Facebook at 3:30 in the morning. Do you join your friends in being alone together? Or cross the street and slip off into the cyber night?

I crossed the street. I logged out, did some work, and went back to bed. I slept well, too. My friends and I had been alone together. It was reassuring to know that, this time at least, I hadn’t been the only nighthawk out there on the web.