Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Sunset Awe

There is a place on the east side of the Mississippi River north of Saint Cloud, Minnesota where winter sunsets put you in touch with awe. Scrub oak sunsets. Prairie sunsets. There are bigger, gaudier, more lurid sunsets around the world, but what these Central Minnesota winter sunsets lack in spectacle they more than make up for in simple spiritual substance.

You stand in a pasture, daylight beginning to fail all around, a subtler, more graduated light coming on. You quiet your heart and all but feel the planet rotating. Stars begin to come out overhead. Vastness insinuates itself and you begin to sense long, slow cycles of time hidden and interwoven, layer on layer, eon on eon, millennia and centuries and generations and decades and years and seasons and days and minutes, right up to this particular sunset, one of billions that have taken place or have yet to take place here on this spot.

You tune out the cars and trucks hurrying past on the highway and tune in other comings and goings. Glaciers and forests and peoples and species—even the great river itself.

Time on the human scale recedes, Awe arrives and, with it, (if you’re lucky), a certain humility and circumspection. You begin to get the idea that maybe you aren’t as big or important as you had thought. Maybe you’re just one little flicker of life on a small planet spinning on its axis, circling a lesser star in a galaxy of a billion stars, the galaxy itself just one of two hundred-billion galaxies in the universe.

You let the awe percolate, treading lightly as you do. You try not to think too hard, lest the awe fade and you find you’ve snapped yourself back inside human time—impatient time—time that taps it’s toe, looks at its watch and asks what’s next. Time that kills awe.

You try to stay humble, circumspect, and in the moment, even though your mind wants to prattle on like an apostle speaking in tongues after an epiphany. You do your best to ignore it. It quiets down eventually and settles back into the awe itself.

This awe seems to serve an ancient winter purpose—to fatten the spirit for a kind of hibernation; to slow us down and put us in touch once again with all the ancient riddles and mysteries,

This time of year, we seem to be almost genetically compelled to go out, gather awe, bring it in and stockpile it like food or firewood and mete it out slowly and deliberately—to make it last until spring.

All our seasonal stories, rituals, and traditions seem to have been born of this awe; to have been passed down to us in it; to have been created in order to perpetuate it.

We have been telling these awe stories in order to explain the cold and darkness away, and to frame our ancient riddles and mysteries for tens of thousands of years.

Even today, awash in science and mathematics, having answered many of the old questions and solved many of the riddles and mysteries, it seems all our theories, equations, and discoveries lead us back to the same place—to a crossroads in the dark where all the arrows on the signpost point the same direction: Awe.

It’s late afternoon as I finish this. Another hour and it will begin to get dark. I won’t make it to North Central Minnesota for sunset. Not today. Luckily, I seem to have stashed enough winter sunset awe away for this evening. Here’s hoping you’ve got some set aside too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Now it can be Christmas (from "A Porch Sofa Almanac")

Uncle Frank worked nights in a steel plant, so it was understandable that he looked owly when he and Aunt Babe and all those girl cousins joined Aunt Gick and Uncle Hank and their boys, and Aunt Pat and Uncle Red and their kids at our house for dinner on Christmas Day.

Frank had shocky hair and a vaguely distracted look--like Stan Laurel--and a concave posture that was accentuated when he stood there with his hands in his pockets, surveying the noisy reunion of cousins as the coats got collected and dumped on a bed in a back-bedroom. The chaos was exquisite, but short-lived. Before long, the cousins would quiet down a little or disappear to other corners of the house. His wife would join her sisters in the kitchen. His brothers-in-law would take seats in the living room, to smoke and talk and Frank would sit down at the piano.

He would run through all the traditional Christmas fare – Silent Night, Jingle Bells, The First Noel – that sort of thing. Then he would wander off into popular Christmas tunes--White Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Silver Bells, and what-have-you.

He played with a big, rolling left hand that bounced like a couple of heavyset aunts dancing a schottische with each other at a wedding. He sprayed the right hand notes over the top, adding plenty of sustain pedal to make it all ring. It was as if one of those barroom piano players in a western movie had suddenly launched into a medley of Tin Pan Alley holiday fare.

Eventually, he would run out of Christmas tunes. He would pause for a minute, light a cigarette, stare off into space, then turn back to the piano and, squinting through the cigarette smoke, he would begin a mazurka variation of Irving Berlin’s "Easter Parade".

And then it could be Christmas. Then all was right with the world. Somehow, that Easter song written by a Russian Jewish immigrant and played by a Polish American uncle in the din of a large Irish American family reunion with no one really paying attention came to represent all that is good and happy about Christmas for me.

Since those days, I’ve spent Christmas in war zones and Christmas with strangers. I’ve spent a Christmas or two alone--and more than a few in the crowded happiness of my wife’s extended family. But over the years, I’ve developed a resistance to the hype and the hustle. Christmas has become little more than retailers tugging at my heartstrings en route to my wallet.

All that would change in an instant , though, if just once--at a mall or on one of those radio stations that play Christmas music round the clock--or maybe on an elevator muzak holiday tape--they would slip in a piano solo version--almost a polka--of Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.” Heavy on the left hand and the sustain pedal.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Shopping Memory (From "A Porch Sofa Almanac")

My work takes me out state now and then, and the other week, I found myself walking down a small town Main Street with its stores and street lights all decked out for the holidays. It was snowing and I was suddenly transported back to a Christmas before Wal-Mart’s or mall stores; a Christmas when the stores along another Main Street were all I had.

It was freshman year of high school. There was this girl I kind of liked, although I had never spoken to her. For reasons I don’t understand to this day, I felt obligated to buy her something. All those feelings and hormones were surging. I had no idea what to do with them. Had it been a year earlier, I could have just punched her in the arm hard when we passed in the hall. But I was a high school man now. And now I needed--really needed--to use the last of my summer lawn mowing money to buy her something.

The perfume counter at the drugstore seemed like a good place to start. But the drugstore smelled like my grandfather’s foot powder. And in spite of names like “Evening In Paris” and “Chanel Number Five” the perfumes smelled like the local funeral parlor. I moved on.

I wandered down the notions store gift aisle, looking for something in my price range. But the wife half of the husband-and-wife team who owned the store had chosen all the Christmas merchandise. She was well past fifty. My tastes were running vaguely hot. Hers were decidedly hot-flashy. There was nothing. I moved on

At the record store, I searched bins of 45s looking for one that expressed how I felt. Like my hormones, they ran the gamut from sultry to stupid. The right song just wasn’t there.

I finally settled on a rack for 45 RPM records--a little ceramic dog with a coiled wire body. The records were supposed to fit between the coils. It was the stupidest thing I think I have ever seen, but I took it home secretly – and secretly wrapped it. And the next day at school, after lunch I walked up and handed it to her.

“This is for you,” I said. “Merry Christmas.” And I never spoke to her again.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Small engine repair

There is a moment in any male’s relationship with a small engine—snow thrower, lawn mower, weed whacker, chain saw, leaf blower, outboard, whatever—when he realizes it’s not going to start. No matter how many times he tugs on the rope. No matter how hard. No matter what gerunds he mutters under his breath as he does.

A bond has been broken, A relationship compromised. If this were a marriage, you’d be on your way to counseling. Luckily you’re just a guy with a broken machine. All you need is a trip to the small engine repair shop.

The small engine repair shop. Is there any place happier? The 30-weight-oil-and-gasoline smell. The 16th-of-an-inch patina of gunk on every surface. The repairman’s grease-stained cup with its half inch of cold coffee. The tools—two levels more sophisticated than you have at home—laying right where he can find them whenever he needs them.

There is the quiet, slightly acerbic competence of the small engine repairman himself. Deep down inside, every real male yearns to be that man. To be a professional putterer. To dig around in an engine for a second or two, then tell a customer who lives three tax brackets up the road, “Well there’s your problem right there. Your coil is shot.”

Or your butterfly valve is stuck. Or your set screw fell out. Or any of a million other little “Well there’s you problem right there,” problems the customer won’t understand.

I doubt there’s any feeling on earth quite like realizing your customer has no idea what you’re talking about. Hot darn. It’s open season on his billfold.

And as a small engine repairman you work for yourself—usually just a few steps from the house. If you need a snack it’s right there. You can’t fire yourself and the only retirement you have to worry about is whether or not to retire to the sofa for a nap.

I have a son—an adolescent. One of these days, he’s going to come to me, arms full of brochures from four year liberal arts colleges.

“What should I do, Pop?” he’ll ask. “Where should I go?”

I’ll lead him to an open window. We’ll stand there and listen to the whine of all those small engines in the distance. I’ll hand him a brochure from the local vocational-tech school.

And I’ll tell him, “Three words, my boy—small engine repair.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saint Henry of Brookfield

There is a small park across the street from Saint Joseph’s Church in Libertyville, and for a few years back in the fifties, they used to flood it and make a skating rink there in the darkest, coldest few weeks of winter.

On late Christmas Day afternoons, the light failing, night coming on, my uncle, Saint Henry of Brookfield, would load his white four door Chevrolet with cousins and take us all there to skate.

Just getting us to the rink and out on the ice was a feat of extraordinary patience. There would have been nine or ten of us, along with skates, socks, mittens, stocking caps, scarves, jackets and snow pants. All those laces to cinch tight and tie. All that winter clothing to tug into place. He did it cheerfully and, once we were all launched, he would lace on his own skates and get out there too.

He was a working stiff during the week with all the cares and concerns working stiffs had back then. But for an hour or so on those Christmas Day afternoons, he was a light-hearted, high-energy, funny and generous uncle—part Lou Costello, part Curly Howard—the engine for countless games of Crack the Whip—the guy even the slowest kid on the ice could catch when we played tag.

He was good to us, each and all—the best uncle on the best day of the best years of childhood, and when it was time to go home, he untied all the skates, tugged on all the boots, got us back in the car, and led us in Jingle Bells all the way home.

The rink is gone now. I’ll bet not one driver out of one hundred passing by on Milwaukee Avenue knows or remembers it was ever there.

Saint Henry of Brookfield is gone too. But I can’t drive past the place this time of year without glancing over and saying, “Merry Christmas, Hank,” under my breath.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Story For Bert

I first met Herbert C. Gardner back in 1981. It was on my first day at Bozell Advertising. We were introduced. He shook my hand and immediately bummed a cigarette. He bummed another the next day. And another the day after that, and in no time at all, I had two nicotine habits: My own and Bert’s.

Sometimes he felt obligated to sit in my office and be charming while he smoked my cigarettes. More often, he just mooched one and took it back to his office to smoke alone.

He was health conscious and from time to time he would try to offset the effects of smoking my cigarettes by going on exercise benders or taking up strange fringe sports.

For a while there, it was race walking. He would go on and on about how healthy it was and demonstrate his race-walking gait in the office hall. It was heel-toe-heel-toe, elbows at ninety degrees, those massive Big 12 tackle hips rocking side to side.

Then, flushed from the effort, he would bum another cigarette, race-walk back to his office, close the door and smoke it in contemplative solitude.

He seemed to have sent away for an Charles Atlas Course of the soul—to be living in a state of Charles Atlas-like dynamic tension with himself and the world. Flexing opposite activities, moods and traits against one another to get strong.

Smoking and race walking. Mooching and generosity. Privacy and friendship. Guile and candor. Motorcycles and literature. He weighed 270 pounds, but he held, read and loved books like a little old lady librarian.

It was this yin and yang, this dynamic tension, that kept me charmed enough to keep giving him cigarettes. Bert was a vortex of personal enigmas. I never knew whether I felt close to him from a distance or sensed a distant closeness.

Later, when I changed agencies and quit smoking, I would hire Bert for voice work. It was during those sessions, killing time, talking with him while the engineer worked, that I came to appreciate Bert as a charming curmudgeon—an acquired taste. A friend.

I had a book come out this fall, and I took a copy out to Bert. When he finished it, he was kind enough to send me a few thoughts in an email. It illustrates that dynamic tension and Bert’s grace and humor. I’ll share some of it with you now.

Dear Peter:

This should really be a handwritten note, But at the moment I must plead being a little too tired to do that. Sorry.

I've just finished (your book). I enjoyed it tremendously.

Like you, I believe that real life is composed of little things. Big things, the things we do that others take note of, will be as they will be, depending on opportunity, circumstance, drive and luck. But the things that make us human and precious and unique are the little things and our reaction to them.

The adroitness of your word choice and the care with which you assemble those words make them disappear behind the lovely images they evoke. This is good stuff Peter, wonderful, lucid, honest writing. Thank you for bringing it to me.…


It would have been a nice last note between old friends if it ended there, but we all know it would not have been Bert. There’s a post script:

P.S. (he writes) I couldn't help noticing that you didn't sign my copy, you prick! (Exclamation mark) (Or was I supposed to ask?)

And with that, human…precious… unique… my friend Bert race walked away without even bumming a cigarette.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

There Ought To Be A Store

There ought to be a store just for guy holiday shoppers—a place that worked less like a big box mass merchandiser and more like the neighborhood hardware store.

You’d walk in with a pretty good idea what you’re looking for. Some old guy would come padding up and asks if he can help. You’d tell him what you were after and he’d take you over to a pegboard full of whatever-it-is.

If you looked a little confused by all the options, he’d explain the differences—just like he’d explain things if you were talking faucet washers or bolts or brass fittings.

“Now this one here is machined a little better,” he might say

Machined better. Check. A guy holiday shopper could understand and use information like that. It’d help him make logical decisions. Especially if he were shopping for something exotic like jewelry or lingerie.

The old guy could keep you from buying her something that wouldn’t go over so well—like a new hammer or a quieter garbage disposal unit.

A hardware store approach to holiday shopping would resonate with a guy’s logical, linear, task-oriented approach to shopping.

Everything in the male psyche compels a guy to be an object at rest. Especially this time of year in cold, dark, northern regions.

When the unwelcome and uncomfortable obligation to holiday shop disturbs this inclination toward inertia, a guy will do whatever it takes to become an object at rest again just as quickly as possible.

The potential for profit is mind boggling. There would be no sdiscounts. No door buster special prices. Every man in America would gladly pay full retail and then some to just get in, get his shopping done and get back to the sofa and the remote control as quickly as possible. He’d pay even more If the store wasn’t decorated for the season and or playing all that seasonal music.

What do you say, big box retailers? If not a whole store then maybe just a couple guy-oriented aisles. C’mon. It’s the Holidays. Help the shopping impaired American male out.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Model T For Sale

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I was out driving the other day—on cruise control… iPod shuffling… seat heater on.

I was doing 70 computerized, fuel-injected miles per hour when I passed a used car place out in the country that specializes in what I call, “rural exotics”.

You know—old American cars. Cars from before 1960.

Kaisers  Desotos. Hudsons. Studebakers. Cars that spent decades in dusty old barns or in the box elders and weeds behind the  outbuildings on some farm.

I’ve never met the guy who runs the place, but I’ve admired his inventory from the highway for years. He always has something unusual over there in the weeds, and this last trip he really outdid himself. He had a 19-something Model T Ford roadster.

It was rusty. The roof fabric was tattered and falling in. It probably didn’t even run, but there it was—a Model T for sale. Probably the only Model T for sale like that anywhere in America.

The scene was a late autumn roadside vignette—a Norman Rockwell painting waiting to happen. Or if you threw in a couple of pheasant roosters hunkering down in the dead November grass, maybe one of those schmaltzy shopping mall wildlife art prints.

Schmaltzy or not, it melted my careworn, technology-jaded, modern-car-driving heart. It was nice to be in a world where you could still buy a Model T from a guy at the side of the road. I don’t know how else to explain it—it was just nice.

If there were still Model T’s for sale at the side of the road, then maybe we weren’t going to hell in a hand basket. Maybe there was still a little old-fashioned, positive, “on-the-up-tick” American “can-do spirit around—the spirit that built millions of Model T’s in the first place.

Maybe there was still a simple rhythm and pace to the seasons. Maybe  things would turn out all right after all.

It was the sweetest little scene I’ve zoomed past in years. It lasted maybe 20 seconds, then it was gone. I had a meeting to get to and just thinking of it, the cares of the world returned.

They returned, but they weren’t quite as heavy. I’d seen a Model T for sale at the side of the road. A Model T, for heaven’s sake. Life was good. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Combining Corn

I doubt there’s a feeling in the world like the feelings a family farmer must have in the cab of a combine this time of year. Especially with the corn looking as good as it does out there now. They must be giddy. Even the quiet ones who play their cards close to their vests.

Back when comic books were comic books, Disney used to draw Donald Duck’s rich uncle Scrooge swimming elatedly—backstroking through the gold in his vault. Something about seeing a farmer on a combine way out there in a field of corn reminds you of that.

If not Uncle Scrooge, then maybe a Grant Wood farming landscape. Maybe the farmer in that combine cab is awash in the sheer beauty of autumn.

There’s the combine itself—big, complex, and daunting to operate. I’ll bet there’s a certain testosterone-fueled gratification in knowing with absolute certainty that 99% of all Harvard PhDs wouldn’t know how to start a combine engine, let alone maneuver it through acre after acre of corn.

It’s a powerful machine. I know a farmer who used to be a big-time business executive in downtown Minneapolis. He calculates his combine harvests roughly four office cubicles worth of corn every five seconds. Let’s see a Harvard PhD operate that.

Then there are the business mathematics. Farmers constantly calculate and recalculate the number of bushels per acre times the price of corn, as they combine. Then they back out the cost of production.

It’s simple arithmetic. You can trust the number once you come up with it. But a farmer on a combine does the math over and over again, hour after hour, day after day—does it so often that a friend of mine wants to develop a meter for combine cabs that will roll like a taxi fare meter as it calculates profit.

No doubt about it, according to most calculations it’s looking darned good out there. Most farmers have good reason to be elated. If I were a farmer, I’d be tempted to stop the combine for a minute, climb down and turn a few cartwheels in the corn stubble.

I’m a city boy, though. So I’ll stick to watching them out their combining corn and feeling quietly happy from a distance.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Poem: Splitting Indian Mound Oak

The young men we used to be would have laughed
to see the two of us now
splitting Indian mound oak in the yard by hand.
What did those two know about time
or driving the maul through the heart of the wood?
I watched you count the rings.
This oak was tall long before we showed up
it’s roots sunk deep into wisdom.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An excerpt from "Porch Sofa Almanac"

(This essay appears in "A Porch Sofa Almanac" under the title "Cooking With Grandma")
Whenever I hear one of those food poisoning stories come across the radio, I reach over and turn the volume up. It’s only a matter of time until my mother-in-law is implicated.

She’s developed a cavalier attitude toward freshness codes lately. She thinks they’re a sign that America has gone soft. She says common sense and her nose will tell her when something “goes bad.”

It’s the South Dakota Depression era farm girl coming out in her – the one who grew up without electricity, refrigeration or pasteurization.

Either that or it’s the frugal Fridley mother of eight, who routinely performed miracles with loaves of Wonder Bread and cans of tuna fish and got her lunchtime multitudes fed.

There was a brief period – a couple of decades there – when she cooked fairly normally. Now she’s reverting to form, paring the spongy parts off shriveled potatoes and making soup with octogenarian leftovers.

She’s playing fast and loose with the microbes – and reminding us every so often that Flemming developed penicillin from some form of mould.

“Eat this,” I once heard her say as she handed an open container of cottage cheese to a grandchild. “Then I’ll tell you how old it is.”

She’s even found stores that specialize in selling old and dented canned goods and come home with bags full of God-knows what and a glow in her heart that not even the most successful Bloomingdale’s bargain hunter could hope to match.

The woman doesn’t date freshness in days or weeks – or even in months. It’s a matter of years, decades and, now, centuries – even millennia.

There was the can of coconut milk she bought in Hawaii in 1976, last seen on a cupboard shelf in 2002. Asked where it went, she said she’d made cookies with it, and served the cookies to her card club.

“The ladies said they were the best they’d ever had,” she reported smugly.

Don’t get me wrong. The woman is a great cook. She still makes a world class ginger snap, and I’ll put her fried chicken up against anyone’s – any time, any place, anywhere.

But, like Ronald Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union, I’ve adopted a “trust-but-verify” stance when she cooks. I like my chicken – all my food for that matter – to be at least four decades younger than I am. I want to see it every step of the way from the store to her frying pan and on to my plate.

Especially now, with the Holidays coming and all those old family recipes about to hit the table. I’m going to keep an eye on my mother-in-law. I suggest you keep an eye on yours, too.

Those old recipes are great – especially with fresh ingredients.

Which is why, if I have my say, Thanksgiving will be at our house once again this year.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Poem For Librarians

Such cheerful, educated souls, behind the desk
whispering in literary collusion,
sharing some egregious pun.
reading in the lunchroom on their breaks.
dreaming, books on chests at night
that they are lion tamers,
cracking whips, firing blanks,
making ferocious data banks stand rampant on circus stools.

When they die,
God puts them on his cart
and shelves them with the saints.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The 12:25 Milwaukee Road Out Of Union Station

I was knocking around the Internet the other evening. I do that sometimes late at night when the rest of the family has gone to bed. I sit at my desk in the spare bedroom and rummage around as if the Internet were an enormous kitchen junk drawer.

I’d been thinking about the old Milwaukee Road commuter rail line that ran north, out of Chicago’s Union Station to Libertyville, where we lived while I was growing up, and from Libertyville west and north—up to Fox Lake near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line. I’d been thinking about the last train out of the city at night. The one that left Union Station at 12:25 in the morning and got into Libertyville an hour or so later. I just had to know if they still ran the 12:25.

And so to the web. The Milwaukee Road is long gone, supplanted by some part-government, part-God-only-knows-what regional transit system called Metra. This I dutifully Googled. Seconds later, the timetable for what was clearly the old Milwaukee Road North Suburban line was glowing at me from the monitor.

It was reassuring to see the stops hadn’t changed. They were all still there and, a lifetime removed, I knew them immediately, and I recited them from memory.

I knew them backward and forward—into the city and out. They’d been drilled into me by countless trips and a generation of Milwaukee Road conductors, who slid from car to car, padding the aisle on tired legs wearing dandruff-flecked conductor’s caps, clicking their punches, calling for tickets, droning those stops in that tired, nasally voice they must have learned in conductor school, sounding as tired and rote and bored as an old parish priest at Saint Joe’s leading the Ladies Rosary Guild at somebody’s Tuesday night wake.

Every mile of the gritty little pilgrimage came flooding back to me. The rail yards and industrial neighborhoods north of the Loop yielding to bungalow-lined north side streets. The first flickers of open space and forest preserve at the edge of the city. The old suburbs, followed by newer, sprawlier suburbs. A few miles of open prairies dotted with hawthorn trees. The switching yard at Rondout. Saint Mary’s Road, the Des Plaines River viaduct, and then Libertyville.

The trip was a rolling meditation. Between the clang of the warning bell, the clack of the track, the whistle at crossings, and the almost-too-regular spacing between stops, there was a rhythm, repetition, and ritual to it. Tibet had mantras and prayer wheels, Lake County had that train.

The 12:25 was the last prayer of the day. If you arrived at the station at 12:26, and you would be in for a long, expensive cab ride home or a fitful night on the waiting room benches. So at the stroke of midnight you’d tear yourself away from your crowd at some Rush Street bar, race across the loop and climb aboard with two or three minutes to spare.

You climbed aboard feeling alcoholically affable, like William Powell’s Thin Man, the last round with your friends at the bar standing you in good stead. But your fellow commuters already on the train started dampening your spirits pretty quickly.

Tired blue collar swing-shift regulars with lunch boxes and tomorrow morning’s Sun Times. Businessmen heading home after dinner with clients. Fans who’d stopped for a beer after whatever game they’d been to. All of them oozing that sallow, almost luminous post-midnight fatigue.

Suddenly, you too would feel immensely tired. You found a seat and, head against the nicotine-oily window, an hour from home, just one more prodigal son awash in reveler’s remorse, you would join them and wait for the hangover to begin.

The car’s door would open, then slam closed, and other passengers would come up the aisle and find single seats. No one spoke. Everyone kept to themselves. You—all of you—sat there, alone together in the cigarette smoke and the diesel fumes and the oil-and-cleaning-compound-scented subterranean dark of late night Union Station. You all sat there, listening to the big locomotive idle, waiting for the engineer to throttle up, and the train to make that first slow, powerful northbound tug.

You sat alone, and yet there was a communion of sorts. It was as if you were all sitting in an Edward Hopper painting, sharing a little island of light and moving down a tunnel that augured through the city night. You were each your own story, to be continued tomorrow; not finished, but certainly done for the day. You were ready to go home and go to bed.

The feeling is not unique to the 12:25. It’s there, on the last train out of every city. It rattles through the night on every subway and commuter line in the world. There’s an empathy at the heart of it—an empathy so strong that it holds you forever. Once you climb on the 12:25, you never, ever get all the way off.

There is a small stretch of right of way for an old, long-defunct municipal trolley line near my house in the suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s no more than two blocks long. It runs through a patch of municipally-owned woods that they couldn’t sell when they tore out the tracks sixty years ago. The right of way is part of a trail system now, and, walking it, I sometimes sense the doppelganger of the last trolley of the night surging past, the same tired motorman, the same tired anonymous passengers, everyone eternally on their way home to bed.

The people riding my doppelganger 12:25 out of Union Station are nameless too. They sit there, bone weary, reading the Sun Times or staring out the window into the night. One man I do know always gets on one stop north of Union Station. He’s a careworn second generation Irishman—the factory working father of a huge family of playground thugs I went to parochial school with.

The door opens, He steps into the car. The door slams closed behind him. He sits, back to the bulkhead, facing me, Irish tough, preoccupied, not looking past the end of his nose.

Who knows? Maybe he’s still with us, in a nursing home in Libertyville. Maybe some nights after whichever of his ten or eleven children who came to visit leaves and the orderly dims the lights in the hall, the old man falls asleep. And, maybe, in his dream, he climbs aboard his own 12:25. And maybe I’m there—a kid he recognizes from 9:15 mass on Sunday, sitting halfway down the car on the left, a little drunk, head against the window, half asleep.

My 12:25 always gets into Libertyville at 1:25. The Irishman and I always step down onto the old platform, and he always walks off into the night.

I stand there for another moment and watch the train pull out of the station, heading west, around a slight curve to the north toward Grayslake. And when the tail end of the last coach disappears around the curve, I light a cigarette, turn my coat collar up and walk off into the night too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meditation Upon A T-ball Jotter

I spoke to a Rotary Club recently. I love Rotary Clubs. Such optimism and conviviality. If I ever overcome these feelings of pessimism and isolation, I might even join Rotary one of these days.

This Rotary Club listened politely. Rotary Clubs always do. They applauded politely when I finished. Rotary Clubs always do that too. Then, as Rotary Club presidents always do, the president of this club stood and thanked me and closed by handing me a pen. Pens seem to be Rotary’s universal way of saying thank you for coming to speak. I put the pen in my briefcase and promptly forgot it. I always do.

You know how pens are these days—cheap and generic, always coming and going. You run across one you like and it’s yours for a while, but eventually, it disappears. No one knows how. No one knows why. You reach for your pen and it’s just plain gone. If you hold onto the same one for a week, it’s remarkable. If you keep it for a month, it’s an heirloom.

At any rate, I must have lent whatever pen I’d been using to someone and they must have pocketed it. Because there I was the other day, in need of a pen, and it was gone. So I went to my briefcase, rummaged around, and came up with the one from the Rotary Club.

To my pleasant surprise, the Rotarians had laid a Parker T-Ball Jotter on me.

“Well all right,” I thought, “a T-Ball Jotter,” and I felt just a little better about the world. In an age of anonymous, blah, ho-hum pens, falling into a T-Ball Jotter was a day brightener.

My grandfather the traveling salesman was a T-Ball Jotter man. He owned a maroon one, and not just for a few days or months. It rode in his inside suit coat pocket for years. That pen was as much a part of his life as his scuffed up Gladstone suitcase, his black Ford with the sample cases on the back seat floor, and his notebook of details (penned in T-Ball Jotter) about his network of customers across southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and northern Indiana.

He was widowed and he lived with us when he wasn’t on the road. He sold furniture—sofas and tables and chairs and lamps—to a kind of small town family owned furniture store that disappeared decades ago. The department stores in the county seats killed them. Then the mass merchandisers killed the county seat department stores.

I drive across his old territory once in a while. I wonder which of the empty small town storefronts he walked through and which of the Main Street railroad hotels got his custom. I look up at a second floor window and imagine him at the desk in the room after supper, T-Ball Jotting the day’s hard-won orders onto company forms in the 40-watt light of the gooseneck lamp before bed.

He was widowed and lived with us when he wasn’t on the road. There were nine children in the house. Chaos reigned, especially in the morning. But there my grandfather would sit, at the breakfast room table, wearing a freshly-starched white shirt, tie properly knotted, eating his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and working the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Tribune with his T-Ball Jotter.

It may have been the Tribune crossword that made a confirmed T-Ball Jotter man of him in the first place. He didn’t always finish the puzzle at breakfast and some nights he took it to bed. He had lived with fountain pens his whole life, and was amazed that ballpoint technology would allow him to work the puzzle flat on his back with his pen bottom up.

So he was a T-Ball Jotter man. And every so often, some occasion would come along—a birthday or first communion or confirmation or Christmas—and allow you to be T-Ball Jotter kid. Sometimes, on special days, great aunt, Flo would come through with a T-Ball Jotter, boxed and gift wrapped. It was not quite as good as a card with five dollars in cash, but it was two cuts above a box of monogrammed handkerchiefs from Kresge’s.

A T-Ball Jotter from Flo was a badge of maturity that you clipped into your shirt pocket and wore to school. You couldn’t use it for schoolwork much. It was ink, and inerasable. But it had a heft, and you felt a little more like an adult, at least until you lost it. You couldn’t look Flo in the eye for a while after that.

A few months after I left home to go to college, my grandfather had a heart attack. He was on the road, of course. He sat up in a motel in Kokomo, Indiana all night and in the morning he drove to Little Company of Mary and checked in.

I don’t know what happened to his pen when he died, but a few years ago, somebody brought one of his notebooks to a family reunion. There it was, in turn-of-the-century Chicago parochial school Palmer method cursive—a T-Ball Jotter glimpse of my grandfather plying his trade.

No doubt one of these days my Rotary T-Ball Jotter and I will part ways. I’ll reach to my shirt pocket, and it’ll be gone.

But maybe, if you’re a writer, God hands you a shoebox full of the pens you lost in life when you die. All of them. All the Papermates and the cheapo pushbutton jobs and the one or two Watermans you fell into and fell out with, and thousands and thousands of nineteen cent Bics.

Maybe God says, “Here you go, kid. Try not to lose them this time.”

If so, I’ll rummage through the box until I find this particular pen—this T-Ball Jotter. The one with the Rotary logo that says, “IN APPRECIATION TO OUR GUEST SPEAKER” on the barrel.

And I’ll put it in my shirt pocket and think, “Well all right.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Excerpt (with audio) from "Cavalcade

She was a single woman in her sixties, a professor who had done graduate work in Paris back in her twenties. Now she was teaching remedial French to the churlish sons of second and third generation immigrants. I was one of the churls.

There were six of us. We sprawled, lolled, and slouched in the student desks in front of her. We exuded indolence, privilege, and a near-hostile reluctance to apply ourselves. We were big, young, strong and male. Had we been cattle instead of humans, we would have been castrated and turned out to the feedlot by now.

We could smoke in class and a particularly acrid cigarette stink hung in the air, mixing with the smell of whatever they were cooking for supper in the refectory in the basement. The slightest hint of the scent of lilacs lingered near the front of the room, as if the ghost of Blanche DuBois had flounced by fifteen minutes ago. This we attributed to the talc in her pullet-like cleavage.

We were among the first in our families to go to college, but education was lost upon us. We were just sitting there. Killing time, that was all. Waiting for the five o’clock bell to ring in the quadrangle hall. We were one clang away from escape.

There was a certain posture one adopted when killing time in those desks. You leaned forward, left elbow on knee, right elbow atop papers, cigarette smoldering between the fingers of the right hand. You stared at the floor, and jittered your right leg fitfully.

From the professor’s platform, it must have communicated close-mindedness; a sense of futility; an unwillingness to even try to assimilate the material. I am sure we didn’t intend it that way.

Sometimes, at night, when I review the long list of people I have offended over the years, I come to this woman. All these years later, I am sorry to have been so inconsiderate and disrespectful. It was rude.

I emailed this essay to an old friend of mine—another failure at French. We met in her class.

“I am sitting in the front row next to you,” he wrote back. “This shared experience is the start of a great friendship. Good that we can look back now with sympathy and respect for her contribution to it.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Marriage and the remote control

The fall television season is upon us. Meaningful football is back. The networks are hyping the new TV shows. It’s time to review husband-wife remote control etiquette.

Few electronic devices can be so maritally divisive. If I were a marriage counselor, the first question I’d ask any troubled couple would be, “Who clicks?”

There was a time when guys did all the remote controlling. A man’s home was his castle. The remote was his scepter. Whither he clicked she followed as submissively as Michele Bachmann.

No more. With women’s programming in the ascendancy, the modern husband must not only share his channel selection responsibilities, but also surrender the remote itself at times.

It can be fourth and one. The game can be tied. Your team can be getting ready to kick the winning field goal. If she asks what else is on and reaches for the remote, your job is to pass it to her.

To sit there silently while she surfs the lady channels; to join her in watching competitive cupcake baking; or wardrobe makeovers; or spoiled brides-to-be trying on wedding dresses with their spoiled friends.

Your job is to take the program you get and say nothing. Not so much as a word.

Her remote controlling may well be a dare—a challenge, a test. To speak is to fail. To roll your eyes or heave a sigh is to invite confrontation. Simply crossing your arms or legs can communicate petulance or impatience and turn an evening of connubial viewing into a frosty little pas de deux that could last until bed time—possibly even all the way to breakfast tomorrow.

Better to stretch and yawn and excuse yourself. Leave her watching her program on the high definition flat screen, the remote control at her elbow on the sofa arm.

Go down to the basement pick up the old remote and fire up the old analog TV where, hopefully your team will have won.

Sure the picture’s fuzzier down there. But look at the bright side. You’re making a statement.

You’re in charge of the remote control in the basement. That much at least is coming in loud and clear. I’ll bet she can hear it all the way up there in the living room.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Texting While Biking

I was biking the East River Road in Saint Paul the other day when a young man on the kind of single gear bike the kids call a “fixie” came toward me, riding no-handed, sitting upright, texting as he pedaled. He was past me and gone before I realized what I’d seen, but the image has been with me ever since.

It’s a complex image. I am partly in awe of his bike skills, partly amazed at the times we live in, and partly in fear for his health and well-being.

It isn’t easy to ride a fixie. With only one gear and no brakes, it goes when you pedal and stops when you don’t. It’s a purist’s bicycle, certainly not the kind I’ll ever be able to master.

Fixies are for urban male riders in their twenties—guys out to get somewhere in a hurry and on their own terms. Deep in my Baby Boom heart, I’m in awe of them. If I could shave off three decades and fifty pounds, I’d probably be out there on a fixie too, blowing stop signs, swerving through bike traffic on the Greenway, running from Uptown Minneapolis to any part of the Cities I chose, radiating the scruffy insolence of the young male fixie rider too.

Not to be. My half century bicycling career began aboard a hand-me-down Schwinn and has included a variety of other bikes from newspaper delivery bikes to college era ten speeds, to road bikes, and, now, comfort bikes—cycling’s answer to a maroon four door Buick. But no fixie for me. Not at my age.

And, while I used to be able to ride no-handed, I acquired a deep and abiding love of self long ago. I want to preserve me. I don’t want to see me hurt. I keep both hands on the handlebars—usually on the brakes.

Then there’s the matter of the kid’s texting. If you should not text while driving a car, you for darned sure should not do it while pedaling a bike. Your eyes leave the traffic and the trail. There’s that concentration lapse texting always causes. You’re riding on tires less than a quarter-inch wide. You’re a small pothole away from a trip to the emergency room.

I was dumbstruck by the stupidity, then again, I was in awe of the convergence of youth, dexterity, balance and insouciance. It was la-de-frickin-da, up the East River Road at 18 miles an hour with no brakes—and the kid didn’t even need bifocals to see the little screen on his phone.

From the exquisite vantage point of late middle age, I sense an aura of Darwinism surrounding the young man. Either he evolves \ or he goes extinct.

But, darn. He sure was something to see coming down the bike trail, no hands, no brakes, not a care in the world.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Piquancy Not Unlike A Lesser Horror

Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain or piquancy.

It was dawn on a summer morning a long time ago. I was riding the once-elegant, now-threadbare Twentieth Century Limited, sitting on the elevated sofa facing the sinks in a day car men’s lounge, en route from Chicago to New York for the first time.

I’d been up all night, reading and smoking, too excited to sleep. Now I was watching the Hudson River Valley emerge from the dark two hours north of the city.

A round, gray businessman pushed his way into the lounge. He wore a rumpled brown suit, walked like his feet hurt, and lugged a big, well-traveled, Gladstone suitcase, which he heaved onto a low luggage rack. He opened it and began his morning toilette.

I was watching a master traveler from another era at work. This guy had freshened up aboard this train before. The suitcase had a divider down the middle and he opened the side that held a week’s worth of clean shirts and his shaving kit.

Taking off his suit coat and hanging it on a hook, he removed his tie and laid it across the open suitcase. He stripped off the shirt in which he’d slept, then he appropriated one of the sinks.

Standing there in his undershirt, he seemed to be shaped like a doughy toy top. His chest spilled down and out over itself, down toward a navel-level equator, which was demarcated by a thin brown belt that secured a vast pair of William Frawley class trousers. The man tapered back in from there, continuing south past the baggy pant knees toward those two small, tired feet in their worn-but-shined shoes.

Chin up, chin down, one side, then the other, he examined his face in the mirror. He grimaced to study his teeth, then used the tips of his fingers to push his jowls and several chins up. For a second, I could see how he must have looked as he freshened up on the train forty years earlier.

He opened the shaving kit and pulled out a safety razor and a package of Gillette Blue Blades. He twisted the razor open, changed out the blade, twisted it shut, and slipped the old blade into the used blade slot on the back of the blades. Producing a tube of shaving cream, squeezing a dab onto the palm of his hand, he spread a thin soapy lather on his cheeks and jowls and went to work.

He had the pudgy dexterity of a fat man and, fingers probing and prodding, he gave himself a good close shave—a shave that would have cost him two dollars at Grand Central. He worked almost absent-mindedly, as if he were planning his day—the clients he’d see, the details he’d tend to, the room service dinner in the moderately priced business hotel.

When he finished shaving, he brushed his teeth with tooth powder, then poofed some talc into his armpits and creases. He took a fresh shirt from the suitcase, flapped it open, put it on, buttoned it up and tucked it in, then re-tied the tie. Reaching into the shaving kit, he pulled out an old brush that fit the palm of his hand and curried his thin gray hair.

He took one more look in the mirror and, satisfied, he put everything back into the shaving kit and put the kit and the dirty shirt back into the Gladstone. He closed the bag, shrugged his suit coat back on, and slipped out of the lounge on those sore little feet.

The Twentieth Century Limited stopped running a few years after that. My fellow traveler probably stopped running about the same time. The moment has been with me all these years.

Almost as old as he was that morning, I can’t walk across a set of railroad tracks without bending down, touching a rail, and thinking of him and generations of day car businessmen freshening up before getting into Grand Central aboard a ghostly Twentieth Century Limited that runs forever.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Atomic Balm

They called it “Atomic Balm”—B-A-L-M. Balm.

It was a mentholated rubdown compound of some sort—an industrial strength Ben Gay that came in a red can with a mushroom cloud on the label and all but blistered your skin when you put it on.

Coach kept it locked in the training room cage—out of reach of the practical jokers on the squad—the towel snappers and water bottle squirters and the guys who waited until everyone was in the shower, then flushed the toilets so the water would go scalding hot for a second and send everyone out of there hopping and swearing.

Football seasons come. Football seasons go. The smell of Atomic Balm abideth forever. When two-a-day practices arrived in August, you wandered over to school to pick up your equipment. The locker room may have been locked and unventilated all summer, but the vaguely medicinal scent of last year’s Atomic Balm was still there.

Coach let team captains and star running backs use the stuff all the time. The rest of us never got near it unless we had some sort of major injury. Then he’d slather you in it.

His faith in the curative powers of Atomic Balm seemed rockbound. It wasn’t just for major muscle groups. No. He prescribed it for deep contusions and sprained joints. He seemed to think it could fix anything. You got the idea that, had Mrs. Coach gone into labor, he would have reached for that red can with the mushroom cloud on the label.

He made believers out of us too. All these years later I wouldn’t be surprised to learn researchers at Mayo have discovered Atomic Balm can repair torn knee ligaments in running backs or eliminate the need for Tommy John surgery in baseball pitchers.

I just Googled Atomic Balm, and there it is—still for sale everywhere on the Internet—no longer in the red can, no mushroom cloud on the label—but still there, still for sale.

And even though it’s been decades since I played, it’s two-a-day practice season… That old football knee always twinges and aches a little more this time of year.

What do you think, Coach?

Is it time for the Atomic Balm?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

State Government Can Shut Down, But Family? Never

The state government is about to shut down. The politicians keep using the family budget at the kitchen table image.

In honor of the looming shutdown and in the spirit of the times, I’m going to call the family together tonight—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—all of us—to make a few cuts and look for ways to increase revenue,

My wife and I will propose we stock fewer treats like popsicles and ice cream bars in the freezer. We’ll float the idea of a gasoline conservation program too. You know—fewer rides to the mall and to friends’ homes. We’ll encourage alternate forms of transportation, including walking and bicycling as well.

The fourteen year old wants to be a lawyer when he grows up. He’ll oppose the reduction in treats, and suggest we conserve gasoline by having him mow the yard less often—without a correlating reduction in allowance, of course.

He may even introduce an expert witness—his buddy from down the block, who is in no small part responsible for our excessive spending on popsicles and ice cream bars in the first place.

His buddy will testify that activities like mowing, and walking or biking to the mall are both unsafe and nerdy.

Our son will then close by pointing out that mowing, walking and biking burn calories, leading to even higher rates of popsicle and ice cream bar consumption.

We will roll our eyes, sigh, and turn to the older kids—the ones who drive already—and suggest they pay for their own gasoline. They will whine and cry as if we were suggesting they pay 90 percent capitol gains tax. Especially our son the Ron Paul Libertarian

And so it will go, back and forth, cut spending, raise revenues. Right there at the kitchen table. At some point, someone—my guess is the fourteen-year-old’s buddy—will get up, go to the freezer and return with popsicles and ice cream bars for everyone—popsicles and ice cream bars he didn’t pay for.

Talks will break off around ten o’clock. No deal will be struck and we’ll all go to bed to sleep secure in the knowledge that unlike Minnesota, the family can not and will not simply shut down.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Graduation Open House

Sometime late this afternoon, my wife and I will get in the car and drive over to a high school graduation open house for the daughter of a couple of old friends of ours.

The house itself won’t be open. The party will be in the back yard. We’ll walk up the driveway, through the garage they cleaned specially for the occasion, and out the back door to the patio.

And there they will be—our old friend’s people—talking pleasantly, munching open house food, renewing the once-removed friendships we’ve all established with one another at weddings and birthdays, anniversaries, Super Bowl parties, and other occasions like this one over the years.

There ought to be a name for the relationships we have with our old friends’ other old friends—with their neighbors, and in-laws and aging high school pals and college roommates. With all the nice-enough people living their lives parallel to ours—people in the middle distance we’ve come to kind of know.

What should we call them? Step-friends? Friends once removed? Friends in-law?

This afternoon on the patio, we’ll all catch up with one another. We’ll hear kid news (good and bad)—and talk home improvement projects, aging parents, yoga classes, bike trails, and Lord-only-knows what else.

This is the rich, loamy soil in which life in Minnesota is rooted. We’ve built a state-wide self help group and support network out of relationships like these. There may be six degrees of separation elsewhere, but around here, there’s only this network of old friend’s old friends. And even an anti-social old guy like me will come out of his shell and mingle for a while.

The graduate will do her best to mingle too. Then her own friends will show up and the party will split into two factions—young and old.

At some point, my wife and I will slip out and head home, feeling comfortably reassured. Life will be proceeding apace for these two old friend’s and their group of old friends.

And this fall, when the graduate goes off to school, she will no doubt meet people who will become her own old friends and populate a lifetime of events like this for her—whether she cleans up the garage or not.

Old Barns

Maybe it’s spring, or maybe I’ve turned another one of those middle-aged corners, but I’ve been feeling a little blue about Minnesota’s old dairy barns lately. They seem to be on the way out, and it’s a shame.

You know the kind I’m talking about: Big old time barns with room for the whole herd downstairs and room for a winter’s worth of hay up above.

I’ll be out in the country, driving somewhere, and I’ll come over a rise, and there it will be—another swaybacked eighty-plus year old behemoth. Rotting. Paint peeling. Hay mow doors hanging on broken hinges. The whole structure ten years beyond repair and falling in on itself. And a little piece of my heart will fall in on itself too.

There was a time when the landscape was dotted with barns like these. And silos… And maybe a crossroads church or a two room schoolhouse or a small town water tower on the horizon. Now this.

Five generations of some family farmed out of that barn. It was morning chores, evening chores, with a full day’s work in between, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

Lord-only-knows how many generations of cows it housed, but twenty-plus generations of barn cats came and went. Not house cats. Barn cats. Scuffed up, mean, half-wild things. Cats that scared the family dog. They kept the local rodent population under control, though—in exchange for a pan of fresh-from-the-cow milk now and then.

I can’t drive by an old barn without thinking of all the farm reports and milking time polka music that came over the five tube AM radio that sat on the milk room window sill—music and news from the small town radio station ten miles off. It was always the same station. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the radio dial never changed.

The old barns are disappearing now. It’s the end of an era, I suppose—just another in a long list of inevitable changes. Going the way of our old sports stadiums. It’s cheaper to build new than it is to maintain them.

I’m going to miss them.

It’s spring, though. The section roads are less icy and more drivable. Think I’ll grab a handful of polka CDs and head out to say good bye one more time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Downward Facing Dude

Yoga is all the rage in Minnesota these days. We’ve got store front and strip mall studios and health club classes running 18 hours a day. Target is selling yoga clothes, and mats, and towels. Yoga water bottles… Yoga tote bags. Yoga everything. People just can’t get enough yoga.

Except middle aged Minnesota males. Something owly and obstinate deep in their “guy psyche” just can’t let them get with the program.

Probably just as well. Who wants to see a mirrored room full of sweaty guys doing the child pose, or the lotus, or the warrior, or any of those other poses? Not even guys themselves.

It’s a perverse question. Chicken-or-egg? Which came first? All those inflexible bodies or all those inflexible minds?

The guy in me wants to say that years of snow shoveling, yard work, old athletic injuries and other tweaks and kinks have come home to roost and make yoga impossible for us.

I suspect, though, that that rigid “guy” mindset keeps middle aged men from embracing yoga.

What guys need are yoga poses they can relate to as husbands, fathers, and members of the community—as… well… guys.

Poses they can achieve in baggy old sweat pants. Poses that take tight tendons, well-marbled meat, and sedentary lifestyles into consideration.

How about a pose called, “Searching for the Remote,” where a guy gets down on his knees somewhat gingerly, puts his forearms flat on the floor, and turns his head to the side as if peering under the sofa?

Or, “Balky Lawnmower,” where he places his feet wide apart and stretches, one fist at hip level in front of him as if holding the lawnmower handle, the other flying far out behind, like he’d just pulled the rope and the mower hadn’t started.

Maybe we could replace yoga’s iconic “Downward Facing Dog” pose with something called, “Downward Facing Dude.”

Yoga for guys. It’s a big idea. An important idea. An idea that could improve life for thousands of men across the state.

I’m going to meditate on it as I do my guy yoga today—that is if I do guy yoga today.

I seem to be stuck in a non-yoga pose called, “reclining chair.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

Everything's Bigger in New York. Even Snowstorms.

Is it just me? Or do other Minnesotans think the national media gets a little overwrought whenever the East Coast or the South catches a little winter weather?

Sure they’ll pay lip service to torrential rains on the West Coast or a blizzard blowing across the Great Plains. They might even show a waiting area full of stranded travelers at the airport. Or a couple of jackknifed semis out on the Interstate.

But you can tell down deep, they don’t care. Their hearts aren’t in it. They’re just phoning the coverage in.

Let it snow nine or ten inches in New York or Washington, though. Watch how they cover that.

Reporters in color coordinated winter survival gear brave the elements to file breathless remotes from desolate and devastated locations like Central Park South or the National Mall. There’s panic in their voices. This is it. The end of civilization as we know it.

Atlanta storm coverage is even worse. But at least when it snows in Atlanta you’re treated to those amusing shots of southerners trying to drive in snow—or push cars out of those towering three inch drifts without having any idea about how to push cars.

Chicago, on the other hand, seems to be more Midwestern—like us. When a big storm blows in, they shrug it off and start digging out. That's Lake Shore Drive in the photo above. Did you hear Chicago complain?

It’s those darned East Coast media types. It can take six days for a storm to cross the continent. The storm can make life miserable from the Rockies to somewhere east of Pittsburgh. The East Coast types won’t pay any attention.

Only when a big storm longs to be a part of it, New York, New York, then and only then will they start spreading the word.

It will be as if the storm appeared out of nowhere. Right over their heads—as if it singled them out for the kind of punishment no one else in the world has ever received.

So I’d like to offer the following message to East Coast media types on behalf of Midwesterners everywhere—people who know from real snow and 80 below wind chills.

Suck it up, Buttercup. Quit your whining and deal with it. We did. And get ready. The way this winter is going, any day now, we’ll have to deal with it all over again.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Mother, the Universe, and a ukulele

My mother is dying. A day at a time, an episode at a time, she is shutting her systems down. Withdrawing. Preoccupying herself with the Big Riddle.

Those of her children who live close by oversee the details of her care. Nursing home. Hospice. Oxygen levels. The inexorable advance of the pneumonia. The menu for meals she will no longer eat. Her children on the scene are a tenuous tether to a world where she no longer wants to be. Those of us who live in other places hover and worry at a distance via cell phones, text messages and email.

She is Irish, and she was raised Roman Catholic, but she has become vehemently agnostic these past twenty years. She despises the rites, the priests and the church hierarchy.

“Let those pampered old men bear the children,” she has taken to saying. “Let’s see how fast their outlook changes then.”

She loathes the Church’s salvation story itself.

“It’s just a story,” the woman who schooled me in the Baltimore Catechism rants. “Something they made up to get through the dark months.”

Her blood pressure is low these days. My guess is that changing the topic to religion would fix that, but it’s probably best we don’t. The word is out among family and visitors. It’s tick-a-lock, regarding religion. Even the most devout visitors—people who usually tell sick people they are praying for them—drop their eyes and mumble they’ll keep her in their thoughts.

No matter how agnostic she is, that numinous aura that always shows up at the end of a life is beginning to hang in the air and color everything. Believers might say there are angels hovering around. This would cheese her off immensely, were she to hear it.

“No there are not,” she would respond if she heard them say it. “The damned angels are just part of the story too. The one made up by old men and imposed—no inflicted—on women…”

We’d be off to the races all over again.

Darn that nagging, numinous whatever-it-is. Spare her the faintest whiff of holiness, thank you very much. If the product were available, she would find the remote control that adjusts her hospital bed, elevate herself, and spray an aerosol can of, “Aura-B-Gone” into the air around her.

On the other hand, I seem to be especially aware of whatever-it-is that’s haloing everything these days. My mother is dying and the whole world is shimmering. I refuse to try to shoehorn it into any one religious tradition. Life is too big, too complex, and too short to waste time trying to make one set of beliefs fit all.

Instead, I rely on an abiding sense of awe for the Universe that created this world and my mother, and plunked her down in the middle of a big Irish family on the South Side of Chicago where, a few decades later, she gave birth to me.

Everything shimmers these days. Even the ukulele my children gave me for Christmas. It is a simple and happy little instrument. It makes me feel simple and happy to play it—even badly—even though my mother is dying.

As I play it, the ukulele provides a rhythmic, tonal rubric over which I would drape a melody, should I ever stumble across one. It establishes a basic, plinking, plunking, optimistic little framework for life, and I have been working to find simple songs for it.

The Internet is full of ukulele sites. The sites are full of songs I first heard on Sundays at our house after we moved out of the city, up into the suburbs. My grandmother would talk my grandfather into making the drive to spend the afternoon, and, often, other great aunts, great uncles and family friends would make the trek too.

They would arrive fresh from mass in their South Side parishes, bearing Sealtest Ice Cream Cake Rolls they’d bought at the local drugstore (a South Side cake roll would have melted on the way out). Back then, a cake roll seemed numinous in and of itself. There would be dinner and talk, then Sealtest Ice Cream Cake Roll, and then someone would suggest my grandmother play something on the piano.

She was a contemporary of Irving Berlin, and, like Berlin, her roots were in ragtime. She would play Maple Leaf Rag, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and a few other rags. Eventually, she would wander off, down four or five decades of Tin Pan Alley tunes. Sometimes one of her sisters or friends would uncase an accordion and take up the cause. Always, the others would gather around the piano and join in the singing.

In rummaging ukulele sites, I have found all those songs again. They shimmer with the spirits of the people gathered around the piano. They shimmer with the Universe too.

“We were rough and ready guys but oh how we could harmonize…”
go the words to an old song called ‘Heart Of My Heart.’ It was a favorite with the ice cream cake roll crowd, a song about singing a favorite old song.

Rough and ready? No. Good and gentle would be more apt. But oh, how they could harmonize. They’re harmonizing with the Universe still.

I stood at their gravesides. I watched a generation of priests sprinkle aspergillums of holy water on their caskets and pray for perpetual light to shine on them. If she were on top of her game, my mother the agnostic would tell those priests to stick their perpetual light where the sun doesn’t shine. She loathes anything maudlin. She despises the euphemisms and platitudes in which we wrap the cold hard fact of death.

I think, though, that she would appreciate—and maybe even come to embrace—the infinitely larger harmony that seems to resonate everywhere in the Universe—that seems to be the essence of the Universe itself.

The ukulele chord progression for the last few bars of “Heart Of My Heart,” is simple: E7, A7, D7, G. The words go, “I know a tear would glisten if once more I could listen to the gang that sang ‘Heart Of My Heart’.” Think I’ll go buy an ice cream cake roll, bring it home, have a big slice, and go to work on my harmonies.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flying squirrels and the people who attract them

A friend of mine who lives on a small lake up north reports flying squirrels have discovered the bird feeder outside his living room windows. The squirrels are nocturnal, and I can imagine them gliding in—a squad of rodent paratroopers out there in the dark—their drop zone that pool of yellow light from the windows.

We found an old magazine article full of flying squirrel lore and little known facts about them the last time they showed up. But we’ve lost it now, and anything I told you about flying squirrels would be hearsay at best.

I have spent years observing the guy who owns the feeder, though. I consider myself an authority on the kind of human behavior it takes to attract flying squirrels.

You need what this guy calls, high appreciation—to be able to observe and take pleasure in nature’s small details. The wind in a white pine this time of year, for example. Or the way a coyote sneaks across the ice on the lake in the distance.

Content yourself with the small things and you will almost certainly acquire a contemplative frame of mind. With any luck, you will find yourself living in a stand of pine, ash, oak, maple, and ironwood a few miles outside of town.

And if you tend your feeders diligently, you may discover you have flying squirrels for neighbors—and that the neighbors don’t mind dropping in for a late evening snack, bringing an entirely new set of stuff to observe and appreciate.

High appreciation and simple observation can generate new questions too. Ever since the flying squirrels showed up, we’ve been going back and forth, wondering what a group of flying squirrels ought to be called. Is it a, squadron? A circus? Lately, I’ve been calling it an, “O’Hare of flying squirrels.”

We live in complex, noisy times. Often, Life seems to drive back and forth outside the house with the subwoofers thumping all night.

And it’s when Life is at its fractious, most distracting worst that you come to appreciate little things the most. Like a fire ticking and flickering in a north woods wood burner and flying squirrels gliding down to feed in the snow.