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.