Thursday, December 31, 2009

No Grinches for Christmas

As part of the crazy stretch we’ve been calling Christmas break, we drove to and from our older son’s home in Minnesota the week before the actual holiday, summarily executing lobsters and narrowly avoiding a zillion-inch snowfall along the way. After Christmas Eve and morning in Galva, we headed for the Quad Cities International Airport for a late-afternoon flight to our younger son and family in North Carolina. The decision to travel on Christmas Day was predicated by a combination of schedule and price. Especially the latter, as most people would rather be there for Christmas than be in the process of getting there, so it’s a little cheaper for those of us willing to fly on the heels of St. Nick.
I figured the QCIA (what makes it “International,” anyway?) would be a pretty quiet place, but had failed to consider the number of folks who had gone before me, leaving their cars behind in the same long-term parking lot we hoped to use.
If I had known how many times I would circle the lot, I would have just hit the highway and headed south instead, as I probably could have reached Louisville by the time I found a spot.
Meanwhile, the feeling of peace and good will towards men existing in our car was fast being replaced by a creeping sense of “gotta see those grandkids” anxiety.
She: “There are no parking places in this entire airport.”
Me: “I noticed.”
She: “Wait...there’s a spot!”
Me: “I think that’s the runway.”
She: “That’ll work.”
...and so on.
Inside, the scene was surprisingly busy, as I realized I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of slightly lower fares, not to mention the number of young couples and children, too, who were shuttling between families on the day.
And it was at that point that I stopped and thought again about how many people have to work on Christmas Day.
“Uh oh, we’re going to have to deal with a whole bunch of grumpy Grinches today,” I thought, as I figured most folks would reasonably prefer roasting chestnuts or giggling under the mistletoe to dealing with an overpacked, underprepared, slightly confused guy from Galva.
But to my surprise, I was wrong.
“Merry Christmas,” said the Delta ticket agent as she helped me outwit the self-service kiosk and obtain our boarding passes.
“Have fun with your grandchildren,” said the baggage handler, who advised me on the best way to keep my carry-on bagful of last-minute toys out of the clutches of her bag-bashing comrades.
We continued to receive the gift of smiles and greetings from airline and airport personnel during both legs of our flight and in both the Quad Cities and Atlanta airports.
The teenage kid working at the Starbucks in Atlanta received high marks for complimenting one of us on her Christmas sweater, while I was wowed by the security guy who whistled carols while checking my I.D.
But tops for the trip was the the pilot on the second flight who came on the intercom to explain to his younger passengers--and me--that our plane was equipped with several kinds of directional technology, including “an old, but very reliable system” called “RR” (Rudolph Radar.) He continued with a lengthy tale concerning the flight patterns of a certain North Pole pilot, finishing with the news that he had received a radio message from Santa Claus requesting that he give a candy cane to each and every good little girl and boy as they disembarked the plane.
I was hopeful, but apparently, my behavior wasn’t up to that pilot’s standards. Or maybe he thought I was a little older that his target audience.
But in any case, these words still rang in my ears and heart as we walked off the plane and towards our waiting family.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Crustaceans for Christmas

It’s really been a Christmas tradition since there was a Christmas at all. Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, the wise men, and even Jesus, himself, were unexpected visitors who just kind of appeared during the story of the miraculous events surrounding the birth of a savior. We, too, have received surprise visits from friends and family members during past holiday seasons, and it’s always a wonderful thing, filled with the joy, love and sense of welcome that only occurs at Christmas.
But this was a little different.
It all started on Friday, a week before Christmas as I was tending to last-minute preparations before we started on the first leg of our journeys. You see, as much as we’d like to have all our kids and grandkids gathered around our tree and table, it’s tough to coordinate with schedules that include work, school, coaching, and other family and friend commitments. So, this year, we’re on the road. That means north to Fargo during the week before Christmas, followed by a visit to North Carolina the week after. My role in the days before a trip are kind of like those of a NASA mission control officer, with one of my vital tasks to arrange cat care for Max, the striped whirlwind who pretends to be my pet. It’s tougher than you think, as Max is not your average, lap-loving tabby. In fact, he’s not especially loving or friendly at all. One of his more annoying habits is to nip the legs of the person dishing up the cat food to encourage better service. It’s a small town and word gets around, so volunteers are hard to come by. Max also needs someone to let him in and out of doors. He used to have a cat door, but he abused the privilege when he instituted a bizarre catch-and-release program. You don’t need coffee to wake you up when you’ve had your hair parted by a startled starling flying down your hallway first thing in the morning. Bunnies are cute, but I prefer viewing them in the yard, not hopping around my kitchen. After a few such incidents, I sealed the cat door and now force Max through a full body inspection anytime he wants to come in.
Me: What’s that in your paw?
Max: Mroww.
Me: Open your mouth.
Max: Mroww.
...and so on.
I had just finished finally arranging for a cat-sitter, a young friend, college student and Iraq war veteran who seemed up to the task, when there was a ring at the door. Stepping outside, I found a box.
“Perishable,” it said, in bold letters.
“Oh, good,” I thought. “Fruit.”
A closer look offered the name of a seafood company.
“Oh, good,” I thought. “Fish.”
An even closer look revealed the real contents of the box: Four live lobsters.
“Oh, good,” I thought. “Pets.”
A dear cousin of my wife had sent the little critters direct from Maine. I had often heard the tales of Megan and her cousins enjoying great times on vacations in the different spots her Navy officer uncle was stationed. I had even heard about the time they had lobsters in the bathtub. Her cousin recalled that time, too.
“I remembered what fun that was,” she said later. “And memories are what Christmas is all about.”
Yeah, and live crustaceans on a 600 mile drive. We were leaving that evening, with a stop planned for the halfway point. Could I find a “pet-friendly” hotel? Would they be allowed to use the pool?
Happily, the lobster company gave me just enough information so that I was able to keep them kicking all the way to Fargo. From there, my son the chef took over.
And the foursome became Lobster Thermidor, served on a Christmas tree-lit table in their warm, friendly home.
And another Christmas tale to share and enjoy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Songs for the Season

There’s a lot to like about Christmas. While it’s easy enough to get caught up in the stress and anxiety we all sometimes associate with shopping and cooking and cleaning and traveling, it all pays off with the joys of giving and spending time together with the ones we love.
And then, there’s the music. Not everyone likes Christmas music, I know. But I do. I love to hear it sung and played well, and I love singing the traditional songs that remind me of the real reason for the season, along with some of the tunes that have come along over the years that truly evoke the Christmastime feelings and memories we all enjoy. It’s a treat for me to be asked to perform some of those songs from time to time. Over the years, I’ve played for groups ranging from nursing homes to elementary schools...and it’s always a wonderful time to relive old memories and make new ones.
One of the things I enjoy most about those songs is the wealth of stories--both fact and legend--that lie behind some of them, like these:

Angels We Have Heard on High
Years ago, It was a custom of shepherds in the hills of Southern France to sing out the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the Highest) to one another from their mountain peaks on Christmas Eve. Those words, and the traditional medieval tune they sang them to, were adapted into the song the we know today...a song that remembers that lowly shepherds were the first to be told of the birth of Jesus.

Silent Night
As a guitar player, I’ve always loved the legend behind this song. As the story goes, Father Joseph Mahr, the priest of a tiny Catholic Parish in the Austrian Alps, was preparing for Christmas Eve Mass in 1818, when he discovered the church organ was not working. He provided words to a simple song, and the church organist, Franz Gruber, composed a tune to be played on the guitar in accompaniment. The song was played that evening for the very first time. It became popular around the world, though Father Mahr and Gruber remained unknown to most, and knew nothing of their song’s fame until many years later. The song was sung simultaneously in English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914 during the First World War, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Written for the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this song was meant to be a bit melancholy, though later versions, notably one by Frank Sinatra, were more upbeat. But it still reminds us that Christmas can be a time to remember, reflect and hope for better days. For a version that’s truer to the original sense of the song, listen to the James Taylor recording, released after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

There are many more songs--and many more stores--worth sharing and remembering. I hesitate to add one of the songs I’ve written myself, but this one has a back-story that I like:
I’ve always admired the role St. Joseph took in the birth of his foster son, Jesus. After all, how many men would take it on faith when their young bride announced she was going to give birth under such miraculous, mysterious circumstances? I was outdoors late one Christmas Eve, a practice I’ve followed ever since I was old enough to sneak outside and listen for Santa Claus. It was a clear, beautiful night, and I gazed at a full moon and thought about that long-ago journey taken by a maiden named Mary and her husband, Joseph. I thought about how arduous a trip it must have been, over rough, rocky terrain on a donkey’s back, so near the time of her birthing.
“Mary, Mary, where are you going?” I said to the sky that night, and kind of thought it would be the start of a song. But the rest never came, until a few months later when I was off in Manhattan on a business trip. I was done for the day, and returned to my hotel room where, suddenly, the rest of the words and the music came to me in a rush. Almost as quickly as I could write it down, the song--called “Joseph”--was written.
Later on, I went to a nearby church for daily Mass. Once there, I realized what day it was:
March 19th...the feast day of St. Joseph.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Fine Art of Hunkering Down

My father would have loved the Weather Channel. He wasn’t an airline pilot, a mail carrier, a farmer or a member of any other weather-dependent profession. We was, in fact, a pharmacist, but he still watched the weather as if he had a plane to fly to Syracuse or 40 acres to plant before sunset. So It was a common occurrence during meals and other times to see him glance at his watch and bolt to his feet.
“Gotta watch the weather,” he’d say,
He’d head for the living room and tune in Don Wooten or one of his meteorological progeny. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, my brother and I would be squabbling over the last pork chop, while my mom and sister chatted as they cleared the dishes.
“Shhhh,” my dad would say. “I gotta hear this.”
If no one was nearby to do it for him, he would lever himself from his favorite chair and turn up the volume (no remote control in those days, kids.)
One might have thought he was huddled with Ike, planning the invasion of Normandy, but, no, he was just interested in what was going to happen next. So, I can’t help thinking he would have loved 24/7 access to Jim Cantore and his buddies.
I never really paid much attention to the forecast myself, since the only thing I generally had riding on it was the possibility of a snow day away from school. But even that wonderful reality never seemed to be the halcyon event it should have been. It never seemed to snow when I had a math test on tap, and tons of the white stuff meant I’d bundle up like some miniature version of Admiral Byrd and spend the day hand-shoveling the six-mile strip of concrete we called our front walk, followed by a trudge to downtown Galva and another few hours spent digging out the 47 city blocks that surrounded dad’s pharmacy. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it.
The weather is on most peoples’ minds as I write this on Tuesday morning, with a whopper of a winter storm predicted for our area in the next day or two. The “if” word has entered most conversations regarding plans for the rest of the week.
“If it snows.”
“If I can get there.”
“If it gets called off.”
“If they’re actually right this time.”
I’ve pulled my snow blower out of summer storage, dusted off my shovels and located my least-leaky pair of boots, so I’m probably as ready as I’m going to be. And I’m ready for something else, too.
While a big snow can mean tough, treacherous driving and a lot of other negative factors, a really big snow can lead to something infinitely more pleasant:
Because there can come a point when a mondo-snowstorm envelopes us with enough force that everything just kind of stops. No school, no work, no driving, no shoveling (yet) and no nothing.
Sometimes, those unexpected days off can be put to good use, as a chance to catch up on household chores and other necessary evils. But, an even better use occurs when we relax and accept the weather-card we’ve been dealt. The best days are the ones when we read a book, watch an old movie, put a fire in the fireplace and prepare a simple meal out of leftovers and the miscellaneous stuff in our pantry.
When we all just hunker down.
I hesitate to add this last bit for fear you may come to the conclusion that I’ve become a crotchety old duffer who spends his days watching the squirrels. And, indeed, I do have a generally warm relationship with the little varmints. My observations indicate that squirrels have a fairly limited universe. I like to call the ones who populate our front yard “The Park Squirrels,” as they travel between our yard and the park across the street, accepting handouts and living their squirrelly lives without making much of a fuss. But the squirrels out back are an entirely different breed. I call them “The Backyard Gang,” They’re a tough bunch, who demolish bird feeders, raid my garden and chatter angrily at me if I dare to sit on my deck. They even drive Max, my striped semi-feral cat indoors with their incessant barking and swearing. One of them decided, apparently, that it was getting a little chilly last week and moved up (down?) in the world, straight into my neighbors’ basement. A week-long power struggle ensued, as the neighbors tried to trap, chase and coax the little beast out of their house. Thinking he had a pretty good deal going, the squirrel resisted all efforts, and even started helping himself to goodies, like a loaf of bread on the kitchen counter. This was not accepted with good grace by the homeowners, who redoubled their efforts with the help of a professional pest expert. The battle even went international, with updates appearing regularly on the world wide web via Facebook.
Finally, the humans won out, as the unwelcome visitor exited via a basement door left open for that purpose.
“He’s headed your way,” messaged my neighbor.
Maybe so. Just in time to hunker down.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

This is what I’m thankful for

I wasn’t even aware I was coming down with something before it hit me a few days before Thanksgiving. After some careful self-examination, I realized I was suffering from a malady that’s been going on ever since the first prehistoric dad shoved his kids out of the cave. It’s called The Parent/Poultry Paradox. Put simply, it’s the result of hoping our children our will go out into the world and live rich, independent lives, but also wanting them to instantly reappear at our tables every time we cook a large bird.
Our kids are far away, and everyone had plans and commitments this year, so no one was going to be able to be at our house for Thanksgiving except the two of us, plus a bachelor brother-in-law. While not precisely depressed about the state of things, I was, no doubt, feeling just a little sorry for myself when the mail came on the Monday before the holiday. Tucked among the mound of bills and advertising flyers, was a hand-addressed envelope bearing my name. Inside was a beautiful Thanksgiving card, and inside that, an orange sheet of paper.
“Congratulations, John,” was the heading of a note from a friend saying I was the winner of her family’s annual “Turkey-Day Thank You” award. The award, she explained, was something she had created when her children were young. One line in her note especially stood out: “we are all so blessed with everyday people being their everyday selves and enriching our everyday lives with their presence.”
This year, I was the winner.
I’m not going to tell you her name, for fear of embarrassing her and revealing her quiet, private spirit of generosity. But I will tell you that she chose me because she receives some small measure of enjoyment because of what I write in this column each week.
It made me feel good.
And it made me think about all the people and things I have to be thankful for.
I’m thankful for a wife and family that loves and supports me without hesitation.
I’m grateful for a loving God and a church family that shares the joy of His presence in our lives.
I was gratified by the sight of an entire classroom of Irving School third graders who showed up at a Thanksgiving music performance I did wearing feathers, which reaffirmed my belief that the Native Americans were the true heroes of Thanksgiving, while the pilgrims were simply lucky bystanders.
I was grateful for the 109 hand-made thank you cards I received from the Irving kids, making it the best-paid gig I’ve ever played.
I’m thankful for living in a country where we can be different...and live together all the same.
I’m grateful for our farmers.
I’m happy to live in a small town where an early Christmas celebration is still a big deal and a lot of fun. I was pretty darn grateful for the nice weather, too.
I’m thankful for the dedicated athletes and coaches who make the sportswriter part of my job a joy to do.
I’m glad I’m not Tiger Woods.
I am entirely grateful for the warm friendships I share on Wednesday noons with the Grandpa’s Club and on Thursday nights with the friends of Jan.
I’m grateful for all my creative, artistic friends and associates, and to all those who show up to watch, look, listen and enjoy.
I appreciate a Star Courier newsroom staff that has been welcoming and patient as I’ve pursued this “second career” of mine.
I owe gratitude to a brave, cheerful group of fellow cancer survivors (the “reluctant brotherhood” of Us TOO) who have taught me that it’s not over until it’s over, and that each day is worth living and loving.
I’m grateful to the kids I know, including grandchildren and Godchildren, who work to keep me young.
Thanks to the friend/reader who occasionally emails me with her thoughts and shared memories based on the things I write. Thanks, too, to those others who have written or simply stop me on the street to let me know what they think about what I’m doing.
I am, indeed, thankful, as that Thanksgiving note said, for all those “everyday people being their everyday selves and enriching our everyday lives with their presence.”
This list could--and should--continue, as I have many other things to be grateful for. But let me end it with one more. Because I really am grateful to you. There wouldn’t be columns--or newspapers, in fact--without people who read and think and wonder and respond.
So thanks. Thanks to all of you.