Thursday, January 28, 2010

Squirbs Redux

My head, like any large, empty container, gets a little cluttered from time to time. But, unlike the jar on my desk that holds, among other things, pennies, pencils and used-up batteries inexplicably awaiting a miraculous resurrection, my mind is chock-full of squirbs. A squirb is, if you’ll recall, a combination of a squib and a blurb, according to Mrs. Sloan’s Revised Standard Dictionary. So here they are:
A person in west central Illinois during the past few weeks would probably conclude that we--not Mount Washington in New Hampshire, which usually claims the title--have the worst weather in the world. The unenviable combination of snow, sub-zero temperatures, wind, freezing rain, fog, rain and more snow and wind brings to mind a forecast talk show host David Letterman delivered back in his early weatherman days when he predicted “hailstones the size of canned hams.”
What’s next?
Speaking of Letterman, I can’t help wondering what’s going to happen next in the hubbub surrounding the current Talk Show Host conflicts. Then I wonder why I should care.
Raise your hand if you think Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett had the late-night format figured out way more than the current self-serving crew.
Yes, it’s a bungee cord.
With our “good” car in the shop, my traveling companion has found herself riding shotgun in the trusty, rusty Trooper for the past few days. She has, therefore, been treated to the sight of my new safety system, which involves a heavy-duty bungee cord stretched from the apt-to-open-at-high-speeds driver’s-side door to a handy hooking point on the center console. The resulting tension keeps the door from flying open at will, plus adds an additional measure of security, as it stretches across the driver’s lap and acts as a kind of auxiliary safety belt. I’ve always said God invented bungee cords, duct tape and vice grip pliers for us poor souls without advanced mechanical skills. So there.
I will not be walking the floor at night wondering if Brett Favre will play next year.
Statements surrounding the ongoing debate on health care reform mostly fly over my head or bounce between my legs, but there was one going around on the internet that hit the nail on the head:
“No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.”
Of course, the dissenting view is that it might cost some tax dollars to make it happen, but if that’s the concern, think about this: We consider national defense an integral part of our freedom. We don’t expect our armed forces to turn a profit, so, in my view, a fair, comprehensive healthcare initiative is an equally important part of the freedom we should all enjoy.
I like the sound of some of President Obama’s latest recommendations for the economy, especially the increase in child care support and the cap on student loan payments. It seems to me, if we are going to attain true economic recovery and stability for all Americans, we must give people the ability to both work and get an education. Again, I’m not opposed to paying my taxes to help.
Galva lost a good one recently with the passing of Chuck Hay. Among his other civic contributions, Chuck was the “voice” of Galva football and a plethora of downtown events and parades over the years. After I started manning the mike for a few events myself, people would sometimes say, “Gee John, you could be the next Chuck Hay!”
No way.
There’ll never be another good-spirited, well-informed voice like Chuck’s.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Life is full of lessons.
I, for one, don’t always listen as well as I might. But when I do, something always becomes more clear than it was before. I had no idea I’d be on the receiving end of a new life-learning experience when, just as I pulled into Galva on the way home from an out-of-town basketball game one night, our car began making a decidedly unpleasant noise. I nursed it into the driveway, not knowing what it meant, but thinking that it sounded expensive. The vehicle in question is our “good” car. It’s not new and it’s got its share of miles on it, but we like it, and it’s in pretty good shape, so we’ve babied it along, with frequent oil changes and other maintenance, in the hopes that it would last for awhile. We even put a rebuilt transmission into it last summer, thinking it was worth the investment. But now, that money, along with the other repair and maintenance items we’ve put into the thing over the past few years, seemed like an expensive waste of time and money.
It’s probably a good thing I’m not wealthy, because I’m not exactly a financial wizard. My spouse, while not as scatterbrained as me when it comes to money matters, would still probably rather be in the halls of Irving School than the trading rooms of Wall Street. So it was a pretty big deal for us as we tried to figure out what to do next. Put simply, we were both pretty anxious about the prospect of either spending big bucks on the car, or giving up on it and investing even bigger bucks on something different. After a long weekend spent cruising car lots and scanning ads while waiting for the news from the repair shop, we were no further along, but even more stressed out about the whole thing.
But of course, other things were going on outside of our own little world.
And we began to think.
We thought of the countless families and individuals struck by unimaginable tragedy after the earthquake in Haiti.
On a smaller, more personal level was the quiet conversation I had with an acquaintance who lost her young husband not too long ago.
“It was so hard for awhile,” she said. “But I finally realized how strong he had made me.”
“I’ll be O.K.”
We talked about these things, and we talked about the car, too. Finally, Megan turned to me and said the words that had suddenly become so obvious to both of us.
“We’ve got no problems at all.”
And so, we’ll pray for those many Haitians who have lost homes, friends, families and a whole way of life. And we’ll pray and think of that courageous widow, who lost the most important person in her life, but stays determined to go on.
Our budget is going to be kind of out-of-kilter for awhile. But, that’s not nearly as important as it seemed just a couple of days ago, because we know we’ve got everything that matters. Because we learned a lesson:
Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Comfort Food Chronicles

While many folks greeted the new year with determined resolutions concerning what and how much they would eat in 2010, I seem to be on a just-as-determined course in an entirely different direction.  Part of it has to do with an eating trend that started with the visits we made over the holidays and part is just karma and coincidence. But, whatever the reason, my diet has suddenly centered on a great American eating tradition with a wonderfully descriptive name: 
Comfort Food.
During the first days of the year, our little kitchen has produced the following tasty, comforting, but possibly life-threatening dishes:
Seafood chowder (the seafood part sounds healthy until you add a quick quart of half and half), ham and scalloped potatoes (featuring a family sized, artery-clogging can of cream of mushroom soup),  an hors d'oeuvre featuring equal parts of ground pork and cheddar cheese melted on toasted cocktail rye bread, and a casserole that, inexplicably, includes both corn and macaroni glued together with--wait for it--an entire block of Velveeta.
If that doesn’t sound like enough of the good stuff, I also made a mildly successful attempt at producing my own version of an enchanting food item I encountered on our recent trip to North Carolina: Cheese Biscuits. 
Not to be confused with the cheese-battered biscuits found at Red Lobster and some other places, these little sinkers are the real deal, a heart-stopping delight that’s found, apparently, only in Eastern Carolina. I looked online for a recipe, but discovered that the secret behind them is about as closely held as the science behind, say, nuclear fission. Just about as dangerous, too, in the quantities I was consuming them.  While a specific recipe was not forthcoming, I did find some descriptions of the things on an aptly named website called  An example:
“For those of you that don't know, many independently owned and small chain convenience stores in eastern NC sell delicious cheese biscuits, which is basically just a biscuit that has hoop cheese melted in it.”
I know it sounds simple, but there’s a unique flavor going on that far outshines either biscuits or cheese as I’ve known them before. Maybe it’s the biscuits, which probably included both lard and butter as basic, essential building blocks of life. Or maybe it was the hoop cheese, an old-fashioned “wheel” cheese that’s so difficult to make via automated process that it’s all but disappeared except in that small part of the country. In any case, they were something I’ll keep trying to re-create until I make my way south again.
According to Wikipedia, the free (online) encyclopedia, “Comfort foods are familiar, simple foods that are usually home-cooked or eaten at informal restaurants. They are foods that are often emotionally significant to a person or group of people and are sometimes related to pleasant memories of childhood.”
And that’s the secret.
Because those comfort foods--the ones we really cherish--come from a time and place when people worked hard.  And, when possible, they ate well, too.  It all balanced out that way, with little concern for calories, cholesterol, fat and carbohydrates.  
Put simply, food meant love, especially when served with healthy portions of conversation, warmth and togetherness. 
Of course, my household will again start to moderate our intake a bit, One of us is re-embarking on her “oatmeal for breakfast and workouts at night” regime, while a full slate of high school basketball will, again, find me on a steady sportswriters’ diet of popcorn and coffee. We’ll both try to watch what we eat, because that’s the right thing to do. Plus, if, as they say, you are what you eat, I probably don’t want to become a lard-laced cheese biscuit. So we’ll try to do better, while still remembering that there’s something to be said for comfort. And for food. 
And for love.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Another New Year

Christmas vacation is over. For the kids (and teachers) in our lives, that means an end to late, leisurely mornings, and a resumption of the often-hectic pace surrounding school, school activities and life itself.
What’s more, it’s darn cold out there, making the desire to cuddle into the covers even more attractive.
The teacher in my life approached it with great courage, stepping into the cold, dark Monday-morning dawn with something almost approaching enthusiasm.
“This is the last time I’ll have to go back to school after Christmas,” she proclaimed, as she thought about her upcoming retirement from the teaching game,
Yes, it’s the last time, but it also suggests the beginning of a whole lifetime of “first times,” as we enter the new year and years to come.
We’ve seen several new years since an eminent University of Iowa doctor and professor said to me, “We’re going to try to buy you a little more time” as we pursued some hopeful, stopgap measures after the quick, decisive failure of the primary cancer treatment I had undergone. My case of prostate cancer was more aggressive than any he’d ever seen before. So much so, that he wrote my case up for an international medical journal.
So much so, that “a little more time” seemed like a lot to offer.
But what a time it’s been.
There’s something to be said for outlasting your warranty, so to speak. It makes you appreciate every scrap of time all the more. We’ve treasured the travels that have led us across the country towards family and friends. And we’ve enjoyed, too, the long, lazy backroads journeys we’ve taken to nowhere in particular. I’ve loved seeing my sons meet and marry great girls, and enjoyed, even more, sharing in the growth and beginnings of their own families.
After the whole cancer thing forced my retirement from the ad agency business, the eventual opportunity to work (and play) as a part-time Star Courier sportswriter has brought a whole new sense of purpose into my work life, as I’ve met and enjoyed the legions of kids and coaches who make it more of a pleasure than a day-to-day job.
And, of course, there’s this.
This column, that is.
When column boss Rocky Stufflebeam asked if I wanted to do it, I wondered if I’d ever be able to think of enough things to write about. And sure, sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch. But for the most part, it’s been a labor of love, as I write to you and you--quite often--tell me what you think.
So it’s another new year. Another year filled with opportunities, ideas, dreams and experiences. My life, like many, comes with a soundtrack. And as I write these words, an old song by James Taylor comes to mind:

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain't nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill
But since we're on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride

The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It's okay to feel afraid
But don't let that stand in your way
'cause anyone knows that love is the only road
And since we're only here for a while
Might as well show some style
It's just a lovely ride.

Happy New Year to you all.