Friday, May 28, 2010

Be A Looker

“Be a looker.”
I heard a friend of mine say that to her young son the other day as we were talking on the phone. It was just a simple bit of conversation between a busy mom and a boy regarding a misplaced spelling book he probably wasn’t all that anxious to find in the first place. And she’d probably be the first to deny any profundity in the statement.
But it stuck with me.
Because I think it’s good advice, whether you’re eight or eighty. And because I need to remember it, too.
Heck, it might even be a worthwhile tip for our many recent graduates, though, heaven knows, they’ve probably heard more than many chunks of wisdom over the past couple of weeks.
But think about it. Think about how much richer all our lives would be if we took time to look, instead of waiting to be shown all the amazing things--big and little alike--that wait all around us. Looking can be as simple as putting it all on pause once in awhile, whether it means taking the time to enjoy the soft spring air of an early morning before leaping headlong into the day, or watching and walking towards a brilliant, blue-gold sunset as that day comes to a close.
Be a looker.
Look for joy, look for love, look for sweet surprises of the most miniscule fashion, from simple acts of kindness to a chance to be kind ourselves. From a baby’s drooling smile to the warm knowing glances of long-time lovers.
I think it all comes down to this: We are so used to being spoon-fed everything we see, feel, hear and enjoy, that we forget to choose and discover our own visions, sensations, songs and delights.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time, long before television and cell phones and internet connections. A time when the only reality show was life itself. Full of drama. Full of tears and laughter. Full of joy and sorrow. Full of life as it was meant to be experienced, shared, endured and enjoyed.
Be a looker.
Look for tiny miracles and big surprises. For those golden moments when life really shines, and for the long-lasting glow of true friendship and trust. For times that we catch the sweet smell of success and for all those other times, when we know we’ll be back to try and try, again and again.
Be a looker.
Look for love and for faith and a direction to take in a life with endless chances for our hearts’ one desire.
Dream about it. Look for it...and truly see it when it comes.
Be a looker.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

School's Out...Forever!

It’s that time again.
School’s out.
Well, almost, at least.
It’s a time of year anxiously awaited by students and teachers alike, and possibly best celebrated by Alice Cooper in his 1972 title track, “School’s Out,” a song that ends with this memorable anthem:

School's out forever
School's out for summer
School's out with fever
School's out completely

According to reports, Cooper was inspired to write the song when answering the question, "What's the greatest three minutes of your life?". Cooper said: "There's two times during the year. One is Christmas morning, when you're just getting ready to open the presents. The greed factor is right there. The next one is the last three minutes of the last day of school when you're sitting there and it's like a slow fuse burning. I said, 'If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it's going to be so big.'”
He did.
It was.
Cooper’s hit song has had a little more meaning around my house this year, because my wife the teacher is hanging up her bookbag after a career that started 36 years ago with Kewanee School District 229.
She’s pretty excited. But that excitement is tinged with a good measure of sadness, as she knows she’ll miss the kids and the people she works with and just doing the one thing she always wanted to do: Teach.
I’m not surprised.
I’ve been surrounded by teachers all my life, with my wife, mother, sister, brother, daughter-in-law and younger son all working in eduction at one time or another. So I’ve witnessed the all-out dedication it takes to share a love of learning with children of all ages and backgrounds.
Believe me, it’s not always a walk in the park.
It’s easy to look from the outside in and assume that teachers have it made. After all, the school day is over by mid-afternoon every day and, of course, teachers have the summer months to do nothing but lie poolside and sip umbrella drinks, right?
Not exactly.
That 8:00 to 3:00 school day is lengthened immeasurably by many factors, like the sheer volume of papers to grade and lessons to plan, plus many teachers are also involved in after-school and weekend activities that include sports and organizations, tutoring and counseling sessions, home visits, evening programs and other extra stuff that nobody else seems to know or think about. While some of those extras receive an additional stipend, it’s generally pretty miniscule compared to the effort put forth. And while summer vacation gives some teachers a well-deserved chance to rest and recharge for another school year, many spend the time furthering their own education, teaching summer classes, or pursuing other work to supplement their income. Nowadays, state and national budget shortfalls have even taken job security out of the mix, with teacher cuts and a lack of pay raises a part of life in many districts.
So, if teaching means long hours and short pay, why do they do it?
Tough question.
Simple answer.
They love it...and love our kids, too.
For the good ones, it seems to be based on an amazing altruistic sense of satisfaction. While most of us feel good about ourselves when we’ve accomplished things by and for ourselves, teachers feel good when their students accomplish something. They are the people who love and lead and teach and and cherish our future.
Our children.
Yes, she will be sort of sad when she hears that dismissal bell for the last time. But she’ll be happy, too, thinking of new things to do, places to go and, most importantly, grandchildren to spoil...and love and lead and teach and cherish.
Because real teachers never stop teaching...or learning, either.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

High Times at High Tea

It is my annual Mother’s Day rite to offer a shovel--with me at the business end--as my gift to my spouse on that special day. We generally spend all Sunday afternoon digging in our yard, clearing out overgrown areas, hoeing weeds and transplanting perennials from one spot to another in a frenzy of springtime activity.
For one of us, it’s an all-too-short day spent communing with nature and making considered, creative decisions as to what should go where.
For the other one of us, it can become a way-too-long day of digging one hole after another.
If you’re confused as to who is whom in this annual symbiotic relationship, just remember, I’m the one with the shovel.
This year, I had what I considered a brilliant idea. I would create an end-of-day deadline by planning a special Mothers’ Day outing that would force us to hang up our gardening tools at a required time, hopefully before I was entirely crippled by too much shovel work. It had to be something irresistible to her, and an event with a specific time, too.
I found it.
The lovely Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield was having high tea for Mothers’ Day. At 3:30. On the dot.
I told her all about my plan for her special treat and she replied with quiet assent, not even asking for details until Mothers’ Day morning.
Calls rolled in from sons and daughters-in-law that day, and to each, she said.
“Your dad is taking me to high tea today.”
Admiration from the daughters-in-law.
Mixed incredulity, awe and amusement from our sons.
And me? Well, I was feeling pretty proud of myself until she finally asked the essential question.
“Do you know what high tea is?”
Hmmm. That was a stumper.
“Well, there’s probably tea,” I said cautiously.
Of course, I really had no idea at all what I was getting into. But it sounded harmless and I figured there’d probably be something to eat. I have, after all, endured both a root canal and a foley catheter, so I could, I thought, handle this.
“There might be crowns,” she said.
She went on to explain that she had attended a high tea at a place in Dunlap called “Her Majesty’s Tea Room,” where all the guests wore royal headgear.
“Well, actually, they were more like tiaras,” she smiled, as if that somehow made it better.
Tiaras? I had a sudden awful vision of myself looking like a drag-queen version of Princess Di or, more likely, the Queen Mother.
Now, my spouse doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but, she sensed my growing panic and, knowing she had me on the ropes, couldn’t resist a little Mothers’ Day fun.
“Maybe we should ask another couple to come along,” she said. “You could invite one of your friends.”
I have a lot of pals, for sure, but none so close that I’d want to make this kind of offer:
“Hey Bob, me and the little lady are heading out for high tea. What size tiara do you wear?”
Not exactly a phone call I was dying to make.
She wasn’t done.
“I didn’t even know you liked cucumber sandwiches,” she said.
I didn’t either.
By this time, I was getting kind of nervous. I consider myself a pretty flexible guy, but princess crowns and vegetable sandwiches are way outside my domain. Suddenly, my shovel started looked better and better.
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” I said. “We could just stay here and dig holes.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she smiled again.
So we went.
And I’m glad we did.
The food, while somewhat daintier than an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, was tasty, indeed. Even the cucumber sandwiches, which included a rousing mix of goat cheese and garlic, tickled my taste buds, though not as much as a dynamite turkey and pesto combo that had me dreaming of more.
And there wasn’t a tiara in sight.
It was, in all reality, a nice, rather grown-up thing to do, as we sampled the goodies and relaxed in the Inn’s dining area overlooking a sunlit patio and garden area.
But the best came later as we embarked on a wandering country-road ride back to Galva.
“You’re really a good sport,” she said.
I smiled.
“I was thinking, maybe we could do this more often after I retire,” she continued. “Kind of like a tour of tea rooms.”
I looked carefully at her out of the corner of my eye.
And yes, thank heavens, she laughed.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Weird Stuff

Like many people, our lives seem a little cluttered sometimes. In our case, it’s mostly my fault, as my family has lived in Galva since the 1800’s, with my dad’s Irish-immigrant paternal grandparents coming to town in 1879, while his maternal grandmother was a Bishop HIll Colony girl. The resulting five generations of Sloans (my sons are the fifth) living in and around Galva have, apparently, thrown nothing away.
Some of the furniture and other items that abound in our abode might even have a little value. But for the most part, I think that value is mostly sentimental. Or, in other cases, the stuff is just too heavy to move, so it stays put.
Some of it is kind of interesting, though.
Like the gun.
It’s a Civil War-era pistol that’s been part of my family’s possessions for as long as I can remember. It has a few missing pieces, but it can be roughly assembled into a long-barreled revolver that is--pretty impressive looking. It even has a few notches in the butt, indicating to my imaginative mind that it had maybe been used as a gun-fighting six shooter by some wild-west pistolero. Family history tells that it had been somehow acquired by my dad’s brother in his youth, but with no addition provenance available. But it was always a cool thing to have around. While it was too heavy and dangerous-looking to actually play with, I enjoyed the chance to show it to my friends, I even used to take it for show-and-tell when we studied the Civil War, long before a kid taking a gun to school was a matter for a SWAT team and CNN.
I’ve never been much of a gun guy, otherwise, with a hunting career limited to stalking sparrows with my trusty bb gun, a practice that was generally harmless to both boy and bird, as I was too soft-hearted to pull the trigger at the moment of truth.
So, for the past 50 years or so, the gun has remained tucked away in a drawer, only to be displayed in the rare occasion that the subject turned to antique firearms or the Civil War.
I’m not even sure when I showed the gun to some old friends from Chicago, nor did I remember that they, too, owned an antique firearm until we got a call from them one day awhile back with the news that they were coming down this way to have their gun appraised at a place called the Rock Island Auction Company, a business that bills itself as “The Nation's Leading Auction House for Firearms, Edged Weapons, & Military Artifacts.”
“Why don’t you meet us for lunch and bring your gun, too?” they asked.
So we did.
The auction company is a big barn of a place, with a large auction room and an adjacent display area that was filled with countless examples of the guns, knives and other deadly artifacts they deal in. Many of the displayed weapons included approximate values, which immediately drew our attention as we waited for the appraiser.
She: “That one looks just like our gun!”
Me: “Yeah, kinda. Maybe we’re going to be rich!”
We quickly began expressing our alternate dreams of what we’d do with the gazllions of dollars we would receive for our now-priceless treasure.
She: “We could send our grandchildren to college!”
Me: “Or just visit them in my new sports car.”
Our friends, meanwhile, had calmly and carefully unwrapped their antique, which I examined briefly and dismissed.
“It’s just an old cowboy gun,” I thought, thinking it looked more like the cap guns I had played with as a kid than a real, authentic piece of American history.
The appraiser finally showed up to examine our treasures, which were lying side-by-side on a counter.
He looked at both guns, then turned to my friends.
“I hope he lets them down easy,” I thought.
“I’m really glad you brought this in today,” he said. “This is a very rare gun.”
Yes, our friends’ Colt Peacemaker revolver was quite rare, and worth a pretty penny.
Then he turned to my gun.
“Here it comes,” I thought, dreaming of one of those Antique Roadshow moments, when one of the excitable Keno brothers turns to some lucky sap and tells them their armoire is worth a gazillion dollars.
“We usually just see weird stuff like this,” said the appraiser.
Weird stuff?
Actually, he didn’t call it “stuff,” but, instead used a less-polite term that also begins with the letter ‘s.’ A term I won’t repeat in a family newspaper.
He went on to explain, kindly enough, that my gun was, indeed, old, but was also a mass-produced knockoff of the Colts of the day. A gun that wasn’t worth much then and hadn’t increased in value since.
Our dreams of college tuition and red convertibles shrunk quickly to less-glorious thoughts of college t-shirts and a new road atlas.
Our friends made excited arrangements for their gun to be consigned and auctioned at the company’s yearly Premier Auction this past weekend, while I made plans to quietly put mine back in the drawer at home.
They came down last Saturday afternoon for the auction weekend. I knew things were going their way when we watched the Kentucky Derby together and his horse won. The next day, we attended the auction together, where there was a tense roomful of bidders, along with rows of auction house employees taking bids from around the world on the phone and online.
Bidding on their gun started high. And got higher. And higher.
I won’t reveal how much it finally sold for, but suffice it to say that it was a nice boatload of cash. Not quite a gazillion dollars, but close enough.
Afterwards, we went to lunch (they bought) and they went back to Chicago filled with plans for home improvements and other ideas for their sudden windfall.
And we went back to a cluttered houseful of things that may not be of much value to others, but remain invaluable to us as memories, mementoes and messages from the past.
Back home.
Back to the weird stuff.