Thursday, December 30, 2010

Confessions of a Snow-Man

I have a confession to make.
While it's nothing too serious, having nothing to do with my political attitudes, religious views or even my favorite prime-time television show, it's still something that might give you pause.
Because here's the thing:
I like snow.
Not just the light, soft, fluffy covering most folks hope for when Christmas Eve rolls around.
I like snow. Real snow. Big snow.
My sister, who lives on the shores of Lake Superior, where they, no doubt, coined the term "lake effect snow," puts it this way.
"I'd rather have snow than frozen mud."
Me, too.
For me, it's probably an attitude born in the days when a whopper snowstorm meant a day off school.
While an ordinary school day would find me literally having to be dragged out of bed to face the math test I hadn't studied for or the book report I had failed to write, the mere mention of some possible wintertime accumulation from the lips of TV weather-king Don Wooten would leave me trembling with anticipation. Ordinarily a sound sleeper, I would rise from my bed time after time during the night to peek out my window. But like a watched pot, a hoped-for snowstorm never comes, and I would, finally, sleep until I would hear my dad and mom stirring in the early morning light.
It was the critical moment.
Instead of looking outside for myself, I would stay huddled under the blankets in my mostly unheated bedroom, waiting anxiously for what would come next. If it had not snowed enough--or not at all--I would soon hear my dad call my name in the first step of a multi-phase strategy intended to get me out of bed and off to school. But if--wonders of wonders--enough snow had fallen to clog the country roads and force the cancellation of classes, they would leave me undisturbed.
I would count the seconds and minutes, knowing that every moment that passed increased the chances of the news I hoped for. Sometimes I would jump the gun, creeping downstairs in certainty that school had been called, only to be greeted with a knowing smile by my mother, who understood, and even sympathized, with my day-off dreams.
"Oh good, you're up early," she'd say. "You'll have time to shovel the walk before you go to school."
Now, my mother didn't have a mean bone in her body, but those off-hand words would chill me like an icicle plunged deep into my heart, as the combination of "up early," "shovel the walk" and "go to school" were almost more than my tender sensibilities could bear.
Suddenly, I was exhausted, wanting nothing more than to return to my bed until phase two of the getting-up process, which consisted of lying on the floor in front of the heat register in the bathroom until someone pounded on the door to drive me out and into the cold, cruel world.
But once in awhile, something wonderful would happen.
"No school," my dad would say.
My heart would leap with joy. Noschoolnoschoolnoschool!
No math test. No book report. No problems whatsoever.
Of course, the thought that my one-day reprieve might offer a good chance to actually study and do my homework never entered my mind, as I was instantly engulfed with a desperate need to get out there and play in the wonderful white stuff that had granted me my freedom. Of course, liberty had its price. The 16-mile front walk at our house really did need to be shoveled. And so did the eight zillion square miles of snow around my dad's pharmacy building in downtown Galva.
But soon enough, I was free. Free to go sledding, free to build snow forts, to throw snowballs, trudge through drifts and dig snow caves with my buddies as we played our own versions of North to Alaska and arctic explorer. Free to play all day until, with half-froze noses and toes, we would pile into the nearest mom's kitchen for hot chocolate, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
All pretty simple stuff, I know. But if you can think of anything better, let me know.
You might think I would have outgrown my thing for snow by now.
Certainly, my 25-year commute to Peoria made me less thrilled about traveling when the winter wind blows and the drifts are high. And if that didn't do it, my current gig as a sportswriter, complete with off-the-beaten-track remote locations, late nights and the need for speed when deadlines loom, completed my disinclination to face wintery road conditions with anything less than something akin to dread.
But I still like snow. I like the way it looks as big, lazy flakes float through the pool of light cast by the streetlamp in front of my house late at night. I like the way the sun shines and finds a million tiny diamonds, and the way the long, low light of late afternoon turns the snowy landscape into something surreal. I like walking through the park after dark, with soft powder spraying from my boots in a quiet night so still that my own breathing is the loudest sound around. I love watching kids play in that same park in daytime, turning the snowplow-built hills into Matterhorn Mountains and the playground slides into dizzying downhill adventures. I even sort of like digging out, as my neighbors and I work together to rejoin our sidewalks and kind of conquer winter's grip for awhile. And while highway driving is no treat for anyone, bopping around town in the unstoppable 4-wheel Trooper still gives me a bit of a buzz.
But most of all, I like just looking. Looking and remembering those precious early-morning days when simple things like snowstorms and grilled cheese were enough to fill my heart with boundless joy. When mom would smile and dad would say the words I longed to hear.
It's no wonder.
I like snow.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Truth About My Grandfather

I truly loved my grandfather when I was very young.
But I didn't know he was a man about whom songs were sung.
One day as I was missing him while hanging tinsel on a tree
My mother sat me down and told this tale to me.

A true, true tale, A Christmas story
Told without much pomp and glory
Told to me as I tell to you
My Christmas story, totally true.

My grandfather, my mother's dad
Never did much to make her sad
Except one thing she could not believe:
He was never home on Christmas Eve.

He had a business selling clothes
Lots of these and lots of those
A business that sure kept him hopping
When people did their Christmas shopping.

So he'd stay there late on Christmas Eve.
No, he wouldn't budge and he wouldn't leave
He didn't want to let them down
When all those people came to town

To shop for gifts, both large and small
He'd stay all night to help them all.
But he wasn't home, you see
He wasn’t where she hoped he’d be.

So they'd cook and clean and dream and sing without him.
They'd go to church on a midnight clear without him.
And finally, when they came home, he'd be there with no warning.
Tired and happy. Glad to see them. Home for Christmas morning.

But he was not the only early morning Christmas guest,
While they'd been gone, someone else about the house had messed.
Hanging stockings, leaving gifts, and lighting lights on a tall, tall tree.
They'd ask him and he'd answer:  "It was like this when I got here. Oh, no, it wasn't me."

One year, about a week before the Christmas holiday,
My mother was doing something that we all do to this day.
Digging deep into a closet to see what she could see
A Christmas snoop was what she was. That's what she said to me.

Just as she reached the very back, she saw an amazing sight.
A pair of black and shiny boots and a red suit trimmed in white.
A hat, a scarf, a pair of gloves and a little tiny bell.
She knew the man who wore those clothes. She knew him very well.

I truly loved my grandfather when I was very young.
But I didn't know he was a man about whom songs were sung.
One day as I was missing him while hanging tinsel on a tree
My mother sat me down and told this tale to me.

She never told the tale again and she didn't have to tell
That on every Christmas Eve she listened for that tiny bell.

So every year, on that same day, I wait until it's night
And go outside and listen to the twinkling starlight.
I listen for a tiny bell
And I think you know the cause.
I listen for him coming home.
My Grandfather, Santa Claus.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Because Christmas is for Giving

Christmas comes but once a year, but some folks just can't help themselves.
They keep on giving all year long.
The ones I admire the most are those who do it quietly, generously and entirely from the heart.
Like Linda Spring and Crystal Dennis of Bishop Hill's Filling Station restaurant, a place that devotes so much time and talent for the benefit of others, that you've gotta wonder when they find a chance to do much for themselves.
We loaded up our North Carolina kids and grandkids for a trip to the historic colony Tuesday morning for the Filling Station's holiday "on the house" biscuit and gravy breakfast thanking customers for their patronage throughout the year. But the Filling Station ladies couldn't resist a chance to do something good for someone else, too, with attendees asked to consider making a free will donation to the community driven fund for little Ella Berry, who was born in September with a congenital heart defect and remains hospitalized.
The food was great.
So was the cause.
It's just the latest in a seemingly unending string of events sponsored by the restaurant that has included benefits for local cancer victims and others facing catastrophic illnesses, plus the Honor Flight Network, and a long, long list of other good causes, including next Wednesday's breakfast that will see them team up with Compton Accounting for the benefit of the local food pantry.
"I think if you have a chance to help, you ought to," said Spring. "I don't feel like we do that much. We're just a vehicle that allows people to be generous. It's amazing how much people will do."
Like you, ladies. Just like you.


One of the best things about the weather we've been having is watching our southern-born grandchildren (and daughter-in-law) as they see and experience real winter for the first time. Four-year-old Cyrus pelted me with his first-ever snowball moments after their arrival on Saturday, while young John Patrick so far prefers eating the stuff to throwing it. They've plunged right into the season, trying ice skating, sledding, snowball fights, snowman building and all the other snow-related activities us yankees take for granted. They've also experienced near-froze noses and toes, which, if not as enjoyable, are certainly part of the wintertime package, especially when countered with grandma’s hot chocolate and warm kisses.
We're anticipating the arrival of the northern Minnesota contingent, a winter-hardened bunch who will probably consider our version of the season a paltry effort, indeed. But we and the southerners look forward to luring those Minnesotans to the Carolina beaches later this year, where they'll have a chance to experience something new for them: A summer that actually lasts more than a week and a half


It’s hard to imagine something more wonderful than having children and grandchildren home for Christmas. We know that it might not always be that way, as jobs, schedules, commitments, distance and weather all play a part in making it tough for us to get our wish every year. I asked my favorite Christmas elf what she wanted for Christmas the other day, and she looked at me in surprise.
“I’m already getting the only present I want,” she said.
I know who she meant...and I know what she means.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ghosts of Christmas Presents

My fashion and current events advisor tells me that the “ugly holiday sweater” party is the new hip thing.
Once again, I am, in my opinion, way ahead of the pack.
She initiated a sudden, violent closet cleaning spree the other day in anticipation of a Christmas visit from our kids and grandkids. I was hoping she might have forgotten the guest room closet, which is the repository for all the suits I never wear anymore and the sweaters I never wore in the first place.
But she didn’t.
Opening the door of the closet was kind of like that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Nazis pry open the Ark of the Covenant.
Ghosts of Christmas presents whirled and twisted and moaned throughout the room. There were red ones, green ones, red and green ones, and some with patterns and colors that could only be a result of the 80’s.
Most I bagged for a trip to Goodwill.
One little zig-zagged red-and-white number, that has an inexplicably dainty lace-like collar and is so heavy that it's like having an adult big horned sheep clinging to your back, already went to a friend in need of something really startling for a holiday happening.
But a couple, I snuck back into the closet.
So if you’re looking for something (or someone) truly ugly, and Christmasy, too, call me.
I’m your man.
Among the finest gifts of all are the memories we have about this most special holiday.
Many of the ones from my younger days have to do with my anxious attempts to BE GOOD in the weeks right before Christmas. Of course, thinking that extra-good behavior in those last few desperate days would both make up for a not-so-good eleven-and-a-half months and somehow fool a man who even “knows when you are sleeping” was kind of like studying my arithmetic for the very first time on the night before the semester test.
But I did that, too, so, getting a late start was nothing new to me.
My older brother, who was an evil genius so determined and clever that he could make you laugh in the face of his most diabolic torture, knew of my concerns. And so, he made it his mission to make things a little worst.
Our family legend was that it was Santa’s elves who crept around to check on us. Big brother, therefore, cut out a perfect silhouette of what he figured a North Pole elf would look like, including beard and pointy hat. He then taped the thing to the outside of the shade of our bedroom window and waited. After nightfall, the street lights from in front of our house backlit the cutout once the lights in the room were extinguished.
“Look, John, an elf!” he whispered from his bed.
I buried my head under the covers.
Finally, needing oxygen and hoping it was all a mirage, I peeked out.
But the elf was still there, listening and watching.
“Do you think he knows about the window?” I whispered back, referring to a yet-to-be-discovered incident involving a snowball and my dad’s garage.
“Probably,” replied my brother. “But you could probably make up for it if you went downstairs and made me a peanut butter sandwich.”
Yeah, nobody said I was smart. But apparently it worked.
Santa Claus came again that year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Stats tell the Story

Summer will come.
And the boys of summer will play their game again.
But for Cubs fans and players, things won’t be the same, because Ron Santo died last week at age 70 from complications due to bladder cancer.
After the comments I made about non-Hall of Famer Roger Maris a few weeks ago, it seemed only right to remember a northside legend who is widely thought of as the best player who’s never made it into the hall.
A 14-year player and 20-year radio color commentator for the boys in blue, Santo’s non-induction has served as a hot topic ever since he first failed to make it in.
I can’t really say why, but if you you want opinions, they exist in countless sports pages, sports blogs and sports bars alike.
And while I’m no stats geek, his numbers (342 home runs, 1,331 RBI, 5 Gold Glove Awards and 8 All-Star teams) seemed to put him well in the hunt for induction.
But it never happened for the old Cub.
And it really doesn’t matter.
Because the man himself might be better defined by some stats that have nothing to do with baseball at all.
Imagine this: During his annual physical before leaving for his very first minor league camp, doctors found sugar in Santo’s urine. At age 18, he was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes, the most serious and insulin-dependent form of the disease.
Here’s the stat Ron Santo heard that day: A life expectancy of 25 years.
But what was possibly even more terrifying to Santo was the possibility that the disease would prevent him from realizing his dream to play major league baseball for the Chicago Cubs.
So he kept it a secret.
It wasn’t until Wrigley Field sponsored a Ron Santo Day in late in his career in 1971 that he announced to the world that he suffered from the disease that would eventually cost him both of his legs.
Then he set about trying to make some changes.
The Ron Santo story contains countless tales of calls and visits he made to young people diagnosed with the disease with a message of unfailing encouragement and endless hope. And that story includes an undying effort to find a cure...not for himself, but for all the estimated 120 million people affected by the disease.
Here’s another stat: Dollars raised for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation by Ron Santo:
$50 million.
Good game, number ten.
It’s cookie time.
One way to make me happy is to bake cookies.
A way to quickly deflate my joy is to bake them for someone else.
With the St. John’s Altar and Rosary Society’s annual Cookie and Candy Walk set for this Saturday from nine to eleven, our kitchen has been transformed into a maelstrom of heated activity, flour-covered cookbooks and crisis-level decision making. I wisely and hastily made my escape to the offices of the Star Courier the other day, planning to arrive back home only after the coast was clear.
Or, at least, that’s what I hoped.
“Honey, I’m home,” I called, thinking it might be cookie sampling time.
Bang. Crash. Rattle...and a cry of frustration.
I was immediately reminded of the famous line delivered in an iconic Walt Disney film of my youth.
“Run, Bambi, into the thicket and don’t look back!”
But it was too late. She had heard me come in.
“I’ve got a big problem here,” she said. (note: no written words can quite express the emotion with which this statement was delivered.)
Somehow, the handle to our oven door had just worked itself loose on one end, leaving a dangling piece of worthless metal that wouldn’t quite open a 350 degree oven filled with just-about-ready-to-burn cookies. But, after a some frantic thought and a quick dig into my junk drawer, a long-bladed screwdriver proved adequate to lever open the door and save the day. And the cookies.
After the door (and she) cooled down a bit, a trip to Hathaway’s True Value provided me with the hardware needed to repair it once and for all (I hope) and restore peace to the land.
“You’re my hero,” she said.
Uh, yeah. But where’s my cookie?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Up on the Housetop

The nice weather we experienced in the earlier days of November encouraged many folks to get outside and hang, nail, staple, wire and otherwise attach a wondrous plethora of brightly lit Christmas decorations to the exterior of their homes.
Not me, though.
It's not that I especially like climbing ladders and wrestling with tangled strings of half-dead lights and itchy, sticky pine garlands in the colder days of December. It's just that we like the look of pumpkins, fall leaves and corn shocks, and think they're more appropriate in the days leading to and through Thanksgiving. To me, a house layered with lighted candy canes and twinkling stars before you even get your first taste of stuffing and gravy is rushing a season that is already shoved into too-early existence by retail abominations like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I did kind of admire the ingenuity of a guy down the street who combined his Christmas decor with a giant inflated turkey, but, for the most part, I'd rather wait.
But now, Thanksgiving is over.
I'm out of excuses.
Say what you will about owning a big house. It's hard (and expensive) to heat in the winter, and even pretty tricky to keep cool in summertime, once its high-ceilinged rooms really fill up with hot, humid air.
But it's a great place for Christmas.
Those same high ceilings, a fireplace and mantle, an open staircase and bannister, and a large, pillared porch all beckon, waiting for red and green (and white and gold and silver) finery to celebrate the coming of the season. As in many of the things we do, one of us is management, while the other is labor. As the blue-collar member of our team, it is generally my job to climb the ladders and mount the porch railings with coat pockets bulging with stapler and hammer, to bring her mind's-eye holiday vision to life.
"A little higher on the right," she said, as I clung to a porch pillar like a rickety, middle-aged monkey. "Maybe you should come down and look at it."
Come down? Look at it?
Feeling--as I did--like a tree-trapped kitten waiting for the fire department, and afflicted--as I am--with male pattern blindness, I hastened to assure her, as I always do, that whatever she thought looked right was way fine with me.
Large as our house is, you might think it would be hard to decorate the entire thing, but we have an entire room in the basement--called the "holiday room"--dedicated to the trappings of each season, plus specific holidays like Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and, especially, Christmas. The room currently contains no less than six full-sized artificial trees and a whole herd of miniature models, which are the unnatural descendants of years and years worth of the "fresh' trees that we used to carefully stalk, choose, cut and drag home. The last of those was a 10-foot beauty now known in family lore as the "Chernobyl Tree," because it slowly, quietly and inexplicably turned brown and dropped each and every one of its 17 gazillion needles the week before Christmas over a decade ago.
We made a panicky buy of our first fake fir that year, and have prowled the after-Christmas sales ever since, looking for new members of the brigade of balsams that now bedeck our abode. They don't all make the cut every year, but on those glorious occasions when we are expecting kids and grandchildren for the holidays, it's apt to be a tree in just about every room.
And the trees are just the beginning in a decorating scheme that includes all manner of wreaths, garlands, candles, angels, Santa Claus figures and--most importantly, the Nativity that marks the real reason for the season.
Both of our sons and their families are, indeed, coming for Christmas this year, if weather and circumstances allow, so I suspect we're gonna be going all out to transform our dwelling into a child-friendly forest of light and color. We took advantage of a kinda-balmy Sunday to put lights and garlands on the outside and are now working on the inside, but I'm not sure I'm really finished with the exterior display. So if you drive by and see a life-size figure of Santa Claus waving from the roof, please take a second look.
It may not be Santa at all.
It might just be me, up on the housetop, waving for help.
Desperately seeking a safe way down.