Thursday, December 29, 2011

Welcome to Holiday Inn

It was a couple of nights before Christmas, and we had just settled down for a long winter's nap.
Though we were both pretty beat from the shopping, cooking, decorating and cleaning folderol that always goes on in the days right before the holiday, we had flipped on the TV that sits across the bedroom on top of a high cabinet. It's an old, tiny, 13-incher, with a picture so small that I really can't see much of what's going on. But it provides sound and semi-seeable pictures to doze by on nights when we're not quite ready to drop off, plus a chance to hear some local news and weather in the morning while we're getting ready for the day.
I kind of missed out on the roster of December TV specials this year, so I was glad to hear the opening strains of one of my favorite Christmastime classics.
"Holiday Inn" is a 1942 Irving Berlin musical featuring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that introduced the song, "White Christmas."
For those who have somehow dodged the chance to view this festive standard, it goes something like this:
An unlucky-in-love crooner, Crosby, leaves show business with a plan to move to a farm in Connecticut. After discovering that farmwork is a little more than he bargained for, he decides to turn the place into an entertainment venue that's only open on holidays, called Holiday Inn.
"Hey, that's me." I said.
"No, that's us," she muttered sleepily before drifting into the deep, righteous sleep of a woman who has spent an entire day baking and decorating Christmas cookies with a sugar-charged band of grandkids and friends.
And she was right, in a way, because it's only at major holidays that this big barn of a place on Galva's Wiley Park truly fills up to its proper capacity. The contingency this year included the Fargo crew, with a pair of adults, two teenagers and a girlfriend, who probably wondered why the heck she agreed to leave the relative quiet of the great white North for our own special brand of noise and confusion. The North Carolinians were mom and dad, plus five and three year olds, whose major focus has been the proper communication with and cultivation of a certain chubby gentleman from above the Arctic Circle. Also present were one lively visiting dog and Max, the surly, homeboy cat who hated both him for being here, and us for allowing it.
Of course, it's just what we want, and something we look forward to all year. And if it means a little extra effort from time to time to make it all come together, it's easily balanced by the memorable moments that occur the whole time its going on.
Like the first Sunday we were back in town, a week before Christmas. As word was out that we were present and available for duty, we were both enlisted for some last-minute assistance at church. She would be the lector that morning, while I was to provide the music for Mass. We were also in charge of the youngest grandsons while their parents were in Peoria for the aftermath of a joyful wedding reception we had all attended earlier.
I conveniently forgot that fact and left for the church early to prepare the music, while she dealt with the old/new task of getting a pair of lively boys scrubbed and ready for pubic viewing. Things were about ready to roll at 10 a.m. Mass, with the always-prompt Father John Burns poised for action, when grandma rushed in with her charges.
"Whew," I thought. "She made it."
Meanwhile, in the distance, I heard a sudden clamor.
I knew that noise.
It was a car alarm.
And it sounded familiar.
A fellow parishioner hustled up to me and whispered in my ear, just as I was about to play the first few notes of the processional.
FP: Hey, Megan's car is going nuts out there. I think she hit the wrong button.
Me: Help. Please. Quick.
He leapt to the task, grabbing the keys and quelling the din just in time. We're used to being lead characters in our own sort of "I Love Lucy" episodes, so we deal humorously, if not gracefully, with situations that might be embarrassing to others.
Me: Nice entrance, Lucy.
She: Right-o, Ricky.
We had a great time with everyone home, despite a total lack of winter weather that had my younger grandsons and I calling heavy frost, "snow" just to keep our spirits bright. There have been abundant meals and wonderful visits with many of our hometown friends and family members, with a plethora of activities ranging from heavily hectic to really relaxing.
Most of all, It was fun.
But things turned serious for at least two of us as the big day finally approached.
Despite son Patrick's efforts to keep the real reason for the season uppermost in his young sons' minds, there comes an inevitable time when Santa Claus, reindeer and presents under a tree overwhelm any other thoughts and beliefs.
It was finally Christmas Eve.
He was finally coming.
A couple of days before, I had introduced the boys to the NORAD Santa Tracker, an online service provided by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (!) that lets interested watchers know how the Jolly One is progressing on his yearly trip around the world. On December 23rd, they were mildly interested and amused. By the time we had been to Christmas Eve Mass and they had picked at a couple of meatballs, they were staring at the computer screen as ardently as if they were watching for an enemy invasion, rather than a friendly visit from St. Nick.
"He's in Nova Scotia," exclaimed five-year-old Cyrus. "He's almost here!"
A good grandfather would have rightfully explained that the Maritime Provinces are actually quite a ways off, but I chose to capitalize on his sudden angst by reminding him that Santa only comes when little boys are in bed. Problem is, he had just heard the same admonishment from every adult in the house, plus even the cat, I think.
Suddenly, he had a mission.
Get to sleep. Quick.
But before the little ones were trundled off to bed, Paddy gave it one more try. As we all sat in our darkened living room in front of a flickering fire, he read the Christmas Story, the real one, to all of us.
The boys seemed engrossed, absorbing the beautiful tale and its meaning.
"Play the Mary song," whispered grandma to me. And I did, launching into a rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?" a contemporary Christmas song with great meaning and considerable beauty.
All was calm. All was quiet.
It was a magic moment, filled with the faith and love that truly defines the Christmas season.
Well, kind of.
Little John Patrick gave me a look that seemed to say, "Who does grandpa think he is, Andy Williams?"
"I'm going to bed," fumed Cyrus, who had finally endured all the delaying tactics he could take.
But we weren't through tormenting the young lads with our unconscionable ways.
They were still snug in their beds when we, along with older son, Colin and his wife, arose at five in the morning for our annual trip to Julotta, the traditional Swedish worship service held in the Old Colony Church at Bishop Hill.
The youngest boys sleep in the sitting room just off our bedroom, so Cyrus, who was, no doubt dozing with one ear cocked for the sound of sleigh bells, was awakened when grandma made her way through in search of coffee.
"Where are you going?" he exclaimed in horror. He had been firmly warned that Santa needed the entire night to do his work, and knew that little boys--or grandmas--who got up before dawn were in danger of spoiling everything.
She patiently explained that we always go to early church and that Santa always understood.
He mulled it over until she returned.
"What were you doing down there?" he said, obviously fearing the worst.
It was O.K., she explained. Santa would still come.
And he did.
They're all gone now, on their respective ways to Fargo and North Carolina. The house--and we--are slowly recovering from the kind of happy onslaught we are truly made for. Another family Christmas is something we'll remember, as we hope to see it happen again and again.
Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A love story

She was going to be married.
Things were probably going along as they generally do in the weeks and months before a wedding. She was a little nervous. Her mother was probably excited. Maybe her father was wondering just how he would pay for everything.
Then something happened.
Something kind of strange.
Something kind of confusing.
She didn't know what to think at first.
Then she did.
And she waited.
He was a nice guy.
A hard worker. A good provider.
Everybody thought he would be a good husband, and a good father, too.
But the news she had really shook him up.
She was going to have a baby.
Not his.
He didn't know what to think.
He didn't know what to do.
But he was kind. He could have made a real fuss over what had happened, but he decided to keep quiet, even though he didn't think he could marry her anymore.
Then he had a strange dream.
And his act of kindness became an even greater act of faith.
He married her.
He would raise the child as his own.
But just before the baby was due, they had to go on a long journey together.
It was a hard trip. And once they got there, they had no place to stay, even though it was almost time for the child to come.
It seemed like nothing was going right for the young couple.
Then everything did.
Their baby boy was born.
Our baby boy was born.
Two thousand years later, here we are.
We hustle and buy and cook and clean just to celebrate his birthday.
We string lights and sing songs and give each other gifts.
And we tell the story. The love story.
And we still believe.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

In search of the snowy house

My North Carolina grandsons, aged five and three, have a great name for our home in Galva.
They call it "the Snowy House," based on last Christmastime, the one visit to Illinois they both remember. They have vivid memories of arriving the week before the holiday, just in time for a hearty helping of piles and abundant piles of wintertime weather, something they had only seen before in picture books and movies.
Now, Coastal Carolina does have seasons. Sort of.
It gets cold in the winter. Kind of.
And last year, it even snowed. A little.
But nothing could have prepared them for a sensational series of snow-dazzled days filled with snow balls, snow forts and snowmen, plus sledding, ice skating and more. It was like a wonderful winter carnival, just for them.
Trouble is, now there's nothing much we can say that can convince them that Galva isn't always just a slightly balmier, year-round version of the North Pole. We're heading that way (Galva, not the N.P.) this week, with a travel plan that proves, once and for all, that grandma and I are not exactly destined to be known as Christmas wise men. While Cyrus and John's mom and dad are leaving as soon as Paddy's school vacation begins, we have opted to pack up the two tykes earlier on and embark on a thousand-mile jaunt that will test whether I am still able to cajole, entreat or threaten two active boys into some semblance of reasonable behavior on a two-day car trip. Once we're back in Illinois, they're gonna expect me to produce a goodly amount of the white stuff, along with all the fun stuff that goes with it...or explain why not.
So, let's pray for snow. Please.
The task of preparing our big old Galva home (you know, the Snowy House) for Christmas is one that normally begins the day after Thanksgiving, accelerates into a veritable blitzkrieg of red, green, silver and gold in the first couple of weeks of December, then settles into a steady, busy process somewhat akin to what goes on in Santa's workshop right up until about eleven o'clock on Christmas Eve.
But not this year.
Arriving home, as we are, just a week and a couple days before zero hour, something probably ought to give.
But what's it going to be?
Certainly not the ten-foot tree in the front room, though there's going to have to be some serious furniture moving before it gets placed in its normal spot. And I can't imagine we're planning on doing without the other full-sized models that normally grace our front hall and the family room out back. I suppose it wouldn't seem like Christmas without the beloved bins and boxes full of greenery, figurines, candles and other yuletide flotsam that usually adorn just about every table, counter, sill and mantle throughout the season, and I know the neighbors would be disappointed if they didn't get to watch me clinging to the front-porch pillars like a rickety middle-aged monkey as I hang some sort of outdoor decor, as well. I firmly draw the line at any thought of a cutback in Christmas-cookie production or Swedish meatball-making, and since all our kids and grandkids will be attendance, the food-fest will need to be ongoing and bountiful.
But here's the thing.
We are, once again, lucky enough to have all those kids and grandkids together for another family holiday. And that, along with the real reason for the season, is all that really matters.
So, ho, ho, ho.
I can't wait.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

When you wish upon a...catalog

In a recent column I wrote for Western Illinois Family, a Gatehouse-owned magazine distributed in this area, I mentioned a few of the anxious pre-Christmas activities that took place around my house when I was a kid.
There was, of course, the vital letter to Santa Claus, a supremely important missive that attempted to express, in mere words, the infinite goodness that had been my personal hallmark throughout the year. Of course, I knew full well that a man who "sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake" was probably entirely hip to that incident involving the garage window, too. But the fifth amendment was certainly intended for such situations, so I rolled blithely along the thin line between right and wrong, hoping Santa would cast a kindly blind eye at my misdeeds.
"But where did all those toys come from?" asked my spouse the other day. She knows, as all parents do, that sometimes Santa needs a little help. Back in the day, when I was a kid and dinosaurs walked the earth, there were no shopping malls or "big box" stores or big stores at all around smaller towns like Kewanee and Galva, or even in her hometown of Chicago Heights. There were plenty of wonderful retailers of all different kinds in those days, and a few larger department-type stores if you were willing to make a longer trek. But nobody had the aisles and aisles of toys and gadgets you see today.
Nobody except the Christmas catalogs, filled with page after page of all kinds of grand and glorious stuff to warm hearts of good little boys and girls, and kids like me, too.
Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel all sent the free books through the mail. And while we anxiously looked at each and every one of them, it was the Sears catalog that was the one we really waited for. No big surprise there, as Sears kind of invented the whole concept of catalogs, starting in 1888, when the R.W. Sears watch company began sending out flyers by mail. By the 1890s, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog had expanded to include items like sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and even eyeglasses, including a self-test for "old sight, near sight and astigmatism."
The very first Sears Christmas catalog, came out in 1933, and included the “Miss Pigtails” doll, a battery powered toy automobile, a Mickey Mouse watch, Lionel electric trains, and--wait for it--live singing canaries. Eventually, the Christmas edition became known as the "Wish Book."
All I knew was that it--and all those heavyweight books of the time--contained everything I ever wished for, plus quite a few things I never even knew I wanted until I saw them among the hundreds of pages of toys and other good stuff each catalog featured.
My brother and I (my sister was mostly above such goings-on) would wait in high anticipation for each catalog, then pounce, pouring through each page, and even marking items and turning down pages in the hopes that our mom or dad might happen upon them.
My dad: "Why, look at this, Alice. Did you know that Johnny wanted a motorcycle, a .22 rifle and a coon skin cap for Christmas?"
My mom: "Why, no, Keith. But it's not too late if you order them today."
Hope springs eternal.
I was also fascinated by the child models shown playing with the toys in each book.
Neat and well-combed and uniformly blond, blue-eyed and aryan-looking, they were like no real kids I had ever known. I wondered where they came from. I wondered how they got so clean.
I still do.
Eventually, I grew up and kind of forgot about the thrill of Christmas catalogs a little. By the time I got married and we had kids of our own, I was more accustomed to a steady barrage of Christmas ads on the tube and almost-nightly shopping trips in the days before Christmas Eve. We still got the catalogs, but my use of them was for fast-flipping comparison shopping, not the leisurely dreamfest I had enjoyed as a kid.
Catalogs, I thought, were becoming a thing of the past.
It was not until I went into my youngest son's room to tuck him in one night that that I discovered otherwise. He was an active, restless sleeper, who often dumped his covers on the floor, so I was pulling them back into place around his sleeping form. As I tucked him in, I felt a hard lump next to his pillow. I pulled it free and carried it to the lighted hallway to see what eight-year-old Patrick was stashing.
It was a well-worn 1989 Sears Christmas catalog.
Because some things never change.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

All I want for Christmas

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

It's been a long time since I put together a real Christmas list. Back in the day, my siblings and I would scour the Christmas catalogs and wander the aisles at the local five and dime, looking anxiously at all the great and glorious things we hoped we'd find under the tree or jammed into the beautiful handmade stockings our mother made for us. We knew that Santa Claus had a distinctly practical side, so underwear and socks were a given, but hope sprang eternal in our needy, greedy hearts as we gazed longly at the really good stuff we hoped we'd get.
My older brother and I would compare notes, judging the odds.
Me: Do you thing he'll bring me a pony?
He: Naaa. You probably haven't been good enough for something like that. But maybe if you make me a peanut butter sandwich and give me the football you got for your birthday, the elves will see you and tell Santa.
That was the ultimate catch around my house. We were, you see, true believers in the musical promise that goes like this:
"He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake."
We (or at least I) knew that Santa was keeping track of us (me) via his relentless gangs of elves that kept an eye on us (me) all year long.
I knew I was doomed.
In a desperate attempt to even things out, the most critical part of the pre-Christmas process for me was the all-important letter that would be placed in an antique jar to be delivered, via elf-mail, to the North Pole.
I've spent my entire adult career as a writer of one kind or another, with a lot of the work I've done intended to cajole and convince in one way or another. But while I managed to promote everything from baked beans to beard trimmers to microchips to tractors in my days as an advertising agency copywriter, it was all pure drivel compared to the selling job I attempted to put over on that jolly old elf. That yearly letter-writing task was a veritable training ground for what I'd do for the rest of my life.
I would write a cheery, cordial note to St. Nick. "How are the reindeer?" I'd ask. And "how about Mrs. Claus?"
Finally, I'd get down to business.
I'd start slow, asking for the kinds of things I needed anyway, thinking Santa would admire my thrifty attitude. So I'd list the aforementioned socks and underwear. Then I'd step it up a bit, mentioning that I really could use a new baseball glove and that I had generously given my brother my new football.
Then came the pièce de résistance.
"You know, Santa, some people think that owning a pony teaches kids a lot about responsibility," I wrote. "I think I'm up to the challenge."
Now I knew the elves knew that even my goldfish was only hanging on through the daily efforts of my mother, but, hey, it couldn't hurt to try, could it?
And finally, in one last do-or-die attempt to show just how good I really was, I'd mention a few items I thought my brother would like, thinking Santa would appreciate my altruistic spirit, while keeping in mind that I'd probably end up with most of the stuff he got after he outgrew it, wore it out or got bored with it.
My sister, being a girl, and irritatingly good, to boot, was strictly on her own.
Santa, along with being jolly and generous, is, apparently a sensible sort of guy, so I never got that pony.
In fact, I don't really remember much about what he did bring me from year to year, as important as it seemed at the time. But I do remember that Christmas in my house was always filled with laughter and warmth and love.
It was a wonderful day.
I hope yours is, too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Living through turkey time

I'm always up for an adventure.
In my head, at least.
Like, I've always thought it would be cool to hike the length of the Grand Canyon with nothing but a sleeping bag and a handful of dried prunes. Or raft down the intracoastal waterway with a fish line, a lawn chair and a few good books. In other words, I like to think about interesting ways to rough it that I'll most likely never experience.
Until now.
Because we've just battled our way through a happenstance so challenging that I'm surprised we actually lived through it.
Thanksgiving in a beach house.
It's not like our North Carolina beachfront duplex isn't a lovely place to share a meal or, for that matter, any get-together. It's not gigantic, but we were only expecting son Patrick, his wife, Susan and our two youngest grandsons. The kitchen is small, but well laid-out, with enough counter space to allow us both to chop, stir, mix and measure without any excessive kitchen collisions. In other circumstances, Paddy and Susan might have hosted the meal in their "real" house in the countryside, near the town where he teaches, but her restaurant work schedule made it more sensible for them to come our way this time.
Besides, everything is more fun at the beach.
In the almost 40 years we've been married, we've only missed a couple of chances to prepare and host the annual November eat-fest, so we pretty much know the drill. She does stuffing, I do potatoes. She does dessert, I do bread. And anybody willing to get up early enough can do a turkey.
No big deal, as long as you've got all the stuff you need.
The first sign that it might be otherwise started ominously, like the distant rumbling of a far-off thunderstorm.
"Do we actually own a real potato peeler?" I muttered.
Not to be a snob, but as one of the leading purveyors of hand-mashed spuds in the whole wide world, I require something more than the dull, flimsy, faux-peeler I had just plucked from a drawer.
"No," she said. "But that one might kind of work."
Kind of?
Suddenly, my mind's eye was transported to Yankee Stadium in 1927. A stocky ballplayer wearing the number three walks to the plate, where a batboy hands him a skinny, rickety piece of balsam.
"Here, Babe. This might kind of work."
I think you get the picture.
With a big bag of tubers to peel and process, I resumed my digging through the mishmash that lined the drawer, while realizing that most of the contents were from our "camp box," a mixed and fancy collection of stuff we use when we're sleeping and cooking under the stars. It suddenly dawned on us both that we were attempting to put on a full-scale Thanksgiving dinner with the tools normally used to prepare a hearty meal of weenies and beans.
This, of course, was our own fault, as we've intentionally avoided overstocking this place with an excess of anything, whether it be furniture, decorative items, clothing or cooking accoutrements. It's in direct contrast to our long-time home in Galva, which absolutely abounds with all of the above. Normally, it works pretty well, as the meals we prepare here are generally simple and always casual.
But we suddenly realized we had no platters, no heirloom silver or china, no serving dishes other than a couple of plastic bowls, no water goblets and no holiday decor beyond a front-door fall wreath we cobbled together out of some sweet annie and bittersweet we brought from Illinois, plus a few local weeds. Our cooking vessels were limited to a single large pot, one saucepan, some muffin tins and a cookie sheet, and the cast iron skillet that we've used over campfires for years, plus an electric roaster we broke down and bought on sale for the turkey, so we'd have a little available space in our teeny-tiny beach house oven.
Martha Stewart would have died.
Not us, though.
Despite the fact that my spouse truly is an artful, hard-working hostess, who enjoys setting a lovely table in a tastefully decorated home, we managed with those aforementioned tools, plus a couple of disposable foil roasting pans and a largish plastic platter shaped and decorated like a freshly barbecued hamburger. While we intentionally kept it all pretty basic, menu-wise, son Patrick perked things up a bit with a historically accurate dish he created himself that featured both fresh venison and oysters harvested in the inlet behind our house the afternoon before.
So really, it was a good meal. It was a good day.
And while we missed having all of our family around our table, we're happy in the fact that everyone is healthy and happy. And we're happier still that we will gather them all together at Christmastime in Galva.
Because the meal most certainly is not the message.
We've got a lot to be thankful for.
And we know it.
 Many thanks for the prayers, thoughts and notes of encouragement that came my way before and after my eye surgery last week. They say it all went well. Recovery is underway.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The eyes have it

Stop the presses.
I've made a breakthrough regarding the chronic condition called Male Pattern Blindness that affects virtually every man once he gets married. You know, it's the malady that makes most men unable to see what they're supposed to see when they're supposed to see it, whether it’s a stray piece of laundry, an item on a refrigerator shelf or, especially, a note outlining suggested activities and/or chores for the day.
Now, before you nominate me for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, you should understand this: I didn't come up with a cure.
I've got something better.
An excuse.
It all started one day back in August when we were walking on the beach. A sudden burst of wind blew sand into my right eye. As I attempted to wipe and blink it away, I noticed something strange about the left one.
I couldn't see squat.
The vision in my left eye was blurred, with a big smudge-like area right in the middle that made it hard to see much of anything.
"Hmmm," I thought, and promptly ignored it, figuring I just had some gunk (scientific term) in my eye that would go away.
But it didn't. And it started to hurt, too, which really got my attention, especially when an irritating gritty feeling evolved into a lancing pain that brought real meaning to the expression "a sharp stick in the eye.
Hmmm, indeed.
To make a really long story a little bit shorter, I worked my way through a pair of doctors over the next few weeks. The first, a general ophthalmologist, muddled about treating me for a mysterious infection that required both twice-a-week visits and eye drops that cost an astonishing $175 for a teeny-tiny bottle. Doctor #1 finally gave up and handed me over to doctor #2, a cornea specialist, who cut right to the chase.
"You got Fuchs'"
Fuchs' Dystrophy is a rare, mostly genetic disorder that occurs when cells that normally help pump excess fluid from the cornea begin to die off. As more and more cells are lost, fluid begins to build up in the cornea, causing swelling and cloudiness. As the disease gets worse, small blisters may form, which can eventually break, causing severe eye pain. Fuchs' dystrophy can also cause the shape of the cornea to change, which results in further vision problems.
In short, it's real blurry, and it hurts, too. Actually, I've got Fuchs' in both eyes. The left one has the advanced, bumpy, blistery stage of the disease, and they tell me my "good" eye is not all that far behind.
"So, what do we do about it?" I asked, thinking an extended course of $175 eye drops would probably do the trick.
"A cornea transplant," he said.
Is that all?
On the advice of the doctor, we did some research and discovered that cornea transplants have become a fairly run-of-the-mill thing for those well-trained in the delicate art of peeling and replacing the parts of the eye. We even made up a little joke regarding the nature of the transplant donor.
Me: Maybe you should donate your cornea.
She: Why would I want to do that?
Me: Then I'd finally be able to see things your way.
Given the "do it or go blind" nature of the decision, it was a no-brainer to choose to go ahead with the transplant for the first eye.
In fact, we gave it a try last Friday. A donor cornea was FedEx'd in from an L.A. eye bank and I was doped up, draped and ready to go. The norm for this kind of surgery is what I like to call "the la-la land cocktail," a combination of local anesthetic and heavy sedation that makes you feel like wrestling bears, sky diving without a parachute, or going over Niagara Falls in a barrel are all within the bounds of reasonable activity, not to mention a little carving on one's eyeball.
A few minutes after being rolled into the operating room, I was happily dreaming my own little dreams when my doctor's voice cut through the clutter and burst my drug-induced bubble.
"I don't like the looks of this," he said.
Those aren't words you want to hear from a doctor with a scalpel in his hand and your eye in his sights.
I dragged myself a few more light years towards consciousness in order to inquire as to the situation.
Happily, it wasn't me that was the problem, but the donor cornea, which wasn't up to my doc's exacting standards.
"I gave it the family test," he said. "I wouldn't put it into my brother, so I'm not putting it into you."
A good thing.
So we're going to try it all over again on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Recovery consists of 24 hours staring at the ceiling, followed by a few days of light duty and Ray Charles sunglasses. Advanced transplant methods mean I might be able to measure improvement in weeks instead of months, at which time we'll start talking about doing the other eye one of these days.
I suppose I could think of other ways to spend the Thanksgiving weekend. The good news is that I'll miss Black Friday entirely. The bad news is that I'll have to curtail my own personal eat-fest at midnight on Thanksgiving to prepare for surgery in the morning.
But all in all, I know I'm lucky. Because unlike Macular Degeneration and some other progressive eye diseases, this one has a cure, with a high rate of success. And I know that thanks to a good doctor, a generous donor and modern medicine, I'm going to have something to be truly thankful for.
Here's looking at you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bracing for a long, long year

Raise your hand if you absolutely dread facing the next 12 months and the upcoming presidential election cycle.
I suppose some folks find it interesting or exciting, even. But for me, the process of electing our leaders has become entirely distasteful as, more and more, ideological passion is overwhelmed by pure partisanship, and ideas and ideals are replaced by mean-spirited innuendo and all-out negativism.
What's worse is the fact that we will be forced to endure the cat-fighting, backbiting and out-and-out untruths that drive the public process we call politics nowadays in the form of the campaign commercials that will flood the airways from now until then.
So, what are we gonna do?
A couple of months ago, I wrote a column that, in part, addressed my belief that this country is quietly dominated by a "moderate majority" of folks who would like to see things change when it comes to our political process.
As I said then, I think there is a majority of citizens who share a more moderate view of things; who see both sides of an issue and believe there is room for compromise, and who don't claim to know everything about everything.
I continue to believe that there is a moderate majority, whose political and personal views are based on what's right and fair, instead of what serves special interests or a party line.
I was a little surprised at how many people agreed with what I had to say, not because I feel I'm at all wise or insightful, but because the negative, over-partisan approach seems to work so well in the political arena.
But here we are.
Waiting for something better.
I think we're good and smart enough to make our decisions without being subjected to an endless barrage of misleading information from people who often seem more interested in bullying us or frightening us into voting their way rather than telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think it's time for a new era of civility and frank discussion. I think there's got to be a better way to find out what our candidates and their parties truly believe in, instead of only hearing about what they're against.
So here's the beginnings of my plan. Phase one of the Sloan Simplified Selection System would allow no paid political advertising. Instead, it would require each and every candidate to spend his or her time, talent and financial resources producing a clear, comprehensive standardized document stating their beliefs, goals and solutions to the problems they see. Each candidate's platform document would be required to honestly address specific issues determined by a bipartisan panel. Candidates failing to address those issues would be barred from discussing them in speeches or face-to-face debates, nor could they criticize or otherwise comment on their opponents' stance on those issues. That document would then be made available online, in libraries and free of charge to any registered voter or school requesting one. Visitors to the online site could also choose to click and compare the different viewpoints on any given issue.
I'd like to see the media saddled with the same responsibilities. And, in fact, I'm pretty sure that's the way it's supposed to be. But just think, just this first phase would, if nothing else, clear the airwaves and allow us to go back to watching reality TV shows, old movies, and "Leave it to Beaver" reruns, as is our God-given right.
And it would give us the right--and clear ability--to think for ourselves.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A world of inventions

I don't generally get too excited about so-called technological advances, though I imagine I'd get pretty fired up if someone came up with something truly useful, like an automatic potato peeler, a portable hot fudge machine or some kind of miraculous device that would keep my socks matched, even in the dryer.
But this one had me downright enthused. So much so, that I made a pronouncement on Facebook that was, for me, at least, pretty darn gleeful.
"Got a mobile broadband hotspot today!"
Now, I didn't expect anyone to get all worked up over the news. After all, it wasn't like I was announcing something truly important, like the birth of a baby or a great new recipe for chocolate chip cookies. But I was pretty excited given that the new gadget would, if it worked as advertised, allow me to wirelessly connect to the internet via my cell phone network just by carrying a little phone-sized devise along with me. In more practical terms, it meant I could get online anywhere a cell phone signal could reach, which is pretty heady stuff for a self-proclaimed road warrior like me. No more searching for the golden arches and the free WiFi they provide along with Big Macs and Happy Meals. No more skulking through prosperous-looking neighborhoods cyber-searching for a stray signal to latch onto.
"I'm free!" I proclaimed, while noting that the service most certainly isn't.
Later on, a friend made a comment regarding my jubilant post that kind of put it all into a new/old perspective for me.
"Mobile, broadband, hotspot. Try to imagine those three words used together 10 years ago."
Heck, how about 10 months ago? Or for a technodinosaur like me, 10 days, even?
I know I've written before about the plethora of new stuff that both benefits and besieges us all the time. But the extraordinary changes in the way we communicate ideas and information ranging from mathematical theorems to pictures of new puppies to the really important stuff, like chocolate cookie recipes, got me thinking about the innovative trends of the past compared to what seems to be important today. Some of them seem almost generationally themed, as in my paternal grandfather's day, when the big thing seemed to be transportation, or better, faster, safer ways to get from point A to point B to better enable stealing land from the Native Americans. He was born in 1866, so that meant he lived in a world that saw the advent of transcontinental railroad travel and the invention of both the automobile and the airplane. He was, apparently, an early adopter of that technology, as noted in "Homeburg Memories," an early-20th century novel based on my hometown of Galva that was written by native son and nationally known humorist George Fitch.
“Our oculist was our pioneer automobile owner.  He bought a home-made machine and a mule at the same time, and by judiciously combining the two, he got a great deal of mileage out of both.  He would work all morning getting the auto down-town and all afternoon getting the mule to haul it back.”
For my dad, who was born in 1904, it was energy, and the ways it made life safer, more comfortable and more efficient that seemed to really change things on a daily basis. A 1910 publication entitled, "The Electrical World" included a recounting of a meeting of the Galva Commercial Club, where the introduction of electric power was discussed. According to the article, a New Yorker named Glenn Marston gave an address on the advisability of securing adequate electric power for industrial purposes.
Mr. Marston noted that "public improvements and public utilities mark the progressiveness of any city. No community can succeed without the best of both. Electric power means more industries, better pay, shorter hours and more money in circulation."
We know what happened next. Along with gas-fired furnaces, which meant no more coal to shovel or clinkers to dig out and dispose of, electricity helped make life brighter, safer and easier for everyone, which was a pretty good deal, I think.
But those are just a couple of examples of ways ideas have changed lives over the years. Some developments have been incredibly important. Others, not so much. But what, I wondered, are the most important inventions ever, uh, invented?
So I did a quick bit of research, just to see what people were thinking nowadays.
One online poll listed the telephone, computers, television, the automobile, the cotton gin, the camera, the steam engine, the sewing machine, the light bulb and penicillin as their top ten modern inventions, while a British poll conducted last year included this eclectic mix: the wheel, airplanes, the light bulb, the internet, personal computers, the telephone, penicillin, the iPhone, flush toilets and the internal combustion engine.
The telephone faired well on most lists, despite a more recent trend that now seems to place it lower down the list of preferred communications tools as indicated in a recent episode of "The Big Bang Theory,"
Sheldon: Sorry. I’m a little distracted. I can’t seem to get in touch with Amy. I tried e-mail, video chat, tweeting her, posting on her Facebook wall, texting her, nothing.
Leonard: Did you try calling her on the telephone?
Sheldon: The telephone. You know, Leonard, in your own simple way, you may be the wisest of us all.
One article I read said the camera was the greatest invention ever, and I've gotta admit that a device that's recorded images of everything from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address to a man walking on the moon to my youngest grandson less than a minute after birth is pretty darn close. I was a little surprised that the internet didn't grab the top spot on more of the lists I encountered, but it was number one in plenty of minds and places, with lots of time to continue in an evolution that affects--in one way or another--virtually ever facet of modern life.
But an invention that continues to top many lists--and my personal choice for number one--is the one developed way back in the 1400s by Johannes Gutenberg. His moveable-type printing press fostered a veritable knowledge revolution in the sciences, arts and religion by making it possible for books and other printed information to be shared by more than the The Church and the very wealthy. His amazing printing method quickly replaced most of the handwritten manuscript methods of book production and spread literacy throughout the world to people of all classes and backgrounds.
Arguably, it's thanks to Gutenberg that you're doing what you're doing right now.
Now, that's what I call an invention.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Memories to be thankful for

Roadtripper (from Western Illinois Family Magazine)

Here comes November.
Fall is on the wane, with many of the beautiful colors and Indian Summer days of October starting to be replaced by bare trees, grey skies and the first warning signs of wintertime. It's both a beginning and an end, as we say goodbye to a season and a year, and look forward to the beginnings of the Christmas season, with all its joys, grace and blessings.
But before you start shopping, wrapping and watching for signs of Santa's elves, you've got something to do.
It's one of my favorite holidays, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
It's not the day-long football-fest on TV, nor even the half-true stories of pilgrims and Indians I regale my grandchildren with.
It's certainly not the big box pre- and post-Thanksgiving weekend Christmas sales that start bombarding us on the airwaves sometime around the end of July.
It's not even the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and other tasty delights that entirely make my day, though I'm honest enough to admit that the eating is a big part of it.
Yes, I'm thankful for all the above, but for me, the biggest, best thing about Thanksgiving is getting ready for it.
What'd he say?
It sounds crazy, I know, but I think the very best times are those spent together with family and friends preparing for the big meal and the big day. Of course, if you're imagining it's all a kind of living Norman Rockwell scene around my house, think again. My memories of our shared culinary triumphs, trials and downright disasters are, for the most part, a little more, uh, interesting than the average "over the river and through the woods" trip to grandmother's house or anything you'd see on the Food Network.
Like the year I thought it was time to treat the family and our friends to something new. As an avid National Public Radio listener, I had heard commentator Susan Stamberg wax poetic about her mother-in-law's cranberry relish for years. She has, in fact, shared the recipe with listeners every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving ever since 1972.
I'm not saying Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish ever really sounded particularly good to me. After all, the recipe calls for an unlikely mixture of raw cranberries, chopped onion, both a dollop of sour cream and a healthy dose of sugar, and--wait for it--a potent portion of horseradish. But I was so smitten with Ms. Stamberg's warm delivery and intelligent viewpoints that I wanted to give it a try, just to please her, I guess. Besides, I kind of figured anything that came from public radio was apt to make us all a little smarter, too.
Or not.
Actually, most of our dinner guests that year showed an immense amount of good sense when they politely declined even a tiny taste of the light-pink Pepto Bismo-looking stuff I ended up with. A good choice, as it tasted almost exactly like how you'd expect combined cranberries and horseradish to taste.
Enough said.
Our son Colin, who has worked for years as a sous chef and other in-kitchen positions, owns his own page in our family memory book based on a phone call he made home the first year he was in college. This was way before his career path took a turn through the kitchen door, though he was, apparently, already developing an interest in cooking for a crowd.
I answered the phone that night, and Colin explained that he and a number of his friends were planning an early Thanksgiving feast of their own before returning to their own homes and families for the actual holiday.
"We're bringing the turkey," he said proudly. "So I was wondering, when should we start defrosting it?"
"When is the dinner?" I asked cautiously.
Uh oh.
For years, I had been told that a slow, cold defrosting process was an absolute must, lest bacteria grow in the too-warm turkey. Dire newspaper headlines filled my mind's eye.
"Galva kid poisons college chums. Dad held for giving bad advice."
But other than suggesting a trip back in time with Sherman and Mr. Peabody in the wayback machine, I had no choice but to instruct him in the best, safest ways I could think of to quick-defrost a frozen fowl. Luckily, either the college kids he shared it with had hardened intestinal systems from their cold pizza and warm beer diets or he just got lucky, because they all lived to talk about it.
But perhaps the most, uh, explosive Thanksgiving faux pas came at the hands of yours truly. With a big crowd expected for dinner, I was in charge of peeling twenty pounds of spuds for the spectacular sour cream mashed potato recipe I learned from our friend, Lynda. I disrobed the entire bagful, while blithely jamming the peels down our in-sink disposal without taking time to grind and wash them down periodically throughout the long process.
All fine and good until, with the job done, I attempted to run the disposal with the entire pile of peelings jamming the works.
Yes, jamming. Thanks to me, our kitchen sink was as clogged as, well, a drain jam-packed with lots and lots of potato peels.
I tried every amateur drainpipe-unplugging trick in the book, plunging, snaking and adding water to the stopped-up sink with no result, until finally, in a flash of inspiration, I made my way to the basement. Just above where the drain pipe entered the floor was a plug that looked like it could be unscrewed.
"Aha," I thought. "This'll do it."
Well, I guess it did. In spectacular fashion.
Actually, nothing happened at first, so I called upstairs to my wife, who was standing by the sink, waiting for a miracle.
"Try the plunger again," I called.
It worked.
And how.
The highly compressed water-and-potato-peel mixture shot out of the pipe with a force very similar to one of those water cannons cops in certain parts of the world use to break up crowds of rioters and political dissenters.
The high-charged mess hit the floor and ceiling. It sprayed the furnace, the hot water heater and even the cat, who had followed me down to supervise my efforts. But mostly it blasted me, soaking me from head to toe with the unpleasing mixture.
"You did it, honey," called my wife. "You're a genius."
"Yeah," I thought as I began to pick peelings out of my hair. "That's just what I was thinking."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A change of seasons, a change in days

Do they have seasons here?
That's one of the first things I asked a coastal Carolina native when we were first considering a part-time move to the region. Because as much as I like sunny beachbound days, I knew I would miss the changes that occur with the passing of the year.
"Of course," was the reply. "We have summer and fall and spring and winter. It even snowed once last year."
Once. Wow.
We've now seen those seasons change, one by one, since starting our back-and-forth treks between Illinois and North Carolina last January, when it actually did spit a little snow a couple of times. It's pretty darn subtle, but we are now seeing October roll into November and the sure signs of autumn are beginning to appear.
Some of the leaves have finally begun a slow, gradual transformation from dark green to a sort of soft rusty tone that falls way short of the rich red-gold hues we know at home in Illinois. But those colors have a certain prettiness all their own that we like and watch for as they gently appear. The temperatures have begun to drop, too, with the moist, balmy breezes of summer now replaced by a cooler offshore version that creates a persistent daily chop and and a sudden unaccustomed chill to the water.
Autumn in Carolina.
Instead of farmers gathering golden grain at the end of a midwest growing season, we now see fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen pursuing the rich harvest that both the deep sea and marshy backwaters have to offer as cooler water generates new, livelier life in ocean and inlet.
But, no matter what time of year it is, the place that seems able to change every day is the beachfront. We're regulars along the shore, with very few days passing without a long walk, sandcastles and shelling with our grandsons, or just few minutes with a book and a chair.
"I wonder what kind of day it will be?" is her question almost every time we make our way across the walkway that bridges the fragile dunes that divide our front yard from the shoreline.
The answer is almost always a surprise, because that's how it goes when you live next door to an active ecosystem that's likely to toss any number of treasures your way on a daily basis.
There are "shell days," when the waves deposit unusual numbers of different kinds and colors, ranging from perfectly patterned oyster and scallop shells to the ones that are tougher to find, like Whelks, Olives, Scotch Bonnets and Sand Dollars. We call some days "crab days," not because of my sulky mood or behavior, but because the beach is littered with the bodies of blue crabs and other larger crustaceans who have washed ashore, or busy with the darting of sand-burrowing ghost crabs, who scuttle at lightning speed from hole to water and back and forth. We're now experiencing what we call "jelly days," with both mushroom-shaped bell jellyfish and round, transparent "moon jellies" lining our path along the surf line. And, of course, we always hope for "Dolphin days," when offshore pods jump and dive and splash in a watery ballet.
The shorebirds, who come and go with the weather and food sources, now crowd the beach. Strutting, overstuffed gulls that resemble 19th century Tammany Hall politicians compete for space with quick, darting sanderlings and sandpipers, while daring terns and pelicans swoop, soar and dive recklessly into the fishy seas.
All in all, it's a pretty scene, no matter what kind of "day" it is.
I was wrapping this column up the other morning when my wife and youngest grandson, John, announced they were heading to the beach for a walk. I'm always willing to put things off, so I rushed to join them, even thinking I'd be able to put a label on the day as a sort of concluding statement for my essay.
The morning's scenic selection varied, with a spectacular mess of glistening jellyfish, a long scoop of daredevil pelicans and the shattered remains of some shells that would have been pretty spectacular if they had survived the trip through the surf in one piece. The sun was high, turning what had been a cool, windy day into something nearly perfect as we headed towards the fishing pier that lies a mile south.
"So what kind of day is it, anyway?" I wondered to myself.
I got my answer from a solitary fisherman we ran into along the way.
"You doing any good?" I asked.
He looked up and smiled.
"Can't help but do good on a day like this," he said.
I smiled back. He was right.
Because whether its a shell day or a crab day or a jelly day or a bird day or even a dolphin day, it's always a good day, too.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I was looking out at the ocean the other day, watching one of my favorite things, when I heard a voice behind me.
"Nice scoop, eh?"
I turned to see her smiling at both me and the seascape in front of me, not just because she knows how much I love the single-file, follow-the-leader flight pattern of pelicans, but because she's also aware of how much I like the word used to describe a group of them:
A scoop. A scoop of pelicans.
Since making the Carolina coast our part-time home, I've also learned that groups of dolphins and whales are called pods, while shrimps gather in a troupe, sharks swim in a shiver and the term for a bunch of jellyfish is a smack. And just so you don't think everything here is more idyllic than I deserve, I've also gotten hip to the phrase "scourge of mosquitoes," as well.
The way American English has evolved to describe groups of things is an inconsistent combination of clever, inventive, funny and dumb ways to say "a bunch of." Called collective nouns, these words have been the playthings of writers and linguists for centuries, starting in about the 1400's, when upper-crust gents used their own special terms to describe the animals they hunted and saw, just to show how smart and well-educated they were. There are books, articles and entire websites galore dedicated to the lists of collective nouns used to describe everything from a cluster of antelopes to a cohort of zebras, with group descriptors available for just about everything including animals, people, fish, bugs and reptiles. Some of them, like "deck of cards," "den of thieves," "stand of trees" and "school of fish" are well-accepted parts of our language that we all use from time to time, while others, like a "flink of cows" and a "rhumba of rattlesnakes" haven't quite caught on yet.
Interestingly, the words used to describe groups can even refer to their specific condition, too, as with ducks, who fly in a flock, float in a paddling or raft, and sometimes meet their end as a brace, when two more more have a run-in with a hunter and his shotgun.
Ditto geese, who fly in a flock, skein or wedge, but hang out on land as the oft-mentioned gaggle.
"Who makes this stuff up?" she asked after I showed off some of my new-found knowledge I learned on a visit to a website on the subject.
Who indeed?
Well, how about me?
I find the whole thing pretty interesting and since I'm probably not as busy as I could or should be, I've decided to try my hand at the name game, too. I mean, really, who says I can't be one of those writers who comes up with those descriptive collective nouns that become a part of our language? Of course, I'm a little late to the dance, I know, as better minds than mine have been toiling at the task for a long, long time. But I'm nothing if not overoptimistic when it comes to my own abilities, so here are a few of my word-creations, just waiting for someone to use them.

A crank of crabs
A galaxy of starfish
A squirt of squid
A stumble of stairs
A cuddle of kittens
A pant of puppies
A shriek of spiders
A treasure of stars
A slither of snakes
A scamper of mice
A scold of squirrels
A lumber of bears
A pest of flies
A clash of neckties

OK, so maybe they won't be holding up the next printing of Webster's Dictionary for my contributions quite yet. And maybe you'd like to join in this effort by sharing your own ideas with me.
No rush.
We've got kaboodles of time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A town lost in time

Like many of us, I possess special gifts and talents. Some are fairly mundane.
"Gee, grampa. You sure can snore loud."
"Wow, that guy really can put away the fried chicken."
But there is one ability in my repertoire that really is pretty darn exceptional, if I do say so myself.
I can make it rain.
Now, I'm not sure what tools and techniques other rainmakers use to coax precipitation from the sky, but for me, it's pretty simple.
I pitch a tent.
Actually, it doesn't always rain when we go camping, but it happens often enough in certain parts of the country to make us think we're somehow shifting the odds in those spots.
Like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Like last week.
Our Illinois-to-North-Carolina-via-Nashville journey featured a couple of campground stops. We got lucky at beautiful Kentucky Lake, where clear skies and a site overlooking the water made for a near-perfect experience, with only a few acorns rattling down to startle us overnight. And Nashville featured the kind of stunningly beautiful weather that tourism bureaus pray for. It was not until we packed up and headed for our next stop that things began to change.
Me: Uh oh, it's starting to cloud up.
She: Of course it is, we're heading for the Smokies.
We've been trying to enjoy camping in those beautiful mountains for over 30 years, but we've never been able to avoid some kind of wet weather, ranging from persistent cold drizzles to sudden gullywasher showers to frightening peak-rattling thunderstorms.
It looked like nothing had changed.
As in many national parks and other major camping venues, the campground office at the vast Elkmont section of the park displays a wipe-off board that provides information on things like sunrise and sunset times and any special events taking place. Oh, and the weather, too.
"70% chance of showers," read the board.
"Hey, that means there's a 30% chance it won't rain," I remarked brightly.
Dream on, tent-boy.
As we pitched the tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, we heard the distinct noise of rushing water not far away. It wasn't raining just yet, so we headed for the source of the sound, which turned out to be a river running through the heart of the campground. Determined to enjoy at least a little scenery before the called-for rain drove us into our tent, we hiked along its banks. We left the campground behind, but soon saw the roof of a large building just across the stream. I figured it was just a pavilion or picnic shelter, but we were curious enough to press on until we came to a small bridge. Once we crossed, we were greeted by the sight of a largish falling-down structure and a sign.
The Elkmont Historic District.
It's hard to describe what's there now, just as it's hard to imagine what was there back in the day. But the upshot is this: Back in the early 20th century, a couple of social clubs, a hotel and around 74 rustic cottages sprang up in a densely wooded region of the Smoky Mountains near the logging town of Elkmont. The area was served by logging railroad and, later on, by narrow roads carved out on the railroad beds after the logging work ended and the trains and tracks left.
We, of course, knew none of this when we discovered the site. We looked around in amazement and slowly walked down a narrow dirt road lined with deserted vacation cottages.
"It's like a resort ghost town," she said.
The architecture of the crumbling cottages is varied and astonishing, with strong influences from Frank Lloyd Wright and other period designers. But even more compelling to me was the way the Elkmont district felt.
Silent and even a little eerie, it is like a place that had been suddenly deserted for some unknown reason and left untouched ever since. I half expected to hear distant music from a wind-up victrola or the laughter of children playing in the woods.
It was a trip back in time, with rambling rows and clumps of cottages winding all the way up by Jake's Creek Trail towards the south and the remains of the old Wonderland Hotel to the North.
"My parents stayed here," she exclaimed.
Built in 1911, the Wonderland Hotel featured a wrap around porch that provided a view of Blanket Mountain and was lined with swings and rocking chairs. Her folks especially enjoyed the fact that the Wonderland provided no phones, radios or TV in the guest rooms, so most visitors chose to spend their evenings relaxing either on the porch or in the lobby, with much of the evening's excitement revolving around the raccoons that came up on the porch at night to beg for food from the guests.
A fire spelled the end of the Wonderland after it closed when its lease wasn't renewed by the park service in the early 1990s. In fact, all the structures in the Elkmont District were eventually forced to close or be deserted, leaving the structures abandoned to a plan called "demolition by neglect."
But happily, it wasn't quite that easy.
Elkmont was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and was awarded Save America's Treasures status in the late 1990s. In 2004, the Tennessee Preservation Trust listed Elkmont on its annual list of endangered historic places, Ten in Tennessee. Later that summer, the National Trust followed suit and named Elkmont to its annual list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.
In 2009, the National Park Service announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings in the Appalachian Club area.
Good sense, at least in part, had prevailed.
But it's still a little frustrating to realize that this and other national treasures face an uncertain fate due to lack of funds in a day and time when we, as a nation, have spent (as of Tuesday) nearly 800 billion dollars in Iraq and over 465 billion on the war in Afghanistan. And since unemployment remains a serious problem, maybe it's a good idea to consider a government-funded civilian work force to help develop, preserve and improve our infrastructure, both natural and man-made. Sort of like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which, during the great depression of the 1930s, planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks, updated forest fire fighting methods, and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas.
I think there's a lot to love about this land of ours. Much of it is a beautiful place, from sea to shining sea.
We do a good job in this country, I truly believe.
But maybe, just maybe, we can do a little better.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nashville Cats

It seems like there's always a theme song running through my head, no matter what we do or where we go. That, in itself, is not too surprising, as music has always been an important part of me, whether I'm playing it, writing it or just sitting back and listening.
So there's almost always a song of some sort providing a subtle soundtrack.
Recently, one of them went like this:

"Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed;
A poor mountaineer, hardly kept his family fed."

That's right, it was the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" that echoed through my brain as we prepared to hit the road last week. Not just because we were headed for the hills and mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, but because of the overcrowded, junked-out condition of our car. Usually, I consider myself a pretty canny packer, efficiently using the space in the back of our 3-row vehicle to put the things we'll need--like clothes and camping gear--within easy reach, while even leaving room for a passenger or two.
But not this time.
"About all you need is a rocking chair with granny sitting on the roof," noted one witty pal after seeing our overloaded state on the morning we left.
It was true. But I've got an excuse.
First off, we were heading back for an extended stay on the North Carolina shore. The seasons will change while we're there this time, with the distinct possibility that my t-shirt-and-shorts-only wardrobe will need to transition to something more substantial, though equally unfancy, like sweatshirts and jeans. Moreover, our load included boxes of stuff bound for both son Patrick's house and the son of some Galva friends who now lives in eastern Carolina. Of course, there was all the camping stuff we'd need for a couple of woodsy stops along the way.
And then there was the middle part of the trip...a 3-day "Big Chill" weekend in Nashville with my wife's lively high school class that would require all the clothes and accouterments needed for a couple of group dinners and excursions to both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, not to mention some determined, middle-aged forays up and down the music club district of downtown Nashville. This year, one of her classmates, a guy named Lon Helton, who is a well-known country music radio personality and music industry mover and shaker had a weak moment and agreed to host the self-inflicted invasion of his city and his home.
I don't know what he was thinking, but it was nice of him and his saintly wife, Anne, all the same.
I didn't really know what to expect in Nashville. But, It turns out that for us, at least, it was equal parts of entertainment, education and flat-out fun. It was kind of inspiring, even, for a well-worn music veteran like me.
Soon after we hit the streets for the first time, bits of yet another song began to filter into my brain.

"Nashville Cats, play clean as country water
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville Cats, been playin' since they's babies
Nashville Cats, get work before they're two"

John Sebastian knew what he was talking about when he wrote those words.
And like the old Lovin' Spoonful song says, there really are at least "thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville."
But unlike many cities where most musicians also work as waiters, bartenders and cabbies while waiting for a break and a chance to play in public, the Nashville music scene seems to be able to offer enough work for a big chunk of them in its zillions of clubs, bars, restaurants, parks and downtown street corners.
The music is live. The music is loud. And the music goes on all day and well into the evening and early morning hours. We listened, danced and laughed and sang to the tunes of old-time twangers, new-country bangers and even a few traditional pickers, all hustling like mad to keep up with a crazy work-pace that sees the busiest among them moving from band to band and club to club as the long day and night progresses. Like one guy, with an uncanny resemblance to a younger Jim Cary, who, in one afternoon-into-evening stretch, showed up as part of four different bands in four different joints, including back-to-back gigs that must have had him zig-zagging his upright bass through the crowded sidewalks like an anxious hubby hustling his wife to the maternity ward. I was impressed and amused, too, by one young commuting crooner, who hopped off a bus, guitar case and amp in hand, before rushing to work in his own town's version of an uptown Manhattan exec with a briefcase and Armani suit.
We saw the other end of the spectrum at The Grand Ole Opry one night, when country-pop stars Rascal Flats were inducted as full-fledged Opry members. It was a study in contrast and a great example of the ages and styles the country genre spans, as one of the presenters was 90-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens, a member of the Opry for over 60 years.
"I never heard anybody say anything bad about you boys," said Dickens, whose age, 4-11 stature, sequin-studded suit and easy way with a one-liner made me a wannabe from the get-go.
And while his remarks to the band might have sounded like faint praise, 'nothing bad' in a tough field like the music business is probably pretty darn good.
But the best experience of all came when we toured the hall of fame museum and got a chance to attend a workshop where a pair of singer-songwriters shared some of their tunes and fielded questions from the audience. One was a nice-looking, good-sounding younger fellow who said he knew back in high school that he wanted to make music his life's work. So, just as soon as he graduated, he packed up his guitar and headed for Nashville where he's already making a living and living his dream.
The other speaker was a little older, a guy named Tim Buppert who's had a long career that's featured stops in clubs all the way from Florida to Tennessee. Along the way, he's put together a nice book of original songs that even includes a couple of hits. He's got a great voice, plus a sweet way with a love song that contrasts just a bit with the twinkle in his eye.
Probably his best-known tune is called "She's sure Taking it Well," a bittersweet love song recorded by Kevin Sharp that made it all the way to number three on the charts in 1997.
I bought a CD from Tim that included that hit song, along with another dozen or so tunes. Listening to his words, music and voice, it was hard to imagine a life spent working the clubs by night, pitching songs by day and waiting for a break and the fame and fortune we all imagine every singer-songwriter hopes for. Then we heard the last cut on the album, a quirky little piece that told about a day when he played his hit for a young lady and she revealed that it had once been her favorite song.

"That was my one Elvis moment,
My day in the sun.
I was so much more cooler than anyone
...If I could relive just one day in my life
It'd be that one Elvis moment of mine."

I listened and heard the tongue-in-cheek words. And underneath it all, I heard the longing and the special moments his life has provided from time to time.
I knew I had met one true Nashville cat.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm why they invented pie

I like pie.
I come by that trait honestly enough. My dad, who was an aficionado of the first rank, used to wax poetic about his childhood, when, according to his oft-repeated remembrance, his mother used to bake one every day. The backyard of the house where I grew up was filled with apple and cherry trees, so my own mom used to do her best to keep up with that tradition when the fresh fruit was in season. My sister didn't fall far from the fruit pie tree, either. She and her hubby freeze and store Door County cherries almost every year, dating the fruit-filled tubs much in the way wine fanciers maintain cellars filled with various admired vintages. You only have to look like you'd enjoy a piece of pie in their house and there is, almost immediately, a flaky, fresh-baked concoction coming out of the oven.
So it's in my genes, I guess. Because I do like pie.
Good thing, too, as the past week saw more pies coming my way than Rupert Murdoch, though I was lucky enough to eat, not wear, them.
It all started the weekend after we arrived back in the midwest, when we were delighted to be a part of the wedding of a neighbor's daughter. In an interesting bit of menu-switching, the bride-to-be declared a preference for pie over the traditional wedding dessert. So, instead of a teetering, multi-layered cake with a tiny bride and groom on the top, no fewer than 38 lovely pies graced the serving tables.
Enough for everyone. Enough for me.
Imagine Ferdinand the Bull in a field filled with flowers. Imagine Norm from Cheers in a bar full of beer.
O.K., or just imagine me in a banquet hall bursting with pies.
I figured proper wedding etiquette demanded I show my appreciation for the celebratory feast by sampling as many members of the pie family as possible.
As you know, I am nothing if not polite. So, I did my best.
The next morning, my spouse wondered if I was a little hung over.
Now, I don't drink, so that wasn't it. She was just afraid I had overdone it on the pie front.
"Nope," I said. "As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mind another piece of that strawberry-rhubarb.
Good thing, too.
That night, we got a call from the bride's mom and dad.
"Hey, come on over," they said. "We've got pie."
Somehow, a few crumbs had managed to slip under my radar the night before, so we rushed over to help set things right.
"This is it," I said as I waddled home. "This is really it. No more pie for awhile."
I'm pretty sure 24 hours qualifies as "awhile." I hope so, because I got another visit from the pie fairy the next night, when my wife hosted a meeting of a women's organization she belongs to. Max the cat and I skulked around in the back room, watching Monday Night Football, until the ladies finally cleared out. Once I was sure the coast was clear, I crept into the kitchen to see if they had left behind any of the sweet treats that are a hallmark of their meetings.
On the counter rested a white bakery box. With high anticipation, I lifted the lid to find the remains of an ooey-gooey apple pie. A little more investigation showed an almost full carton of vanilla ice cream in the freezer.
"Well, if I have to," I sighed.
Max agreed. I had to.
The next day was my birthday.
"What kind of cake do you want?" queried my spouse.
I was just explaining that I thought I had better pass on any more sweets when there was a knock at the door.
It was my neighbor, the father of the bride.
"You liked that pie so much, we thought you'd better have one for your birthday," he said.
I had to agree.
Later that evening, we cajoled them into coming over to share in my latest bounty, but there was still plenty left over for the next day, when I figured if I had some for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a midnight snack, I'd finally finish with the pie-fest.
Or not.
Another knock at the door the next morning revealed yet another neighbor.
"Sorry I missed your birthday," she said. "I brought you this."
In her hands was a familiar-looking white box.
Inside was the piece de resistance, an absolutely magnificent coconut cream creation still warm from my favorite bakery.
When it rains, it pours.
I was reminded of the O. Henry short story, "Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen," where a homeless man named Stuffy Pete eats to the point of bursting and collapses on the sidewalk after being overfed by a kind benefactor.
I really thought I might die if I ate another piece of pie. So, just to be on the safe side, I had two.
By this point, I was so pie-bound, I thought I might need a new, larger wardrobe to fit the new me.
But as you know, I am nothing if not persistent. I ate pie with a determination only equaled by Sísyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was punished by being made to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity.
Well, it wasn't quite as dramatic as all that, but you get the picture.
Finally, the pie was all gone.
After an absolute orgy of gastronomic overindulgence, my customary late-night kitchen wanderings uncovered only this sad sight--an empty pie plate, washed and ready to return.
It was finally over.
Or not.
You see, we're headed for a cookout tonight with a small group of friends we try to get together with at least once a week when we're in town.
Linda and John are grilling the main course, while we're supplying salad and some bread.
"And what about Kate and Bernie?" I asked cautiously. "What about them?"
"Oh," smiled my wife. "They're bringing the pie."
Life is good.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Library Rules

Yes, we're back in the midwest, but really just passing through this time. It's a quickie but a goodie that's given us a chance to meet and greet some of our hometown friends, do a few things around the house and enjoy some fall weather. Soon, we'll be heading back to North Carolina, where our son and daughter-in-law's busy schedules have us in high demand as grandson-sitters, dog walkers and taxi drivers. Meanwhile, it's been fun, with a wedding to attend and play music for and an upcoming opportunity to speak at a library conference in Springfield later this week. Now, I'm no expert on libraries or really much of anything else, either, but my background as an advertising/marketing guy and the notoriety I've somehow gained from writing this column were just enough, I guess, for the organizers to send an invitation my way. I'm going to do a presentation on "Selling your library," which is an interesting enough topic given the fact that some people probably think libraries are a thing of the past. After all, the worldwide web has given many, many folks access to oodles of information, entertainment and other material without ever needing to walk into a library building.
I have some serious doubts about that concept, many of which stem from the concerns I have about the rolling mass of unregulated, hit-or-miss content passing itself off as fact on the internet. And besides, most libraries have adopted and adapted the web and other advanced technologies in ways that make their own package of services more useful and attractive than ever.
But for me, the biggest selling point is much simpler.
I love the library.
The affair between me and those buildings full of books started back when I was a kid. Things were different then, at least in my house. My thrifty father wasn’t sure television would really catch on, so it was a while before we bothered to get a set of our own. And even after we did, my book-loving mother felt there were better things for a kid to do when he wasn't playing baseball, mowing the lawn or breaking the garage window for the millionth time. Like go to the library.
So I was a kid who went there early and often.
In those days, the Galva library was run by a strict, iron-willed local legend who ruled the place like Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of hell in Greek mythology.
”Let me see your hands,” she’d bark as I entered her temple. Like as not, she’d send me to the bathroom to scrub and dry my dirty little paws like a pint-sized doctor preparing for brain surgery.
The rules were tough, but simple. No talking. No gum chewing. No talking. No eating or drinking. No talking. Wash your hands. No talking. A three-book limit. And, uh, no talking.
Now you might think her boot camp approach to books would have caused me to abandon "serious" reading for the comic books at my father's drug store, and there is no doubt that I appreciated the adventures of Superman, the Flash and the Fantastic Four. But I was used to a world where adults bossed kids around all the time, and it was well worth it to get my hands on the now-classic fare that filled my reading menu. Authors like John R. Tunis, Charles Spain Verral and Colonel Red Reeder were important figures in my world as I read and re-read every book they wrote, while waiting impatiently for the next in line. A while back, my sister unearthed a copy of Reeder's "West Point Plebe," and I read it yet again with much the same engrossed enthusiasm I had when I was eleven.
I guess I've changed a little since then. I know the library has.
As a grandparent, I'm now just about as likely to be looking for story hour and the children's department, where we hope to share the love of reading with our grandsons.
Meanwhile, people actually talk out loud at the library. And laugh, even.
There's more stuff, too. Like computers and movies and CDs.
And that's kind of what it's all about, because, over time, libraries have grown and changed and evolved right with us, while not moving so fast as to leave anyone behind. So someone like me can still find a book by John R. Tunis while someone like my youngest grandson hears a story by Dr. Seuss while someone like my daughter-in-law searches the internet while someone like the Star Courier's Carol Gerrond, as noted in her column last week, can even learn to use a Kindle.
All that, and more, at the library.
I'll meet you there sometime.
Right after I wash my hands.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Say hello to the Moderate Majority

I've got to admit, I was a little surprised.
When I wrote last week's column about the tenth anniversary of September eleventh, I figured I was sort of hanging it out in the breeze when I confessed that there was a lot about that world crisis and the events that have followed it that I just don't understand. And I figured suggesting that maybe it was time for a little forgiveness would really fall flat.
But I was wrong.
While I'm sure there are some readers out there who don't agree, I received a gratifying number of notes and calls from people who were in tune with at least some of what I had to say.
It made me think.
Because whether the topic is politics or religion or even the weather, it always seem to be the strident, "my way or the highway" voices that get airtime. As a result, it's easy to think that our nation is mostly made up of two entirely polarized camps--one being ultra-conservative and the other ultra-liberal.
I don't believe it.
Instead, I think there is a majority of citizens who share a more moderate view of things.
People who see both sides of an issue and believe there is room for compromise.
Folks who don't claim to know everything about everything.
A moderate majority, whose political and personal views are based on what's right and fair, instead of what serves special interests or a party line.
Unlike the “silent majority” of the Nixon/Agnew era and the so-called “moral majority” of the 80’s, I think the moderate majority is real and ready to listen to and support some reasonable, progressive, non-partisan thinking.
Is anybody listening out there?
Packing light.
We were on the road earlier this week, heading home for a short visit, a wedding and some business before returning to eastern Carolina for a continuation of our babysitter/beachcomber lifestyle. We do a fair amount of traveling, so you might think we’d be pretty good at a challenge that’s been faced by voyagers from Christopher Columbus to Neal Armstrong.
Packing light.
There are certain items, like the two tubs containing our camping gear and the smaller container that holds essentials like passports and checkbooks, that go with us whenever we set out on a journey of any significance.
But while the inclusion of those items is a no-brainer, it apparently takes a bigger brain than mine to figure out what clothes to pack, especially when traveling from one latitude to another during a change of seasons. I clearly remembered needing to buy long pants last year when an October trip to Vermont found me in shorts and goosebumps, so I was sure to pack extra fall-weather togs that included pants, sweaters and socks to supplement the beachesque shorts, sandals and t-shirts I’ve been sporting since March. I assumed she was dealing with the same situation, so I was a little chagrined when she handed me her luggage to load in the car.
“Here you go,” she said, handing me a smallish bag that made me, with my overstuffed duffel, look like a fashionista heading for a long weekend in Cannes.
“Is that it?’ I asked.
“Yep, except for my carry-in.”
A carry-in, in our terminology, is a small bag containing just enough stuff for an overnight stay, like something to sleep in, a change of clothes for the next day and toiletries. We learned a long time ago that it’s a lot easier than lugging a bulky valise in and out of the car, whether we’re camping or stopping for the night in a hotel.
Sure enough, on my next trip inside, she handed me the backpack she usually uses for overnight stops, leading me to believe she was packed and ready to roll.
Or not.
Soon, another small bag appeared. Then another.
Me: What’s this?
She: Oh, that’s my OTHER carry-in.
Me: But I...
She: And my shoe bag/carry-in.
Dutifully, I loaded and re-loaded the car, piling her litter of carry=in bags on top, while giving mine a hearty shove to make it fit in the now-overloaded space.
As she got in the car, she cast a kind, but inquiring eye over my packing job and my bulging duffle bag. She didn't say a thing, but I swear I could hear what she was thinking.
"Honey, you've just got to learn how to pack light."
More time for turtles
We didn't expect it to be anything too out of the ordinary. Two sea turtle nests near our place had hatched a couple of nights before and it was time to "analyze" what was left. An analysis is the process of digging out the emptied nest to see how many eggs actually hatched and if there were any unfertilized eggs, deceased baby turtles or live babies left behind. We had missed the hatch, but took our grandsons along to watch what came next, thinking both they--and we--might learn something from the whole process.
But there was a surprise in store.
Earlier in the week, my sharp-eyed, turtle-watching spouse had discovered and reported a nest invaded by a marauding fox. A rescue effort discovered several "pipped" eggs, with the young turtles just beginning to emerge. The babies had been taken to a safe place to complete the hatching process until they were ready to release.
The boys were thrilled to see a bucket full of teeny-tiny turtles close up, but that was nothing compared to what came next.
"Do you two boys want to help?" queried the turtle wrangler in charge.
Of course they did, so five-year-old Cyrus and three-year-old John each carefully carried a baby to its new life in the sea.
"It's kind of like they just got the first bell of Christmas," whispered my proud, thrilled spouse.
"Too bad you didn't bring a camera," said a nearby friend.
Yeah, but I don't think it's a picture we're ever going to forget.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ten Years After

I suppose I should talk about September eleventh.
It's not that I have anything new, startling or original, even, to say.
You have already read some fine contributions from some other Star Courier columnists. But every time I start to write my way down another path this week, my mind returns to what happened ten years ago.
I'm one of the people who thinks it feels like a long time ago when our safe, secure world went topsy-turvy. Like most of you, I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news about what was going on. I remember driving from an early morning appointment in Galesburg and mulling over the fact that the Knox College football team's orthopedist had just recommended a second surgery on my son's knee.
At some point, I must have flipped on the radio.
"Oh, it must be the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing," I thought as my subconscious began to process the information it was hearing.
Soon, I realized I wasn't listening to a documentary, but a realtime tragedy.
I wondered if I should continue into work in Peoria or just go home.
I decided to head to work. No one was home, and I needed people.
When I got there, the folks in my division were jammed into the conference room, watching TV.
Some were crying. Some were angry. Some were simply stunned.
Some worried about family members and friends in New York and other big cities.
In the background, our boss worried we weren't getting enough work done.
I wasn't sure if he really understood what was going on that day. Looking back, I still wonder. But everyone pretty much ignored him anyway; watching, talking quietly and watching some more until it was time to go home.
Several weeks later, I needed to go to New York City. Some new job responsibilities were going to require me to spend significant time in the northeastern United States every month. I had already traveled to Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This would be my first time in Manhattan, except for a couple of visits years before as a tourist.
I remember arguing with my cabbie about whether my hotel was actually open for business. I knew it was, because I had just talked to them. He wasn't so sure.
"It's pretty close, you know. Pretty close."
He didn't have to say what it was my hotel was pretty close to.
The Holiday Inn Soho is, in fact, almost exactly one mile away from Ground Zero.
Now, I'm no voyeur.
I'm no rubbernecker.
I try really hard to look away from life's most awful moments.
But I had to look at this one, feeling I'd never really understand what had happened unless I saw it for myself. It was a cool, crisp, sunny morning. The kind of beautiful day that makes you think that, yes, you could live in a big city and just walk and walk and walk from home to work and from place to place.
Nothing could have made me understand the sheer immensity of the place where those two buildings stood. No one could have prepared me for the sights, sounds and smells that still lingered.
The fires were out by then, but the search for the bodies of the victims continued.
It seemed endless.
In a way, it has been.
Those deaths became the reason behind two wars and a major change in attitude towards civil liberties and human rights in America and around the world. Faux-patriotic chest-thumping has become the norm for some politicians, while genuine soul-searching still remains a challenge for most.
I remember asking myself, "Why did this happen?"
I didn't know then.
I don't know now.
I do know that I, for one, have grown weary of the crazy cry for vengeance. Partly because it serves no real purpose. And partly because I'm not sure we really know who we're mad at.
We have, in fact, demonized millions of peaceful Muslims without any real regard for who they are and what they believe in. We have put thousands of young American lives in harm's way as we have chased the shadows of terrorism without really knowing exactly who we're chasing or why we have been their targets.
And I just don't understand.
Ten years after, on Sunday, September eleventh, we went to church. I kind of expected a little flag waving, as the Infant of Prague parish serves over 40,000 U.S. Marines and their families. As always, we prayed for those young warriors and the ones they love. But the theme of the day was not one of vengeance or war or victory or retribution.
It was forgiveness.
It's not easy. And they say it's truly divine.
But I pray it's something we can all learn to understand.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The 60s and the South

We've been married 39 years as of a week ago last Saturday.
We had planned to attend an outdoor concert to celebrate, but it was canceled, so we didn't have any big ideas, though we thought maybe we'd have dinner and see a movie. But as it turned out, we had a trio of unexpected guests. Two were welcome, because they are our grandsons. But the third, not so much.
Her name was Irene.
With our son and daughter-in-law riding out the hurricane with friends, we asked to take the grandsons with us, thinking a brick hotel building might offer both a little more room and a lot more safety as the storm roared through. And for the most part, we enjoyed our 30-hour anniversary celebration with Cyrus and John, though I couldn't help thinking that someone like Norma Blewitt, who once edited a society page for the Star Courier, would have written it this way.
"Activities for the anniversary celebration included a number of unnecessary baths for the fun of playing in the tub, and several trips up and down the four-story stairway to burn up excess energy. At the lavish anniversary meal, guests were served Chef Boyardee ABC's & 123's and toasted cheese sandwiches, while the happy couple shared a frozen microwavable pasta dish obtained from the hotel convenience store that was of unknown origin and age. The evening concluded with the screening of a dramatic children's movie borrowed from the hotel's video library that caused the grandsons to shout in alarm at all the scary parts, the grandmother to cry at all the sad parts, and the grandfather to doze intermittently through all the parts."
I figured I still owed her one after that, so I offered to take her to the movie of her choice after we returned home to the beach. I knew in advance what we'd be seeing, as the book that preceded the film was one she enjoyed and shared with several of her friends.
"The Help" is a book about a book, telling the story of a young southern white woman who wants to be a writer. She decides to tell the "inside" story of black housemaids in early-1960's Mississippi, a process that would put both her and the ladies who helped her at great risk at times. According to my spouse, the film follows the book pretty closely, which would, I guess, make it a movie about a book about a book. I was expecting sort of a chick flick, but quickly found myself engrossed in the tale of the unlikely friendship that develops between the writer and the women she interviews. The film has some truly funny moments. But it was the description of the insidious kinds of prejudice that existed at the time, along with the horrifying outbursts of violence that marked that period in American history, that hit me right between the eyes. It was a disturbing, unwelcome memory of a time when segregation still ruled in the south and murder was a not-uncommon means to a cruel end.
We were, I know, both rather stunned by the memories and didn't have a lot to say as we walked out of the darkened theater.
As we started to leave the building, my wife discovered she had a voicemail message on her phone, so she stepped to a quiet corner to listen to it and return the call. Knowing it would be a few minutes, I took a seat on a bench near the exit and settled in to wait. Seated on the same bench was an African-American man about my age and a young boy of 10 or 12 or so, who looked to be his grandson. It soon became obvious they had just seen the same movie as me, as the grandson began asking questions.
"Who was Medgar Evers?" he asked, referring to the activist leader whose 1963 murder occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for the movie and a part of the storyline.
The grandfather and I exchanged the first of several glances that seemed both knowing and a bit uncomfortable.
I imagine it's like that sometimes in the south.
There's a lot of history.
Not all of it is something to be proud of.
While son Patrick notes that the high school kids he teaches and coaches nowadays seem quite unconscious of race, it was not long ago that skin color was the absolute defining factor in the lives people led and the opportunities they received. Surely, that grandfather lived through a time when Jim Crow ruled the south, and schools, restaurants, and other so-called public places were separate and far from equal.
I listened as the grandfather began to recall some of the horrific events surrounding the civil rights movement of the early 60s. Part of me wanted to join in; to tell the man and boy that It wasn't my family or friends who held slaves and made rules and laws that kept a whole race of people subjugated for generations.
"No, It wasn't me," I wanted to say. "Not me."
But I didn't say anything.
It wasn't my conversation.
They weren't my memories.
Finally, the boy asked the essential question.
"How could people do that?" he asked. "Why did they act like that?"
The grandfather glanced my way again.
"There was just a lot of hate back then," he answered.
Again, I wanted to speak up. But I didn't know what to say, so I just nodded, mostly to myself. It wasn't until we were in the car and on our way home that I remembered the best thing about his conversation with his grandson telling about the prejudice and hate there was back then.
At least he said "was."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just another day in paradise

When it comes to hurricanes, there's both good news and bad news.
The good news is that, unlike some unfortunate forces of nature--like tornadoes and earthquakes--you get plenty of warning when one is headed your way, with what seems like ample time to prepare.
The bad news? You've got plenty of time to worry about it, too, with absolutely no guarantee that any of those preparations will do any good.
In last week's column, I wrote about the beginnings of the worrisome wait that started when the local weather guys got wind of the tropical cyclone named Irene. Now, while I'm probably about as well versed as any midwestern weather-watcher when it comes to tornadoes, thunderstorms, blizzards and ice storms, I was a total tyro when it came to the water-based biggies called hurricanes. We anxiously accepted advice and information from virtually everyone we met. With our stretch of island just five feet above sea level, the danger of flooding was paramount, not to mention the havoc that might be wreaked by 100+ mph winds and double-digit rainfall.
Forecasts varied during the week, and for awhile, it looked like the storm might miss us to the seaward side. But as Irene moved closer, she took a westward jog that, once again, put us right in her path. A mandatory evacuation beginning Friday morning was announced, and we hustled around, doing a bevy of pre-storm chores that included sticking giant X-shaped swaths of duct tape on each and every window to eliminate--as much as possible--shattering glass when the winds hit. We taped cabinets and drawers shut, too, and packed and secured in closets those valuables that we couldn't take with us. We took pictures off the wall, items off shelves and counters, and moved the deck furniture and our gas grill indoors. In preparation for the expected tsunami-like storm surge, I packed, hung and tied down every item in our ground-level garage to prevent them from being swept away by the raging torrent that neighbors told me might sweep through that space.
Assuming a power failure was imminent, we emptied our refrigerator and freezer, pulled the main electrical breaker and turned off the water supply to the house, as well.
Then, finally, we skedaddled, just as one of the first heavy bands of rain and wind began sweeping across our coast.
I felt kind of empty--even guilty--inside, feeling like we were deserting a home that we've come to love in the few short months we've been coming here. But there was nothing we could do.
Unlike the many evacuees who were forced to take shelter in high school gyms and church halls, we were lucky enough, with the help of my hotel-executive niece, to have secured a hotel room in Greenville, North Carolina, just over 100 miles away. That seemed like plenty to me. After all, when you're 100 miles away from a tornado or a snowstorm, you're just as likely to experience a sunny day with no bad weather in sight. I figured it might still be kind of windy and rainy, but not nearly enough to prevent us from visiting friends in the area, and maybe seeing a movie or going out for dinner.
A major hurricane like Irene casts a broad shadow that stretches far beyond its main path. While Greenville is miles inland, it was still buffeted by hours and hours of incredibly heavy, unrelenting rain and swirling, dangerous winds that uprooted trees and damaged homes in every direction. We spent most of Friday night and Saturday monitoring television and online reports, hoping for some word as to the conditions on North Topsail Beach. But no one knew, as the island was deserted all through that stormy night and day.
30 hours later, the sun came out.
A news release from the government of North Topsail Beach said, "The Town is reporting minimal structural damage from the storm."
In a happy bit of circumstance, Irene's power diminished just a little before reaching our shores. Instead of the super-destructive, maelstrom she could easily have been, Irene had fizzled just enough to limit damage to shingles, siding, decks and other relatively minor occurrences.
A friend called Patrick. He had been on the island. Our house was still there. It looked OK.
And really, it was. One window had been pushed outward in its frame by an odd, powerful combination of wind and suction. The entire railing of our top-floor deck tore free, and we sustained some ceiling damage from leaking roof seams. The garage shows signs of a bit of a flood, with traces of sand and other flotsam indicating where a stream of mixed sea and rain water made its way through the front door and out the back.
But there's nothing that can't be fixed, and we are already anxious for things to be back to normal.
We discovered, too, that duct tape residue on window glass is one of the most stubborn materials known to man, resisting all efforts to remove it until someone clued us into the judicious use of the wonder-substance known as WD-40. It will probably take some time before we remember just where we stowed and stored all of our possessions in our haste to protect them in the hours before the storm hit. In fact, one such last-minute storage solution could have produced the weekend's most memorable story.
We had errands to run and friends to see, so Patrick and Susan beat us back to the beach by a few hours on Sunday. He called, shared a preliminary damage report, and noted that he had been to the supermarket to partially replenish our larder, and was planning on fixing some dinner.
A few minutes passed.
She: Quick, call him back.
Me: Whaaa?
She: Tell him not to turn on the oven until he looks inside!
Oh yeah.
One of the last things I did before leaving the house was to disconnect the wireless router that provides our home WiFi. With all of the drawers and cabinets already taped shut, there was just one secure place left.
The oven.
I suppose I could have a returned a piece of parbroiled electronics to our internet provider with some sort of plausible explanation.
But I'm glad I didn't have to.