Thursday, April 25, 2013

Nincompoops all around

Sometimes I learn interesting new stuff. Even when I don't mean to.
I was blustering about someone--I don't remember exactly who, but I'm betting it was a politician--when I uttered these words:
"That guy is a total nincompoop."
My grandsons, who were busy planning the destruction of a lego city on the floor near my feet, froze.
I saw a look pass between them. It's one I've seen before, ever since I started having kids of my own.
"What's the old fool talking about now?"
Then they shared a quick, slightly scandalized laugh.
I realized they were reacting to what they perceived as a daring scatological meaning for the otherwise indecipherable term.  After all, the word I had just uttered ended in "poop," and we all know what that is.
Finally, grandson Cyrus, who is the older and bolder of the two, put the burning question into words:
"Grandpa, what's a nikopoop?"
Despite the mispronunciation, I knew what he was asking, so I hastened to reply.
One thing, though.
I couldn't.
Oh, sure, we all know that it's an unflattering term meant to describe someone without much sense or intelligence. But why? Since when?
The origin of some common insults, like airhead, numbskull and blockhead, are pretty obvious, but there's a whole host of popular pejoratives with backgrounds that defy easy understanding. I thought it would be kind of fun to find the answers, counting on a few internet searches to reveal what etymologists--the pointy-headed guys and gals who track down the history of words--had to say about my grandsons' favorite new descriptive term. Well, I discovered that it wasn't quite as interesting as I hoped it would be. Various theories include root words from both Latin and Dutch, plus a slightly more intriguing idea that links Nincompoop with the given name Nicodemus, who naively questioned Christ in the Gospel of St John. In fact, this word still exists in French as nicodème, meaning a simpleton.
But it was in the thesaurus section--the area where words with the same meaning are listed--that I discovered the real treasure trove.  Suddenly, I felt my personal vocabulary of rude and useful words expanding. No longer would I have to settle for anything commonplace when referring to, say, congressmen, umpires or members of the Green Bay Packers.
Words like  dizzard, ninnyhammer and hoddy-doddy will now flow smoothly off my tongue. Imagine the impact the first time I call someone a doodle or a dunderpate. Or when I mention that someone is a real gowk, gawk or jobbernowl? Or even a dotard, a driveler, or my personal favorite, a henhussy?
My mind reels with the possibilities.
Of course, I'm not going to share any of this stuff with my grandsons. I know I confuse them enough already. Plus, I'm almost certain they already think I'm kind of a, well, you know.
A nincompoop.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Now, that's entertainment

I admit, I'm easily entertained. I come by it naturally, I think, like most small-town boys who didn't grow up in the midst of bright lights and big-city delights.  It's a attribute that has served me well over the years, since I'm both cheap and lazy. So I'm lucky that I'm often interested in the little things that just naturally occur if you pay attention and you're not too demanding.
I grew up being absolutely delighted by most simple stuff, like Saturday nights in my Galva hometown. Imagine those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the downtown streets were lined with thriving retail businesses. Saturday was the big day, the day when farm families came to town to do their shopping. Some town folks would park their cars around the square in the late afternoon, walk home, then come back after supper knowing they had a prime spot from which they could sit and visit and watch that busy little world go by.  Things were open late on Saturday, and stores and restaurants and the movie theatre were all packed. There were three drive-in restaurants in those days, and they were busy, too, along with the downtown parks and the baseball field on the east end of town.
And while those days and nights and places are mostly gone now, those of us who grew up that way still appreciate the simple joys of those kind of things.
That's why I have, along with a host of others, dome things like pull up a lawn chair to watch a daring fellow trim a tall tree, leaned over a fence to commiserate with a gardening neighbor, and spent summer nights watching Little League baseball long after our own kids had graduated to other pursuits. We've ridden bicycles through the country just to see spring begin, and sat on late-night porches, sharing ice cream and the ordinary news of the day.
It's all so simple. And it's all entertaining.
Right now we are firmly in the grasp of our youngest grandsons, the ones who live in eastern North Carolina and provide us with a fine excuse to spend days and nights on the beach near these Atlantic shores.  We have tried our best to share our love for the simple things with them. It's easy enough, as they gladly experience the beach and birds and boats and all the other uncomplicated daily events this place has to offer. Moreover, they share the cool assurance that, as their grandparents, we're more than likely to want to make them happy, no matter what. They've learned that it's fun to dig in warm, wet sand, and  to count the number of pelicans in the scoop that's swooping above. They know that ghost crabs are almost impossible to catch, and that grandma is fearless when it comes to all the living things that scuttle and crawl and fly and swim and live and die along these sandy banks.  They know that it's interesting to watch when someone gets stuck in the soft sand that leads to our beach access, and that's it's a good thing to lend some help, though grandpa doesn't offer to push anymore, but only proves suggestions and stout planks of wood to bridge the deep holes that spinning tires make.
And while, as doting grandparents, we also find ourselves springing for more sophisticated pleasures, like movies, museums, aquariums and pizza places lined with video games and dancing costumed rodents, it seems like the simpler days are still the happiest ones.
Like the egg farm we discovered one day when we spied a hand-painted sign on a back-country blacktop.
Owned by a hulking, soft-spoken guy named Mr. Bolton, it is every little boy's dream come true. Because eggs mean chickens. And ducks. And turkeys. And more.
Lots more.
Because apparently, as far as Mr. Bolton is concerned, there's always room for a few more critters..
The first time we went there, young John Patrick awoke from a nap in the back seat of the car just in time to see a jumbo Tom Turkey careening around a corner of the maze of pens, crates and cages that attempt to hold Mr. Bolton's menagerie.  He saw chickens and geese and ducks and turkeys and pigeons and goats. He spied bunches and bevies of baby bunnies, plus downy little chicks and ducklings and other small fowl of just about every species, style, size and color.
I thought he might be startled at this first glimpse of big Mr. Bolton and his all his animals. But instead, he suddenly broke into a spontaneous bout of clapping; applauding, I think, the sheer wonder of it all.
It was simple and quite amazing, all at once.
It was our kind of entertainment.
It was our kind of day.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The gift of memories

I got a gift awhile back.
It was a nice, leather-bound book about the size of a paperback novel. My name is printed on the front in gold letters. The pages inside are of high-quality, creamy-white paper, thinly lined to encourage neat, straight handwriting. Along with my name, the cover contains a single word, embossed right in the center.
You would think a journal would be a perfect gift for someone like me. After all, I have been a writer of one sort or another for all of my adult life. First, I was an advertising agency copywriter, one of those people, like Darrin Stephens on "Bewitched" and those guys on "Mad Men," who spends his days coming up with bright new ways to say "new and improved" and "better than ever" regarding a wide, wide range of interesting and not-so-interesting products and services.
Later, after a bout with cancer forced me to abandon the long hours and frequent travel that went along with that job, I got a golden chance at another career of sorts, as a newspaper sportswriter. I cherished the opportunity to share my love of and interest in the games we play, along with the chance to write about the kids who work so hard at them, and the coaches who dedicate their time for little more than the love of those kids and those games.
Later, I became a columnist, too. I could, I discovered, write on just about anything that struck my fancy. So I have, talking about everything from kids and family, to travel and fun and memories and life itself. Eventually, I've gotten to see my words in a couple of newspapers and even a monthly magazine. I even have an online blog where I publish work from time to time.
It has been, no kidding, a dream come true.
But the journal I got was an entirely different matter.
As excited and grateful as I was to receive it, I found myself a little overawed by the thing. The pages were pure and pristine. Certainly, the words I wrote on them would be required to be important. They would need to be meaningful. They would have to be just right.
So I waited. And as I often do, I prayed for inspiration.
I waited some more, and as I did, I thought about other journals I've read and heard about. I thought about the fine accounts of great deeds and exciting lives I've read during a life that has often found me literally buried in the books I love. And I admit, I began to feel intimidated by the task set before me by that handsome, absolutely blank little book I received.
Then I thought of my mother.
She was, like most other moms, nobody especially important outside of the realm of her immediate family. She was a good, faithful, loving wife. She was a interested, nurturing, funny, altogether wonderful mom. She cooked and cleaned and laughed and scolded and loved and remembered.
She remembered, especially, because she wrote it all down. No, she did not record her thoughts and dreams in a handsome little leather-bound book like mine. Instead, she wrote--every single day--in a series of yearly book-style calendars, just like the ones some banks and insurance agents still give away around the first of every year.  It was a habit she got from her mother, who also wrote down every little thing.
The things she wrote were not magnificent or of worldly importance. In some eyes, they would seem mundane, in fact. Her prose was not flowery and elegant. It was, rather, almost like a personal shorthand made up with sentence fragments and single-word entries that told the story of the life she led. But as I write this on Tuesday, the 35th anniversary of her death, I am still absolutely enthralled by those simple things she had to say.
I don't suppose I would have been wise enough to keep those diaries she wrote in, but happily, luckily, my sister was. And so, I got to read an entry like this, written just a few months before mom died.
"Nice day.
Dad to work, home for lunch.
John and Megan over for supper.
While it might not mean much to many, to me it said that it was a good day for mom, who suffered greatly from the heart condition that would soon end her life. She, like me, responded well to sunny days, you see. The words she wrote told me that dad, who was retired by then, was spending the day subbing for another pharmacist, which he enjoyed, but had time to come home at noon, which made them both happy in ways only known within the bounds of the quiet love story they shared. And it even told me she was feeling well enough that day to invite my wife and I over for my favorite meal.
It was wonderful to read. And I can still taste that meatloaf.
It was equally heartbreaking in the months that followed to see her daily accounts gradually grow fainter and fewer until, just like she did, they gently faded away.
And so, these many years later, mom, once again, gave me the answer.
For while journals are meant to record thoughts, memories and accomplishments for the writer, they are, in another way, especially meant for the ones who will read them again someday.
Mom's stories told about days and nights and a life she loved.
When I read them, I know she loved us. I know she loved me.
If someday my children and grandchildren read my words and receive the same gift, it will be enough.
It will be just right.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Speaking of spam

I was minding my own business the other day, looking for someone's email address in my contacts list, when I accidently clicked on the wrong icon and stumbled headlong into a world I hadn't visited in a long, long time.
It was a strange sort of place, filled with outlandish and bizarre things that baffled the mind and tried the soul.
No it wasn't hell. Nor was it Oz, Wonderland or even the Kewanee Hog Days carnival.
It was my spam folder.
For those few among you who are unfamiliar with the cyber-definition of a word normally used to describe a mysterious spiced meat product, spam is the online version of junk mail, sometimes appearing on commercial websites, social media sites, cell phones and, especially, email.
Now, I know there's nothing new about spam. Unsolicited bulk email messages from desperate Nigerian princes and lonely Ukrainian maidens have pretty much been around as long as the internet itself.  But thanks to the efficient filtering techniques employed on my behalf by gmail, I hardly ever see the stuff anymore, as it automatically gets marked as the junk it generally is, and then deleted after awhile.  I suspect that's the case with most email providers nowadays, but, apparently, the offers and inducements  just keep rolling in anyway, just in case there's still some sucker willing to believe he just won the Latvian lottery.
While I would have probably never gone there on my own, my visit to my  spam-land was not unlike stumbling into a dark, dusty attic or a damp, dank cellar. That is, you don't really want to be there, but once you are, it's hard to resist poking around in a few corners.  In my case, I was a little startled to discover all the friends I have.  For instance, Mrs. Maria M.A. Victor is anxious to give me a million and a half bucks for "the good work of the Lord," while Watson Thomas has a special business proposition for me if I'll just get back to him.  My buddy Michael Williamson needs some help transferring a large sum of money, while good old Cleone Silva de Lima contacted me with the astonishing news that I've won the Publishers Clearinghouse Lottery.  Both my friend Liu Tsai Zhang and my other friend, Vladimir Oleg, are anxious to partner up with me to collect unclaimed funds at their respective foreign banks, while good old Mr. Davi has made repeated attempts to contact me about the over seven million dollars waiting for me in his hometown of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And, of course, it's not just all about money. I received a helpful offer to assist me with an attempted security breach of my credit card and a notification of a FexEx package waiting for me, and I discovered important messages from both the FBI and the CIA.
I never knew I was so important. Or popular and attractive, even, as evidenced by the panting plethora of pills, potions and proposed partners that are, apparently, wholeheartedly dedicated to a part of my life that I've always considered, well, kind of private.
Then I thought about it. I thought about all that stuff that lies buried in that spam folder. Stuff like insincerity and greed and dishonesty and lust and a whole bunch of other unattractive thoughts, ideas and qualities.
And it occurred to me that those are often the very same things that I, like most of us, usually try my best not to get caught up in or involved with.  And that's when I realized that a spam folder--a place to both put 'em and delete 'em--is a pretty nice thing to have. On the internet, and in life, too.
Almost like a brain.
Almost like a conscience.
You know what i mean?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Spring things and baseball dreams

Springtime means a whole host of things to different people.
For some, it's those first glimpses of new life and springtime hope, as tiny shoots of pale-bright green work their way through a winter's worth of blown-down leaves and dried-up grasses. For others, it's the change in light, in color, and in temperature, as balmy April breezes rattle and battle against the last cool reminders of a stubborn wintertime, or the oh-so-subtle changes in the rolling fields around us. We all ooh and aah as buds and blooms begin to sprout; as the tulips and daffodils awake from a long winter's sleep and bluebells, violets and scilla dot yards and garden plots with the season's first bits of dainty color.
They're spring things, every one of them.
But for me, the best spring thing of all was--and still is--baseball.
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a kid, 'long about February, I'd dig and retrieve my ball glove from the the indecipherable mass of shoes, clothing and miscellaneous odd socks that inevitably covered my closet floor, no matter how many times my mother made me clean it. Soon, it would be time to begin the yearly task of oiling my well-worn fielder's mitt and replacing any rawhide laces that had stretched and frayed the year before. By the time most of the snow had melted, I would be in the slogging through the muddy backyard, relentlessly throwing a tennis ball against the second story of my parents' house.
"It's a hard-hit ball to deep centerfield. Sloan turns and sprints towards the warning track. He leaps! He's got it! What a catch!"
Once I tired of that, or rather, once my mother tired of muddy ball marks on the back of the house, I would move to the front yard, where a set of old-fashioned wooden porch steps and the sidewalk that stretched to the street provided yet another playground for me and my imagination.
"It's a hard shot up the middle. Sloan moves deep in the hole, gobbles it up, touches second and fires home. Double play!"
Once spring really arrived, the season began in earnest, with my friends and I playing ball every day at school during recess, and after school, as well. That, of course, was just a preview of those halcyon days of summer vacation, where, between sandlot and little league ball, we probably played more games than were contained in a regulation 162-game big league season. If it wasn't raining, about the only time you could get me indoors was during the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week, featuring Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. Often, one of the teams featured was my then-beloved New York Yankees. I was a big fan of slugging outfielders like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, along with pitcher Whitey Ford and catchers Yogi Berra and the amazing Elston Howard. But my real favorites were  the members of what sportswriters called, “the million dollar infield,” not because they even came close to collectively making that kind of money (heck, Mantle only made $60,000), but because they were said to be worth a million and more. That infield included first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron, second baseman Bobby Richardson, shortstop Tony Kubek and third sacker Clete Boyer, all guys who were astonishingly good at what they did, but seemed humble enough and well aware of the fact that they were pretty darn lucky to be doing what they were doing.
But despite my love for the game, and all the games I watched and played in, I wasn't really all that good. Oh, I was fast enough and my fielding was OK, but I was never much of a hitter, and no matter what they say, you'd better be Ozzie Smith if you can't hit for average, power or both.
I wasn't. I didn't.
After a football knee injury knocked me out of competitive sports while I was still in high school, I contented myself with playing on softball teams while in college and for a decade or so afterwards. Fun enough, I guess, but a poor substitute for the real game.
Then I had kids. Two sons to be exact, and the love affair began again. We played innumerable games of catch and hot box in the front yard and the park across the street, and even devised an odd-ball game called "tree ball" that involved a whiffle ball and the giant maple in the corner of our yard. Once they were old enough for organized baseball, I became a little league coach, and spent years coaching and cheering on both boys' teams. I even bought a well-used catcher's mitt at a yard sale so that I could help my younger son, who was blossoming into a skilled left-handed pitcher.
It was fun while it lasted. But it didn't last forever.
By the time my sons reached high school, the older one had bailed out of baseball in favor of football, track and soccer. My younger son, the pitcher, kept at it all through college, but the time soon came when his fastball was way too fast and his curve much too tricky for my mediocre catching skills.
It was the end of an era. My era.
Or maybe not.
You see, I have grandsons now. Little guys, just five and seven years old, who are just beginning the games of summer for what I hope will be a long, long time. Of course, they've got their dad. As a former college player and high school coach, he's just the guy to teach them the finer points of the game.
But maybe, just maybe, there's room for someone else, too.
Someone who thinks bouncing a ball off a wall is all kinds of fun.
Someone who remembers when the million dollar infield didn't make a million dollars.
Someone who never really all that good, but loves baseball, all the same.
I was digging through a seldom-used closet the other day and found a treasure most rare. It was my old catcher's mitt. It must have been a sign.
Because I think it's time again.
Time to play ball.