Thursday, December 26, 2013

A guy named Joe

I really like the things the Bible has to say this time of year.
Especially the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the books that record the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Since it's Christmastime, they're chocked full of the amazing narratives surrounding His birth, a happy occasion in any family.
There are a lot of heroes in these stories.
There's the Blessed Virgin Mary, the young maiden who answered God's call to bear a most special son in extremely unusual circumstances. There are the angels who came to earth and talked to Mary, the shepherds who were the first to hear the news from those angels about the glorious birth of a savior, and the Magi, the mysterious "kings" who followed a star to see a special baby, then slipped "home by another way" to hide his birth from a jealous ruler. There are the stories of that long donkey ride, the manger, the animals, the birth.
Great stories. Marvelous characters.
But my favorite is Joseph, the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.
I mean, really, here's a guy who's just minding his own business, looking forward to a long, happy life with the girl of his dreams. Suddenly, she tells him something that absolutely shocks and stuns him, and, I'm sure, breaks his heart.
She's going to have a baby.
Not his.
By rights and according to the laws and customs of the day, Joseph could have had her stoned to death for betraying him with another man.
But instead, the book of Matthew tells us that when "Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."
But then it gets even better.
An angel came to Joseph while he was sleeping and told him not to be afraid to marry his beloved girl, that the baby was a child of the Holy Spirit, that they should name Him Jesus, and that He would be the savior of the world.
Whew. Big news. A lot to think about.
But here's the thing. The angel came to Joseph in a dream, right?
I once dreamed I dunked over Michael Jordan, and do you know what?
The NBA never called.
But here's this guy named Joe who calmly accepted it all and made the decisions that changed heaven and earth.
Out of faith.
Out of belief.
Out of love.
All without saying a word.
Or at least he never said one that's recorded in the Bible.
According to my friend and Pastor, Father John Burns, "He said nothing and did everything."
Not a bad way to be remembered.
Thanks Saint Joe.
Happy Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Twizzle, Twazzle, Twozzle, Twome

It was kind of like a dam burst, in a small, personal kind of way.
When chemotherapy caused my hair to first thin, then suddenly begin to fly off my head like a flock of geese rising off a frozen pond, people were kind of circumspect at first. That is, they hesitated to mention it--to me, at least--as if my newly bald pate was a trifle embarrassing, like an open fly or a spot of mustard on the tip of my nose.
Then I opened my big mouth.
As soon as I brought the subject up in a column, I swear I could hear my friends rubbing their hands in anticipation as they realized that all bets were off.
"OK, he's talking about it. We can, too."
While I got my share of "Oh, you look fine" and "Gee, I hardly recognized you" remarks, along with a whole raft of double takes, the biggest task and topic seemed to be determining just who I most resembled in my hairless state.
Bruce Willis and LL Cool J (I think they were kidding) were a couple of suggestion I found kind of pleasing, along with a handful of back-in-the-day icons like Kojak and Yul Bryner. I wasn't quite so happy to be compared to the meth-making science teacher from "Breaking Bad, but there's a whole bevy of smooth-headed younger dudes, including Vin Diesel and Stone Cold Steve Austin that I could hope to imitate. Kind of.
But I've got to be honest.
I've forced myself to look long and hard at my startling new image in my morning mirror. No hair. Mustache gone, too. Eyebrows thinning and soon to follow.
It took me no time at all to realize who I now look like. I remember him well, because I avidly followed his adventures when I was a boy.
Tooter Turtle.
For To the uninformed, uninitiated and those of you who just don't care enough to keep track of such important things, Tooter Turtle was a cartoon character who appeared in the early 60s as part of a just-mildly popular show called "KIng Leonardo and His Short Subjects." I liked him because he was a determined dreamer who wanted to experience new things.  Moreover, like me, he was a dedicated time traveler, though he employed the magic of Mr. Wizard the Lizard, who he visited in a cardboard box sitting at the base of a tree, instead of the beat-up SVU and bag o' maps I use to visit the past.  When Tooter's time-trip became a catastrophe, Mr. Wizard would rescue him with the incantation, "Twizzle, Twazzle, Twozzle, Twome; time for this one to come home."
Whew. What a turtle.
You can see why I relate to him. And look like him, too.
The past week or so has been absolutely jammed with outstanding music, with super groups like the Kewanee Community Band, the Kewanee Community Choir, The Kewanee Klassics, and Hammer and Pick appearing at cool venues in Kewanee, Galva and historic Bishop Hill.
Go ahead, tell me there's nothing to do around here. I dare you.
Of all the columns associated with my name, I don't think there's ever been one that received more positive comments than one I didn't write. I refer, of course, to the warm, encouraging piece written by my friend and associate Rocky Stuffelbeam last week.
One thing, though.
Rocky got a little carried away when he referred to me as  the "star" of our 60s garage band. As a rhythm guitar player/backup singer, I was the ultimate utility player, willing to play endless three-chord riffs and try to hit the high notes in exchange for a steady gig.
Rocky was, however, spot on when he said there was still more music to make.
Thanks, buddy. I wish I'd written that.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I wanna be an elf

The happy onslaught is nearly upon us.
You know, Christmas.
It's been a couple of years since my two sons saw each other in person, though they're in more or less constant touch via phone, text message, facebook and email regarding earth-shaking issues like Bears-Packers football games and whether the Chicago Cubs are really as bad as they seem.  Likewise, it's been two years since my youngest grandsons left sunny North Carolina to visit the place they call "the snowy house" at Christmastime. Ditto their two older Minnesota cousins, who really know what snow is.
But this year, they're all coming.
Coming to the big old house by the park.
They're coming home. For Christmas.
Needless to say, the lady in my life is mighty excited with the prospect of her grown-up children and all four grandchildren under one roof at one time. Ever since we got back from our Thanksgiving visit to son Colin and crew in the great, cold North, she's been fully engaged in an all-out flurry of preparations that are, I think, nearly as intensive as those undertaken by Ike and his generals as they prepared for the invasion of Normandy.
Good thing, too, because there's no time to lose. Say what you will about owning a big house. It's hard and expensive to heat in the winter, and just about as difficult and pricy to keep cool in summertime, once its high-ceilinged rooms really fill up with hot, humid air.
But it's a great place for Christmas.
Those same high ceilings, a fireplace and mantle, an open staircase and bannister, and a large, pillared porch all beckon, waiting for brightly colored finery to celebrate the coming of the season.
Thing is, there's a lot to do, starting with repeated visits to the cluttered, dungeon-like little basement space we call the holiday room. But slowly, this old house has been gradually transforming into a jolly holiday place, complete with four, count 'em, four full-sized Christmas trees, plus all manner of wreaths, garlands, candles, angels, Santa Claus figures and--most importantly--the collection of Nativities that mark the real reason for the season.  This year, thanks to an unwelcome visit from the big C, she kept me out of the basement as much as possible, citing the chemo I'm currently undergoing, with its related energy issues, so I felt a little guilty about the amount of work I wasn't doing.
Likewise, the impending season meant it was time to get outside and hang, nail, staple, wire and otherwise attach a wondrous plethora of brightly lit Christmas decorations to the exterior of our home.  Now, as in many of the things we do, one of us is management, while the other is labor.  As the blue-collar member of our team, it has always been my job to climb the ladders and mount the porch railings with coat pockets bulging with stapler and hammer, to bring her mind's-eye holiday vision to life.  But this year, her attitude towards my porch-rail acrobatics has been a little different. Again, she worries about my temporarily puny frame, with visions of me breaking into a zillion little pieces like Humpty Dumpty. Problem is, I didn't want her climbing up there, either, citing the times she's narrowly averted disaster while engaged in high-wire painting projects. We compromised with a scaled-back version of our usual front porch display, while taking turns gingerly scaling a carefully held ladder and hanging a few lights.
For the most part I was safe, secure and well-rested. But something was missing.
"I don't feel elfish enough yet," I said, thinking about all those trips I hadn't made up and down the basement stairs.
"I've got just the thing for you," she replied.
Because if there's one thing that gets a guy into the mood for Christmas, it's three little words:
Some assembly required.
Back in the day, those words absolutely ruled my world, especially on the night before Christmas, when dads in the know rush to assist an overworked Mr. Claus and his exhausted crew of pointy-eared pals.  I built bikes from the wheels up, engineered a giant outdoor basketball standard, and constructed all kinds of other toys and games, both big and small, with the most memorable a Christmas Eve all-nighter I pulled putting together a massive, zillion-piece playset from Hell called "The A-Team Warehouse," named after a popular TV show my two boys absolutely loved.  By the time I screwed in the last screw and bolted the final bolt, my knees ached from sitting cross-legged for hours. My vision swam from trying to read the tiny instructions.  And the catch phrase of one of the show's lead characters, Mr. T., rang in my ears.
"I pity the fool."
I had forgotten that a largish box had been delivered to our front porch a couple of days earlier. No, it wasn't a bicycle, a basketball hoop or even an A-Team Warehouse. Instead, it was the dreaded four-wheeled kitchen cart she had requested for Christmas.  First off, I noticed that the box, while big, was no way big enough to contain a fully functional kitchen cart.
I really didn't have to look. But I did, anyway.
Some assembly required.
I opened the box. Out tumbled a baggie filled with eighteen gazillion tiny screws, nuts and bolts. Further inspection revealed a massive stack of unmarked precut panels. Finally the directions.
Tiny. Almost entirely indecipherable.
"This will be good practice for Christmas Eve," she smiled.
"All right, already," I thought as I levered myself to the floor and grabbed my screwdriver.  "I'm an elf."
Ho Ho Ho.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Welcome to Thoughtful Thursday

One of my neighbors did something really nice for me the other day. Judging that I wasn't altogether ready for the heavy duty round of raking, mowing and mulching that my lawn needed after we returned from our last visit to our grandkids in North Carolina, he rolled in with his lawn tractor and teenage grandson, and did it.
Just like that.
"Wow," I thought. "He's really got the spirit."
His show of selfless generosity is just one of the sheer acts of friendship and kindness that have come our way ever since we started dealing with cancer, chemotherapy, and the tragic loss of my eyebrows in the next few weeks. That's in sharp contrast to what's been going on in the rest of the world this time of year, where time-honored Thanksgiving holiday pursuits like dozing in front of football or otherwise slipping gently into a tryptophan coma after the consumption of large quantities of food have been replaced by a mindless Black-Friday frenzy of shopping.  
Starting as early as Thanksgiving night, shootings and stabbings were reported at retailers in several states. One of the most violent episodes happened at a Kohl's in Romeoville, when an alleged shoplifter dragged a police officer from his car before being shot in the arm by other law enforcement officers present at the scene. Another happened in Las Vegas, when two assailants reportedly attempted to steal a TV from a man who had just bought it. After arguing, the man was shot in the leg before the attacker sped off in his car, leaving the TV behind. Knifings occurred in both Virginia and California, with the former attack apparently caused by a dispute over a choice parking space at a local Walmart. And besides those jolly holiday gun-and-knife happenings, there were dozens and dozens of reports of crazed consumers pushing, shoving, punching, scratching, biting, swearing and otherwise behaving like a room full of rabid raccoons fighting over a single garbage pail.
"They're crazy," said my spouse after watching news coverage of an especially rancorous tussle in an area big-box store.
"No, they're shopping," I replied. 
Come to think of it, we were both right, because somehow we've all managed to transform the generous act of giving at this time of year into something kind of, well, ugly.
So I've got an idea.
Instead of overreacting to all these crazy, made-up shopping days, perhaps we should make up a few of our own that are more in tune to the real reason for the season. So instead of Black Friday, maybe we could celebrate Magnanimous Monday. Or Warm-hearted Wednesday. Or even Thoughtful Thursday.
Instead of days dedicated to going out and getting more stuff, maybe we should set aside some time for giving, even if it's as basic as helping out a neighbor, cheering up a friend or even lending a hand to a total stranger. 
Or just try smiling, even.
The thing is, a few simple acts of kindness and giving would go a long ways towards preparing us for a big day that's coming soon. A day that's absolutely dedicated to peace and good will towards all men, whether we know it or not.
They call it Christmas.