Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Try to git beter, Mr. Shlom

What ever happened to autumn?
What ever happened to those golden days, when the sun shown bright through red-green leaves. And what became of those last happy moments of warm weather and skies so blue you thought they'd never go away?
Well, I don't exactly know know, either.
But heres the thing.
I'm willing to try.
I'm willing to do my best to return to those sweet, special days. To remember just how good it felt to feel good again.
A warm hand on my shoulder tells me she's willing to help, too.
Fact is, there are friends all around me, who have offered love and encouragement.
Like the students, staffers and teachers from Kewanee's Irving School.
Awhile back, I was lucky enough to receive an incredible bright-yellow, sun-shaped poster covered with hearts, moons and suns, greenery and good wishes from that beloved group--the last school my spouse taught in before she retired. One of my favorite activities back then was singing for the students, especially during special holidays like Thanksgiving. And while those days are long-gone, apparently the teachers continue to spread the word via the special notes the kids affixed to the sun.
And while I'm pretty sure the lesson sent to me wasn't on spelling, if the topic was anatomy, I'm sure they got they got 100%. Their hearts were definitely in the right places.
Yore a grate singer
I herd you are a grate singer.
Please be here for Chrismas
Git well soon. I hop you you git to feel beter
Git some slep.
(I'll try)
Try to git better, Mr. Shlom.
(I will, little buddy. I promise I will.)

Here's hoping we all share a wonderful, thankful day. And thanks to you for all the prayers and wishes I continue to receive.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Those were the days, my friends

One of the nicest things about cancer (what'd he say?) is the wonderful visits I get from old and new friends. They drop off the nicest, most interesting things, including handmade goodies, shared books and magazines and--believe it or not--some of the coolest items from our own mutual music archives you can imagine. The results leaves me feeling warm and grateful, despite the fact that I do continue to be a bit knackered* from the aforementioned cancer-bug and its treatments.
The first visit came from one of my original bandmates, a bass player named Dale Seifert, an early drummer, named Mark Schueneman, and David Bisshop, who has shared my musical tastes and interest for years.
Mark and Dave knocked on my front door.
"Glad to see you're home. I've got a surprise for you."
I stepped back, thinking Schueneman had a new/old guitar to show me or a piece of the interesting memorabilia he likes to collect.
But no.
Instead of a Flying V or a Grateful Dead poster, it was my old friend Seifert, who I had not laid eyes on for many year.
"We're kidnapping you," said Mark." "Hop in."
So I did.
Our journey took us to Schueneman's home, where he houses his favorite guitars and instruments, plus a music collection that would be most treasured by the guys who played it.
For the next several hours, I was regaled with a series of recordings featuring many of the guys we both played with over a period of a couple of decades. Thanks to the care Mark took in laying those vintage tracks down, the music was remarkably clear and downright perfect.
Even if the musicians weren't.
It was a true slice of a pie that tasted quite sweet.
Lucky me.
My second piece of the Liverpudian** Invasion came just a few weeks later, when I received a
visit from old music buddy and Star Courier page editor Rocky Stuffelbeam and his wife, Diane, who has been a firm, fast friend since the summer of 1965.  Rocky was one of the guys I met on that strange, fateful day when I joined my first Kewanee garage band. He, plus a tall, good looking lead singer named Dave Canienne, a drummer named Dave Crabtree, and bass player Seifert were the first bandmates in our thrilling adventures up and down Tenney and Main Streets as we worked to become the hottest act on the Kewanee music scene. I had played in public before, most notably with a Galva-based quartet featuring vocalist Rebecca (Johnson) Duytschaver, John White on drums, and LaFayette's own John McKirgan on lead guitar.  But the Kewanee guys seemed more ready to rock, and I was--most definitely--ready to roll.
And so we did.
Along with being a great friend and a talented musician, no matter what he claims, Rocky was a highly organized guy, which was high praise for any high-school kid, anytime. Ergo, he was, apparently put in charge of the most important thing a pick-up band could own.
The set list.  The list of songs the band knew and was ready to play.
Rocky was rambling through a safe deposit box he's had for over forty years not long ago when he found it.
It's even marked as to when and where it was used.
Galva Middle School.
It contains a comprehensive list of the fifty-nine songs we were prepared to churn out, and even includes a list of the band members, just in case we forgot, I guess.
Some of those hits of the summer of '67 include "Louie, Louie," "Gloria," "Slow Down," "Boys," "Satisfaction," "Twist and Shout," and a song that was a hit anytime we played it, "Little Bit of Soul."
"I probably put it together in study hall, when I was supposed to be studying," noted Rocky.
Rocky gave me that old list on the day he visited, leaving me just to wonder where I'm going to hang it. And Mark shared the old tunes, all neat and downloaded on modern-day discs.
The visits and gifts were great.
The friends are still perfect.

*British slang for tired or exhausted.

**from Liverpool, England and the British music invasion of the 1960s.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On such a winter's day

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
-California Dreamin', John Phillips & Michelle Phillips

The leaves are brown, the sky is cool, cool grey.
The first glimpses of winter are on their own dark way.
It wasn't long ago when the soft, warm hues of autumn ruled the horizons, fields and forests. Those rolling hills are still touched with the gentle gold-green casts of my favorite season, as farmers work from dawn into dark to bring the harvest home.
Now it's nearly over.
And almost time for the last bright days of summertime color.
Almost time for the soft glowing afternoons of autumn change
Almost time for the icy wintertime grip that promises to hold until March and beyond.
Late at night, I step outside.
I stop. I listen as the first frigid breezes of a long winter's night brush across my frosty cheek.
Further and further away, I hear the yowl of a neighboring cat; the distant howl of some countryside coyote; the far-off yip of a wandering fox.
Closer now, I hear the steamy laughter of children as they await bedtime baths and books and a warm night's sleep. I hear the sound of deep, sweet dreams, of slow, soft breathing from evening until dawn.
Morning comes.
And with it arrives the long-awaited chilly burst of tiny sunrise explosions, glancing and grazing across rooftops towards my bedroom window. I lie back again, then lean forward to breath deep and look again and again.
Safe and warm, I wait for rushing footsteps and little-boy laughter, sliding under quilts and covers for a breakfast made for two.
By the time they leave, the sun is full risen.
The wind blows.
The day is full born.
On such a November day.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

When grandpa got the dog on halloween

"There they go," she said, as her hand rested lightly on my shoulder.
"Making their own memories."
It was my young grandsons' first Galva Halloween this year, and they were off to make the best of it.  First had been the stupendous goings-on at Black Hawk College and a super party at their own Visitation School. Now they were about to embark on on a holiday search via the friendly, well-lit streets of our nearby neighborhood.
After the hometown trick-or-treats would be an extra-fun and nurturing All Saints' celebration and hot dog roast at St. John's Church, our home parish.
My cancer-grazed brains and bones have pretty much sidelined me this season, leaving me to watch it all with Annie. She is the amazing rent-a-dog. Annie comes to stay with me from time to time when our neighbor, who minds old Max the killer cat when we're on the road, hits the road herself.  Annie has an outstanding wardrobe, for a dog, at least. Her normal cold-weather garb is a heavy ski sweater with the word "dog" emblazoned on the back, in case onlookers might get confused and mistake her for a large chinchilla or a small polar bear. But for Halloween, she swapped that outfit for a scarf-and-sweater duo with a jolly jack o'lantern motif.
"Oh, look at the cute doggy," said the dozens of trick-or-treaters who began visiting our front door at the beginning of the evening.
Excited at the company, Annie yipped and panted.
They kept coming.
Annie kept yipping and panting.
Finally, I noticed her panting was becoming a little more labored.
Looking a little closer, I noted that my little pal had somehow gotten her front paws paws tangled in the scarf part of her outfit.
Ergo, every time she hopped forward to greet the halloween revelers, she tightened the scarf just an itty-bit more.
Get the picture?
I wasn't sure what to do.
I was afraid that if I called too much attention to the situation, it would somehow be made worse, with desperate administration of the Heimlich Maneuver or CPR, and hasty calls to 911. Moreover, I couldn't help but imagine the lurid descriptions that were bound to be made by Srar-
courier newsroom buddies and headline mavens like Mike Berry, Dave Clark and Rocky Stufflebeam.

"Precious pup poops out in hands of inattentive grandpop."

"'I was just dozing,' says dog murderer'"

and, best of all..

"Don't blame me, blame the costume."

I wasn't quite sure what do do. Finally, I decided to let the resourceful Annie untangle herself from her predicament, a strategy that worked well enough.
 We were, in fact, pretty well crisis-free on the pet front until Sunday afternoon, when my spouse and I were standing in the kitchen along about four o'clock. Max the Wonder Cat sauntered in and looked around the room in a heightened combination of curiosity and irritation.
Max glared at us, then stared back at his food bowl while muttering a series of unflattering cat curses.
"What's up with him?" I asked.
"Oh," she said. "I think he's forgotten about the time change."
So it goes.  And guess what?
They both lived through it.

Page two.

The same cancer-based brain freezes that have made remembering the name of my cat a bit of a challenge from time to time have now begun to make the whole get-up-and-think-of-something-to-write-about rigamarole a bit of a challenge, too.
It doesn't mean I'm quitting.
Slowing down, maybe.
So, let's make a deal.
When I can do it, I will.
When I can't, I won't.
Meanwhile, see you around.
Thanks for listening.
I love you all.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

As seasons change

The leaves have turned golden.
And things have begun to change.
I remember just a few years ago when I heard my kindly spouse say these words,
"Hey, not bad. I even kind of understand what you're talking about."
Surprisingly, she was talking about me.
I had, you see, picked up a writing gig with the Star Courier and I was stumbling through my first volleyball season, an assignment most horrific for a guy with no female children and no personal experience in the game.  It drove me all the way to Googlesearch, looking for handy v-ball terms and rules, just in hopes that I might look (and sound ) a trifle less, well, dumb.
Time passes.
Now it's my son, Patrick, who's working the sports beat for the SC. And, sure enough, it's dear old mom who uttered those loving words.
"I even kind of understand what he's talking about."

Grandson fun.

I think my grandsons get it this year. From the North Carolina pirate outfits they'll be sporting to the school parties and special plans they are looking forward to.  For us, it's just the sheer joy of having them on our doorstep.
Truly a treat, not a trick.

Take me out to the ball game.

And the World Series.  
I remember watching and listening
and sneaking a radio into school.
I remember knowing
exactly what was going to happen next,
then realizing I was absolutely wrong.
That's why I loved it. That's why we we love it.
It's baseball.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A long drive north

It's a promise we've been making ourselves for a few months now.
"Let's head north."
To me, "north" means the Lake Superior basin located near Marquette, Michigan. My sister and her family have lived there over 45 years, right on the shores of the largest of the Great Lakes of North American.  It's an amazing place, surrounded by deep, piney woods, cold inland lakes, and rushing rivers and streams.
To me, "north" has meant my first trip to that historic football haven called Lambeau Field, where my dad introduced me to my first-ever glimpse at NFL giants with names like Starr, Taylor, Hornung, Kramer and Lombardi. We did it again this time, as my own son and grandsons got their own close-up look at football history and those guys who wear the green and gold.
You can't talk "north" without talking about that great big lake.
Lake Superior has always been an astonishing place for my sister and family to live.  Pretty darn special for my own blushing bride and me, too, as we spent our first wedded days in a shabby log cabin on the beach, where we battled the mice and struggled to keep the pipes unfrozen on a daily basis. We walked the beach, skied its rugged dunes and watched glorious sunsets nearly every night.
This visit was extra-special, as our own beloved niece announced her upcoming wedding to Jeff, an Upper Peninsula hockey player who loves the lakes, hills, rivers and ice nearly as much as she does. Both my sons, along with my youngest grandsons, plus most of my sisters' family were in attendance.
And my youngest grandson even lost a tooth.
"Let's head north."
It's a promise I'm glad we kept.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Car wars

Root canal.
Clothes shopping.
Sorting socks.
Adjusting my rabbit ears.
Putting away silverware.
Buying a car.
These are the things I hate more than any other.
Happily, my teeth have been just fine, thank you. My wardrobe, while a trifle limited, contains enough pairs of corduroys and khakis, t-shirts, sweatshirts and baggy sweaters to maintain my natty sartorial look. I don't care about socks. TV is dull anyway. Ditto forks and spoons.
But the car thing just about took me to the edge.
After our recent "thousand miles through hell and back" journey from the friendly wilds of North Carolina, I went through a sudden change in attitude regarding our trusty, eight-seat kid-hauler. From a dependable vehicle that I just assumed would start, run and perform all those expected little jobs, the handy old car went suddenly bad, consuming time and money like a junior in high school. It took time. but by the time we got the old girl running again, my attitude toward her was mostly like that expressed towards a cheatin' girlfriend in a bad country song.
We needed a new car.
Now, buying a big-time purchase is no small thing in the Sloan household. We don't do it very often, and when we do, "Duck!"
We scanned newspapers, drove slowly through car lots, and searched the internet like a pair of crazy people. We called dealers and visited dealerships, walking through miles of shiny cars, trucks, vans and SUVs looking for the perfect vehicle designed to meet both our needs.
It didn't seem too tough to me.
She wanted an eight-seat grandma-mobile.
I wanted a sports car.
"What about the grandkids?" she cried.
"What about the little !@#!!#," I muttered.
But yes, I understand.
I understand that a family that often consists of at least five, and often upwards of seven or eight, needs room.
So we looked. And we test drove. And we looked some more.
Finally, we decided. Son Patrick found something that caught our collective eye via an internet search of his own. Finally, there will be something to put into that new garage.
A late-model eight-seat SUV-kind-of-a-thing that we both like enough to drive in public.
Plus, we both kind of liked the price, even.
It was a long, long day.
By the time we got home, I was feeling pretty puny. She worried, as she always does, that I had overdone it, what with the whole cancer thingee and everything else that's going on.
"Shoot, honey-pie," I said. "Car shopping is enough to kill anybody all by itself."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A new road to travel

Here's a scary word for you.
Like most folks, my understanding of that term has alway been a trifle gloomy.
Then I found out something else.
It's not, really.
According to the free Merriman-Webster dictionary, it can be defined several different ways.
One, "A place that provides care for people who are dying."
Another, "A facility or program designed to provide a caring environment for meeting the physical and emotional needs of the terminally ill,"
But there's another, older definition of the term that really hits the mark for me:
"A place where travelers can stay."
Now we're talking.
Because, as far as I'm concerned, life, more than anything else, is a journey.
When the clinical trial I made a run at in an effort to sideline the mysterious, aggressive cancer I've battled for the past year or so failed, there were different roads to take.
I could have resumed the chemotherapy treatment I had been undergoing, though its effectiveness had begun to wain.  I could have tried a different version of chemo, but with little hope that it would do much more than set me up with a whole new range of treatment side effects.
Or I could do what I have now chosen to do: Undergo a program of aggressive palliative care that will hopefully work to ease some of effects of the disease itself, while giving me the best possible quality of life.
They call it hospice.
And, yes, I call it life.
And the fact is, life--and living--is what it's all about.
My decision has nothing to do with giving up.
Rather, it has everything to do with taking the road that has always been the one path for me.
A road that is lined, from start to finish, with love, with faith, with truth, and with hope.
I'll see you along the way.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

C'mon in, the door's open

"Anybody home?"
It's been like that lately, as we have received any number of visits from both some of our dearest friends and some new acquaintances recently.
Some were long-planned and entirely expected.
Others were spur-of-the-moment and a complete surprise.
All have been purely wonderful.
Stopping by for a visit, like letter writing and unexpected front-porch rendezvous, have become something of a rarity nowadays. We're all so very connected, whether it be via text message, the zillion variations of social media, email and even the cell phones we all seem required to pack on our hips anytime we leave the house. Ergo, the idea of pulling on a pair of shoes and walking down the street to a neighbor's house seems tantamount to packing up for a trip to the South Pole.
Or to put it simply, we just don't do it very often.
I suspect it's the pickle I currently find myself in that's changed all that. And I truly appreciate both the thought and the action. But I also hope the sudden urge to see one another is purely borne out of a desire to rekindle and enjoy the special ties that have made us friends all these years.
Both my older son and my brother have made the list of planned visits, while others, like a much-loved cousin and an old college pal simply appeared one day. Another set of cousins are expected in the next few days, as well, along with the friends and neighbors we've been happy to welcome to our door. We've shared memories, caught up with what's new, and simply enjoyed the old friendships we've enjoyed all theses years.
In any case, it's been a treat.
A real treat.
They say it's your birthday
It seems the advent of social media has created an all new kind of celebration.
The Facebook Birthday.
It is, put simply, a holiday tradition that sees greeting marking the anniversary being celebrated appear a good week earlier than the actual date. Ergo, I started receiving "Happy Birthday" wishes on the 20th of September (and earlier) despite the fact that Keith and Alice Sloan didn't greet their bouncing baby boy on the 27th of the month. But somehow, the Facebook phenomenon has transformed the one-day birthday bash into what's become an all-out birthweek blowout, or longer, even.
OK with me.
Bring on the cake.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The great apple cider donut caper

It was my favorite kind of weekend.
Not only were my younger grandsons and their dad on deck, but older son Colin made the arduous 10-hour drive from Fargo, along with his wife, Geri, my granddaughter and her best pal.  I felt kinda bad that Colin and crew had to make such a long journey, especially since they were just staying for the weekend, and would literally be hitting the road and heading back north before their car thoroughly cooled down from the southbound drive. But they're grownup big people now, and pretty much get to do what they want to do.
There were several good reasons for Colin and the club to have made the drive out of the Great Plains and into the dusty goldness that is early fall in the lower midwest.  It is, put simply, absolutely beautiful, with the soft hues and gently changing color scheme that makes this part of the world a wondrous place to sit back and enjoy come this time of year.
Moreover, next weekend is my birthday. All of us have other things to do then, so it was decided that the family celebration would take place this weekend, when we could all be together.  We enjoyed a backyard bonfire, complete with hot dogs and s'mores. We shared my "official" birthday dinner at a fine, fine bistro I've wanted my kids to enjoy.  We took drives through the rolling fields and high prairies that dot this part of the world, and spent time just enjoying each other's company as we gathered on our big old porch.
But the fact is, there was really only one reason for Colin to have made the lengthy overnight drive from Fargo, North Dakota to Galva, Illinois, while knowing full well that he'd be back in the saddle and heading home in just a couple of days.
It's a good reason. A reason I entirely understand, and one that even makes me a trifle proud.  It is, in fact, a reason that proves without a doubt that Colin Thomas Sloan is the true son of John Stuart Sloan.
If you've ever made the trip to Tanner's Orchard in rural Speer, you're aware of the over-amped fall-fest that takes place there every year. Besides their world-renowned apple cider donuts and apple fritters, the place has 17 varieties of apples and their world-class apple cider set for sampling; all manner of jams, jellies, sauces and salsas to try and buy; giant pumpkins and gorgeous mums; goats and llamas to feed and pet; u-pick hay rack rides and train rides; and the now-infamous corn maze.
It's always been one of our favorite places, ever since our sons celebrated their fall birthdays there.
And, of course, there's the donuts.
If you've never had a Tanner's donut, I'm not quite sure how to explain the sheer pleasure that awaits you. They have been an absolute mainstay since the orchard opened for operation back in 1947. For a true aficionado, the words "apple cider donut" are enough to send the devoted donut-dabbler into sheer paroxysms  of delight and desire.
Finally, the day was nearly over. Donuts had been carefully purchased and sampled in hopes that we'd still have a few left by the time we got home. Trains had been played on. Goats had been petted and fed. There was just one more thing to experience before we headed home.
The corn maze.
None of the adults present were anxious to go tromping through the trails and dead-end passages that make up the maze, but it was finally determined after careful discussions with the folks running the place that our two young grandsons, along with Jenna, the daughter of a friend, would be fine. The trails were well marked. The maze, though large, was relatively easy to navigate, with all trails eventually leading back to the entrance. And we figured Jenna could easily act as the brains of the operation, being a girl and all, and naturally smarter than her little-boy companions.
Off they went.
Now, savvy grandparents and parents will pretty much all agree that no time moves slower than what's experienced when you've sent your precious young children off into a place where the main purpose is to get them good and lost.
Time stood still.
We waited.
We watched.
We listened.
We wondered.
Soon son Patrick and Jenna's mom were in the maze themselves, looking for the overdue trio.
I was just about ready to suggest hiring a helicopter when the three adventurers appeared at the entrance.
"Are you O,K,?
"We're you lost?"
"Not really."
"Were you afraid?"
I was just about ready to chalk the whole thing up to the instinctive ability of children and other young beasts to find their way back where they're supposed to be, kind of like one of those Disney movies, where a one-eyed cat, a three-legged dog and a talking woodchuck miraculously travel cross-country to find the way home.
I began to question the kids regarding the pure, magical bit of instinct that brought them back to the loving arms of their parents and grandparents.
The answer was calm. And made all the sense in the world.
"Oh, I knew we'd find you, one them said. "You've got the donuts."
Well, it makes sense to me.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

One fall day

One fall day, the sun rose over frosty rooftops out my bedroom window.
One fall day, she brought me coffee and a smile to share with the bright new day and the morning news.
Happy Grandsons run to the kitchen, looking for breakfast and a warm spot by the register on the floor. Syrupy kisses and waffles made for three. Outside the kitchen window, angry squirrels chirr and chatter at the bad cat Max, who glares at them from lowered lids.
 "Just a little closer," he growls softly. "A little closer."
The first fine days of autumn are finally here, with warm sweaters and socks and sudden desperate curiosity regarding the location of the hats, jackets and gloves that mysteriously disappeared last spring. High above, windswept bands of geese struggle to get their bearings, honking and circling and tracking overhead, finding a new direction and a place to be.  Far below, car doors slam as young-boy voices argue the location of snacks and homework and  bookbags and the cursed  Green Bay Packer stocking caps with which they daily break my heart.
I watch as they leave, with grandsons headed to school, our son off to work, and the grandma-lady bound for destinations that are all her own.
The house is quiet now.
My coffee cools as I step onto the front porch. The holiday bunting that has decorated the place since summer is gone now, and I breath deep and sniff the northbound breeze blowing across my cheek. Winds shift suddenly, rustling through ropes of dried leaves and the armloads of Sweet Annie scenting the air.
These days are meant for dreaming, I think, and so I dream and remember the brilliant fall days of yesterdays gone by.
I dream, too, of the bright autumn days and months and years that are yet to come.
And I dream and hope for one more fine fall day; one that is truly meant to last forever.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The light at the end of the hallway

Big dreams die hard.
We were excited when I qualified for a research trial testing an all-new "smart drug" that would employ genetic therapy to target specific cells and provide an effective blockade against the cancer that has already spread throughout portions of my body.  Unlike the traditional chemotherapy I've been undergoing, the new treatment would give normal cells and systems a break, and hopefully offer a better quality of life by allowing me to feel better much of the time.
The process of qualifying for the trial was a lengthy one, requiring repeated tests and scans, along with enough paperwork to level a redwood forest.
But finally, the waiting was over. The trial would begin with a morning dose of two innocent-looking capsules, along with a daily log that required me to record the every-day details of the experiment. I barely paid attention when they mentioned some of the side effects I might encounter.
The trial started on a Tuesday.
For a few days, everything seemed normal.
Then, suddenly, it didn't.
I'm not going to go into the gory details of why the clinical trial and I didn't end up like a match made in heaven. Suffice it to say the side effects were--for me, at least--really, really unpleasant.  They left me pretty beat up, both mentally and physically.
But I gave it my best shot.
The good folks at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago assure me I'm not out of options quite yet. Once again, they have astounded us with their astonishing combination of genuine kindness and amazing professionalism. So we'll be taking a look at some of those options over the next few weeks and days. And while we're disappointed things didn't work according to plan, it is, most certainly, not the end of the world.
Meanwhile, it's kind of like those doors.
And like that light.
Because we are both, quite definitely, believers that when one door slams shut, another one slowly swings open.
Just as we know that there will always be a soft light gently glowing at the end of the hallway.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Love letters (and a few other noteworthy notes)

What's the best thing about writing this column?
It's when people write back.
Every once in awhile, my mailbox is blessed with a little something that's downright wonderful. Sometimes it's a card, note or letter from a friend. And sometimes it's a message from a total stranger.
Either way, it's wonderful to hear what you think about the things I have to say.
And it's even better when you add your ideas regarding what I should have said.
And, most of all, it's even more wonderful to receive those missives in the mail.
You see, letter writing has become sort of a lost art nowadays. In between email, texting, blogs, and all the other super-duper, faster-than-the-speed-of-light ways we have to communicate, it's a rare thing, indeed, when someone sits down and actually crafts a personal letter. Because the act of putting pen to paper and sticking on a stamp has pretty much gone south.
Take a look at your mail today. I'm willing to bet it's mostly business mail, junk mail and bills.
I know mine is, too, except on those bright, halcyon days when someone sends me something special; when someone sends me a love letter.
Then it's pretty darn exciting...and all worthwhile.
Well, we all knew it was going to happen. After a summer filled with the kind of weather we all dream about, the other shoe dropped.
It's hot.
Darned hot.
Just in time for school, volleyball games, football practice and all the other stuff that feels a whole lot better when the weather is reasonable.
Here's hoping it breaks soon...and fall falls fast.
Here's something amazing from my hometown.
The Galva Freedom Fest Committee gave $16,000 (yes, one-six-zero-zero-zero) to the City of Galva at their most recent city council meeting. The committee raised this amount through various fundraisers and activities for this year's fireworks.
So, just remember next year, when you're saying "oooh" and "aaaah" at what are thought by many to be the finest fireworks in the area, they just didn't happen.
It takes a lot of work.
They're a kind of plump, furry little critter, stuck with the scientific name Cavia porcellus, which is, I guess, the Latin translation for guinea pig. Despite the name, they are not from Guinea, nor are they a pig.
Go figure.
My interest in the rotund rodent is simple.
I are one.
Well, not exactly. But for just over a week now, I've been playing the part often filled by one of these winsome creatures, as I have been a test subject for a new anti-cancer drug. Biological experimentation on guinea pigs has been carried out since the 17th century, and the animals were frequently used in scientific experiments in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the epithet "guinea pig" for a test subject. They are still used in research, primarily as models for human medical conditions such as juvenile diabetes, tuberculosis, scurvy, and pregnancy complications.
Well, in any case, I'm taking two suspicious-looking big green capsules every morning, then writing about how I feel in a log supplied to me by the nice, smart lady who is coordinating the clinical trial.
So, how do I feel, anyway?
Pretty well, I think. There seems to be less pain than a few days ago, and while I feel a little puny from time to time, I think it's within reasonable bounds.
Meanwhile, I'm thinking I should start getting some more exercise.
Do guinea pigs run in those little hamster wheel thingees or in those round, plastic balls?
My grandsons saw a most magnificent sight the other day in downtown Kewanee. It was a carnival ride, waiting to be unloaded and put into use.
"What's that, grandpa?"
"You'll find out, little buddy. You'll find out."
Happy Hog Days to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

As good as it gets

Folks just down the road from my home town had a lot to smile about last year when Kewanee was named the Friendliest City in America in the 2013 Rand McNally Best of the Road Contest.  I was never quite sure of the criteria or requirements for the prestigious award, but thought it was pretty darn cool when Kewanee captured the kudos, all the same.
Finding a friendly place can mean a lot when you're a backroads warrior like me. Whether you're looking for a safe, affordable place to stay; some good, homestyle cooking; or a medical clinic that's open after hours, depending on the word of someone who really knows what they're talking about is always better than relying on the mixed and fancy messages out there on the internet.
Our most recent travel adventure quickly turned into a gut-wrenching misadventure when our trusty (?) old Ford Freestyle shuddered, gasped and gave up the ghost in the westbound breakdown lane of Interstate 40 near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I got the car started again, and nursed it off the high-speed highway and into a Walmart parking lot where, with one more trembling misfire, it died once and for all.
"Now what?" she asked.
Now what, indeed.
It was Saturday afternoon. We were on our way back to Illinois after a week in North Carolina, where we visited friends and our beloved beach. And we were stuck.
Oh, and one more thing. Our young grandsons were stuck with us, as well.
Now, eight-year-old Cyrus and six-year-old John Patrick both show signs of becoming intrepid travelers one of these days.  They've hit the road with the grandma-lady and me quite a few times already in their young lives.  But trapped in an unknown parking lot somewhere in central North Carolina is no one's idea of a great place to be.
The first step was to find out just exactly where we were. I quickly realized that pulling into Sam Walton's place had been a much better move than, say, a rendering works, a tire factory or a poultry farm. We had access to bathrooms, air conditioning, snacks, and, most importantly, people.
That's where the friendly part came in.
I was the recipient of a blank stare from a teenage customer service employee, who was understandably confused when the doddering old dude in front of her asked if she could tell him where the heck he was, instead of normal queries, like the location of the cat food aisle.
"Y'all are in Kernersville."
I turned to see a pleasant-looking lady pushing a shopping cart into the line just behind me.
"Pardon me?" I asked.
"You're in Kernersville, between Greensboro and Winston-Salem," she said. "This is the new Walmart Neighborhood Market."
Her friendly response emboldened me, and I blurted out--for the first of many, many times--my tale of woe.
She replied with the first of many, many nuggets of useful information I received that day from the friendly folks of Kernersville, offering me the name and location of a nearby Ford dealership. What followed over the next afternoon, evening and morning, was nearly like a down-home Litany of Saints, as the good folks of Kernersville fought tooth and nail to see who could be the most happy and helpful.
Like Eleanor and Cliff, whose incredibly gracious and helpful response to my question regarding the location of the street leading to the repair shop recommended by the Ford dealer was to offer to give the grandma-lady and grand-boys a lift while I waited for the tow truck to arrive.  There was Saint Jonathan, the hard-charging, can-do ex-marine who literally held our hands throughout our stay at the auto repair shop that was magically open on both Saturday and Sunday, plus offered to give us a lift--in his own car and on his own time--to the nearest car rental place if our vehicle proved unfixable and we needed to get back on the road for an upcoming doctor's appointment awaiting me in Chicago. There were mechanics with hearts in their toolboxes, who actually touched base with us without being bugged, and customer service guys who helped keep our grandsons entertained throughout the long afternoon in the waiting room. When it became clear the problem was not going to be solved by closing time, the car guys became heavenly travel agents, finding a nearby motel within easy walking distance with a pool, good cable, and easy access to pizza and other essentials.
Enter the angels.
The ladies running things at the nearby Holiday Inn Express were angelic, indeed, providing chocolate chip cookies for the boys and a hot cup of coffee for the old man. They offered sage advice on the best, closest pizza joint; dry towels for the pool; and helped the kids to an extra helping of eggs and pancakes the next morning. When the news came to light that the car still wasn't mended, they happily offered us an extended stay via a late check-out time, with one especially saintly desk clerk offering a lift to any place we needed to go as soon as her shift was over.
Finally, word came down that the car was done. While they had not been able to replace all the parts they deemed absolutely necessary, the car guys finally figured they had fixed the car well enough to get us home.
"Well, what do you think we were supposed to get out of this one?" I asked her as we sat in the waiting area while the last wrenches were turned on our car.  This is the standard question we share whenever we've been through something a little challenging or otherwise dicey, as she is a big believer that every moment has a meaning, and that anytime one door closes, another one opens.
She smiled. Then she looked across the room, where there was a big, blue soda machine.
"The V Foundation" was the legend across the top of the machine.
Jimmy V refers to Jim Valvano, the legendary coach of North Carolina State University, whose team defied long odds to win the 1983 national championship.  I've been a Jimmy V fan for a long time, both because of his coaching success and because of the inspirational way he lived--and ended--his life.
You see, Jimmy Valvano died of CUPS--Cancer of an Unknown Primary Source--the very same disease I battle in my spare time.  On March 3, 1993, shortly before his death, he accepted the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, and announced the creation of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.
His speech became legendary, and he closed by saying, "Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all."
Finally, he announced the foundation's motto.
She pointed across the room.
"There," she said. "There's your message."
There it was, across the bottom of the machine.
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
The car was sputtering again by the time we reached home later that night. But hey, we made it, and met a lot of nice people along the way.
We learned something, too. And that's about as good as it gets.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My grandfather's garage

We've lived in our big, old house for over 25 years. During that time, we've painted and redecorated rooms, added a deck, replaced windows, and remodeled the kitchen and three out of four bathrooms. We've put on a new roof on two different occasions and moved enough new and old furniture in and out to stock a store.
We've dug holes for trees and bushes and planted, re-planted and transplanted enough plants to call it a forest, and we've done all those other crazy things people do when they live in a house for a long, long time.
But there's never been a garage.
Actually, that's not exactly true. There was almost a garage, once upon a time. My grandfather remodeled the whole place in the early part of the 20th century, changing it from an 1860s Victorian home to its current arts and crafts style of architecture in a major facelift that was to include the addition of a built-in garage underneath the back of the place. It was set up in such a way that you'd pull a car through a large pair of swinging doors into a big basement-level room. Sounds pretty slick, but gramps didn't get to enjoy it, as he was forced to turn that space into a garden apartment in an effort to generate a little extra income as things went from bad to worse in the dark days of the Great Depression.
But it wasn't enough.
They lost the house.
My gramps was, quite honestly, one of those guys. One of those guys we all wish we could be like. Hard working. Happy. A real larger-than-life type who--as I recall--lit up a room simply by walking into it.  He was a Norwegian immigrant whose family first settled in the Scandinavian enclave of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. As a young man, he took the advice of a traveling salesman who told him Galva looked like a nice little town that could use another clothing store. Once he got here, he realized the town was filled with the two brands of folks he cared for the least: Swedes and Republicans.
He stayed anyway, and grew a family that included my mother and her two brothers.
His business was a success, and soon, he found himself busy and happy, serving on the school board and other civic organizations as befitted a hard-working young businessman.
Then, something happened.
At first, the stock market crash of 1929 seemed very far away.  He had not speculated in wild investment schemes in an effort to get rich quick.  He, like most of the people he knew, had invested his time and money into his family, home, business and community.  Into his own tiny piece of the American dream.
But slowly and surely, the financial crisis made its way across the nation, even into the small cities and towns of the Midwest.  Jobs were lost.  Farms and businesses failed and were sold for a fraction of their worth or just went away.  People continued to need clothing, so his business was still good.  He extended credit to many, feeling that surely his customers would pay him when times got better.
But they didn't.
Though he was owed money, he, in the words of my mother, “Couldn't bring himself to pressure his friends and neighbors for money he knew they didn’t have.”
His efforts to save his business and the family home failed, and the house remained a bittersweet reminder of a difficult chapter in my family's history until my wife and kids and I made an interesting decision and bought the place almost 50 years later.
I can't really tell you why we lived here all these years without adding a warm, dry place for our cars. It certainly would have been nice, as both of us commuted to our jobs and would have appreciated not having to shovel and scrape on cold winter mornings. I suppose there were always other ways to spend the money, and I guess we just managed in the way that people do when they don't know any better.
This past winter, though, was the last straw.
I don't have to tell you how cold and snowy it was.  I was feeling a little rickety most mornings, and my son needed to get the grandkids to school and himself to work, so snow-covered cars were something we just didn't need.
So we did it.
We hired a guy named Bruce, who drew up a few plans and got to work. Soon, our big project began to take shape.  People began to drive by slow, just to see how it was coming along, in that friendly-curious way folks do things in our small town.  After just a few weeks, Bruce finished the garage. Everybody liked it.
Even us.
It seemed like everybody was getting what they wanted.
She got the strip of cement driveway she always dreamed about. I got an electric garage door opener. Our son got a place to store the lawnmower and our grandsons got a place to put their bicycles. And the town got something to talk about.
But the best news is this:
Gramps finally got his garage.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Answered prayers from the corn angels

I have wonderful memories of growing up in the hot, late-summer days and weeks of midwest August. I remember the time we spent exploring down the tracks and playing endless games of baseball in the park. I remember sultry nights in our backyard playing spotlight tag and "bat, bat, fly under my hat." And I remember the wondrous bounty that was my father's garden. The fresh green beans. The ripe, red tomatoes. And the sweet corn.
Yes, the sweet corn.
Like most folks who grew up around here, I have a powerful, almost instinctual need for the salty-sweet flavor of fresh sweet corn. Over the years, I have learned to love it boiled, grilled in the husks and--most recently-- cooked using a method combining shucked ears, boiling water and a cooler. The corn is placed in a cooler; the water is poured in and the lid is shut. Wait an hour or so and, voila!, perfectly prepared ears via the method we now call "cooler corn."
The sweet corn season usually starts sometime in the latter half of July, with the first brave stands dotting roadsides, downtown parking lots and farmhouse lawns. By the time August rolls around, the season is fully underway. Most years, I'm quick to hit those early stands, but my iffy appetite this year acted to delay my entry into the market. By the time we bought our first dozen ears, we feared we had missed things almost entirely when the owner of the stand announced that it was her last day selling it.
The corn we bought was, of course, wonderful, and I immediately regretted my tardiness.
"Gee," I said. "I wish we could get a little more."
Note to self:  Be careful what you wish for.
It was almost like the corn angels had heard my prayer, as bags upon bags of fresh-picked pleasure began appearing on my porch, in my front hall, and on my kitchen counter. We gobbled sweet corn like a frenzied pack of half-starved raccoons. Butter stock rose sharply. So did the price of laundry pre-treatments, as we struggled to erase the tell-tale greasy stains from shirt fronts and laps.  Even grandson Cyrus, who, if given a choice, would limit his diet to Kit-Kat bars and grape-flavored Kool-aid, joined in on the corn craze, while his younger brother, John, who eats almost anything, asked if I could set him up with one of those nail-through-a-board corn feeders like the one I use to treat the squirrels who rule our backyard.
Eventually, we came to the realization that we would never be able to consume all the corn we were getting, so we set about "putting up" the overflow. We discovered the cooler corn method is a great way to blanch the shucked ears, while I found that the new-fangled do-dad someone gave us a few years ago is a slick way to strip kernels off a cob faster than you can say, "that sucker sure is sharp." We finally stripped, bagged, marked and froze the last of our luscious largess last Saturday.  Just in time, I might add, as I had finally used up the last of my beloved White Sox bandaids to patch up the result of that oh-so-sharp corn stripper.
"Whew," I said. "I think we're set for the winter."
Not so fast, kernel-boy.
As I walked out of church Sunday morning, I met my spouse heading for the car with a pair of familiar-looking plastic bags.
"What's that?" I asked, though I knew the answer.
One of our fellow parishioners had brought an entire pickup-truck load of fresh, sweet, lovely ears of corn. She was the greeter and the ultimate corn angel that day, and handed out both church bulletins and an invitation with a smile.
"God bless you," was the message. "And don't forget to take home some corn."

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ain't no mystery at all

"You take away the fear and mystery."
Close as I can remember, that's the comment I received from a friend and reader awhile back. It took me a minute to figure it out, but finally, I realized what he was talking about.
I have hesitated to talk about it over the past weeks and months, thinking that some folks might think I was looking for sympathy. Or that I was spending way too much time talking about myself and the pickle I find myself in. In my own defense, I guess all I can do is repeat something I said in a column late last year, not too long after I had been diagnosed:
And while I don't by any stretch of the imagination intend to let this whole cancer thing dominate my every waking hour or every column I write, heck, if I somehow suddenly discovered the ability to, say, tap dance or sing Italian arias, I'd talk about that wouldn't I? 
Well, I still can't dance a lick, and I'm pretty sure that wasn't "O mio babbino caro" that I was warbling in the shower this morning.
But the whole cancer thing has surely given me something to talk about.
And if I have come off as whiny or self-involved or afraid, even, I truly regret it. If, on the other hand, if I have managed to remove some of the scary secrets that surround this disease, I'm glad.
Because here's the thing. Cancer doesn't rate the awful hold it has on so many lives.  It doesn't deserve to dominate my life, or yours either.  But what does it do? How does this disease make those of us who battle it feel? And what about those who help and support and love us?
Well, I can't speak for everyone. And I can only mourn those brave, determined souls who are lost every year. But I do know how it seems to me.
(I'll try to keep it brief.)
I'm human. So I can't help being afraid sometimes. Usually, for me, it's during those times when when it hurts and it keeps on hurting.  I'm not afraid of dying. And I'm not afraid of pain, either. But what I do fear is dying in such a way that I fail to enjoy and appreciate all the wonderful things that make life worth living.
"Why me?"
Of course, I get angry sometimes, too. This disease, along with all the treatment side effects encountered along the way, is really annoying. Losing the ability to do things I always could do, like eating record amounts of fried chicken, riding a bike or going out for a long pass, or even just mowing the lawn without taking sixteen zillion breaks along the way really irritates the heck out of me. Really.
Believe it or not, it's boring, too.  I really don't want to take a nap every afternoon. Or watch the grandkids from the porch instead of showing them my super-duper curve ball.
Plus, it's kind of embarrassing sometimes.  I know there are a certain number of folks who see me, my bald head and my skinny bod and say to themselves, "Oh, that's too bad."  Just this morning, when I was picking up my grandsons from swimming lessons, a little kid looked at me and said, "Are you all right?"
It may be hard to believe, but that's not quite the image I hoped to project.
Now, here's the good news.
I'm amused by the whole thing more often than you'd think. If you don't think cancer could possibly be funny, then you've never experienced some of the unique happenings that can come along with this disease. I could go on and on and on, but let me just ask this. Have you ever had your way-too-big pants fall down around your ankles just as you stepped onto the front porch on the way to church?
I didn't think so.
You'd laugh, too.
And I'm hopeful, too. Highly hopeful, in fact. You would be, too, once you realized just how many prayers and good wishes come your way when you battle this dumb disease. It is absolutely, positively, flat-out amazing. So why wouldn't I have hope?
One more thing.
I'm happy.
The best thing about this whole mess is that it has given me pause. It has made me step back and realize how absolutely perfect and appealing life can be. I love my family and my friends, and I know without a doubt that they love me, too.
Tell you what, boys and girls, it doesn't get much better than that.
And that's no mystery at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Miracles of modern medicine

"It's alive. It's alive."

-Frankenstein, the movie
From the novel by Mary W. Shelley

If you're anything like me, your idea of experimental medicine is something like what's described in the movie classic, Frankenstein. You know, electric arcs, bubbling test tubes, and a giant green-colored guy with bolts where his dimples oughta be.  Fact is, though, the whole field is getting more amazing all the time. Rarely a day goes by when we don't hear about some friend who's getting a new knee, hip or other moving part. Heart valves, retinas, hearts and lungs, and a whole bunch of other organ transplants are also becoming amazingly commonplace, with full facial transplants and lush new heads of hair also on the list of interesting ideas.
But wait.
There's a whole gaggle of amazing new stuff on the horizon, including supercool concepts like a bionic eye that transmits a signal straight from a teeny-tiny camera mounted in a pair of glasses and linked to the retina of a blind person.  And one of my absolute favorites among the neatest, newest stuff...3-D printer technology that was originally used to create prototypes of various new products like toys and shoes, but is now actually being used to--wait for it--crank out human body parts.
Oncology is another medical field that's getting its share of nifty new notions. If things go right, I'm soon going to be involved in a forward-thinking clinical trial that will use targeted gene technology to go right to the source and block cancer growth and spread. The drug--called Buparlisib, which has got to make you wonder who names the darn things--has been pretty successful so far at blocking metastasis in several kinds of cancer. We're hoping it will work for me, too.
But it gets better.
I had just gotten off the phone with one of the zillion or so docs I've been getting to know in Chicagoland, when I witnessed a bit of highly effective modern medicine that literally took my breath away. My wife and a pal of hers were sitting on the front porch, watching our grandkids and one of their buddies approach on their bikes. Suddenly, before you could say "that's gonna leave a mark," young grandson John accidentally rear-ended his big brother and took a major-league, knee-scraping tumble onto the pavement.
The grandma-lady and her friend rushed to the scene.
John tried to tough it out without giving in to tears, but it was a nasty scrape, for sure. Grandma administered a dollop of antibiotic salve and the medicine she knows best. Meanwhile, her friend bolstered him with encouraging words regarding his manliness and courage. And even I, the old grumpa himself, kicked in with a little help from my treasured trove of White Sox bandaids.
And John?  He got better, too
Pretty soon, he was back on his bicycle, heading for the park.

Because when it comes to little boys and grandmas, hugs are the best medicine of all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Got those dog-gone blues

Faithful readers of this column might recall that, recently, we've been tending to son Colin's dog while he and his college-prof spouse explored Norway in preparation for a Study Abroad class she'll be teaching starting next year.  While I had my doubts at the get-go, I found that I mostly enjoyed having a dog around the house again. I grew up with a largish roster of dogs and cats, and we almost always had a few of both when our boys were young, too. It's only been the past few years, since the death of our beloved dog Roscoe, that the place has been left in the oh-so-capable paws of the bad cat named Max.
Cami (that's the dog's name, though I'm not sure if I'm spelling it right) is a big black dog of indeterminate breed. She has the bulky body of a lab, the skulky demeanor of a wild Australian dingo, the pointy ears of a Malaysian Fruit Bat, and the relentless courage of a well-fed hamster. I guess I never paid too much attention to her on our visits to Colin and Geri's house, though her enthusiastic willingness to bark at every man or beast moving a muscle within 80 miles of their place has always been a source of some irritation on my part.
"Somebody needs some training around here," I muttered every time she yelped and cursed when I entered a room.
So that's what happened.
She did pretty much cool it on the barking front, though I have to admit that it seemed to be out of a lack of interest in defending me and my home as much as anything. Otherwise, SHE quickly trained ME to walk her in, through and around the nearby park some 80 or 90 times each day and night.
Turns out, that's not a bad thing.
Walking is, I guess, just about the best kind of exercise for me in my current shaky state. My oncologist has made it more than clear that my favorite active stuff like bike riding is more than my brittle bones should encounter, while my current extra-skinny body style makes swimming a painfully frigid experience in even a lukewarm pool. I've never been the type to just walk for the sake of walking, though. I've always needed an interesting woodsy path to follow. Or some exciting urban sights to see. Or, at least, a dog.
What's more, I've discovered an additional benefit to walking besides the exercise it provides. A few years ago, I wrote a column entitled "The Lawn Mower Man," that confessed that many of the ideas I have for my weekly missives occur while engaged in the mindless, back-and-forth process of cutting the grass.  Dog-walking, on the other hand, mysteriously tripped my song-writing trigger, a set of skills that has been mostly dormant since I released a pair of albums several years ago.  Suddenly, I found myself humming snippets of tunes and coming up with fragments of songs and song titles.
A few examples include these gems, for which I accept no special responsibility except to remind you that I'm currently on drugs.
"Got a Black Dog in a Dark Park, Six Hours after a Pork Chop Dinner." came to me late one night when she kept unexpectedly trying to jerk my arm out of its socket while walking near the then-darkened site of the annual Messiah Lutheran Church pork chop supper.
"Walking Poop Blues" was a song title that occurred as I tried to get the blasted cur to stand still while doing her business, rather than making me shuffle bent-over behind her to collect my prize.
And then, there's that plaintive ballad called, "The Whole Town knows I Forgot my Plastic Bag," which describes the shame most every dog owner knows then they suddenly find themselves without a proper receptacle for the natural result of walking a well-fed canine, plus I added a couple of cover tunes, including "Weird Wolf of London" by Warren Zevon and "you Ain't Nothin' but a Found Dog" by the inimitable king of rock and roll himself.
Cami (Kami? Khami? Quami?) is gone now, returned to her rightful owners last weekend in an elaborate, well-planned hand-off that kind of reminded me of a prisoner exchange on the 38th parallel. And while I'm not exactly heartbroken without those midnight rambles and odiferous, well-filled bags, I do feel a certain longing... .
Of course, my sensible spouse has been quick to bring me back to my senses.
"You don't really want a dog of your own, do you?"
Well,  uh, no.  As much as I enjoyed the company, a full-time furry companion isn't really in the cards right now. But nonetheless, there is one more song ringing through my head:
"I got the dog-gone, no-dog blues."
And so it goes.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The pull of the park

It was a wonderful weekend.
Both my brother and sister made the trip down from their homes in Northern Michigan. Mary's hubby, all three of her adult children, and her four grandkids were all a part of the happy crowd on my front porch, while Jim's eldest daughter flew in all the way from L.A. to share her July fourth birthday with us.
I was excited to see my two siblings. I am blessed in the fact that they are both family members and my very best friends, as well, which is a rare, lucky thing, indeed. It was a crazy-busy holiday weekend, with even our old barn of a house almost full to bursting. But despite the sometimes hectic pace, the three of us still found the time to just sit and talk once in awhile.
Nothing real rare there, because although we usually go months and more between visits, our conversations quickly pick up and slip into an easy rhythm based on the childhood we shared and the close friendship we still enjoy.
Mary and I were in the midst of one of those moments, sitting on the deck at the back of the house, when we heard something.
"5-10-15-20, 25-30-35-40... ."
It was the clear, sweet voice of her teenage granddaughter, counting down the start of another round of the complicated hide-and-go-seek game the kids had been playing over in the park across the street all weekend. All the grandchildren--from six-year-old John Patrick to sixteen-year-old Megan--were playing the game as they unknowingly established the kind of first-cousin friendships that can be good for a lifetime.
Ready or not, here I come... ."
Mary and I shared the secret smile we've been passing between us all of our lives.
"The park," she said softly. "The pull of the park."
The park that sits across the street from our big, old house has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I cut through it on my way to school, skated on its frozen rink, played baseball on the field next to the playground, and shot baskets on the blacktop across from the old elementary school. I taught my sons how to ride their bikes on the narrow road that cuts diagonally across the park, and watched them play games of their own over the years.  Now, it's my grandsons who have made that beautiful green space their own special place to be, with their summertime comings and goings often announced by a slammed screen door and a single word lingering in the air.
In fact, the park has been a part of my hometown for as long as there's been a town at all. Local history has it that founder William Wiley stood on that very place and said these words.
"What a beautiful spot. Let's buy the land and lay out a town."
Fact is, his decision may have been at least partly based on something more than simple beauty, as just a few rods away could be seen the surveyor's flags that marked the route of the coming railway that would bring a new kind of commerce and vitality to the region.  Later, that lovely patch of green grass and trees would be given to the new town by a long-time settler named James Bonham, who proposed it as the site of a college that would eventually locate in Rock Island, to be later called Augustana.
I'm back now. After three years splitting our time between Galva and the shores of North Carolina, we are living full-time in our home next to the park again. Of course, there were practical considerations in our decision to leave the beach place and return to the midwest. To effectively battle the rare, aggressive cancer that befell me earlier this year, we would need to live where I'd have access to the kind of advanced healthcare my condition required. We considered staying out east, as teaching hospitals like Duke and UNC offer some of the very best medical minds and treatments available.
Eventually, though, we decided it was time to come home. Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has provided a kind, nurturing expertise that seems to meet both my medical and spiritual needs.
And then, there's the big, old house.
It, along with the park across the street, means life and love.
It means faith and hope and laughter and prayer.
It means friends and family and the town where I grew up.
And, most of all, it means home...and the clear, sweet voices of those children at play.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The very best club in the whole wide world

Something wonderful is going on.
It's happened over the past few months, weeks and days to some of my most treasured friends and family members. It's a special occurrance that absolutely defies my feeble attempts to describe it, although, in fact, it happens all the time.
Because here's the good news.
Those friends of mine have become members of a most happy band; a joyous guild, so to speak.
Because now they are members of a blessed bunch known as grandparents.
And it is absolutely the best club in the whole wide world.
Say what you will about parenthood. There is no doubt that the introduction of children into a happy life together is a wonderful thing, indeed. I remember so well how thoroughly and quickly  the birth of my own two sons changed all my views, attitudes and daily going-ons. But those are busy days. Days filled with work and worries and love and laughter and all the other things that make life so very, very interesting.
So wild and crazy.
So cherished and challenging.
So astonishingly busy.
I know. I remember. And I know and remember that sometimes it seems like a little too much to handle.
But grandparents know better.
Grandparents know that the tiny lives that enter their care are the most precious thing of all. They have the time, the wisdom, the patience and the vision to see what is worth seeing, because, somehow, magically, you can suddenly see better than ever before.
You can see life
You can see love.
You can see hope and change and all the things you wished you had ever seen and done before.
Best of all, you can see the future.
And it is--absolutely, positively--a thing of pure beauty.
And the very best club in the whole wide world.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A fine flock of summertime squirbs

Believe it or not, once in awhile, I think about what I'm going to write about in these pages.
I must have been noodling on the subject in the back of my mind one day as she dictated a shopping list to me.
"Good idea."
So that's what I'm gonna do this week...try and CATCH UP (get it?) with a few squirbs, that infamous combination of squibs and blurbs I occasionally resort to when it seems necessary to complete some of the unfinished tales from prior columns.
Here goes.

Speedy Delivery.
My recent column regarding the supposed effectiveness of Absorbine Jr. on the plague of gnats we've been enduring--along with my inability to find any of the darn stuff--generated a fair amount of sympathetic response. I received copious advice on other bug-chasers I might try. Best of all the alternates was a bottle of stuff from a midwest-based company that a kind friend gave me. It actually smells good and seems to work.
But the most spectacular response came via a college friend named Doc, who lives in Burlington, Iowa. Doc saw a hand-printed sign at a drugstore the day before I posted my column on my blog. When he read of my Absorbine-less plight, he returned to the store, bought a bottle and set about establishing an elaborate hoax. His wife called me, claiming to be from a company called "Speedy Delivery" and wishing to set up a drop-off at my home in Galva. I hadn't ordered anything, so I was feeling a bit skeptical.  I said I wouldn't be there, as my grandsons had ball games, so I was surprised when an insistent Speedy Delivery employee called me from my front porch. I told him he'd have to come out to the Galva Park District if he wanted to make the drop, and figured that would be that.
But it wasn't. He showed up.
And I was totally surprised when the delivery man turned out to be Doc himself, who had ridden his beloved Royal Enfield motorcycle all the way from Iowa to deliver the magic elixir.
Good one, Doc

An unnatural disaster.
Some say the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was the world's greatest disaster, while others claim it was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, or even Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But as far as I'm concerned, it is--hands down--the Great Sloan Home Improvement Project of 2014.
Imagine this.
-A whole new roof.
-A new garage and driveway.
-A replaced shower.
-8 new windows.
-A major interior painting project.
-Refinished hardwood floors.
Now imagine the utter foolishness of trying to get them all done at approximately the same time.  Luckily the happy pair of painters who helped get a major portion of one project done last week managed to avoid running headlong into the guys who were tearing off a roof dating back, we suspect, to the original structure as built back in the 1860s.
It ain't over yet.

The dog is on vacation, too.
If, by some wild chance, you were paying attention to my story about our recent Minnesota trip, you might recall that a dog was listed among the group of happy family travelers.
Arf. Arf.
She's my older son's family pet, and will be staying with us while Colin and his spouse, the college professor, travel to Norway, where she will be teaching a study abroad class starting next year.
For some reason, the dog wasn't invited, despite the fact that she speaks fluent Dogwegian and likes a spot of lutefisk with her Kibbles and Bits.  I was a trifle concerned about her visit to our house, because she is, above all, an incessant barker, who yelps, moans, snarls, growls and howls at everyone and everything that dares to move a muscle in and around their home in northern Minnesota.
"Oh, joy,"  I thought, as I imagined her loud, adverse reaction to the steady stream of painters, carpenters, plumbers and other helpful folks who have been parading in, around and on top of our abode.
But no.
Apparently she has decided that she's on vacation, and not responsible for providing security services in Galva. In addition, despite the fact that she probably outweighs him by a cool 50 pounds at least, she's afraid of Max the cat, who sends her scrambling with a low, fearsome growl whenever she's not where he thinks she should be.
In any case, all is (mostly) quiet on the dog front. And that most certainly works for me.

Not so fast, Baldy.
And the not-so-great news is that the experimental treatment plan I was looking forward to trying has not yet come to fruition, due, mostly, I guess, to the bales of paperwork needed to make anything happen in the complex world of hospitals, doctors, scientists, pharmaceutical companies and foundations.
Meanwhile, my crazy-cancer has begun to grow and spread while I've been off treatment, so, it's back to the chemo club starting today. This is, of course, nothing I can't handle, and I retain high hopes that the promised clinical trial will eventually become available.
In the meantime, It may affect the timing and outcome of the "What's He Gonna Grow Up There?" contest I've been running recently. Zillions and billions of you have placed your wagers regarding the possibly interesting varieties of color, texture and curl in the fine new crop of hair that had begun to sprout on my fine, smooth dome.
Oh, well. Easy come, easy go.
I will, by the way, be keeping your entry fees.
Stay tuned.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Thank heavens it's June

It's been a long, long winter.
And every time we thought it was finally just about over, WHOOSH, back it came, complete with gray skies, cold north winds, and cooler-than-normal temperatures. We struggled through a wintery March, a frigid April and a month of May that flip-flopped between hot and humid, and cold and clammy, and back again. Truth be told, I still haven't gotten up the nerve to put away absolutely all my wintertime wear, though I have finally packed up my long underwear and fur line gloves and pulled my dazzling ensemble of shorts and T-shirts from the bottom drawer.
Because now it's June.
Now it’s summertime.
School is finally out. Baseball and swimming lessons are in full swing. The park is filled with the joyous laughter and excited shouts of families and children. The grass is green, birds are on the wing, flower beds are blazing with color and light, and the soft warm nights sing their sweet summertime song outside bedroom windows.
And, because it finally is summer, my mind is quickly turning towards dreams of places to go and things to do.
"We've gotta start doing some daytrips," I said a few weeks ago.
She knows that my absolute favorite kind of travel is the type that involves an early departure, a long, leisurely drive and something--or a whole list of things--to look at and learn about along the way. Sometimes the objective is more than a little hazy, with the journey itself the real thing. And then other times, there really is a plan of sorts and a real destination in mind.
These trips have been a part of our lives for as long as we've been together, starting back when a long drive to see and experience something new and different was just about all we could afford as entertainment and a break from a week's worth of work. Now, those kinds of trips are a virtual lifesaver for me, as I battle with a crazy kind of cancer that can often leave me mentally exhausted, physically devastated and even kind of discouraged at times.
She does a lot to keep me kicking these days, whether it's by convincing both me and my doctors to press ahead with some of the treatments that that I need to endure, or by simply providing some good reasons for sticking around.
"Let's hit the road," she'll say.
And so, we do.
Often, She drives, while I navigate and doze by turns in the passenger's seat. There are probably things she'd rather be doing, I know. But she, instead, sacrifices her own plans and dreams to spend time doing something she knows I enjoy as I slowly regain strength and a renewed zest for living.
"Where should we go?" she asks.
And then she smiles.
Because there are so many places we want to go. There are so very many things we want to see.
Some are astonishingly beautiful, while some are historic and cultural.
And some, of course, are a little quirky.
And that, my friends, is what makes it all so right.
Because it’s summertime.
Thank heavens.
Because, finally, it’s June.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On fatherhood and cheese curds

Ahhh, Minnesota.
Land of 10,000 lakes, Hubert Humphrey, soaring eagles, giant mosquitoes, the Twins, the Lakers, Harmon Killebrew, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, Bob Dylan, Sinclair Lewis, Garrison Keillor  and a whole lotta fish of various shapes, sizes and styles.
Oh yeah, and one more thing...
Cheese curds.
For the uniformed and disinterested alike, cheese curds are a tasty bi-product of the cheese-making process. Sometimes known as "squeaky cheese," curds are essentially the solid part of soured milk. They have a firm, kind of rubbery texture and a mild flavor, and are generally served fresh, deep-fried or as part of regional dishes like poutine, a heart-stopping delicacy that combines curds, french fries and gravy.
I always assumed the rubbery little devils were strictly a Wisconsin favorite, but it turns out that eastern Minnesota is pretty darn proud of the wonderful things they can do with sour milk, as well. That's where we were last weekend, off on a quick
northbound jaunt to meet up with older son, Colin and his wife for Fathers' Day weekend. In an effort to spare us both from the 639 mile drive between Galva and Moorhead, Minnesota, we agreed to meet halfway. The challenge was to determine a spot that would split the difference between our two homes, while providing adequate lodging, nourishment and entertainment for five adults, two grandsons and a dog, without driving one of us into the poorhouse or the madhouse.
Especially if it rained.
Which it did.
In buckets.
After determining that Rochester was too dull and Spirit Lake too far out of the way for both of us, I finally discovered a heretofore-unknown-to-me vacation spot called Lake Pepin, which is actually an extra-wide spot on the Mississippi River, and located about 60 miles downstream from Saint Paul. While it really is part of the big river that separates Minnesota and Wisconsin, it has all the beautiful features of a big, big lake, and even boasts a Loch Ness-style monster of its own, with the somewhat unfortunate name of Pepie.  I booked us a cabin called--wait for it--The Lunker Lodge at a lakeside fishing resort, and the die was cast for a wonderful dads' day weekend.
But back to the most important part of the trip.
Back to the cheese curds.
We had our first encounter when the grandma-lady, son Patrick, the two grand-boys and I stopped for a late supper Friday night. I prefer not to hype specific national dining spots, but suffice it to say that the initials of this place were D and Q. While the little boys and I plotted ways to convince the responsible adults in the party that ice cream is a good, nutritious meal all by itself, Paddy scanned the menu.
"Wow," he said.
"Yow," he said.
"Cheese curds," he said.
Thus began the weekend that will go down in family lore as "The Night (and day) of the Living Cheese Curd."  We ate them hot, cold, fresh and deep-fried. They were served to us in upscale lakefront bistros and mom-and-pop bayside bars morning noon and night.
Man, they were tasty.
What's more, it was quickly discovered that high concentrations of ingested cheese products have the ability to literally shut down most normal digestive systems, a handy side effect when sharing close quarters and tiny, fishing-cabin bathroom facilities. By Sunday morning, son Patrick claimed to have his first-ever cheese curd hangover, but nothing stopped us as we clamored for more.
Finally, the weekend was over.
I truly enjoy it when my two sons have a chance to get together. Paddy's life is hectic with his boys and his job at the bank, while Colin manages a busy retail operation that often demands much of his time seven days a week.  It was a wonderful Fathers' Day gift for me as I watched them talk, laugh and re-establish the bonds that make them the best kind of brothers.
Who could ask for anything more?
Our last meal together was at a cool riverside winery and creamery that featured great local wines and cheeses, plus incredible homemade ice cream.
Oh, and one more thing.
Gourmet cheese curds.
Like I said, who could ask for anything more?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In search of Absorbine Jr.

I'm a pharmacy brat.
My dad owned Galva's most long-lived drug store during my entire childhood and well into my young adult years. During that time, my mother would frequently deposit me at the store in order, Im sure, to briefly escape my whining persona for a little while. Later, it was often my home base after school in order to avoid the dangerous trip across then-busy route 34 in those pre-interstate highway days.
Anyway, here's the thing.
While I had never, ever shown any particular aptitude for anything useful whatsoever, it was discovered at a relatively young age that I was an absolute wunderkind as a pharmacy clerk.  I could count change before I could tie my shoes,  knew the location of everything from lipstick to lamb nipples, and could often be found alertly perched on a little stool behind the cash register near the candy counter.
"May I help you?" I would chirp brightly at the unsuspecting customers who wandered into my domain.
I still remember the surprised reaction by one browsing dowager who laughingly replied to my helpful offer.
"Oh," she said. "Are YOU going to wait on ME?"
"No, lady," I muttered, mostly to myself. "I'm just waiting for the school bus."
Along with the aforementioned lipstick and the nipples used to nurse baby lambs was one product I always hoped someone would buy.
Sloan's Liniment.
It started out as a popular brand of horse liniment, invented by a self-taught veterinarian named Dr. Andrew Sloan. His son, Earl, later re-styled the product as a human medication in the 1870s, stating that it was "good for man and beast."
I don't know if we're related, but I always wished we were, just as I always hoped someone would buy a bottle of the darn stuff.  Fact is, our only regular customer was an elderly farmer who, when questioned by my dad, noted that it was great for loosening stubborn nuts and bolts.
The Sloan medication wasn't the only balm with alternate uses. Absorbine Jr. also started out as a horse product called simply  "Absorbine " until the "Jr." monicker was added when it was also recommended for human benefit.  Absorbine was created in 1892 by Wilbur F. Young and his wife, Mary Ida to relieve the muscle pain of their hardworking horses. Their son, Junior, created the brand for hard-working people and called it Absorbine Jr.
Wait. It gets better.
If you've ventured out-of-doors recently, you've probably noticed that we've been beset by a plague of near-Biblical proportions.
I personally can't remember a year when they've been worse, dive-bombing ears, faces, eyes and noses.  I think my near-bare head is especially tempting, particularly after sunset, when the pesky little critters begin maneuvers akin to night landings on the USS Forrestal.
I tried just about everything, including the various and sundry powerful bug chasers I take along when camping in the deep woods.
Finally, I checked the internet, thinking that surely I wasn't the only poor schmo desperately seeking something that would let me relax on my deck, mow the lawn and sit in relative peace at little league baseball games.   One of the recommendations was vanilla, which smells good, but is pretty pricy to be liberally slathered on as an insect repellant.
The other was--you guessed it--Absorbine Jr.
I toddled on down to my local Galva pharmacy where I received the bad news.
"All out."
"Don't know when we'll get any more."
I ventured into a big box store, then another, only to be greeted with the same sad news.
Absorbine Jr. is just about impossible to find. Anywhere.
Meanwhile, gnats around the world rejoice.
The good news is that folks who seem to know about such things say the plague will disappear on its own pretty soon. I'm glad, as I'm pretty sure that if I smack myself on the head anymore, I'm apt to do some permanent damage.  But before they vanish altogether, I'm tempted to give one more thing a try.
Maybe you've heard of it.
It's called Sloan's Liniment, and they say it's good for man and beast.
Maybe it"s good for gnats, too.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Just counting the dents in my front door

What's that sound?
I know.
It's the noise a regulation hardball makes when an eight-year-old pitches it as fast as he can, sails it over his brother's head, and hits smack-dab in the middle of the storm door in the front of the house.
I've heard that sound before. Many, many times.
Now, I'm hearing it again.
The presence of my two youngest grandsons under my roof has reintroduced me to a whole world of things I didn't know I'd ever get to experience again. And while I admit to being a trifle whiny about some of the changes that have come my way, for the most part, It's been pretty darn cool.
So, now It's baseball season.
Without a doubt, baseball was my favorite game to play back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was a boy. And it was always the sport I liked to teach and coach the most when my own sons were kids. Like a lot of dads, I was pretty much a year-round volunteer coach, moving from flag football to basketball to soccer and on to baseball as the seasons changed. I liked them all, but baseball was best.  Unlike some dad-coaches, who carefully strategized and cleverly schemed their way through the season,  I thought it was pretty much enough to learn the fundamentals, play hard and have fun. Turns out, I think I was right, as most of the teams I coached were pretty good.
Or at least that's the way I remember it.
About the only other thing that really set me apart from the rest of the kid-coaching fraternity was my attidtude towards post-game snacks. Unlike most of my fellow coaches, who rewarded their teams with lavish, multi-course treats after victories over rival bands of pint-sized sluggers, I figured winning was exciting and rewarding enough. It was only after a hard loss that a guy really needed a Slo-Poke sucker to remove the bitter taste of defeat.
"Are you sure that wasn't just because you were cheap?" queried my spouse when I mentioned the memory. "Seems like you won a lot of games."
Well, maybe so. But I prefer to remember the more altruistic version.  Wouldn't you?
Now, my grandsons are fully involved in the great American game.
Rarely a day goes by when they don't get up a pickup game in the park across the street. They're both on organized town teams, too, with good, dedicated coaches and the able assistance of their dad, who played the game all the way through college.
Fact is, there's not all that much need for an old coot with a rickety arm and limited energy any more. So I was kind of surprised, and pleased, too, when grandson Cyrus unearthed my ancient catcher's mitt the other day and invited me to toss a few in the front yard.  The grandma-lady was happy, too, thinking rightfully enough that it's a good sign anytime I feel like doing anything more active than rolling my eyes.  But for the most part, the grandsons are glad to be just playing the game. And I'm happy for the chance to watch those boys of summer one more season.
Meanwhile, I'll just sit and count the dents in my front door.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

There's hair up there

I looked in the mirror the other morning. That's an experience I mostly try to avoid, since over six months of chemotherapy have left me looking more like an aged, wizened chimpanzee than the virile young dude I still imagine in my mind's eye.
But as I gazed at my visage, I noticed something, well, not exactly new, but unexpected.
It's been several weeks since my last chemo-bomb, as my blood counts--both white and red--were too low to go any further with that treatment the last time they tried.
"Your bone marrow is pretty beat up," explained my oncologist.
And so, we waited. And we worried, because the chemo was doing a pretty good job of holding things in check, despite the unavoidable side effects that occur as a part of the package.
Meanwhile, because of the extended interruption in my chemo cycles, I started to actually re-grow some hair.  And while I gamely pursued that all-important task, the brains at Northwestern Memorial Hospital took a closer look at some earlier biopsy results.
They came up with some interesting news. Some good news, even.
"This is as good as it's gonna get," said the cancer doc in charge of an experimental program.
While I'm not  even close to being able to explain it all in scientific terms,  the tests studied mutations, genes and dna, then mixed in a double helping of good luck to reveal that I'm a good candidate for a clinical trial that will hopefully attempt to use targeted therapy to block the cancer and prevent further growth for awhile without the cell damage and nasty side effects that occur with the kind of big-time chemo I've been undergoing.
"We're excited," said the doc.
Me, too.
So now we wait some more while the i's are dotted, the t's are crossed, and the exact medical protocol is determined.
"Go home for awhile," said the doctor. "Rest. Try to gain some weight. Get stronger."
She headed for the door of the examining room, then turned back to us.
"And grow some hair," she smiled.
Will do.
I'm grateful, of course, for all the fantastic things those smart guys up there in Chicago can come up with. But I also know that the real solutions lie in another sphere altogether.
So thank you all from the very bottom of my heart for your positive thoughts and continued prayers.
God is good...all the time.
And so are you.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The wheels on the bus

It's that time again.
You know,
It's time for all those special spring things, like soft sweet breezes, unexpected freezes, baseball teams, swimming pool dreams, birds on the wing
...and one more thing.
You know, that special ceremony where young men and women put on their very nicest clothes, then cover them up with hot, shapeless, rented gowns, while topping things off with funny-looking hats that mostly look like something designed to throw like a frisbee.
"How could this possibly be?" she said, as she scanned the high school graduation photos in the paper. She is often kind of alarmed and always totally bemused by the passing of time, and the end-of-the-year ceremony that marks the end of this special phase of life is generally one of the most startling to her, especially when she spots familiar features in the rows of smiling faces.  As a former elementary school teacher who toiled in the same district for over three decades, she knows a lot of them.
And she remembers them, too.  She remembers the underachievers, the overachievers and the non-achievers.  She loved them all once upon a time, and now finds herself entirely unable to see them without recalling the children they were back then.

"I'm so glad to see he made it."
"I always knew she'd do well."
"I wonder if he ever learned how to tie his shoes."

And so the wheels keep turning. Time passes. Kids grow up. And like her fellow educators, both active and retired, she'll always remember them. Because she'll always be a teacher.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The things we do for love

"Are you going to write about the spitmobile?"
Well, yes. Maybe I will.
I cast a casual glance when grandma and her two most favorite passengers pulled into the driveway the other day. I had expected them to get home quite a bit earlier, but there's nothing especially unusual about a late arrival on the part of that jolly troupe of wanderers.
"Where have you been?" I asked.
"The dentist called right before I left to pick them up from school," she answered. "They had a cancellation, so I got the boys in for a checkup a whole two weeks early."
Lucky boys.
As I walked towards the car, I noticed streaks of a white, paint-like substance spattered on both sides just behind the back windows.
"What's that stuff?" I queried
"I took along their toothbrushes and some toothpaste," she replied.
My eyes were already beginning to roll.
"Well, they had to spit somewhere."
Ah, the things we do for love.
Now, I'm not one to complain.
Well, actually, I am.
But the fact is, our lives have been different ever since our youngest grandsons came to stay. And it's been nothing short of wonderful, especially for this old duffer, who, more than anything, needs the magic kind of medicine only they can provide.
But things have changed.
Like my so-called "man-cave," the set of rooms in the back of our big old house that was a garden apartment once upon a time. It's got a window-lined living room with a TV, a sectional couch and my beloved recliner; plus a bathroom, a teeny kitchen with no stove, but a fridge; and what was once a bedroom, which I gradually converted into a combination project area, computer room and music studio over the years.
Back when my own boys were small, I used it as a home office until they gradually encroached on the space when they entered their teenage years and needed room to eat, play video games and cards with their buddies, eat, drink every cold beverage in the house, eat, watch television and movies, eat, sleep all day every Saturday, and, uh. eat.
After they flew the nest, I cautiously moved back in, kind of like a hermit crab reclaiming a favorite shell.
When the little boys and their dad arrived on the scene, the grandma-lady quickly converted their Uncle Colin's old bedroom into a room the two youngsters could share. It's a large, high-ceilinged place, with windows facing the park across the street and plenty of space for a pair of beds, plus dressers, bookshelves, a desk for homework, and lots of play area.
"This will be perfect for them," she said, and we both blithely dreamed of a wholly unrealistic "Leave it to Beaver" kind of scenario, where quiet, well-mannered children stay and study and play in their rooms until called for mealtimes.
That, of course, was utter nonsense, as they installed their Wi and X-Box games, a foosball table, plus an amazing myriad of other kid-centric stuff into the erstwhile "man-cave" quicker than you can say, "hit the bricks, old man."
The things we do for love.
But fair enough. It's a big house.
The grandma-lady showed what a good sport she truly is when she agreed to celebrate Mothers' Day with a trip to Lou's, my favorite Peoria Drive Inn restaurant, thus giving me a chance to introduce the boys to the whole bot-to-be-missed experience of car hops, chili dogs and ice-cold root beer. From then, it was on to the zoo, where we wandered through a veritable wonderland of tigers, emus, rhinos and giraffes.
Not exactly up to the standards of the high tea I took her to a few years ago on her special day, I know.
But it's the things we do for love.
And she loved it.
Ordinary week days have changed, too, as I have transformed from a follower of a relaxed, robe-and-slippers-and-Charlie-Rose morning lifestyle into a breakfast-time short-order cook, homework-checker, shoe-finder and door-pusher-outer.
The things we do for love.
 But it's OK with me. Mornings are my best time anyway.
I've already whined about my trials as a freezing fan at early-season soccer.  I predicted I'd need to buy a cow, and our fridge and pantry are stocked with frozen waffles and pop tarts and colorful cereal boxes, instead of the grown-up stuff we used to buy. The park is now our main destination in the afternoons, and the movies I now watch before bedtime are likely to be both animated and G-rated.
The fact is, most of our nights have changed.
"Will you lie down with me, grandpa?"
Young John Patrick sleeps in a low, narrow bed that's just right for a six-year-old, but a little crowded for two. If they don't both cuddle in with their dad, it's usually the grandma-lady who gets the call from John, while I more often pile in with big brother Cyrus, who sleeps in a much bigger bed.
"Oh. All right," I said.
I figured I'd squeeze in and hope the little guy would fall asleep quick.
"Will you scratch my back, grandpa?"
"Oh brother," I thought.
I scratched for a minute or two, then gradually stopped. I slowly rolled onto my back and waited for him to settle down next to me. Quietly, in the bedroom darkness, I felt him turn toward me.
Without a word, he slid his warm little hand into mine.
Gently, sweetly, softly the little boy who lay next to me slipped into sleep.
The things we do for love.
Just for love.