Thursday, February 27, 2014

The luckiest man

I read a really humbling article the other day. It was a story about a Florida high school English teacher who was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer awhile back. After staying in the classroom for as long as he absolutely could, he  decided to spend the time he had left visiting with former students to have a chance to see, as he put it, "how my kids were faring and to witness how, if at all, I had helped shape their young lives."
He's written a book about his experiences that was published in January. Near the end of an opinion piece that he recently wrote for CNN, he quoted that famous line from baseball great Lou Gehrig's farewell speech after he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that often bears his name.
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
So, what's so lucky about an unstoppable disease that leaves you struggling to speak, swallow or breath before it finally kills you?
And what's so lucky about incurable brain cancer?  Or any kind of cancer at all?
A few months ago, my answer would have been pretty simple.
But you can learn a lot in a few months.
Because here's the thing.
While the pain, uncertainty, fear, discomfort, embarrassment, expense and plain old inconvenience of a whopping good case of cancer or any other serious disease are no trip to Disneyland, the essential goodness of most people that suddenly comes bursting through in such situations absolutely balances things out.
Because it is astounding to be surrounded by the love and support of a family. Wonderful to be lifted up by the prayers and good wishes of dear friends. And absolutely astonishing to experience the amazing kindness of strangers.
In other words, lucky.
Very lucky, indeed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ice Ice Baby

Me: "Although the quad lutz is more difficult than the quad loop or quad flip, the quad lutz has been performed in competition, while the quad loop and quad flip have not."
She: "Whaaa?"
Me:  "It's probably essential to get those twizzles out of the way early in the long program."
She: "Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?"
Like many avid watchers, my glassy-eyed commitment to TV coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics has transformed me from a mostly unassuming guy who freely admits to not knowing much about anything to an irritating, self-styled expert on all things slick, slippery and slidey.
But hey, while you might assume an unsophisticated rube like myself might struggle to determine the difference between, say, a cherry flip and a Russian split, you should know that my personal skating history involved one of the most popular, best-loved ice venues known to man.
Wiley Park.
The rink that sits in the big park across the street from my house has been there since 1960, when the local Rotary Club bought a big plastic sheet and flooded a low spot in the beautiful 2-square-block section that was once known as "College Park" in anticipation of the hoped-for arrival of what eventually became Augustana College in Rock Island.
Original plans called for the rink to be located in the south side park on the downtown square, but officials of the Burlington Railroad turned down requests for use of the property, citing safety issues and concerns that young skaters would attempt to cross the tracks going to and from the rink. It was finally placed on the east side of Wiley Park that year, and was also locared on the tennis courts at the Galva Park District on the south edge of the city for a couple of years.  But for the majority of its existence, the rink has been located in the southwest corner of Wiley Park, where it remains today.
Now, you might think having a skating rink requires little more than spilling some water in a low spot and waiting for it to freeze. But it's hardly that simple. For over 30 years, the rink was lovingly maintained by Galva resident Herb Rodgers, who became quite adept and inventive at filling and freezing the smooth skating surface with the help of special tools like his homemade "fantastic machine," a Zamboni-like contraption he used to push back and forth across the ice. Nowadays, it's another group of generous volunteers who sacrifice their time, talent and the feeling in the ends of their noses so that Wiley Park can continue to be a great place to skate.  It's where I fully developed the graceful, yet powerful skating style that has often seen me described as a "dynamic cross between Bobby Orr and Viktor Petrenko,"* though my very first tentative steps on the ice were taken on the nifty little rink my father installed in our backyard in an attempt to foil my brother in his repeated attempts to flood the whole gosh darn place with a garden hose every time my parents dared to leave him home alone.
We played skate tag, crack-the-whip, raced around in headlong glee, and scuffled through our own particular version of hockey, a hybrid sport that often as not involved no pads, no helmet, no mask, your sister's old white figure skates, a smashed-flat dog food can, and the taped-up stick your brother got for Christmas the year before.
But mostly, we just enjoyed it.
It was cold. Oftentimes, our toes and noses just about froze.
In fact, I'm pretty sure my nose actually fell off one time.
There were no international champions among us.
But hey, we were kids.
We were there to have fun.
And when it came to that, we were absolutely olympic class.
Oh yeah. One more thing.
Now that my grandsons have discovered it, I get to have the same fun all over again.

* My mother said this once. Really.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Just call me grandpa

It kind of caught me by surprise.
When son Patrick announced that he and his two children would be moving back to Illinois from their home near the North Carolina shore, I was startled.
And curious.
And flat-out overjoyed.
It's been kind of a complicated stretch for Paddy and his boys, but the end result is a good one. Because now they are living in the place the little guys have always called "the snowy house."  And we, of course, couldn't be happier to have them under our roof.
I'm reveling in the chance to be part of the Breakfast Bunch that now meets every morning in my kitchen before school. It's a dream come true to--once again--be a backer of the Wiley Park Skating League, the Backyard Snowball Society, The Holy Hot Cocoa Club and the Peanut Butter Sandwich Circuit, though I admit I am less overjoyed at the discovery of my renewed memberships in The Sock-Matching Amalgamation, the International Boot-Finding Fellowship, the Missing Glove Marauders, and the Wet Towel Partnership of America.
Suddenly, cereal, white squishy bread and cookie-making materials are back on the regular grocery list, as are almost-daily doses of laundry detergent and dishwasher soap.
I am thinking about buying a cow.
I am grateful that they want to be near me while I fight the fight I gotta fight. There are certain powerful anti-cancer agents in the hugs and laughter of a little boy, as well as in the joy and peace I see in the grandma-lady's eyes.
Plus, here's the thing: "Grandpa" sounds a whole lot better than "stage four cancer patient" any old time.
And that, my friends, is all I ever wanted to be.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The long drive home

The horrific weather we've all endured lately has kept most of us worrying about furnaces and water lines, shoveling both new and drifted snow, and digging deep in drawers and closets for long underwear, thick gloves, wool socks, and warm hats and scarves. But there's one thing I haven't had to do. Something I am, by the way, entirely grateful for.
I haven't had to go to work. Or go much of anywhere, really.
While most schools have cancelled during the worst of the weather, that's not the case for a lot of businesses and other workplaces. So many folks have had to hit the road in weather and conditions that have been downright dangerous.
Life threatening, even.
And while I admit I've felt a little guilty padding around in my jammies and slippers when others are out braving the elements, I know one thing.
I've paid my dues.
I commuted from Galva to Peoria for almost 25 years, long before we owned any kind of four-wheel drive vehicle and, for most of the time, well before cell phones came into common use. I clearly remember nights filled with dread as forecasters predicted snow, ice, wind and sub-zero temperatures, knowing full well that I'd have to go unless the roads were officially closed by the authorities all the way to the Peoria city limits, no matter what. This was especially true in the first job I held in the big city, a copywriting gig at a Peoria advertising agency.  The two guys who owned the place seemed kind of wary about my decision to commute from Galva, rather than immediately pick up and move to Peoria, thinking, I guess, that I might not be entirely committed to the busy days and nights that often accompany life in the ad biz.
So they made it clear they expected me to be on deck bright and early each morning, and equally available for the client dinners, long meetings and stuff like nighttime television shoots that often occurred after regular business hours. That first winter on the job could easily have, as I recall, been known as "the year of the never-ending ice storm," with steady occurrences of ultra-slippery glare conditions that turned the roads between here and there into an absolute, terrifying nightmare.  I would leave early in the morning so as to safely crawl the fifty miles to downtown Peoria, and arrive with white knuckles, stomach cramps and a blazing tension headache. Once I finally got there, I'd feel almost normal for awhile. But by mid-afternoon, I'd start stressing out all over again as I worried about the drive home.  My kids were just itty-bitty boys when I started my long-term commute, but before you knew it, they started growing up, which meant all the more reasons to want to head home at night, as they got heavily involved in sports, music, theatre and a zillion other activities. By the time they got into high school, the number of events increased even more and the travel times grew longer. Much longer.
I learned that the journey from Peoria to, say, Joy, Illinois (the home of the now-defunct Westmer High School, where both boys competed back in the day) is approximately equivalent to the trip between the earth and the moons of Saturn.  i discovered that nearly every little town that hosts a small high school, a gym and a football field, is kind of hard to get to, especially when you're running late from the start. But most of all, I realized that the drive was absolutely, positively worth it, whether I was racing to make the opening kickoff at some far-flung high school field, or just heading home for a rare quiet evening with my family.
My work friends were amazed that I kept making that 50-mile drive, year after year.
Sometimes, I was, too.
I still remember being surrounded by a loose herd of cattle on a lonely country curve, or the time an overanxious young buck bashed into the side of my car, then scrambled back to his feet, gave a snort and leapt over the nearest fence with wings on his feet and love on his mind. I remember close calls with fast-moving thunderstorms, swirling white-out squalls and the black skies of tornado alley. And an April night when a late-spring blizzard trapped a bunch of us along highway 78. We sat for a couple of hours as the deep, wet snow piled around us until, finally, a truck at the head of the pack decided to give it a try.
A bunch of us followed, busting through drifts and spinning up hills all the way to the LaFayette turn. All the vehicles except that one big truck stayed straight towards Kewanee.
He turned west, and I followed.
But when we got to LaFayette, he turned off.
I was alone.
Absolutely alone.
I'll never forget the drive the rest of the way home that night. The drifts were so high they literally broke over the hood of my car.  The soft, sloppy snow provided very little in the way of traction, as I spun and slid and slipped my way down the lonely road.
Finally, finally, finally, I saw something in the distance.
The lights of home.
I still remember the waves of relief that washed over me as I pulled in the driveway that night.
I opened the door, slammed it behind me, and kicked the snow off my shoes.
"You O.K.?" she asked.
"I am now," I said.
"I'm home."

Monday, February 3, 2014

I'm in the mood for...meatloaf

I'm going to ramble a little bit.
When Western Illinois Family Magazine editor Lisa Coon suggested that her bright band of column-jockeys might consider writing about either family dinners or Valentine's Day for February, I figured either would do just fine.
Or both.
Because here's the thing.
Food means love.
They go together like shoes and socks. Salt and pepper. Batman and Robin. And, of course, Mr. Gump, peas and carrots. Or at least that was how I was raised to feel. The relationship between a giant pile of mashed potatoes and my mother's undying love for me was something I instinctively understood as a kid. Just how much she adored us all was displayed on a regular basis, as she prepared mega-amazing meals that were, as much as anything, daily love letters to her brood. And while my dad could barely boil water, open a can or find the fridge without assistance, I think the fresh green beans, potatoes, sweet corn and tomatoes he harvested from his backyard garden represented his own quiet billets-doux to the girl he loved and the hungry family they raised together.
Because food means love. And love means food.
I knew I wasn't the only one who felt that way, but I guess I was a little surprised at just how many smarter-than-me folks have commented on the phenomenon that is food and love.  There are, in fact, a whole host of snappy quotes and happy reminders that support my claim, which I am delighted to borrow and share with you...

"Cooking is like love: It should be entered into with abandon or not at all." (Harriet van Horne)

"Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate." (Alan D. Wolfelt)

"It's absolutely unfair for women to say that guys only want one thing: sex. We also want food." (Jarod Kintz)

"There is no love sincerer than the love of food." (George Bernard Shaw)

"If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him...the people who give you their food give you their heart." (Cesar Chavez)

"I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.” (Nora Ephron)

"Great food is like great sex.  The more you have the more you want." (Gael Greene)

"There is no sight on earth more appealing than the sight of a woman making dinner for someone she loves." (Thomas Wolfe)

"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt." (Charles M. Schulz)

Another of my favorite examples of the whole theory of food-love fusion came to light for me back in the early days of my career as an advertising agency guy. While just a cub-copywriter, I was tapped to attend a conference that would include presentations and workshops offered up by some of the big guns of the advertising world.
One of them was a guy named Don Tennant.
Not exactly a household name, I know. But the influence he had on modern advertising and, in fact, our entire culture was, well, pretty darn big. He was, after all, the first guy to draw Tony the Tiger. He led the creative teams that gave birth to characters and concepts like the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Green Giant, the Friendly Skies of United, and the Marlboro Man, even.  At the conference, while other presenters wowed us with multi-media presentations, bold new ad campaigns and various examples of dynamic graphics, he did something a little different.
He told us a story.
He told a story about a company called Pillsbury that, right after the Second World War, came up with an absolutely revolutionary new product.
A boxed cake mix.
Trouble was, no one was buying this wonderful new product, despite the fact that it made it much easier for moms to churn out desserts for their families without having to go to all the trouble of making them from scratch.
In fact, it was too easy.
Followup research showed that those moms felt guilty about the whole idea of a cake made from a mix in a box.
So Tennant and his crew did two things.
They added an egg to the recipe, figuring rightly that including a fresh ingredient would relieve some of those guilty feelings.
And they wrote, as he put it, "a little song."
"Nothin' says Lovin' like something from the oven. And Pillsbury says it best" was how it went.
The rest, of course, is history.
Most recently, my current bout with crazy-cancer and the chemotherapy that I so dearly love, has brought new meaning to those food-love feelings for me. As is often the case, the result of the treatments I've received is a bald and skinny new me, a condition and appearance that has acted like a trumpeting call to action to my wife and her hometown pals.  As we speak, there are legions of lovely Galva ladies circling the house, waiting to feed and otherwise coddle me, especially after my spouse left town for an unavoidable family commitment. Since her departure, my kitchen has filled with savory stews, piles of potatoes, sweet treats and other delectable delights, all intended to fatten me up, not unlike the Hansel half of that old, familiar folk fable.
Put simply, I've got more on hand than I'll probably ever eat, but I don't mind. Because I know they're delivering more than meatloaf, macaroni and lemon meringue pie.
They are, quite literally, leaving me some love.