My New Year’s Resolutions for 2012

It’s that time again, when we put the current year to rest and look ahead to the New Year.  New Year’s is hope and renewal, an opportunity to start over, a chance to improve ourselves and our behavior.   In this spirit, I embrace the tradition of making resolutions.  After a long period of introspection and self examination, these are the resolutions that, if I am able to keep, I have concluded will make me a better human being.    Some of them are going to be pretty tough to keep, but I’ll do my best.  Here is my list so far:

  1. Avoid making bad puns about going to the dentist (for example, did you hear about the slave labor market in the false teeth industry?   They use indentured servants)
  2. Rinse before shampooing.
  3. Learn the proper way to fold a map of the cities Portland and Eugene and their surrounding areas (also known as the art of “Oregoni”)
  4. Accomplish one of the following in 2012:  Make contact with interstellar aliens, capture a live bigfoot, or advance past level three in “Angry Birds”
  5. Do unto others as I would have others do unto me provided they have exact change.
  6. Trade in my foam cheddar head  for something equally useful
  7. Remember that the expression “HAZMAT danger” is a warning about the presence of Hazardous Materials, and not a question about whether my friend Matt is in any peril.
  8. Put my left foot in, take my left foot out, put my left foot in and shake it all about.
  9. If in London, take a ride on a hansom cab, or a reasonably attractive carriage
  10. (Related to #9)  find out if the doctor thinks I have chronic or acute shingles, and, if he thinks the latter, should I use them to cover my entire house or just the garage roof?
  11. Remember the lesson I learned this year, that nachos are for eating, and do not provide adequate protection against either gamma or beta radiation.
  12. Increase my attention span and learn to focus on I can’t believe I’m on number twelve on this list already.
  13. Insist that others use the more sensitive term “follicle challenged” in place of the hurtful “bald”
  14. Get in shape, and make sure my height is in proportion to my weight.
  15. Limit my intake of fatty junk food to the hours when I am awake.
  16. Join a Jim, and have him buy me lunch.
  17. Remember to always go the extra mile
  18. (Related to #17)  Always carry a GPS with me, so I can find my way back after going the extra mile.
  19. Promote intercultural diversity and enable world peace by learning the lyrics to the Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs recording of “Wooly Bully”
  20. Listen to the voices inside my head, but don’t try to reason with them

Home for the Holidays

The boys aren’t boys anymore.  They are full grown men, with their own lives to lead and their own paths to follow. Once again they were home for Christmas.  For a couple of mornings, when I’d get up and walk the hallway in the pre-dawn darkness, their rooms would be full again, just like they used to be, when home meant the same thing to us all.  Now they have left, and once again, like it feels every time they leave, the house is cold and empty.

At this moment, I’m sitting here alone in the midnight, listening to Patty Griffin sing “Heavenly Day”, and I’m thinking about love.   It occurs to me that pain and anguish and suffering are constant and never far away.  Love isn’t the denial or the absence of pain, rather, it is the defeat of, the triumph over, however temporary, our suffering.    Love is concurrently fleeting and permanent – even when it lasts for only a moment, its traces remain etched in our subconscious forever, and the memory of its healing power lasts long after the particulars of its instance have faded and dissolved.

We enter the world cold and alone, small and fragile, and then we are gathered in our mother’s arms, and the first thing that is communicated to us, the very first thing we learn, is love.    It is our initiation ceremony to this universe, our true baptism.  The power of that baptismal love and its ability to make us quiet and still in the enormous and harsh and frightening new world we have been thrust into is burned into the core of our being.   The simple truth that love is as vital to our survival as air to breathe or food for sustenance never leaves us.

So it is that, spurred on by a gnawing ache, we spend so much time blindly flailing about, stumbling over and confusing needs with desires, in a desperate search for love.    The need for love is so primal and constant that it can distort us, and distort our memory and knowledge of what deep down we know love to be, until all we have is the raw and unsatisfied hunger for that which we no longer can recognize, and we are blinded and preyed upon by those who have turned their backs on love.   To deny love is to embrace the black emptiness of cynicism.  Cynicism is the corruption of love, the betrayal of its pure and selfless essence, the manipulation of love into something dark and sinister.   These manipulations can destroy a love, but they cannot destroy the capacity for love.  Only love can wipe clean the dark stain that cynicism leaves on the soul.

Love is transformational.  The love in which my children were conceived has transformed into a love for them that has continued and deepened over the years.   It is a love that has sustained me and buffered me from the eroding forces of pain and anguish, and I hope that it is strong enough to shield them from the suffering that will be just as inevitable a part of their journey.  Above all, may they forever carry my love inside of them, and may it sustain them in times of need, as it has sustained me.

If the Fates Allow

(I’m going to quickly post this overly sentimental  short story before I come to my senses ….)

He sat in his recliner in the glow of the lights of the Christmas tree, listening to the radio, sipping the Crown Royal and 7-Up he had poured himself.  He wasn’t in the habit of drinking alone, but it was Christmas Eve.   Outside it was dark and cold.  It had snowed about a week before; about two inches was left on the ground.  The package sat wrapped in plain brown paper under the tree.

The radio was playing Christmas songs.    Between songs the deejay would give an update on Santa Claus’s status.   It felt like a long time since Santa Claus had played a role in his Christmas.  From beyond his door he could hear the pounding of little feet running up and down the hallway.   Those little Williams boys are worked up tonight, he thought.   And why shouldn’t they be, it’s the night before Christmas.  They were annoying and wild and disruptive as ever, but tonight he felt pity and hoped for the best for them.  They’re not so bad, he thought, they’re just little kids.   He hoped their father would remain sober long enough for them to have the Christmas every kid deserved.  He thought about his own son and model trains and hot wheels and matchbox cars, and the old house, then he closed his eyes and thought about the house he grew up in, the Christmases of his childhood, and the endless bounty that would lie under the tree in the grey light of the early Christmas morning, and his Mom, and his Dad.

He opened his eyes and saw the small tree with the single solitary package wrapped in plain brown paper underneath it.  He could hear the wind gusting outside and suddenly he felt cold and alone.  He emptied his drink and went to the kitchen counter and poured himself another.  He looked at the clock on the stove.  It was a quarter past eleven.  Forty five more minutes.  He had promised himself that he’d wait until it was Christmas.  Staying up wasn’t a problem; after all, he could sleep late in the morning.

He looked out the window to the parking lot, three stories down.   The moon was shining on the snow and reflecting off of the parked cars.  It looked cold and barren outside.   There’s something about a cold winter night that makes you appreciate being home, warm and with no place you had to go.  Home.   This was home now, this downtown three room apartment on the third floor.   He swished the drink in its glass, making the ice cubes rattle.  He raised his glass and softly said out loud, “Here’s to home”, and then he took a long drink.

He sat back down in his recliner.  The radio was between songs, and the deejay was giving a weather report.  He became aware of the silence from down the hallway and the absence of little feet in the hallway.  The Williams boys must finally be in bed.  Now if that drunk of a father and that sow of a mother got their act together, they’d be getting the presents out, setting them under the tree, getting everything ready for that magical morning.    He waited to hear them fighting again, because that would be just like them, fighting on Christmas Eve, too stupid to realize how important this night was.  Those boys, those bratty and obnoxious boys, who rode their bikes too close last fall and scratched his car, who were always running up and down the stairs, actually knocking him over that one time, if he hadn’t had a firm grasp of the railing he would have surely tumbled all the way down.  They had no decent upbringing, they were only seven and five, and their Mom couldn’t be bothered with them, holed up in her apartment all day, probably eating, while their Dad was out all the time, probably drinking.  What a pair, he thought, her eating and him drinking – they were made for each other.   Stupid kids are what they are.  Stupid kids who were raising stupid kids.  He waited to hear them fighting, but there was nothing.

He then looked at the display case he had built.  He was proud of the work, of his craftsmanship, of the wood inlays and the glass paneled doors that opened and shut.  It was a quarter to twelve now, only fifteen minutes before he could open the package from Handelman’s engravers.    He was getting excited now, and he went to the closet.   He was shaking when he took the duffel bag out.   He hadn’t looked at it in months, since he had the idea, since he ordered the engraving, since he talked to the owner of the land, since before he began working on the display case in the shop at work.

The radio had quit playing Christmas songs and was now broadcasting some news show.  A man’s voice droned on and on.  Down the hallway it was still quiet.    He became aware, as he removed the Louisville Slugger from the bag, that he couldn’t stop thinking about how quiet it was.   He took out the glove and the small case that held the ball with Robin Yount’s signature on it.  He looked at the package, then at the display case he had built, but his mind was still preoccupied with the couple down the hall.  He wondered if they were still awake.   He went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway.   Down the hall, under their doorway, he could see a sliver of light.  They were still up.

He went back inside his apartment.  Suddenly, for the first time, he questioned his plans.  Why a memorial?   Who was it for?    What would it change?  He looked at the clock on the stove.   It was five minutes before midnight.   He didn’t have time to answer these questions, to think these things through.  His gut was telling him what to do now.   He put the items back in the duffel bag and in what felt like the same motion, he went down the hallway.    He gently knocked on the door.   The father opened it; he was wearing a two day growth of whiskers and a ratty flannel shirt, but he appeared to be sober.

“Oh, hello”, the father cautiously greeted.

“I’m sorry to disturb you”, he muttered.  “May I come in?  It’ll only take a second.”

“Sure, sure”, he said.  Beckoning to his wife, he said “Honey, it’s Mr. Johnson, from down the hall.”  She got up from where she was kneeling under the tree.

“Merry Christmas”, she said.  Apprehension leaked out of her forced smile.

“Merry Christmas”, he replied.  “I’m sorry to interrupt your Christmas Eve, but I was going through some old things, and I thought maybe your sons would enjoy them.   Lord knows I’ll get no use out of them”  He handed the duffel bag to the father.  “It’s just some baseball stuff, a bat and a glove and a ball.”

“Thank you”, the father said, starting to go through the things.

“I hope they like baseball.   They’re getting to that age.”

“Oh, they do, or, they will”, the father said.  Examining the ball, he said “Who’s Robin Ount?”

“Yount”, he corrected, his opinion of the man as a moron now confirmed.  He was just about to explain when the mother interjected,

“Robin Yount, you must have heard of him, dear.  He was a famous Milwaukee Brewer.”

“Oh, right, right, Robin Yount”   It was pathetically unconvincing.

“Mr. Johnson”, she said, “thank you so much, but we couldn’t take these things.  That ball is probably worth some money.”

“No, no, please take it.  I’d rather see the bat and glove come to some use.  I think your boys would enjoy it.  As for the ball, please, do with it what you want.”

“But we couldn’t”

“You don’t understand.  These were things I bought for my son, a long time ago.  He never got to use them.   So please, it’d mean so much to me to see your boys playing with them next spring.  Please.”  He became aware of the tears that were beginning to form behind his eyes.

“I don’t know what to say.  Let us pay you something.”   Her eyes were moist now.

“Don’t even think about that.  This is a Christmas gift.  To your boys”

They thanked him, and offered him some hot chocolate.   He was surprised to see that that was all the father was drinking.  Maybe they got it after all, he thought, even if the husband was too stupid to know who Robin Yount is, maybe they understood what he didn’t all those years ago, that Christmases are numbered.   He declined their offer and they exchanged pleasant good nights.

He went back to his apartment.  Satisfied and content, he went to bed and slept soundly.  Under his small Christmas tree, the plain brown package from Handelman’s engravers remained unopened.

My Part in the Downfall Revisited

(Saw this article on-line this morning, related to the Generation-Y workforce I discussed in this post last July.)

For a few years now, I have been hearing and reading about generation Y, people born after 1980, and the complaints from my generation, the baby boomers, that this new generation isn’t willing to work hard, and expects to be pampered and treated as “special”.  Much of the blame for this is placed on people like me, people who coached this generation in youth and recreation league sports, where everybody got to play and winning wasn’t emphasized.   Apparently, people like me drove the competitive will out of these young minds and replaced it with the namby-pamby “oh, well, at least I tried hard.  I’m still special!”

I coached co-ed recreation league softball and boys basketball for most of the years my sons were growing up.  I have always loved sports, and played little league baseball as a child.  I was too small (I was basically a year younger than most of my classmates) to go out for football and not good enough to make the middle and high school basketball teams, but I played back yard and pick up games with other neighborhood kids every chance I got.    I became a rabid sports fan and developed a life time love for all three games.

Early on in my sons’ lives, I noticed that, at least in my little corner of suburbia, the landscape of childhood had significantly changed.   In the post urban sprawl spread of real estate development of 1990s suburbia, neighborhoods as defined in my childhood were a thing of the past.  Kids no longer found other kids in nearby backyards and began playing together.   Instead, with neighbors further away, with technology like gaming and the internet driving kids inside more often, with parents working more hours and obsessively worrying about sexual predators, playtime had to be carefully scheduled and coordinated.  Kids had to be driven to and picked up from their friends houses.  As a result, spontaneity was largely removed, and kids had fewer opportunities to explore places and discover new friends than when I was a kid.

The largest casualty of this was the backyard or driveway pickup game.   With so many logistical factors to coordinate, getting enough kids for a game together on short notice became impossible.  Organized sports became the only way kids could play baseball or softball or basketball.

There were two types of organized sports kids could choose from – competitive and non-competitive.   The competitive options included traveling teams, which have grown to become a unique phenomenon, and little league.  Little league wasn’t as demanding as the travelling teams, but you had to try out to make a team.

The non-competitive leagues were run by the village or the local Y.  Everybody who signed up was guaranteed a roster spot, and there were minimum playing rules to ensure that everybody played.  It wasn’t as namby-pamby as many of the critics like to exaggerate.  Score was kept, each game had a winner and a loser, and standings and season ending championship tournaments were usually tracked.   As someone who loved sports, and wasn’t good enough to make most of the teams I tried out for as a child, the non-competitive leagues were an attractive option for my boys.  We signed them up and I quickly became involved in coaching, first as an assistant  on my oldest son’s softball team, then as the head coach of my second son’s softball and basketball teams.

Going into coaching, I knew all of the different strategies and philosophies that I thought would make a great coach, and what my teams may have lacked in talent or skill would be made up for by my brilliant tactical approach to the game.  This dream lasted about as long as it took the ink to dry on my coaching sign-up form.  I soon realized that not only were these little kids with short attention spans, but that many of them had never played the game before.

In basketball, for example, instead of implementing post or perimeter offenses or zone defenses, my time was spent trying to figure out which player could dribble the ball past the half court line, and trying to explain that unlike volleyball, you don’t have to slap and swat at the ball, you can actually catch it, or trying to convince a kid that he can’t catch a pass or get a rebound or play defense with his hands inside his shirt (this last example was made more frustrating by the fact that the kid with his hands in his shirt was my own son, Nick.)

So our weekly practices were exercises in riot control.  First and second grade boys who had been cooped up in their homes in the cold winter months were suddenly let loose in a gymnasium with about 10 other boys and a bouncing ball – their energies were as broad as their attention spans were narrow.  The chaos would be paused at the end of the session, only to be picked up where it left off on the Saturday morning games, where despite all my shouting they would still dribble into the corner and the other nine players on the court would follow, as if magnetized to the ball.

But every now and then something amazing would happen – the ball would actually travel airborne in the general direction of the basket.  Even more amazingly, three or four times a game, it would actually go in!  The kids would jump up and down and scream, which they pretty much did all the time anyway, while in the stands, the proud Mother and Father would beam, the Mother thinking how cute my little Billy looks, while the Father began silent deliberations on Duke or North Carolina.

Co-ed softball was even more of a challenge.   There was the second grade girl who practiced her ballet during games in the outfield.  There were the missed throws that resulted in extra bases that resulted in more missed throws.  There were fly balls that bonked outfielders on the head.   There was one of my all-time favorite players who, for reasons that will forever remain unexplained, always travelled with a portable DVD player and a copy of the film “Ghostbusters”, which he’d watch over and over while sitting on the bench between innings or waiting his turn to bat.

In both sports, in both practices and games, there was an abundance of short attention spans, confusion, frustration, and general mayhem.    And I grew to love every minute of it.   They were not only as fun as a barrel of monkeys; they actually were a barrel of monkeys.  Once I realized they were never going to comprehend a pick and roll or a suicide squeeze, I had to determine what if any value any of us, players and coaches, could get out the experience.   In time, I realized that they were just kids, and like the girls in the Cyndi Lauper song, they just wanted to have fun.

This then became my mission – I wanted every kid on my teams to have fun.  On the surface, nothing seems easier, because kids are built for having fun.  Fun is the only reason for existence that a child has.  But after spending some time with my teams, I quickly realized and remembered that it’s not that simple.   Some kids weren’t as good as others, some weren’t as smart, some were small, some were overweight, some lacked social skills, and some came from difficult family situations.   It became apparent that for some of these kids, fun was a rare experience if not an alien concept.

My strength was a sense of humor that isn’t as well developed as I’d like to think it is – in other words, it remains at about a fifth grade level.  This may make me come across as juvenile and sophomoric in the adult world, but it served me very well with children.   I found that the one thing that would at least momentarily hold their attention was my potential for goofiness.  They may not have listened when I tried to explain which base to throw to from the outfield, but if they thought they might hear me say something stupid, they were a rapt and attentive audience.  I think that all kids, for a myriad of reasons, love hearing adults say really stupid things.  Once I realized this, it became my secret weapon.  I’d say enough stupid things to get their attention, and then, every once in a while, I’d slip in some coaching.   They’d remember verbatim every stupid thing I’d say, while maybe 25% of the coaching seeped through – but hey, that was progress.

Knowing now how to get at least a minimum of their attention, and knowing how much they enjoyed the stupid things that I said (and did), I realized an amazing thing.   The kids would all listen to me and laugh at me together.  A really good player might be sitting on the bench next to a really bad player, and they’d both be laughing at me.   They may have had nothing else in common, but they shared the common experience of being sentenced to listen to my corny silliness.  The year would always begin with separate cliques of kids from the same schools or the same neighborhoods, groups of familiar faces unfamiliar to the other groups of familiar faces.  There would always be a kid or two alone on the outside.  My job became to break down these groups and meld them all together into a team, a team that may or may not have won many games, but a team, and all that means.   Above all else, I loved watching those early season cliques dissolve, and I loved it when the good players would cheer on or try to buck up the bad players, and even more, when the cool kids found something interesting in one of the un-cool kids.

I coached for I think eleven years, until Nick was out of high school.  Over the years, I actually had some teams that were good enough to win championships.  I also had teams that failed to win a game.   The one consistent thing was, I believe, despite the fact that no statistics were kept, and regardless of our won-loss record, every year my teams lead the league in laughter.

Every year, I’d watch these collections of kids become a team, and that is what these leagues were all about.  I don’t mean to imply that I was a brilliant motivator or supremely skilled in developing young people.   Most of the other coaches were just as effective, using their own methods and skill.  It was the structure of the leagues and their mission that everybody gets a chance to play and learn the game that allowed teams to develop.  More than that, it was the kids themselves.  Adults have a tendency to take credit for too much; that these kids were able to overcome their own differences and preconceptions is ultimately a tribute to the open-mindedness that young children still possess.  It’s adults who close these minds with fear and suspicion and distrust.

Now these kids, whose minds I helped fill with unreasonable feelings of self-worth, are young adults starting their careers.  We keep hearing how demanding they are and how they expect to be treated as if they are something special.  They apparently believe the “everybody is a winner, everybody is special” philosophy learned in our sports leagues.  Baby boomers have difficulty understanding this, thinking, I’m not special, I’m lucky to have a job, and if I have to work 60 hours a week to keep it, then that’s what I’ll do.  What makes these kids think they are so special?

Maybe the generation Y kids will continue to insist they are special.  Maybe they won’t stand for their jobs being outsourced.   Maybe they’ll feel the job is lucky to have them.  Maybe they won’t put up with all the crap the baby boomers assumed was owed to their bosses.

One topical book refers to this generational difference as “Hard America” vs “Soft America”;  that the baby boomers of “Hard America” are driven by competition and accountability, while the “Soft America” of generation Y, having been coddled all these years, is inherently weaker, and needs the protection of government regulation.  I’d argue that this is ridiculous and short sighted.  “Hard America” may be driven by competition and accountability, but anyone who has ever had to suffer the obnoxiousness of an overly competitive family member who sulks and pumps his chest through games of Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary knows that weakness and insecurity lie not far below their surface.  It is this weakness, this fear of failure that has allowed this generation to take the world’s strongest economy and slowly destroy it.  Where families were once headed by a single wage earner, now two or more family members work two or more jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.  The competitive win at all costs mentality has been exploited, and as a result, we work harder for lower relative wages with fewer benefits.   The people who run the corporations love this, while everybody else suffers.

The values taught to “Soft America” place value on the individual and his contribution to the team.  Ask anyone who has ever been a manager who they want on their team, the overly competitive and aggressive ladder climber, or the good team player.   If members of generation Y truly believe that they are special, then there may be hope that they will demand the simple respect that the baby boomers have given away.  They may be the only hope to fix what we, their parents (who instilled these values in the first place), have destroyed.

(P.S. – my time as a coach was all volunteer, so, unlike those pesky teachers, my contribution to poisoning young minds was at least tax-free)

What’s in a Name?

I’ve always been a big fan of funny and unusual names, whether real or fictional.  I think in real life, the name you are given shapes who you are and will be as much as anything else.  For example, if you were given the name “Thaddeus” or “Reginald”, odds are you won’t wind up working in a factory.  By the same token, if you are named “Merle” or “Hank”, you probably won’t end up in the cologne or fashion industry.

In literature, coming up with the right name for a character can be everything.  For example, had Charles Dickens  settled for “John Smith” instead of “Ebenezer Scrooge”, odds are the character would be long forgotten.   Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” and J.D. Salinger’s “Holden Caulfield” are two more famous characters whose name is a large part of their power.  “Nick Adams” is the perfect name for Ernest Hemmingway’s alter ego,  because it mirrors his style – short and sweet and simple but masculine.  Moby Dick opens with the famous “call me Ishmael”, which wouldn’t be the same if it started “call me Herman.”

Sometimes the sound of the name is what is important.  “Alas, poor Bob” wouldn’t be remembered, but “alas, poor Yorick” is.  “Hazel Motes” is the perfect name for Flannery O’Connor’s tortured and anguished inventor of “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” in her novel, Wise Blood.  “Humbert Humbert” is as strange a name as, well,  “Vladimir Nabokov”

For funny names, it’s hard to top the names given to Groucho Marx’s characters in the Marx Brothers movies.  Note the importance of middle initials in the names “Otis B. Driftwood” (from A Night at the Opera) and “Rufus T. Firefly” (Duck Soup).   The role of a distinguished college professor calls for a stuffy and formal name, with the middle name spelled out – hence his character in Horse Feathers is given the impressive name of “Quincy Adams Wagstaff”.  The not so scrupulous horse doctor of A Day at the Races is given the name “Hugo Hackenbush.”

The Marx Brothers were pioneers in the surreal comedy that would, some thirty five years later, be the inspiration for the television series, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, which became a repository of wonderful silly names.  There was the boxer, “Kenneth Clean Air System”, the athlete who was going to jump the English Channel named “Ron Obvious”, the secret agent and master of disguise “Teddy Salad”, and the housewives who dropped in to visit Jean Paul Sarte named “Mrs. Premise” and “Mrs. Conclusion”.  The premise of their movie The Life of Brian centers around how silly it would sound had Christianity been created around “Brian” of Nazareth instead of “Jesus”.

There is, of course, the famous Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First”, with the unlikely lineup including “What” at second base, “I Don’t Know” at third base, “Why” in left field, “Because” in center field, “Tomorrow” pitching, “Today” at catcher, and “I Don’t Give a Darn” at shortsop.

Then there are real life names, some famous, some not, that I’ve collected over the years, including:

  •                 Robert Strange McNamara   (Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War)
  •                 Gaylord Pipcorn (A classmate of my Mom’s)
  •                 Finley B. Leech (A banker from Zion, Il., who’s name I saw on a pen once)
  •                 Millard Fillmore(13th president of the United States)
  •                 Mr. Ledger (my accounting teacher at Gateway Tech)
  •                 Moon Unit Zappa (daughter of musician Frank Zappa)

My Dad, who was a truck driver, always told the story about a fellow driver who, while in Cinncinati or Cleveland or some city somewhere, got stopped by a cop for crossing the street against traffic, in the middle of the street rather than at a light.  When the cop asked him his name and he replied, truthfully, “Jay Walker”, the cop just about took him in for insubordination.

Then there are names that are bad puns.  In my career in I.T., we frequently had to come up with test data, and some of the people I’d create included:

  •                Jim Nasium                                                          Physical Education Teacher
  •                 Chuck Wagon                                                      Cook
  •                 Sally Mander                                                       Oceanographer
  •                 Ellie Phant                                                           Dietician
  •                 Justin Case                                                          Detective
  •                 Sam and Ella Poisoning                                    Outlaws
  •                 Hank E. Panky                                                    Philanderer
  •                 Bill Board                                                             Advertising Executive
  •                 Noah Body and his wife, Annie Body            Philosophers
  •                 Scott Free                                                            Defendant
  •                 Jack Squatt                                                         Curmudgeon
  •                 Ken Tuckey                                                         Back Woodsman

I’m hoping to come up with a work of fiction in which all of these characters play a part.  It’ll be historical fiction, centering on the exploits of that famous explorer, “Puns De Leone”.   I’m open to negotiations on the film rights …




List-O-Mania: Movies

Time for another one of my lists (I know, you’ve been hardly able to wait!) – this time, the subject is movies.

I’ve always been a big movie fan, but I really went nuts while in my late teens, in the mid to late 70s.  Every afternoon, the PBS TV station out of Chicago, channel 11, would show selections from the Janus film collection, many of them foreign films.  I quickly lost it all over these strangely beautiful concoctions with subtitles.  I also began reading the critic Pauline Kael, first her books and then her columns in the New Yorker.   From these I learned how to watch and “read” a movie.  Finally, it helped that my Mom had grown up watching a lot of the American movies from the 1930s and 1940s that I was also becoming fascinated with – she had a great memory of trivia about these movies, and a very developed critical eye for what was good and what wasn’t (I remember her telling me, for example, that she normally couldn’t stand the actress Betty Hutton, but that she loved the daring comedy Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and how funny Eddie Bracken was in it.  I finally got a chance to see it a few years later, and it remains one of my favorites, and I think of my Mom every time I see it).

A copy of this poster, obtained in the 70s, hangs on my home office wall

I watched as many movies as I could, and learned the trick to watching movies from the thirties to the fifties (when the production code was in full force, strongly censoring and controlling what could and couldn’t be explicitly displayed on the screen) compared to the “modern” films of the sixties and seventies.  I still love movies, but I don’t get out that often, and I rarely rent new movies.  There are still many, many wonderful movies being made, and I eventually catch most of them on television, but for some reason I find it difficult to get excited about many of them, and still watch Turner Classic Movies more than any other channel.  I think it’s because the technology and money and visual wizardry that is the norm these days seems to, more often than not, at least for me, come across as antiseptic and impersonal.  It also seems that most movies made these days are calculated to appeal to a predefined demographic and as a result have become more and more formulaic.  An example:  a few years ago, the film Little Miss Sunshine – with a great cast featuring the great Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Steve Carel – generated a lot of buzz as an alternative to the big budget blockbusters.  I finally got around to watching it and found it thoroughly predictable and unimaginative – it stayed true to the formula of the independent, arty alternative film, and as such, was every bit as predictable as the latest Mission Impossible or Adam Sandler comedy vehicle.

That’s not to say there aren’t still a lot of great, original movies being made these days (Moon and There Will Be Blood are two examples of brilliant film making in the past few years that come to mind).  It’s just that for some reason, my passions are rarely stirred these days by a new film as they are by a repeat showing of a Truffaut or Fellini or John Ford film on TCM – but that’s just old and stodgy me.

Anyway, I’ve compiled list after list of films in various categories, so I’ll start with the big one, the list of my all-time favorites.  As always, it is the list as I think of it at the moment, and is subject to change as my mood or whimsy dictates.

Here goes:

#12 Casablanca  (1943) Directed by Michael Curtiz   Arguably the greatest screenplay ever written (by Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch), this movie has given us such unforgettable lines as “Round up the usual suspects”, “we’ll always have Paris”, “here’s looking at you, kid”, and “Play it, Sam” (the exact line “play it again, Sam” is never spoken).  Bogart, Bergman and Claude Rains are all unforgettable.  Probably the greatest love story ever filmed.

#11, The Apartment (1960) Directed by Billy Wilder  The most cynical of all of Wilder’s masterpieces about cynicism (see Stalag 17 andSunset Boulevard), The Apartment is elevated by Jack Lemmon’s brilliant performance as the schmuck who rents his apartment out to his bosses for their sexual dalliances in return for promotion.   Only Lemmon and Wilder could bring out the poignant pathos in this character – it is one of the great performances in the history of film.

#10, Rushmore (1998) Directed by Wes Anderson  Brilliantly off beat, this comedy about the king of a prep school who becomes friend  and then romantic rival with a millionaire industrialist never goes in the direction you expect it to.  In the process we are treated to the greatest performance by the great Bill Murray, in a movie that is every bit as eccentric as his comic persona.

#9, Duck Soup (1933) Directed by Leo McCarey  The greatest comedy ever made, and the crowning achievement of the great Marx brothers.   Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, it opens on a high note, and never lets up.  This time, Groucho (as Rufus T. Firefly) has been named president of the Republic of Fredonia.  With the help of Chico and Harpo (who are the worst spies ever for the rival country of Sylvania) and the cinematic direction of McCarey, the brothers demolish government and wars and society.   Highlights include the cabinet meeting, the musical number celebrating the upcoming war, and the justifiably famous mirror sequence.

#8, Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock  Psycho remains, for me, the greatest horror film of all time.   Though not graphic by today’s standards, the famous shower scene and the climactic cellar scene retain their impact – it’s the artistry in how Hitchcock shot and edited these scenes and the raw, personal nature of the crimes that remains jarring.  Also memorable is the murder of the detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) – if I were teaching a film class, this is the sequence I would use to illustrate the power of montage

#7, The Third Man (1949) Directed by Carol Reed  From a script by Graham Greene, The Third Man is about a naïve American author of paperback westerns (brilliantly played by Joseph Cotten) who goes to post World War II Vienna to look up his childhood friend, the mysterious Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), who may or may not be dead.  As Cotton blunders his way through an investigation, he learns that Lime has become the personification of evil, trading penicillin on the black market.  Tremendously atmospheric and suspenseful, with a great final shot where Cotton is rejected by the woman he has fallen in love with (Allida Valli).

#6, The Maltese Falcon (1941) Directed by John Huston.  The first and best of Huston’s three great films studying human greed (the others being The Treasure of the Sierra Madre  (1948) and The Man Who Would be King (1975)).   Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade has rightfully become one of the great screen icons, tough and cynical and wisecracking, he is morally no different than the slimy Peter Lorre and the unscrupulous Sydney Greenstreet (who Lorre refers to at one point as “you bloated fool”), and you can understand how he nearly becomes the next victim of the great femme fatale Mary Astor.

 #5, The Seventh Seal (1956) Directed by Ingmar Bergman  Bergman’s epic about a knight (Max Von Sydow) returning from the crusades who gets involved in a chess game with none other than Death himself.  In the end, he tricks death, not to save himself, but a family of entertainers he has befriended, essentially trading his life for their lives.   While unforgettable for it’s bleak and stark imagery, it also has more hope and optimism than most Bergman films.

#4, La Strada (1954) Directed by Federico Fellini  La Strada is something of a street fable.  Fellini gives us three archeypes: The brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn), representative of pure physicality, the clever tightrope artist The Fool (Richard Basehart), representative of the mind, or intellect, and the tragic Gelsomina (Giuletta Masin), representative of the heart, of pure emotion.   The film is about the relationship of these three entities, and how each cannot survive without the others.  Superbly shot and directed, this is my favorite Fellini film. Much more conventional and less surreal than many of his later works, his imagery here is stunning, and remarkably disciplined. Supreme story telling, with lots to say about art and aritists, and deceptively simple.

#3, Bicycle Thieves (1948) Directed by Vittorio DeSica  DeSica, with films like Shoeshine, Umberto D, and Bicycle Thieves, established himself as the master of the neo-realist style.  His films are visually indistinguishable from documentaries, yet no other director ever put so much heart into his work.  Bicycle Thieves is the supreme tragedy of cinema, and the relationships of Father and Son has never been examined in greater depth.   The ending is pure heartbreak, and will stay with you long after the credit s roll.

#2, How Green Was My Valley (1941) Directed by John Ford  Ford’s unabashedly sentimental depiction of a small Welsh mining community, focusing on the dissolution of the family headed by Donald Crisp and told from the point of view of the youngest of his sons, played by Roddy McDowell.  Ford, cinema’s greatest visual poet,  fills every frame with love, and for me, he never over does it, always teetering but never going over the top.  The result is one of the most beautiful films ever made, made by perhaps it’s greatest artist.

#1, Shoot the Piano Player (1960)  Directed by Francois Truffaut  Truffaut’s genre busting comedy about melancholia is so full of life it is infectious.   For a detailed review, look to my earlier post, “My Favorite Movie”

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”

Tomorrow is a 1972 film based upon the William Faulkner short story of the same name.  Directed by Joseph Anthony and adapted by Horton Foote, it is, in my humble opinion, the best and most representative adaptation of Faulkner ever made.  Shot in black and white on a shoestring budget, it is a hauntingly beautiful film.  It also has perhaps the greatest performance by one of the all time great film actors, Robert Duvall, as the simple farmer and watchman Fentry.

The movie begins with a young lawyer trying to understand the strange man who hung the jury in his first trial, a seemingly open and shut case of murder in self defense.   It then proceeds to tell Fentry’s story in flashback.   It is a story of isolation and loneliness, of two simple people finding and losing one another, of man and woman and nature and time, and above all, about love and the enduring power of the human spirit.  Fentry’s character is simple and unsophisticated and quiet, yet his soul is pure and complex and heroic.  Above all he is graced with the capacity for love, and in true Faulkner fashion, his love endures, and he remains true to it.  Duvall masterly breathes life into a character who is simple and complex, in fact, his complexity and depth arise from his simplicity.  Watch the movie, you’ll know what I mean.

When you scrape away the layers of his overly complex style and the guilt of his southern gothic themes and the twisted violence of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the Mississippi setting for nearly all of his work, what you find at the core of Faulkner is a romantic existentialist.   He is, after all, the man who wrote the line, “given the choice between pain and nothing, I would choose pain every time”.   Ephemeral and endure, two words that seem to be at odds with each other, reappear through his work, and I think sum up his central conflict, whether or not these romantic ideals can survive the unfeeling onslaught of time and change.   In bleaker moments, he said “the sad thing about love is not that it can’t last forever, but that soon, even the pain is gone”.

It’s interesting that in his darkest and most famous work, the novel The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner took the title from the famous Macbeth soliloquy that ends with:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
signifying nothing

Not only does Faulkner take this passage literally by having the first section of The Sound and the Fury  told from the point of view of an “idiot”, the adult man-child and seriously mentally handicapped Benji Compson, the book itself is about the dissolution and end of the Compson family.   The ephemeral tides of time wash away any trace of romanticism.  Significantly, the most romantic character in the book, Quentin Compson,  is doomed because his romanticism is misaligned – he tries to convince himself he is romantically in love with his sister, when in fact he is in love with death, and ends up a suicide.   The Sound and the Fury ultimately is about the triumph of the ephemeral over the romantic.

In the short story Tomorrow, Faulkner goes back to the same stanza from Macbeth that inspired “The Sound and the Fury”, this time focusing on its beginning rather than its end:

          She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

In closing the short story, Faulkner writes:

“The lowly and invincible of the earth – to endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, taken from the same source as The Sound and the Fury, is about the triumph of the romance inherent in the human condition over the ephemeral nature of the universe.  I think he is saying that the unfeeling and unending movement of time and our romantic ideals of the human spirit are intertwined and tied up with each other.   It is the passage of time and its ability to bury the past that give things like truth and love their romantic power.  That a simple man like Fentry, one of “the lowly” is capable of such depths of soul is what will ultimately endure and make him, and us, “invincible”.

Or as Faulkner put it in his address upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”

Amen to that.

Snow at Christmas

(Another experiment with short fiction – a first draft, not sure if I have something or not)

December is cold and gray and black.  Days are shorter and nights are longer, and we become nocturnal creatures, living in the dark.  Days and nights blur and blend and run into each other.  But December is also Christmas, and Christmas is a promise.   Snow is a hope.   There’s something about snow at Christmas.

That year it hadn’t snowed at all until two nights before.  It was cold, in the mid teens.   We were downtown, walking on the sidewalks, finishing our shopping.  Christmas music was playing through loudspeakers, “Silver Bells” when it started to come down.   At first the flakes fell big and soft and slow, sticking to the sidewalk, shining and glistening like stardust in the glow of the streetlights.  Then it came faster and harder and steadier, coating the sidewalks, the ground a blanket of white.  It was getting late, but neither one of us was tired.  We went into the all night diner and sat in a booth next to a window.  We took our coats off and laid them alongside our bags on the benches next to us.   She ordered a coffee, me a hot chocolate, and we each ordered a sandwich.  We settled in, warming up and laughing and watching the snow pile up outside, watching the dwindling crowds with their collars turned up and stocking caps on.     

As we waited for our food, I became immersed in reading the back cover jackets of the paperbacks I had bought at the used book store.   I was reading the blurbs on the inside copy of Catch-22 I had purchased for my younger brother when I happened to look up at her face.  She looked distracted and sad.  I pretended not to notice and looked back down at the book, and then back up at her again.   She was looking at the diner’s counter, where a few random stragglers sat.  When she looked down at her coffee, I snuck a glance, and I saw him.  I recognized him right away.  I looked at the book , pretending I was still reading, and snuck another look back up at her, and caught her looking at him again.  From the corner of my eye I could make out movement from where he was sitting.  He was getting up, putting his coat on.   I put my head down, and as he walked by us, I looked up, and she was looking at him.  It was only for a moment, I saw their eyes meet, I saw the look in her eyes, and I saw the look in his eyes, and I knew.

I watched him walk out the door, not caring any more about whether she saw me or not. Through the window I watched him move silently down the white blanket on the sidewalk.   When he was out of sight, I stopped watching, and looked at her, and she was looking at me, her eyes wide and wet, and it took no more than a split second for us to process the information we now both knew.  At the same time the waitress arrived with our food.  As she put it on the table, we sat there in stoned silence, and I looked out the window, up at the street lights, at the snow swirling and tumbling like a white kaleidoscope, my insides spinning and turning and churning the blend of cold hurt and white rage that consumed me. 

She tried to talk, tried to explain, but there was no explanation.  I just sat there, dipping French fries into the puddle of ketchup I had poured on my plate, processing the betrayal, barely hearing her inadequate reasons.   She was crying when the waitress finally brought the check.   I pulled some paper out of my wallet, still silent, refusing to speak, as we put our coats on.

“Talk to me”, she kept saying, begging, pleading, “please, just talk to me.  Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Then we were outside.  The air was cold and crisp.  The streets were nearly empty now. Everything was a smooth and pure blanket of white.   “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was playing through the speakers.   The wind had picked up and would gust and stop.

We turned down 57th street, into the wind.  She was still pleading with me to talk to her, and she kept saying she was sorry.   A strong gust blew into our faces as she said, “please, don’t treat me like this.”  The wind was cold and icy.  I felt it fill my lungs and I felt my arm rise up, and then I saw, in the street light’s glow, on the silent and white blanket at my feet, three small red circles.   I don’t know how long I stood there, cold and frozen and motionless, staring at the three red circles, but when I looked up she was gone.   I looked down again, and even though the snow and wind had covered up the three red dots, I could still see them, and I see them now, all these years later, whenever I see a fresh blanket of snow under the glow of downtown streetlights.

Food For Thought

(This is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote for my memoirs project a couple of years ago about some of the more memorable meals I’ve experienced – doesn’t look like it is going to make the cut, but it seems to be in the spirit of the season)

Probably the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had was the Thanksgiving of 1978.  I was already living up north, and Dad wasn’t going to be up until the Friday after Thanksgiving, so Don came up on Wednesday night.  I met him at the trailer that Thanksgiving morning, and we hunted all day, and then in the evening, Don, in a testament to his skills as a cook, with only a wood burning stove and cheap electric hot plates to work with, prepared the greatest meal I’ve ever experienced.  I don’t even remember everything we had, I just know he had apparently gone to the store with a plan in mind and executed it brilliantly.  There were several main courses, I remember there being spaghetti, I think ham, there were green beans, and a whole package of dinner rolls, heated and browned to perfection on the wood stove.  As we ate, on my little black and white portable rabbit-eared television, on channel 13 from Eau Claire, the only channel we could get in, Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers was destroying the Dallas Cowboys in one of the all-time great Thanksgiving games.   The whole episode was one of those moments when all is perfect in the world, the heat from the wood stove warming up the damp chill in our bones from a hard day of hunting, the warm food replacing the dull ache in our stomachs with a contented fullness, and in the background, football.

Then there was the meal, maybe the following year, I don’t recall exactly when, that my Dad, Don and I all slept through.  It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, a sunny and cold day, not a cloud in the sky.  After finishing lunch, Don dropped my Dad and I off  at the east end of the 80 acres of Schultz’s woods where we used to do the majority of our deer hunting, and then took the truck to the swampy Mudbrook country that bordered the west end of the same property.  None of us saw any deer that afternoon, and my Dad and I met up at about 4:30, shortly before legal shooting hours for the day ended and about  a half hour before the sun went down and the winter darkness would overcome the still clear bright sky.  There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground as we walked out of the northern edge of the woods and through the farm fields that lay between us and the trailer.  As we crossed the fields, the wind kicked up out of the north, slapping us in the face, and the temperature, which had been in the mid twenties all day, almost instantly dropped to zero.  To this day it is the fastest and most extreme drop in temperature I’ve ever experienced, and the walk from the woods to the trailer, across three different fields, never felt so far or cold

My Dad and I finally made our way back to the trailer, and we started a fire in the wood burning stove.  It was about this time Don came back with the truck.  We were all jolted by the cold, and stood in our hunting clothes close to the stove, waiting for heat, when my Dad remembered that he had a small bottle of Yukon Jack whiskey with him.  It’s the only time I remember hard liquor ever being a part of our hunting season (normally, there was lots of beer).  It was bad, rotgut stuff, but it was warm, it warmed our insides as it went down.  As the fire warmed up, we found what remained of the ham we had for dinner the previous night and a loaf of bread.  We’d slice off chunks of the ham and throw them on the stove.  The three of us remained huddled around the stove, eating ham sandwiches and passing the Yukon Jack around, shedding off layers of hunting clothes as the fire gained heat, until both the ham and the whiskey were completely consumed.   It was at this point, dark and bitterly cold outside, that we remembered we were due at my maternal grandmother’s house in Ladysmith for dinner that night.  One of us went out and started the truck, and, after waiting long enough for it to get warm, we climbed in.

When we got to my Grandmother’s house, we were greeted by a table full of food and waves of heat as my Grandmother, and her 2nd husband Gordon, maintained the thermostat in their house at somewhere close to 85 degrees year- round.  We sat down, my Dad in a comfortable chair, and my brother and I on a soft and comfortable couch, across from my Grandmother and Gordon, who as usual could barely conceal their glee in seeing us.  Minutes later, after sitting down in the warm comfort of my Grandmother’s living room, and after a day of being in the cold and harsh elements, and after consuming a bottle of Yukon Jack and countless hot ham sandwiches, all three of us were asleep – as in sound asleep.  You could hear my Dad snoring.  About an hour later, we all woke up enough to realize it was getting late, that we’d better get back to the trailer.   In the still foggy cloud of heat and ham and alcohol, we managed to say goodbye to my Grandmother and Gordon, somehow excusing our not eating, and climbed back in the truck, turned on the defrosters, and headed south down Highway 27.  Don was driving, it was starting to snow out, but all three of us remained groggy.  I, in the middle, and my Dad, to the right, quickly fell asleep, and so did Don, the driver, although he managed to wake himself several times just as we were veering off the highway into the dark oblivion.  We somehow managed to make it back to the trailer, where we slept soundly; not realizing until the next day how much our sleeping visit must have disappointed my Grandmother. 

My Grandmother, Ethel Scrivner, was the classic Grandmother; sweet and immense, she was at this time in her late seventies.  She had had a difficult life, with her first husband, my Grandfather, walking out on her and their four small children in the early 1930s, leaving her alone and broke during the height of the great depression.  She somehow managed, though, cleaning office buildings and whatever other work she could find, eking out a living and providing a home (or rather homes, as they lived in a variety of houses in Ladysmith that were sometimes barely above shack classification) for my Mother and her three brothers.  In the mid 1960s when she was also in her mid 60s, she met a widower from near Green Bay named Gordon Booth, a sweet and lively old man who was constant motion – it was in adults describing him that I learned the adjective “spry” – for some reason, a word you never hear associated with young people.  He was a kind old man who looked out for her and, after a hard lifetime of work and poverty and being overweight had left her aching and arthritic, Gordon and his doting ways were just what she needed and deserved.  More than 30 years after abandoning her and his family, my Grandfather, living in Iowa at the time, mailed the papers granting Ethel her divorce, allowing her and Gordon to be married.

Gordon was a simple man who, prior to meeting my Grandmother had spent many years taking care of his fatally ill first wife until her death.   They had no children of their own, so when he married my Grandma, he inherited four adult children and by my count 12 grandchildren.  He was simple and unsophisticated in his views of the world, but his capacity for kindness and caring remains unsurpassed in my experience.  He lived, to put it simply, to care for others, his first wife for all those years, and then, in the last twenty five years of their lives, he lived to care for my Grandmother.  My Grandmother was the first to die, in 1989, and the image I’ll never forget from her funeral is at the cemetery, the sight of Gordon sitting and watching from the front seat of the hearse, his lungs not healthy enough to withstand the cold spring air.  He watched as me and my brothers and my cousins carried my Grandmother’s casket to her grave, his gray face through the car window sad and small and burdened with the weight of heartbreak and loneliness.  It would be only a mercifully short few months later that Gordon, with no one left to take care of, would also die.

For a time, in the late 70s, in the lonely bachelor days when I lived in Ladysmith, I’d drive across the railroad tracks to their small house on Corbett Avenue and enjoy Sunday dinner with them.  I’d get there in the late afternoon and as my Grandma would be putting the finishing touches on the multi-course meal, I’d take Gordon, who had already given up on driving, to the IGA so he could get their weekly grocery shopping done.  He loved getting out of the house, and he was proud to be seen with me, and the feeling was infectious, as I was proud to take him.   No sooner that I’d  park the car than Gordon, like a bullet shot out of a gun, would be on his way through the parking lot, walking that frenetic leaning forward walk of his, as if his feet were having trouble keeping up with his torso.  Once inside he’d get a cart and, his hands extended face level on the handle, frantically push it down the aisle like a man possessed, grinning from ear to ear, thrilled to be out of the house and on a mission. 

When he was done, we’d load up the bags and return to their house.  I’d reach in and take out the items one by one and hand them to Gordon, who knew exactly where in the cupboards everything belonged.  The stove would be hot with the few remaining pans simmering, and the table would be set and waiting for us, with my Grandma’s wonderful main courses steaming in the early evening sunlight.   Finally we’d sit and eat, and for me, it was heaven, a weekly home-cooked masterpiece that never disappointed.  As we ate, my Grandma would tell me stories about my Mother, how she loved mashed potatoes when she was a child, or about the first time she brought my Father home to meet her.   “Oh, he was so gorgeous”, she’d marvel.  “I told her, don’t you let this one get away – oh, was he gorgeous.

I’d stuff myself with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, dinner rolls.  “You want any more, Davey?” Gordon would ask, and I’d answer no, I have to save some room for dessert, at which point Grandma would beam, proud as she was of the pies and cakes and cookies she always had waiting for me.   After thoroughly stuffing myself, Grandma and I would retire to the living room and watch television, Gordon joining us after clearing the table.  Grandma and Gordon each had their own chairs, and I’d sit on the couch in the tiny living room of their tiny house.  We’d sit and quietly watch T.V, whatever show came on; they weren’t the most discerning of viewers.  There wasn’t a lot of talking, there was instead a satisfied comfort, for me the satisfaction that comes from a wonderful home-cooked meal, for them, the satisfaction of opening up their home to family, a chance for them to play roles that in their distant memory they played every evening, when family was real and close and immediate, when they mattered, when they were needed.

Finally, after the evening sky grew dark, I’d get up and leave, thanking them profusely for the evening, and saying, yes, I’d be happy to come back next Sunday in answer to their inevitable questioning.   Then, after saying the final goodbyes, I’d get in my car as Grandma stood in the front door. I’d return her solitary wave of the hand, and pull out into the darkness as she shut the door.  I remember how cold the night always felt, mainly because my Grandma and Gordon ran the furnace in their house year round.  As I’d return to my darkened apartment, the satisfying fullness from the meal would slowly fade and be replaced by a melancholy ache.  I missed my family.