Monday, July 11, 2016

sense of humor

The little Indian boy shyly approached his father, the Chief of the tribe, to ask him a question.

"Father, I have always wondered how the people of our tribe get their names," the little Indian boy muttered, embarrassed to ask such a simple question of the great Chief, his father, but he just had to know the answer.

The great Chief, however, was more than willing to answer the boy's question explaining to his son that asking questions was one of the important ways to learn the traditions of his tribe.  

He explained to the boy, "It's really quite simple my son," the great Chief, the boy's farther said in his most pontificating voice.  "When the mother has given birth and the baby has successfully entered our world, the midwife bursts out of the birthing teepee to shout the happy news to all the tribe's people, and names the new baby after the first thing she sees after stepping through the teepee's flap. And so when your brother was born, the first thing the midwife saw as she came out of the teepee was an eagle soaring high in the sky, and so your brother was named Soaring Eagle.  When your sister was born, the first thing the midwife saw was a deer running across the meadow, and so your sister was named Running Deer."

The little Indian boy, the Chief's son, thought about the answer his father had given in explanation, then slowly turned with a sad expression on is face, and shuffled away from the great Chief's presence, not hearing his father ask, "But why do you ask, Two Fucking Dogs?" 

So all right, if you want to make my favorite joke politically correct so as not to offend anyone, substitute Native American wherever necessary. 

For some odd reason this is my favorite joke of all time.  It is also the only joke I can remember.  
I am not one of those guys who has a repertoire of jokes suitable for any occasion, that can be pulled out of memory for the amusement of all within earshot.  I do enjoy the jokes when someone else tells them.  I'm an easy audience. I will laugh long and hard at most any reasonably humorous joke, story, or situation. Just don't ask me to repeat the joke at any time.
I will not remember it.  Five minutes after hearing the joke, I will have totally erased it from my memory, and will look at you with a confused expression when you ask me to tell that joke to the latecomers to the laugh fest. 

"What joke," I'm likely to ask, not just forgetting the joke, but forgetting that there even was joke sometime in my recent past. You are probably thinking, "that guy must have a lousy sense of humor," but you would be wrong.

I actually have a great appreciation for humor in almost all it's iterations. Some kinds of humor ring the bell for me more readily than others.  I love irony, one liners, risqué, dry, droll, cerebral, deadpan, farcical, dirty (but not too), self deprecating, gallows, satire, offensive (both mildly and disgustingly), highbrow, humorist's stories, and of course, the ever popular pun. And anytime you can squeeze a limerick into the conversation you will have my full attention.  I'm sure there are other forms that I can't call forth right now, but you get the idea.  I love to laugh and will respond appropriately to almost any attempt to amuse me. 

There are a few forms of humor that I don't find particularly enjoyable for different reasons. Slapstick comedy leaves me cold, probably because it always seems to involve someone hurting someone, or getting hurt himself. Watching some doofus slip on a banana peel and take a header into the cement sidewalk is just not funny to me. I just don't like any kind of violence, whether it is meant to be funny or not. Needless to say, I am not a fan of the Three Stooges.  We are better than that.  I am better than that.

A close second on the unfunny list is the sophomoric drivel that teenage boys find so enchanting. Any movie that has Will Ferrell, Jim Carry, or Chevy Chase in it is automatically sophomoric. I can't remember ever feeling even the slightest twinge of a smile forming on my face on the rare occasion that I found myself trapped in a situation that forced me to actually watch a movie that had Will Ferrell featured in it. Beware any other movie that is aimed at the sophomores among us.  

Ethnic humor can balance on the high wire over the pit which is filled with the skeletons of jokes past that slipped into the not-so-subtle bigotry that we all deny.  Ethnic humor is often meant to perpetuate a false stereotype and to demean and insult the butt of the joke.  Using phony accents and destroying the English language are typical ways of getting a cheap laugh at the expense of the victim. I often wonder when I've just heard an ethnic joke, whether the Pole or Italian, or Mexican or any other alien who had the misfortune to be in attendance when the shameless lout, who uproariously denigrated their heritage and honor with his vast array of insensitive crap, might have a store of American jokes at hand for rebuttals to the insensitive lout's claptrap.  Yes, I've laughed at my share of Polish jokes and dumb blonde jokes and dumb blonde Polish jokes. But I was young and stupid and peer pressure is a powerful thing. 

We all have a sense of humor. Some of us have a more refined sense of humor than others, but no matter how sophisticated you may be, or think you are, you will find something to laugh about/at. Humor is all around us just begging to bump our funny bones. What do we laugh at?  Our collective sense of humor has evolved over the years to keep up with the audience in attendance.  Some humor will change and become more acceptable as time goes by. Someone (probably a humorist) once said that "tragedy plus time equals funny." So it is ok to laugh at "other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" because after 150 years, the tragedy that the joke is alluding to has dimmed sufficiently that we don't feel guilty laughing at it.  However, the similar joke, "other than that, Mrs Kennedy, how did you enjoy the ride?" Is still too close in our memory to be laughable.  Someday it, too, will elicit, first a smile, then a quiet snicker while looking around to see how everyone else is reacting, then a full blown guffaw sans guilt.  It's time will have arrived to join the party. Those last two jokes could also fall into the offensive category if we are overly sensitive. However, a really good (bad?) offensive joke might go like this:  "they say there is safety in numbers.  Tell that to 6 million Jews. Or this one is so offensive that I laugh at my own latent stupidity for laughing at it:  "99 per cent of women kiss with their eyes closed. That's why it's so hard to identify a rapist." You certainly would think twice, or maybe three times, before telling that one at a feminist convention, or telling it at all. Those two jokes cross several lines of offensive "humor," yet I bet you're snickering quietly while trying not to laugh out loud, and risk be labeled an insensitive, humorless cretin. Funny is funny.

Our collective sense of humor as a society has always developed along with the social mores that naturally develop as a society grows into its skin.  We have progressed from the pithy observations of the typical burlesque show that featured everything from dancing dogs and the   crudest slapstick skits and stories, to those polished performers, the humorists, like Mark Twain and a generation later, Will Rogers, who were both considered the preeminent humorist of his time. They both told stories that tweaked the character of a our society and made us laugh at ourselves despite the awkward feeling we got when the truth hit too close to home. But the realization that we could laugh at ourselves greased the wheels of the show wagon that made the current humorists, the standup comedians, who are direct descendants of those humorists, celebrities.  Burlesque was the circus wagon, and the quips and comments of our storytellers were the confections tossed to the people watching along the parade route.   

And while the burlesque performers kept the stories "clean" so as not to offend the sensibilities of the usually conservative audience, their acts contained many double entendres to keep it interesting for the less sensitive ears of the audience.  Crude or vulgar language was kept to a minimum, allowing the listeners to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.  I can't help thinking that today's humorists, in the form of the standup comic, are overcompensating for their forebearers' conservatism and so spend more time on stage trying to find new and novel ways of using the  "F word" in all its various, (and sometimes funny) iterations to tell their stories and get the cheap laugh instead of digging a little deeper and coming up with a more suitable, and generally more funny substitute. Can you imagine someone like Ogden Nash, with his rather cerebral commentary on the human condition (although he is best known for his light verse and doggerel), using or even knowing the words that are so vulgar and rude and bandied about incessantly by today's stand up comics?  His pithy little verse,

Candy's dandy,
But liquor's quicker.

would never have passed into the comic lexicon if he had tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator among us by writing instead,

Candy's dandy
But sex won't rot your teeth.

That second example might appeal to, and be funnier to the basest among us, than the first example, but in losing the more innocent listener to the clutches of rude thought and language,
he would have lowered the rather high standard of comic commentary that prevailed at the time and perhaps would have changed the course of American humor.

With the advent of television and its incursion into our homes, there came a new form of humor that reached millions of homes every day and consequently had a profound affect on what was laughable.  The sitcom and variety show were born, perhaps the offspring of the Greek Goddess Baubo, sounding the death knell for burlesque. Television provided a great stage for the funny stories that were born in burlesque houses. The significant difference between the old and new forms of comedy (burlesque and the TV variety show) was the size of the audience that was reached by them.  A burlesque show might draw a few hundred people who bought tickets and made the effort to get to the theater to be entertained.  A TV variety show (think Ed Sullivan), would be seen by millions just because it was there at the right time. And the show was free.

The Ed Sullivan show was the closest TV got to the old burlesque shows. While every Ed Sullivan show featured a comedian, it was not strictly a comedy show. That TV genre was the the bailiwick of comedy shows like The Carol Burnett show with its troop of players who gave new meaning to the word "funny."  I single out that particular variety show because even now, when I see reruns of episodes, I laugh just as hard at the antics of the cast, and perhaps even laugh harder at times since I can anticipate the "punch line" of the gag, the skit, the joke.  The Carol Burnett show also gave exposure to someone I consider one of the funniest "physical" comics of all time, Tim Conway. I start to laugh every time I am reminded of one of his hysterical acts (his skit as a dentist trying to give a patient a shot of Novocaine is a classic) and how even the other cast members couldn't keep a straight face once Tim got on a roll. Without the opportunity to perform that the variety show provided, we might never have heard of Tim Conway and had a the roll-on the floor, stomach ache inducing, tears running down our cheeks, bout of laughter that he gave us and we so enjoyed.

Humor an be found anywhere and everywhere.  To some, the more raunchy types of humor can produce outrage at the language used.  Censorship by the morality police has tried to solve the problem of inappropriate vocabulary to protect the public against the breech of morality, but censorship is almost always a slippery slope down which the censor must negotiate the slalom course of constitutional mandated free speech and the chauvinistic morality practiced by the censor. 

For so many years the TV censors wielded an unyielding heavy fist to beat down any words or acts that might offend anyone who has the most narrow interpretation of humor.  George Carlin, the brilliant standup comedian, helped to revolutionize the way we listen to and accept humor.  His brilliant word play brought out the absurdity of censorship. He wielded his interpretation of words like a sword ready to do battle with the narrow minded among us. His most famous knock down of the absurdity of censorship was his list of the seven words that we could never say on TV.  (For informational purposes only, those seven words are "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits) He was arrested in Milwaukee after he did his standup act which included those seven words (find it on YouTube). That arrest was probably the greatest boost to his career, bringing with it the publicity that brought that list to the wider public's attention. As a result of Carlin's crusade, we no longer think twice about the words used by comedians during their acts.  They now shout the infamous seven, and many others of the same ilk, with impunity, knowing that their audience will react because the joke they tell is funny, and damn the vocabulary. 

With the bombardment of entertainment available today, the only censorship possible is self-censorship. You know that doesn't work when you hear those raunchy jokes repeated on the playground during 4th grade recess.  Kids today can't avoid hearing, and learning, a vocabulary that, when we were growing up, would have shocked a longshoreman. But remember that language is ever evolving, and what was shocking to us is commonplace today and what is shocking today will be become part of common usage by the weekend, such is the power of communication in this digital age.

Another classic example of words being used to shock and get a laugh at the same time is the bit on Saturday Night Live that featured the incomparable Richard Pryor being interviewed by Chevy Chase for a job. You have to see it to appreciate how words can escalate a situation from  
the benign to a murderous rage and still be funny. Satirizing racism is a tough assignment, but such was Pryor's comedic genius that we ended up laughing at ourselves while being skewered and shamed all the while.

There are so many comics out there today that everyone can have a favorite of their own, depending on the type of spoken humor that moves them to happy tears. With no subject too outrageous, no words taboo, there is something for everyone to laugh at.  I think the acceptance of women into the world of standup comedy has opened a whole new map of the humor landscape. When you hear the female comedian spouting the  “f” word with the impunity of a marine drill sergeant , you know that feminism has made long leap forward.  And for the better I might add.  Nowadays it doesn’t matter who is making you laugh, as long as you keep on laughing. Believe me, I would rather laugh at the most crude, insensitive, raunchy, off-color, racial claptrap than have my entertainment censored by some backward thinking prude, who thinks he knows what is best for me.  Like George Carlin, I would prefer to spend the night in jail for uttering a naughty word than cowtow to the devil that is censorship.

So keep laughing.  You may have to get your fresh jokes and humorous material from someone else if , like me, you can’t remember a joke from one minute to the next. If all you remember is the good feeling you had a few minutes ago because you laughed at something someone said or did or read, that is enough to keep your sense of humor alive and well.  Remember, you can’t be sad and laugh at the same time; you can’t be mean and laugh at the same time; you can’t commit acts of violence while you are laughing, and you can’t be someone you aren’t when you laugh at yourself.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Shady Shades

I am usually a reliable handyman.  I can fix most of the typical household booboos that we all have to deal with.  When all is said and done, I'm the guy you want around the house when something needs to be fixed. Trust me. When I take on a job, you are going to get a job well done, not the second coming of Tim Allen.

Also, I am quick.  I hate procrastination.  When something is broken, I want to fix it NOW.  I am  not a patient man. And as a bonus, I will have a good chance of having just the right repair part on hand in my workshop.  I never throw anything out.  I always save bits and pieces of everything that crosses my workbench. You never know when that little funny shaped piece of metal or plastic will come in handy.  But there are occasions when even I find it necessary to order a part from the manufacturer, because the part needed is so specialized that even I, with  all my skills and expertise, with all my design ability and inventiveness, must bite the bullet and not let having to order a part test my manhood and jeopardize my place in the Mr. Fixit Association.

The previous two paragraphs are actually an introduction to the last home repair fix up job that the boss added to my list of chores (a list that, by some voodoo magic, never gets shorter). At least I wasn't the cause of the problem.  Honestly, I was all the way in the kitchen sneaking a cookie when she pulled the shade down, breaking the hanging bracket that was holding the  shade in place.  By the sound of it, you would have thought that Armageddon was nigh. The general racket that overlaid the distinct thud of gravity putting an end to the shade falling on the table below and knocking over the lamp which then crashed on the floor, was nearly drowned out by the surprising shriek that spewed from her surprised mouth accompanied by some wonderfully colorful language that would make a longshoreman blush. (You never really know your spouse until she gets the chance to show how inventive her cursing can be.)

You would think that just replacing a hanging bracket so you can rehang the shade is one of the simpler tasks that any Mr. Fixit would have to do.  Most of us who claim to have the skills to claim the Mr. Fixit title, could probably perform the installation one handed with our eyes closed.
But don't ever assume that any job is going to go smoothly by default.  There are too many ways that the imps of mayhem can screw you when you least expect it.  This new bracket replacement proved to be the repair job that nearly took me down, replacing my arrogance with  a good dose of humility.

It all began to go sideways when, after a close inspection, I determined that the best way to  proceed was to give up the idea of making my own replacement part and order the bracket from Hunter Douglas, the maker of the injured shade. One of my few shortcomings is the inability to understand the Internet and how everyone else in the world but me has no problem with it.  So I turned the online research and probable purchase over to my personal assistant/secretary/office manager/purchasing agent/financial manager/editor/critic/boss/ wife and lover.  She did her thing with that electronic box that sits on the desk gathering dust, and found almost instantly,the requisite replacement bracket for the Hunter Douglas Silhouette shade that we were dealing with. So far so good, right?  Now it gets going faster sideways.  We would have to wait approximately two, ( count 'em, two) weeks for them to arrive. Apparently the good folks at Hunter Douglas don't have the infrastructure to handle such a demanding order (maybe they don't understand the Internet either). I have difficult time understanding how it can take so long for something as little, simple, and on hand in the warehouse to get from there to here. When Mary buys anything online, the package is on the back stoop almost before she is done ordering. But we were at the mercy of Mr. Hunter and Mr. Douglas ( the company name would be Douglas Hunter if he had won the coin toss), and had no choice but to order their brackets for their shade which I wanted to hang again in my window. What do you think two little plastic pieces of molded plastic cost?  Or maybe I should ask, "what are you willing to pay for two little pieces of molded plastic?"  Would you pay a couple bucks?  How about a fiver?  Would you spring for that much? Under the circumstances I was willing to go five or six bucks.  The shysters who had all the power in this debate decided that $9.99 a pair would suit them nicely. Plus shipping. Don't you just love it when someone blind sides you with an outrages price and you have no way to retaliate? I felt used.  I mentioned earlier that I am not a patient man.  So waiting two weeks to receive those parts was a real test of my ability to wait to get something done.  I wanted it all to be fixed and back to normal NOW. Everyday I would have to walk past that unshaded window and feel another stab in my psyche. The fact that it was costing me most of my weekly allowance was just rubbing it in.

Well, the hangers finally arrived.  In a petulant state at being so abused by the whole transaction, I refused to open the box until after dinner that evening. Ok, so it wasn't much of a statement since the box arrived at 5:00 PM and we eat our evening meal at 5:30 PM. But at least I made my point. Once the box was opened and the contents examined, I realized that I knew how the Hunter Douglas company made a profit in their business.  They say that the one bracket package costs $9.99.  What they don't tell you is that each pack holds a pair of brackets.  As in two brackets in each pack. Mary assumed we would need two packs, each with one bracket inside, so we would be able to hang the shade with matching hangers. So now we had 4 brackets at a cost of $19.98.  Plus shipping. Plus tax. Those clever shade makers were shady in their dealings. Now I not only felt abused by doing business with those two named Hunter and Douglas, but I could feel a stiff breeze blowing out of the newly reamed hole they provided for me that should take care of the constipation that chronically plagues me.

But back to the simple job of replacing a shade hanging bracket.  Finally with bracket in hand, I was able to study the part up close to determine my next step.  The only problem with having the bracket in hand to study it, was that I had to hold it in hand to study it, because  those wacky guys who made the bracket assumed that the part was so simple and so easy to understand and install that they felt no instruction sheet was necessary, nor was one provided. I hate to admit that I was flummoxed by that little plastic piece.  For the life of me, I could not understand how the hanger was supposed to relate to the shade and how the bracket needed to be placed so that the result would be a shade hung from the top window frame, ready to be released by the cords that hung alongside it, thus fulfilling its stated purpose. I turned it upside down. No that wouldn't work.  I even tried to get it to do its job sideways, but that was just stupid. I tried to get it to cooperate by whispering sweet endearments to it while caressing it as a lover would, but that just embarrassed me when Mary caught me licking it behind the flange that seemed to play an important role in the successful application of the bracket. When all that TLC failed to provide the desired effect, I switched to the opposite approach and began my bad cop routine, hoping to scare the shit out of my little plastic adversary.  I cursed at it, called it nasty names, impugned its history, questioned its ancestry, threatened to melt all its siblings over a candle flame, got right up in its face, spewing my spittle at what I imagined was its eye.  I slowly turned away from it, then snapped back suddenly hoping to catch it making funny faces at me, ridiculing my inept attempts at unlocking its secret. Then just as I was about to fling it across the room, hoping to shatter it against the wall into a million useless pieces (remember, I had extras on hand), I had an epiphany.  The proverbial light bulb above my head flashed brightly, while a sigh of relief calmed my soul. I figured it out just before my standing in the Mr. Fixit hierarchy was threatening to slide into oblivion.

I set about placing the brackets in position only to find Mother Nature interfering with my efforts.  You see, I had waited too long to get the job started. The west facing window I was working on was directly in the glare off the setting sun.  I was blinded by the light. Now that I had finally gotten ready to finish the now two week old project that had tested my patience, I was stymied by the sunshine. But I felt so relieved that I had solved the puzzle and validated my creds as a
handyman, that I didn't mind waiting a little bit longer. Patience is indeed a virtue.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


I have never felt so lethargic in my life.  I just can't seem to get going with anything.  I have a long list of things that I want to do, yet there seems to be no urgency to getting them done. Mary has been feeling the same way. The two of us have been sniping at each other one moment, and the next moment we will be hugging and trying to hold back the sobs that have been so frequent for the past ten days. Mary loved Rich as much as I did, and we are both trying to figure out what comes next.

We have lost loved ones before: our parents and grandparents are all deceased, Mary's brother, our next door neighbors, who were dear friends to us and wonderful grandparents to our two kids, and others that weren't necessarily as close as family members, but for whom we still grieved. Death is not discriminatory.  It will take us all sooner or later.  Rich's death just fell into the sooner column where we didn't expect to see it yet.

Rich is still affecting us as if he was still part of the conversation.  The current subject would have brought out the best of his verbal skills. Because, you see, the subject is God, His existence, and whether or not He has a hand in everything that happens to us or what we do. Rich and I spent our high school years together in the seminary, so I know he believed in a deity of some kind that had something to do with our very essence. I think though that he had, like I did,  a crisis of faith as he got older. He was no longer the devout Catholic that had brought him to the seminary. I wasn't the same either. Neither of us was ready to dismiss the existence of a higher power.  Just what that higher power was and did was the question that vexed us.

I know Rich wrestled with the very concept of "God" because we talked about that concept many times during our years of lunches together. Rich would never dismiss you if you disagreed with him, but would embrace your ideas and give them the respect and reflection they deserved.  That's what he did when I had a return to faith last year when Mary was so sick.  I found myself praying more and more to my God and seeking solace in the understanding that He was making it possible for me to return to faith on my terms.  When I told Rich that I was attending mass again and that I had, dare I say it, a "born again feeling," he didn't dismiss me out of hand, but was truly interested in how I arrived at this stage in my life.

Mary's concept of God is more mainstream and questioning.  She has an unshakeable faith in God, but just can't understand why He allows all the bad stuff to happen if He is the loving, beneficent God we think he should be. She wants an explanation for all the evil and sickness that we have to suffer through.  When she asks me for answers all I can say is "it's God's will."
That's the best I can do.  It is like we are all game pieces that get moved around the game board while we play the game of "Life."  We all take turns rolling the dice and moving our piece to the indicated place on the board.  The places we can land on determine what our lives will be like. If you are unlucky and land on the colon cancer place, too bad. You got it. Land on the clinical depression spot and you will spend your life depressed. All the diseases we know of are represented on the game board, so you have good odds of suffering sometime during your existence.  Of course if you are lucky, you will land on the "You just won the lottery" place and spend your life living it up and not worrying about the cost.  Or you could land on "you will have a loving wife or husband" place and have a fifty year marriage with a life full of family happiness.

The point is that whether there is or isn't a God we an all agree on, there will always be human suffering, human happiness, human confusion, human disagreements, human expectations of your God, misinterpretations of the so-called word of God, which will lead to wars and more human suffering.  That beneficent God is just trying to stay out of the way so we can use the extraordinary gift of "free will" that He gave us.  All the mayhem and all the sickness, all the killing by lunatics with assault weapons, all the genocide by people who are just like the people they are trying to eradicate, all the thieves who disguise themselves as bankers and fund managers who steal our money, all the alcoholics who drive their cars while impaired, killing our children, all the liars and backstabbers who spread vicious rumors that can cause the ruination of the innocent, all the drug pushers that turn decent people into addicts just for the money they can make selling their poison, are all just mankind doing its best to screw up the chance to live the moral and ethical life that God hoped for when he made us in his image.

All these are the result of mankind using the "free will" that God granted us. I wonder if He ever sits back on His throne, surrounded by angels, and seriously considers pulling the plug on His creation. That mankind could screw up such a wonderful gift from God has to make Him wonder why He bothered to create us in the first place.

While we haven't reached any solid conclusions in this argument, I can hear Rich in the background chortling at some of the more outrageous ideas that spew forth from mouths that should stay shut.  That he would have a lot to say on the subject is a given, but he would never force anyone to agree with him. The more disquieting the question, the deeper he would plunge into the fray, eyes twinkling in delight at the opportunity to display his logical and erudite debating skills.  The quiet force of his intelligence melded with his sense of humor and presented in his rasping voice, won him many arguments when others would have given up the fight in frustration. I lost many an argument to him and got quite an education in the process. But I had my share of wins, too, which he readily acknowledged, delighted that he had the opportunity to enjoy another lively conversation.

How can I ever replace those conversations and my continuing education now that Rich is no longer sitting on the other side of the table? And when will I snap out of this lethargy that I find so debilitating? Grieving for a lost friend includes grieving for the chances lost that can't become memories. I know Rich would want me to get on with it and stop all this mourning and grieving. Time is being wasted by the display of emotion, he would say. But I still need more time to adjust to the new reality in my life. Mary may never give up mourning him, and that would upset him even more.  Rich, old friend, we are doing our best to get beyond the grief that has taken over a part of our lives, but we will never forget you, the reason we are in this emotional predicament.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016


It was just last Friday that we talked to each other. Typical of him, he called me knowing that my schedule on every other Friday would have me probably headed for home after having lunch after my 11:00 appointment.  I struggled to get my phone out of my pocket, but eventually it gave up the fight and I was able to answer before he hung up.

"Hey, Bob how are you?  Are you feeling  good today?"  These were always the first words out of his mouth when he called me.  If I called him, Rich would respond with the those same words because he genuinely wanted to know how I was doing.

Then he said, "I figured by now, after your appointment at 11:00, you would have finished having lunch and you'd be parked in front of Mary's favorite store, waiting in the car while she did some shopping."

"You can't be serious." I shouldn't have been surprised by his remark because he knows my schedule better than I do. "I'm sitting in the exact same parking spot while Mary is in the same store shopping just like I was two weeks ago when you called me.  Sometimes you scare me."
But that was typical Rich.  He always seemed to know what was going on and where I would be at any given time.  He even reminded me when Mary's birthday was coming up so I wouldn't forget it and get in trouble with her. He also knew all the birthdays of my 3 grandkids.  He never forgot a number once he got it in his head.  Birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers: he never forgot any of them. His amazing memory allowed him to recite the starting lineups of the Packers first two Super Bowl teams.  He could recall specific plays from any game you asked about, whether it was Packers, Brewers, and even the Cubs, who for some reason he was drawn to.

Our phone conversation last Friday, though, was my chance to ask him how he was feeling.  For the past two months he had been in and out of the hospital several times suffering from an infection of the colon called "c diff," which left him very sick and weak. Worst of all, he had to go it alone because c diff is very contagious and he wouldn't allow anyone near him lest they get infected.  In the hospital he was in isolation with the staff who cared for him having to wear sterile scrubs whenever they entered his room. Naturally I was worried about him being alone with no one to help him.  I could do nothing for him during his illness.  I couldn't run the risk of infection since my immune system is already compromised by PD.  So I was limited to supporting him with phone calls and texts.  That's why I was happy that he called me on Friday.  That meant that he must have been feeling good that day.  He sounded upbeat and normal. We both figured that was a good sign, that maybe the latest medicine he was taking was winning the battle. Rich was confident that he was on the way to recovery.

"I just want my life back." That was his wish everyday.  That was my wish for him, too. Since he was alone with no help at home, he contracted with the home health care service to help him.  He had an appointment with them for 8:00 AM on Monday morning.  When the health care nurse arrived Monday morning, she found him lying in his recliner. He was dead.  He had passed away sometime during the night, peaceably with no sign of distress. His body just had had enough and had given up the fight.

My God, I am going to miss him. I don't know that I will ever be able to fill the gaping void his death created, or climb out of the endless black hole that he left behind.  For 54 years he had been a part of my life. We didn't always agree on everything, but we had a wonderful time disagreeing. Most of all I want to thank you for the fine example of how to live a life honorably and morally right, without compromise or even the hint of hypocrisy.

I could write a hundred pages about all the interesting things that went on between us, by us for us and despite of us, but that would only serve to add emphasis to our strong friendship. It doesn't need more emphasis.  Our friendship was a God given gift that we made the most of and I will never forget HOW we made the most of the opportunity that God gave us.  So goodbye old friend.  I will see you soon enough, so we can continue on doing it all again.

My friend

Have you ever known someone who was so tuned into you that it seemed like he could read your mind? I mean really get into your head?

Have you ever known someone was so pure in his intentions that his life was lived fully through his caring for others?

Have you ever known someone who could and would laugh at himself first so you wouldn't feel foolish for something you did or said?

Have you ever known someone whose whole body would convulse and shake with uncontrollable laughter, his eyes squinting to hold in the tears, that was so contagious that you'd be smiling at the memory of his laugh, but not remembering what caused it?

Have you ever known someone who would unfailingly put your interests first, dropping whatever he was doing so he could help you out?

Have you ever known someone you could confide in, telling him your worries and fears, your dreams and hopes, knowing that he would hold that confidence close and respect your willingness to share those burdens and triumphs?

Have you ever known someone who was so generous in spirit that you soul felt newly
inflated whenever you were with him?

I have.  My best friend, my confidant, my anchor and my wings, my partner in life's battles, Rich was the one person who embodied all those attributes and more.  My God, how I will miss him!
How will I ever bridge the gaping chasm his death has laid in my path?  How will I fill the endless black hole that his passing created in my life?

RIP.  Rich (6/6/16).   I will never forget the many joys we shared and the many celebrations of family for the past 54 years.  Having you as my friend was truly a God given gift.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Never forget

I never made use the opportunity to prove my patriotism and risk my life for my country.  Coming of age during the Vietnam era meant making some difficult choices for all of us who were ripe for the picking. The first draft lottery was held during my senior year in college and I had the bad luck in that lottery to draw a low number. A low number was the kiss of death.  A low number meant your odds of being drafted into the army, and ultimately sent to Vietnam, were heavily in the army's favor.  My number was 88. They passed that number by mid February.

For the remainder of my senior year, everything I did or thought was influenced by my draft status. Plans were made and rejected, then made again when a new idea crawled into the void left by the previous untenable plan. It was a time of anxious uncertainty. On the one hand I wanted to run away and not be found until that stupid war was over.  On the other hand I wanted to prove my patriotism and serve the country that I truly love.  But I just couldn't get past the fear of being sent to a war zone on the other side of the world, risking my life for an unjust cause that was decimating my generation. I knew a few young men who went there and met that fearsome horrible fate that sent them home lifeless, bringing tragedy and sorrow, mournful questions and disbelief, and family emptiness and anger as pallbearers.  Although none of my friends or close acquaintances suffered that fate, I knew from a distance many young men who did, and was torn apart inside when one more fell from an unseen enemy's bullet.

I finally resolved to join the Army Reserve as a way of, hopefully, avoiding being drafted. At the time, finding a reserve unit that had an opening for one more draft avoider was difficult because so many of us were standing in line to get that spot on the roster. But I got lucky and found my new military home in the reserve unit in Sheboygan. I drove to Sheboygan from Madison on graduation day, passing up that ceremony to raise my right hand to swear to defend my country in a far simpler ceremony.

Obviously my plan worked.  I never even came close to Vietnam.  I served my 6 year obligation And added 2 more years on top of that before I was done with the army and my beloved country was done with that hideously wasteful war.

My feelings of guilt or not getting into the jungle, dodging bullets and bombs, and suffering the through that tortuous time, have kept me away from visiting the Vietnam Memorial.  I know I would be shedding uncontrollable tears as I read the names of those who earned their place on that granite slab by making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  I honor their bravery with my tears. I cry tears that I hope would rinse away the waste of a generation, I assuage my guilt with my tears, and hold the utmost respect in my heart for those fallen heroes. I'm grateful that my name isn't etched in granite alongside those enshrined there. I am grateful that so many were willing and able to do their duty so that I could continue on with my life.  I will never forget those boys (for many of them were just boys) who became men forged in the crucible of war.

I will never forget.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


I've had a very productive day so far. I got almost everything on the old honey-do list that Mary left for me when she left me.  I mean she left home to do her own thing. No, that doesn't sound right either.  What I mean to say is that she went to town this morning without me to meet Jonathan and our two beautiful grand daughters at the zoo.

I was not invited on the zoo excursion.  I don't know why.  Maybe I embarrass them when I walk around shouting "Free Willy" whenever a zoo official passes by. Or maybe because I hate zoos in general, seeing all those sad eyes and frowns on those unfortunate inmates lazing around in the dust, and sometimes mud, devoid of privacy or any of the real comforts of home.  No, I am not good company at the zoo despite Paul Simon's insistence that "It's all happening at the zoo."

Then again, maybe they only invited grandma along because they had one more admission ticket, and that they know that grandma loves the zoo.  The only thing I'm complaining about is that she gets to spend that time with our granddaughters, whom she loves almost as much as I do.  But a good thing that always comes with her spending time with them, is that she is then happier and easier to live with.  So even though she always leaves me a list of chores to do, I don't mind if she has a smile on her face when she gets home.

But I digress.  I started out to say that I've had a productive day, even though all the things I accomplished were minor piddling little irritating chores that you wouldn't normally set aside time to do.  Like I retied and replaced some of the cable ties that hold the windscreen on the upper deck railing. Like vacuuming the kitchen (even though it wasn't on the list. I just thought it needed doing). Like installing a hook in the bathroom to hang the little clock on the wall.  Like assembling and replacing in their proper place outside, the three burned out garden lights.  And get this--I even baked a dozen gluten free sugar cookies and a dozen gluten free banana muffins. And it's not even lunch time yet. And I emptied the dishwasher and took out the trash.

I accomplished all that and I didn't even have to put my pants on.

Friday, May 27, 2016


Jannelle's comment on my previous post that showed the plantings I had done on our condo's walkway entrance stirred up some memories about the peony plant in one of the pictures. She had noted that the plant already had some buds on it, which is somewhat unusual.  The peony plant that this one came from typically bloomed in the week after Memorial Day. Those early buds make me think that I am being watched over by the man who gave me the original plant and taught me how to take care of it.....

When we moved into our house 45 years ago, we were entering a strange new world of responsibility that we may not have been prepared for.  Sure, we knew the basic duties that needed to be taken care of on a regular basis to keep our new home comfy and cozy, but we weren't quite prepared for the myriad mundane chores that seemed to increase in number every month.  The outside work, for instance, was a revelation.  I wasn't so naive as to think the grass would cut itself or the snow in the driveway would  miraculously melt before I could get my shovel, but I was unhappily surprised at the amount of time all those chores took.

But we learned to deal with all work that seemed to continuously pile up. As long as we knew what to do, we had no problem doing it. Our youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy saw us through most of the problems that were stacked on our doorstep. On those occasions when we were stymied by some household conundrum, we relied on the knowledge and expertise and good old common sense that our elderly next door neighbors had in abundance. Thankfully they were willing to pass some of that knowledge on to us.

When it came time to do some gardening or landscape work all I had to do was ask Karol, my elderly next door neighbor, how to get the job done.  Karol was a consummate gardener.  He could grow anything and have the plants thrive way beyond expectations. So when I put in a new concrete walkway from our front door to the driveway and decided to plant peonies on each side flanking that walk, naturally I sought Karol's advice on selecting the right variety of peony, how to plant them, and how to take care of the new plants. I got the idea of using peonies along the walkway from looking at the peonies that Karol had planted along his driveway.  Those peonies were spectacular when they bloomed each year.  I was hoping to get the same result with my flowers.

When I told him I planned on buying two dozen plants, he looked at me like I was crazy.
"Nah." He drew out the word into three syllables in his thick Polish accent, all the while shaking his head at such an absurd idea. "You don't buy. I give you." That made me shake my head at such an absurd idea.
"We take cutting from my plant.  We dig up like this." He took the shovel he had been leaning on and proceeded to split one of the peonies along his driveway in half, digging up a sizable chunk of root stock while leaving the other half in place.

While he dug up the two dozen plants I needed, he told me all about those peonies. When he first came to this country after WWll in 1948 (the year I was born), he lived in an apartment that had the remnants of a garden gone to seed. Among the weeds he found a rather forlorn and wilted peony plant that he took a special interest in. He turned that sickly specimen into a prime example of what a peony should be.  At that time he judged that plant to be around 75 years old, figuring it had probably been planted when the building was built. When he married Emma and moved to a different apartment, he took that peony plant with him.  Then when he and Emma built the house next door in 1962, he propagated all the plants that lined the edge of his driveway from that one plant that he had found abandoned in that backyard 15 years before. That made that original peony about 90 years old. We bought our house in 1972. At that time Karol's peonies, all propagated from that original plant, could be traced back 100 years. For the remainder of the time we lived in that house, 42 years, following Karol's example, I took great care to maintain those 24 plants that were the direct offspring of Karol's  original peony.

So when we sold the house two years ago, it was only natural that we would take a cutting from that row of nearly 150 year old peonies alongside the walkway, and transplant it here where it will serve as a reminder of our history and honor the memory of Karol.

Hopefully that line of peonies will continue for the next 150 years to bring good luck and beauty to whomever has the good fortune to take care of them.


We never notice it during the day.  But last night was one of those nights when Sleep was hiding just beyond the shadows, afraid that I would grab her and hold on until morning.  During the day there is too much of everything else going on that we would have to concentrate hard if we were to hear it.

Last night, however, during that sleepless interlude when Sleep was flitting in and out of the shadows, teasing me, I counted six times that I was almost lulled toward sleep by the urgent drone of a fast moving freight train. That drone, along with the vibrations that echoed through the ground from a half mile away, together were the unmistakeable announcement that something important was happening either north or south (I couldn't tell which way the train was moving) and it was paramount that the train be there on time, whether to witness or participate I could only guess at.

Clicketyclackclittyclack that train aimed toward its destination, roaring past the barricades that were meant to stop the feeble autos that would skip across the tracks after the train had pulled the last railcar down the line. That roar and its echo changed the night into a Doppler serenade, gradually dying off into a sigh that only those waiting for it could hear.

People have mostly given in to the notion that a passing freight train, heard from a distance, stirs the soul and fills it with romance. There is nothing romantic about a freight train taking its time passing in front of you with a stacked up jumble of cars jamming the one lane street, stopped and waiting for the damn train to pass on by so you can get to your very important meeting. There is nothing particularly romantic about a hungry hobo hopping on a freight train, hoping it was going someplace warm. There is nothing romantic about counting train cars as they move across your only route to that very important meeting. Stuck in a situation like that, I could never count past 50 or so because the cars were whizzing by like they were being chased by a guy named Lionel, who wanted to shrink the entire train and give it to good little girls and boys, or because the passing train was moving so slowly that I would fall asleep by a count of 30.

Can someone please explain to me the immutable law of the Train Gods that says the slower a train moves, the longer it must be with cars overloaded with exotic and other unusual goods destined for exotic and unusual places. And why does it always seem that the train workers controlling their behemoth hunk of machinery can walk alongside their slow moving status symbol, and become more haughty and seem as though they are thumbing their noses at us while we are locked in the parking lot that should be a street, where we are held at bay by that one flimsy barricade pole stretching across our path.  I'm sure that there are many like me who formed amazing fantasies about how the train workers would be tortured with rail spikes driven through their skulls with 20 pound sledge hammers, then tied to the tracks just before the express train arrived with its arrogance on full display, and while screaming for you to get out of the way, chopped those workers tied to its track into hamburgers that would later feed all the hobos on board.

Those hobos had it all wrong. I figured that if you were going to ride on the train, you would do so by sitting in a seat in the specially appointed passenger cars, or if you were really special, in the caboose.  I never bought into that romantic notion, preferring to dwell on the power of the engine that put forth the Herculean effort to pull so many boxcars behind it. That an engine, usually alone at the front of the line, was able to generate enough power to control its family of boxcars, tankers, flat beds, and the punctuation of a caboose, has always been a source of wonder for me.

My train training began when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old.  We then lived across the street from a set of tracks that sat on top of a ten foot berm.  There the tracks were so close that when it passed we could see the gleam in the eye of the engineer, who knew what a special place he held in the imaginations of the kids he waved to as he chugged on past.

That set of tracks also seemed busier at night, too.  That it passed through our neighborhood more slowly than normal may have been a concession to the local powers that be who wanted as little disturbance as possible for the people who lived there.  That was fine with me because I could curl up in my bed, listening to the monster across the street roar on by and feel the vibrations that nearly crumbled the walls of the house and feel safe.

I'm sure that the trains, those scary, noisy monsters, fueled my imagination and provided me the early lesson to pay attention to what was going on around me. That's why I would never cross the street without someone holding my hand to make sure I didn't get too close to the tracks. That's why, although I've never seen it, I have such a clear picture of that train in my mind, when I hear the night trains now, not across the street, but that half mile away. That sound wafting over the terrain that separates us will always bring back those early memories of when trains were exotic monsters to be respected, wondered at, and enjoyed for all their power to inflame boys, now men, with wonder.