Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Hat

I wrote this little piece a couple of years ago when my third grade class was working on memoir.

It was gray when I woke up; misty, foggy, cool – no, cold. Not a great day for the beach. It was chilly and gusty. The kind of day that made my ears ache when I went swimming. Michigan City, Indiana. 1968. I was 11 years old.

In early summer the downtown area was home to a bazaar, a fancy name for giant sidewalk/garage sale. All of the shops had racks and shelves of bargains outside. People were invited to bring their used clothing and household items and set up tables to sell their wares.

My mom was a bargain hunter. With seven children she had to be. My brothers and sisters decided to stay home that day. I’m sure they had better things to do. I wanted to go with my mom.

This was the kind of day my brothers and sisters loved to swim. There was a cold northwest wind blowing and the waves on the beach would be enormous, way over my head. I loved these days as well. There was danger involved in swimming these waves. They towered over you, threatening to squash you into the sand if you didn’t catch them just right. If you went out too far, the undertow could snatch you up and pull you out.

This latter danger was for people who didn’t grow up on the beach. Almost every day that the wind whipped up from the northwest during swimming season someone along the beach would be swept away. Chicago, Gary, Miller Beach, Porter Beach, the Indiana Dunes State Park, Beverly Shores, Michigan City. We would read about it in the paper, occasionally see a helicopter flying by on these days. When we did we knew someone had probably died. We pretty much knew what we were doing. We never ventured out far. Still there was the danger.

As for being smashed into the sand if we didn’t get on top of the waves we were body surfing, that happened all the time and we routinely walked back into the house with bad scrapes and sand rashes from this hazard. Those wounds were all right. Those scabs would become badges of bravery.

I got ear aches on these days. I could have worn ear plugs but that would be a sissy thing to do. So I chose to go with my mom to the sidewalk sale. With six brothers and sisters, I didn’t get much time alone with her anyway so this would be my chance.

The bazaar was very busy. Vendors, crowds of people, the smell of sausages and popcorn, laughing, bargaining, little kids clinging to their mothers’ dresses, occasional babies crying. Teenagers, parents, old people.

My mom let me wander around by myself for a while. There was a huge clock tower so, even though I didn’t have a watch, I could see to meet her at noon. I only had a quarter with me so I was just looking. I’ve always been intrigued by crowds, always been a people watcher even as a kid.

There was a table of old used clothes in front of St. Anne’s church. They were musty and wrinkled and piled on the tables not folded neatly or hung on racks as the clothes were in front of the stores. The poorer people were drawn to this area because the prices were so low. There seemed to be something for everybody. They were practically giving the clothes away.

One old man was wandering between the rows of tables. I’m not sure why I was drawn to him especially. He was one of so many. But I watched him carefully for the next few minutes. His clothes were very worn. Gray pants frayed at the cuffs and pockets. They were pleated pants. My mom would have called them trousers. He wore a tired old jacket which could not have kept him warm on this chilly day. His fancy old dress shoes were terribly worn. He needed a shave. His cheeks and throat were covered with short gray stubble.

His head must have been cold. It was early summer, but that northwest wind… He was very bald and the gray fringe that surrounded his head was shaggy and blew in the cold gusty wind. He could have used a hat.

I wished that he had newer clothes. In those few moments that our paths crossed I felt sad for him. I’m not sure why I remember him after all of this time, after all the years and distance; his windblown hair, his disheveled yet somehow classic clothes, his stubbly cheeks and the smile lines around his eyes. I don’t think I could pick him out of a lineup after all this time, but I remember the feel of him.

It was chilly. His head, shiny on top, was blotchy from the cold. He must have been freezing with his threadbare jacket and his thin, worn pants.

As he walked down the long tables in what I thought of as the poor peoples’ section in front of the church, he would pick up one item then another. He would pick up a woman’s scarf, turn it over in his hands and, almost as if he were having a conversation with himself, would shake his head and return it to its place at the table.

Finally he came to an area on one table with hats. There were stocking caps and baseball style caps, earmuffs and old fashioned felt hats like the one my dad wore to church. The old man stopped at these, meticulously searching through them for just the right one.

Why was I concerned about him finding the right hat? I had never seen him before, would probably never see him again. But I was mesmerized, silently urging him to find something comfortable to warm his bald head.

He picked up a gray felt hat with a wide brim. Is it called a fedora? He tried it on and it fit snugly. He sort of swiped his hand around the brim in an automatic gesture. I had seen people do that kind of thing in movies. They were rich people or gangsters.

The hat looked great on him. A lady at the end of the table was eying him suspiciously. She had a gray metal box in front of her – the money box. Perhaps she thought he would walk away with the hat without paying for it. The old man didn’t look at her. I could tell that he was pleased with the hat. He had this dreamy faraway look in his eyes like he was remembering something from long ago. His fingers went around the brim again. He smiled a small stubbly smile, a satisfied smile, the smile of a younger man. It was the look of one who has found a jewel.

The money lady continued to glare at the little man. He reached up and took the hat off. There was a little piece of masking tape on the band inside the hat. A price tag. I couldn’t make it out but the man stared at it unbelieving. I could see his disappointment.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. All change. It surely wasn’t enough. I could tell by the look on his face. I wanted to buy it for him. I only had a quarter. It wouldn’t help much.

With a look of quiet disappointment and even embarrassment the old man put the hat back on the table - slowly, almost reverently. His shoulders drooped and he shuffled softly away. The money lady smirked.

All these years later I wonder why the image of the old man stays with me. Certainly I have witnessed sadder moments. On the news. In the papers. In books. So many tragic stories with greater magnitude. Why this man? So long ago and so far away.

Perhaps in a way this little story has served to make me aware of the small sufferings all around me. Perhaps this little memory reminds me of all the rich blessings in my own life. I pray that I never take them for granted.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I Believe In Music

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

Aldous Huxley

Music must be the purest form of human endeavor. Think about it. We take an empty space and silence (or at least quiet) and fill it with sound, the only purpose for which is to make something pleasant, to share emotion. It marks our lives in such a way that we can be taken back into our pasts in just a few measures of a song. Music is truly the universal language. It brings very different people together – for good. Music touches this healthy emotional core of many of us. It allows us to express feelings that are difficult to express any other way. There are songs that inspire, songs of praise and worship, protest songs, love songs and lullabies. Songs are sung at birthdays, weddings and funerals. What would our lives be like without it?

From the time children are quite little, they experiment around with their voices in a quiet room. Babies in cribs coo and gabble, sometimes running their voices into incredibly high registers. When they get old enough, they hum or sing to themselves. They make rhythms on tables and chairs and any other surface around with their fingers, pencils or anything else that happens to be around. Mothers and daddies sing to the children from the very beginning, creating our own lullabies as we rock and caress and soothe.

A few weeks ago, Heidi and I went to Colin’s chorale concert at the high school. There were actually five groups singing, and Colin’s was last. The auditorium was very filled with parents and brothers and sisters. There were grandparents too. Although it was still the beginning of the school year, the high schoolers were amazingly prepared. From pop songs to ancient Latin songs, the effects were mesmerizing. Tall and short, stout and slender, the young adults worked together to create something beautiful and inspiring from nothing. It worked. Maybe it was just me, but the power of those voices washed over me and made my heart race. During that time, there was no place I would rather have been.

I have a few friends, Kevin, Thomas, and others - whom I have taught their first few guitar chords, maybe their first song or two. They have proceeded to zoom past me in technique. I have had some students in the past who, when we cross paths again, have told me that they picked up guitar or bass because of the songs we sang together back in second grade. There is no finer feeling than knowing that I might have started a little musical echo in someone's mind that became an avalanche. But it really wasn't me. I know. It is simply music.

When my dad dropped me off at college, on my very first day, when I was scared and lonely for my neighborhood gang, when I felt like my family would be thousands of miles away – I had my old Toyota guitar with me. I know that it sounds syrupy sentimental, but there was comfort knowing that that little wooden box strung with simple wire (thanks Harry Chapin) would take me home any time I pulled it out. And it did. Within the first half hour of getting to my sweaty little dorm room I heard guitar chords coming from down the hall. I picked up that old $60-six-string and invited myself into the room of another freshman guy, sitting on his bed, looking a little afraid. Pat Gallagher and I became best friends for many years from that one chance moment.

In the next week or so I had other happy coincidental meetings. Walking through the lounge of our dorm I heard brilliant piano music. I had to stop and listen. He became my old friend Marty Lucas. I met my old friend Tad Robinson similarly. He was singing Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” the first time I saw him. Then it was, “Hey you gotta meet this guy…” Bob McCarthy. It wasn’t long before we were jamming and harmonizing. And Jeanne and Joyce would sing sometimes and we would fill our dorm rooms with folk rock and laughter and friendship and the stories of our lives.

It seems like everywhere life took me I was able to find a friend or two to jam with. Some for a short time, some for many years. It might be a sad commentary on my ability to form bonds with adults, but so many of my friendships outside of work revolve around music.

Last weekend my mom came down to visit for a couple of days from North Carolina. We did all kinds of things from bouncing around on the boat watching Colin do amazing feats on the wakeboard, to looking around at condos, to eating homemade pasta for dinner. But we always get around to music. She always asks to hear me play. And I always oblige. No need to twist my arm though, playing and singing for my mom is one of the best things in my life. Because she listens.

My mom is a fantastic musician. When my brother Pat and I were in the CYO band when we were kids (second through eight grade for me) my mom taught us to play the clarinet and tuba as much as Mr. Suroviac our band instructor. Sometimes she would go months at a time and not play and then pull out amazingly complex classical piano pieces. She was always self-deprecating about it saying something like, “I used to play that so well,” or “You should hear that the way it was meant to be played.”

Sometimes at Christmas she would play carols on our old, out of tune, upright piano and we would sing along with the gusto of little kids enchanted by the season and vacation and anticipation of the presents that were always left by Santa when we were out looking at the lights.

My mom is a John Denver fan and I’ll admit it, I am too. I could say that it’s because I am a child of the 70’s, that many of my high school chums were into him too. But honestly, I am a sucker for a troubadour. I love his voice, his songwriting, his fingerstyle guitar, his often used 12-string.

The other day I heard “Rocky Mountain High” coming through the wall of my classroom after school. My buddy Chris was playing a little JD in his room while he was working on progress reports for our students. “John Denver’s cool,” he said. What sold him was a John Denver/Muppets Christmas album they had when he was a kid. Chris is at least 15 years younger than me. I really respect his musical taste. When he asks me to listen to music, I know I’ll like even before I listen. So if Chris thinks he’s cool…

Back to my mom’s visit. I wanted to let my mom hear “This Old Guitar”, one of my favorites by John Denver. She hadn’t heard it, so we went to YouTube and found this old TV special where he explains the song. Great song. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Boys to Men

There comes a time in every parent’s life I suppose, when your kids grow past you in some important ways. If you know me at all, or if you have read many of my posts, then you know that Heidi and I have two boys sons. I’d better get over the boys part, huh? Devin is 19 and Colin just turned 18.

I don’t mean for this to be a “Gee, doesn’t-time-fly-when-we’re-having-fun?” post. But I do have this very strong feeling of “Where-does-the-time-go?”

We have this big empty lot across the road from where we live. We’ve always called it the meadow. There is a short piece of fencing there set up as a little league backstop and a weedy pitcher’s mound. The whole area, maybe a couple acres, is surrounded on two sides by the road and two sides by dense vine filled forest.

When the boys were little and we would get home from school together, that field was often our play area. We played baseball, although that was a short-lived occupation. Sometimes we played frisbee. For a while we played this silly made up version of football where one of us would throw up the ball and someone would catch it and run away with the others chasing.We’d all come tumbling to the ground in a mass tackle only to get up and do it again. We played something similar when I was a kid called “Cream The Kid With The Ball”, or simply “Cream The Kid”.

Sometimes we’d go to the meadow to catch bugs with a big butterfly net or just our hands. Sometimes we’d bring a jar and take the bugs to school to study or feed our classroom pet turtle, Angelo.

One of my favorite games was our version of soccer. The boys were from about Kindergarten to 3rd or 4th grade. It was the two of them against me. I scored by kicking the ball into the short backstop fence. The boys scored by kicking it anywhere into the big wide forest. They had hundreds of feet of goal while I just had about ten.

When kids are little they think of their parents as superhuman. I thought that about my own father. I watched him put an engine in a car once. I helped him build a room off of our basement. He could do anything he wanted to. He wrestled with my two older brothers and me on his Saturday morning bed from time to time, just as I wrestled with our two boys when they were young.

Time The Conqueror catches up to all of us, right? When Devin was 12 he commandeered my little weight bench and started training. Soon it wasn’t good enough and he got a newer one with brackets so he could bench press in earnest. I could lift twice as much as he could. But with relentless training he could outlift me before long. I was too busy at work to train, I’ve got arthritis in my shoulders, and … [whine, whine, whine] the ball took a bad hop and the sun was in my eyes and…

Nope. Not really. Devin got stronger. He became a young man right before my eyes. Last weekend he was washing his car outside with his shirt off. He said, “Dad, check this out,” and he puffed out his lats and did one of those “We’re here to pump you up!” poses that muscle guys do in magazines. He has gotten huge and defined and, frankly, he could take me with one hand tied behind his back.

Colin started playing music when he was really little. He had lots of toy instruments that really worked like bongos, a Little Tykes piano with colored keys, a cool steel drum with eight tones, and a little bamboo xylophone. When he was in third grade he wanted to try drum lessons. I didn’t think they would take. But we went to the music store and then to his instructor’s studio for about five years. When he began he had no real rhythm, he kept speeding up and slowing down.But gradually, with countless hours of practice, he got better and better.

The neighbors were very patient with us for Colin’s room over the garage faces the road and, even with his window closed, they were treated to hour after hour of his practice exercises, and then his drumming to songs while he wore his headphones. Of course they didn’t have the benefit of any of the other instruments.

About three years ago he took up guitar, borrowing one of Devin’s or mine. He studied keyboarding in school and learned theory, which he applied to his playing. Then he started writing songs. Complex melodies and chord structures and alternative tunings. He plays in a band with other really talented guys and they play all of his songs.

He has started playing at the youth services at church in the old sanctuary – where I played years ago. At first he filled in on drums – rock solid. Then he played bass. Then rhythm guitar.A few weeks ago he lead worship, singing lead, getting people to their feet. Heidi and I were in the balcony videotaping. He sang his heart out. And the youth sang their hearts out with him.

I could say that I don’t have the time to hang out for hours a day playing music and that I am making a living here and it was really windy and the ball took a bad hop and the sun was in my eyes… But the truth is, his learning curve is about 85 degrees and mine is about 10. I can still learn new chords, but not very quickly. I can memorize new songs but it takes forever. I can honestly say that he knows more about guitar now than I’ll ever know.

It is not a sad feeling knowing that my sons have outgrown me in some ways. While I DO MISS those little guys who used to chase me around and try to tackle me, one hanging on each leg while I marched along toward some imaginary goal line making the sound of the crowds cheering for Tim O’Keefe (“How does he DO IT, ladeez and gentlemen?”). While I miss carrying them in the dark, still asleep, to the car and buckling them up and tucking blankets around them on cold days and driving them to school so they could wake up to cereal-in-the-classroom-and-kissing-daddy-goodbye-mornings. While I do miss those wrestling matches and those sleepyheads and those underwear-to-breakfast weekends – When I look into the eyes of these men, well on their way to lives of their own and maybe even Saturday morning wrestling matches with their own children – I feel happy, satisfied, like Heidi and I helped them live into lives full of promise and strength and creativity and joy.

So I am older, and they are stronger. I am wiser (air quotes if you will), they are smarter. While my spine is probably curving over, they are still growing in every way. It is completely natural. It is the way. And it feels right.