Friday, April 27, 2012

What's Up?

“How ya doin’?”

“Fine.  You?”

“It’s goin’.”

“What’s goin’ on?”

I’m a little tired of the impersonal greetings most of us use when we see each other.  Often when we meet acquaintances and coworkers our casual greetings and inquiries seem disingenuous.   This evening I saw someone I knew only casually.  It was nice to see him, but he fired off, “Howzitgoin’?” and before I even had the chance to answer he said, “Oh, fine, fine, thanks.”  I don’t even think he realized I hadn’t asked yet. 

I’m guilty too, both on the giving as well as the receiving end of the exchange.  After my mom died, when I saw someone who didn’t know that I’d lost my best friend, the one who held me to the ground – even though I was as hollow a I had ever been- when someone asked, “How are you?” my reflex response was, “Fine, thanks.  You?”  It was like jerking my leg after the doc hit my sweet spot with the triangular rubber hammer. 

Sometimes I’d catch myself after the auto-pilot response and retrofit a sincere response.  “No, not really.  I’m hurting…  I miss my mom.”

This morning as I was considering writing a piece about how shallow our meet-and-greet responses are, a teacher bud walked into the work area.  “Howzitgoin’?”  “Fine, you?”  “Fine.”  Then I stopped myself from walking away from that meaningless exchange.  I saw that she was running off some really interesting math work for her kids.  I asked how her math instruction was coming.  We had two or three minutes to share ideas about math for the rest of the year.  It went from a rather bland ‘good morning’ to a fun and interesting few minutes for us to reconnect.  Simple but effective.

I thought of that old show CHEERS from years ago.  One of my favorites.  For a few years it came on right next to Sienfeld.  Great stuff.  Anyway, whenever big old Norm Peterson would come in for a beer, the crowd would say his name in unison – “NORM!”  That was usually followed by a bland – howzitgoin’- question from one of the barkeeps.  The one that came into my mind was this – Woody, innocent and gullible, country (well, Indiana country) and sincere, says, “Hi, Mr. Peterson.  What’s up?”

And Norm says something like, “My nipples.  It’s freezing outside.  Get me a beer, Woody.”  Wouldn’t it be great if we could come up with something besides, “finehowareyou?”

So I googled around and found some Normisms, some interesting responses to some mundane greetings.  I don’t laugh aloud all that often.  I did with these.  Enjoy this first installment!

1. "What's shaking Norm?"
    "All four cheeks and a couple of chins."
2. "What's new Normie?"
    "Terrorists, Sam. They've taken over my stomach and they're demanding beer."
3. "What'd you like Normie?"
    "A reason to live. Give me another beer."
4. "What'll you have Normie?"
    "Well, I'm in a gambling mood Sammy. I'll take a glass of whatever comes out of that tap."
    "Looks like beer, Norm."
    "Call me Mister Lucky."
5. "Hey Norm, how's the world been treating you?"
    "Like a baby treats a diaper."
6. "What's the story Mr. Peterson?"
    "The Bobbsey twins go to the brewery. Let's cut to the happy ending."
7. "Hey Mr. Peterson, there's a cold one waiting for you."
    "I know, if she calls, I'm not here."
8. "Beer, Norm?"
    "Have I gotten that predictable? Good."
9. "What's going on Mr. Peterson?"
    "A flashing sign in my gut that says, 'Insert beer here.'"
10. "Whatcha up to Norm?"
      "My ideal weight if I were eleven feet tall."
11. "How's it going Mr. Peterson?"
      "I'm sorry to hear that."
      "No, I mean pour."
12. "How's life treating you Norm?"
      "Like it caught me sleeping with its wife."
13. "Women. Can't live with 'em...... pass the beer nuts."
14. "What's going down, Normie?"
      "My butt cheeks on that bar stool."
15. "Pour you a beer, Mr. Peterson?"
      "Alright, but stop me at one... make that one-thirty."
16. "How's it going Mr. Peterson?"
      "It's a dog eat dog world, Woody and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear."
17. "What's the story Norm?"
      "Boy meets beer. Boy drinks beer. Boy meets another beer."
18. "Can I pour you a beer Mr. Peterson?"
      "A little early isn't it, Woody?"
      "For a beer?"
      "No, for stupid questions."

Saturday, April 14, 2012


There are several kids in my class who still hold hands.  It seems like the most natural thing in the world.  Interlacing your fingers with another’s must be one of the oldest human gestures.  It says so much.  That singular gesture is invariably positive.  It demonstrates trust, compassion, comfort, and friendship.  It is a sign of love.

My finger, your finger, my finger, your finger, my finger, your finger, my finger, your finger, my thumb – your thumb.  The webs between my fingers contacting yours.  The bones of my hand entwined with yours. 

When we are little we reach up for the hand of the people we love – sometimes just to be sure of them.  When we are big we reach down to show that we are there, that we care, that we must cross the street safely together, that we won’t get separated in a crowd.  We reach down to grasp a little hand almost as a reflex.  To express our love.  To show simply that we are within reach.

children holding hands

Babies are born with an intense need for touch.  Babies who spend a lot of time in hospitals and orphanages where they do not receive skin-to-skin contact fail to thrive.  I read about this interesting study where librarians were asked to alternately touch and not touch the hands of their students as they gave back their library cards.  Those whose hands had been touched by their librarian reported “far greater feelings about themselves, the library and the librarians than those who had not been touched.  This occurred even though the touch was fleeting and the students didn’t even remember it.”

In our classroom we touch pretty unselfconsciously.  Certain kids zoom in for a hug every morning.  Others opt for a fist bum or a hand slap.  Some will come in quietly without checking in with me.  I usually give them a noogie or a high five when we do catch up.  But we touch.

There are many girls who still hold hands in our classroom.  They grab hold when we walk to the public library, or to the recess field or to the cafeteria.  Some boys may still hold hands at the beginning of second grade, but by the end of third it is a rarity.  There are a couple of guys who are always sitting close enough so that their legs touch when they are on the floor.  And we do a lot of teaching and learning from the floor.  Our girls often touch, run their fingers through or smooth out each other’s hair.

This morning as my students took a big, high stakes test in our computer lab, the feeling in the room was one of intense concentration.  This was the kind of test that pushed every child to the wall.  I’ve written about this before.  It started out easy, but as they answered simple questions correctly, the subsequent questions were more and more challenging.  Glancing over their shoulders at the answer choices, I was amazed at how difficult this must have been for them.  And yet no one complained.  No one whined.  No one cracked under pressure.  I walked around the room every few minutes just checking in with a touch on the shoulder or a pat on the back.  To soothe, to connect, to praise them and to show my gratitude for their effort.   It was a gesture that words can’t quite explain. 

It’s sad to me that many of us become self-conscious about touch as we get older, especially guys.  At some undetermined age, and it is probably a little different for everyone, little ones (especially boys) stop holding hands with their friends, brothers and sisters and parents.  Girls are lucky in my opinion.  They can hold hands freely with their besties. 

I suppose holding hands for little boys is like crying when you hurt yourself.  At some point we stop crying for physical pain.  Comments like, “big boys don’t cry” probably help to extinguish it. 

When I was in Rwanda I saw men holding hands routinely.  My friend Brandon took a picture of two very rough looking soldiers in camouflage, each with a machine gun slung over his shoulders, holding hands walking down a busy street.  It was as natural as anything there. 

Adult guys can still hug briefly if there is a manly slap on the back at the end of the embrace.  Let’s not read anything too personal into this hug, right?  Shaking hands is the norm.  No weapons, right?

At the end of my mom’s life I was blessed to have been there for her final week.  We touched so often.  The first night I was there in New Mexico at my sister Ruthie’s I spent in the office guest room.  Then for the next several nights I slept with my mom.  I needed her touch.  And I think she needed mine.  I think she needed grounding.  I think she needed to be sure of me.  We slept with our legs touching or my hand on her shoulder, or holding hands.   And through the days and evenings when she was awake we sat close enough to touch.  During her final hours, when she had lost consciousness, Ruthie and I stroked her hair and rubbed her back.   We held her hand - just as she held ours when we were little, to protect us, to make sure we didn’t get lost or frightened, so we could be sure of her. 

I can smile when I remember her touch now.  But I miss that touch like nothing else.
I can think of my mom now and not cry every time at missing her.   I expect that I will cry for a long time when I remember her and miss her touch.  Even though big boys don’t cry.

Friday, April 6, 2012


It’s interesting to look at someone’s bookshelf.  You can tell a lot about a person by knowing what they read, that you might not be able to see otherwise.   In our home we have three main sets of shelves with some nooks and crannies here and there with smallish stacks.  We also have baskets of books – mainly mine – that are on the “to read” list.  I have one basket that is just from my mom’s house, the last few books left around there since she gave away her books almost as fast as she read them.  There is the smallish stack on the nightstand (and under it).  There is a magazine rack next to the sofa. 

The same is true when you see folks’ music collections.  Do they like Sinatra, The Talking Heads, Taylor Swift?  Nine Inch Nails, The Doobie Brothers, The Doors?  The Beatles, Creed, Linkin Park?  Of course, these days a lot of people keep their music collections privately tucked away on their ipods.  No longer can you browse a record collection and even CDs are becoming a thing of ht past.

This morning I was cleaning out a file cabinet drawer (the detritus of many years that I couldn’t bring myself to toss).  I found some old writer’s notebooks with snatches of songs I wanted to write, short stories I wanted to complete, some original songs that did make it to their playable stage, outlines for letters I wanted to write (some I probably did).  And lists.  I used to play out a lot at this coffee house in southern Indiana.  Sometimes I played with my buds in a band called EMERALD.  Other times it was just a loose connection of friends who sat in with each other whenever we played and they would show up with their instruments.  A lot of times I just played by myself.  I played a mix of originals and cover tunes.

Before playing at The Daily Grind in Nashville, Indiana, I would create a list of possible songs to perform, songs I knew by heart.  I knew lots of songs back then but, of course, could only play about 25 or so in an evening.  I had the list there for comfort.  I didn’t want to draw a blank on what to play next.  So I kept this little notebook with me with my current playlist, tunes I wouldn’t screw up too bad if I had the notion to play them.

I think a person’s playlist says a lot about them – in the same way that their bookshelf does.  This particular one was dated May 3, 1986.  It was probably one of the last times I played at The Grind.  Depending on your age and stage, you may not recognize many of these.  There were only a few top 40 songs in the mix and those are old folky songs.  I don’t remember exactly what I played that night all those years ago, but more than likely – the set came from these.

Heart of Gold – Neil Young
Mercedez Benz – Janis Joplin
You Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine – Kristofferson
Sugar Mountain – Neil Young
Fish and Whistle – John Prine
Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young
Paradise – John Prine
A Love Song – Kenny Loggins
Till The Morning Comes – Neil Young
Cripple Creek Ferry – Neil Young
Moon Shadow – Cat Stevens
Father and Son - Cat Stevens
The Boxer – Paul Simon
April Come She Will – Paul Simon
House of the Rising Sun - Traditional
Summertime – George Gershwin
That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round – John Prine
Illegal Smile – John Prine
Teach Your Children – Graham Nash
My Heroes Are Cowboys – Willie Nelson
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
I’m Not Saying – Gordon Lightfoot
Friend of the Devil – Jerry Garcia
The River – Dan Fogelberg
There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler – Dan Fogelberg
Lookin’ Out My Backdoor – John Fogerty
As the Raven Flies – Dan Fogelberg
Tequila Sunrise – The Eagles
Don’t Cry Blue – Jonathan Edwards
Sometimes – Jonathan Edwards
Desperado – The Eagles
Peaceful Easy Feeling – Jack Tempchin (Eagles)
Simple Twist of Fate – Bob Dylan
Colours – Donovan Leech
4 and 20 – Stephen Stills
Redneck Friend – Jackson Browne
Something Fine – Jackson Browne
Ready or Not – Jackson Browne
Rosie – Jackson Browne
The Captain and the Kid – Jimmy Buffett
He Went to Paris – Jimmy Buffett
Never Been To Spain – Hoyt Axton
Boney Fingers – Hoyt Axton
Inch by Inch – Dave Mallett
Carolina On My Mind – James Taylor
Hey Mister, That’s Me Upon the Jukebox – James Taylor
Right Between the Eyes – Graham Nash
Little Boxes – Malvina Reynolds
I Know You Rider – Traditional
Black Cat Blues – Bill Wilson
Flowers are Red – Harry Chapin
Carefully Taught – Rogers and Hammerstien

I can’t play a lot of these any more.  I’ve forgotten how some of them go and I’ve lost my chord sheets for others.  But just typing out the list brings back those smoky evenings in that wooden space with the sounds of cappuccino machine and clinking silverware and laughter and conversations.  And it brings back those old friends – most of whom I have lost touch with. 

I still play out at church and in the classroom with my young friends, I still jam every once in a while with my friends Dave and Chris.  I swap songs with my son Colin occasionally.  We have a few sing alongs ‘round the campfire every year.  But I miss those evenings playing for ten-bucks-and-tips and free coffee and the precious moments of having someone call out the name of an original song or when folks would sing along to an old familiar tune.