Sunday, April 27, 2014

Skymall Again

Another flight and more time to cozy up with my SKYMALL catalogue.  I am seated by strangers who are all plugged in to their iPhones, iPods, ebooks, hardly a paper book in sight.  All devices are on airplane mode - to be sure.  The announcement was made a half a dozen times.  My current books are in my carry on which I had to forfeit when getting on the plane.  I don't even have my notebook, just an almost blank piece of paper and a pen.

Currently I am reading The Diary of Anne Frank, which everyone my age claims to have read when they were in high school.  My other book is by my favorite author of all time, Heidi Ann Mills.  It's called Learning for Real.

But here I am stuck with SKYMALL.  Some of the high tech gadgets are very clever.  For example, you can power up all of your devices with a one-of-a-kind paper towel holder.  The top is a wine stopper and there are four USB ports around the base for charging.

They have a bunch of the usual stuff like super sharp, ergo-correct knife sets, bug zappers that will attract insects from across an entire acre to kill them right in front of you, There are ultra nice headphones that cancel out 99% of ambient noise.  99%!.  Cookware, cutting boards, lots of cool travel accessories like a neck brace that helps you sleep sitting up or an inflatable pillow that lets you sleep on the tray table in front of you.  Wish I had one of those right now.

You know how many kids often don't go outside much anymore?  Much of their time is spent on e-Devices, right?  There's this special seat called a Wobble Chair that allows these otherwise sedentary kids to move around, to shift positions - actually strengthening their core muscles.  How convenient is that?  They can sit around exercising their thumbs and almost get the exercise of doing something real.

Have a dog?  Live in an apartment or a condo?  Don't feel like getting up off the couch (or your Wobble Chair) to take it out?  No need!  Finally, "your dog has a yard of its own!"  For $279.99 you can get the Potty Porch Premium.  It includes plush synthetic grass, a scented fire hydrant (not kidding here) to attract the pee right out of your pooch.  For an extra $9.99 you can get a catch basin that holds up to two gallons - fake grass for $21.99 and real sod for $49.99.

Not to leave out our feline friends, how about an elegant piece of furniture that actually conceals the litter box!  It looks like a big chest with pet doors at the ends.  It comes complete with "elegant wainscoting" and a designer litter box - only $134.99.

In the home decor section this one caught my eye.  How about King Tut and his Queen's life-sized sarcophagus cabinets?  They are only $949 (each) and they actually look like the real deal.  Odd, but think of the conversation piece for only a thousand bucks.  Or your taste may bend toward the medieval.  There is a 16th century Italian armor guy.  Six feet tall, wielding a wicked looking battle ax.  Just shy of a thousand dollars.

Have you ever seen one of those cute little naked boys peeing into a fountain basin just to have it recirculated?  This kid could be peeing in your front yard perpetually for just $229.  Hey, how come you never see a little naked peeing girl?  That doesn't seem right!

Every pool owner should have one of these.  A singing gondolier.  it, "turns your pool into an enchanting Venetian canal."  Luciano Poolvarotti serenades you with 3 songs.  Over and over.  And over.  And over.  I'll bet that would be kind of cute for about the first 15 minutes, then turn into the sort of gift you would wish on your worst enemy.

Writing the text for these items seems like it would be fun.  Take a cool, ropey looking sandal and read how it becomes the absolute best sandal EVER!...  "NEW!  The most comfortable light weight sandal you'll ever own.  (You won't just be walking around in these, you'll...) wander the planet in Nomadic State of Minds (trademark).  Handmade vegan rope sandals (Nothing carnivorous about these).  Perfect for those who enjoy the outdoors, traveling and a natural lifestyle.  Constructed with your comfort in mind (Really?  Not your pain?), the super soft polypro rope (Surely made from the all natural, vegan, polypro plant fibers) comforms to your foot...

Take something nifty, throw in superlatives, interesting colors, (available in gunmetal, cobalt...) and lists of unnecessary adjectives such as: textured, sleek, ultra lightweight, smart, roomy, handy, smooth, specially designed, compact, unique, ingenious, exclusive, original, patented (or patent pending), optimal, perfect, superior, gentle, soothing... and you will describe the ultimate whatever ever created.

Here's an example for eyeshades...  Enjoy rejuvenating slumber anywhere with this cushioned sleep mask.  It completely blocks out light and is specially molded to allow total eye movement...  For deeper, more restful, REM sleep.  it's also contoured to fit perfectly on your nose and has elastic straps with velcro closures.  Available in exclusive colors.  Read that without the silly adjectives and adverbs.  You just have eyeshades.

Didn't Elaine Benice write this type of text for an L. L. Bean-like catalogue for a while in Seinfeld?

I thought I'd give it a shot with this pen I'm using.  Let me see...

Write your own masterpiece with this uncommonly elegant, perfectly designed writing implement.  Feel the comforting stream, of the ultra resinous indigo ink, as it flows in an amazingly smooth line, transforming your ordinary paper into a unique, one-of-a-kind creation.  The textured grip provides a thrilling, gratifying, writing sensation...

I wonder if I could get a gig doing this when I retire from teaching?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Do yourself a favor and watch.  So much of our lives seem to be about the opposite.  Looking our for number one, working against the other guy to get ahead.  If we spent just a little more effort giving, we would receive so much more.  My class is working on a fundraiser for Harvest Hope Food Bank.  While preparing our presentation for a conference last week, my students and I pored through our writings and they condensed thoughts about giving, thankfulness, caring;  their thoughts to me about what they think of the project.  I am so humbled to work with littles.  

"The day people stop looking out for themselves first will be the end of the world. "
author unknown

If that's true, then the end won't be so bad as we may think.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

For Jack

For Jack

When we got to the hospital, my dad was in a coma. I heard the news before I left home that day, making my way to the Chicago hospital where he lay dying. I reached his room around 9:30. My mom and most of my brothers and sisters were already there and even some nieces and nephews, most of whom were too young to understand what was going on, that their grandpa was dying. I knew that he was going soon. It was inevitable. Soon.

In my mind I knew that a quick end would be better for him and for my mom and for all of us who loved him. In my heart I wanted to see him just one last time, to look into his eyes and make contact, to tell him just once more how much he meant to me. To tell him once again that I loved him. I hadn’t said that often enough.

As I pushed open the door of the hospital room, my family’s sadness hit me like a wave. I cried. The man I knew as my dad was no longer there, or if he was, he was so deep inside that communication wasn’t possible. I cried – more for myself than him. I cried. He was no longer in pain, no more aware of the body that had betrayed him after just a little more than 64 years. He’d never hear me say that I loved him ever again. I never told him that enough. I cried for all those times I never told him. I cried the selfish tears of one who realizes too late the power of words never spoken. I cried at the realization of how fleeting life is. I cried for opportunities lost, for conversations cut short, for him never seeing the family that Heidi and I would have some day.

I sat by his bed and my tears fell into the sheets. I stroked his soft brown hair, something I had never done before. I looked into his eyes that were open, but didn’t look back.

Memories emerged as they still do, all these years later. Images of my childhood and young adulthood. Pictures of my parents as the younger, energetic couple they were when I was a kid. I remembered.

My two older brothers and me wrestling with my dad on his warm Saturday morning bed. He was the biggest, strongest man in the world. If he could take us on, he could beat an army. Shrieks of laugher as one of the “Three Stooges” fell out of bed.

“You snore like a lion!”

“I’ve never heard myself snore.”

“How could you?”

My father driving the boat with my little brother Danny skiing behind. “Hang on, Danny!” Dan couldn’t have more than five or six that summer he learned to ski. He had the most incredible mixture of fear and joy on his face. That old yellow boat rode low in the water. My dad’s back and arms were hairy and freckled. Dan, whose nose was covered in summertime freckles did hang on. For miles. My dad beamed with pride. I was a little jealous.

My dad drove the boat like a crazy man at times. We loved it if someone else was skiing. We were a little afraid when we were the ones behind the boat. The sun sparkled on those Lake Michigan waves and the sun was hot on our feet on the beach. My dad’s sunglasses were horn-rimmed. The hair on his arms was golden, I remember. His hair was wavy when it was long. His hair was brown and never really turned gray. His eyes were pale, watery blue.

One summer when I was about 11 my father and I built a porch on that old summerhouse. It was pretty amazing. We used scraps of wood and some used windows he had scavenged somewhere. He could have asked my brothers to help. It would have made the project go much faster. But that didn’t bother us. He was on vacation and he was spending it with me building a porch on that old wet basement. We took plenty of breaks and drank cold root beer on those sweltering summer days. I pretended it was real beer like he used to drink.  He made me feel like a man doing a man's work.

That porch looked a little rough. None of the lines were straight and the angles were far from ninety degrees but it was functional and when we painted it, the little walled off porch didn’t look half bad. It was my dad’s vacation project and I was proud that he had spent so much time with me. I should have told him how I felt about that time; how happy I was and how much I enjoyed laughing with him and watching him measure and draw lines with the flat red carpenter’s pencil. I should have told him that it was the best part of that summer for me. But I never did. Maybe when he thought back on that time, he remembered it the way I did and wished that he had told me how much it meant to him.

When I was in junior high, my family gave my dad a beat up Model A Ford for his birthday. We thought that restoring that it would make another nice project for him. He seemed pleased with the car and began restoring it right away. We hauled it to the summerhouse and stored it in the garage. That old timey garage was too small to hold a real car anyway. It had a wooden floor and I was always a bit afraid that the car would fall through. It never did.

I remember going with my dad to pick up an engine that someone had rebuilt. He paid the man $35 for it. My dad pinched the bills as he plucked them from his wallet. He always did that to make sure that there weren’t any bills stuck together. He never did get around to completely finishing the Model A project. We kept it for a few years but he did finally get it to run. I don’t think I ever saw him more pleased than when he finally got it going. It sputtered, backfired and shook as he drove it around the block. I can still see him in a grungy old t-shirt, gray-blue smoke billowing out the back, that big old Irish grin on his ruddy face, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

One time I went on a business trip with my father when I was a junior in high school. It was during my spring break. My dad did a lot of driving for his job. He was really good at it. He was a representative for a big steel mill in northwest Indiana, Inland Steel Company. He made lot of calls to deal with concerns about the steel. When I was younger I thought my dad drove for a living. In a way I guess he did. He had the most amazing sense of direction. He rarely looked at a map and seemed to feel his way around new places. He was one of those guys who never asked for directions, even if it was probably just the right thing to do. A matter of pride I suppose.

We were on a dusty Indiana country road in LaPort County when my dad recognized the area. I’m not sure why we were country roading, surely there was a more direct way home. Maybe he just wanted to spend more time with me. I like to think that’s what it was. I was bored from riding in the car all day. But it had been fun – just the two of us. He took me out to lunch at some greasy spoon out in the country. I felt very adult, very special. As we left the restaurant, he put some dinner mints in his pocket for my brothers. He often did that.

I perked up a little and looked away from my book when I saw him becoming enthusiastic. “Somewhere around here,” he mumbled as we drove by farmhouses in the hazy Indiana evening. “There!” he said with excitement. “I knew I’d been here before. That’s where my father was born. This is the farm where he grew up!”

I didn’t realize at the time just how important that moment was. I didn’t know all these years later that I would remember that sunset, that dusty road, his ruddy face and wind blown hair. It was one of the few times he ever talked about his family. But he did talk that evening. It was as if a door to some part of him had been opened. He told me about his grandfather who was killed on that farm, kicked in the head by a mule. He told me about going there when he was a kid. He hadn’t been that way for so many years that he couldn’t even remember. There was a light in his eyes, a sparkle. I wish I had tapped into his energy more, asked him more questions.

My father dropped me off at college my freshman year. I was exited about leaving home. And more than a little scared. One of my best friends from high school was living in the same dorm. So was my girlfriend. It was the independence I had dreamed of. But I was frightened as well. I grew up in a big family. Seven kids. There was always someone to hang around with, someone to tease. I was used to being surrounded by siblings and my boys from the neighborhood. It was scary to think of living hours away from home. To talk to my mom and my little brother it would be long distance.  Long distance.

We talked about the old days on the four-hour trip. It’s funny how there could even be “old days” when you’re 18 and starting out on your own. I sensed that he was sad at seeing me leave home. I would be back of course. I planned on working in his steel mill the next summer, but this was the first real step toward my being on my own. He helped me move my few possessions to the sweaty dormitory room.

“You’ve got your meal ticket, right?”

“Sure,” I said, starting to get choked up.

“You’ve got some spending money?”

“A little. I don’t need much.” I was trying to act brave but on the inside I was falling apart. I was missing my dad already.

“Here.” He pinched out two twenties. “Don’t tell your mother I gave you this.” It was funny. My mom was by far the more generous one. “And call us if you need anything. Anything at all. Person-to-person for yourself and we’ll call you back.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I wasn’t going to cry in front of him. It was hard.

“C’mon, Bub,” he said. Then he hugged me. Tight. He wasn’t a very hugging guy. I didn’t ever remember him hugging me. Maybe that’s why it meant so much. Maybe that’s why I still remember it. I walked him back to his car. When his car turned the corner I cried.

A few months before he was diagnosed with cancer, my mom and dad visited the first grade classroom at R. Earle Davis Elementary in Cayce, SC where I taught. He was very sick and didn’t know it yet. His hips were sore and his appetite was down. He was looking thin but his color was good. “Just feeling my age,” he said, almost apologetically.

I can see him now, sitting in one of the tiny first grade chairs with the children gathered around my mom and him asking questions. “What kind of naughty things did Mr. O’Keefe do when he was little?”

“Mr. O’Keefe was a pretty good little boy,” my dad answered. “He’s a good son.” There were times I had not been such a good son, such a good little boy.  I knew. By then we had grown to love each other in the quiet way that grown-ups do. In the way that fathers and sons do when they can forget the arguments and the angst, the disobedience and the lack of respect.

I am so thankful that he forgave me for my teenage transgressions. When I think of him in that little tiny chair, I am so proud of him. He had just retired from the mill and looking ahead to a long and happy retirement.

At Christmastime we knew that my dad had cancer. We knew that he didn’t have much more time with us. We knew that the end would not be pleasant. He came home from the hospital for Christmas. It might have been because my sister Ruthie would be there and that she was a doctor and could deal with the IV that he had to keep in the whole time. Or his doctor might just have had the good sense to see that what this man needed most was his last few days at home surrounded by his family. We played cards. We laughed precious laughs. We exchanged gifts. We looked into each other’s eyes.

He and I watched a movie together in his bedroom. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And we laughed. My big brother Pat was asleep in my dad’s leather easy chair. He was snoring lightly.  I was on the floor at the foot of the bed. My dad was in his bed, the IV on a pole next to the bed. We laughed. I’m glad that it was just the two of us awake. For a while, reality was suspended and we gave ourselves up to the movie. When it was over reality came crashing back over us. We didn’t have much time left.

That night I told my dad that I loved him. It was probably the first time since I was a little kid. I said that I was sorry for the ugly way I had treated him when I was younger and that he had to know how I felt. He said he was sorry for some things too. I think it was then that we admitted to ourselves that the end was close.

The evening before my dad went into the final coma I spoke with him on the phone. We talked of all the tests he had to have and he joked weakly about the awful hospital food. He had no appetite. My mom told me that he wasn’t eating. He sounded tired. The last thing I said to him before we hung up the phone was, “I really love you, Dad.”

“You too, Bub.”

I still picture him on that rickety old porch, a glass of wine in his hand. I remember sneaking into the house as a teenager and walking up the stairs in the dead of night. My father in his leather easy chair, asleep, snoring like a lion. Now when I look at my hands I see my father’s hands and in the mirror my father’s eyes. I am so blessed to have known this big, gentle man. I hope that some of his goodness has been passed down to me.

He died with relative peace and dignity. His pain was blessedly short. Most of his family was at his side. He never gave up. He was a strong man.

My dad was a simple guy. I think he had realistic expectations for us. Though he never said them quite this way, I think they were these: Do the best you can with what you have. Be honest. Earn your pay. Be as happy as you can be. I hope that I have lived up to his expectations.