Monday, November 21, 2016

"The Thanksgiving Train Incident"

“The Thanksgiving Train Incident”"
by
Michael P. Nickels

“...Out of the mouths of babes..." reads the Bible. I always thought this meant that children, like drunks and yoga pants, never lie, but one Thanksgiving I learned  that a toddler can also pass along wisdom with just a few short words or maybe even just one.
About twelve years ago I made one of my better decisions. My wife and I decided that we wanted to stay home for Thanksgiving. Several events prompted this decision. Firstly, the  overall stress of  loading up our very young sons and carting them across town to spend time with loved ones had become quite stressful.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my family  very much, but my wife and I felt we had reached a point where we wanted to establish our own holiday traditions. We tried to make it clear that anyone and everyone was welcome to come to our house, but we had decided that we were going to spend Thanksgiving at home. Another contributing factor was the fact I had purchased a turkey fryer and wanted to break it in. Thankfully my parents were very understanding.
In fact, the conversation I had feared the most was the one that was the most enlightening. Pop, as I call him, had been hosting Thanksgiving for a while and I really expected that he might be upset or at least a little disappointed. It turned out to be a very pleasant phone call.

“Hey, Pop, how are you?” I began.
He always answers the same cheery way. “Hey, Mike! What's up?”
“I’m good, thanks, but I have to tell you something and I hope it doesn’t upset you.”
“Well, let’s hear it,” he said in a pleasant tone.
“Well,” I drawled , “Beth and I are planning to stay home this Thanksgiving. We bought a turkey fryer, Ashley and the boys are getting older and we just want to spend the day at home. I hope you understand.”
There was a long pause and I felt for sure he was upset. After waiting a few more seconds there was an unexpected noise coming from the phone.
“Pop, are you laughing?”
“I am indeed,” he told me still chuckling.
“What’s so funny?”
“I have been waiting for you to tell me this for the last 3 or 4 years,” he said with a laugh.
“Really?”
“Oh my God, yes,” he affirmed. “I had this same conversation with your grandfather about 25 or 30 years ago.”
“You did?” 
“Yep, I did and he reacted just as I did today.”
“Did he now?”
Yes, and I completely understand. You need to start your own traditions.”
“Well, uh, thanks for understanding, Pop.”
“No problem, son. Enjoy the day.”

I had expected that conversation to be the most challenging part of staying home on Thanksgiving.  Do you believe I actually thought to myself that this Thanksgiving will be perfectly easy and stress free.
Thanksgiving morning arrived crisp and clear. Like any public school teacher, Mr. Nickels was in a state of blissful happiness. I woke up early and made a pot of coffee. Every morning I make a cup of coffee for my wife and give it to her while she’s still in bed. After that, I attacked the crossword puzzle in the Star and then read for a while. Beth came downstairs to freshen up her coffee.  Our two boys, who were very young at this time, slept late that morning.
Around 10:00 Beth suggested that I start getting  the turkey fryer ready. She reminded  me that our daughter, Ashley, and her boyfriend (at the time), Chuck, were supposed to arrive around 12:30. Have I mentioned yet that reminding me about things is something my wife does very well?
“Don’t forget they have to be at his parents by 4:00 so we need to be on schedule,” Beth said.
“Okay,” I replied, “but aren’t  you glad we don’t have that issue this year?”
“I am,” Beth said as she gave me a hug, “but we need to hurry and get things ready.”
This was Beth’s subtle way of telling me to get my @$$ in gear. This I did. A wise man learns to listen to the tone of his wife’s voice. In other words, a happy man knows that "if mama ain’t happy then nobody’s happy."
So I went into the garage and hauled all my shiny new turkey fryer equipment out to the patio. This included the peanut oil, the pot/tub for the turkey, the propane tank, the lighter, and all the cooking utensils needed for lowering the bird in and out of  the boiling oil. I made one more trip back to the garage to grab the fire extinguisher. I’ve never had to use it, but it’s good to have it  nearby just in case.
The fryer assembly went well and I had all the equipment and utensils that I would need. After pouring the jug of peanut oil into the tub I noticed the oil level was about 4 inches below the fill-line. I went back into the garage thinking I forgot to bring out the extra gallon of  oil I asked Beth to get from the store. There was no extra jug of  oil in the garage. So I went into the kitchen to ask Beth about it.
“Hey, Hon?” I called as I walked through the mud-room and into our kitchen. “Where did you put that extra gallon of peanut oil I asked you to get from the grocery store?”
“You never asked me to do that?”
“Yes, I did.”
“No, you didn’t.”
There was a clear note of finality in her voice. Nothing productive was going to be gained from arguing about whether or not I had actually made the request in question. Recognizing things like this is one of the reasons that I have been married to the same person for nearly 24 years.
“Any kind of cooking oil will work won’t it?” Beth asked.
“I dunno?” was my eloquent reply.
Beth shot a rumpled grin at me and I thought I heard her sigh. We then walked over to the kitchen pantry and found a quart size bottle of  vegetable oil. It was only half full. It’s good to be optimistic especially on Thanksgiving.
“Will that work?” I asked. “I mean can you mix the oils?”
“Of course you can,” she said while looking at me in a way that made me feel stupid.
I took it out to the patio and poured the remaining oil into the tub. It barely raised the oil level. It became obvious to me that a Wal-Mart run was necessary. I went ahead and connected the fuel line to the propane tank and lit the burner, making sure the flame was turned down really low. I went back into the kitchen to tell Beth that we need more oil.
“Hey, Beth, I’m going to have to go to Wal-Mart to get some more oil.”
“You better hurry up,” she replied. Her voice sounded urgent. “Ashley and Chuck will be here in an hour.”
“Okay, I’ll hurry.”
Just as I grabbed my keys we heard a clunk from upstairs. We both knew what the sound was. It was our youngest son, Carson. He had a habit of throwing toys out of his bed when he woke up.
“You’ll have to take Carson,” Beth told me. “I can’t get him and Griffin dressed and ready, watch the stove and the oven, now the turkey fryer too, and straighten up the downstairs and the upstairs!”
Her stress level seemed to increase with each and every word. For a moment I almost protested, but my intelligence got the better of me.
“No problem,” I told my frantic bride.
I went upstairs and got Carson out of bed. Fortunately for me he was drowsy, but not grouchy.
“You’re going to the store with me, Kit,” I told him. I called him ‘Kit’ after the famous scout, ‘Kit’ Carson. After changing him and getting him dressed I carried him downstairs  where Beth was waiting. She gave me  my wallet , the diaper bag, and a bottle for Carson.
“Please hurry,” she whined.
“Don’t need the extra stress, thanks,” I thought to myself.
“Okay,”  was my sole reply.

After loading Carson into the car, I drove out of Kensington Farms as quickly as safety would permit. We turned right  onto Sunnyside Road. I accelerated toward the railroad crossing, but slowed down just enough to pause at the tracks. Just as I looked to my left I heard a clanging sound followed by the wail of a train's whistle, I saw the red blinking lights, and I saw the black and white striped arm slowly descend.
Before I could say, “Oh shit!” Carson spoke his first words of the day.
“Cool! Daddy, we get to see the whole thing!”
It made me smile and then it made me laugh. I looked into the rearview  mirror and I could see my little boy grinning from ear to ear.
Can you guess the one word he uttered that made the difference? Can you guess the one word that was dripping with joy, wisdom and gratitude?
The word was “we.” My son taught me the simple significance and the value of being together. I’m sorry to say that over the years I periodically forget this, but every Thanksgiving this memory returns. I smile gratefully and say a quiet humble thanks for that train and the cooking oil I forgot to buy.


Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

A younger version of my now 16 year old son would like to wish you a very safe, happy & politically correct Thanksgiving.


Friday, April 22, 2016

"10 School Teachers & a Moment of Life's Perfection"

     Thrilling is a word that I don't use very often, but when I do I reserve it for those singular moments in life when you experience something you've never experienced before. 
     I've had a few moments like this. The kind of moment that resonates within you and the joy of the occasion comes flooding back to you. The memory of it forces you to feel it all over again. A kind of positive PTSD if you will. Being an urban school teacher this sort of thing doesn't happen very often and that's more than okay. No one has a life totally filled joy and satisfaction. We just aren't wired that way and even if we were we would find something to gripe about.
       Two occasions that thrilled me to my core involved two of  the founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I was chaperoning an 8th grade trip to Washington D.C. and we went to Mount Vernon. I almost missed getting on the bus with my group because I was so enraptured by a very old key encased in plexiglas. My friend and colleague Bruce Houston came back to get me. He was little huffed because he had a schedule to keep.
      "What are you doing?" he asked me.
      "That's a key to the Bastille, man," I told him.
      "Yeah, that's cool," he said or words to that effect. "We got a lot to see, you know?"
      "That's a key to the fucking Bastille!" I whisper-yelled. "Lafayette gave it to him."
      "You're killing me, Nickels," Bruce sighed. 
      So we got on the bus, but I've relived seeing that key a thousand times. Part of what made it so thrilling is that it was such a profoundly personal thing to be that close to a real piece of history. As a boy, I had loved learning about the American Revolution and read books about Washington and Lafayette--my favorite French person if it's not too weird to have one of those.
       On another occasion, while vacationing with the family in Virginia, I drove to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, my favorite president. He was a writer, a thinker, a farmer, an inventor and  a statesman. Like Washington, he was also a friend to Lafayette.
      The Monticello tour guide  described him by saying, "It was said that Thomas Jefferson stood 6'3" and he was straight as a gun barrel...he was up before the Sun every day of his life."  He has always been an American Renaissance man to me and it was thrilling for me to walk where he walked. 

      Any way, those two solitary experiences rank among some of the most significant moments of my life, but they were solitary moments for the most part. You see, last night was different.  I accompanied 9 of my colleagues to Cincinnati to watch a baseball game. 
       The idea for the trip came about because we didn't have school today (Friday 4/22). This was due to the fact that we had not had a snow day this winter. A rare occurrence in Indiana to be sure and if we had just gone to the game it would have been a memorable experience.                 
      We loaded up into a large passenger van that Tim Barthel had arranged to rent for us. Steve Gretencord  ordered the tickets and we went there just to watch a ball game and have fun. We had no idea that the "bang we got for our buck" was going to take a quantum leap. You, see last night Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs threw a no hitter and it was in a word ...thrilling. You had to be there--it's part of the thrill.
        Unlike the previously mentioned thrilling moments this was a collective experience. What a privilege to have shared it with 9 men that I profoundly respect. Our ages ranged from 49 to 65. Like they say, "Age is just a number." There was only one math teacher among us so we didn't really dwell on it too long.
       Obviously, I'm biased, but teachers are really special people. There is nothing in the world like having fun with a bunch of guys that do the same thing you do. Guys that  know what it's  like to endure the shared experience of what Hemingway called "quiet desperation." If you're a regular reader, then this is a familiar gripe of mine. Please forgive the digression, but teachers need to vent on occasion and it's a privilege to be able to vent to these guys.
         I will honor the words of my friend, Chris Meguschar, "What's said in the van stays in the van!" 
        That van was more like a magic bus or  a time machine because it turned a bunch of tired-old-into the last grading period-teachers into college boys. The laughter was constant, the teasing was all good-natured, and we let a soothing, cathartic  fellowship soak into our bones. We ate salty snacks and washed them down in the way that people over the age of 21 are allowed to do. 
           The game itself was great and for the most part we were all hoping the Cubs would win. There were multiple home runs and the Cubs had the game well in hand by the end of the 5th inning. They added 8 more runs by the top of the 7th inning and at the middle of the 7th my friend Steve turned to me.
       "He's 9 outs away."
       "Yeah, he is," was my response.
       That was when it really hit me and the others that we were in rarified air. The announcer said there were 16,497 people in attendance. There weren't that many in the 42,319 seat Great American Ballpark. Shakespeare wrote, "We few, we happy few..."
        We all seemed to begin to watch the game more intently. I don't remember a single past ball. The Chicago infielders and outfielders were locked in and you could hear their communal thought.
        "I'll be damned if I'm going to be the one to fuck this thing up."
        There was no doubt they were trying their best to help Jake Arrieta do this wonderful amazing thing.
        I've seen championships, been to a lot of big games, but this was different. With every pitch, strike, ball, catch and throw the night intensified. 
        "C'mon, kid. Bust 'em up!" I yelled as Arrieta took the mound as the bottom of the 9th inning began. 
       Finally at the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs and a 2-2 count Jake Arrieta threw his 119th pitch and the ball popped up for the final out. We all high-fived one another and let the out-and-out rarity of what we had just seen soak in.
        "You can't write that shit," I thought to my self. 
        And to my colleagues, I say, "Thanks for a great evening, boys!"

        Thanks for stopping by and staying to the end. 



     

Friday, March 18, 2016

"Bloom Where You're Planted"

      I will be 52 this year and so far I have learned that there are only two really absolute and constant truths that you can count on. The first one is that hindsight is always 20/20 and the second is that life will change.
     Back in late 2013 I wrote a blog to announce my retirement as an educator--almost sounds important don't it? Any way, I was really proud of that blog and what I said in it ("Will Write for Food"). Feel free to go back and take a look at it. 
    Guess what? My life changed. In early 2014 we learned that Beth had cancer ("Cancer, Conversation, Corners, & Infinite Space"). Obviously that kind of news can profoundly affect your perspective,  and while it was an experience that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy I'm grateful for it. It taught me a great deal about myself.
     For starters, while I'm capable of very good things I can also be a selfish bastard with powerful demons that often shout down my better angels. 
     It was hard to see Beth so sick and to be so powerless. To this day, I don't know why God chose us for that test, but we were blessed to survive it. Perhaps I needed to feel his strength in my humility? Maybe, there's a third truth that I've heard a million times, but never bought into. That famous quote containing the "F" word.
     
     "Life's not fair."   

     It's really not, you know. It's hard too, but it's also very good. 
    Take teaching for instance, it's hard. I've never felt like I was really all that good at it. Some things I did well. Reading literature, discussing it, and breaking it down for kids are all strengths. Other things I struggle with. Teaching kids to write and express themselves is a nasty challenge for me. Their collective apathy seems to exacerbate my ineptitude. It's an area of my personal pedagogy that I can hopefully improve upon. For some reason, Providence has seen fit to put me in a place that affords me that opportunity.

     "If you say so, God, then I shall bloom where I'm planted, but I'm gonna do it under protest. I was really hoping to finish that novel."
    "Yes, I know, but this is good practice for it don't you think?"
    "Yes, sir, I suppose so. I am about 75% done you know?"
    "Of course I know. That's when it gets hard."
    "Really?"
    "Oh, Myself, yes. You should have seen Dickens and Twain when they got to that point."
     "No, kidding."
    "Absolutely, and I'll tell you something else. Hemingway and Salinger were much, much worse."
    "I can believe that."
    "Interesting word choice there."
    "Which one?"
    "Why, 'believe' of course."
    "How so?"
    "Because you believe in so much."
    "I do?"
    "You know you do. And like so many, you forget so easily. Me and Santa Claus for example. You still believe in both of us don't you?"
    "I do. It's just--"
   "The unbelief thing, right?"
   "Right.'I do believe; help my unbelief.' Mark 9:24. The doubt is part and parcel with the faith. Isn't it, Father?"
   "It always has been, Michael. That and the fact that no small part of having faith is remembering that I have faith in you. When you maintain hope in those children that seem so ungrateful, so rude, so apathetic and so disrespectful you mimic me. And when you help the one's that don't deserve your help or even a modicum of your compassion you mimic Him, my son. Can't you feel our pleasure?"
     "At times, yes, Father I can, but it's hard."
   "What? Being ignored and unappreciated? I wouldn't know anything about that, but you can handle it. When you were a child you once thought your name was boring. Do you remember?"
   "Yes, I remember." 
   "Then remember this. You bear the name of my bravest and fiercest Archangel. That is not a coincidence. Those don't exist."
   "Do you really think some of them need me?"
   "We, meaning you and I, know that many of them need you. I'm sorry that many of them will never know or appreciate all that you do."
   "Do you still like Greek mythology?"
   "Yes, Father, I do."
   "What was in the bottom of Pandora's box?"
   "Hope."
   "One of my favorite words, my son. I like it better than Amen."


    Teaching is what I do and being a teacher is who I am. Sadly, I don't always feel great about it, but the time I took off to be with Beth helped me to see that it's not a bad life. My dad once told me, "They don't pay you for good days." I was looking at the job all wrong. For a long time all I thought about was the impossibility of doing it for another decade. The semester and a half away helped me to shift my focus and contemplate the potential of the people I might be able to help in a decade. I also had no idea how much I would miss my colleagues. That and the fact that Carson is entertaining the idea of going to college in a couple of years.  I really do love that kid even though he can be a selfish little bastard. I can't imagine where he gets that from?

    As always, thanks for stopping by and staying till the end. 

    
   

     

Friday, August 21, 2015

"The Wisdom of Kitchen Tables"

“The Wisdom of Kitchen Tables”


I believe in kitchen tables. This may seem like a silly thing to believe in. Most people don’t give them much thought. I used to think that. When I was a kid a kitchen table was simply a place where you ate breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It took the death of my friend’s mom for me to really see the power and magic of kitchen tables. That was more than 10 years ago.


My friend, Bruce, lives in Ohio now and while I don’t see him as often as I would like too, I have so many memories of growing up with him. We became good friends in junior high--there weren’t very many middle schools back then. I spent a lot of nights at his house. He had a morning paper route and if you spent the night there then you were expected to help deliver the papers  during the predawn hours of darkness. While we were delivering the papers Carol would either go and get donuts or she would fix bacon and eggs for us.


Carol would sit at the kitchen table smoking her cigarettes and drinking her morning coffee. She could talk to anyone and she loved to hold court at that kitchen table. There was nothing very special about the table. It was a yellow Formica kitchen table and it only had room for four seats. I think they had to put a leaf in and pull up an extra chair when Bruce’s older brother was home from Ball State.


Perhaps that was what made sitting at the table so special. You felt privileged and conversation with Carol was like that. She was a good listener. You could tell she was really thinking about whatever it was you told her. She would wait for you to finish and then she would blow smoke out the corner of her mouth before she gave you her thoughts. One thing you could count on was that those thoughts would be honest.


One time I told her about my homecoming date my sophomore year. The date had not gone well and her response was, “So I assume you’re not asking her out again.”


Another time I told her that after high school I was thinking about going out to California and becoming a construction worker. She looked at me and said, “Nickels, you’re full of shit.”


When I told her I was thinking about going back to school to become a teacher she nodded and said, “Yeah, I can see that.”


People from all around their neighborhood spent time at that table. There was always a wide assortment of ages and genders. She was a people-person and all people were welcome at her table. Carol had strong opinions, but she wasn’t really judgmental. It’s worth mentioning that you didn’t want to get on her bad side and you sure didn’t want to cross her if she had been good to you.


It’s hard to put into words, but somehow those conversations helped to form a significant part of the person I would be when I grew up. Some vague promise within myself was reinforced there. Carol has been dead for a decade or so now, but someday I hope to sit down at a kitchen table with her again, so that I can thank her.



182168257_yellow-antique-mid-century-chrome-formica-kitchen-table-.jpg

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Cancer, Conversation, Corners & Infinite Space"

     CANCER.
    There it is. A word that is the "Voldemort" of our times. Except it really isn't. When I was a kid cancer was a word that was only spoken in whispers and hushed tones. I know I've mentioned it like that along with everyone else. No more. I've recently been reminded that it has no power over things like faith, hope, and love.
     Last Friday a doctor told my wife she has cancer. We don't have a fight with cancer; cancer has a fight with us. I almost feel sorry for the poor wretch.
     In fact, I find myself thinking about what I would say to Cancer if it appeared personified before me.  I think the conversation might go something like this:
     
     "Can I help you?"
    "Yes, Mr. Nickels, I'm Cancer and I'm here to see your wife."
    "Oh, yeah, the doctors mentioned something about you." 
    "Did they tell you how many people I've killed?"
    "No need. I've gone to their funerals."
    "I know. I've seen you crying."
    "You're not the first to see me cry and you won't be the last. Why don't you take a really close look? Can you see me now? Take a good look at me being unimpressed with you."
    "Sure, you're tough now. They are always tough in the beginning."
    "Still standing here. Still unimpressed."
    "Whatever. Like I said before I'm here for your wife."
    "Heard you the first time. You couldn't take my mom. What makes you think you can handle my wife? I've watched her give birth to two babies. She's the toughest non-athletic person I know."
     "This is getting tiresome. I'd like to see your wife now."
     "Yeah, good luck with that."
     "Excuse me?"
     "No, I don't think I will."
     "What makes you think you can stop me?"
     "Others have."
     "I often come back."
     "Yeah, I know."
     "I can make hair fall out and I can take away dignity."
     "Actually, the chemo makes the hair fall out. Hair grows back. People buy wigs. And you can't take anything we don't willingly give to you."
     "Mr. Nickels, you almost sound as if you think you're in a fair fight."
    "You kinda sound like a poor man's Ricky Gervais. Any way,  we know you don't fight fair. As a matter of fact, we're counting on you not to fight fair."
    "I can cause malignancy. Malignancy is a lovely word don't you think?"
    "You know 'malignancy' has the name 'Nancy' in it. We know several people with that name. They're all really lovely. From now on that'll be your name. That okay with you, Nancy?"
     "Very funny, Mr. Nickels. I've done my homework on you."
      "That's nice, Nancy. What have you learned about me, Nancy?"
     "I know you played some football as a young man. I know you're a high school English teacher, that you like to write, you like to think of yourself as tough, clever, funny and you have an above average number of friends. I also know that you love your family. Yadda yadda yadda."
      "Very good, Nancy. You get a gold star. I don't think I'm all that tougher than anyone else, but I can quote Nietzsche, Voltaire, and Thoreau.  I can also name all 7 Heisman Trophy winners from Notre Dame. Oh, and  as for those friends and family of ours you mentioned, you might want to to study them a little bit."
      "Why would  I want to study any of your friends and family? The only possible interest they could hold for me might be as potential victims." 
    "Well, Goody Goody Gum-Drops! Nancy! Because they are coming out of the woodwork to take a shot at you. They're gonna help us hit you spiritually, chemically, and radioactively."
     "So we are going to continue with the 'Nancy' thing?"
     "Yes, Nancy."
     "Is 'radioactively' even a word?"
     "It is now, Nancy."
     "You know I can metastasize."
     "Yes, Nancy, I know. Did you know that my wife's friends can text and use Pinterest?"
     "Really? And will you please stop calling me 'Nancy'?"
     "Sorry, Nancy. They can text and use Pinterest at the same time. They sometimes do it while they're driving their cars. Kinda scary, don't you think, Nancy?"
     "I can spread to any corner of the body and I can hide in any corner of the body."
     "That's an interesting word choice, Nancy."
     "Oh, how so? Mr. Nickels?"
      "Well, Nancy, I'll bet you think of 'corners' as small  dark cramped spaces. Spaces you can hide in and where you can do your nasty work unseen. Isn't that what you think, Nancy?"
       "Stop calling me Nancy."
       "You know what a boxing ring is don't you, Nancy?"
       "Yes, Mr. Nickels."
       "It's interesting that they are actually square and they call them rings. Don't you think, Nancy?"
       "I never really thought much about it, Mr. Nickels, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist that you stop calling me 'Nancy'."
      "Okay, ass-hat, as long as you don't let the door hit you on the way out, but before you go let me tell you what cancer has taught me about corners. Corners aren't small. They are places of infinite space and in our corners we have plenty of room for anyone that wants to send up a prayer or a good thought. Anyone that wants to shake their fist at cancer or give it the middle finger is most welcome in our corner. I almost feel sorry for you. You see some of my people are from the West side and they don't fight fair. You're going to think you picked a fight with the Navy SEALS."
       "Yes, Mr. Nickels. I've heard it all before faith, hope, love, loyalty,  and the power of prayer. BLAH! BLAH! BLAH! Is there anything else?"
         "Just two words."
         "I'm listening, Mr. Nickels."
         "Fuck off, Mr. Cancer."



"Never stop fighting until the fight is done. Here endeth the lesson."





      
     


Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Top 5 Christmas Movies"

      "Everything you need to know about life can be found in the movies," I heard that in a movie. I think it was Grand Canyon and I'm pretty sure Steve Martin said it. I'm sure teachers and professors everywhere would dispute this assertion--I would. Having said that, I believe that everything we love about Christmas and the Holiday season is reinforced by movies about the magic of Christmas. Here are my top 5 Christmas movies along with some elaboration-they don't have to be yours, but they are all mine:

1. A Christmas Carol (1951) with Alistair Sim

     "A good story bears repeating," they say. I'm an English teacher so this one gets to be first. Whenever someone says that certain pieces of literature are out-of-date, irrelevant, and insignificant I want to ask them, "Do you celebrate Christmas?" Our seasonal traditions stem from a time when people didn't have movies, television or the Internet, but they did have literature. 
     Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall and A History of New York along with Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas (originally titled A Visit from St. Nicholas) both brought the magic of Christmas to the masses. Sherlock Holmes even has a Christmas story--"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." 
      Those are all great stories, but Dickens hits it out of the park. There is a legend that Charles Dickens was so inspired while writing A Christmas Carol that his children would sit outside the door to his study and listen to him laugh and cry as he recited  parts of the story. Redemption is a powerful thing.
    The only thing that feels as good as being forgiven is forgiving someone. I believe this is a "divine spark" that God has blessed us with.
     "You're very good at apologizing," Beth once told me.
     "I should be. I've had plenty of practice."
     Forgiveness is at the heart of A Christmas Carol. One of the things I like about this version is that we get a sense of just how deep the regrets of Scrooge run. His hesitation and body language before he walks into his nephew's house make it obvious that he's thinking, "I wouldn't blame Fred if threw my grouchy old ass out of here quick as Jack Robinson." 
    Fred doesn't let him down and old Ebeneezer becomes the best uncle ever. I also think the George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart versions convey Scrooge's deep regret in homage to Alastair Sim's performance.

2. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

      This is one of the best movies ever made and like #1 it's set on Christmas Eve and the magic of humanity abounds. Throughout my life I have learned that two of the most important things are also two of the easiest to forget. 
      One, we need each other, and two, we just don't know how much impact we have on others. George Bailey feels his own lonely nightmare and then he gets a glimpse into just how important he is to others. 
    This movie runs the emotional gambit, but I always feel just a little envious of Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey. He is allowed to see just how significant he has been to others. 
    It's kind of like sneaking into your own funeral a la Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Hopefully, some of you knew that was the reason for Clarence's "parting gift" to George. Yeah, English Teacher!
    Carson and I were watching one Christmas. Kit (that's what I call him) was very young, maybe 6 or 7. He was having a little trouble following so he asked me a question.
    "If George Bailey is in so much trouble why are all those people at his house having a party?"
     "They came," I told him, "because, George is in trouble."
     "I don't get it," he persisted.
     "It's what friends do," I began, but I had to pause because my lower lip had begun to quiver. I refocussed and tried to continue. 
    "You see, that's what friends do. They heard George was in trouble and like Uncle Billy said 'they didn't ask any questions they just heard George was in trouble and they came running' to help him. Because that's what George would have done for them."
     I think I'm going to move on to the next movie now. I'm gonna have to take this new laptop back to Best Buy the screen just got misty.

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

    Who is Santa Claus? Edmund Gwenn! That's who! This fact is supported not only by Mr. Macy, but the United States Postal Service and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well. The guy got an Oscar for his portrayal of Kris Kringle and in my book that means you're Santa Claus. 
    Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood are two of the toughest Hollywood dames  ever and by the end of the film they believe. With the help of John Payne they "get it." 
    This time of year we see a lot of signs and digital posts with this one word:
"BELIEVE."
     The magic of this movie is that it reminds us that we are right to believe. And I will argue that with my dying breath. Like Maureen O'Hara says, "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to." Words to live by.

4. A Christmas Story (1983)

     I wish I had gone to see this in a movie theater when it came out, but like most people I discovered it on VHS and TV broadcast. Perhaps we all owe a tip-of-the-hat to Ted Turner and his networks for planting this movie in our  collective psyches.
     I don't even want to know how many hours I've spent watching this movie. Guess how much sleep I'll lose over that--that's right DONUT! 
    We can all relate to Ralphie's Christmas quest. Yes, it is "better to give than to receive", but isn't that expression a bit of a paradox? Somebody has to want or need something in order for us to be compelled to give, right? Sometimes that want is so pure that it supersedes one's own ocular safety.
      It would be easy to list 150 or so of the best lines from this movie, but I'll leave you with one suggestion and one question. 
      I suggest you check out the source material, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by the late Jean Shepherd. According to imdb.com, he inspired (in part) the writing of Jack Kreouac and Sidney Lumet's Network
      Here's my question, "Could there be a more overlooked national treasure than Darren McGavin?" One Friday afternoon, on the last day of school before Christmas Break, I was celebrating, in a pub (can you believe that), with my colleagues. Mike Cronley, our chief custodian, spontaneously rose to his feet. He hoisted his glass skyward and proclaimed, "To the late, great Darren McGavin! The fiercest furnace-fighter in Northern Indiana!"
      We all rose as one and the sound of our glasses clinking echoed throughout the bar.

5. Christmas Vacation (1989)

     Just as #4 above reflected the way we saw Christmas as kids. This film shows how we as adults yearn for the way we remember the Christmases of our past. Let me clarify, we yearn for the way we remember them. In fact, our memories are most likely not exactly as things were, but that's okay, because it's the spirit and the flavor of memory that matters the most. 
     Chevy Chase was born to play Clark Griswold and Randy Quaid was born for the role of Cousin Eddie. Here are my top 5 moments from one of the funniest movies ever made:

  • "The little lights up top aren't twinkling, Clark." 

       "Thanks for noticing, Art."

  • "Eddie, if I woke up with my head sewn to the carpet I couldn't be any more surprised than I am right now."
  • JELLY OF THE MONTH CLUB! "That's a gift that keeps on giving the whole year, Clark."

       "Right you are, Edward!"

  • "He's got a little bit of Mississippi leg-hound in him. If he starts in on you, best to just let him finish."
  • "HALLELUJAH! Where's the Tylenol?"

     As always, thanks again for stopping by. Happy Holidays, Happy viewing and  Merry Christmas to all. 







Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"The Heisman Trophy: Old School or New School?"

     What does it mean to win a Heisman Trophy? This question is being dissected, answered, and argued as never before. People, along with this writer, are asking, "Should Jameis Winston receive the Heisman Trophy while the spectre of alleged sexual assault charges circle around him like foreboding buzzards?"

       Let us begin with this thought. An accused individual is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Heisman voters are under no such obligation. Personally, I consider the "presumption of innocence" a fundamental building block in a democratic society that claims to hold documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence sacred. Perhaps, to some, this is an 'old school' way of thinking. This leads to another question. "Can we award the Heisman Trophy to the best college football player in the land and dismiss all the 'old school' elements that are associated with an award that has been given away annually since 1935?"

      Posted on the Heisman Trophy website is the Heisman Trust Mission Statement. It reads, in part, as follows:

The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust ensures the continuation and integrity of this award. The Trust, furthermore, has a charitable mission to support amateur athletics and to provide greater opportunities to the youth of our country. Our goal through these charitable endeavors is for the Heisman Trophy to symbolize the fostering of a sense of community responsibility and service to our youth... 

     This mission statement clearly says that character and 'integrity' are tied to the recipient of this award. The trustees of the trophy seem to be saying that any athlete that earns it should set an example for the young people of this country. That seems like a nice idea to me.

     This may seem prudish to some. I don't know the exact number, but it's a safe bet that quite a few Heisman winners never received degrees from  their respective universities. All young people make bad decisions. When I was in college I made plenty and some were more costly than others. Fortunately, for me, my mistakes were never fodder for talk radio or the Internet. Jameis Winston, his accuser, and their respective families are going through the darkest days of their lives. It's a tragedy and there will be no winners. Sadly, I think that will have to include the Heisman Trophy.

     College athletics has never been pure as new fallen snow, but the Heisman Trophy is a touchstone that takes us back to a time that seems more clean, more earnest and more heroic. The first decade of winners belonged to that group of people that Tom Brokaw calls our "Greatest Generation." People that learned about sacrifice and hardship during the Great Depression and World War II.

     One such person was Nile Kinnick Jr.. He was the 1939 Heisman recipient from Iowa. He was briefly a WWII veteran. Kinnick became a Naval aviator, but was killed in a plane crash in 1943. In the book After the Glory Heismen, Dave Newhouse described him as "...a talented football hero and a tribute to the Great American Dream."

     Newhouse's book included this excerpt from a letter that Nile Kinnick wrote to his parents just days before his death. Demonstrating a wisdom and sensitivity well beyond his 25 years, he wrote:

This task which lies ahead is adventure as well as duty, and I am anxious to get at it. I feel better in mind and body than I have for 10 years, and am quite certain that I can meet the foe confident and unafraid...Truly we have shared to the full life, love and laughter. Comforted in the knowledge that your thought and prayer go with us every minute, and sure that your faith and courage will never falter no matter the outcome...

     It's understandable that many may view my perspective as naive and out of date, but I think most would concede that the feats of Heisman winners were often epic and heroic. This would include Army recipients like Pete Dawkins, Glenn 'Mr. Inside' Davis, and Doc 'Mr. Outside' Blanchard, all three lived up to the Heisman legacy. Roger Staubach's defeat of Notre Dame would be one such moment. It took Navy more than 40 years to repeat the achievement. The magic of Doug Flutie's arm as he led Boston College in a win over the powerful Miami Hurricanes is another. I will never forget the first time I saw the combination of speed and power that Bo Jackson demonstrated, these moments are the "stuff of dreams."

     A friend of mine recently asked me, "Do you think the word 'great' is over used?" I agreed with him that it is, but the Heisman trophy connotes greatness.

     The Heisman Trophy resonates with a greatness that goes well beyond the football field and the college campus. It would be a terribly sad thing if character and integrity were separated from the trophy. If there's no truth to this then why did Johnny Manziel's behavior over the past year draw so much attention. As I watched his antics, I thought of Victor Hugo's quote, "Fame and popularity are the  crumbs of greatness."

      I'm big on quotes. Robert Browning wrote, "...a man's reach should exceed his grasp--or what's a heaven for?" For me, the elusive 'greatness' of the Heisman trophy lies in the combination of athletics, academics, character, and integrity. If you remove one of those elements then you need to call it something else.

      Sadly, we live in a world where technology so permeates our existence that the most embarrassing and intimate moments of the human experience are often made public for all. I agree that it's not fair, but the decisions of Jameis Winston whether intentional, unintentional or consensual cast a shadow. It's  too bad we know so much about Mr. Winston's encounter.  I  really do wish him well, but I also understand the "old school" voters that won't cast their Heisman ballots for him because I would do the same. When a young man stands up to receive a Heisman trophy it would be nice to think that he knows how to treat the daughters, the sisters, and the future mothers of his fellow man with respect. Perhaps Jameis Winston will return to Florida State and play as he did this year and show us that he is truly worthy of the greatness that should be associated with the trophy. I truly hope that he does.