Monday, December 20, 2004

Around the World in 80 Years

The small crowd of about 75, jammed into a small hotel conference room, chanted at the elderly old woman to tell a birthday story for Dolores about their younger years. Jean, Dolores's maid of honor almost sixty years prior to this event, answered the crowd laughingly, "I wish I could, but I don't want to say anything incriminating and get her mad at me! Dolores, we still have to stay best friends for the rest of our lives!" Dolores, in the chair of honor at her 80th birthday celebration, hooted back, "Honey, we're already there!"

This was the atmosphere at my Grandma Smith's birthday party last night. There was a little display set up next to the cake with tons of pictures, which were frequently observed by several of my grandmother's friends and family throughout the evening. I must've met about 30 people over the age of 75 last night, and I sat and chewed the fat with a majority of them. All of my aunts and uncles were there from out of town, and as many of Grandma's friends who could make it were there also. There was just a good feel to the whole night, and with the sequence of events that the party included, how could there NOT be?

First things first: the food was the most delicious catered food I've ever eaten in my entire life. There was this insane chicken breast with a most delightful marinade, and very hearty slices of pork. They also had those mashed potatoes with little pieces of the skin still in them, as well as green beens almondine. Add this to an open bar (wanted a white Russian, but there was no Kahlua, so I went with the Amaretto Sour--I know, it's a chick drink, but I needed something to tasty to accompany my high-class dinner), and you've quite a lovely setup for your taste buds. So we munched at the "Kid's Table," (and no, not the card table we're perpetually stuck at for holiday feasts) and then got on to the evening's festivities.

Kyle, Jenna, Jackie and I sang a Marc Broussard song together called "Save Me." It's about turning another year older, but still having good people to rely on and help you out, even as you get older and older. Then my mother's Madrigal choir came in and sang a few Christmas songs for everyone. This was a huge hit. Take it from me and my own personal experiences singing a capella Christmas tunes for senior citizens--they LOVE it! You'd think they were at a Lawrence Welk party the way they were digging this stuff. I kept waiting for one of the old ladies to hop onto the table and start doing the Charleston to "Snow, Snow, Snow." It didn't happen, but the music was rad. Then, my cousin Dennis, who is training as an apprentice in New York to become a professional composer, arranged a song for the Madrigals to sing called "When I Was Your Age." It too was very impressive.

Then my Dad read a poem he had written, as he put it, "for all the in-laws out there." It was about being so lucky to have his existing family (me and the twins included) accepted so quickly and naturally into the family created and raised by my grandmother. He said that for some people, it's a chore to just take people in and love them just like that, but that he respected her deeply because it was so easy for her. He spelled out the fact that good people come from good parents, and when one of those good parents makes it to 80 years old, you have a good opporunity to let them know what a wonderful legacy they've made for the rest of the world to benefit from. I guess it would be a bit sentimental for most, but it echoed my own sentiments about my family pretty accurately, and I'm sure it meant a lot for the people there to hear that.

My cousin Joanna is in the Peace Corps in Seattle, so she couldn't be there, but she and my grandmother are very close. She wrote a letter for her that my Uncle Mark (her father) read out loud to everyone. I shouldn't say "read," because I couldn't even tell you what the letter was about because he'd read three words and start crying. I think it was just because he was so proud of the insight and maturity Jo showed in her letter. I love my cousin, and I know that she's grown SO MUCH as a person since doing the Seattle thing. I'm sure her letter was meaningful, and Grandma will get to read it later and figure out what the hell Mark was blubbering about. Irregardless of the meaning of the thing, his tears had half of the room in tears, and before anyone could stop themselves, pretty much everybody was letting out light tear flow.

We entertained, reminisced, and ate a damn fine meal. Grandma got to visit with old friends, siblings, children, and grandchildren. Actually, she was probably the only one all night long who didn't cry. My grandma is just tough like that. She didn't let out a single tear for the entire 4-hour visitation when my grandfather died. She's not the most sentimental old broad in the history of the world, but she's seen enough where I'm sure she's probably all cried out by now. She's a remarkable woman, and for 80 years old, she's still remarkably spry. She could probably whoop either of my sisters's respective asses in arm-wrestling (take that for what it's worth). It was just a great night for her, and I couldn't help but leave that place last night feeling really good and very happy for her. To be that old and still have so many people around that care about you so much. I know there a lot of people her age in nursing homes who never get a single visit. But, I can say with confidence that if my Grandma Smith ever ended up in a similar facility (God forbid), she'd never be short on visitors.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Bells

It was nice to see "The Polar Express" made into a movie. I remember as a kid, my mother absolutely loved that book, so of course, the twins and I also always loved that book! I'm visiting my parents house for the holidays, and to pass the time on this lazy Saturday, I dug up my mom's copy of "The Polar Express," and found something incredible stuffed into the back of the jacket cover of the hardbound book...

I always knew that my mom loved Christmas above all other holidays, and I knew that she was always helping out the families of her students (she was an elementary special education teacher in extremely poor communities--helluva job, right?). But what I found in the back of that book really opened up my eyes to what my mother really saw in Christmas. If you have had a hard time getting into the true holiday spirit, or you really just want to feel good about yourself, read this typed journal entry I found stuffed into the back of "The Polar Express." My mom wrote this right before her last Christmas at home. She died about 15 months later, and this piece of writing really reminds me what a huge loss the world experienced when it lost her.

The Bells
by Paula Brigham
December 2, 1989

"Christmas Eve Mass—earlybird style—4:30 p.m. on December 24, and there’s standing room only. I find myself tucked neatly into the corner of a tiny little choir loft amidst many people that I don’t know. We are all dolled up in our Christmas finery, and my own three children wiggle to get more comfortable and crane their necks to see all of the excitement. My 4 year old twins each find a borrowed lap and my 6 year old is offered a ‘choice spot’ by the rail. The choir loft gives off a gentle creak, a hush comes over the church, and mass begins.

"I usually try hard to listen to the sermons, and sometimes I hear every word, but there are other times when my mind becomes fixated on a phrase. I don’t really remember the entire sermon—it was something about Santa Claus, a little boy, and a special bell from the sleigh. I do remember Father telling us to “hear the bell.”

"At the end of the service we left for home and our special Christmas mission; the thoughts of church seemed to be left behind for a time. We rushed with two vehicles to an office building in one of our local parks to meet a special friend (alias Santa Claus). We exchanged polite conversation as he put the finishing touches on his attire (he too had been at the 4:30 mass). As soon as he was ready, my children came in briefly to get a Santa hug and then they left for home with their father and a very special memory.

"Santa and I jumped into my present-laden car, and we drove off. We headed to the home of some students from my school. There were two boys who looked like angelic little choir boys—the kind with blue eyes and blond hair. I could somehow always envision them with their tennis shoes sticking out form under an altar boy cassock and I would giggle at the thought. Their sister resembled a China doll and gave daily hugs to the teachers. Their very special and beautiful mother was struggling to keep the four of them together in an apartment. It was the first time in her life that she had to be on her own with three children to care for. She had always had someone to watch over and care of her, but now she was divorced. Her husband was not in the position to offer much financial help. The car was broken down, and she was let go from her very much part- time job because public aid had leaned on her boss. She could not afford Christmas.

"The women from a local hospital group heard about her plight and decided to adopt her family for Christmas. What an adoption it was! I wrapped presents for at least three hours—some old and some new, but all were chosen with the family in mind. Santa and I had one extremely full bag of presents for each family member.

"And so we drove the few blocks to their house. I had had every intention of being the delivery elf myself, but somehow it just didn’t seem right. The magic had to be there for those children. So earlier in the day, I had “tracked down” Santa through the help of a mutual friend. I was eager to get to our destination and then home to my family, and I knew that Santa had a family gathering that was being put on hold until he returned.

"We arrived, and before Santa even had time for a “Ho, Ho, Ho!” the door flew open wide. Four pairs of eyes stood in awe as Santa entered the house, which had been cleaned and decorated just for the occasion. I couldn’t help but notice that there were only four little packages under the tree.

"Santa settled himself on the couch and gently took one of the boys on his lap and gave him a present to open. Each present was opened with equal delight; fourteen presents later he took the second child in his lap, and fourteen presents later, the last child. The hurry of the day was forgotten. Finally, it was Mom’s turn. She cautiously sat on the couch next to Santa and opened her presents one by one. When the last present was opened and the floor was a pool of colored paper, ribbon, and toys, we prepared to leave. The children were occupied with their presents on the floor. Suddenly, the very shy and quiet mother impulsively threw her arms around Santa’s neck and gave him a big hug. She asked me to take a picture of her and Santa together.

"On our way out the door, Mom grabbed my arm and simply said, 'Who is he?'

"The reply? 'Why, he’s Santa, of course!' She smiled, shook her finger at me, and closed the door.

"Santa and I drove back to headquarters in silence. We were each caught up in our own thoughts and emotions and somehow our throats were a little tight and our eyes a little moist. I am not sure who spoke first, but somehow quiet simultaneously, we had to agree that on this night in our town we had indeed “heard the bell.”

"I dropped off Santa and drove home in the silence of my car. I didn’t want to break the spell. As I turned the corner into my neighborhood, I saw the luminaries that lined the streets all the way to my house. They intensified with warmth that I felt all over. A truly perfect Christmas!

"I have thought about that night over the last year. Last night I read an article about Mother Teresa and read a quote which said, ‘The poor do us the honor of allowing us to serve them.’ I realized then what the magic was, and I thank God for the honor of the experience. I wonder if one evening’s activities could make me feel that good, what would it be like to do more?

"Santa and I have already made plans for this year’s journey to two houses, but I am sure that nothing will ever compare to the first time that I “heard the bell.” My seven year old put it most succinctly when he said that some kids don’t believe in Santa Claus, but he does, because you see, Santa is really God, and he is always there for us."

And by the way, her "seven year old" was me :)
Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Always a Bad Experience. Always.

If the Church is the heart of a community, then Wal-Mart is definitely the asshole. I’ve visited this mockery of an institution entirely too many times in the last couple of weeks, and each trip has brought me more and more disheartening realizations regarding this “super-store,” if anyone can truly be comfortable calling it that.

First off, let me just say that I prefer Target. I walk in that place and I’m immediately hit with a warm gust of store air that smells like clean linen and freshly baked cinnamon rolls. The orange carts are easy to control, and red-clad servants are waiting around every corner to cater to each and every customer’s beckon call. Furthermore, these servant-people all resemble attractive celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Freddy Prinze, Jr., and all of them speak in proper English accents. Most wear tuxedos. The floors are white enough to make Celine Dion jealous. Attendants at the checkout and customer service desks have their faces surgically repaired to be constantly smiling, and they are given small doses of ecstasy to insure blissful customer satisfaction. Their products are desirable, the fellow shoppers have all of their teeth, and the atmosphere as a whole could be likened to that of a very mild New Years Eve gathering in which you have only invited family and close friends.

However, Wal-Mart is like a giant Mardi-Gras celebration whose participants can’t afford beads, wear only clothing bearing the images of Looney Tune characters, and live exclusively in trailers. It’s also about 9 times the size of Target, and feels more like a flea market than a house of retail goods. Navigating through that place is like gallivanting aimlessly through the fruit markets of Agrabah. I’m always scared I’m going to take a wrong turn in “housewares” and end up just south of the New Jersey Turnpike. To take a deep breath is to inhale sweat, soil, and poverty. To use the public restrooms is to contract ringworm and syphilis. To control a shopping cart is to be Jesus Christ himself, because only the power of Christ could compel the demons out of those things. It's kind of like in Ghostbusters 2 when that pink slime gets all over inanimate objects and makes them move around when music plays. Stupid carts are possessed. And God FORBID you be looking for something minute; even the clerks have no idea where to help you find it. Actually, you’re lucky if you come across a clerk who’s WILLING to help you find it. Scratch that. You’re lucky if you come across a CLERK. They’re harder to find than Ruben Studdard’s genitals.

But nothing, NOTHING, is worse than trying to check out of Wal-Mart. Waiting in line to pay for your stuff feels remarkably similar to waiting in line for the Superman rollercoaster at Six Flags, except with the coaster, you’ve got something fun waiting for you at the end of the line; at Wally World, you get Ella May Buford, Shantiqua Jenkins, or Ol’ Miss Daisy Merriweather. Any way you flip this picture it’s ugly. My most recent experience had me in the “express lane” for about 25 minutes, while an 80-year old woman scanned products at the approximate speed of soil creep. Like a fool, I assumed that the “express lane” would be much faster than the lanes filled with middle-aged woman, each toting 3 carts full of crap. But thanks to Betty White, I watched two-thirds of the store’s inventory get run through surrounding registers before I even got to the damn conveyor belt. I felt like I wanted to punch the old woman, which I know is an awful thing (and more likely than not, a crime. I'm actually probably going to hell just for considering it), but shopping should not be so frustrating. Is Wal-Mart so hard on help that they are forced to hire from the area’s nursing homes? Do they just tell these poor geriatrics that it’s a field trip for arts and crafts time, then stick them in front of an alien piece of computer equipment that makes about as much sense to them as rap music? Or am I just unaware of the fact that affirmative action extends senior citizens? What ever happened to giving old people the jobs they could handle, like mopping or emptying garbage cans? I don’t mean to degrade these people, but this situation seems to work wonderfully at McDonald’s.

Actually, old men are pretty good as Wal-Mart greeters. For some reason, I see the Wal-Mart producers having a casting call for the next group of greeters. And, I see this happening every couple of months because the average life expectancy of the job is right around 3-4 months. Not because it’s dangerous but because the men who do it are usually considered legally dead before being hired, anyway. These casting calls are probably a lot of fun. I think it would make a great reality television show, maybe hosted by Larry the Cable guy. They could call it “Nice to Greet You.” Someone should be writing this down.

But I digress. Wal-Mart makes me irate. There’s no such thing as an in-and-out trip with that place. It takes a fortnight just to wait in line and pay. The atmosphere is dank, anything you touch is dingy, and you always have this feeling that the Walton Estate is watching you like Big Brother. What a maddening shopping experience.

And you know, Target always has low prices, too. Always.

***

Quotes of the Day

Female Student: “When I was little, my dad would make me watch Chucky movies as punishment because he knew how scared I was.”
Me: “That’s horrible!”
Female Student: “Yeah… and then that night, after I was done watching the movie, he made me sleep with my brother’s My Buddy doll.”

A group of ridiculously-dressed Spanish students stopped in my room towards the end of second block, requesting a picture of their wild garments. Apparently, they had to do a presentation in which they identified each of their articles of clothing in Spanish. Playing along, I got out the camera, held it up, and said, “Okay, now say ‘queso!’” The three Spanish students looked at each other confusedly, when finally one replied, “what’s that?”

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Humble Heroes

I had a basketball coach in 6th grade who played every single one of his 19 players in every single game. He cared about developing our sense of belonging, teamwork, and self-confidence. I find it no coincidence that we only lost 3 games that year. He even ran an open gym every Saturday at 10:00am so that we all had a place to play ball in the summer.This was also a man that somehow kept thirty 11-year old kids completely enchanted by American History for 180 days of the year. Whether it was about Washington crossing the Deleware or the Underground Railroad, Mr. Phelan always seemed to have a story about his own childhood to compare to the history lesson. He passed away in 1997, but to this day he's one of the greatest guys I've ever known.

Then, in high school, I got a job working at the Dairy Queen in Clifton, and I stayed working there for three years. My boss, Bob Boudreau, was also my second cousin or something, so he really kept an eye out for me. Bob looks like the love child of Phil Jackson and Quentin Tarrentino, were such a union/pregnancy possible by the laws of nature, and he smoked, leaving him with this deep, raspy voice. I remember thinking he was just one of the coolest older guys I had ever met, and really, he was. There weren't a lot of guys that worked at the DQ, so Bob and I really stuck together when we worked the same shift. He used to love when I'd do my PeeWee Herman impression, and he'd wheeze out that raucous laugh. There was even a few times when he'd bring me back by the sink and hand me a $10 or $20 bill and say, "You've been working hard for me, so take this. And don't go putting it in your bank account or some stupid shit like that. Take a girl to a movie or something." We'd be in the store, scrubbing the grill, and Bob would always tell me, "Brigham, I'd buy you a beer right now if your dad wouldn't kill me for it." I, of course, was 16-years old, but I appreciated the offer.

Actually, Bob is the man behind the man in the greatest "customer satisfaction" story of all time. Allow me to explain: We were busy one day, and an impatient woman had just ordered a Pecan Mud Slide from Muggsy, a short defenseless little sweetheart who really did look as if she could be lifted up and blown away by even the smallest breeze. Well, Muggsy made the sundae and asked the woman, "Would you care for a lid, ma'am?" The woman, apparently peeved about something stammered, "Of course I want a lid!" Now Bob was always a pro at recognizing customer problems from afar, so he headed towards the counter, grabbing and flapping a to-go bag on his way. "Would like a bag today, too?" he asked her calmly, smiling as if to say "You've got the man in charge now... WhatCHU gon' do?" Unfrazzled, the portly customer stared Bob down, Clint Eastwood-style, and blurted, "How about a bag for you head!"

Bob, by no means Mother Theresa, took not even a milli-second to decide his next move. Plainly, still smiling, the owner of the Clifton Dairy Queen gazed into the black soul of the customer from hell and replied, "How about I shove this bag straight up your ass?" Alarmed, the woman cocked back the lidded sundae and threw (yes, threw) the thing at Bob. He caught it, prepared to return the throw, but instead thought better, and decided to further injure her with words: "That's fine. You're too f***in' fat to eat it, anyway!" The woman left the store, never to return, Bob went to the back and smoked a cigarette, and everyone else in the store applauded a little inside. Bob Boudreau was not a man to put up with shit, and I have respected few people in my life as much as I respect that man. He's family, but he's a great friend, too.


The world is full of humble heroes. Throughout my own life, I've been blessed with countless positive role models, wonderful teachers and coaches, and caring and patient employers. I can't for a single minute question the fact that I am who I am because people like Bob and Mr. Phelan helped me get there. So when one of these humble heroes leaves my life (or in some cases, I leave theirs), it stings a little, and today I had to experience one of those stings.

Wade Koehler was only my boss for the very first semester I worked for the Hansen Student Center at IWU, but he was always around the building thereafter, even when Kevin Clark took over the Sound and Light Crew. He was only about 10 years older than any of us (except Danny, who we think was actually old enough to be Wade's rhetoric and/or arithmatic teacher), which made him very easy to get along with. Since that time, whenever I had a problem at college, he was the guy I'd go to first. Girl problems, school problems, anal leakage... you name it, he helped me out with it (I was just kidding about the anal leakage, by the way. I took care of that LONG before I met Wade). And he even told me about all the problems he and Jeannie had conceiving, and I was one of the first to know when their adoption stuff went through and they got Paige. Turned out his wife was three months pregnant when that happened, so now they have two kids (a boy and a girl), six months apart. They're very happy, and I've always loved seeing the pictures of his little goombas on his door. He's a great guy, and he helped me out tremendously in college.

I bring all this up because Wade got a job at Vanderbilt in Nashville. He's moving pretty far away, so it really bums me out to see him go. I went today and said goodbye and good luck, letting him know how much I appreciated all the things he did for me. I didn't get a chance to do that before Mr. Phelan died, and I really wish I could have. It's sad to see a role model leave you to swim on your own, but it's even sadder to never be able to tell them thank you. So, I made sure I did that today. Best of luck in Tennessee, Wade!

We've all got our own stories of humble heroes. These people are absolutely vital to the formation of who we are as people. If you are able and have not done so already, let them know what they've done for you. It's a really cool feeling to see the looks on their faces when you do, and who knows? Maybe someday it'll be you on the other end of that exchange.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Christmas and the Selfless Renaissance

Even when I was a kid, there was always something special about the month of December. Some people complain that everybody’s in such a hurry to spend money and add to the commercial catastrophe that Christmas has become, but that’s not the way I feel. The air is different this time of year, like breathing in the steam from a warm glass of hot chocolate. People spend serious quality time and money trying to come up with ideas and gifts that will make other people happy. Generally, most people are in a better disposition than every other month of the year. Why shouldn’t this be my favorite time of year?

Granted, I hate cold and snow, but Christmas somehow justifies those things and makes it okay for about three or four weeks. Maybe it’s because my mother was so into Christmas, and maybe it’s something I just picked up somewhere along the path of my life, but I absolutely adore Christmas. This year I find myself in the midst of a slight personal reinvention in which I really attempt to put other people in front of myself on a consistent basis (not that I never did before, I’d just like to do more of it). I’ve gone through an interesting string of experiences the last few months that led me to this renaissance. Some were amazingly wonderful and others were quite trying, but all of them really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be very good at helping other people. I could be even better at that than I am at helping myself! I’ve come to realize that nothing makes me happier than seeing the people I care about happy.

I know this all sounds very magoo, but I am going somewhere with all of this. This new ideal I’ve adopted, combined with the freedom of having my own place and the fact that I haven’t seen several of my friends in quite some time, inspired me to throw a small Christmas party. I went out and bought snacks, mistletoe, and “celebratory Christmas beverages,” then invited several of my closest friends over for the evening. Not only did I get to see a lot of people that I really love deeply, but I concocted a room full of people who had never been in the same place at the same time before. I created quite an interesting chemistry of patrons…

The Guest List went as follows, in order of appearance: Cole (unofficially the middle Brigham child, great guy—think Chandler from “Friends”), Megan (his date for the evening—she was a newbie but fit in wonderfully with everyone. I approve), Jesse (slightly more compassionate than Nick Burns Your Company’s Computer Guy, but always good for enlightening conversation), Li’l Bro (how could he NOT be there?), Amy (most intelligent, gorgeous, hilarious girl I’ve ever been affiliated with. To quote Dale: “Damn Joel. You comin’ up!”), Ian (buddy from back home luckily was in town for the weekend. Smokin’ guitar player and a helluva model American.), My Nugz Dale and Glenn, and Glenn’s girlfriend Shaf (Dale’s my guy. He’s loud, overly-confident, and loud. Who couldn’t like this guy? Glenn, a friend of mine via several BBQ’s at the Dale Coerper, Sr. Residence, was responsible for the quote of the evening. Scroll down for that!), Amber (Amy’s roommate who graciously took a break from her busy night of Saturday Night studying to hang out with some friends!), Kavita (Dale’s date for the evening, also something of a newbie. The room was just FULL of them!), and my sister Jackie (didn’t stay long, but did hang out for a while. She’s a Party Machine!).

So we all had a great time. I think Dale and I were the only two people who ended up irrationally inebriated (or maybe we were rational and just FELT as if we were relatively irrational). All in all though, I’d call the whole evening a success. Friends met friends, like three of us had new girls to show off, and there was a lot of great conversation, laughing, and reminiscing. I gave my friends a Christmas party for their big collective gift, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.

I mean, the mistletoe could’ve gotten a little more use, but you get the picture ;)

***

Quote of the Day

Glenn: "Hey, can I put my leftovers in your fridge?"
Me, feigning Jim Crow fridge use: "I'm sorry Glenn. This is a whites-only refrigerator."
Glenn, mocking me: "Man, whatchu got in that thing anyway? Milk and baking soda?"

Thursday, December 09, 2004

To Serve and Protect... and Write $20 Parking Tickets

Thursday nights are when Fate, Bad Luck, and Poor Timing have their weekly card game. They huddle around a small table, puff on their expensive cigars, and gamble with people's misfortunes like poker chips and pink slips. I, apparently, am the ace of spades up all of these guys' sleeves, and they keep playing me and playing me and playing me...

Everything started when I left school tonight. It was about 6:00 and pitch black. Shuttle buses were patiently humming, emitting noxious fumes, the potency of which was magnified 100 times by the biting cold air. A let out a sharp cough, hopped in my car, and took off towards home. The drive is usually about 30 minutes, but this was significantly extended tonight by some surprise road construction. Suprise! I crept to a halt in my car, stuck between two semis (which I have been known to abhor vehemently), and didn't accelerate beyond idling for twenty more minutes. "It's nothing," I thought, "I'll be home soon, and then I can simply enjoy the delightfully warm Christmas decorations and perhaps indulge in a delicious supper of BBQ pork Hot Pockets and Ben & Jerry's ice cream." After a lengthy voyage home (I use the word "voyage" there for its laborious connotations), I finally settled in my apartment and coddled myself with the aforementioned foods. Feeling a bit better, I got an idea.

Amy has had a very difficult week, fighting off the flu and pressing through thousands of 3-5 page final papers for various classes. Knowing this, I thought it would be nice of me to make her a batch of cookies from scratch (and by "from scratch" I mean I scratched open the Toll House pre-made cookie dough package). However, I needed to hustle because I planned on doing laundary at Li'l Bro's place, and in order to gain entrance to his apartment, I had to meet him at the Student Center before 8:00 to grab his keys. So, I made haste and gathered all my squalid garments into the basket and shoved it into the back seat of my car. I was almost ready to go when I smelled the blasphemous smell of burnt cookies. Not only was that the last of my cookies, but now I'm also pushing the limits of meeting my brother on time. My key turned in the ignition and I hit the "hover" button on my dash. My car then converted into a small plane, and I was on my way to Kyle's traveling at speeds approaching the speed of sound.

Okay, so maybe that didn't happen, but I got to the Student Center QUICKLY to meet Li'l Bro, but there was no parking spaces available. Not a single one. Frustrated and rushed, I simply parked on the border of a parking zone and a no-parking zone and flicked on my hazards, hoping to signal "I'll be right back" to whomever might need to know. I run in, grab my keys, and run back out, only to find a police van the size of a third-world country parked behind my poor, defensless '97 Chevy Cavalier. From it emerged an unpretentious man resembling a hobbit with down syndrome, waving a small yellow sheet of paper at me as I tired to enter my car unnoticed.

"Excuse me, Sir. I'm writing you a ticket," he said with a lisp. I'm not making this up. I thought it more appropriate if he were to drive a police-clad short-bus. Regardless, I asked him if he really thought 180 seconds in a restricted zone was worth a ticket. As assertively as he could with that ridiculous speech imediment, he said, "We receieved a call about ten minutes ago R-E a vehicle parked at this very position. Someone was really THAT concerned that they felt the need to call the proper authorities and notify them accordingly." He had to be kidding. "I was only in there for three minutes," I pleaded. Heartlessly, he responded: "Yeeeaaah, welp... I usually wait about five before taking any serious action, but I felt the need to move in considering the nature of the concerned citizen's report." At this point I was just frustrated and annoyed, and I knew that Gomer Pyle wasn't letting me off the hook, so I gave up, but not without the last word.

"I guess I'm just lucky enough to be the guy who you wait TWO minutes for. Unbelievable. I get a ticket for a 'concerned citizens' call when it wasn't even my car in the first place. Well, you have a wonderful night (I'm using this thing called sarcasm; it's very effective). Glad to see the perimeter's secure."

So I get back in the car, bring Amy the two Mrs. Field's cookies I bought in replacement of the ones I accidentally torched, and ended up back here at my Li'l Bro's place doing laundary. I'm waiting for one of these dryers to rip a hole through my favorite pair of jeans or to throw up my BBQ pork Hot Pockets because they had bird flu in them or something. I've still got a couple hours before I hit the mattress for slumber time, so a plethora of unfortunate happenings could still easily occur.

I need a hug.

***

Quote of the Day

Kandace, noticing a hole in the backside of one of her classmates' jeans: "Hey Jarrid, you've got a hole in your butt."
Zach: "Don't we ALL have holes in our butts?"

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

"A Tale of Two Classes" OR "2nd Time's a Charm!"

The alarm rang at the usual time this morning, bright digital numbers taunting me like a bully that's stolen my copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" and is now waving it front of my face, chanting, "Yooou've gotta wake uuuhh-uuuup" over and over again. I lay there for a minute, trying to decide if the glowing "6:50 AM" is the actual time, because it's about twice as dark outside right now as it should be. I struggle to pull myself out of my oven-warm, feathery bed, only to pull away the blinds to reveal drizzly rain and the dark clouds of the apocolypse. So, I crawl back into bed via the right side, and then I get right back off on the wrong side, just for the hell of it.

The voyage to school was a dismal experience. Driving along-side trucks on the interstate is one of the Top Five Most Unsettling Driving Scenarios for the very reason that they splash some mutant species of water on your windshield that can't be wiped away no matter how fast the wipers perform. Add this to driving in a construction zone (also one of the Top Five), and you've got a rather exciting excursion.

After my aquatice journey to the center of Illinois, I finally get to school about five minutes late. There is no scientific reason for this tardiness; it was just a fun little joke by the Tuesday Gods to further spite me. I can just see these two white-bearded assholes throwing darts at the Giant Phonebook in the Sky and hitting "Brigham," then giggling like schoolgirls at the animosity they have caused such a noble, handsome young person as myself. Remiss, I enter my classroom and fail to thoroughly complete my morning routine (this includes checking my email, Monday Night Football and NBA scores, etc... you know, important stuff). I'm late in the first place, but students keep coming in with questions, so my routine gets postponed. I even had one girl drop in and ask me what a spleen does. How the hell am I supposed to know? I'm your ENGLISH TEACHER!!!

First block was a disaster. It's the first of two sections of American Literature I teach, and this particular group of kids is not the best at communicating their insights, if such insights exist. We read an excerpt of Moby Dick, and i carefully constructed a series of questions meant to arrouse their budding intellects. But, they sadly refused my efforts and sat through the majority of the lesson with their jaws gaped open nearly to the floor, yawning and grunting like sleepy pigs. I kept expecting some cliche Farmer Brown to come in and dump a bucket of slop on the floor so they could all rip towards the pile and fight over a banana peel. But, it didn't happen. These students (and don't get me wrong, I love them all), just SAT there, leaving me and my questions to be devoured by the educational vultures. I couldn't DRAG answers out of them, and to be completely honest, at that point in the day I lacked the motivation to do so anyway. So I scrapped the rest of the conversation and moved on to the next activity, which seemed to have gone much better.

I spent the majority of the day thinking that my stellar questions were not so stellar after all. I thought that perhaps I had done an awful job and that I would soon lose my career as a teacher, only to kicked out on the street and be forced to hold up a cardboard panhandling sign that says, "My dog needs breats implants. Please help her." I felt this way, that is, until third block rolled around. Despondant, I taught the class identically to the way I did first block, but one thing was different: these students were fired up. The questions got them really cooking, and we had a 20 minute debate on whether we thought Captain Ahab was the victim or the agressor. They did wonderfully! I couldn't have been more proud, and I guess it just goes to show that just because one group of kids doesn't respond favorably to a particular set of lesson plans doesn't mean that they are bad lessons. It just means that the other group needs to go in some different direction.

So, my third block class made me feel much happier about life, and I knew that I wouldn't have to resort to washing windows at red lights to support myself (even though that income WOULD be tax-free). But, it at some point you do see me on the street, look at me in favor, as a respectable, noble person whose life is viewed as dignified and successful. Then, drop 3 or 4 cents into my empty Gatorade bottle.

***

Quote of the Day:

Me: "Captain Ahab really believed that it was his fate, his destiny, to kill Moby Dick."
Jesse: "Isn't that kind of silly?"
Me: "I don't think so. We all have causes that we fight for every day, you know? We all have our own 'whale,' so to speak."
Nate, referring to his girlfriend Devon, who sits right next to him: "Devon's MY whale. Wait, I mean... I'm not saying you're fat! It's just... oh crap."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Boyz in the Childhood

On Friday, my class and I discussed their reading homework from "To Kill a Mockingbird," and the conversation surrounding the book led me to some extremely enjoyable reminiscences. We were talking about playing make-believe because Scout, Dill, and Jem spend a huge chunk of their summer playing their Boo Radley game. We've all lived in some dream fantasy world at some point in our lives, and I felt that it would lead to a meaningful conversation with the students. They had their fair share of stories to tell, but I was able to recall some rather entertaining stories of my own...

The Tale of Nike and Mikey Shimanno begins at the Linneman abode circa the summer of 1992. Batman Returns was the huge summer blockbuster, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the height of their popularity, and my age had only recently reached double digits. My good friend Marty and I somehow invented a game called "The Shimmano Brothers" (to this day I'm not sure of our exact path to this end), in which the two of us were brothers, as well as ninjas. However, our evening occupation wasn't very high-paying, as crime-fighting ninja work is predominantly pro bono, so we were forced to take dual positions with the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox. Marty, aka Nike Shimanno (in case your wondering, these names derive from a shoe and a brand of bicycle), was the hothead of the duo. He was always wanting to get right out there and kick some bad guy butt, but as the cool-under-fire intelligent thinker, I, under the moniker Mikey Shimanno, provided the perfect balance.

Marty married Catwoman, mostly because his budding sexual adolscence gave Michelle Pfieffer's "tightular suit" (I swear to God that's what he called it) extra significance. However, I don't think they married for the right reasons, as he seemed to only be interested in her appearence. I even recall Marty wishing to enact a faux fornication, but the awkwardness of the idea kept him from doing so. I couldn't think of any hot celebrities to marry (Anna Chlumsky of "My Girl" fame was SO yesterday, and my crush on The Secret World of Alex Mack star Larisa Oleynik was still a couple of years away), so I devised my perfect woman. She had everything: beauty, empathy, understanding, humor, and intelligence. That woman loved me, so I gave her a name that would make her stand out in the annals of history. A name that no one would ever be able to forget. This great, uniquely wonderful (and understandably imaginary) woman was called Amy Smith.

So Nike and Mikey were off, saving the world from evil ninja activity, hitting home runs and 3 point-baskets, and performing coitus on invisible love interests whenever the opportunity showed itself (no actual thrustings occured, but as 10-year old kids, we were very excited about the idea of touching big boobies, etc...). We would fit home run derby into our game by pretending like it was real. We'd do the same with playing basketball. The ninja activity took place in the room of Marty's older brother. We'd spend about 2 hours in there doing tae bo punches and roundhouse kicks, that is until we were distracted by the Nerf basketball hoop hanging over the door. In that case, we'd dunk for about twenty minutes and get back to saving the world...

Now I don't know if everyone had childhood make-believe experiences that were as intricate as my own, but I am quite proud of the psuedo-world that Marty and I created at such a young age. Our imaginations were impeccable, and this was certainly not the ONLY make-believe game we ever played. There were several, some in which entire neighborhoods of children participated, but the Tale of Nike and Mikey Shimmano will live on in infamy (at least in Marty's and my brains) for eternity.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch Batman Returns.

***

Quote of the Day:

Me: "How does Scout describe her Aunt Alexandria?"
Mitchell: "He says she's like Mt. Everest: cold and just sorta there."
Kandace: "Where is Mt. Everest?"
Katie: "Isn't that the one with the president's faces in it?"
Darci: "No, it's in Canada; it's the one with the waterfalls."
Me: "NO! It's in TIBET! Katie, you're thinking of Mt. Rushmore and Darci, the waterfall in Canada is Niagra Falls! What is going on here???"

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Happy People Colon Parentheses :)

Well, so concludes the end of a pretty wonderful weekend. I got to indulge in a sexy Thanksgiving meal with my family, and I was able to visit with a few old friends (Barons, Rohlwings--don't forget Amy Perzee is one of 'em now!), and I took a visit to Danville to see the darling Amy R. I hoped for a weekend of relaxation, and I indulged in this philosophy so fervantly that I actually feel as if I could do several backflips at this conclusive point of the four-day weekend. I want to build a house or something. I'm restless. I am.

But during the drive back to school, my brain started wondering random things, as it often does. I wondered who, if anyone, is truly happy. Now, I'm doing wonderfully for myself these days. I really feel like I'm getting a lot out of each day, but there's still so much I want to do and accomplish. So I thought, here I am, an extremely optimistic person, and yet still not completely content. Even celebrities, people who seem to have it all, can't possibly be completely happy. Take Eminem, for instance. He's got more money than the love child of Oprah and a Persian Sheik, but there's no way the guy is happy. His dad dumped him before he was born, his mother treated him like poo for his entire life then tried to SUE him once he had some money, his wife has cheated on him on countless occasions, and he only recently was able to get custody of his daughter. He's loaded, but I wouldn't trade my life for his in a million years.

I'm partially saying that money doesn't yield happiness, but I think I'm really trying to get across the idea that no matter what you achieve in your life, there's always more to get out of it. We all need to live in the moment and enjoy what wonderful experiences we encounter day in and day out, but there's always a bigger picture. I heard a quote somewhere: "to be happy, people need something to do, someone to love, and something to fight for." So while we enjoy our present, we look forward to a future. This future includes a more perfect job, dreams and aspirations, the perfect girl, kids, nice cars, flat screen TV's. I'm feeling more and more every day that these things are accomplishable. It just takes bold steps to make them happen. It's like in poker, "you can't win what you don't bet." I'm starting to feel like that. Happiness isn't a given; it's something to work for. You're never there, but you should always feel optimistic that you COULD be. That's the "something to fight for."

Now fight for it ;)

Thursday, November 25, 2004

"Breast Ale" and Other Thanksgiving Tales

The Pilgrims drank beer for breakfast. The early American settlers faced myriad hardships upon their arrival to the New World, but water contamination was probably the most dire. Beer was the only safe liquid they had to drink because the water in it had been boiled. So, any time water was needed, they were forced to drink alcohol in lieu of it. The women even put liquor in the breast milk. We're talking 80 proof formula, here, "The Breast Milk in Town." And so goes the story of the formation of the Gerber-Jack Daniels Company.

But Thanksgiving is about so much more than booze for babes; it's about exhibiting our gratititude for our friends, families, and heritages. It's about eating until our knees can't support our weight, and we are forced to retire to the couch and watch the hideously orange-clad Chicago Bears get their sorry asses handed to them by the DALLAS COWBOYS, the very same Cowboys whose choices for quarterback include a geriatric Italian and a baseball player. Thanksgiving is about seeing people you only get to see once or twice a year. It's about sitting at the Big People Table for the first time. It's about appreciation and enjoying what you've got.

It's been a damn good day.

As a 22-year old young man, I experienced my first invitation to the Big People Table this year for Thanksgiving. Up until this year, I have spent my Thanksgivings with the other kids eating off a dirt floor in a small hut behind the house. Well, it was never quite that bad, but the wobbly card tables that have served as our dining areas are worthless. They couldn't support A-cup breasts, let alone a cup, a plate, silverware, and so on... They're about as sturdy as Jurassic Park. There's always that one leg that just refuses to stay up. You'd think a peg-legged pirate designed these godforsaken things. Regardless, they're not my problem anymore. I got to sit at a REAL table this year.

I hated it.

The adults are boring. They talk about lame things. Meanwhile in the back room, at the Leaning Card Table of Chebanse, I can hear distant rumblings of my brother making fun of my sisters. That used to be me, right there by his side, making fun of our sisters. I heaved a heavy sigh and shoveled my turkey into my mouth. Somewhat despondant and utterly discontented, I finished my meal, and tried peaking into the back room. But it was kind of like breaking up with a girl because you wished to pursue someone better, but then you realized the old girl was what you really wanted, but it's too late because you already gave broke up with the old girl. So looking back into that room, I got four "old girlfriend" stares from my siblings and cousin. Dejected, I crawled into a quiet corner of my house, mixed some applesauce with crushed sleeping pills, and was about to commit suicide until I realized that Spongebob Squarepants was on the television across the room. Spongebob is funny.

I survived the actual Thanksgiving Meal, and continued on with the rest of my evening. Kyle and I lost a movie trivia game for the first time in our lives, and the post-game interview questions were not the most fun to deal with. At one point, a reported asked my brother, "so what happened out there tonight?" Furious, he punched a reporter and threw a chair. I'm not sure if I want to make a Vibe Awards joke or a Ron Artest joke here. Both would probably suck and end up being cliche, but that's the way the cookie crumbles!

To conclude, I'd like to share a few things that I am grateful for: I am grateful for Mommy and Daddy. I am grateful for great siblings (I'm lucky to have three within three years of my own age). I am grateful that I enjoy my job and that I am running on (almost) all cylanders right now. I am grateful for great friends, and seeing Cole and He-Man this weekend are blessings! But the thing I am most grateful is inspired by the Pilgrims themselves. Several hundred years ago, they killed a turkey, deep fried it for maximum tenderness, and boiled some maize. Then, they layed out their feast and gave thanks to and for their brethren. But what toast can be accomplished without a fine ale? We raise our glasses on this day and give thanks to the early settlers for introducing the country to alcoholism.

God bless us, every one (I know that's for Christmas, but some people already have their tree and lights up, so dammit, I can use a staple holiday phrase a little early, too).

Happy Thanksgiving!