Szechuan Time

It was delicious as always. Szechuan chicken from my favorite downtown Chinese restaurant is the best. Period. I ate all of it. The whole pint.

Not much of a surprise, as the day was a long one. Finally sitting down after eight hours on a mildly sore foot, I had the chance to eat. Given the choice between pancakes from the iron skillet at home, another take-out I can’t recall at the moment, or that wonderful spicy delicacy from my go-to, hometown marvelousness a few miles away, … it’s not surprising I had a happy fork last night.

The expected phone call from my dad was not taken on my home phone. Couldn’t. There are times when even a call from my dad couldn’t be answered. Nestled into a warm sofa, I wasn’t able to do much but move forkfuls of steaming baby corn cobs, green pepper slices, carrot wedges, peppercorns, chilies, brown rice, and really tender chicken a foot’s distance from the bowl to my mouth. He calls almost every night – wondering, in his way, how my day went. “Did you have a good day?”, are the six words usually starting the 3-minute conversation. That call is necessary and almost always on time. His time.

Retired time. A regimented, need-to be on schedule time. When the clock in his head dings, the call is made. So many times, I place my fork, soup spoon, or butter knife down beside a plate of anything to talk with him. He cares enough to call me, so I listen to his concerns about my life. I assume this sounds a bit callous of me to talk/write this way … and, honestly, writing those words is uncomfortable as well; however, talking and listening takes place so frequently – and the heart-to-heart parley is nearly the same every night – so I pass the time casually giving him half an ear. If the tone in his voice changes, I perk up a bit and attend to his words, otherwise, the three minutes passes without much adventure … to be repeated the next evening.

Last night I couldn’t – just was not capable of taking the call. Sometimes there is a follow-up re-ring on my cell when he can’t reach me. I almost expect a forest tone to puncture the near airwaves when he can’t reach me by old technology. Strangely, there was none. Maybe he knew I had a long day and a sore foot? Perhaps he smelled the deliciousness headed my way and knew – just knew – an unanswered first call meant a second call was unnecessary? Possibly a distraction came across his life’s pathway – and an unanswered, “good day?”, query remaining that way wasn’t a paternal problem anymore? Never mind how he got there in his mind. It didn’t happen. He never made the second call. I was not handling any phone instead of a fork … and all of the Szechuan chicken disappeared after 20 minutes of my uninterrupted blissful time.

Let me tell you of one joy in my life. Not dad calling every day … that would be too easy to write about, right? Although I will have time in the future to type those words if expectant tables are true, this is not one of those times. Today, you could assume Szechuan chicken is, but you’d be mistaken as well. Well, this isn’t exactly true. I have mastered spelling, “Szechuan”, by this sixth paragraph without opening the google spell-check window – so that’s something. Nope. Not dad. Not Szechuan.

Time. Time when I can relax. Time alone at my desk writing a blog. Time on the sofa eating one of my favorite take-out meals while watching one of many Johnny Carson re-runs I’ve seen before. Moments I’ll never see again, but clicks on a dial that mean something … not just rush-around, breathless, meaningless to-do’s that only fill in voids to get to the next “thing”. Silent, consequential instants – during which a mind can settle into funnies from the day, musical interludes, and friendships I care about – enter my purposeful time. Uninterrupted is nice.

Last night, and by extension the day, was about friends. I thought about them. Good and great ones. Long lasting, new and existing, old and young, happy and sad ones. I have a rainbow’s color full of friends. Not a day goes by when one does not cross my mind. One, specifically, lately. I would dream a better, hopeful pot of gold awaits her rainbow as she continues ahead in her destinal path forward. Cancer sucks. Specifically, this rare form she so optimistically faces during her time here.

Find your favorite meal, or favorite sofa. Don’t answer any calls unless you need to. Take time to cry, meditate, read, write, play, watch t.v., walk … whatever stops you from going. Be you for a few minutes. The dad in your life – whoever, or whatever that is – will call back. It, or they, still love and care about you … I promise.

My dad will call again tonight. We’ll arrange to meet for pizza because it is Sunday … and that’s what we do. He’s a man of routine. I’ll meet him at the local pizza shop just a few buildings up from the Chinese restaurant where Szechuan chicken made my life meaningful last night. No call necessary for his asking me, “Did you have a good day?”. I’ll answer, “Yep, dad, I did … and my week went well, too.”, because I know the follow-up he’ll ask. Five minutes later, the same question most likely will be asked again since he’s older and has some difficulty remembering these days.

The check will be paid forty minutes later and he’ll probably ask me how much to tip the waitress even though the bill is always the same amount. I’ll reply, “$3.50, dad … and let me since you are picking up the tab … ok?”. It is the conversation we have had every week for years. One day, I’ll miss it.

For now, it is a Sunday routine and last night night I missed his call, kinda. It’s ok. A conversation missed once in a while is ok as long as the time spent otherwise is well worth it. And it was.

I love Szechuan chicken. Period.

It Was Nice

It was a nice day.

Ok, so the weather wasn’t a perfect 72-degrees, sunny day here in central PA. We’ve been talking a lot about the snow, ice, and coldness around town lately. Roads and bridges resembled a Dickens tale up and until yesterday as most staggering about have had enough. I saw the melting frustration in my customer’s eyes, however, as some sparkling ones, inside happy heads, approached my concession window – on top of bounce-in the-step bodies.

It was nice to see.

A sunny, 45-degree day can do this to defeated outlooks. As in most loving communities, the past few months have taken their toll on everyone. Nagging our collective souls: lingering election fatigue, a continuing unmasking of new information about the virus, national and local business struggles on how to survive, heroes of ours dying unexpectedly, personal and spiritual tussles within ourselves … and, of course, the weather.

I don’t know what, from that list or any other challenge, was on the heart of any one of my walk-up, special, fellow walk-abouts yesterday. I do know my mind wasn’t quite on task upon opening as a dear friend was in a cold, sterile hospital room being consulted about her ongoing (possible) newer treatment for cancer. Possible, parenthetically, because her cancer is a rare, unwelcomed friend that’s been hanging around a bit too long and she’s kinda tired of it needing attention. “What to do going forward…?”, could have been one of the questions of the day swirling inside her always optimistic, outlooking window of a brain. “Is the treatment – and possible side-effects – worth it?… Do I want to go through all this, again, for a third time? … Just what, exactly, is my body doing with this cancer that I need to know?… “. Her thoughts were unknown to me. My thoughts about keeping sodas cold, or over-grilling a few burgers took a back-burner for a moment as the quiet of pre-opening a concession trailer during a rather nice February weather day took shape.

She was one. One person who wasn’t in-person, but on my mind as the protective, hinged roof rose to start my day. The sun did shine through my less-than clean windows – sliding their way across north and south. I did find my way through the emotional morning, though. Sales are like that. Turning a switch as my first customer sauntered his way up to my window … happily so. I like this moment. Happy is transferable. Smiles spread well. An insincere smile, they say, is better than a sincere frown.

He appeared happy. I knew it was going to be this way. After all, the weather brings out happy when – after weeks of rain, snow, and ice – slightly-warm sunshine breaks through malaise sitting on folk’s vitalities.

It was nice to see.

Content and untroubled words continued throughout the day … as did warmth. Now, warmth, in this context, was 45-degrees and a slight glare I could finally see reflecting off of the gray pavement a few feet below where I stood inside. Salt residue crunched under the feet of an increased number of folks who saw 8-foot banners my irresponsible self at last decided to hang back up. It was these wonderful right-of-spring, bright red “Hot Dog” flags waving in the mild breeze I loved to watch yesterday in between thinking about my friend and waiting on customers … wondering what they were thinking each time one would walk up to my window. Yes, It wasn’t spring. We’re 21 days away, but there was a definite spring in their step.

It was nice to see.

I need a day like that. A day to see other people. A day to be sad about what my friend is going through and a day to be extremely glad to enjoy the sun, the breeze, the opportunity to be in business … and share the happy in other people’s lives. One ordered just a plain dog and was simply joyous to do so. Another came by later – after passing by earlier in a hurry, unable to stop – and was plainly contented ordering five sandwiches … talking about life with me as I prepared his order. A long time casual friend, out and about, needing some time with me to chat up the weather in his life. A somewhat stormy, but familiar life. The sunset, to him, was so welcoming. I got it. I really did.

It was nice to … hear.

That was the day to me. Customers, friends online and off. I did hear from my dear friend as she returned home later in the day. A sunny, some-what warm day for everyone … including her. The sun knows no problems we face down here on this floating home of ours. It knows only what it can give to us – bright, warm faces and hope for a better tomorrow. I saw glimpses of that yesterday … in myself and in the eyes of so many others as they casually, yet intentionally, walked a few steps away from their cars to my slightly speckled windows I never did take time to clean. Windows I closed, seven hours after opening. With more optimism, I drove home on dusk-laden roads knowing happiness during those warmer hours meant something. A sunny, 45-degree day can do this.

It was just … nice.

Ugh, In A Good Way

It’s not unlike any other morning. How about you?

The living and dining rooms are bare, however. … that’s different. Painters are coming in soon to re-do all the walls and ceilings after decades of living created fades and fancies on their facades. Maintaining credibility has finally been too much. The ceiling, whimsically swirled in eggshell white, has been tarnished by water shenanigans lately and efforts to repair have been futile. I’m not the patch-and-persevere guy around here as most household fixes don’t last more than the time it takes me to find all the tools needed to do the job. Holes and cracks will, finally, meet their match. Professionals, within a few hours hence, will drop their wares.

The furnace still hums away as I sit only feet away from rooms so eagerly awaiting their refreshing, colorful rehabilitation. My office will not receive such treatment. As most go, paperwork, miscellaneous trinkets, and unknowns sit and pile around, preventing me from knowing whether or not this wonderful space needs a re-do or not. The ceiling drops down elegantly with forty-two, 2×2-foot squares that don’t require paint … just a quick trip to the local people-jammed box store to overpay for a replacement should one need replacing- (which explains why these above my head as I type are still the originals from two decades ago) …

Beside, to my left,…a reliable cup of tea. Generic green tea. The Clif bar already consumed, I sat down not knowing, really, anything. It was 3:30 in the morning – the usual time to roll out, wide awake, and begin to think about things.

I wound my way through misplaced furniture, packed boxes, and downed pictures – all repositioned in preparation for the non-Dougs to begin their work in a few hours. The walls have shadowed memories where the pictures hung. Curtains and drapes – so much a tapestry of life lived here – are not hanging in front of the big picture windows now. Little reminders on brads and nails no longer delicately dangle between sashes and sills. Quiet, in a very different way. I’m used to the furnace at 3:00 a.m. … not the starkness of change.

Ugh. In a good way, of course.

We need to change things up sometimes. A new, fresh coat of paint even when the furniture doesn’t want to move, or paintings in our life – so used to being on the wall – don’t want to come down. Material, window bandaged cloaks that have hidden our sunshine for so many years need to be removed to allow new experiences into our rooms. Every piece, every knickknack our hands must touch to move gives us opportunity to reevaluate its importance and look forward to having it by our side again .. or not. Affecting change, touching something other than the physical items before us … Ugh. In a good way, of course.

I’ve been working with someone. It has been a very different experience for me. The absoluteness of her ability to change my perspective on my musical life is a journey unlike any I’ve taken before. It hasn’t been about the lyrics, meters, and various other dots strewn about on lines and spaces. The depth of her passion for life and music in the midst of a life-threating illness brings me forward in my own life to a place where boxes in the middle of a living room are, well, kinda insignificant right now.

Yesterday we had our first rehearsal for a planned concert in the fall. I don’t think she’d mind me saying it’s “planned” with the caveat that all things “go as planned with her health”. So far, the new coats of paint in my musical life are: “Landslide”, “How High The Moon”, “I’ve Got The World On A String”, and “All or Nothing At All” with more cans to open. I sat, secondarily, behind the piano as she sang so gracefully in her uniquely qualified lower voice. We matched styles and colors as one painter would take to a canvas for the first time. I’m so honored to accompany her on this journey toward whatever the unknowns have in store.

All of our living rooms have these moments when the old ideas and “things” have to come down. Memories, of course, can stay, but the material stick-arounds need to go and be replaced with new, fresh things. Ideas on how to think, or what our lives mean, sometimes need re-evaluating, too.

My friend will continue to splash a new coat of paint on my thoughts as we rehearse, and when we talk to each other about … life. Her perspective being significantly different than mine – a 7 years older male. I don’t know what it’s like living in a room with a most likely time-certain terminal disease. I do know how to say, “F*ck Cancer!”, because my mom died from it, however, and every time I meet someone who is pushing their way through, I want to scream, “Ugh!!” … and not in a good way this time.

For now, the painters are only a few hours away and I must begin to think about the day ahead. The living and dining rooms will begin their transformation as boxes, painting, and trinkets remain dormant for the next week or so.

Please don’t continue to be stagnant in your life. Move some of life’s boxes and invite in some sunshine by taking down the shadow makers. Your living space is for just that … to LIVE. Give it a fresh, new coat of colors.

My tea mug is empty now. Thank you for being here. This morning turned out to be different after all.

Mirror Words

If walking in to my special cafe was only this: a casual sit down almost every morning after entering a little after 8 o’clock on weekdays has been my norm. They closed on Saturdays due to the pandemic changing walk-about folks in town … less of them strolling about in our little town.

Never just that. I always need something to capture my imagination or bring out the silly sense of bravery I need to sustain me during the coming hours of the day. My dear friend across from me shifted her stressful self slightly to the left. As I ashamedly slouched in the early morning deep red vinyl bench … this image Kilroy’d itself in the beautiful, beveled glass hanging gracefully – for nearly a century – on the wall. How many reflections? How many men, women, and children examined their lives during the early morning cold, snowy minutes in February … in Hollidaysburg, PA.

I did. Slightly scrutinizing the items on my daily agenda before snapping this picture above, that is. It didn’t take much time to deep dive into a twenty-minute self-discovery because the image in the mirror amused my egg-consuming self. As I began dipping the daily under or overly toasted rye toast into those fried eggs, the mirror resemblance above didn’t go away. I couldn’t allow it. Basic words attached themselves to the depiction staring back at me. Mirror words? Yes. But slightly more meaningful since it seemed I was silently talking to myself.

Maybe it was in my eyes? I don’t really know. I look tired. This isn’t about me, though.

You never know when life looks back at you … suddenly. Moments – like early morning look backs in a very familiar town’s cafe – jump back in your face suddenly when friends shift slightly. Movements by others across from you, during comfortable conversations, can turn in heartbeats. Familiar words and places abruptly change. We know. Boy, do we know, right?

I know. This week, friends of friends lost a loved one. I didn’t know the young man who passed away suddenly days ago. He lived out of state, but was closely connected to a local family and, by extension, to a close friend of mine. She was sitting with me when the news of his passing pinged on her phone a few days after I sat in the comfortable morning booth. She’s a different friend than the one across from me the other day. Different place, change of scenery and seating accommodations, but a life-sudden look back for her that sent an unexpected chill down her spine. There was no mirror. Just two friends eating turkey subs beside a surprisingly warm high-top table for two near a large window facing out into another cold, winter day.

She was momentarily dazed – as expected. I would have expected nothing less, not even knowing the man who passed away. The text came in instantly – as news does these days – through her texting service, I believe, so I respected the moment’s demands and sat silently for a few seconds – perhaps a minute or two – until she respectfully replied back. Mere words, yet meaningful to those receiving on the other end. Folks in shock – as she was making a connection.

My friend Rick W., a fellow musician, posted the following on Facebook:

“Yes, you have all heard this many times. But, sometimes repetition drives the thought home. Life is indeed fragile, and can be over as quickly as one turns a light off. Embrace, love, be thankful for your family and friends, and most importantly, give yourself a hug because you truly deserve it!”

The death of the young man inspired Rick to type those words due to his close association with the family. HIS look back. His mere words that are not just those meant for his reflecting back on us. Helping us to remember one who is suddenly no longer here. A Covid death among the many.

One man no longer here I never knew. One man – out of state – who is, now, joined to me because I have a habit of walking into a favorite, old cafe where so many have gone before me. Tired eyes looking back at me I’ve seen so many times before … and always with a message of hope in some weirdly shaped glass bottle washing up from the ocean of our experiences. Glass from a mirror with mere words meaning so much more as each day passes.

We have hope that these reflections keep the memories of those gone suddenly are still alive in our memories. They changed our lives while they were here. Yes, an overused cliché. Yes, admittedly in my early morning brain, I could come up with better words perhaps, but there aren’t any. Life is precious.

I have a few in my life that make the moments very special. They are here. Now. No words are really necessary to express how special they are.

As I look back at myself – looking at myself looking at myself – it’s just a silly picture. A casual sit down almost every morning after entering a little after 8 o’clock on weekdays is my reality.

For years upon years, the morning ritual of a bathroom mirror reflection has been so commonplace for ALL of us. We forget how special our lookbacks can be. It takes that special little shift to the left of a friend for us to realize how special our lives are … not only to us, but also to those who call us friends.

But, these are just mirror words. Go live. Find your eyes and take a picture. Sit back and enjoy a few minutes of the joy that is your life. The now.

Horatio, Valentina, Nobuyuki, Evgeny, and I

I don’t own the rights to those pictures, nor do I have any idea how these artists do what they do with their hands.

Allow me to amend that last sentence. I know exactly how they play (exception below) – being a pianist myself. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Scriabin? … Name the composer or era, and I either dabbled with the piece or listened to it masterfully played by an artist. Horowitz was my go-to early on. Later on, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, and Awadagin Pratt gracefully entertained my ears during lonely evenings. So much talent. So much skill beyond my level.

I’ve played some difficult pieces in concert. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, chief among them. For me, four months of concentrated, dutiful practicing culminated in a long, wonderful concert including Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin – filling my heart with exhaustive pleasure once the last note fell on the stage. I was empty. Marvelous.

The title above was uncomfortable to type. I don’t belong in the company of those masters, humbly so. They are my peers, yet they know not how their music affects me when I watch … and listen. I know their skill. I know the how. Ten fingers, eighty-eight keys. The unknown to me is how Nobuyuki’s blindness does not interfere at all in his ability to execute flawless technique. As well, Valentina’s ease at the end of her long frame is so graceful and effortless. Evgeny was, simply, a child prodigy whose encore pieces are, alone, worth the price of admission. Horatio’s back story as poor Cuban immigrant draws me in. These four artists don’t know me, but we have a bond. Music. Specifically, a black and white adherence to what is good in the world.

The goodness comes when I need it. Be it a young man gently placing a 33-LP of Horowitz’s Chopin Ballade in G-Minor on his Technics turntable for the twentieth time, or a pandemically fatigued man who hasn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks, piano music played by the masters always … always … fills my time, soul, and need for exhales. YouTubing through my mom’s earbuds with notable fancies the past fourteen days has been refreshing and a nice respite away from words.

I hope you have a go-to.

I have a person in my life now. A go-to musician who is in the midst of a major life struggle. We have a music-bond that, hopefully, will develop into a beneficial endeavor soon. Like, real soon. Yesterday, we took the first step in planning a set list of happy songs I’m so excited to start working on behind my Baldwin sitting quietly off to my left. She has a beautiful voice and a personality to match. I’m very familiar with her crazy family and, strangely, some of her zany friends, so placing all the pieces together for a concert shouldn’t be a complicated puzzle. I am a solo artist at times, but enjoy my role as an accompanist more … so this will be my absolute joy to walk with her along this path.

This is hometown, not international fame and fortune. This is music as it is for most of us. We’re not prodigies or folks who do acrobatic finger hopping for the masses. Our role is to sit back and enjoy their effortless skill when we need it … as I have lately.

To some of you, a novel. Perhaps a walk, painting, cooking, … maybe even writing. Whatever your go-to, be glad in it. Embrace it. Love it.

I adore my friends above even though they don’t know me. Of the four, Nobuyuki impresses the holy freak out of me. I just don’t know how he does it. With all my facilities intact, I can’t come close to his execution. Here’s a 4 minute treat for your eyes and ears:

With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy what’s pleasured my minutes the past two weeks.

They, among the few geniuses, are what makes my world happy when I need their music. Go-to it today and always, my friends.

Hum Along, Now

Before lifting up a happy concession window at precisely 11 a.m. this morning, there was a tap at the door a few minutes prior. Standing pleasantly before me was Christine – a regular customer who happened to need her plain cheese-steak earlier than usual. No explanation needed. She was hungry, my grill was hot, and the morning was ready for our food-friendship. As she walked away to wait in her car and I began to prepare the sauntery steak, I began to wonder …. “hmmm”, I muttered under my all ready to go breath.

Why today? Why not an evening plain cheese-steak after a hard day’s shift at the local box box retailer where she works? This was odd. Certainly there was no need for Christine to explain her off-schedule appearance to me. I am not my customers’ keeper, after all. Sitting here on a wooden stool, counting the beginnings of a hopefully busy day, does make one question, however.

Behind me stands a Beverage*Air sandwich unit that never has to explain itself or question why it’s here.

This cool piece of equipment goes about its day never complaining … always allowing me the privilege of reaching, underneath, into 35-degree shelving area for crisp lettuce, dill-ishous kosher pickles, cheeses, reduced fat chocolate milk, two pampered pepper varieties, and much more. Above the shelves are 12 drop-in, wonderfully heightened, pans 3-feet from the floor. At the perfect distance for my 6-foot frame, these metal and plastic containers go about their day hugging diced tomatoes, onions, relish, jalapenos, banana peppers, and various heterogeneous hamburger toppings. All together equipped it is … to serve as a cog in the machinery that is my sound business model: Customers want quality food, I make and serve it, …. then collect money for my service. “Quality, Service, Cleanliness” … as we used to say at McDonald’s back in the day.

My friend hums along. I noticed this a few minutes ago. Its unique murmur catches my attention as I begin to consider, “Why today?”. Christine is well beyond enjoying her cheese-steak by now as I sit here waiting for customers to arrive. It’s been fifteen minutes. They’ll eventually come. A Saturday – even on a cold January day – will attract enough appetites toward my pleasurable, replenishment poles, so I won’t worry too much about sitting in isolated conditions for long.

For now, as it hums, I “Hmmm?” . Without U, of course. Why Today?

Well, you’re here reading this … now, but not here … now as I write. Quite the mind-bender, huh? I don’t mean to make this difficult. Simply, I wonder why today, or any other day, did and event – or two, or three – happen out of place, or time?

Wednesday, a young lady accidentally ran her car into the pole in front of my location. No major injuries to her but the car she drove sustained a major bruise half way up into its engine block. On Thursday, smoke billowed from behind the pharmacy across the street. So large a fire, it was nearly eight blocks away but appearing much closer. Two unrelated events. Two happenings out of place causing me to two-finger my chin and go, “hmmm?” before considering a Saturday musing.

There aren’t any easy answers. My years of studying the other side of “why?” have produced no results. The young lady was most likely texting and, according to the paper, young kids were playing with fire and strong winds had other ideas. I’m not questioning the A-side causes, just the flip-side timing of things in life seems a bit wonky to me. On the B side of the why album is where I find life to be a bit scratchy and tougher to listen to.

Life should hum along easily, but doesn’t at times. Most times, actually, some wacky scratch in our present day recording causes the big needle to skip … and backwards time flies often to repeat the same mistake, make us listen to another of life’s motives we didn’t quite hear the first time, or, perhaps, a small how-do-you-do five minutes before opening up a concession stand. Why today? Hmm?

I had a friend once say to me, “There’s never a good time for bad news, and never a bad time for good news.”. That’s too idealistic and catch-all-ian for me. Surely there must me some room in here for other answers … not just absolute, never good or bad times.

I wish U were here to help me hum along in life as I sit hmm-ing my way. Customers have yet to place their orders and I’m gratefully calm, still. Somewhere on this cold Saturday, there are appetites churning about in the small mom and pops and large box stores, homes, and cars, … moms and dads, kids and teens, retired folks and travelers – some not knowing, yet, they will be here soon. My regulars and first-timers allowing me the privilege of serving up a steamy cheese-steak for them with melted provolone and, perhaps a line of mayo – topped with fresh grilled peppers and onions straight from my Beverage*Air friend behind me as I type.

… Always there, humming along – as you are here – even if only in a 2-dimensional space during a different now. Why today? I have no clue.

Thanks for your company today and being the U in my “Hmmm?”. Hum along, now.

“I’m Feeling it Bounce off My Face”

1975, #660. My favorite picture on any baseball card featuring the true homerun king of any generation.

This isn’t a perfect card with sharp corners, red and yellow contrasts beyond reproach, and a face without blemishes. Imperfection and moderate use is apparent. We would say, “collected and enjoyed” in the hobby, perhaps … as most cards were before collecting as an investment took hold. Opening wax packs after a busy school day, or fun Saturday morning, were toyful, joyful events full of exciting what-ifs. What if I finally got my favorite player in the pack? What if I had enough cards to slip over to a buddy’s house for a game of flip? Preserving corners and colors were as far off as considering IRA investing, career choices, and first-born child names.

If I needed to consider names for anything at the time, however – my high handlebar bike or favorite stuffed bear – Hank or Aaron would have been tops on the list. Topps #660, to be more precise.

Magical, Hammerin’-Hank. Twenty-three seasons in the major leagues with 755 homeruns … the stat. A four-base record surpassed in 2007 by Barry Bonds, but not forgotten as the player who broke Babe Ruth’s record of 714. On April 18th, 1974, he caressed his 715th at the Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta where over 53,000 folks sat … witnessing a small 5 ounce ball carry the delight of history over a fence into the Brave’s bullpen in left-center field.

This is where the story gets interesting to me, especially. Tom House, a relief pitcher, caught the ball on the fly and was immediately asked to turn over the ball by Bill Buckner, the Dodger’s left fielder. Interesting to me. Buckner scaled the fence – with cleats – to prevent the homerun … to watch, perhaps, the most important ball in history fall into his mitt instead of the history books. Not to be, of course. Tom wound his way through players, coaches, and our wonders to personally hand that ball to Hank at home plate. In his words, “So, the ball was worth (almost) twice what I was making at the time,” House said. “But I’ll guarantee, if you asked anyone on the field that day, if they would have caught the home run they would have done exactly what I did.” Class. pure class.

“I remember thinking to myself, I’m not hearing the noise,” House said. “I’m feeling it bounce off of my face.” when asked about the craziness on the field in those moments after the homerun.

Vin Scully is quoted as saying, “What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world,”.

Indeed it was. When asked about his record, he replied, “I’m not trying to make anyone forget the Babe; but only to remember Hank Aaron”.

I believe we will. On January 22nd, we lost this American icon. There are better historians and sports writers .. well, let me digress. I’m neither. Suffice to say there are other folks imminently more qualified to write of his legacy than I. This part-time key-tapper remembers Hammerin’ Hank as a cardboard warrior. A player I never saw in person, met at a sport’s show … or had occasion to call. He was always a 2-dimensional man in a boy’s life and, at present, appears on baseball cards I see from 1954 to 1976.

This 1954 Gem Mint 10 PSA rookie – priced at over $350,000 – shows the respect and value collectors place on Aaron’s life and career. Granted, finding any 66-year old card in this condition would be tough and highly sought after, but his rookie card ranks easily in the top tier of values.

I don’t own one even close to this condition. My collecting years were later. Porch pirates were my friends and I … pitching, trading, throwing, twisting … beating the colors and corners out of every card we had. Not so much my sister, though. Taking great care … by boxing up her cards in neat little piles, she attempted to ward off the perils of time and temptation. Few times … very few, did we cardboard together. I was tempestuously drawn to the destruction of cardboard images. She wasn’t inclined to allow me the privilege. Unfortunately for her, however, in an effort to mark the cards as hers back then, she ran a red marker across the top edges of almost all the neatly sorted cards in the box. This long red line, over time, bled down into really cool half-moons on the front faces of all the cards. We laughed about it later – as adults. Well, laughed may not be the proper term here …

Years later, when going through boxes, she asked about her favorite card(s). I did find her Clemente #309 from 1972. A favorite of mine as well. I’m torn between the 1975 and 1972 Topps sets as to which one is my favorite. This 1972 Topps #299 isn’t a crowd favorite in my memory, but the overall set is beautiful. His head shots from 1954 and 1975 allow for more imagination and intrigue than this standard batting stance pose.

I don’t know how many of my childhood flipper friends still collect as I do. Most of them are within reach, I suppose. We don’t connect anymore. Motivations are different and life is 45 years removed from youthful exuberance. The simple act of getting up from the floor could be challenging – let alone finding wax packs for a dime. These days, the hobby isn’t about the gum or clothes-pinning ballplayers faces in the spokes of our bikes. It’s big money to those few who actually buy packs, boxes, and cases of cards searching for that rare autograph or short-printed card they can possibly sell on-line. “Flip-it” in the newest sense of the phrase, not like we used to do.

Not like the pre-teen who heard of a guy breaking the homerun record of a legend. A myth 50 years removed from any normal life I knew at the time. Babe Ruth was more a candy bar name than a person of interest in my everyday life. Seven-hundred fourteen? Irrelevant until that April day in 1974.

I became aware of Hank Aaron’s death as I looked down upon the following text from my brother that day: “I bet your Hank Aaron cards are worth more now?” … I felt the sorrow bounce off my face.

Our lives were worth more having this man at the plate. All of us should catch his legacy, run as as fast as we can toward home, and hand over the ball saying, “Keep on swinging … in a world of what-if’s … we’ve got this.”

Rest in peace, our true Homerun King.

The Simple Act of Sitting

Rosa Parks. December 1st, 1955. James Blake. Browder vs. Gayle. Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “Stay put, young man …”

It would take a pretty large, generational twist-tie to bind all those together. Together they are, however, in my mind as I sit here in my concession trailer one day after the inauguration of the century … arguably. A swearing in of not only a new President, but a new way of thinking about how things are in America, makes one stop, sit, and wonder where we were and where we’re headed.

A close decade before I was born, Rosa Parks was asked to move from her seat. She refused. As we know, this led to the Montgomery bus boycott, then on to a landmark ruling 11 months later. Bus segregation was ruled unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and life changed for her after that. Her act of defiance became a symbol of the racial segregation movement and the likes of Martin Luther King and his contemporaries stood by her efforts. She worked tirelessly for the cause and, upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol.

In 2005, I started my business. One of many endeavors in my life. An experience that will never, ever, change the face of America like Rosa Park’s stand … while sitting. Here I sit, today, making a difference to some, I hope.

Growing up a white, middle income family male child, I didn’t get pushed around by racial inequality, poverty, or discrimination. Closest I can recall was a six-inch taller bully on the 6th grade playground – minutes later sitting across from me in the principal’s office. We shared a swift dose of discipline at the end of a wooden plank, by no fault of my own, explained away with the words, “I need to make sure I punish the right boy, so both of you are going to get spanked!”. For the record, I defended myself minutes earlier and make no excuses for the attempt. He was a bully and I rewarded him for his efforts.

At home? Different story. One can’t retaliate quite as easily and spanking at the behest of, “Stay put, young man!” had a different tone. Discipline was tough. I sat when told. As long as orders were obeyed … even if beyond my understanding … life seemed to be o.k. .

Seemed to be, anyway. I didn’t know what was going on with life in my dad’s adult world at the time. Only later – as I pathed my way through difficulty when mom died – did I even begin to understand. Yes, over three decades into adulthood, I started to “get it”. Too many push-throughs stack on one’s shoulders and when the stress of one more thing – like the disobedience of a child-imp tiptoeing up to the line – piles on, a dad can lose his cool. My intentions aside, he had his reasons for discipline. I couldn’t question them at the time. Now, I can … and the answers are easy to accept as long as there are deep mugs of warm chamomile tea available at my beckoning call.

That’s where I was, in a proverbial nutshell – without taking up too much of your time. Again, an uneventful beginning decade-point-five of life compared to Ms. Parks. My birth was 10 years removed from her beautiful 1955 sit, stay, and take a stand. Mom – and the universe – decided to pop me out the year after Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech … in the year of a Beatles arrival at JFK airport, LBJ presidency, and … the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, and employment discrimination. A very large ink shadow of Rosa Park’s influence filled the pen of President Johnson on July 2nd when he signed it into law, I suspect. Months later, I was born.

Where we were back then, right? Where we are now, right? Where you are now compared to your early years? Where are we headed?

Certainly, if we compare ourselves to Rosa Parks, JFK, LBJ, or perhaps the Beatles, we’ll be disappointed. Can we change the world like they did? I doubt it. This isn’t to say we can’t try. Don’t give up on anything or anyone – especially yourself.

Yesterday, I noticed the picture of a young girl with the words, “There was a little girl in California who was bussed to school.”:

This is our Vice-President. You can argue about the process, but this is now. Kamala Harris is our black, female, 2nd in-charge behind the President of the United State of America. Tell me, 65 years later after Rosa Parks warmed that cold bus seat, this picture doesn’t send chills up your backbone. She stood on the steps of the Capitol and took the oath of office. I don’t agree with some of her policies – most assuredly don’t – but, I stand with the 200,000 flags firmly planted on the mall … supporting her and President Biden as an American.

She didn’t give up. Whatever the path was, she did it. Joe Biden, with faults galore, did it. They are really fault-filled humans, of course. They’re politicians to the core, admittedly. Oh, and Donald Trump was, too … I guess. He found a way to the presidency as well. Agree, disagree on policy – I understand.

We’ve a lot to do here in America. The Covid crisis isn’t going away. Economic recovery is months – if not a few years – away and the emotional strain on all of us has been draining. This is what has been on my mind as I sit here. Simply sitting here.

Rosa sat there. Her thoughts as a 40-year old woman being told to move? I want her resolve and determination to seep into all of our consciousnesses and help us to see this straightforward, uncomplicated act of sitting created a movement lasting well beyond her years. Change happened. She saw it coming through those glasses.

Activism is good and healthy .. in the right way. Storming the Capitol and/or burning down businesses isn’t the path forward and is why change happened January 20th, 2021. Election fraud, ballot discrepancy, 5 state voter mis-counting, … I don’t make any claims as to what was true or not because I don’t know what I don’t know. America was tired, worn out, and weary – tired of all the bickering and divisiveness over classless, leadership from both sides of the aisle. As usually happens from the swinging populous pendulum, we’re all-in Democratically led now. If it doesn’t work, in four years they’ll be voted out.

We have to trust ourselves. The system, well … continue to challenge it. But, do it responsibly. Park yourself on a bench and think things through before doing anything. Sometimes the simple act of sitting can change the world more than lighting a match under kindling soaked with fake tears.

Here I sit. Mildly uncomfortable. Inside this concession trailer is warm, however, compared to the 42-degree day outside. This metal chair under my posterior is getting aggravatingly annoying so I must conclude, hoping a customer saunters up to my window soon. One person trading money for my product and service at this point would make a difference.

I guess that’s the point of life. One person making a difference in the life of another. Just that some sit on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Inspired by Claudette Colvin who was arrested nine months prior for refusing to leave a bus under similar circumstances, Rosa Parks became one of many iconic images for change. Large, monumental change most of us will not facilitate by ourselves – one by one. We will make a difference in the lives of those we talk to about their kids, jobs, favorite sports teams, … and, of course, pets, food, & rainbows.

One at a time is wonderful. This is how we manage our way through the pile-ons. Like dad. Normal, day-at-a-time walkabouts we need to survive as Americans right now. We can do this. Rosa is right here with us, sitting by our side.

18 Letters

Today, January 18th is the day … in 2021. A Monday. A day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. M.L.K, for short. A man with 18 letters, side by side, forming his name. In his death, asking us to stand side by side in a dream against the backdrop of “withering injustice” and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years prior. 18 letters on the 18th day. Wonderful.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”, Dr. King spoke on August 28, 1963 before an estimated 250,000 people at our nation’s capital.

Shameful as it is, I’ve never read his speech in its entirety. The soundbites provided by a well-rounded education and occasional nod throughout my adult life during the third Monday in January over the years have been my limited exposure. As I read his speech earlier today, there’s was phrase in the eighth paragraph that fully developed my attention: ” … remind America of the fierce urgency of now“. Maybe recent events – like January 6th on those very steps where Dr. King stood – have my antenna up higher. Possibly the struggles this past summer over George Floyd’s unfortunate death have my brain thinking differently? Whatever the cause, the effect was an increased urgency to read his words carefully and with purpose … especially that phrase.

It came after his statement above – the promise to all mankind … and the default of same. A default-default, in a sense, because he goes on to say the system wasn’t broken. Opportunity for freedom and the security of justice still remained. He saw a path toward justice for all people … ALL people … at his now. 1963. I was taken aback by this. In context, his words at this point are better understood, for me, than five soundbites for an eighth grade pop quiz before lunch period. Imagine being one of 250,000. Listening to “… Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time...” as you stood with your friends. So powerful, it must have been.

The next few paragraphs, although only 10 lines, express a heartfelt desire for peace in pursuit of reform. His respect for authority and the brotherhood of blacks and whites“as evidenced by their presence here today” – should be emphasized by all teachers wanting to provide their students a fair and accurate representation of Dr. King’s remarks. He wanted, in his words, “dignity and discipline” in pursuit of “their destiny (which is) is tied up with our destiny.”

Six injustices follow: Police brutality, inequity in travel/lodging, housing, “whites only” discrimination, voting, and justice reform. Summarizing, he vindicatingly remarks, “You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”. Never up to this point in the speech did he urge the individuals to violently protest the injustices that were certainly tearing apart their lives and communities. His words, carefully crafted, soothed rough edges of concern and distress. Restless, weary kin had enough and were tired. They marched for change. In the midst of fatigue, they stood and listened. Eyes half open. Exhaustion pulled heavy on their souls. Then it happened.

Then … Dr. King entered into their slumber. He had a vision. The sun broke free, people on that day tilted their heads upward, generations to come read words in history books, and the third Monday in January celebrates an 18 letter name:

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Less than 5 years later, he was gone. On April 4th, 1968 he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We know the story. A righteous man who never condoned violence died because of it. That isn’t an original observation, of course. I highly doubt that phrase wasn’t used days after the assassination. It’s just so appropriate, however. It rings true – as does this selection from his final remarks on that day in August of 1963:

“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Allow me to finish with my own 18 letters: Today, read his speech.

… And, also give the final say, but never good-bye, to Dr. King himself: ” … And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

Wonderful. Simply, Wonderful.

Axes and Ohs

Brian extended a very kind gesture toward me today. “Who’s Brian?”, you ask. He owns a local axe throwing house close by. I met him eight months ago during a casual hour of moderately sharp tool-tossing after a five-minute introductory session. Underhanded, over-toss, … certainly not sideways, and – for sure – the forbidden backward mistake throws were all covered by his trainers. In front of me stood the forbearing circles of unproven manhood I was to carefully consider without stepping beyond lines at my toe tips. The only caveat was allowing axes to be thrown by all before retrieving mine. As an aside here, I’ve had knives in my back, figuratively, but would know to wait … (darn insurance company regulations require the disclaimer, probably). Oh, and did I mention alcohol is allowed as well? Yes, BYOB in an axe-throwing building.

Alcohol and axes. Local Paul Bunyons and their Big Barcelo Rums chasing the blues away in a small city block building close to a set of railroad tracks near Altoona, PA. Brian runs his business quite well. It’s as professional as any I’ve seen – for this type. Granted, how many mildly-blunt forestry implement flinging establishments have I been in? One. His. Every precaution has been taken for the safety of his guests. There’s sign-in ahead with call-in appointments recommended and professional staffing from entrance to exit.

Two weeks prior to my visit, Brian stopped by my concession stand to introduce himself. Why not, right? At that time, I was only a few blocks away and surely scents dancing on air – from the finest sausage grease and hamburgers in town – caught his nose-tice. Simple marketing. Meet-and-greet as we used to say pre-internet. Being not overbearing or abrasive, he became an instant friend of mine. I didn’t pretend, or assume, we’d immediately start to attend family goldfish burials together or send holiday cards back and forth, however. It wasn’t a bromance in the brew pot … just a real nice guy.

As the weeks continued on from there, I would look out my concession window and see Brian order two hot dawgs once a week – no onions. “Hey, how’ve you been?” moments in passing … hoping each one of us respond with positive reports. We did, then moved on with our next six days or so.

Today I noticed his company vehicle pull up – which, of course, wasn’t unusual. I knew fresh hot dawgs were grilled up ready to go with his favorite chili-cheese steaming in the cooker. Before I had a chance to ask how things were, he set a hefty box on the cold serving counter just outside my window.

“Here, Doug. This package is for you!”, he gleamingly gave voice to his benevolent demeanor. Stunned, I noticed a rather plain box with the words: Exterior String Lights, 49 Feet.

He continued, “A buddy and I came by the other night and measured the exterior of your trailer. There are enough lights to go around here …”, he continued, pointing excitingly to the far left side, “…all the way across the front, around the end then behind. All the sides cars will see you in the dark. Those nights when you are open, hopefully these will help you get some increased business, right?”. I, in a breathless manner, replied, ” Uh, yeah …”

“I’m sorry, Brian. I’m at a loss for words. Thank you so much. Let me pay you for these”.

“Absolutely not. And we’ll let it go at that.”

“Ok. At least allow me to give you these two dawgs for free?”. He agreed.

I was taught to accept gifts with gratitude and compliments with grace. Both, when done with sincerity, are given from a kind and gentile place. Brian, in that moment, exemplified his kindness toward me. I accepted – with a little push-back, of course, because I’m Doug.

Two weeks ago, Brian came by – at night – and apparently made a mental note that my exterior trailer space is dark. Save a few small lantern lights setting on the very shelf he placed his wonderful gift today, the customer experience after sundown is less than ideal. I have certain priorities – exterior lighting hasn’t been one of them. My casual friendship to Brian was a priority to him during this past week and I am indebted to his goodwill. He lit up my emotional small 160 square feet footprint today.

In a few days, I’ll be able install these lights. For now, Axes and Ohs go out to you, Brian. You threw one and hit dead center today, my friend.