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Posts Tagged ‘funny stories’

#Amtrakresidency: The Empire Builder

12 Mar

I knew I needed Twitter followers @SpaffordJason when I saw something posted online called #Amtrakresidency. I was intrigued. What are the odds of that, kind and relentlessly charming readers – something intriguing on the big web? This residency involves getting picked to be one of 24 writers who will get a round trip ride on Amtrak for a few days to work on writing. I thought it was a good idea – for writers and the Amtak marketing people. The application was simple enough. I only needed to submit a story under ten pages, I needed to give my full name (I do that a lot anyway), and I needed to tell how this would help my writing. But, I also needed to give my Facebook URL, Twitter and Instagram handles. Uh, oh. I smell a marketing experience. Nonetheless, it would be a good experience.

For the most part, I’ve decided that my chances at this residency are limited, as they may weigh the number of twitter followers and Facebook friends more than writing skills. I’m afraid my 16 twitter followers are not going to help my cause. I follow a rock and roller named @woolyB on Twitter. If only he could expose me to his huge following of 70 plus persons, then and only then might I have a chance at the #amtrakresidency. But let’s not worry about that right now, because this whole thing reminded me of a story that very few people will ever read.

Several years ago we needed to attend a wedding in Indiana. I had to work, so decided to leave later and meet my family there. I had never ridden Amtrak before and the price made sense. This was well before hearing of such a thing as the #Amtrakresidency, but as luck would have it, I was even writing things at that time that people would never read. I thought this would be a perfect chance for me to have some quiet writing time.

I boarded the Chicago bound Amtrak train, The Empire Builder, at 7:30 am on a Friday morning in St Paul, MN. I found a seat and placed my ticket stub above the seat to officially lay claim to said seat. I unpacked my lap top, opened a blank word document and began to not write. It quickly became obvious that I needed a break. Breakfast seemed like the most rational escape.

Making my way to the dining car I walked through the observation car. I observed that the sun was streaming in and the early morning light made any shadows disappear like sin on Sunday. I thought this would be a better writing place than my seat and stuck a mental post it note on my cerebral cortex. I entered the dining car and chose a window seat at one of the white linen covered tables that partnered with four chairs. Soon after, three more people joined me. I would like to, for the sake of this story, be able to say that these were the three most interesting people I had ever met. But that just doesn’t happen every day and my guess is they might say the same of meeting me. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear about where they were going and search for those connections that are fun to stumble upon.

After breakfast, I went back to my seat. I took with me a small bowl of oatmeal with plastic wrap over the top, because for some strange reason the waitress had offered that she could make it “to go”. I sat my bowl of cooling porridge and plastic spoon in my seat, grabbed my lap top and moved back to the observation car. The car was not very crowded and I found a seat that I thought would be just the right amount of sun, but not too much, and could produce the best writing. Once my screen was up I decided to look out the window and enjoy the scenery. I like to watch people and scenery.

This watching all started, kind and curious readers, many years ago with my dad. Years ago, in rural areas Friday nights across the country were spent on Main Streets. People would be paid on Friday and then go to town. Growing up in Northern Wisconsin our Friday nights meant going to the thriving metropolis, the hub of the north, the home of the Hodag (that’s another story) – Rhinelander. My dad would sit in the car with the kids while my mom shopped at all the finer stores – JC Penney’s, for instance.

As we complained about boredom my dad would tell us to watch the people. The people are interesting. What’s their story. In the summer, are they local or a tourist? In the fall, do they work in town or in the country? In the winter, why are they here? In 1972 the people looked a lot alike in Rhinelander. One summer evening a young man was walking down the street with long hair, ripped pants to the point of underwear hanging out and an American flag patch attempting to bridge the gap. I thought to myself, what’s his story. My dad slowly shook his head and said, “Look at that God Damn Hippy.” I guess he knew the story with this guy. The window was rolled down and I always wondered if the God Damn Hippy heard my dad.

Twenty five years later as I was walking into a store with my own long hair, I walked by a kindly looking older gentleman and under his breath I heard him say, “Hippy.” Fortunately for me I was not considered “God Damned.” I was relieved and amused and went about my shopping.

As I looked out the window of the moving train, at that particular moment I really wanted to see a hippy. Nothing. Only trees. All of this thought had made me a bit tired and I decided that I should go away from the brightness of the observation car for a short nap in my seat. It was at this moment, upon evaluating how much writing I could possibly do, once I could start writing, that I thought about how it would be a good idea someday if there was something called “Twitter,” to have a writing “residency” aboard an Amtrak train. Maybe call it something like #Amtrakresidency. I didn’t know what the number sign would mean, but assumed some clever person in the future would figure it out. This twitter thing could be really cool for a few years – until old people started using it, and by that time there would be something cooler.

I made my way to my seat. There was a woman in my seat. She appeared to be in her late 50′s with unnaturally blonde hair. She had Birkenstocks on her feet and wore a necklace with a peace sign. She was sound asleep. My bowl of oatmeal was empty and on the floor. This Goldilocks had eaten my porridge and now she was sleeping in my Amtrak chair. I coughed in the aisle. She didn’t wake and run from the chair. She didn’t budge. I fidgeted for a short time, but couldn’t bring myself to wake her. I looked at her face in a real hard way and tried to figure out her story. I walked back to the observation car and all the way back I tried to figure out her story. No luck.

Upon my arrival back in the observation car I found that there were a few more people. Some of them had just gotten on the train. Among these extra people were two elderly gentlemen setting up what looked like a small P.A. system. They also had a microphone – nothing fancy, the trusty workhorse Shure SM58 microphone. These guys were fixing to talk into that microphone. They did a couple of squelchy microphone tests. You can tell when someone is no stranger to the audio field. These nice elderly gentlemen were somewhere in the audio forest – far, far away from the audio field.

I was getting ready to help them, but they finally pulled it together and plugged the mic jack into the right hole on the P.A. Whatever they were about to do, they were now off and running. Happy to have a microphone in hand, they made small amplified talk to those who made direct eye contact with them. I was curious and wanted to know their story. I stopped beginning to start writing for a time to try to understand the purpose of these amplified retirees.

Bob and Ed were their names. Bob got out a large three-ring binder with laminated pages. They flipped through the pages apparently trying to find the correct starting point. Once they came into agreement, Bob held the microphone and Ed read from the holy binder. It became apparent quickly that they were reading information about the towns we were going by. The interesting thing about trains, like boats, is that you are often seeing the back side of towns, so other than an occasional crossing sign you may never really know what town you’re passing.

They read facts and figures about the places we passed. They told little stories about the towns or semi-famous people from the towns. It wasn’t bad, aside from the fact that Ed probably had not read out loud since 8th grade, some sixty years ago. Bob would have a turn, but he obviously had not retired from the broadcasting business, either. So, it went like this for a couple of hours, with long breaks in between towns and banter Ed and Bob had apparently came across in some record books that may have discussed Vaudeville.

During one of the breaks in the entertainment I went back to my seat to see if the fairy tale was over. It was not. Goldilocks was still sleeping in my seat. I didn’t even stop, but continued on in search of the car where food could be found. It was now early afternoon and I was hungry. It was probably a good idea to eat something, then I could jump right into writing. I felt that I had soaked up enough of the atmosphere. I ordered a sandwich and decided to soak up a bit more atmosphere in the form of an alcoholic beverage. One beer would probably just loosen up my fingers enough to be able to keep up with my brain’s story telling. Yeah, one beer would be perfect. I had a sandwich and a beer and headed back to the observation car. I walked back past my seat and saw Goldilocks’ sandals and thought, “God Damn Hippy.”

Back in my writing position, with fingers poised on my key pad I decided to quickly go to the calculator function on the lap top and mentally go through our monthly finances. Sure enough. The outcome was the same as the last time I did this. Just before focusing on writing something, I paused to notice what Ed (I must have missed Bob’s last turn) was talking about. There was a break between towns then it was Bob’s turn again. At Bob’s turn I realized the problem. They were one town off and had been for a while. Tunnel City was Camp Douglas, Camp Douglas was Mauston, Mauston was Wisconsin Dells etc. I couldn’t believe I just noticed this and I was more shocked that these old timers with mile markers on their pages had not caught it. But suddenly the microphone went silent and there was a non broadcasted meeting. I think they just realized it. They came back on-line and announced a break.

The sun was so warm and the beer and sandwich were working together in not an unexpected way. I decided that I would come up with a title – one that I could easily change later – then I would take a short nap. I deserved that. In anticipation of years to come I titled my little story “#Amtrakresidency”. I slept as the hum and sway of the train wrote great stories in my brain that would be forgotten when approaching the waking station.

I must have slept for a while. When I woke the elderly men were gone, replaced by shadows of late afternoon. We were just starting out from a station and I overheard a ticket taker talking to another Amtrak staff person. Apparently, there was a woman who had gotten on at the Fargo station in the early morning and she was very drunk. She had slept through her stop and we had to make a special stop to let her off the train. The ticket taker anxious to get the skinny on the scuttlebutt asked the other person who it was. The staff person said it was a blonde woman who sort of “looked like an older hippy.”

My God Damn hippy must have been the woman. No wonder she didn’t budge. And what drunk hippy wouldn’t eat a bowl of oatmeal? It all made sense. As we slowly pulled away from the station I spotted Goldilocks outside on the platform fifteen miles from the station she wanted to be at, looking hung over and a little confused. Being a former hippy I felt a little bad for her. But, you’ve got to keep it together my hippy friend. It’s a tough world out there for the God Damn Hippy.

Now that I could go back to my seat I didn’t really want to. The observation deck felt like home to me. It reminded me of my small town Main Street with people coming and going. I could listen to people and watch people and possibly talk to people. I heard stories about towns we went though, albeit not exactly the right towns. I even got to see a hippy through that great big train window. The only problem was that we were almost to Chicago and I had not written a single thing. I didn’t have a single story. I only had the title, “#Amtrakresidency”, and I had no idea what that meant. All I could think is that maybe I could find some quiet time at the wedding. Then, for sure I would write something. And if not there, maybe I’d take another train ride someday and I would absolutely write something then.


Lincoln Logs and Legos

08 Mar

Hoyt and I saw the Lego Movie on opening day and we both really enjoyed it. To be honest, I didn’t think I would and expected I could sleep for 20-30 minutes. But I didn’t. We tried to go back a week after opening and see it with the entire family plus a couple of friends – which, by the way, leads people to believe that we have five kids, and people get out of the way for the five kid family. We didn’t buy tickets on-line and they were sold out. Sort of a bummer when your whole day was leading up to that event. However a few minutes later with popcorn and Amazon on Demand in the family room everyone was placated.

I really didn’t need to see the Lego Movie again, even though I liked it. In fact, I love watching movies and very seldom need to watch a movie twice. Even if I can’t remember what happened, it seems like a waste of time.

The only movie I can watch over and over again is one that is on no lists of those in the know. Those lists that include films like “Battleship Potemkin” – you know it as the 1925 film by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein that was a breakthrough in editing. He totally beat MTV to the punch of montage. Then you have your Swedish hero in Ingmar Bergman. Don’t forget Italy’s “The Bicycle Thief”, and the French new wave movement with “Breathless”. We would also want to mention a whole bunch of U.S. films spanning several decades. We would want to mention those, but I don’t have time to. And I suspect my clever and informed readers know more than I do with regard to lists of such things.

All the top lists of films do not list my favorite film of all time. I list comedies in a place that doesn’t allow them to be overall winner for “film of all time”. Sorry, comedies, these are my rules (for the record, it’s Spinal Tap). My favorite film is “Jeremiah Johnson”. This film starred Robert Redford and was directed by Sydney Pollack.

As is the case with many favorite things, part of the favorite factor can be traced to a time and a place. For me, it was the first time that I thought about being on the back side of a camera, making the camera pan, making a shot. I like to believe that I connected with the quiet of the shots, but at the age of twelve I think it was the fight scenes. Jeremiah triumphed in the end, after a difficult path. It was a slice of his life. To this day if I see it on TV I usually put down anything at any time of the day or night to watch it. Everyone needs one move like this – even if it means being Patrick Swayze’s “Red Dawn”. My wife has “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”- even though she wasn’t around in the early 1960s. But that’s the quintessential girl’s movie. No skinin’ Griz or fightin’ Indians. Just Audrey Hepburn being skinny and fashionable.

But I digress. We were talking about the Lego Movie. Legos have been around for over 50 years now, and have really pushed the brand forward in the last twenty years. It’s now even hip to be a thirty year old Lego geek. 40 years ago kids didn’t have the volume of Legos that kids have today. I think we had some Legos, but not many. The way it used to work is you got some Legos to build whatever and then you slowly lost all those Legos. Once the limited cache of Legos was depleted it was just time for you to be done playing with them. The Lego arsenal was just not replenished at every birthday and holiday.

I don’t want to be the old guy in the room saying things like, “We just used to play with sticks”. “Kids today have it so good” or “That Elvis corrupted our youth”. Dearest reader, I am only here to provide perspective on this crazy ever-changing world. One of my perspectives happens to be that I wish the Lincoln Logs people could have brought their game to the Lego level. As a kid, I loved the Lincoln Logs. They’re still around. But not the way the Legos are. I guess it is more difficult to drag Lincoln Logs into the 21st century. It’s harder to visualize a log cabin Star Wars space ship or any other kind of ship using logs rather than Lego’s plastic multi-shaped blocks.

Lincoln Logs were originally invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s second son, John Lloyd Wright in 1916. The inspiration was said to come from the Imperial Hotel that Frank was building in Tokyo. By the way, have you ever noticed that nobody ever refers to Frank Lloyd Wright as “Frank?” So, inspired by Frank’s building John came up with Lincoln Logs and patented the idea in 1920. It was an instant hit but he sold the idea and company before the real popularity set in. The company’s owners tried to cut costs by going to plastic in the 1970s, until realizing the mistake and switching back to wood. Since then, Lincoln Logs have remained on store shelves but never experienced the renaissance that Legos did.

But let’s not just give up on the L Log, dear problem solving reader. We can figure this out. In fact, I just got an idea. First of all, let’s just make sure Lincoln Logs continue to be made out of wood. Quiet yourself, tree hugger. I know what you’re thinking. What if the sawdust that is used to make wood pellets was also compressed into the shapes of the logs. Or they could use scrap wood. I don’t think we need to take down sequoia trees to make tiny logs. Hmmmmm. One sequoia tree would make an awful lot of……sorry, that was out of line. I just don’t want to see the logs go to plastic again.

The next idea will require the Lincoln Logs folks to step up to the plate. We all know what licensing of Star Wars did for Legos. Lincoln Logs needs to get a piece of that action. Ok, maybe Star Wars isn’t the right fit- and it’s too expensive. Maybe they could start by licensing easier properties. I would propose starting with “Jeremiah Johnson”. That’s it. Jeremiah built several log cabins and there were other log cabins featured. There could even be a young Robert Redford Lincoln Log guy.

Wait, why not license some of the classic films. “Breathless,” the 1960 French movie could feature Paris in black and white Lincoln Logs. Who doesn’t want to see a rustic Eiffel Tower made out of Lincoln Logs. Maybe a Lincoln Log “Bonnie and Clyde.” Their getaway cars could all be made of Lincoln Logs. And while they’re at it, I think we want to bring the girl demographic into what I’m dubbing “Log Mania.” This could be done by introducing a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Lincoln Log set. There could be a Lincoln Log New York City and a Lincoln Log Tiffany’s that would display little logs in place of jewelry- of course, these would be fancy little logs.

The Lego movie was entertaining and had a good message, but I think a Lincoln Log movie could do the same. The Lincoln Log movie could be a historical look at Abraham Lincoln, the name sake of the logs, or a movie about the architect known as Frank. This could focus more on Frank’s architecture and less on some of the other parts of his life-like the murders and mistresses and debts, oh my.

It’s all about making logs cool again. Let’s all work together to make logs cool again. I’m hoping this is just the beginning and in a few short years I’ll be dragging a collection of my own kids and other people’s kids to go see Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as a 3D IMAX Lincoln Log movie. I think I could stay awake for that version.


The New Girl Shopper

14 Feb

My daughter Lila is now eleven and proclaimed to me how much she loves to shop. I think that would be good if it were pertaining to food. When you think of someone “shopping” for food you think of the person trying to spread a dollar as far as it can go. When I think of someone shopping for clothes, I think of someone going from store to store trying to find just the right group of things that look good. That process, in my mind, may not be as dollar conscious.

I do have to admit that clothing is right there in between food and shelter in the commonly coveted necessities. I just don’t know if the preteen shop of “Justice” was originally in mind when those necessities were identified. It may just be me, but I think Justice was possibly developed by someone who was once stranded on a desert island as an eleven year old girl. Having been rescued she vowed to never be left behind again, and created an entire franchise of stores totally dedicated to enlist every possible color to adorn the cheapish third world produced fabrics. “Don’t get left behind, wearing bright colors of all kind,” may have been the mantra.

Lila told me that she thinks shopping is fun. She also let me know that it’s only natural that boys don’t like shopping as much as girls. “They just don’t get it.” So, being amused by the fact that I was watching Lila “shop” for the first time, I settled in to the Justice store to see how she did her shopping. She let me know from the onset that shopping in the summer is more fun because you don’t have to have your winter coat on in the mall. I totally agreed.

Lila had received a gift card from her aunt Kathleen for the Justice store. Aunt Nicole produced a child (Lydia) who thinks the world of Lila. As far as aunts go, she’s good for a while. Every person needs a minion – until the minion moves on and gets a minion – and Lydia will end up having many minions. Lila’s cousin 5 years her junior will eventually head a benevolent military coup in some remote country. But that’s another story.

We forgot what amount was on the gift card. I volunteered to track an employee down to get the card scanned and know our budget. I could ask the grown-up or the high schooler. I thought the high schooler’s computer skills would be faster, but I went with the adult as a token of solidarity, even though the adult was not super adulty.

Once we found out that the card had twenty five dollars we could now start shopping in earnest. I followed behind as Lila meandered though the clothes. It was obvious to me that she was a shopper learner, fresh to the scene. I stayed back then caught up. She had no plan of action. This was the interesting part to me.

She had no time constraints. She had a $25 limit, but that was not a concern for her in the beginning. Maybe this is what her mother looked like shopping before she had three children all pre melt down, before she had a husband ready to melt down, before she had college commitments, before she had a minimum wage job, and before she had developed tastes and opinions. Lila was at the purest form of shopping. It was slowly – 40 minutes – becoming aware to me that Lila was a blank shopping slate. I had a moment of terror as I watched this. How could this end?

I was almost ready to say something about leaving and waited. Then she asked me a question. She was looking at the jewelry and asked if the necklaces were on sale. Joy gushed from my bored numb body. She had acknowledged the sale. I could not be more proud. I confirmed to her that the necklaces were on sale. If you bought two you got a deal. I thought the goal was to buy clothes. But I remained silent as to not tamper with the great experiment.

She continued to peruse the merchandise. I only briefly mentioned something about what I called the “process of elimination theory.” – the idea of deciding what does not work and not look at that item again. She did not adapt. My life is based upon the process of elimination, but I’m ok. I remained patient. We looked at things more than once.

Finally, she seemed to be tiring of looking at things. This did not occur before I had to sit on one of the very few places to sit in this store. She came to my toadstool roost and asked me to come forward and review a few of the items she was considering. I dragged my wobbly licorice like legs up to a standing position and forged forward into the jungle of ick dubbed clothes.

Even though I thought we were there for clothes, I was a bit relieved that she was settling away from clothes. She brought me back to the necklaces. She picked out a necklace that was $14. The necklace was two halves of a heart ( or two separate necklaces) that magnetically connected to make to make one. Half said “mom” and half said “daughter”. I thought it was very nice that she had dug through the pile of island SOS material and found something that she wanted to share with her mom.

This would have been enough of a triumph for me. She asked how much money remained. I asked her to do the math. She did. She had enough for another item. Instead of buying another thing for herself, she bought two small overpriced things for her brother Hoyt and sister Iris. She made sure that they were the same in value and picked out something that would appeal to each. She had just become my hero.

My licorice legs turned into oak with a bounce. We went to the counter and I chose to let the high schooler check us out. Lila took the gift card and handed it over. After the discounts we found that she had seven dollars left on the card. This was a successful trip. What seemed like four hours was only really 50 minutes. Lila had navigated her first shopping trip in a thoughtful kind of way – thinking about sales and her siblings.

We left the store and I put my arm around Lila and gave her a hug like we were just rescued from a desert island. I told her I though it was great that she had thought of her mom and gotten gifts for her brother and sister. And, I said, “You have seven dollars left.”

She paused and looked at me with concern.

“What do you mean, seven dollars?”

I said, “That’s what’s left on the gift card.”

There was a look of disappointment on her face. Then I realized the problem.

I slowly and carefully asked, “Did you think that plastic gift card could be used for $25 this time, but there could be more times to use it – beyond the initial $25?”

She nodded a slow island morse code yes. Maybe even rethinking her generosity to her siblings while she nodded.

“I thought it was like your plastic cards and I could keep using and using and using them.”

“Ok, ok, ok.” Now she stabbed me with her little girl words, but I recovered quickly, remembering that I’m an adult plus. “No, it’s not like that.”

She was resolved. “Oh, ok.”

I said that I thought it was great that she got stuff and thought about her mom and siblings when she was using a gift card for her. She agreed and we quietly searched for the crumbs we had dropped to find our way out of the mall at the second level Macy’s entrance near a mannequin woman in a white jump suit.

This trip to the island of Justice had left nobody stranded – for long – and I got to watch Lila figure things out and work towards becoming a shopper. The good news for me and all my worries about shopping as a sport was that she seemed to be going in the right direction. She went in the direction of making it a necessity – thinking about her family – and I was proud of her. Although, in all honesty, I’d don’t want to be witness to the event that spends that final seven dollars. That’s looking like a mother-daughter bonding experience that I will be happy to read about in Cynthia’s notes.


Dear Old Man

30 Jun

I started going to a gymnasium a couple of years ago. Yes, kind readers, I like to call it gymnasium. I have a good friend named Jim and if I said I was going to “work out” at the gym, the vision of me doing jumping jacks in front of Jim always comes to mind.

Where did the term “work out” come from? Did it derive from working outside? Is “working in” the opposite of exercising? Would a good “work in” be a big cheeseburger and a beer. The people at the gymnasium always ask me if I’ve had a good work out. Maybe instead of asking me if I enjoyed my beer and burger, the bartender could ask if I had a good work in.

My dad is 83 and goes to a gymnasium in the winter months. Like many oldish people, he wears his work out sweat pants and comfortable flannel shirt (with sleeves rolled up) and after his exercising he drives home and changes his clothes. In fact, this is a ritual of many younger people also. Why not just wear that perspiration home and deal with it in the privacy of your own shower. I think this is more common with women. Men seem less concerned about having access to the finer things – like their own showers. Actually, I know for a fact that our water bill decreases if I can shower off site. Lower water bills are not normal motivations for exercising

There is an old man at my gymnasium who’s 93 years old. I hope that I am able to be active, let alone alive, at 93. He comes to the gymnasium several days a week – usually to attend one of the old person exercise programs. In all fairness, I don’t think that is the official name of the class. It may be something like “Silver Sneakers” or “Golden Oldies”. It may be harder to get people (old people) to sign up for something called “Old person exercising class”.

The 93-year-old I speak of, let’s call him Bill, is fairly slow-moving – which is actually moving much faster than most of the people born the same year as him. Bill has a couple of canes that move him from his car to the locker room and then into the old person exercise class.

Many of the old people move directly (and slowly) from their cars into the old person exercise class. Bill moves into the locker room and changes from his everyday flannel shirt and khaki pants to his workout flannel shirt and khaki pants. After his workout Bill moves back to the locker room where he disrobed down to his nakedness and moves very, very slowly to the showers. This is the part that makes me nervous.

Here’s where many of you will believe I’ve gone too far, offending old people around the world. You understand, dear and comfortable-in-your-own-skin readers, I think old man Bill is reckless and selfish. I think old man Bill is some kind of arrogant showboat. What’s Bill thinking? He’s 93 damn years old and it takes him two canes and ten minutes to get into the locker room, then after an old person workout he’s got to take all his clothes off and shuffle his way – without canes and naked – across a slippery shower floor, with nothing to hold onto but the smooth tiles made moist from shower steam. Good idea, Bill.

I’ve heard that Bill cross-country skiied until the age of 80, and I am proud for him – but this insanity must stop. Bill is run of the mill old, but you can still see the remnants of athleticism hanging on dimly to his frame. He has probably always forged ahead on natural skills and a naïveté understanding of danger. But, I’m positive that most of his past athletic achievements have been completed at least semi-clothed.

I am an ill combination of being more laid back than most people, coupled with a nervousness that runs deeper than most people. I have made half a lifetime of spontaneity that in most cases is planned one year in advance. So, now if I am to continue going to the gymnasium at the same hours as old man, show-off Bill, I will need to start understanding how I will cope with the day that Bill slips and falls on his way to the shower. As I stand with no jack-knife or straw (used to create a crude tracheotomy) wearing my birthday suit – no, not my green velvet one, but my nakedness – watching in slow motion as Bill slips and falls and his kind older head bounces off an unkind tile.

It’s this scenario that plays out in my mind every time Bill is doing his naked creep to the place where water goes onto his body. I assume I will need to get the shampoo washed out of my hair to be helpful. I have to imagine that I will be more helpful if I have my clothes on. If he falls, do I quickly amble past him and put my clothes on? I’ve already played it out. Naked me will tell him that I’m going to get help, then I’ll get my clothes on – very quickly, of course – and bring him a couple of towels to cover up with if he can’t get up. By the way, in most of the scenarios that I have gamed through I assume that he’s broken his hip. After covering him with towels, I’ll go to get help.

I’m irritated with careless Bill. I don’t want to have to rescue a fallen naked old man. Look deep inside dear, kind reader and see if you can honestly tell me that this opportunity is on your bucket list. See, that’s what I thought. Judge not thee who does not want to be naked and helping thee naked old man. But, I’m a responsible sort. If it’s only me and selfish Bill in the locker room, I generally stick around until he is safely and slowly back onto a carpeted surface.

On the other hand, if another person comes in – let’s say, for example, a friend of mine – I’ll call him David – I get out as quickly as I can. I’m sure David hasn’t played through the scenarios as many times as I have, but he works the stairmaster every day with fortitude and grace. He will take charge in the case of a naked Bill fall. Besides, David knows everybody at the gymnasium and he can get people’s attention faster than me. In fact, I imagine David will one day be way too old and putting others in the same uncomfortable position of gymnasium guardian (naked) angel.

The concern here is that I shouldn’t have to worry about this old man daredevil living his unclothed Evil Knievel stunts. The problem here is that we want old people to be independent. Well, I’m here to say that independence is great as long as you’re clothed. This great country was not forged on the backs of naked dudes dumping tea in a harbor. The Gettysburg address was not made by a naked guy in a tall hat. The Berlin Wall did not come down by naked people with sledge hammers. Please, people, tell your respective old people to shower in the privacy of their own homes. Old people, stay healthy and active, but keep your clothes on in public locker rooms.

Sadly Yours,

Jason Spafford


Burning Man and a Flask

19 Feb

I did some of my best work in the “garten” -as I like to call it. That’s kindergarten. But before I could get in there, I went through all the rigorous testing of the “pre-garten” during kindergarten registration.

I was at that stage of my life in 1969. This was the time of school psychologists’ ideas becoming – how should I say this – more 1970s. Our school psychologist was just out of college. In 1969 being just out of college and studying psychology meant there was a 62% chance, if a man, he would have longish hair. If longish hair was in place, there would then be a 90% chance that he would have a beard. Our school psychologist checked both boxes with a thick number 2 pencil. He seemed thoughtful like an adult, yet skinny and awkward like a kid. At some point he reviewed our work. Sifting through 5 year olds’ art work like tea leaves. He had been professionally trained and equipped with all of the most modern thoughts and systems. Some of his peers would continue their educations and end up teaching the age old science of psychology to up and coming soothsayers at a college level. Meanwhile, our school psychologist focused on our drawings.

After my basic testing, my mom and I had a meeting with the school psychologist. He quizzed me on my drawing. The drawing was of my family – My mom and dad and siblings. My dad was wearing some regular clothes – pants and a short sleeve shirt. What distressed the professional was that I had colored my dad’s face red. His arms were red and the exposed, badly drawn neck of his open shirt was also colored red. I was very quiet. Some might say a sensitive lad. I watched as the beard talked to my mom. The shagginess of the beard prevented a view of the lips and mouth. There was only a hair hole with sounds emanating and an occasional word with a P that would create a small breeze and sway the follicles nearest the source. I became mesmerized by this natural phenomenon.

I seemed to catch the gist of the one-sided conversation as he spoke in confident low tones of a college educated young guy who probably had tried his hand at a pipe and tobacco until it made him nauseous. It seemed that he believed that I was afraid of my dad. My fear had manifested itself in me coloring my dad’s flesh red. By the way, red is the color of the devil and generally thought by many cartoonists to be the color of anger. Other scientific proof that the color red is aligned with anger is the fact that Caucasian’s skin may become flushed when angry. I was settling in to agree with the professional, because I had seen my fair share of cartoons. Then it hit me. This guy didn’t know what he was talking about.

My dad didn’t scare me. My dad was a farmer and because of this particular occupation he spent a lot of time outside where things are commonly grown. My dad had a permanent farmer’s tan, and in the summer his shirt sleeves were rolled up exposing his arms to the sun. His face and neck were also turned dark brown or reddish – depending upon the week. At this point my coloring skills were very limited and the crayons provided back in 1969 didn’t contain sunburn red or burnt farmer, so I improvised and used red. My mom looked confused by what the beard was saying. I finally chimed in with my explanation about my sun mad dad. The hair hole fell silent. The follicles stood defeated and still. He quickly finished the checklist, ending with letting my mom know that I had successfully walked on the balance beam. I’ve always felt strongly about balancing.

As we walked to the door, the psychologist, looking for his personal Sybil, once again talked in low tones to my mom. I was only five and my ears were still very good for hearing. I heard him make a passive aggressive psychological pitch to my mom that I might be quiet and shy around men because of some kind of strained relationship with my dad. My mom listened to this young Rasputin and said, “Oh,” all the while thinking someone should shave this boy-man’s face. We left the room and I felt as if we had just skirted something dangerous and confusing. I don’t think I understood it was funny in the way I do now. But there was something deep down in me that got that ticklish feeling that I would grow to embrace.

My dad had waited in the car. When we got in the car my mom explained the whole scene to my dad – the bearded, long haired psychologist, the red faced drawing and my normal quietness. She explained how the psychologist had thought I was afraid of my dad and colored his skin red. Before my mom could tell my dad the real reason for the red face, my dad broke in.

“Well, of course he’s afraid, but it’s not me. He’s just never seen a goddamn hippie up close. I oughta go in there and punch that damn long hair, unshaven hippie in the goddamn mouth!”

There was a pause. My first thought was he wouldn’t be able to find his mouth. Then my mom and dad broke into laughter. Oh, I got it. Good times in the Spafford household.

The following fall I went to kindergarten – the place so concerned that my dad was angry was the same place that employed a teacher in her late fifties with a drinking problem. I’ll change her name to Mrs. Miller. I found out later that Mrs. Miller had a drinking problem. And when I say drinking problem, I mean I think she didn’t drink during the day, and that was a problem – for her.

On birthdays we all sat in a circle and the birthday child got to hand out candy to everyone. One particular day the birthday girl was moving too slow so Mrs. Miller took over, the birthday girl freaked out, Mrs. Miller grabbed her with long talon like fingers and dragged her to the bathroom and locked her away – all the while said girl was screaming, “Get your witch hands off me.” Mrs. Miller went to the cloak room (I think the dagger room was off to the right) and drank from a silver container. All the stunned children sat quietly in the birthday circle. Where’s a child psychologist when you need one. He must have been chasing down a poorly colored dad or hunting a hastily illustrated mom. Or maybe he just had gone back to school to get better at his craft.

Jason Spafford