Archive for January, 2009

Not too long ago, I took a flight from Frankfurt to Chicago just before Christmas.  Apparently, the U.S. still has left over military bases around Frankfurt, quite a few in fact, just to keep an eye on those dreadful Germans.  I got a chance to talk to a couple of America’s finest on the plane over.  They told me about the lack of prospects leaving High School, the boredom of their current post, their brother in Iraq.  Some of it seemed a tad cliché.  I felt like I knew the story.  I come from an upper middle class neighborhood in a big city and then went off to the most expensive private university in the country.  None of my friends enlisted.  I don’t get a chance to converse with our troops often.  I don’t know anyone who has been to Iraq.  And talking to these kids, most younger than me, which is not the easiest thing to be, they just seemed stagnant.  They told me about drinking binges, broken computers, movies downloaded.  They showed me a picture of their girlfriends wearing uggs and college hoodies.  I think our troops are the best and greatest, true heros.  I just…  They seem to lack a cause right now.  There is nothing driving them.  Some of the greatest poetry and literature has come out of wars, and those words can teach us.  But without a sense of purpose, without a task in which to take pride, these soldiers had only a military ID to show.  Other than that, they described to me boredom.  World War I Poet Soldier Wilfred Owen said, “All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the truest poets must be truthful.”  Perhaps it is the truth our soldiers lack, and it doesn’t come from them, it comes from up top.  

Below is a letter written by Union soldier Sullivan Ballou on July the 14th, 1861.  Give it a listen as it is just audio.  I have never heard a better rendering of love-of-country and love-of-woman put so succinctly.  He has truths to tell, a truth to his country, and a truth to his woman.  He proclaims them both.

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“Did you hear about Hawaii?” my father says.

“What about Hawaii?” I say.  I heard all about it last week, but tango on they say. 

“Your sisters are taking your old man on a trip!”

“Oh yeah?  You’re going to Hawaii with Caroline and Margaret?”  They live in New York.   Even I admit that it will be nice to see them. 

“That’s right I am.  My dear Caroline!  My lovely Margaret!  Oh, my girls.”  My dad cut a watermelon at the kitchen table covered in the same waxy plastic tablecloth as when I was a kid.  He takes large bites and spits the seeds into the sink.

“Can you believe that?” he says.  “Me!  In Hawaii!  I wish I could tell the old guys in the warehouse about this.”

“That sure is great, pops.”  My father has been retired for over a decade.

“Just think, this time next month, I’ll be dancing the hoola with some beautiful Polynesian on my arm!”

“Quite the vision, pops.”

He finishes cutting the watermelon, placing the slices onto a plate and shoves it toward me. 

“You want some of this?”  The juice dripped down his chin onto his shirt leaving a wet mark so that his nipple almost shows. 

“No thanks, pops.”

“Just think, this time next month I’ll be sipping Sangria out of a pineapple as a cup!”

“Sangria is from Spain, pops.”

“Well, make it a Piña Colada then!” he says, getting his coat on.  “I’m going to the store.  I’m going to get something special for our arrivals.”

I know exactly what he is going to get and I feel like a kid with monsters in his closet.

It is midwinter in Chicago and the cold comes hard.  My father though, leaves without his hat and the door open behind him.  The kitchen chills quickly.  I sit and the let the cold air fill the room like someone trying to prove a point to himself.  My sadness is stronger than this cold.  I shake it and close the door.

Our parents left our childhood rooms intact.  I head upstairs.  My sisters still have old baseball posters on the wall.  They would listen to the Cubs game on the radio after school, keep stats of every inning, every pitch, and recount it back to my father when he came home.  It took them hours.  And he listened to every word.  I tried to ignore it up in my room, concentrating on schoolwork surrounded by bare walls.  My father stopped helping me with my math homework when I hit third grade.

I lie in my bed and my feet come off the end.  I used to have a dream here in this bed, a nightmare even.  My father would get home with a paper bag under his arm, glowing.  He’d call us kids into the kitchen and say that he brought presents for us: three pineapples, one each.  My sisters got beautiful ripe pineapples with green tops that pointed sky high.  My pineapple was smaller, less plump, and its green top drooped and turned brown at the edges.

I had that dream every night as a kid.  It came back again when my mother died and I started coming here every weekend.  

And here I am, staring up at the ceiling again, trying to drown out the sound of my sisters’ laughter downstairs, now on a flight over, night in Chicago, pick up a third passenger and off they’ll be. 

I wonder what my goodbye will be.

I should have at least gone to the store with him.  I grab my jacket and run out the front door, closing it as it locks behind me.  I can still catch him.  I run down the steps to see my father, half-a-block away on his way back, exposed hands turning blue, extended arms, holding two pineapples up over his head, up toward the sky.

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bikes and updikes.

I ride my bike a lot. Many people do here. There are the ones who peddle constantly, and there are the people who, like me, peddle hard with bursts and then glide the rest of the way.  

Peddle peddle glide… Peddle peddle glide…

And I do this in every way in life. I work myself hard until I can stop to feel the breeze in my hair, the sun against my face, watch the first buds of spring wisp by and do so while rolling on smoothly.

I’ll get to wherever I’m going, I’m sure I will.

It’s the person that peddles start to finish that I’m just not willing to be.


John Updike died today.  He knew the importance of stories.  “The inner spaces that a good story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion. ”  

Am I a spiritual person?  

John Updike.  Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist.  March 18th 1932 – January 27th 2009.

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sleep to snow.

She always woke at rain. She loved the energy of it. “Thunder always does what it does,” she would say. “Lightning too, without fail.” She listened to single drops as the  sound delicately plunks down each of her vertebrae.

She stays asleep though, at snow. God’s temperament changes as it chills.

Soon she will awake to wrap covers around bare legs, feel warmth against her skin, cold air in her lungs, as she will peek through the steam above her teacup. “It’s earl grey,” I will tell her. She will sip and scold me for using too much sugar.

The earth’s edges are soft now under the blanket, outside and in, and I watch the snow fall somber. In this moment, the utterly simple becomes the most profound.

I always use too much sugar in winter.

In summer too, for that matter.

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Jed Hawkins woke up on Mr. West’s couch 20 minutes before Mr. West got home.  Good thing, too, because had Mr. West come home 20 minutes earlier, he would have found his daughter, June West, asleep on the couch next to Jed.  Jed would have had it coming, too, after that, what with the shotgun hiding up on top the bookshelf and all.

Lucky for all three that Mr. West got stuck at the bank trying to cash a check he had received right and proper.

“The check’s no good,” the bank teller told him.

“The check’s fine,” Jed said, “Check it again.  It’s just a different kind of check, you see?”  After enough ordeal, Mr. West cashed his check fine and made the walk home.  It was a long walk and the sun was hot and Mr. West was tight.  He had worked hard and did not like being told he hadn’t, and that’s just what the bank teller was implying.

So it’s lucky Jed woke up when he did and with enough time to roll off the couch and get his bunched up pants on up off the floor.  It’s not good to cross a man and especially one who’d been denied money he rightfully deserved and especially if some of that money was intended for you. 

Mr. West indeed intended to use the money to pay Jed back for the work Jed had done on the roof.  Jed had needed some money to move into town and Mr. West gave him some work.  It was just that June started noticing Jed while Jed was working up on the roof.  It was a hot summer and Jed got awful moist hammering nails till the veins in his forearms were bulging right on out his arms.  Oh yes, June West had indeed noticed those.

June West was pretty, though, and I don’t doubt that it was her who took off Jed Hawkins’ pants, him being bashful as he is.  But he woke up fine and just in time and made his way up the road.  So everything was just fine for all three.  June West got to be forward and dangerous as she likes to be and she got kisses, too, as did Jed who also got his pants taken off and made off like a bandit and just in time, too.  Mr. West, too, got his check fine and came home to his pretty daughter glowing in after thought and a kiss on his cheek and June then made her father a glass of lemonade and gave him another kiss on his cheek.  Mr. West wasn’t tight anymore and June watched Jed Hawkins’ footprints get winded over out the window.

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a wait.

There was the time we were both
laid off
as they closed the restaurant,
promising to give us two months pay 

to find something.

We both took the news the same way,
with a walk down the street
to the tobacco shop.
We both sat on the bench outside, rolled a cigarette each
and smoked it.
We waited there, almost for the other to react,
knowing he wouldn’t.
And then we sat after the cigarettes,

waiting for the other to offer a suggestion.

I put my arm around her in a way that doesn’t say much and she
leaned up against me in a way that says less.

We watched for a while like that,

down by the stream and the sunset behind the trees.
She looked at it for a while it set.

Right at the sun she looked.

“You hungry?” she asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“You want to go to the ten buck sushi place?”
“Yeah. Alright.”

And we waited for the other to get up and
it was dusk now.

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Abraham Lincoln once said that a good story for him was better than a drop of whisky.

For those of you have not yet joined the Doris Kearns Goodwin fan club, I wanted to share a story of Lincoln’s that she often recounts. Lincoln, of course, was known for his unparalleled story telling ability. He would sit by the fireplace and regale his listeners with jokes and winding tales for hours. This was how he won the hearts that won him the presidency.

Lincoln told a story of Ethan Allen, an American Revolution war hero who went to Britain after the war. (And who oddly enough has a furniture company named after him.) After he arrived, the British, still upset about having lost the war, put their measly Brit minds together and came up with a plot to try to embarrass Allen by putting a large portrait of George Washington in the only outhouse where he might encounter it. They had hoped Allen would be upset about the indignity of George Washington being in an outhouse.  That night, after dinner and conversation, Allen made his way out, candle in hand, and did his business. He came back in as high of spirits as ever. 

“Didn’t you see George Washington in there?!” they said.

“Oh yes,” said Allen. “Perfectly appropriate place for him”

“What do you mean?” They said.

“Well,” he said, “there is nothing to make an Englishman shit faster than the sight of General George Washington.

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