Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Skating Tricks, Licorice Sticks and Other Feats

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Old Comiskey, Harry Caray, Jimmy Piersall

I had a dream....

Crinoid stems in limestone
Brachiopod fossil 

I had several dreams, actually.  Ones that I admitted to all the world when I filled out an interest survey in the library of the Orland Junior High.  Of course, I don't know what occupations the other boys and girls signed up for after browsing through the various options. The cards were quite pragmatic about the job prospects for each career.  Because I loved collecting rocks and fossils, walking along stream beds and hiking trails with my head down, I thought being a geologist would be interesting.  The career card was quite frank about the prospects, cautioning me that I was unlikely to get paid for being a rock hound; most geologists worked for petroleum companies after taking lots of science and math.

My other aspiration was even more quixotic:  I wanted to be a baseball announcer.  I had spent my entire life listening to Jack Buck and Harry Caray...even Jack Brickhouse!   I could just see myself taking a seat up in the booth, donning a headset and marking up my scorebook while sending the play by play over the airwaves to fans all over the Midwest.

Alas, I could find no card in the library with the prerequisites for becoming a baseball announcer...

The arrowheads and brachiopods and crinoid stems stayed in their shoeboxes...as did the baseball cards.

Even though Laura and I both had tricycles when we were little, the next step up from three wheels  was not a bicycle, but roller skates. Our house was on a corner lot, so a girl could get a little wind through her hair sweeping around the curve.  Steel wheeled skates like "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates"  didn't have a long life span; the wheels picked up little bits of gravel, pitching the skater onto her knees, and eventually, the bearings would spread and the bb's inside would spill out onto the sidewalk.  What a joy it was to go a skating rink where the wooden wheels glided across the floor!  I learned to skate backwards and even crossover going around the rink.  I may not have been going that fast, but the rumbling of the wheels made me feel like a freight train under a head of steam.

Of course,  I was an utter failure at other athletic endeavors; I could run, but could never master a cartwheel, ruining any chance of being a cheerleader, though I jumped and yelled at recess with all the other little girls.  I flung myself into the air from the mini-trampoline...only to land flat on my back attempting a front flip, losing my breath and walking on tenterhooks for weeks afterwards.

I did write lots of stories, even a book(!)..of sorts...titled Time Machine Travels featuring my two best friends at the time...and me.  Funny thing is I don't even remember which time travel book provided the idea, but I do know that my grandmother's writing was the inspiration.  All those little newsprint note pads covered with 10 year old cursive!  I scribbled on all kinds of scrap paper, numbering every sheet to measure my accomplishment.

Thanks to my father's perseverance, I finally took on a project for life when I stuck a reed in my mouth and learned to assemble the Normandy clarinet he bought for me.  Music, as my father said once, has no evolutionary reason for existing: man can and does live and work without it.  'Why Beethoven', he would ask the air, 'If not for God?'  Certainly the angels plugged their ears for years as I learned the physical mechanisms for making sounds from my licorice stick, but the associated benefits..perseverance, routine, patience, sacrifice...are not limited to the world of music.  Listening to music makes the world richer, but playing an instrument ties you to past, present and future. I first buzzed a reed more than a half century ago...and still do....happily if not perfectly....

Lord knows I can't turn a cartwheel!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

And If Not, He is Still Good

I have been known to kick the trash can, slam the door, hurt my toe, and scream 'why me'.  I'm not proud of it. I know good and well these dramatics are unproductive and even silly, especially since this kind of outburst is provoked not by real pain, real trouble, or real distress, but by short term frustration.

Real heartache does not make me shake my fist at the heavens.  Real heartache, wherever and whatever it may be, makes me pray. Then, I am reminded to be thankful for every good thing I take for granted.....filling two cups of coffee at breakfast, comfortable shoes, beautiful music on the radio, challenging work with people I love.  When the tribulations of life come around, I recognize my limitations, taking to heart the Scripture that assures us our entreaties are heard even when they are wordless.

"When we don't know what to pray for..."  My memory is chock full of times when prayers were answered...prayers for healing, for rescue, for happiness, for safety, for good news, but when my father had a stroke and my parents' world was upended, I could not find the words to pray.  We were always winging it, always trying to solve yesterday's problems, trying to wrest contentment and compassion from chaos.  Health and happiness faded as spring bloomed.

But even as we grieved, God's merciful hand was easy to see.  With gratitude we remembered the times we had gathered to celebrate at Redbarn.  The hard choices to uproot them, to buy a house, that seemed so fruitless, upon reflection, turned to blessings as their loving family and our caring community showed patience and compassion and the best of human kindness.  Until the very end of their trip from this world to the next, my mom and dad were together.... as they always had been.  A final gift to them from their loving Father....and a comfort for all of us saying goodbye.

Hard times call for trust. Faith trusts in the story.  And whether or not we understand the story, we are called to believe it.  We will see it clearly someday.

And if not, it is still good.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Common Ground

When the girls were little, they colored and painted, drew pictures and dressed up, and played with dollhouses and Barbie dolls.  Their bedroom was sometimes a playground, sometimes a city, sometimes a garden for toys they made themselves.  It was always untidy.

With such a large group of good and loyal friends, it is no surprise that Laura and Mark have been auntie and uncle par excellence. Elementary basketball and volleyball games in the friendly confines of small school gymnasiums, pints and half pints baseball in towns without Starbucks,  outings to the Zoo, the Arch, the Science Center, even the tippy top of the City Museum in St. Louis.   Pernod Gardens is a home away from home with surf 'n turf from Chef Mark...especially for college freshmen. We celebrate whatever the occasion: Farm Bureau Nights at the Ballpark with Kosher brats, New Year's Eves with party poppers and silly hats,  July 4ths with epic fireworks, golf for fun and good causes...

 One of us is a country mouse and one a city mouse, but though we live a state apart, we have many shared loves.  Laura was the very first transplanter at Hurst Greenery years and years ago, and it's still a great pleasure to task Mark with packing posies in the back of their car for a summer's sojourn in St. Louis.  We commiserate when the weather is dry..or hot...cold or windy...we celebrate the beauties of orchids, daylilies, pansies, and hibiscus. Pottery from across the country graces the tables and shelves of our homes; magnets from far and wide decorate the doors of our refrigerators.  Each of us keeps a stack of books close at hand in various states of read and hope to read. And both of us carry the story of our lives in photographs: from Instamatics to iPhones, from big hair to big hats, babies to grandbabies,  weddings and reunions, graduations and good-byes. 

These are the ties that bind through the years, that weave a family history across the miles, and make sisters friends.....

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Never Ending Story...

'I'm working on a biography of St. Paul for Lent', I told Ben a week and a half ago.  "Ha!", he said, "You'd better hurry!"
Sure enough, it is Maundy Thursday and I'm not even to the Road to Damascus....which I'm gonna assume is in Rabbi Paul, even though I have not skipped ahead.  That's a bad habit I used to have when reading a particularly engrossing tale; did any of the characters I cared for die in the book?  Was there a happy ending?  Was there a sequel?  Sometimes I just couldn't bear the suspense spun by the author.....a peril foregone if one is reading a biography.  Rabbi Paul will still be on my reading list after Easter, and, probably Pentecost as well.

I'm not always so slow.  There's non fiction speed...a contemplative few pages before bed...several chapters of concentration on a plane. There's fiction speed:fully engrossed half hour at lunch, stealing a few pages during coffee after breakfast, and the anticipation of an evening after work.  And, finally, there's Daniel Silva speed: download to Kindle and neglect the rest of life until Gabriel Allon has squashed the latest threat and one has to wait until July for the next installment.
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I have been haunted by books; The Lord of the Rings possessed me for months after I finished it the first time.  I was compelled to pick it up and reread the most heroic sections again and again.  I haven't read the entire trilogy for decades, so I don't know if I would find the same power in the story, but I suspect that I would.
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The A.B. Guthrie books, The Big Sky  and The Way West  that my mom gave me also cast a spell, one that rears it's head every time we drive West.  These two novels are unvarnished tales of the frontier of wilderness,  mountain men, Indians and fur trade, and then the westward expansion of the pioneers along the Oregon Trail.  Reading A.B. Guthrie launched me on a Western binge of David Lavender, Bernard DeVoto and Mari Sandoz  as well as Stephen Ambrose's  Undaunted Courage.  There are at least two big books about the railroads waiting for my attention upstairs in the library....
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I fell in love with Jonathan Raban's memoir of eastern Montana settlers Bad Land and read almost everything Ivan Doig wrote, though I think his later novels were more labored and constructed than his earliest ones.  I really enjoyed Wallace Stegner's novel about growing up in Saskatchewan, Wolf Willow.  I have a weakness for prairies...
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My mom started me on British mysteries; they were a favorite of hers and she gave or lent me recent reprints or compilations of all Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey books.  After Lord Peter, P.D.James' Adam Dalgliesh was dark and Martha Grimes' Richard Jury and Melrose Plant were fluff...but all in good fun.  I spent many happy hours reading the latest in these series...at least until Ms. Grimes freaked out about pigs.....
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In the paperback book department, Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books introduced the interesting historical background of a medieval abbey and the turmoil of 12th century....with the bonus of a television series on PBS starring Derek Jacobi, as good a monkish sleuth as I could imagine.

 If our books were organized, we'd have a whole rainbow of sleeves sporting the stylized horse design that used to scream across the book store, 'Here's a new Dick Francis!" 

Though we knew nothing of British horse racing...or anything else having to do with horses, each novel kept us turning pages as we waited to discover 1) What esoteric or convoluted way the hero would be entangled in the horse racing and/or breeding world whatever his career path, and 2) how long it would take him to get beat up?   Yes, Dick Francis, not one to trifle with success, had a certain structure to his books and having his heroes get beat up a couple of times was part of that formula...Despite the general attractiveness of the protagonists, I never worried about skipping to the end; the Dick Francis blueprint assured me the bad guy would be caught and things would turn out OK.
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I wish I remembered how I came to read Dorothy Dunnett's historical series about the Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond.  I know Blake and I were still searching out the final volumes after we were married, even though Wikipedia tells us Checkmate, the finale, was published in 1975.  Perhaps the volumes weren't published in the U.S. until later? These tremendously complex historical novels, full of exotic locales, phrases in French, classical literary allusions and all kinds of real and imagined characters with a bewildering duplicity of names, take the hero (or is he?) all over the world.  His friends and enemies sometimes love and sometimes loathe him; they don't always trust him, even as they follow him across a world of peril and politics for gold and country...but mostly gold.  Betrayal, treason, heroics, religion, family, psychics, prophets, curses, orphans, bastards, and lost loves: these books are high class soap opera built on a foundation of fact.  I am sure I would enjoy them even more upon rereading, but, alas! So many other pages await...
(As an aside, we both liked Dorothy Dunnett's odd first person mysteries about the painter Johnson Johnson...haven't seen them in bookstores for years, but with the wonders of Amazon, they still seem to be in circulation under different titles.)

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I would be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to Neal Stephenson's series of three massive tomes, The Baroque Cycle.  I originally bought the hardback version of the first book, Quicksilver, thinking it might be something Blake would enjoy...Several years later, I pulled it off our bookshelf, read the blurb again, read the first chapter set in colonial New England...and I was hooked.  Mr. Stephenson walks the line between history and fantasy and spins rollicking good yarns about the trio of characters he introduces in volume 1... makes them come alive in all their foibles and failures in volume 2...finally tying up the loose strings with heroism and hocus pocus as love triumphs after all in volume 3.  Isaac Newton,  Leibniz, kings, Puritans, pirates, scientists and alchemists.  After reading the books, I just read a bunch of reviews...clearly, this is a trilogy that evokes strong feelings!  If, like me, folks had read the entire 2500 on Kindle, they would not have been grumpy.  It's an adventure tale, a witty one, and I'm afraid I pulled the book equivalent of binge-watching by going full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes between volumes.
But, let us end this never ending story with the novel I usually single out when asked for the best novel I've ever read: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  I think I bought this book after reading a review lauding its praises; while not in any sense an expert on the Civil War, I was raised in a home with Bruce Catton on the book shelves among other volumes.  My father discussed battle and battlegrounds, generals and politicians both North and South with a familiarity born of deep reading.  

The Killer Angels is epic, building the drama of Gettysburg through the inner dialogue of figures we know only as names.  Once again, we saw the movie and were mesmerized by the final battle scenes...but no more so than by the superb narrative provided by the book itself.  This is a war book, and not for children.  But no other book I've read on the Civil War evokes the combined violence, glory, and tragedy of that great battleground.