I don’t write much poetry, Perhaps, you’ll think when you finish reading this, there’s a reason for that. I think this is good enough to share with my many fans.

Hear the rattle of the tackle in the box
as the fisherman stumps down to the dawn
at the lake.

Hear the scrabble of the lures and the line
as the fisherman decides on the hook
and the bait.

Hear the wheet of the tip of the rod as it arcs overhead
when the fisherman casts for the deep
of the lake.

Hear the plop of the hook and the worm far away
from the dock at the edge
of the lake.

Hear the click set the reel in his hands as he fishes
for the bass, not the perch,
which he probably will catch.

See the strike on the bait make the float do a dance
for the death of a pike
in the lake.

See the flash of the knife and the splash of the guts
clean the fish for the family waking up
for a day on the lake.

Smell the grease. Hear the sizzle of the fish in the pan on the camp stove
as the fisherman marks the inches and the ounces
on the chart.

Hear the clunk and the rattle of the box full of tackle
which will sit in the back of the truck until called upon for breakfast
on the morrow.

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Filed under Autobiography, My own, Poetry

Breakfast with Father

Scrambled eggs and toastMy dad worked his way through college in some diner or café as a short order cook. Considering the number of stories he told us growing up, it’s a mystery he never told us more than that bald fact. In fact, I don’t know it’s a fact. Mom never mentioned it, and they met and courted in college. There’s no one left to ask except my siblings, and their memories differ significantly from mine. I have no reason to think he was anything but truthful, but lacking corroborating details, I only have his claim.

And my memories of his cooking.

Dad loved mornings. He arose early during the school year. I don’t know who fixed his breakfast, but he and Mom were fed and coffeed before Dad woke the next generation.

As Dad mounted the first flight of eight oak stairs to the second floor, he started bellowing, “Oh, what a bee-you-tee-full mooor-ning” in a bass rumble the neighbors could hear. The second line, “Oh, what a bee-you-tee-full daaaaay,” meant he had turned the landing and had only eight steps to the hall. For me, it meant time to burrow deeper under the covers.

Jodi occupied the room at the top of the stairs. Dad’s bellowing stopped and everyone heard Dad encouraging Jodi to rise, order breakfast, and enjoy the day. She was no happier to get out of bed than the next person, but Dad could jolly a boulder out of the road. We heard Jo’s less than enthusiastic replies without understanding the words. When I heard her door close, I knew Devon and I were next.

Dad lumbered down the hall sharing his “wonderful feeling” that everything was going his way.

Devon, two years younger then me, arose uncomplainingly and ordered his breakfast. “Do we have Cap’n Crunch?”

“No Crunch Berries. Only Crunch.”

“I’ll have that,” Devon said.

I knew avoiding the world was impossible, but I pretended to be asleep. Dad went into his version of Old MacDonald. “Old McDaniel had a farm…”

Anyone within a block knew what sorts of creatures I had on my farm. I groaned, rolled over, and pretended to awaken. “Morning already?”

“Time for breakfast. What’s your order?”

“Two eggs, scrambled and toast.” Dad already knew my order, but he asked anyway. Sometimes I had Cheerios.

After I ordered, Dad closed our door and sneaked up on Darcy and Shari. The twins were our youngest and loved having their father’s undivided attention for a couple minutes. I couldn’t hear their orders, but twin giggling and Dad’s booing laugh came through loud and clear.

Dad never wrote our orders but never got an order wrong. He ascribed that to his time as a short order cook during his college years.

We wandered downstairs after we washed and dressed. We rushed because seats bestowed status. Nearside seats meant higher status than farside seats. Positions near the head of the table bestowed higher status than positions near the foot.  Mostly we wanted a quiet place to read. We owned one bookrack. The first person down got to use it. It did a poor job of holding books but a great job of conveying status.

Cereal eaters got their own bowls, boxes, and spoons. Milk and sugar were already on the table. Eggers waited for their breakfasts but rarely waited long. Singing whatever song was in his head, Dad would stride into the dining room with a plate or two, serve someone and lumber back through the swinging door to the kitchen. He did homework checks and lunch money checks and instrument checks while serving breakfast. When everyone was eating, Dad might join us for a final cup of coffee.

Mom spent serving time upstairs getting ready for school. She taught in the next town down, so she left before the rest of us. When she came downstairs, she made a final washed, homeworked, financed, and equipped check then carried her bags out the door.

We bused our dishes, boxes and silverware, collected our school necessaries and headed out whichever door we considered convenient for our individual schools.

Dad taught college, so his schedule was looser. He tidied a little and prepared for his day without five kids underfoot. No singing, laughing, or bellowing. No checking for lunch bags or unsigned permission slips. He spent some quiet time dressing in dazzling plaid pants held up by a black belt, radiant striped shirts, and outlandish space-based four-in-hand neckties.

Dad cooked great meals, but he never learned how to dress.

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Filed under Autobiography, Humor

Trust your luck

SaxophonesMy wife and I flew from Utah to New York with our five-month-old daughter in July, 1990. I had never flown with a baby, but I knew Abby to be a happy baby who was reasonably well behaved. The person who filled the aisle seat in our row had other expectations.

A compact man with a weird carry-on bag came down the aisle, found his seat was next to me, saw the baby and muttered, “A baby. Just my luck.”

I was a little put out. Maybe he had extensive experience with babies, but he had never met our baby and he was already condemning her. I promised myself he was going to be happy he had sat in our row.

I don’t like to fly, so I waited until we were in the air before I said anything. Abby and my wife AJ slept through take-off. I gritted my teeth and clung to the armrests. Unclenching, I leaned to speak to my neighbor so I wouldn’t wake anyone. “That’s got to be some kind of musical instrument,” I said. I nodded toward his carry-on case, which was tucked under the seat in front of him.

Apparently he flew everywhere, as he was relaxed and reading something from the seat pocket. He glanced at me and said, “Soprano Sax.”

“Soprano Sax?” I said. “Is that different from a regular saxophone?”

“There’s all different kinds of saxophones,” he said. “My alto and baritone saxes are with the luggage. The soprano is too valuable to put under the plane, and it’s small enough to carry onboard.”

“You must be a professional musician,” I said, hoping he wasn’t a door-to-door saxophone salesman.

His look told me he thought I was some kind of genius. “I play sax for anyone who’ll hire me,” he said.

I asked about how he happened to be in Utah, and that was all it took. He tucked the magazine back into the seat pocket and told me about playing jazz for the Utah Jazz in Utah. I asked the occasional question or made the occasional nod to keep him talking, but it didn’t take much. He was enthusiastic about his career.

It was a long flight. Abby woke and nursed. I held her while my wife went back to sleep. I listened to stories about jazz clubs in New York City, New Orleans, Miami, Chicago and I don’t remember how many other cities. I played with the baby as I listened. I had to take one break while I changed her, but otherwise I had an entertaining storyteller informing me about the club scene in America for the previous 50 years.

I don’t know much about jazz, so many of the people he mentioned didn’t mean a lot to me, but it gave me lots to ask about. I learned about playing in Harlem in the 1940s. I learned about the differences in saxophones. “Lots of people play the sax,” he said, “but not many play the soprano sax. That makes me an indispensable man.”

Because he was black he could not play in the army band during WWII, so he enlisted as a truck driver. He “drove three trucks into the ground” in the months following D-Day, hauling men and supplies to the front. He was recognized for driving 50,000 miles before he had been on the continent six months.

“During that time, I never played a single note. No time. No instruments.”

“Reeds must have been impossible to come by,” I said.

“That’s a fact,” he said.

He was mustered out of the army early because his fourth truck was destroyed when another truck hit him and pushed him into a tree near Reims, France during the Battle of the Bulge. “I sat in that truck for more than six hours,” he said. “I thought I was going to freeze to death.”

He was rescued by an infantry patrol. They were grateful for the supplies in his truck. They carried him further back from the line and got him to an aid station. 

He showed me his left hand. He was missing the tips of his ring finger and his pinkie. He had a big grin on his face and waited for me to ask. I asked.

“It must be tough playing a sax without those fingers,” I said.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two rubber thimbles. “It took me a while to learn to play after the war, but I learned,” he said. In the beginning he made due with rubber fingertips that he made himself. When his career picked up, he was able to find someone to make better tips. He only wore them to play, but he still needed to replace them every year or two.

The flight from Salt Lake City to Newark, New Jersey took almost seven hours. We never stopped talking except for timeouts for eating, feeding Abby and changing diapers when it was my turn.

When we landed, he opened his soprano saxophone case for me. It was gorgeous, with 14 caret gold fittings for the keys. He gave me a card and invited me to come to his usual club in New York City, if I was ever in the neighborhood.

I introduced him to my wife and daughter. He gave Abby a kiss on the cheek and told her what a wonderful traveling companion she was.

If he hadn’t complained about being seated next to a baby, I would have had to entertain myself across the United States. Instead, I had a one-man show educating and entertaining me across the continent.

We shook hands. He went to find the bus to the city. We had another, shorter leg before we got picked up at the Chemung County airport and chauffeured home.

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Filed under Autobiography, Humor

Why make communication more difficult? (The singular “they.”)

Using they can cause confusion when employed as a third person singular pronoun.

1. What verb do I use with they when I am using it as a third person singular pronoun?

  • He walks the dog.
  • They walks the dog.

2. Am I referring to one person or two when I say They walk the dog when more than one person is present?

  • Perhaps They walks the dog indicates a single person
  • Perhaps They walk the dog indicates more than one person

Is this making communication easier, more effective for aanyone?

3. A person comes into my dry cleaning shop. They wants a spot removed from their clothing.

  • Is there one piece of clothing belonging to several people from which the one person wants the spot removed?
  • There doesn’t seem to be an antecedent for they.

4. Two people enter my shop. One wants their pants pressed. Does they want one pair of pants pressed or two? The other wants their jacket cleaned. Does one person want the jacket belonging to that one person cleaned or does the jacket belong to both people?

5. Several people are in my shop. Another person enters my shop. They want to pick up their garments.

  • Does the group previously in my shop want to pick up the garments that belongs to members of the previous group?
  • Does the latest arrival want to pick up garments belonging to the previous group or to the latest arrival?
  • Does the latest arrival want to pick up garments belonging to some other unspecified group?

Speaking and writing are meant to communicate. Unless one is doing an Abbot and Costello routine, one wants to communicate clearly, accurately and easily. Plucking a word from nowhere, plopping it into ones sentence, and expecting the listener to understand is foolish, bordering on dangerous. Using they when one means she requires the reader/listener to try to interpret the writer/speaker’s intent.

Another, perhaps extreme, example:

My house is on fire. I don’t like the word house because it engenders feelings of despair from the morning I spent homeless as a child, therefore I use cat instead of house. On the other hand, I like the word fire because it reminds me of the fire in the 55-gallon drum that warmed my cockles when I was homeless, so I donâ’t want to use fire in a negative situation. I don’t like trees because I tried to burn a tree when I was homeless and it refused to light. Therefore, I use tree when I talk about fire in a negative way.

When I call 911, I inform the operator that My cat is on tree. The operator sends a police officer with a ladder rather than a fireperson with a hose.

My cat burns down.

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Filed under Analysis, Grammar, Humor, Language

John Donne was wrong.

John Donne was wrong. I am an island

I read all of John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee novels more than 40 years ago. Magee describes life as an island in a river. People are born on the downstream end of the island. As the baby grows, the river erodes the upstream end and builds up the downstream end. This has the effect of moving the baby from the downstream end to being an adult in the middle of the island.

As the island erodes, people at the edges fall into the river and are washed out of the life of the baby, the child or the man.

Ultimately an old man stands at the point of the upstream end. When the river wears away the upstream end, the old man falls into the river and is carried away.

Magee’s explanation caught my imagination and stuck with me. I have returned to it when trying to understand some aspect of life that’s bothering me. It has become especially pertinent since I started teaching at Mansfield University.

I taught high school for five years and left to go to grad school. After finishing grad school in Utah, I moved to Virginia. I taught high school theater arts for three years and then got a temporary job teaching journalism at Lynchburg College. I filled in for three semesters while they searched for someone with a Ph.D. I went from there to Central Virginia Community College, where I taught “Developmental” English as a full-time adjunct.

I moved around a lot. Every three to five years I either went back to school or changed jobs and locations. When I got to Mansfield University, I knew I had found a home for the rest of my life. I was happy. I had terrific colleagues in my department and around campus. I taught exciting and excited students. I advised the Flashlight, the student-owned, student-run newspaper. I have had good staffs and great staffs, but they are always an exciting, dynamic group of students who make a difference.

I am finishing my 17th year at Mansfield University. As I was starting my 8th year, I was starting to feel uncomfortably comfortable. I couldn’t put my finger on my dissatisfaction. I was seeking something different to read to get my mind off my troubles. Digging through a box of books, I ran across an old Travis Magee novel and read it in a day. I was reminded of Magee’s island metaphor for life and thought I had identified the source of my ennui.

I was an island. I was the island. I was a rock in a river. My students were the river. They came into my classroom for a semester or a year or four years if I was lucky. Some came to the Flashlight office and I got to work with them in a less formal though more intense atmosphere for one, two, three or four years. After four years, they were washed from my life. I was the one standing still and they were flowing downstream to jobs with newspapers or public relations companies or television or radio stations.

I didn’t like the image of being a rock in their stream. I didn’t want to feel like an obstruction. It took me several years, but I have modified Magee’s metaphor.

Anyone who knows me will tell you what an athletic supporter I am, so it’s not unusual for me to pick a sports metaphor.

I am not an island in a stream of students. I am part pit crew and part cheerleader. When students come into my class, I help them learn what they will need to know when they graduate. For four years I help them pick the right tires, adjust their fan belts, buckle their seat belts and fine tune their pistons. At the end of four years I can hear their motors roaring as they get ready to leave my life.

That’s when I pick up my pompoms and put on my pleated skirt. Actually, I put on an academic robe and a mortarboard. I walk solemnly into the gym, though what I want to do is dance on the furniture and scream, “Go! GO! GO!”

I don’t mind eating the dust. The lion’s share of my job is done. I may write a letter of reference or answer an emailed question, but they are doing what I helped them learn how to do. I keep track of some of them. Some of them keep in touch.

I am a teacher. My students are the change I make in the world.

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Filed under Other thoughts

Chia Obama

Dear Editor,
I have enjoyed the last two Mallard Fillmore cartoons depicting President Obama as a Chia pet. I have to disagree with the people who think this is a racist cartoon.
I get it. Black people have curly hair. President Obama is only half white, so his hair might not be as curly as someone who is black on both sides of his family. Chia Pets have straight green grass instead of hair.
It’s hilarious and not racist at all to depict America’s first African American president, the most powerful man in the world, as a Chia Pet because of his hair.
When I saw the followup this morning, with all the people who got Chia Obamas for the solstice returning them, I said to myself, “Self,” I said, “there’s nothing racist about that.” That’s what I said. I said, “There’s nothing racist about that,” and that’s the truth or I wouldn’t have said it.
Thank you for publishing such a funny and not racist at all cartoon. I hope you get some more non-racist Chia humor in the new year.

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Filed under Humor, Other thoughts, politics

Women are mean.

I have been on a British/Irish author binge recently. I stumbled across Rob Johnson’s “Lifting the Lid” a couple months ago and enjoyed it. It’s a comedy-detective novel. It was more detective than comedy, but I had no complaints.

I started the sequel “Heads You Lose” last week. The set up was long but last night the Boss kicked me out of bed. Things started coming together in the story and I couldn’t stop laughing and I couldn’t put the book down.

She usually likes it when I read to her, but she doesn’t like random snippets of books she’s not being read when she’s trying to go to sleep. She gets mean when I wake her up to share something, even if it’s especially juicy.

I can’t figure women out.

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Filed under Authors, Humor, Quintessential books