Sunday, August 19, 2018

Stand by Me: Thirty Years Later

Riley Elementary: Not what it looked like when we attended
They say the friends you make in middle school are the friends you have for life. When I was eleven years old and in sixth grade, way back in 1986, my best friends were Phil, Mitch, and Jon. The four of us hung out all the time, with lots of sleepovers, most often at Phil’s house where we had the run of either the basement or the lower level family room of their split-level house. We’d hang out, play basketball, the Pursue the Pennant baseball strategy game, do mad libs, and make stupid fart and burp jokes. We usually walked to school together. I lived the furthest, so I picked up Mitch as I walked past his house, then Jon, who lived down the street and closest to our school, and Phil would meet us coming from his house right before we got to the cream-bricked James Whitcomb Riley Elementary school. We were among the first kids to the school grounds which gave us as much time as possible to play basketball on the school’s unbreakable playground hoops where nothing but a perfect shot would go in.

About that time the movie “Stand By Me” made its theatrical debut. Starring Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix and Jerry O’Connell, and based on the Stephen King novella “The Body,” the movie tells the story of four friends taking a journey to find the dead body of Ray Brower, a local kid who went missing. The movie immediately stuck a cord with me. First off, the four boys swore a lot, more than I ever did, and I learned many new words watching that movie. My God the movie was rated R, how the hell did I see it? Oh, yes, the joys of premium cable television. Thank you, HBO. Second, the main characters were four best friends, just like my quartet of friends, and right about the same age as us. Third, the lead character, Gordie Lachance, was dealing with the death of his older brother, similar to how I was still adjusting to my father’s death. Finally, I wanted to be a writer, just like Gordie does in the movie. In the end, after jumping out of the way of a train, running away from a vicious dog named Chopper, getting covered in leeches and fending off a group of high school thugs led by Ace and Spider, the boys find Ray Brower but instead of claiming it themselves, they place an anonymous call to the police with his location and head home.

Read it!
 After watching the movie I knew had to read “The Body.” And I truly intended to. A couple times I’d look for it at the bookstore or library, but mostly unsuccessfully. Then twenty-five years passed. The movie disappeared into the corners of my brain, and I never read the book. While flipping through TV channels a few months ago, I came across “Stand By Me” on basic cable. It was heavily edited for language, but it got me thinking about reading “The Body” again. I watched for fifteen minutes then turned it off and ordered the book on Amazon. It sat on my nightstand among the pile of other books I was either currently reading or about to start (I always have more than one book in progress at any time). The novella was much longer than I expected, about 180 pages. I read it in a few sittings over a week. Much of the book was exactly like the movie. Portion of the narrator’s part, , were word for word from the novella. Often when reading parts of dialogue in the book, I could hear the character’s saying the lines in my head while reading the words on the page. There were also a few things in the book that seemed different from what I remembered of the movie. Was I losing my mind? Had it just been too long since I’d seen watched the movie that I just didn’t remember it correctly?

So I headed to my library and borrowed Stand By Me - I was a little shocked they had it- and watched it again.

Instantly I was zapped back to sixth grade. I think we might have watched Stand By Me at my birthday party that year. The memories of that movie, that time in my life, what I felt when I watched it over thirty years ago, I felt it all over again, even more strongly in some parts. I could feel for Gordie and the loss of his brother. Gordie felt he had become the invisible boy around his house, his parents so overcome by grief at the death of Denny that they barely noticed Gordie was present. My father had died a few years earlier, and I was still struggling with it. I wasn’t the invisible boy around my house but now that my mother was working full time while on her own trying to raise three children, I had more time to myself than I had ever had. Little things would send me into hysterical crying fits. Nothing felt right, and people were always asking me how I was, bringing up memories of my father. Everywhere Gordie went people would bring up some memory of his brother.

We had our own Stand By Me moment when we were younger. There was a tiny creek that wandered through our town, a creek so small it disappears for blocks at a time under street and doesn’t show up on most maps. It might have been called Mill Creek, or at least that’s what the subdivision it ran through seemed to be called. One day we decided to follow it to see where it went. We knew it ran behind our friend Raquel’s house (and part of us probably want to see Raquel in her bathing suit by her pool). We weren’t going to find a dead body, but it was about as adventurous as you could get in the suburbs in the 80s.

 Our story didn’t end well. We ran into our Ace Merrill, the bad kid played by Kiefer Sutherland in the movie (to this day I am still scared of Kiefer Sutherland because of how well he played Ace Merrill). Some kid and his sidekick toadie, some 80s bully, fou
I bought my orignal NES here.
nd us as we were following the creek. He followed us on his bike, threatening to beat us up. We outnumbered him, but he was bigger than us and let’s face it, the four of us were more Teddy and Vince, who ran away from Ace in the movie, than Chris Chambers and Gordie Lachance, who stood up to Ace at the climax of the move. Plus, none of us snagged our dad’s revolver while he was deep into his whiskey.

Eventually Ace followed us away from the creek and into the Venture (think Target, but black and white stripes instead of a red bullseye) parking lot. We went inside, while the bully paced outside the store, waiting for us to come back out. We used the pay phone to call Jon’s mom to come get us. It was a sad mix of fear and shame, plus trying to explain why were even at Venture in the first place was difficult. “You remember the movie ‘Stand by me,’ Mom?”

 At the end of the real movie, Teddy and Verne disappear into the hallways in junior high and high school and Gordie and Chris see little of them. Gordie and Chris remain friends through high school but lose track of each other after that. We find what triggers adult Gordie to think back on his friends is that Chris Chambers, now a successful attorney, dies breaking up a fight at a restaurant. 

Mitch, Jon, Phil and I thought that would never happen to us, we’d never not be friends. We were too close at the time. But thirty years later, where are my friends? Where are Mitch, Jon and Phil?

The good news is all of them are alive. I haven’t seen or talked to Mitch since high school graduation. We didn’t have any classes together in high school, we stopped playing the same sports together and they became just two people I saw passing in the halls at school, just what we thought wouldn’t happen. With social media, it’s easy to track people down, at least the ones who want to be found. Mitch works for a big computer company, and Jon is a high school teacher. They both live near where we grew up. I never had a falling out with either of them, we just slowly faded away from each other’s lives. I wonder if they feel the same way. I wonder if Mitch still has my G.I. Joe action figures and vehicles that I left at his house in seventh grade when we had an epic battle in his backyard with  our stuff combined.

Cubs Win! Cubs Win!
 Phil and I still talk and see each other regularly. We go to Cubs games regularly and last year we went to Washington, D.C. to see the Cubs in the playoffs and finally saw them win a playoff game together. Phil and I have never gone too long without talking to each other. In high school We had a few classes together and still hung out together, not as much as grade school or junior high. Our birthdays are two days apart, for a few days every year we were easily reminded of our friendship. Maybe that triggered us to stay in touch. I don’t know. The world is kind of weird that way.

 When I started writing this I reached out to Phil to see what he remembers about the four of us and Stand By Me”. He said he and Mitch hung out together in High School, and he hung out with Jon right after college, but it had been a long time since he had talked to either of them.

 Maybe Phil and I were closer friends with each other than we were with Mitch and Jon. Maybe we were the pair, the Chris Chambers and Gordie Lachance. Who knows, but he is still one of my best friends. Life gets complicated as you get older. More responsibilities, college, girlfriends, moving away, wives, jobs, careers, children. It’s hard to find time, or to make time, for people you were close to thirty years ago.

 When I checked in with Phil I said I was glad we were still friends and that we still hung out and that he took honors biology with me freshman year. We studied a lot together for that class. I also told him I was glad he didn’t get stabbed in the neck trying to break up a fight at a fast food restaurant.

His answer, “Ha, yes, we will hang out for fifty more years. Don’t go breaking up any fights.”

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

NHL 2018 Playoffs - Round 2

Well how about that? What a first round, right? Well, sort of. Not so much if you were a Flyers fans, but at least they go to boo their team. The Las Vegas Golden Knights swept the Los Angeles right out of the playoffs, while Toronto and Boston went to a game seven again, only to see Toronto lose a third period lead and the series. But the future looks good in Toronto. Maybe. If they improve their defense.

All the number 1 and number  2 seeds  in each division won their series in the first round. Yes, there were no upsets. Columbus had an early series lead over the Capitals but Washington clawed back to oust the Blue Jackets in six. And our very own Bob Wichard picked all 8 first round series correctly. Is he brilliant, or did he just pick the best 8 teams. He gets a chance to prove it wasn’t a fluke in the second round. Here are our standings:

              Bob       8
              Jarret    6
              Jax         6
              Mike     5
Yes, the guy writing the blog and who ultimately decides who we pick is in last place after the first round. But, hey, there are 7 more series to pick. I can catch up. Without further ado, here are our round 2 picks

Western Conference

Nashville Predators vs Winnipeg Jets

This is the series I am most looking forward to. Two teams who can skate, Nashville’s awesome D and depth, Winnipeg’s toughness. These teams are very evenly match, and both looked good in their first-round series wins.  The Jets won a playoff series for the first time since 1987. This one is so close. If these teams play 10 times, each wins 5. But they only gotta play 7.

Jets in 7

Las Vegas Golden Knights vs San Jose Sharks

This is the series I will probably not see because I just can’t stay up that late anymore. The Knights exposed the Kings as the slow team we forgot they were and skated circles around them in their first round sweep.  The Sharks made quick work of the Ducks, too, and Joe Thornton might be back during this series. But does that make them Sharks better? It makes them slower. My head keeps saying how is this friggin expansion team still around? My heart says they are going to win this series.

Knights in 6
Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals

The Penguins scored 80 goals in their series win over Philadelphia. Okay, it only seemed like 80. Flyers fans booed the home team and Claude Giroux said that probably hurt them. Philly was the worst team to make the playoffs. Washington had a harded matchup against the Blue Jackets and trailed early in the series but prevailed. They are a deeper team that during some other years. Can they finally beat the Penguins? Ovechkin would sure like to get the best of Crosby in the playoffs just once.

Caps in 7

Boston vs Tampa Bay

The Massholes taunted Leafs fans a second time by overcoming a third period deficit in game seven in a game where Tuuka Rask didn’t have his best performance. Next the Massholes are going to fetcher la vache and catapult it their way). It was cool to see hordes of Leafs fans outside the Air Canada Center. It was disappointing not to get that crowd shot after the game. Tampa is the better team here and got a few more days rest.

Tampa in 6


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

NHL 2018 Playoffs


This April feels weird. Weirder than it has felt in ten years. No Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It used to not feel weird. From the 1997-98 through 2007-08 (much of the time when I had season tickets and sat in section 332 by myself) the Hawks only made the postseason once. And it did not end well.  But at least our friends 280 miles south in St. Louis still have their Blues to cheer for. Wait, no, the Blues lost their final game of the season to miss the playoffs for the first time after six straight appearances.  But, hey, 260 miles east in Detroit, they are ready for their first post-season at Little Caesar’s Arena. Wait, no, the Wings  finished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Wait, what, the Hawks, Blues and Wings are all sitting out the postseason? When was the last time that has happened? NEVER. It has never happened in the 50 years since the Blues joined the NHL.

So, alas, Midwesterners, we can go into the post-season with a clear mind, not worrying about how our home squads do, and simple cheer against the teams we hate.


Sorry, it is a hard habit to break.

As always, my crackpot staff of experts shares their picks with you. Normally, we go up against ESPN’s experts, but they fired most of their hockey people during last season’s playoffs, so they can suck an egg. To make it more fun, I will only use the nicknames of the teams given to me by said crack panel. It might cause you to do more thinking than you want to do, but trust me, it’s worth it. So, without further distraction, may we present the first-round picks. Note: I watched less hockey this year than pretty much any year since 1993 (well, except the locked-out seasons), so I am totally not qualified to make any predictions.

Western Conference

Nashville Predators vs Colorado Avalanche

The Preds won the President’s trophy with 117 points. The ‘Lanche clinched the last spot by beating the Blues in game 82 of the regular season. The Preds have Pekka Rinne, probably the best top four defensemen of any team in the league and some forward depth and Carrie Underwood’s husband. The ‘Lanche have Nathan McKinnon and legal weed. Also, people seem to think Preds fans are great fans now, so they have a great home ice advantage. Our experts all picked the Preds.
Preds in Six

Winnipeg Jets vs Minnesota Wild

The Peg finished second in the division and second in the NHL to the Preds. Blake Wheeler piled up 91 points, Patrik Laine lit the lamp 44 times and Connor Hellebuyck had a great season in net, going 44-11-9. Plus, come on, Dustin Byfuglien on D. The Wild quietly went on about their work, with Eric Staal having a bounce back season, but -have a big hole with Ryan Suter’s broken ankle keeping him out of the playoffs. The Peg are too good this year and then win both a playoff game and series for the first time since moving from Atlanta. All our experts agree
The Peg in 5

Las Vegas Golden Knights vs Los Angeles Kings

The Las vs the Los. The Knights vs the Kings.  A shitty place to live and also Las Vegas. The playoffs haven’t started, and Vegas already has had the most successful expansion season in any sport ever, and the second most successful team is, well, it doesn’t matter because it isn’t even close. Really, they should just lose so their fans don’t get used to it. For a portion of the season they were leading the entire NHL. WTF!!!!  The Kings are the 7th seed who had a +36 goal differential on the season, better than nine other playoff teams. Anze Kopitar had a career best season for the Kings, while everyone one Vegas did as well. Our experts were split on this, 2 picking Vegas, 2 choosing the Kings. Since it’s my blog, we get to use my pick.
Kings in 11 (double down), wait, no 7

Anaheim Ducks vs San Jose Sharks

I feel like Les Canards and Los Tiburones play each other every post-season, but their only previous matchup was a quarterfinal win by Les Carnards in 2009. I can’t stay up to watch West coast games, so I didn’t watch these teams much this year (except in person when Los Tiburones spanked the Hawks in March in San Jose). Goaltending will be key. John Gibson was strong all season for Les Canards but was injured the last two weeks of the season. Martin Jones struggled early and lost time to Aaron Dell early in the season for Los Tiburones. Again, our experts were split. Again, it’s my blog, so we go with my pick.
Les Canards in 7

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning vs New Jersey Devils

What a difference a year makes. The Bolts missed the playoffs last year while the Devils finished in last place in the East. The Bolts piled up the goals, with Nikita Kucherov hitting 100 points while Taylor Hall lead the Devils in scoring. The Bolts also have Steve Stamkos, which is a good thing to have around for the playoffs. No dissent from the experts here. We like the Bolts.
Bolts in 5

Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs

It’s a shame that only two Original Six teams made the playoffs and that one of them is heading to the golf course after the first round. Even with Brad Marchand seeming suspended every other month, he and the rest of the Massholes finished second in the East. The Maple Laughs are a young, talented team and this should be the first of many playoff runs for them. Which is good. People in Toronto are still recovering from their collapse against the Massholes in 2013. The experts were split on this series, too. I think Toronto wins in, though.
Maple Laughs in 7

Washington Capitals vs Columbus Blue Jackets

Hawks fans are pissed to learn the Artemi Panarin lead the Blow Jackets with 82 points while Brandon Saad scored a meager 35. After one year, the Blow Jackets got the best out of that deal. But will the Caps finally put together a strong post season and get Ovi’s name on the cup, now that Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe’s names are all coming off of it? Our experts think so, although one person thinks CBJ will pull an upset special.
Caps in 7

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Philadelphia Flyers

Okay, these two teams seem to always play in the playoffs, but really, this is only their seventh meeting. But it’s an all Pennsylvania series, so it’s like a big deal to, you know, that one state. Evegeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby for Los Penguinos (I know, the nicknames are getting ridiculous).  Claude Giroux and that other guy for the Flyers. Seriously, how did the Flyers make the playoff? Oh wait, Shayne Gostisbehere, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek (some serious jersey lettering there, people). This series should be fun to watch, especially when Pierre MaGuire is covering the games so he can tell us how great Sidney Crosby is (and he is pretty great). “Hey Edzo, isn’t it great how great Sidney Crosby is?” Maybe we should all do a shot anytime Pierre says “Sidney Crosby.”

Penguins in 7



Sunday, January 28, 2018

Promenady Wroclaw

The emails started a few months ago from a woman named Marta with a subject line I couldn’t pronounce. They were sent to my gmail account, the one I use for, well, nothing important. I remember to check maybe once or twice a week. Intrigued, I opened it, wondering if it would be a scam letter, a long-lost relative with a different name who died, leaving me millions but only if I would forward money to their former assistant, or a government agent first.

It became clear upon opening that the message was not written in English, but Polish. The great thing about Google is since they are already reading and index all my email, they already know it is Polish and the little translate button is in the header of the email. So translate away, Google!

“Dear Sir or Madam,

Please be advised that all parking spaces in the garage Promenady Wroclaw IV Street Works 7-7C, 9-9e are in private places and people who have not bought a parking space are absolute prohibition of parking in the garage.


Property Administrator

Below her signature line was a picture of a black BMW Wagon with the license plate blurred out, clearly the offending car parked in a spot it should not in.

Okay, so Google translate might not have mastered English to Polish yet, but the only words I know in Polish  are “dupa”, and “nie wyrzucajwhich is what the stickers we use at work to let the cleaning staff know not to throw something away say. And there are plenty of people who see my last name and attempt to speak to me in Polish. Like the cleaning staff.  And the night nurses at the hospital where our children were born. But you can get the gist of it.

Hm, not as exciting as I had hoped. Clearly, this got mailed to me accidentally. So, I went on with my day.

But then, later that same day, Marta sent me two more emails. This time I knew what to do right away.  Translate away, Google!

Dear Sir or Madam,

Very please read the attached Regulations on the Order Household promenades Wroclaw IV Street. Works 7-7C, 9-9e, adopted Resolution No. 15/2017, especially with the points:

- 8: "Quiet hours valid from 22.00 to 7.00."

- No. 27: "grilling is forbidden on balconies and terraces."


Property Administrator

Attached was a two-page PDF listing all 27 rules, again in Polish. I didn’t read them all because they were too long to fit in the google translate window all at once. But clearly, there had been people making noise past ten at night, enough for a neighbor to complain, and they were probably the same people who were grilling on a balcony or terrace, or the people parking in the wrong spots. Eventually, I translated all the rules. Many of them didn’t translate well and are nonsensical. Most of them would be standard for any condo or apartment building.

After reading all the rules, I was more confused. Did I buy a condo in Poland? I’ve done some weird stuff in my life I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I would have remembered purchasing property in a foreign country, a foreign country from where my relatives emigrated but a foreign country I’ve never set foot in during my lifetime. I flipped through my passport and looked for a stamp from Poland but did not find one.

Well, clearly I hadn’t but a guy can dream, right? Although, I’m not sure how many Americans dream of owning condos in Poland. So what did happen? This time Google was helpful

Wroclaw, Poland.
The condo building was in Wroclaw, Poland. Wroclaw is a city in Western Poland, the 4th largest city in Poland with about 680,000 inhabitants. Over the last 150 years, it has been part of Prussia, Bohemia, Germany and Poland. It became part of Poland after the end of World War II. Since then, it’s population has swelled, Pope John Paul visited twice during his papacy, the new municipal stadium hosted several matches of the UEFA Euro 2012 cup and recently they’ve had a bit of a building boom.

But I’ve never been there. I’ve never planned to go there. And my interest in it faded.

But the messages kept coming. A few weeks later I received this notice.

Dear Sir or Madam,

Please be advised that in the period from 05.22.2017 to 26.06.2017 Erbud will cures entry road into the Promenades Wroclaw IV.

Will start a temporary entry,

which was marked on the map below.

And there was a map with arrows showing where to go and where NOT to go.

The next day, another picture of a different car parked in someone else’s parking space with a polite reminder not to do so. Clearly the message was not getting absorbed by it's intended target.

A few weeks later:

Dear Sir or Madam,

We turn to you with a request to turn your attention to the door to close staircases. Leaving them open can cause mechanical damage, for which the repair cost will be borne by the Community Housing.



Two days after that:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Fortum, advised us that:

"On June 14, in the chair. 7.00 - 20.00 there is a break in the supply of hot water in the surrounding streets:
- Czochralski
- SÅ‚onimski
- Factory

The reason is the connection of a new customer. We apologize for the inconvenience and we make every effort to supply heat dwell time as short as possible. Of course, cold water supply will proceed smoothly.



Then it got serious. Marta’s next email had the agenda for the Wroclaw community housing meeting. This was important stuff! Included on the agenda was a vote on ”garage on the consent to use the racks and motor bicycle racks installed in the underground garage.”

Finally, something important. I couldn't miss the vote on consent to use the racks and moter bicycle racks installed in the underground garage! What if I needed to park my motor bicycle when I was in Wroclaw? Sadly, my passport had expired and there was not time to get it renewed to make it to the meeting on June 19th. Maybe someone could act as a proxy and vote for me. I was all for using those racks in the underground garage.

Sadly, I still do not know the outcome of the vote because Marta never send out the minutes from the meeting, But I did get a detailed explanation why they were delaying pouring concrete for the sidewalk because of the warm temperatures affecting the curing of the concrete, followed by a reminder to not park in the handicapped parking spots if you do not have a handicap sticker.

I felt like I should email Marta back and let her know that she was sending emails to some shlub in America who did not need to get them, and not to the intended recipient, whatever typo caused these to go to me instead of whatever combination of M and Smolarek who was possibly living there. What if the intended recipient was the one who kept parking in the wrong parking spots, or worse in the handicap spots? What if they missed the critical vote on using the motor bicycle racks? What if they don’t know that quiet hours start at 10pm and end at 7am? Was my failure to act causing someone hardship?

But I didn’t email her because I didn’t want to miss anything. If I fixed the glitch, then I would never know if the parking scofflaws continued to park in the wrong locations, or if the board was going to add to the long list of 27 rules.  Surely they posted these messages in a common area of the building for all residents to see. No one was missing out on any truly critical information.

Ebi Smolarek: Fomer Team Polska Soccer player and the most famous Smolarek
Then I started getting more messages from different senders, some in Polish, some I can’t share with you because they have that warning on the bottom of the email saying that the message is only for the intended recipient and if I get it, I should notify the sender and delete the message (which I TOTALLY did).

 And Marta must have gotten a new job, or moved on to something else because the notifications from the building were now coming from someone named Beata, and still mostly about people parking in the wrong parking spots. Maybe Marta had gotten fired because people were still parking in the wrong spots. Maybe she quit because her reminders went unheeded. Maybe the person who should have been getting these instead of me really was the one parking in the wrong spots. Still, I did not reply. I was afraid to stop getting the emails, but now I really wanted to find out who they were supposed to go to. Was there another Mike Smolarek someone in Poland? I’ve only found three others, all of whom are high school teachers and coaches in Wisconsin and Michigan (although one now hosts a radio show since his retirement). Was one of them traipsing around Poland right now?

A few days later, I finally got a break on who this mysterious person was: a confirmation email from a hotel in Zakopane, with a first name in it. At last, I had a clue to the mysterious person.

Her name is Maria. And I had an email address now, too. So I emailed her and tried to explain what happened.

And then the email I’d written showed up in my in box. No, not my sent items, my in box. Like when you accidentally write an email to yourself (or on purpose to remind yourself of something).  It turns out Google mail has some features built in to prevent others from trying to create an address similar to an existing one, like for example, SteveJohnson and Steve.Johnson. It turns out that Maria’s address, or at least the one she had shared was similar enough to mine that Google was sending me messages that weren’t directly addressed to me.  You see, dots don’t matter in gmail addresses.

Sadly, my lead was a dead end. So I turned to Facebook. There had to be someone with this name on Facebook, And their was. I send her a message about how I think I’ve been receiving her emails. I send a friend request hoping that the common last name with pique her interested (there are a couple Smolareks that I am not related to in other countries who have friended me on Facebook).

That was weeks ago. Weeks without a response or an answer. Reminds me of Hey Alexander. It’s also been three weeks since Promenady Wroclaw has send me an email. Maybe they found their error and corrected it. Maybe Maria moved out and the took her name off the mailing list. Right now there are no answers, just unanswered questions.

 I hope continue to get these emails about the infractions of the people living at Promenady Wroclaw. People on the other side of world will continue to park cars in spots where they don’t belong and be loud too late at night or too early in the morning. Google will still translate Polish to English poorly. And I’ll still dream the dream that every kid dreams: that I own a condo in Poland.
Thanks for reading.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Level Lecture: or how not to get to sit on the back of the bus

It happened sometime in September of 1988, the exact date lost to history. The words spoken can only be paraphrased as this was a time before smart phones and cameras in every pocket documented every aspect of life from the epic down to the most mundane. The man who gave us those words cannot even tell us what he said as he is no longer among the living. But for the members of the Cooper Junior High School cross country team that season, the Lever Lecture, as it has been ever since, will live on forever.
The saddest picture of Cooper I could find

It started with a simple fact that all kids know about riding the bus: the cool kids sit in the back. That’s how these things worked in junior high. As far from authority as you could be. You sat in the back of the classroom, the back of the cafeteria and you damn sure sat as far back as you could on the bus. The older kids had priority. Seventh graders had to wait for the eighth graders to take their seats in the back before they could take the empty seats closest to the back. This was the protocol. This went not just for buses to school, but school buses to any event, like Cross Country meets

At our Junior High School the boys and girls cross country teams didn’t practice together. We had different coaches, but we held meets together and took the bus together to away meets. In seventh grade, I sat near the back, but I had to defer to the eighth-grade boys, even the ones who were slower than me. I wasn’t to upset about it because I knew the next season, as an eighth grader, I would get to rule the bus.

Remember the weird smell of the seats?
Except we got a new coach. Coach Daleskey went from art teacher to assistant principal and decided to cut back on his other school duties, so he stepped down as boys cross country coach. Coach Saylor, who coached my sister two years earlier in Cross Country became the coach. I’d had him as a teacher for seventh grade science. Physics was his specialty. He was a little rougher of a coach than Coach Daleskey, not quite Bobby Knight, but willing to yell if he felt he needed to take control of the twenty-five awkward, annoying junior high boys placed in his charge. Practices were harder and expectations were higher than the previous season and after a few weeks of training, we were ready for the first meet of the year. Mostly, we were ready to sit on the back of the bus. But our plans of ruling the roost from the rear were quickly shattered.

Right before we were getting on the bus Coach Saylor told the boys to sit in the front of the bus. We looked at him, then each other, confused. Did he not know the protocol? We had paid our dues, we had earned the right to sit in the back of the bus. Surely, he was joking. We’d heard him wrong, right? We all stood around, waiting for him to let us in on the joke. But no smile broke across his face. No laugh punctured the silence.

 Finally, he explained.

“The bus bounces your kidneys and that can cause some discomfort and impact your running,” he said, short and succinct. “You can be on the back of the bus on the way home.”

We were a bit confused, but when a teacher, a science teacher even, tells you something, at that age you generally believed it. Also, there was no arguing with Coach Saylor, not if you knew what was good for you. When he laid down the law, you nodded your head, you accepted it and you moved on. But what had us more puzzled is that what he was telling us also broke school bus protocol. Generally, you sat in the same seat on the way back that you did on the way there. Now we were going to have to take seats from other people, mainly the girls, who were not told to sit in the front of the bus. Why did their coach not believe the same thing our coach did?

We climbed on the bus and begrudgingly took seats near the front of the bus, hiding our sour faces behind the tall, mud green seats of the bus. Once we were all settled the ride began. Us boys up front grumbled under our breath, loud enough for us all to share in the mood, but quiet enough that Coach Saylor didn’t hear us. No reason to get him mad at us and incur extra laps at the end of the meet.

That day, the ride must have been bumpier than normal. Or maybe the girls were unaccustomed to the bumps and how much you get bumped up and down while in the back of the bus. It started as an occasional squeal or yell when the bus hit a small bump. The frequency and volume of the yelps increased as the bumps became more frequent. Us boys were annoyed that the girls were enjoying an extra bumpy ride while our kidneys remained unshaken in the middle of the bus. Plus the noise level was getting annoying.

Then the big bump happened. I think it might have been a set of train tracks. And the big scream, screams really, because it came at all different pitches and volumes. It was loud, maybe not the loudest screams of the ride, but when added to the fifteen minutes of yelps and screams and bumps and cries, it was the one that put Coach Saylor up from his seat, his face a deep red.

“That’s enough,” he yelled. If it were a cartoon, steam would have been shooting out of his ears.

The screaming instantly stopped. The entire bus snapped to attention, all eyes on Coach Saylor. He pushed his glasses up his nose, took a deep breath and then…

The lever lecture began. And it was glorious. And long. And loud. That was Coach Saylor’s way. Again, the exact words he said are lost to history, but in short, he recapped for all of us on the bus who had already had him as a science teacher all of the details of how a third-class lever works, for indeed, a school bus acts like a third-class lever. In a third-class lever, the force is between the fulcrum and the load. On the bus, the fulcrum is the back tires of the bus, the force is the bouncing of the road, and the load was the girls sitting on the back of the bus. He continued, naming a few other examples then launched into the longer explanation about kidneys and bouncing than he had given us when we first got on. The lecture went on for a few minutes all of us looking and listening while trying to avoid direct eye contact, afraid to get called on to answer a question. When he was done, he scanned over the seats, making sure we all understood.
So this is what it looks like

“Now please be quiet the rest of the ride,” Coach Saylor said then sat back down in his seat.

And we were quiet the rest of the ride. When we pulled into the parking lot for the meet, we silently shuffled off the bus, more like we were headed to a morgue than a junior high sporting event. It took a while for everyone to loosen up, relax, and get ready for the race.

I don’t remember who we ran against that day or how we did. On the way back, the boys moved to their customary seats in the back, with the girls interspaced between us. The seats up front by Coach Saylor were empty. The road home was just as bumpy as it was on the way to the meet, but we kept our voices down.

Also, the rest of my school years I always did well in Physics. Coincidence? I think not.

Thanks for reading.




Saturday, March 18, 2017

Brain Wanderings

There are times when I just let my mind wander, when I have nowhere to be and nothing pressing to do. I’ve gotten better at writing down some of these random thoughts, these jaunts through my mind, wanderings of the brain. I’ve collected some  here. After I reveal these, I hope you won’t think any less of me than you already do.

Sometimes when my daughter drops food on the floor then picks up and shoves it in her mouth, I tell her “Gross, honey. Once if falls on the floor it’s dirty, throw it away.” Then I watch the dog eat everything and anything that falls on the floor, which happens a lot in a house with three kids.  The dog never gets sick, not even after eating a pound of bacon.  Raw bacon. Seriously, she swiped it off the kitchen counter, ruined BLT night and she didn't get sick. The other morning while cooking breakfast, I dropped a sausage link on the floor.  I picked it up, rinsed it off in the sink then put it back in the frying pan.  A dropped grape I will throw away. A sausage link? I can’t lose that.

Heh, heh, you said "butt."
When I ask my kids what they want to eat and they don’t answer, I tell them I’m going to make them butt sandwiches.  Sometimes they shout “No,” and “Dad, that’s gross,” and then quickly they tell me what they really want. One day I’m going to make them a butt roast (look it up, it is a real thing) and I’m not sure they will believe me when I tell them we are eating butt roast.

On Sundays, I just want one hour of solitude to read the newspaper and drink my coffee without having to help children get juice, or turn on the TV, or find their blankets or let the dog in and out out or whatever else needs to be done in the morning.  Some Sundays, I set my alarm for 6:30am, so I can have that time to myself and every time I do that, the kids wake me up before the alarm goes off.  On the other Sundays, where I’m the first awake and everyone else is still sleeping, the newspaper never shows up until 8am.  I know I can read it online, but then how am I going to get newsprint all over my hands, my face, my coffee cup and the kitchen table?  The smell of the newspaper ink is part of the ritual.

Our Super Bowl party now has more kids than adults and no one stays until the end of the game. So, it's really just a different way of us not watching the game at all, but now there is a lot more beer leftover.

Some days I wake up and I’m like “I’m the boss,” and I’ve got these people working for me and I’m in charge and I totally know what I’m doing.

Some days I wake up and wonder when they are going to figure out that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing and how did I end up in charge of people at all, am I as bad as Michael Scott, and remember when the only responsibility I had was getting my homework done and my god, I’m so old what the hell happened, how did I get to my forties so fast?

Looking back at my parents, they are a lot like I am as a parent: they had no idea what they were doing, they were totally winging it.  I mean, at the time it seemed like they knew everything but maybe that’s because we are trained to believe everything our parents tell us. Well, until we are teenagers and then we roll our eyes at everything they tell us and we go and learn things the hard way. I can already see the conversation I’m going to have with my children when they have their own children, and they are going through the same things all new parents go through and they ask me how we did it.  And I’m not going to lie and tell them we knew what we were doing.  I’ll tell them we just made it up.  Sometimes you went to bed early because mommy and daddy were tired.  Sometimes the TV got turned off because mommy and daddy didn’t want to hear it.  And when you have your own kids, you get to make up arbitrary rules for them to live by, too.  Seriously, I had more training in driver's ed than I did on how to be a parent.  I also got into two car accidents in six months after getting my license and I didn’t drive for a year and half after that, so, uh, maybe that isn't such a great comparision.But I haven’t screwed up the kids too much.  Yet. There’s still time.
Thanks for reading.




Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Notebook

As 2017 rolled around, putting the final nail in the coffin of the turd of a year 2016 was (with the obvious exception of the Chicago Cubs breaking their one hundred eight-year World Series drought), I sat down to write my thoughts on the year past and the year upcoming. But after thinking for a while, staring at a blank screen, then a blank piece of paper (I thought a change of venue might help) then back at a blank screen (the change of venue did NOT help), I couldn’t come up with something worth saying that hadn’t already been said, or written, or tweeted, or shared on Facebook a hundred thousand times. Instead I went to find an old notebook to see if I had started something in there that jump off from now.  And while trying to find a recent notebook, I found a twenty-five-year-old notebook (the fact that I have something that is twenty-five years old is frightening to me). It was a notebook from my senior year of high school.  It was called ‘The Notebook,’ well before the Nicholas Sparks book of the same title, which led to the movie of the same title.

Our Notebooks, dog eared and everything
‘The Notebook’ started in my freshman English Comp class and was shared between myself and my friend Rachel (I changed her name in case she doesn’t want to shared just because I am sharing). I’d write a few pages over the course of a few days, then pass the notebook to Rachel and she would do the same. Sometimes, we’d have other people write a page or two, but for the most part, Rachel and I did the bulk of the writing. I’m not sure why we started it, but we kept it up the rest of high school, and even into college. After college, when she moved away from Chicago, we kept it up by writing letters to each other.  She wrote a lot more than I did.  And of course, because I’m sort of a pack rat, but not in a creepy hoarding kind of way, I saved them all.

Our Notebook predates this one
Our communications in ‘The Notebook’ were pretty typical for high school kids: complaints about parents, friends, boy problems, girl problems, what were we doing that weekend, why Suzy is a jerk, why Jane shouldn’t like Ricky, the joy I had after I quit my job at the pizza place, Rachels’ frustration with her new manager at her job.  The notebook I found started in October of my senior year, right before Homecoming. As I flipped through the pages filled with my hardly legible chicken scratch, every one of them started with me fawning over a girl, let’s call her Leslie, and my disappointment at her not returning my fawning.  I was quickly taken back to that time, the nervous pains I felt in my stomach each time I called her to find out she wasn’t home returned to me. I was a miserable, lost, surly, whiny, complaining (and occasionally funny) brooding seventeen-year old again.
In between descriptions of what I did over the weekend, Rachel’s notes on the fights she had with her parents, the song lyric game where we would each write two lines from a song and the other one would try guess the song and artist, I whined about Leslie for months. While reading it, I remembered that it all came to a head after the Turnabout dance in February. Leslie and I had gone to the dance together but as soon as we were back at school on Monday, she no longer had time for me. Spurred on by several friends I did something bold, something I never had done before and haven’t done much since. I brought a rose to school and gave it to at her locker, hoping that this display of affection in front of dozens of other teenagers would make her understand my true affections for her.  Clearly, what I said when I handed her the rose didn’t work. She said, “You shouldn’t have.” And she meant it. Literally. Lucky for me, we both wanted to avoid a scene at school, so she told me to call her that night.
Totally on my bedroom wall
After putting it off as long as I could without calling so late Leslie’s parents wouldn’t let her talk, I called. Leslie told me she wasn’t ready to be in a serious relationship. She had been in a long one prior to senior year but when her boyfriend went off to college, they broke up. I’m not sure if I was looking for a serious relationship either, but I was looking for at least a relationship. The bad news is that Leslie and I weren’t going to be anything. The good news is that after months of pining and whining and brooding and stewing and not being able to fall asleep at night, and my stomach feeling like crap and ignoring the dozens of girls who were interested in me (okay, there was probably at least one), at least now I knew.  Reading about it even twenty-five years later brings me right back into my bedroom, my plastic blue phone with the super long headset chord on the floor, Michael Jordan poster alongside a Rush poster on the paneled wall, just the lamp light from my desk illuminating my room (plus the dirty laundry that was all over the floor).
I kept reading ‘The Notebook’ to see how I managed to survive getting my heart ripped out and stomped on by a girl. Just a week later, I wrote in ‘The Notebook’ that my cat, Deacon, died. She had been sick on and off for the last few weeks. At first the vet thought it was a thyroid problem, but then quickly determined it was heart related. I wrote in the notebook “I’m going to get her from the vet after school to take her home then she goes to a specialist tomorrow.”
She never made it to the specialist. She died that night howling in pain while in my lap. I cried a lot. She was still in my lap, tears running down my face when my brother came home from work and knocked on my door.
Prior to re-reading ‘The Notebook’ I remembered these two events as wholly separate. I didn’t remember that they happened the same week. My heart got crushed and my cat’s heart gave out. I know, I’m digging deep there for a connection, but come on, I was seventeen. That’s the kind of shit we do when we are seventeen and any little thing makes us think that our lives are over, or we are going to end up alone, or the world is dark and miserable place, or our parents are just trying to keep us from having fun.
I closed ‘The Notebook’ and slid it back on the shelf among its other dozen or so volumes. It was refreshing to see that in high school, at my most miserable, I was upset about a girl who didn’t like me and sad that I had lost my first pet, my cat.  At the time, it was devastating. But now, looking back at high school in comparison to what has happened in 2016, things weren’t so bad for me back then.   I was just a few months away from heading off to college, the track season was going well, I had my weekends free since I wasn't slinging pizza anymore. And I even went to Prom that year, with different girl (who after Prom, wait, that's another story altogether). And while there were terrible things in 2016 and a lot of things didn't got as hoped, my personal life wasn’t terrible.  It was a hard year at work, but 2016 doesn’t hold a candle to the two personal worst years of my life, 1983 and 1990.

So, no, I’m not here to wrap up 2016 in a few sentences or to offer bold predictions of doom and gloom for 2017.  But, shit, it could be a lot worse, right?  At least I’m not pining over some girl who doesn’t like me. I've a wife who I love (and I'm pretty sure she likes me too) and three kids who drive me crazy but make me smile at the same time, and two of them are even excited to see me when I get home from work. So good riddance to 2016 and bring it on, 2017. I’m ready for you. And in twenty-five years when I’m reading through the digital detritus of my life, the angst I displayed in my early forties, I expect that I will look back and realize that maybe it wasn’t all as bad as it seems right now.


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Things overhead on the LA Metro to and from LAX during AWP 2016

I know this is a bit late, seeing how we are much closer to AWP 2017 than 2106, but anytime I can share the joys of public transportation with my rabid blog fan base, I should, right? So here are things overheard on the LA Metro to and from LAX during AWP 2016.

Guy, wearing knit hat and sunglasses steps onto train at (name station), to the entire train car:

“I’m not going to watch Godzilla tonight. I’m not going to watch it. I woke up this morning, ate breakfast and, uh, maybe got high and I’m not going to watch Godzilla tonight.”

Guy in dreads with headphones on to cute girl with dark red streaks in her otherwise black hair:
“Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you tell your parents thank you from me?”

Me to that guy after the girl walked away from us very quickly when we got off the train.

“I think you scared her.”

“It’s alright. She got her own,” he replied.

Guy playing Three Card Monte to the group of three men holding their bikes gathered around him:
“You think it’s there? I bet it’s not. I bet it’s not. A dollar? Five dollars? Man, I’m glad I didn’t bet, you would have won.”

The same Three Card Monte guy to the same three guys and their bikes:
“Keno’s my game.  Keno’s my game.  Learned it in prison.  Do you Keno? No? You ain’t ever been in prison? You didn’t learn Keno in prison?”

Guy who brought his bike onto the train, put it in the articulated section, then walked to the complete other end of the train car, to the entire car, shouting:
“I might need bike. I might need my bike. I might go for a bike ride, alright? Alright? You, (pointing at random person who luckily was not me) is that alright?”

No one responds.

The former army guy, retired, to the woman who ask him for directions, after he had given her the directions:
“Man, I love the train. I mean used to drive, but it takes like two hours in traffic for me to get up there. Just bought a house. Man, I need to get to work so I can pay the mortgage.  We just put down this new tile floor, it’s this Mexican tile, I can’t remember the name. But we did the tile, my cousin, he did it, he does tile.  We used the tile and you use black grout and it looks cool.  And then, you put down a layer of glaze on top. It’s beautiful, man.”

The guy in the Angels hat, to me, as a green line eastbound train comes into the station on the westbound side of the tracks:
“Is that to Redondo beach? Is that Redondo.”

“No, it’s on the wrong tracks.” I said. “They are doing track work today. You want to go west.”

“Yeah, west,” he said. “Thanks, amigo.”

The same Angels hat guy, when he got off one stop before me:
“You take care, sir,” he said. I went from Amigo to sir. Fuck am I old.

The guy on his cellphone sitting across from me wearing pants with lots of zippers on them:
“No, man, that’s done. Tweety bird finished that yesterday. I told you that. Tweety bird finished the toilet yesterday. Yes, I did. You never listen. You never listen.”

The same guy, second phone call:
“Yo. I’m on the train. I’m on the train. That’s why I can’t hear you. I was going to Uber to you. I was going to Uber to you but I’m on the train. I’ll get off at Avalon. Come get me. You be my Uber now.”

The same guy, third phone call:
“I’m checking to see what you got right now. I got maybe two, two and a half. I’m seeing what you got right now. No, man two grand, twenty-five hundred.  What you got now?”

To Laurie Lindeen, author Petal Pusher,  and guitarist and singer of famed indie rock band Zuzu’s Petals, of who I saw on the bus and who I saw during a panel the day before:
Well, we didn’t say anything. I was too chicken shit to talk to her.

The woman with the matted down hat at LA Kings t-shirt, to the guy in the dirty green hat who got on the train with her and who was reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo.”
“Sit next to me. Sit next to me. I want you to sit next to me.”

He looked at her. “I don’t know you,” he said.
“Sit next to me, you ass.”
He did. She hugged him.