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.