Bowl Game

A bowl of beef bibimbap, with veggies. There's a pair of chopsticks and some red sauce on the side.

Shopping on Christmas Eve has different flavors. Some pick up a last item or two–like the roast for the main event. Some frantically pace and pounce because they didn’t shop and are without inspiration. They will likely settle for anything within budget. Then there are those who are simply celebrating the season.

The market was crowded with all of those people, and more. Strollers blocked walking space and the bar counters were lined with people having a drink. The cafe tables lining the walls and tucked in underused nooks were mostly filled. A big man was seated at one of the tables. He moved with great deliberation, slowly pulling his bowl closer to the edge of the table. He stopped to check the progress. He pulled it just a little closer.

He was likely six foot five or six foot six if he were standing. His head was rectangular, not a definite point to his chin, but he had one. While he was big, he wasn’t heavy. In his youth he may have been athletic. But his youth was decades behind him now.

He still had some hair on his head, and it wasn’t white. It was a sandy brown that made him appear younger. His hair should have been white, or gone. His gold framed aviator glasses held thick lenses. If you looked at his eyes through the bottom bifocal, they were magnified to bug level. He was wearing a button down plaid shirt. It wasn’t flannel and the plaid wasn’t wild. He had a camel colored ribbed sweater vest neatly buttoned over his midsection.

He wheeled in a little closer to the table. The armrests of his chair hit the tabletop, keeping him a little further away than he wanted to be. He pulled his bowl a closer. His hand trembled just a little bit when he picked up his spoon. He carefully aimed the spoon into the bowl. He leaned in to meet the spoon with his mouth. Some of the rice missed his mouth.

A woman with a dark, wavy bob maneuvered through the holiday crush of humanity. She had a lidded bowl between her hands, her pinky finger hooked around a bottle of spring water and two pairs of chopsticks wedged between the bottle and her ring finger. She was unhurried and without stress, unlike every other person in the market. She wore a holiday cardigan that was not ugly but that was a little warm for the day. It swung open offering people a glimpse of an “H” with an arrow and her checked politics. She wore smart walking shoes that didn’t look like walking shoes.

She used to hike with him when she was a girl. They’d go for long walks along the stream. Most Saturday’s they’d be in his boat, doing the morning fishing. Their discussions were mostly practical. Sometimes there’d be a lesson for her. His rule? If you want to eat it you have to clean it. He’d shown her how. When it wasn’t summer, she might tell him about school. He’d listen more than talk. She grew up and went away, but still walked with him and fished with him when she was in town.

She brought the lidded bowl to the table and took off the lid. It was pretty hot. She moved his bowl away from him. She pulled napkins from her bag and nestled one under his chin, draped over the top button of his shirt. He slowly moved his tremoring hand to his chest, where he methodically tamped the napkin flat. She blew across the soup in the spoon and moved it toward him. She looked into the lower part of the lenses of his glasses, her right eye asking a question. He nodded ever so slightly, his mouth starting to open. She put the spoon near his mouth and he tasted the soup. He nodded more definitely. It was good like she said it would be.

Now he was in her town. She put the spoon down as they sat next to each other surrounded by the frantic bustle of holiday. They were both content, to sit with each other as if they were on a small boat in the middle of the lake sharing the silence and enjoying time with each other. Later, she would stand behind his chair and push, and they would take their walk.

Simple 

The Beast had a Merry Christmas. Somone brought him a rawhide. This was not me. 

I’m not against rawhides, mind you. It’s just that I didn’t gift it. It was anothet human friend. 

So if Christmas means that your dreams may come true, The Beast is squarely on the dream to reality train. 

It is good to have simple wants that can be achieved. This is success. And, that is all. 

The Same Word, Twice

Giotto. The Adoration of the Magi. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy. Wow. This is beautiful.

Gift giving shouldn’t be a chore. It shouldn’t be a great cause of stress. It shouldn’t be a venue for disappointment.

gift: something willingly given, without payment

This is a beautiful concept. First, it’s something that you do of your own will. There is no requirement to offer a gift. That would be more like a tax. Or maybe a bribe.

A gift has no requirement for a quid pro quo. That is, there isn’t an “exchange of goods or services where one transfer is contingent upon the other.” That is more like a payment or trade.

Bottom line, if the something is required in any way, or if there is a contingency, it doesn’t meet the definition of gift.

And, now, another definition.

give: to present voluntarily and without expecting compensation

Wait. Did you just see that, too?

Gift and give mean the same thing. They’re almost interchangeable. I guess one is the action; the transfer of the something. That’s the verb. And the other is the something itself. That’s a noun version. No matter the part of speech, that redundancy of meaning–of the essence of the idea–underscores the agency of the gift giver. Without that agency, there is no gift.

So, if you are giving a gift and you feel you MUST give that gift, this is NOT giving a gift. It’s fulfilling an expectation or a responsibility. That’s fine, but it’s not giving a gift.

“Stop, Doc!” you say. “You are making my head hurt.”

Sorry, Loyal Reader, but I want you to get your mind right. If you can’t get to the point that you’re freely presenting the something, there’s an opportunity to rethink your motives and, maybe, to really give a gift. Are you running into the store and going through the junk because you gotta find something? When you found it, did you feel like you checked something off of your list? Or did you hold it in your hand and imagine the joy of sharing this something?

I don’t really have any answers, except that I refuse to be stressed about doing something that comes from my heart. Because if I’m feeling guilty or rushed or anxious, maybe it’s not really coming from my heart.

It’s like this post that I am giving to you today. I feel like I am doing this willingly and without any expectation of something in return. Maybe you don’t want it, but thanks for being gracious and taking it from me anyway.

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.–Saint Francis of Assisi

That Sinking Feeling

The moment the SUV plunges into the thin ice on the mostly frozen lake. As captured on the local news.

“Oh man. Erich’s dad is so much fun.” The boy was breathless. They had a great time at the cabin. They made fires. They cooked on the made fires. They ran in the frozen woods at night with flashlights. Erich’s dad told the best ghost stories. He didn’t tell his mom, but Erich’s dad let him puff a pipe.

Mr. Bronch most definitely did not let him smoke, though. Sure, Erich’s dad was smoking. The boys asked him about it. Mr. Bronch didn’t want it to be a magical mystery, so he let all of them put their mouths on the lip of the pipe and suck or blow or whatever they did. It wasn’t a lesson in smoking, but a lesson that smoking wasn’t unknowable and wasn’t that important. But they were all sworn to secrecy. They very much liked that.

It was just an overnight trip, but it was the best day in the boy’s life. His own dad had many more rules, was always invoking said rules and was a big stick in the mud. You always had to do a safety check on your helmet before you got on your bike. You had to come in the house if it was thundering. You needed to do your homework before you could play your game–even though everyone else could do both. You had to go back and apologize to the second baseman you taunted after you stole that base. You always had to go to the bathroom before you left the house. Is there no privacy?? Just too much of the words “must” and “should.”

Mr. Bronch was good with them doing whatever they wanted. He didn’t intervene if they argued. He even jumped in on the one battle that got physical. That was hysterical. They all laughed so much they forgot what started the fight. But they remembered getting out of Erich’s dad’s headlock. And eating a huge bag of potato chips with a big jar of dip when they watched the movie that Mom did not want them to see. He got a little nervous, though, and looked away when they had that part with the lady without her shirt on. The guns, though, he was down with that. When that guy blew the other guy’s brains out? Erich’s dad told them it was all fake. They knew that mostly already.

“So can I go back to the cabin next week? Please?” His mom looked at him and shook her head.

“Not next week. Erich won’t be with his dad. Have him call me and we can figure out the next time.”

The next time wasn’t for a few weeks. But he was pumped and primed to go back. There would be him and Erich and Tom Jr. and Levi. And, of course, Mr. Bronch. They were going to bring their skates and skate on the lake.

His dad made him repack his backpack. “Where’s your toothbrush? Did you pack an extra pair of socks? It’s going to be cold. Here’s your ColdGear leggings. Just pack them!” Jeez. This was so annoying. He was sure that Erich’s dad didn’t poke in Erich’s bag.

Then his dad made him practice lacing up his skates. Seriously? And he went through a classic safety checklist. When he rolled his eyes, his dad grinned a little and said, “Guy, I just want you to be prepared. I trust you to do the right thing, but a little practice doesn’t hurt.” He went through the drills. He gave his dad a dap as he scrambled out of the car, his backpack swinging in his arm. He didn’t take the time to loop it over his shoulder. He was gone.

“See you tomorrow!” he chirped as he ran up the driveway to Erich’s dad’s big black truck.  The truck was running, but there wasn’t anyone in it. His dad parked the car. The boy rolled his eyes in his brain.

“What? Dad. It’s fine.” Erich’s dad came out the garage door, carrying some bags.

“Hey Tom.”

“Hey! How are you? Haven’t seen you for too long, man.” Erich’s dad grabbed his dad’s hand and pulled him in close for a hug.

“Yeah. Too long. You guys should come by. I finally got the direct gas line to the grill. We can put steaks and burgers on all winter.”

“Sure, but I think that your wife likes me not so much.”

“Don’t be paranoid. She can be friends with both you and your ex. She’d love to have you by. She was asking how you were doing.”

“Tell her I’m just fine. I talked to her last week anyway. She should have asked me then.”

“Sure, whatever. She was just doing logistics. Between my job, her job, the kids and her mom’s been sick.”

“No. Not her mom? That’s tough.”

“We think she’ll be fine. But it’s just a worry now until we go through the checklist of docs. Getting old seems to suck.” His laugh was a little hollow.

“We’re not going to do that, though. Get old that is. We have too much shit to do.” Tom’s laugh was full. They were interrupted by a yell from the tumble of boys in the front yard.

“Get OFF of me!” The boy’s dad looked over to assess the situation. Erich’s dad put his bags in the back of his truck.

“Hey, guys. Take it easy. I think Levi said he had enough.” The boy’s dad was good at deescalation. The pile broke up. The boy held out a hand to Levi. Tom Jr went behind him and lifted him up. Tom Jr was the youngest, but only by a Irish twin–ten months younger than his brother Erich, but bigger than all of them.

Erich’s dad clicked the remote to close the garage. The boy’s dad walked onto the porch and pulled on the front door to make sure it was locked. He stopped to give his son a quick hug before he returned to his car. “See you tomorrow!” The boy waved back. Then they all hopped into the truck. Erich had shotgun. The other three fought over who had to sit in the middle. Erich’s dad had them do rock, paper scissors and then told them to shut the hell up. They liked it when he cursed. They felt grown up.

They grabbed their backpacks and followed Erich’s dad into the dark cabin. It smelled of the fireplace and a little must. It was freezing.

“Okay, you guys go ahead and get your skates. I’ll get the fire started and meet you at the lake.” He flipped the top of a beer and shuffled through the branches next to the fireplace. “Erich, first go grab me a big log.”

Erich and the boy went to the back patio and pulled two big, for them, logs off the woodpile and brought them in. They found their skates. Levi and Tom Jr had already gone to the lake. Not like it was far. Just down a few steps, across the slatted cedar walk and down a few more steps to the dock. The other boys were laced up when Erich and the boy caught up.

The lake was plenty frozen. It was mostly smooth, too. As they skated across, it moaned underneath them. The moon provided the light for their games. They decided to run relays just as Mr. Bronch joined them. He skated out beyond their playground and they forgot about him as they swapped teams out for the next round of races.

Crack! Their was a fissure that was growing deep in the ice. Tom Jr. looked up to see if the rest of them were okay. The boy looked at Erich. This was his territory. Then they saw a dark figure racing towards them. He was coming fast. The boys locked their arms to be an impenetrable wall. They dug their skates sideways into the ice. Mr. Bronch was coming like a bullet fired from a gun. The boys steeled themselves and, just at impact, Erich’s dad snowplowed to a stop, showering the line of defense with ice. As the boys doubled over laughing, Tom Jr. lost his balance and fell.

Mr. Bronch pushed him along. Levi gave the next push. Tom Jr was laughing and couldn’t get up. The boy and Erich gathered Tom Jr by a leg each and swung him around the ice. His dad joined in and grabbed the boy by his arm and leg and swung him around and let go. Tom Jr. sailed across the ice and then disappeared. Out of their sight. The moon was behind the clouds. They were cracking up. Tom Jr flew off like a weird rocket.

“Tommy!” Erich yelled. They didn’t know where he was, not for sure. They couldn’t see Erich’s dad’s frown. “Tom?” He couldn’t have gone far. The ice cracked again underneath them.

“Dad, is he okay? Where is he? Is the ice gonna hold?”

“The ice is a foot thick. We are fine.” But he couldn’t see his boy. “Tom!? Hey, Tommy.” He raised his voice a little.

“TOM-MEEE,” Levi screamed. He was still playing. The boy joined in. “Oh, Tom. Oh Tom JOON-YER.” They skated out a bit. They couldn’t see very far, with the moon behind the clouds. It seemed like the wind was picking up. Or maybe it was the dark. “Tom. You okay? Say something.”

The clouds moved and let some moonlight through. Between that and their eyes adjusting, they could see a figure on the ice. Erich’s dad was surprised he was so far away. The four of them skated to the unmoving mass, the boys pulling up to let Mr. Bronch get there first.

“He’s okay.” They saw that Tom Jr was sitting up. Or maybe he was being propped up by his dad. “I’m going to take him to the cabin to warm up a little. You guys can skate for a while.”

Tom Jr was on his feet. He wasn’t talking but was responding by nodding to his dad’s questions. His dad supported him, really steered him, to the dock. “Man, you really flew!” The boys laughed. Tom Jr seemed to laugh, too. Then it was clear he wasn’t laughing, but throwing up.

“Gross!” “Jesus, what did you eat?” “I’m going to barf now.” “Does it taste the same?”

“Skate away from the puke,” said Erich’s dad. He sat Tom Jr on the dock and took off his skates. “He’ll be okay when I get him some water and get him warmed up.” Tom Jr couldn’t focus enough to get his boots back on by himself. His dad shoved his feet in his boots and tried to get him to stand up. Walking wasn’t working. Tom Jr threw up again. He wasn’t too big to carry.

The boy kept glancing over at Tom Jr and his dad. Nobody seemed to be very worried, so he worked to ignore his concern. The grownup had this. It was fine. It was getting colder and a big cloud was overtaking the moon. Erich pointed to the house, “Let’s get back in.” Erich grabbed Levi’s skate and the boy grabbed his boot so Levi had to sock skate after them for a little bit. It was too cold to play boot-keep-away for long. Erich tossed the skate back on the dock and ran up to the house. The boy waited for Levi to get his other boot on, and they raced back.

Tom Jr was on the couch in front of a big fire. He had a cloth on his head and a quilt over his body. His eyes were closed. He didn’t respond to any of them. The boy shook his shoulder. Erich grabbed his hand. “Dad. Dad. Dad. Tommy’s hand is really cold. Is it supposed to be so cold?” Erich’s dad had three microwaved hot cocoas looped on the fingers of his left hand. He put his right hand on Tom Jr’s as he handed the steaming mugs to the boys.

“Drink up. Then get your jackets. We’re going to take a side trip.”

When the boy’s dad came to the hospital to pick up the boy and Levi, the boy was more than relieved to see him. His dad wrapped him up in his arms and was surprised with the tightness of his son’s grasp around his neck.

The boy stopped being frightened. He was still scared for Tom Jr. but now that his dad was there, his dull, methodical and careful dad, he was exhausted. And he felt safe.

Musical Spread

Toy Peanuts band with Lucy on flute, Linus on horn, Snoopy on electric guitar, Charlie Brown on sax and Shroeder on piano, of course.

The Christmas concert was cheery. The very large community band was decked out in Santa hats, reindeer antlers and green and red garb versus their standard concert black and white. There were clarinets and french horns, piccolos and sousaphones, oboes and xylophones, and, my personal favorite, the timpani drums. You don’t get to a better crescendo than that.

The players were very diverse, ranging from a fresh-faced late teen through a skinny and slightly stooped octogenarian both with full heads of hair, one straight and black and the other a fluff ball of white curls. There wasn’t a cluster around any age cohort–eyeballing the performers they were well distributed across the last sixty or so years. There was an even number of men and women, perhaps five more men than women if we’re nitpicky. And while the majority of the musicians may have been white, it was minor majority. People of color were represented across all sections of the band, from winds to brass to percussion. It was America.

The performance was in the band room rather than the theatre. The program was a light selection of Christmas and seasonal tunes with specialty turns by quartets, sextets and an octet full of various-sized saxophones. A few pieces were clearly well-rehearsed, and well-liked, by the band. A few were a little less beloved, and two of the chamber pieces started and stopped and restarted. The lady on the recorder called a mulligan on one song as did the first clarinet on another. It was all quite relaxed.

The audience was a bit fewer in numbers than the band. They were moms and dads, partners and children, and friends and neighbors who gathered to support their hyper-local musicians. They were welcomed not only with elf-suits and carols, but also with six buffet tables filled with post-concert nosh provided by the band members.

There were trays of to-go chicken, including the wings that disappeared before the trumpet was able to store her instrument. There were pre-cut squares of mild cheeses with triscuit crackers. There were a few dips, mostly of the bean and chick pea varieties, with accompanying chips and pita wedges. The black bottomed trays piled with pre-cut vegetables, like broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, celery, ranch dressing and the cauliflower that was always leftover, posted up one or two looming large on four of the tables. There was a dearth of serving pieces, so nobody ate the popcorn that would have required manhandling the entire contents in the tin.

The youngest in the audience were big-eyed at the tables full of sweets. A bowl full of kisses, a plate with green and white filled oreos, cupcakes with eggnog icing that looked straight out of a TV show bakery, brownies, Tupperwares topped off with chocolate chip, chocolate chocolate chip and oatmeal craisin cookies. Some desserts were from old country recipes, while others represented the latest paleo or gluten free trends. There were fruit and custard pies, which all looked store bought, and round and bundt cakes that evidenced the love of homemade icing and gaily placed nuts. There was also a fruit tray that became more and more desirable as a palate cleanser after the sugar course.

The band members congratulated each other and laughed through their quick debriefs of their successes and foibles, speaking the shorthand developed after many hours of rehearsals and their common, musical, patios. They mingled with their guests, jostling over that last wing and handing a plastic fork over the table to a stranger who was searching. Turns out that everyone found what they were looking for on this December evening.

Smell of the Season

a array of green candles

She stood in the aisle of the discount store. It wasn’t a dollar store discount store. It was a store that sold department store goods at value prices. The price tags included the standard retail prices above the “you’ll pay” price. This type of store has been called Macy’s nightmare, because customers get everything on sale. The sale price is on last season’s or last year’s goods. Usually.

She walked in, as she always did when she was nearby. She really didn’t have a shopping agenda. After aimlessly strolling through the store, she found herself assessing shelves full of scented candles. She was developing a strategy before she went in.

She started looking at the candles presented at her eye level. There were round containers and square containers. Mostly round, though. Some were tall. Some were short. Some were squat, others elegantly shaped. Some had two or three wicks. Those were usually short and squat. There was one brand with wood wicks–they called them branches. They purportedly crackled as they burned. She thought that the wood ones were unlikely to burn through. Gimmicky wicks.

She knew that she would skip any orange ones. Those were leftover from Halloween and Thanksgiving, with fall scents of pumpkin spices and woody cinnamons. There was likely one that was going to imitate the smell of leaves, too. None were scents that she liked. She saw a coral colored candle. That one was trying to evoke a beach sunset. Her eyes dismissed all of the firey colored waxes to focus on the dark shades. She was looking for whiffs of Christmas.

She began her evaluation by grabbing the small green glass in front of her. It was called margarita. She placed it back on the shelf. Not Christmasy. She awkwardly pulled the winter balsam. It was almost too big for her hand. She opened the lid and drew in a breath. It had a very weak scent, and not of trees. Lid back on. She picked up balsam fir. The container was a pretty vase shape with decorative nobs. It smelled of a Christmas tree lot on a cold day. She put it in her cart.

She went through the balsam bough, pine evening, winter fir.  Oddly, Christmas Tree smelled more of vanilla than tree. She tried the white candle that was called winter wonderland. This smelled of cookie dough. She put that back. She looked in her cart and counted four candles. As she scanned the bottom shelf for a yet unseen treasure another woman joined her.

Standing at the candle altar, the new shopper started her own examination. She picked up one of the pastel candles and removed the lid. She held it to her nose and sniffed. Her head shot up and away from the container in her hand. She wrinkled up her nose to close the airwaves and block the smell. She frowned from her forehead and placed the lid back on the glass. She looked over at the other shopper and they laughed at each other, and at themselves.

Making Change

A restored store on Old Maple and 4th, NW.

The town is changing. The corner store where patrons could buy a single black and mild along with a lotto ticket is still there. It still sells lotto. There are a few cold 40s in the cooler, next to an extended collection of batch artisanal beer from the Rocky and the Sierra mountains. None from Milwaukee.

The long-term neighbors keep an eye on the new folks. The ones who foolishly stand on the street, rifling through their bags, not paying attention to the opportunistic predators. The first ones who fixed up Miss Carter’s house after she passed on. They were very into their front yard. The next ones who bought the houses that someone else fixed up. Lots of granite and walls coming down for an “open” floor plan.

The ones with their fancy three-wheeled strollers. They carry their fat babies in their reverse backpacks, facing out with their pink cheeks and pillow feet. In one hand they grip a stainless steel coffee cup and in the other the leash for their misshapen dog. The dog that is afraid of blowing leaves and trash trucks and barks at the ladies wearing their church hats.

The old timer likes most of his new neighbors. They borrow his tools and ask for his opinion on roofers and electricians. He tells the youngest ones to get their keys out before they step out of their Ubers. He’s not crazy about the Ubers, though. His buddy supplements his retirement by driving a D.C. He said that he’s not going to drive his own car.

Looking up and down the compact streets with homes that were residences to African American professors, judges and lawyers before it became a “transitional” neighborhood, two or three homes on every block proudly fly the red and white D.C. flags. A bunch of them “work” from home–whatever that means. One thing he knows it means is that there are more people around during the day.

The old timer sits on his front porch and nods to the parade of walkers and bikers and strollers bringing life to his street. He’s glad to have activity out in the open–but he knew what was happening in the shadows, too. It’s not gone, though it’s definitely on the wane. But every time there is a car break-in or a mugging, there is much clucking. It’s still the city, man, he thinks to himself.

He wonders if they will raise their kids here. If they will go to the neighborhood schools. He hopes so, because the corner store is carrying organic milk in addition to wines with foreign labels. But there’s also sandwiches. His wife doesn’t like him eating greasy carryout, but if he brings home a wrap, they’re both happy. These new people? They better stay.