Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Gift For Grandma

For Christmas last year I got my 93-year-old grandmother a copy of her father's social security application through the government's Freedom of Information Act. I thought it a novel gift idea. A friend of mine was not so impressed. "I hope you're never my secret Santa. I'll probably get a copy of my birth certificate," he joked.

Well, it's hard to shop for your nonogenarian grandmother when traditional Christmas gifts just won't do. This year I think I did better. I remember when as a kid we would go to my grandmother's house Christmas Eve, my grandfather would pull out his violin and play. It was part of the tradition, it seemed.

Music was my grandfather's passion throughout life. He led his own Polish orchestra for decades in the Bay City area of Michigan. He had an extensive collection of sheet music and orchestra arrangments which were passed on to me when he died some years ago. They included an early arrangement of "Hail to the Victors, the song of the University of Michigan." What class!

In Krysziak's, a Polish restaurant in Bay City, there hangs a number of old photographs of Polish musicians from the area. Included was a picture taken almost 60 years ago of my grandfather on stage playing the violin with his band.

With a bit of effort, I was able to borrow the picture to make a copy for my grandmother. I knew she would appreciate it as a remembrance of her late husband. While I had the photo, I made copies of it for myself, my dad and my siblings.

My dad was impressed. He framed his copy right away. Everyone seemed to think I did right by grandma this Christmas. In fact, I was surprised to get an e-mail from my uncle Jim:

"Hi Dave. I went to my ma's and Vic came over with a picture of my dad's band. He gave my ma one but I didn't get one. I know you must have sent me one cause I'm your favorite uncle. So I thought I would tell you I didn't receive it yet. Oh well, I'll just have to wait, huh? Bye bye, love ya,

Your Best Uncle"

Wonder if he would settle for a copy of his grandfather's social security application. I still have a copy of that around somewhere.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Yes Virginia, I Saw Santa

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. I know because I saw him in my house, in the middle of the night, on Christmas Eve. True story.

I was probably six or seven years old at the time. We had just moved from a cozy little starter home to what seemed to me at the time to be a cavernous old mansion. Many rooms had not been lived in for years. They were badly in need of redecorating. So initially I stayed in the one downstairs bedroom as the whole upstairs needed work.

At night, this house was noisier than an old rocking chair. There were creaks and groans, bumps and shudders. My folks said it was the furnace, or the house settling, or some such nonsense. But the noises still scared me if I happened to awake in the middle of the night. That happened Christmas Eve the first year we were there.

I awoke in the middle of the night to some sound coming from the next room, I thought. That's where our Christmas tree stood too. Throwing off my covers, I was able to crawl to the foot of my bed and peer around the corner through the doorway into the other room. I saw a flash of red. Instantly, I dove back under the blankets.

Now, that flash of red could have been the skewed reflection of a taillight through the ice on the window. Or it could have been one of our tree ornaments, catching a glint by the corner streetlight. But I knew better. It was Santa doing his job. And the next morning when there were presents under that tree, my suspicions were confirmed.

Despite the fact that many of my contemporaries in school had begun to doubt the existence of Santa, I persisted that I saw him. I even repeated the story to my own boys as they were growing up. The first time I told them as wee little ones, they were in awe. But some magic dies young. The next year I told the same story, they were more skeptical. Their response was something to the effect of, "That's cool dad, but too bad you didn't get a picture." The year after that, I was forbidden to repeat the story when they were in the company of their friends.

Oh, well. Maybe someday if I have grandkids, I'll have the chance to tell the story all over again. But, Virginia, trust me. I saw Santa.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Calling Customer Service

Hearing fellow bloggers Word Whiz and Horsetail Snake complain about poor customer service really boils me oil. Business, bah. Mankind should be their business! Our common welfare should be their business! And for some reason it is at this time of the rolling year that we suffer most!

I blame it on high tech. Voicemail, electronic answering machines, fax machines, on-line bot service--all that. Give me someone real who understands me, the customer, and truly wants to help. And I don't want to e-mail you, leave a voicemail message, read a complicated manual, go to your on-line help site or listen to some canned menu recording telling me that I have to press a number to get another canned menu recording.

Sometimes high tech does help in that quest for customer service. Take this past week. My son Greg joined my wife and I as we started a shopping day at the break of dawn with breakfast at a local restaurant. We walked in and waited at the hostess stand. Although there were a few early bird customers sipping coffee at their tables, no hostess or other employee seemed to be around.

No problem, we thought. So we waited a few minutes. Then a few minutes more. Where was the help? After what seemed like a rather unreasonable wait, the phone at the cashier's station began to ring (loudly). "Probably somebody else calling in sick," I commented. Greg shook his head to me, looking a bit sheepish.

At that moment a young lady came out of the back room and picked up the phone, but there was nobody on the other line, so she hung up and promptly seated us. The caller was Greg who dialed the restaurant on his cell phone. Calling customer service! Whatever works, I guess.

I remember a similar situation in a multi-plex theatre complex, the kind where you can get lost trying to find your theatre among a dozen or so others. During the movie, the projector went awry and the film stopped. After a couple minutes of "dead air", a fellow movie-goer got out his cell phone and called the theatre.

He said something to the effect of "Hea, this is xxxxxx in the theatre that is showing The Blair Witch Project. The film just died and nobody's coming down here to fix it. There are a lot of angry people in here right now and we're gonna do something unless you send somebody down here right away."

Of course, we weren't angry. The caller was loud enough for his voice to carry throughout the theatre. Everyone I saw was laughing. But the film was running again very shortly afterwards. Calling customer service. Sometimes the customer wins.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bedtime For Big Dave

My brain is fried. I think it could be official, but I don't know who certifies events like that. Two months ago, I lost my ATM card. Not sure where, but I suspect I left it in the machine. There's an empty pocket in my wallet that my ATM card usually occupies. My keys are gone too. They turned up missing about a week ago. I've been on hands and knees all though the house, checked the pockets of coats I haven't worn in months, and even dug through the trash (you never know).

One thing about having fried brain is that you learn to accept it. I do anyway. My wife still frets over my forgetfulness. When I'm driving in the car, she'll ask, "Do you remember where we're going?" She usually asks after I've missed my turn, so I think the question already has been answered. I was probably thinking about my fantasy football team or something. So it's not that I forgot. It's just that our driving destination was not my top mental priority at that time.
But remembering can be hard for me.

This week I've been trying to remember the name of this cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid. Before A Charlie Brown Christmas, before The Grinch, even before Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, there was a cartoon about a mouse who wanted to wait up for Santa on Christmas Eve.

The mouse drinks coffee, shadowboxes, turns wake-up music on the radio, but in the end sleep wins out just as Santa comes into view out the window. If I could come up with the name of the mouse, I could Google-find the cartoon, I figure. Binky or Blinky maybe. But Google turns up nothing. Other names and searches are fruitless also.

Then I have a dream that night. I'm searching for the name of that mouse. The word "sniffles" pops up. Sniffles? I still remember the word when I awake. I search Google and "Bedtime for Sniffles" is the third hit listed. That's it! How about that. My brain functions better asleep than awake.

I mention it to my wife. "Try dreaming about your keys tonight," she advises. Hmmmmm. Couldn't hurt.

P.S. "Bedtime for Sniffles" will be shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Saturday, December 17th at 11:30 a.m. EST, as part of their Cartoon Alley show.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Enter The Gladiators

Gladiators were the champions of yore. Cunning heroes of muscular physique, they faced off one-on-one in public arenas before thousands of spectators. That was millenia ago. We have no gladiators today. But I've always thought wrestling to be a sport that harkened back to the roots of human contest.

It's been my favorite sport on some levels for a number of reasons: it was one sport I didn't stink at in gym class, it builds strength as well as strength of character and practically anyone can participate. I've seen wrestlers who were deaf, blind, legless or in other ways handicapped . . . kids too heavy or too small for other competitive sports . . . even girls (and some were very good).

I made sure both my boys wrestled competitively when they were growing up, although I'm not sure it will be something they thank me for later in life. My brother who also wrestled said every time he stepped on the mat, it was like a real fight once the whistle blew. It’s a hard sport for mothers to watch their sons compete in as well. The hardest, according to my wife Wendy, who said I was welcome to quote her saying so.

While attending wrestling meets, I noticed many competitors wore t-shirts with inspirational messages. So I began writing down and saving them. As a tribute to the sport of wrestling, here are some of the better ones:

It's not a game, and we don't play.

It's not how good you are, it's not how bad you are. It's how bad you want it.

All it takes is all you've got.

The team goes to battle. You must win the war.

It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

I'd rather have wrestled and lost, than to have played basketball and dribbled in my shorts.

Wrestlers have 'em. Others play with them.

I'm a wrestler. Pain is my business. And business is good.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Quest For Tree

There used to be this Christmas tree farm. Every year about this time our family joined my sister-in-law’s family to drive out into the country and cut down our tree. We got a wagon ride out to the cutting area. There was a warming barn with hot beverages waiting for us when we got back with our freshly cut tree. Santa even visited for the kids. It was a great time. Then it closed. That was over five years ago.

Ever since, we’ve been on a quest to find the perfect Christmas tree farm. Just like the one that closed. We’re still looking.

Oh, there was this one place that was quite popular. They had horse drawn wagon rides out to the cutting farm. But our wagon was one drawn by a mule. Our driver commented on how mules were so much smarter than horses. In fact, he said that’s why mules were the preferred pack animal at the Grand Canyon . . . because a horse would run off a cliff rather than stop a gallop. A mule was smart enough to stop.

While the driver talked, the mule suddenly stopped. For the record, there was no cliff. While the horse drawn wagons went merrily on their way, we waited while our driver tried to get the mule to move. Maybe mules would be okay if your Christmas tree farm were at the Grand Canyon. But . . .

Still, the ride was nice, until we arrived at the "cutting area." These were the devil’s rejects of Christmas trees. Mutants all. Trees with crooked trunks or big dead spots, scraggly monsters that might have been subjects for some kind of radiation experiments, and a few that were too big for Rockefeller Plaza. No wonder that mule stopped. He was smart enough to know that we’d just want to turn around and come back to the parking lot.

Other farms have produced similar outcomes. I remember thinking once that we had to find SOMETHING. So we picked out this tree filled with dry needles, dead bugs, bits of ice, bat nests, etc. Some gentleman helped me put it on the "shaker," a vibrating machine which would shake it clean. I let go of the tree to put on my gloves as the machine kicked into gear, unfortunately showering tree debris all over my helper.

"I don’t work here, ya know!" he said angrily, letting go my tree. He was just doing a favor helping me to get it on the machine, he thought. Well, they say no good deed goes unpunished. Sorry about that.

Tomorrow we’re supposed to try yet another tree farm in the Ann Arbor area. I’m trying to talk my sister-in-law into just getting together and going out to Bob Evans instead. Maybe we’ll just hang a wreath this year.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Poem For The Bench

The local newspaper ran a special section this past week on the high school football stars of this past season. But how about those players who show up at practice day in and day out, but will be lucky to ever play a down with the game on the line. Let’s hear it for the second stringers! Those guys on the bench deserve some respect too. For them, here’s a poem I wrote some time ago.

He goes to his practice the end of school days.
In pads, in cleats, for hours he stays.
Running and hitting and pushing and more,
Working his muscles until they are sore,

For football can take a lugubrious toll
When bodies collide, out of control.
The boy takes it all with a wince and a lump
Each time some stud puts him on his rump.

Though he’s not overly strong, nor quick on his feet,
And at sixteen, not wise to the street,
He still plays hard, he still has a dream,
That there’ll be that day they make him first team.

Today he is still, with his fists in a clench,
As he watches the game from his spot on the bench.
Kids bigger, kids faster are getting their turn,
As coaches belabor, "Watch and you’ll learn."

So the boy with his seatmates give their voices and cheers
To the stars as they embark on their athletic careers.
But if you listen enough, you may hear some grumble
For their teammates to choke, or give up a fumble.

Of course, that would give them their turn to play,
To enter fresh-legged, to save the day.
But the twists of fate play hard on the young
And game after game, their new hopes are stung.

So they must be content to tackle and block
When the game’s not in doubt; no time’s on the clock.
At least if they lose and must watch their opponents exalt,
They can comfort themselves to say, "It wasn’t my fault."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Mousey's Last Break

A few of you might remember the “guest blog” posted here by the family mouse a while back. In it, he said he was ‘busting out of the joint.’ Not long afterwards, I heard frantic cries coming from the family room. I rushed downstairs to find my wife holding a baseball cap under the door to the cage. Mousey had pushed the twist ties of the cage enough so that he could wriggle through the door. But only halfway. He was dangling halfway in, halfway out while Wendy held the cap under him so he wouldn’t fall to the floor.

But that was his last escape attempt. This morning, he lay still in the sleeping quarters of his Habit-trail. Mousey finally had left this world behind.

I guess it speaks to our family’s general indifference that we never officially named him (my youngest son bought him on a whim while at college). I called him “Mousey.” Our boys occasionally called him “Bear.” Wendy, who never warmed to him at all, called him “the rat." We couldn’t even really decide what he was. My wife said he was a long-haired hamster. I still say he was a mouse.

Despite his rodent family history, I still thought that as one of god’s warm-blooded creatures he deserved a good life of sorts, particularly since he had pet status. So I shared my snacks with him occasionally, whether it was a Cheez-it or a peanut butter cracker. I bought him a salt block and sawed a piece of an old pool cue for him to gnaw on. When it was my turn to clean his cage, I would let him run free in the basement, even after he ran up my pant leg once as I bent over on hands and knees putting his cage back together. When it was time to put him back home, he would play hide and seek with me. Once I found him nestled in Wendy’s old wedding dress.

On Thanksgiving, I gave him a peanut butter cracker and a Cheeto. He never ate them. He pushed them to the side instead. That was a clue he wasn’t well. Mousey never saved snacks for later. When it was obvious that he was on his last legs, I e-mailed my sister-in-law in whose borrowed cage he had been living. She responded, “I'm sorry to hear about the mouse, I think. He lived a good life. (Didn't he?)”

I’d like to think so. For a mouse, anyway.