Thursday, May 30, 2013

Having a Cold One

There always have been and likely always will be recurring themes here.  Sometimes I reflect on things with a new perspective that I've already taken a look at in the past, just as at times I get hung up on a particular way of thinking in dealing with stuff that comes my way.  Or, as in this case, what I want to write about ties into something noteworthy that's already been addressed.  In this case it's beer, and my Dad, who is never far from the forefront of my thoughts these days since he's been gone.

I can do some basic carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, masonry, and assorted other manly things that my Dad either taught me outright or demonstrated often enough for me to have picked up on simply by watching him in action.  There are some areas, though, where I consider myself lacking because Dad had no interest or didn't have sufficient knowledge to pass on to me.  Though I'm now a hockey fan, it has nothing to do with Dad who didn't watch nor care much about sports.  That also accounts for my being athletically declined rather than inclined.  When other kids were out shooting baskets with their fathers I was down by my Dad's workbench tinkering alongside him.  And you'll notice the absence in my little list of things I do at the top of this paragraph of anything pertaining to the operations of the internal combustion engine which is why I'm always overtly envious of the many guys who can maintain and modify their own scooters.  All Dad knew about motor vehicles was to turn them over to our trusted mechanic when they needed anything done, and I follow firmly in his footsteps there.

The entire while I was growing up and living at home, my Dad never drank beer.  Now and then at a wedding, or at home, he'd have a highball, and every year at the annual Father and Son Holy Name Society breakfast at the church I'd see him down a shot of whiskey after the 7:30 Mass along with all the other dads.  When I started playing in a polka band in the late seventies with many of our gigs being in bars, I don't remember how, but I developed a taste for Scotch and water - at least at the places where free drinks were a perk of being in the band.  It might have been when I was in college, or a little beyond, that Dad started buying beer and having one or two in the course of an evening, but it wasn't till much later for me, maybe only ten years ago or so, when I finally discovered that my taste changed in the direction of liking the  stuff whereas I hadn't in the past.

Well, I've been making up for lost time.  I won't say that I drink too many beers because I don't, but rarely does a day go by when I don't have at least one, often with supper.  I enjoy sampling different kinds of brews, though I'm not one of those guys who goes to the local mega-bar that serves 100 different beers to try and who vows to have at least one of each before the Grim Reaper comes knocking.  I discovered that I favor the lagers that are bitter and dark, and if they're a little chewy or even at room temperature they're just as enjoyable.

One of my favorites I discovered at a hockey game when I was sampling some offerings from a local micro brewery - Susquehanna Brewing Company's Pils Noir.  The brewery is along one of my major scootering routes so it's often that I find myself rolling past it in my travels.  They've recently acquired a few more brewing tanks which are currently in their parking lot.  I thought the scooter would look cool parked beside them and I was right.  They look like rocket ships, but they're much more awe inspiring!  I stopped by the SBC office to learn that they give free tours and I'm sure I'll be taking one soon.

And, like every Seinfeld episode tied together a few different sub-plots in the final few minutes of the show, my mental meanderings here often find me doing the same.  When my daughter was home around Christmas time we decided to visit the cemetery, and to have a beer with Dad.  She, her boyfriend, and I each downed a few swigs, and then we toasted Dad with the sip that was left and poured it over his grave.  I'm sure he was grinning right along with us.

Here's to having a cold one!  Perhaps Norman Rockwell didn't whip up a cozy scene with pals gathered around a keg on a cold winter's evening, but beer is one of the ties that binds friends and families in some of their best times together and it's as deserving of a blog post as anything else that smacks me upside the head.  Na zdrowie!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Learning Things

When I got the Piaggio FLY 50 six years ago I knew next to nothing about riding short of whatever I'd learned as a kid on a bicycle.  There were subtle skills that needed to be discovered, learned, and mastered, and some outright doozies that should have been, but weren't necessarily obvious.

I learned, for example, rather quickly after nearly tipping over a few times not to yank the yoke hard to the right when coming to a stop before making a right turn.  I came to know with time that I could bank in a turn steeper than I thought I could without making the drivers in the cars behind me curse with my loss of speed in  a curve in order to remain mostly upright.  There were some things, also, that I learned in the motorcycle safety course, such as leading the bike with your eyes.  And, unfortunately, there were some things I learned the hard way like not trying to come to a complete stop by slamming on the brakes at 55 mph for no good reason other than wanting to keep going fast for as long as possible.

It's while I'm actually out riding when I start to form in my head some of the posts that I'll eventually publish here, roughly coming up with a general topic and then sort of sketching an outline as I'm cruising along.  Such was the case yesterday when I glanced at the thermometer, slipped on a fleece jacket, and headed out to nowhere special.  In spite of the daily high being only in the fifties, I was warm in the house and wanted to cool down a bit before settling down to watch Jeopardy, so I figured a quick spin around town would be just the ticket since what had been an all-day rain had finally stopped at that point.

I wasn't two blocks from where I hang my hat when I knew what my next post here would be about.

After that Eureka moment in which I knew where I'd take this post, I scootered down to a place I'll never forget, just a little south of the center of town where I learned one of my first and harder lessons.  It was only a week or two after I'd traded in the FLY 50 for the BV 250 when I found myself on the phone in that same parking lot.  I don't recall if I made or received the call, but there I was with the phone in my left hand with my right draped over the handlebar to keep the yoke straight while I yapped away.  I'm supposing as I think about it, that I received the call and pulled into the lot to take it, because where I'd stopped, in the middle of the parking lot, would not have been the spot of choice if I'd initiated the call.  It was midway through the conversation that I decided I'd be better off a little farther down in the lot, rather than smack, dab in the middle of things.

I thought it would be child's play to keep talking with the phone in my hand while gently giving the bike a little gas and walking it a few yards to the side.  All was going well until I had to cross a speed bump. (That's the very one in the picture above.)  Down went the scooter, off I went flying with the phone skittering across the pavement, losing its back and spewing out its battery in the process.  The bike was down on its side with the engine still idling and the back tire still spinning as I sprang to my feet, quickly assessed that I was okay, and then scrambled to recover the phone, plop the battery back in, the back, on and redial the person to whom I'd been talking to assure her that nothing horribly major had happened after she'd heard me exclaim a choice profanity in a tone of great horror and then got disconnected.  Only after telling her that did I upright the scooter and survey it for damage.  There was none save for the fresh scratches, but they made me nearly sick because I'd not even had the bike for a month yet.

And so began in a harsh lesson a series of things I would come to to learn in the school of hard knocks (and falls) because apparently common sense isn't all that common to me.

What happened yesterday specifically to inspire this post about learning things, was my choice of that light fleece jacket.  I've done the same thing dozens of times - glanced at the thermometer and then deliberately chosen something that I should have known would be inadequate for the temperature.

And so I was, less than a mile from the house when I said to myself, "You're an idiot!  Again!"  I need to learn and lock this into my brain:  Regardless of how warm you feel right now, you need to dress for the actual temperature and not for how warm you feel.  But will it happen?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Too Hot to Scoot

Sometimes I think that if I stopped complaining about things I'd have nothing to talk about, but that, indeed, would be a a wry curse because I seem to enjoy bellyaching and I love using words.  I've often told the kids whom I teach that to answer life's really important questions there is no big book of answers to which they'll be able to turn.  Perhaps I need to add a corollary to let them know that for the most important things they'll want to express in life, there are no adequate words.  No matter, for example, how many times and in how many ways I've wanted to say, "I love you," I have always fallen way short of getting across just what that means to me and how grateful I am that somebody finds me lovable.  But, see what I mean about not sparing the words?  Here I am about to start a post about the weather in the past two days and I'm getting all sappy and going on about other stuff.

This is the thermometer on my deck as it read last evening when I finished supper and very briefly thought about taking out the scooter.  I recalled in that split second of insanity a particular ride I took some summers back when I noticed that I was going about 75 mph on a very hot and humid, summer's day and noticed absolutely no wind chill factor cooling me down.  I wondered why that was and when I got back to the house I did some research and learned that for various reasons at temperatures about 95 degrees the wind chill factor operates in reverse so that fast speeds actually make you feel hotter than the given temperature.  With that recollection I decided just to stay put last night and listen to the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins game.

I'm glad I decided to stick around for the game.  Having come from behind at 3-0 in a seven game series to even the score with 3 games each against the Providence Bruins, the Penguins did the near impossible.  For the first time ever in AHL history a team, OUR team, came from behind at 3-0 to win the playoff round on the other team's ice.  This is a great thing because it will afford me the opportunity to attend at least one more playoff game and sample another new beer or two!

So, any how, back to that complaining that I opened with...  Actually, I'm not about to do it.  Yes, I stayed at the house yesterday instead of taking the bike out, and yes in part it was because of the heat.  But... wan't all that long ago that I had to dress like this to enjoy a a ride, and...

...we had enough snow this past winter to last the next three winters at least.  The sunshine doesn't have to be shoveled, it doesn't require maintaining the snowblower, and it doesn't typically make for dangerous driving conditions.

Therefore, at least this time around, I'm not going to complain.  Mark your calendar, though, 'cause I'm not making any promises for the days ahead.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It Wasn't Just the Bread

My Grandpa was a church organist for many years in a suburb of one of the bigger valley cities, and not having a driver's license he relied on my Dad to get him to church and back on Sunday mornings when I was growing up in the early 60's.  Many times I would accompany them on the ride, now and again having to stop at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Market Street to wait for a train to go by.  This was back in the days when railroad crossings were often manned by a guy who sat in a tower alongside the tracks and lowered the gates across the roadway so cars would stop for the approaching locomotives.  It's difficult to remember these times without longing to be back in them. I couldn't pretend without lying to myself that life wasn't a whole lot better back then at a time when we lived in a world in which most persons had at least the sense to act in accordance with the customs, mores, and laws that fairly well governed how civilized humans should behave in most given situations.

If I didn't score a dirty, noisy, awe inspiring freight train on the way to St. Joseph's, I knew I could count on a hunk of warm, rye bread on the way back home after we dropped Gramps off at church and stopped at the bakery smack dab in the middle of the big hill we had to descend on the way home.  I can't remember the name of the place, but I think one of the daughters of the owners then, Ruth, and her husband, Hymie, operated the Pierce St. Bakery well into my adult years.  I recall having the feeling like I'd just done something naughty when my Dad would open that wax paper bag on the way home and hand me a piece of rye still warm from the oven.  With a wink and a big twinkle in his eye he'd help himself to a slice as well and make me feel like we were partners in crime in ravaging the loaf without even the benefit of butter while we were still in the car as the others were stuck at home and having to wait for the spoils.

It's not uncommon these days for me to be seen on a Saturday morning heading to the Owen St. Bakery on the scooter to score some pretzel doughnuts and whatever else might make me drool while I'm there.  Like the bakery of my youth, it's a family business run by Bob and MaryAnn, a husband and wife team around my age who just happened to go to a school like my own where they were taught by the same order of nuns as I was.  There is something particularly nostalgic in meeting up with people like these who could read some of the things I bang out here and nod their heads in knowing agreement with many of the sentiments I express.

I have to hope that Gramps, Dad, and Ruth and Hymie are together in that blissful state I call heaven, laughing and reminiscing together in the presence of the Bread of Angels.  And maybe Grandma is there too still giving Gramps a little bit of a hard time for stopping at Uncle Andy's bar on the way back from church while she was waiting to serve him his before-lunch bowl of chicken soup as was tradition.  At this point in my life, I need to believe that there's a heaven to get me from one day to the next, and there will need to be some chicken soup and fresh, rye bread there for it to be heaven at all.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Lightening the Boat

It started shortly after my Dad died and the dust settled after his funeral, the urge to start throwing things away.  I remember sitting alone by his workbench a month or so into life without him, and just looking at all the things he had amassed by way of tools and gadgets and his own creativity through the years, and realizing with a heavy heart for the first time that you can't take it with you.  Oh, I knew that all my life, in a nebulous, hypothetical, cerebral sort of way, but it had never hit home as it did then and since.

I go there still, from time to time, to Mom's house, and sit by that workbench where most things are just the way Dad left them.  I open drawers and look in cupboards and find things that still tie him to this side of heaven.  So many things he made in that work space, and whenever he perfected something that he'd want to duplicate he'd break down the prototype so new parts could be crafted to match the originals.  I find them as I snoop around - different things like that which he'd made and set aside to use in the future.  Alas, though, his future isn't here any more, and those things of his will continue to gather dust until Mom, my sister, or I find reason to part with them.

I look around my own house now, and find myself wanting to get rid of the so many items I bought once upon a time, thinking with the purchase of each that life was very good and that with the acquisition of it I'd be very satisfied for a long time to come.  It's difficult to admit to myself that I wasted a lot of money in the past 30 years piling up such mementos of life's goodness that quickly fell by the wayside shortly after I bought them, and I wish I could go back and recollect the cash I squandered and scattered like various bread crumbs on life's journey.

Since mid-winter I filled at least a dozen large garbage bags with pounds and pounds of many things and hauled them to a friendly dumpster a few at a time.  I tossed things away with a vengeance, feeling some kind of burden lifting with each elimination.  Yes, I threw out things I could have sold at a flea market or perhaps donated to some second hand cause, but the urge to purge was immediate and deep and I needed to get the things out of my house before I had a change of heart about tossing them away.

There's a drawer in my house full of pencils and pens - so full that it's difficult to close sometimes after rummaging around and dislodging the contents from their precarious places in the three dimensional puzzle they seem to form.  Why keep so many of them?  I don't think I ever wore down a single pencil in my lifetime without replacing it five times over before it became useless. (Ah!  Maybe I needed to replace them faster because I used up the erasers?)  That drawer is painfully symbolic of my adult existence and all the time and money I spent in getting things for myself and just piling them up for the sake of having them.

I am arriving, I think, at that point in life where I could be happy spending out the rest of my years in a much smaller space, with many fewer things than I have now.  I am more aware than ever before of the keepsakes in life that are worth the effort to acquire and hoard and they're not things at all.  As St. Paul put it, "... the greatest of these is love."  And as my Mom said so many times to me when I was growing up, "You like things; you love people."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Shoebox

Today was the first day of 2013 on which I was able to take out the scooter while wearing short sleeves and short pants!  There's a kind of liberation in that which is difficult to put into words.

I didn't go far.  I usually don't.  I just scootered along some of the usual evening routes that I take when I want to get out but don't have anywhere in particular to go.  And I ended up at Uncle Slim's for a beer as is customary on Thursday evenings when porch sitting weather hits.  (Uncle Slim's isn't a bar.  It's my uncle's place.)  Although it hadn't been my destination when I left the house, I'm glad I remembered that it was Thursday and that the porch would be open for the season.

Uncle Slim calls this neighborhood the "shoebox" for its small and comfortable familiarity.  His place is only two blocks away from my house, as is my Mom's house, a number of my aunts' and uncles' homes, and those of various cousins a few times removed.  A number of my schoolmates live within these same blocks, as do some of the kids I taught through the years and their families.

I like it here.  Although the homes that had once belonged mostly to the folks who went to the same church as I have fallen into the hands of absentee landlords and the neighborhoods have taken on a little bit of the "other side of the tracks" feel, it's not so bad a place to be, the old shoebox, as long as there are people right around the corner who love me, and plenty of others who wave with a smile when they see me go by on the scooter.

Trying This Again

If I had to nail down a reason for why I just disappeared from writing and maintaining a presence here, it would probably be that the me that I knew for most of my adult life gave up its ghost with my workplace transfer nearly two years ago.  Perhaps for too long I tied up too much of my self identity in being who I was at my job in the days when my reflection in a mirror usually returned a smile.  In the past ten years or so I tried on various mid-life crises, and although some of them shook the whole foundation of my self identity, being of my own choosing they were under my control and didn't take me anywhere I didn't want to go.  The job change, though, was out of my hands, and, unfortunately, it has changed that view in the mirror more than I dare or care to admit most days.

The sad truth is that for 28 years I was genuinely happy to get up in the morning and go to work, and then overnight that all changed, and I kind of don't even know who I am any more because, as I said a few sentences ago, I allowed too much of my self perception depend on who I was at work.  Even more than that, I gave my heart and soul to the schools, the colleagues, and the kids with whom I worked at in the past; I don't have enough left to invest in another place.  I do my job, and I do it well, but without my heart being in it and with my step missing the spring that buoyed me so well for 28 years.

The opus I started here a month short of five years ago at this writing was the work of a different Joe.  As I am now I find it nearly impossible to fit my feet into his shoes, though every now and then I try as I'm doing at this very minute and feeling woefully inadequate.

And, to trump it all, I lost my Daddy on the last day of last October.  I had said so many times through the years, both to myself and to those to whom I am very close, that I would never feel like I'm a man (rather than a boy) until my dad was gone.  Well, he's gone, and here I am, still his little boy riding around on a little scooter.  He had a beautiful death with mom, my sister, and me there with him, and I learned at his funeral Mass that I truly do believe all of the things about God and heaven and the afterlife that I was taught as a kid.  Even at the end he taught me something, and some days I talk more to him now than I did before he died.

I read or heard somewhere through the years that the visionary musical satirist and humorist, Tom Lehrer, once said that he stopped writing funny songs "because nothing's funny any more."  Although I can't substantiate that I can readily identify with it because on too many days I feel that way myself.  I look to eke out some simple joy from some familiar thing or activity, but too often, as I do at my workplace, I feel like I'm a stranger in a strange land.

Anyway, if you knew me in the past from my writings here, that's the long and short of my absence.  I have felt at times the desire to write here, but without the impetus to get my butt in gear.  It was Carl and his dad at the start of a spring ride to Scranton a few weeks ago who kicked me a little into wanting to write again when they said that they missed the blog and that that they liked my style of writing.  So, I'm going to try this again, and I'm going to try my best not to be full of doom and gloom even when I'm feeling it.