Friday, April 24, 2020

Therapy by Lionel

I’ve been struggling trying to figure out how to write this piece.  On one hand, the topic seems pretty frivolous, but on the other hand I read an article passed along by a friend that contends the most important thing about living through a pandemic is making it to the other side.  

While daily lives have been turned topsy turvy, which isn’t news to anybody these days, the article contends it is most healthy to rethink the “metrics” of our lives — where we are, what we do, and what we expect from ourselves.  The article’s title says it all:  “Your Only Goal Is to Arrive.”  

With that higher order thinking in mind, I’d like to tell you about one small thing that has brought some joy and a little bit of sanity into my life:  my model railroading outfit.  

Like lots of kids — I want to say boys — I was gifted an inexpensive train set many moons ago at Christmas.  As a pre-teen, I have fond memories of hanging out on my bedroom floor on Saturday afternoons, by myself, setting up the simple oval track and watching the train go round and round.  To add to the fun, simple blocks on either side of the oval became towns and businesses.  Then I’d build a winch on the old Erector set motor and lift cargo in and out of the train’s hopper car in order to deliver the goods to the other side of the tracks.  So simple, but oh, so much fun!  Imagination did a bunch to sustain me back in those days.  I trust you had your own imaginary worlds that sustained you, too.  

A few years ago I bit the bullet and bought a real Lionel train, primarily to run at Christmas.  Cindy brought home a few buildings she found at JoAnn Fabrics where she was working part-time, and voila!  — a lovely Christmas village took shape under our Christmas tree.  Grade school-grandson Noah had the task of arranging the people and vehicles.  Not long after, as cat lovers will understand, the village was taken over by our hulking sphinx-like cat, Gracie.  We ended up calling our Christmas village Gracieville.  

Then a couple months ago Cindy had her four little buddies she babysits come visit for an overnight.  Since I would be away working on my book, I set up the Lionel on the basement floor before I left that I knew the kids would enjoy running.  They did.  

When I got home and figured it was time to stow the train, I had this feeling of leaving it up.  I mean, why not?  I found myself running the train around its figure 8 track while I watched hour-long YouTube videos of real trains running from Boston to New York or Milan to St. Moritz.  Last night I found one of the White Pass/Yukon line running the same route Cindy and I took on our only trip to Alaska twenty years ago.  When it passed our “Glacier” stop, that place where we disembarked and hiked back into the national forest to a cabin we had reserved for a few days, tears were easy to come by.  

So all I’m sayin’ is there might be some salvation in living through a pandemic by going back and reassessing those things that gave us joy as kids.  Trains sure do it for me, as I know it still does for my good buddy Dave Harrison. 

Reimagining meaningful events from your life might help you reach that station on the other side of this amazing and scary time.  Might some joyful contemplation work for you?

Today’s elder idea:   “We don’t stop playing with trains because we grow old, we grow old because we stopped playing with trains!”

Favorite quote of my model railroading friend Dave Harrison.

top:  Engineer in my new Union Pacific diesel locomotive.  Lionel, of course!
bottom:  Christmas 2012 around the Cooke Schaefer tree.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Thinking of others

Our downtown church has invited parishioners to write thoughts down in this time of coronavirus to serve as daily devotions.  Here is my first contribution: 

Like most of us, I was raised Christian.  For me it was Catholic with elementary education at Immaculate Conception parish in Belmont, then Carroll High School out east of town.  In a phone call with my older brother this morning, who spent a few years in seminary, I asked if he could still say the “Orate fratres,” a Latin verse we former acolytes recited during the old Latin mass.  He thought he could, though he’d have to look at it again.  I’m not near so sure about my faulty memory.  I served a year or so of masses in Latin, but when things turned to English, I found my attention span improved using words I understood a whole lot better.  Still not sure if I could do the “Pray, brethren” prayer in English, but I’d give it a good go.  

As I reflect on those early days, I’d have to say the most important lesson I learned at home, in school, and in sermons on Sunday and at First Friday masses was the concept of looking out for each other.  You know, as Christ taught us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  When I review the careers of my sibs and the volunteer work we all still engage in, I’d have to say our parents would be proud that we all learned that lesson pretty well. 

Unfortunately for society, I don’t think all the other kids in the global neighborhood learned the same lesson.  We’ve all watched the news enough that I don’t need to cite examples to make my point.  The world can be a dangerous and selfish place. 

But then along came a world-wide health epidemic.  We in America only heard about it for a time, then it came home to roost on our shores.  The singular thing that has impressed me most about where we are, amid the chaos, is the concept of not passing the virus onto neighbors, especially older ones.  

I’m not sure where the prime directive of not infecting others came from.  Maybe from China first, or Italy, or even Washington state, but the concept of protecting our family and neighbors by our own cautious behavior has struck a positive chord with me.  Seems like the Golden Rule put into practice in the real world in real time.  Political differences seem to have dissolved in the effort to keep one another safe.  I am hopeful it is a lesson learned that we will continue to perfect when we reach the other side of this pandemic.  

Food for thought:  What rediscovered human values of late have given you a renewed sense of hope for our world?  

image:  After Hurricane Katrina, members of our church headed to New Orleans to help.  Here Kris Sexton, one of those volunteers, sports a N95 mask we've all be hearing about.  

Monday, February 3, 2020

Short stories = career choice

It’s hard to believe I’ve been retired from teaching for so long.  Eighteen years.  Sheesh.  I turn 70 in another month.  Overall I feel good and I’m happy to tell you my book is coming along very well.  Second draft, much upgraded, should reach completion by the end of next week.  Then I print up a few copies to pass around to significant readers and publishers.  Hopefully somebody bites.  But more on that later. 

Focusing on little other than the book over the last month has got me thinking about how I got here.  Surely serving as an English teacher for most of my career works.  Encouraging kids to write got me to thinking about my own writing.  As you probably know I write some poetry and have had some of it published.  I’ve got a few essays under my publishing belt, too, and hope for some more based on my book. 

I’ve played with writing short stories, too, but that’s really just therapeutic.  When I read others’ stories, good ones, I realize character development is the thing, and my stories really focus on one event, which doesn’t allow much room for personal growth.  Maybe I’ll get there, but for me it’s mostly essays (blogs) and poetry.  Pretty sure.  

Still, I realize my awareness of literature from high school is what took me down the road at good old Wright State to become a teacher.  As I finished junior year at Carroll High School, I realized it was time to figure out what I thought my career choice might be.  Best I could figure, all the guys were planning on becoming engineers, so I guess me too.  Mechanical?  Electrical?  Civil?  I surely didn’t know.  I enjoyed physics senior year well enough and didn’t worry about my choice too much. 

But by the end of senior year, with my struggling with mathematics yet AGAIN, I began to question engineering. If I couldn’t handle math, how would engineering work? So I got to thinking about what really moved me?  What could I enjoy doing while earning a paycheck?  

Which, of course, brought Mr. Hemmert front and center.  He was my English teacher at Carroll for two of my four years.  One of my scariest moments of all time took place in his room.  As a stutterer, I always feared having to speak in front of the class.  Even answering questions.  And then it was my turn to go to the front of the class to read something of mine.  I was petrified.  But I walked up there, fretting intensely.  I turned to face the class and froze.  The class was silent, waiting to see what would happen.  Mr. Hemmert was encouraging, then said it would only be worse next time.  But he let me off the hook and I returned to my seat.  Don’t remember anybody asking me anything afterward, either.  Enough humiliation is enough.  

In the process of all that, I tried out for the varsity baseball team spring of junior year, the only baseball steam Carroll had at the time.  Mr. Hemmert was coach.  I worked as a catcher for a bit but was best in the outfield, where hopefully fewer balls came my way.  Confidence was not a byword in my vocabulary. 

I was cut.  Coach came up and said it was time for me to quit.  I asked him if I had to.  He said yes, and so I figured that was it for my high school baseball dream.  Didn’t even try out senior year.  I mean, why?  I didn’t go to the first pre-workout meeting, then was asked by Coach Hemmert in class the next day why I wasn’t there.  Seemed obvious to me and I told him so.  

True to his form, he encouraged me to come out again.  So I did.  And I made the team.  Just coached first base all spring, but I remember Mr. Hemmert telling me on route to an away game that some guys were just good to have around.  Meaning me.  I was moved.  I coached a few springs of baseball while teaching junior high, too. Good stuff. 

But why teach English?  Surely Mr. Hemmert’s influence, but it was more than that.  And then I got to thinking about two short stories assigned in high school that absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I have mentioned them to so many over the years as the reason I became an English teacher:  

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter.  Besides the Shakespeare works we did every year, I don’t think I could mention another short story we read, even over four years of English classes.  But those two?  Etched in my brain.  

Why?  Because of the pall of death cast over them both?  Probably.  And probably the intense living they appeared to be involved in just moments before their respective “light” was blown out.  Needless to say, I was moved.  

And so I became an English teacher.  I’m not a great reader, which hurts.  But I struggled through my college lit classes and learned in the process how to be a better writer, but truth was that skill would improve only as I matured.  I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.  

So here and now I would like to thank Mr. Hemmert, again, for the inspiration to teach for a career and to write.  He did it for damn near fifty years at Carroll.  I’d like to thank him, too, for my love of baseball.  

By the way, I just picked up a used copy of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter and encountered the still-hurting Granny Weatherall again.  First time since high school.  Still powerful.  I’ll be reading it again, too.  

And Jack London?  Cindy & I have already established that the newest film version of Call of the Wild out in a couple weeks — with Harrison Ford as protagonist — is my birthday movie this year.  

It’s good to get in touch with one’s deepest roots.  :-) 

Today’s elder idea:   
“For the second time there was no sign.  Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house.  She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away.  Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this — I’ll never forgive it.  She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.” 

      Katherine Anne Porter
from “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Considering Joseph

Before Christmas 2019 fades too far back in the rearview mirror, I’d like to focus on a carol I heard this year, I am pretty sure for the first time.  Hard to imagine an old Christmas carol I haven’t heard with radio stations playing seasonal music non-stop from Halloween on, but so it appears.  I trust this one, indeed, is an old song because the version I downloaded at iTunes was by Peter, Paul & Mary, and that fact alone dates the piece. 

‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’ came my way a couple Saturdays ago on the newest edition of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.  I don’t think this Christmas special from New York City was broadcast on public radio, but the show was ever so enjoyable on YouTube. sent along an email reminder and tune in I did.  It was good to hear Garrison & the gang again. 

Halfway through the show as his duet partner came onto the stage, Garrison introduced ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’ as a not-so-famous Christmas song, in part he thought because it portrayed Joseph as Mary’s not-so-enthralled-about-the-baby fiancĂ©.  

Which got me to thinking immediately about what that experience would have been like for Joseph.  I can remember hearing from my own intended long ago that we were with child pre-wedding and I know the turmoil it caused both of us and our families.  

Gospel narrative goes that when Joseph got word of the pregnancy, he was going to gracefully disassociate from Mary and set her on her own path toward motherhood.  But an angel comes to calm him and let him know how high the stakes are and that Joseph, himself, is called to care for and parent the boy, explained to him by the angel as being none other than the Son of God.   

I can not imagine finding that little nugget of world history on my plate at a time when I was merely trying to figure out how my life had just been changed forever because a baby was now part of it.  True, I knew all about the why of our blessed event.  Joseph was freaking ambushed.   

So I turned up the volume, paid good attention to ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol,’ then quickly went looking online for lyrics to clarify the narrative.  Song starts with establishing Joseph as an old dude, yet he was marrying the ‘Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.’  Goodness.  No pressure there. 

Second verse sees Joseph and Mary trekking to Bethlehem, donkey-style, for the census.  Along the way the hungry couple passes through a cherry orchard where Mary lays a simple truth on the ‘so meek and so mild man’:

‘Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.’  Then, just in case he didn’t hear her truth correctly, she repeats, ‘Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.’

Excuse me?  Did you say With child?  Well, I guess ‘Joseph flew in anger / In anger he flew.’  Was this the first he knew?  Seems so.  He then pops off and bellows, ‘Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.’  And just in case Mary didn’t get his drift, he repeats ‘Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.’

Seems like a standoff, eh?  Not so much.  The baby Jesus then speaks up in the womb telling the cherry trees to bend down so his Mother can gather their fruit.  And, of course, they do, honoring the wish of the Son of God, for pete’s sake.  Rather pleased with that development, Mary sings out, ‘Oh, look thou Joseph, I have cherries by command.’  She, of course, repeats it. 

No verse follows that tells of the resolution of this couple's travel dilemma.  All we know for sure is that Joseph is an old man who has just learned his trophy wife, a young so-called virgin, is going to have a baby.  Angel hasn’t made his/her appearance yet to plead Heaven’s case.  

Which brings this story to another very interesting and ever so seminal place: Who, then, was Jesus’ birth father?  Hundreds of years after the event the Church standardized teachings with the Holy Spirit as impregnator bit which affirmed the Gospel stories that had already been written.  

But if a curious person doubted that who-made-the-baby story, what truth is left?  Who provided the male set of chromosomes that gestated into Jesus, the Son of God?  Joseph?  If not, who?  Kinda’ makes ya’ wonder, doesn’t it?  Too bad the carpenter Joseph, his wife, or even their son never wrote a memoir to clear all this up.  Ah, mythology

I must say I am pleased with having ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’ find me this Christmas.  Brings more of the humanity of the story into focus.  Makes it clear, too, that the Savior of the World — shoot, maybe even the whole damn Universe — was conceived out of wedlock.  

It is fun to consider that my lovely Jennifer and the church’s very own Jesus have that essential personal experience in common.  :-)

Today’s elder idea:   ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’

Wikipedia reports ‘The Cherry-Tree Carol’ probably dates back to the 15th Century and comes in a few different versions, some that provide narrative beyond the orchard event.

When Joseph was an old man
An old man was he
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee

Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green
There were cherries and berries
As thick as might be seen
There were cherries and berries
As thick as might be seen

Mary said to Joseph
So meek and so mild
Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child
Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child

Then Joseph flew in anger
In anger flew he
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee

Then up spoke baby Jesus from in Mary's womb
“Bend down the tallest branches
That my mother might have some
Bend down the tallest branches
That my mother might have some”

And bend down the tallest branches
It touched Mary's hand
Cried she 
Oh, look thou Joseph I have cherries by command
Oh, look thou Joseph I have cherries by command

When Joseph was an old man
An old man was he
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee

Images of Joseph & family ripped from an internet search.