Friday, June 18, 2010

Fathers And Sons

A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.

When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, 'How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.'

So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.' But his father ordered his servants, 'Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.' Then the celebration began.

Luke 15: 11-24


My dictionary defines a parable as "an ordinary story which illustrates a moral or religious lesson." We usually focus on the spiritual aspect of the parables, the religious lessons. Perhaps this is as it should be. Certainly, the parable of the prodigal son is a lesson on the love and mercy of God: repentance, redemption and all the rest.

But it is also an ordinary story, a human story. Isn't it?

It's a parable that I lived, not in every particular, but closely enough: in spirit, of course, but also in reality. I turned my back on my father and lived a dissipated life: a life of selfishness and base ingratitude. Yet when I came to my senses and wanted to make things right between us, he was there for me. And I realized that the love he had for me then had been there all along. And I understood a little more of the parable.

I have two sons of my own now. Usually, we think of love as something that grows between two people, but our love for our children is not like that. The day I held my firstborn, he was already more precious to me than anyone else; it was sacramental love. And I understood a little more of the parable.

And perhaps someday I will have to learn the parable again, and be the father instead of the son. There would be a certain justice in that. If I must, I hope I will do it with love: true love, heroic love, love that does not consider worthiness or return, but loves for its own sake. Fortunately, my father helped me understand that part of the parable.


One day, my high school English teacher asked us about our heroes. We all made our answers, mostly celebrities or other public figures. He seemed disappointed in us. We asked him who he would have chosen. He said his father. I didn't understand that then.

I understand now.

Respectfully Yours,


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lost In Translation

I admit it. I don't have a friendly face. Sure, I ham it up sometimes and play the misanthrope card. But really, I don't go out of my way to cause my fellow man any grief. I'm just not the smiling kind.

I think some of it comes from having bad teeth. For a long time they were not so wonderful and often hurt. That doesn't leave you feeling too smiley. They're mostly fixed now, but old habits die hard.

Even my wife, who you might think would be used to it by now, routinely asks me "what's wrong?" Nothing, dear. Just my face. Really, it's just my natural, neutral expression. I've tried to look a little more sunny, but it felt stupid, and probably looked stupid too. Maybe I should get a t-shirt made: I don't hate the world. It just looks that way.

The market where I shop is primarily Hispanic: staff and clientele. The cashiers' English is usually atrocious, but what does that matter? They get the job done and, after all, I'm not there to have a deep philosophical debate. We understand each other enough to conduct our business.


I don't mind waiting in line too much, if I'm by myself and not in a hurry. I let my mind roam where it will, or even shut down for a while. Some days, if you looked into my eyes, you'd probably see a test-pattern. We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.

On the day in question, I was roused from my reverie by a burst of rapid-fire Spanglish. Huh? Wha? I struggled to get my bearings. Yes, the cashier was talking to me. He was concerned. What had just happened? What did I miss?

A produce clerk who had been waiting to go on break joined in. Two simultaneous streams of Spanglish now. I felt an urge to hold both sides of my brain together physically. They were both apologizing. Okaaaay? A few key words stood out. Aha! They're apologizing because they think I'm mad that the clerk wants to cut into the line to buy food for his break.

No, go ahead. No problem.

It was all clear now. I tried not to laugh until I was out. I guess I had been staring at that produce clerk. Sort of. Evidently, my expression didn't translate well. They thought I was angry about the line. Here's what I was actually thinking:

Oooh, that guy has a papaya...
It's a nice ripe one, too...
I didn't see any papayas over in produce...
I haven't had a papaya in a long time...
Maybe I should run back and get one...
Or should I go through the line again...
I wonder if...

Then the Spanglish started. Well, these things happen. Maybe I should look into getting that t-shirt printed up, in English and Spanish, of course. Sometimes things get lost in translation.

Respectfully Yours,


Monday, June 14, 2010

Fun Time

If you tell the truth too often, nobody will believe it.

G.K. Chesterton


Welcome back. In the first installment, I asked you to venture your guesses as to which, if any, of the following statements about me were true:

1) I painted my toaster-oven yesterday.

2) I put El Yucateco habanero sauce on just about everything.

3) My usual breakfast is a ham-and-cheese sandwich.

4) I keep a printed menu for my family, as well as a chalkboard with daily specials. I often prepare four different meals for four people. As each is finished, I ring a bell and shout "Order up!"

5) In 1988, Chuck Berry got me roaring drunk.

6) I enjoy reading the dictionary. I keep one bedside.

7) I once drove the Five Satins from Bridgeport, CT to Lancaster PA in my 1980 Chevy Caprice. They rehearsed in the car almost all the way. That is how Doo-Wop should be heard.

8) I sing my sons evil nursery rhymes, similar to the Gashlycrumb Tinies. These usually end in the grim death of the protagonist. They seem to enjoy them.

9) I was once pulled over while walking.

10) I have never ridden a horse, but I have ridden both a camel and an elephant.

Several of you made interesting guesses. I will now clear things up. All of those statements are true. Every one. Some brief explanations....

Meet Harriet, my toaster. All right, that's not true. I don't really name my appliances. I did, however, paint my toaster on June 9th, 2010 : "yesterday," in the original post. The story is this: she will be eleven years old this July. It was time for her biannual cleaning. Having survived eleven years of daily use, plus once being set on fire by my lovely wife, she was looking a little the worse for wear.

Now my depression-era Nana firmly ingrained in me her rule for living:

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.

Naturally, replacing a working toaster would never do. It seemed some renovations were in order. A quick buff with 0000 steel wool and two coats of Rust-Oleum bright white semi-gloss later, here we are. Good as new. Ain't she a beauty?

Cracking toast, Gromit!

As evidence of 2, 3, and 4, I offer the following:

Dad's Diner

Behold: the menu, specials board, dinner bell, El Yucateco XXXtra Hot, and one ham-and-cheese sandwich, made with the cracking toast pictured earlier. If the flash had cooperated, you'd see that the menu reads : Dad's Diner 'n' More. Honestly, sometimes I wish I'd never started down that road. Here's what happened.

As cook of the house, I started long ago making lists of the meals I had ingredients for. This helped me remember what I needed to use, what I needed to buy, and what I had lying around come suppertime. As I used things up, I'd cross off the list the meals that had been made. Reasonable enough, I think.

At some point, I started handing the list to my lovely wife: Here's what I have. What do you want for dinner? Simple, easy, things were still under control. Then she told a friend.
What? He gives you a MENU?!?
No. It's just a list of the food that's available.

I thought this funny and decided to print up a proper menu. The problems began when I started using the menu. First it was funny. Then it became routine. Now I'm stuck with it.

Similarly with the bell: one day I was feeling a bit put out by the Sunday breakfast rush. I started shouting "Order up!" as I finished each plate. I said all I needed was a bell to ring. My wife purchased a bell. First it was funny. Then it became routine. Now I'm stuck with it.

But did I learn my lesson? Noooo. Daily specials? Why not? Here we go. So far I have managed to avoid installing booths. Give it time. I cut my four year-old's sandwiches into letter shapes. Don't ask. Another joke gone bad. No good deed goes unpunished. Welcome to Dad's. Now what can I get for you?

As far as the hot sauce goes, either you understand that or you don't. Eat enough hot pepper and food starts tasting a bit bland without it. El Yucateco XXXtra hot is a good everyday habanero sauce. Tasty heat, around 12,000 Scovilles. A nice kick that won't take your head off. Inexpensive, too. Recommended. I use it constantly, by itself or mixed into other things, such as the mayo on that ham-and-cheese.

Strictly speaking, my usual breakfast is not a ham-and-cheese sandwich. My usual breakfast is whatever was left over from last night's dinner, eaten cold. Or, if the kids leave over a lot of their breakfasts, I'll have that. Only if these two options fail do I bother to prepare breakfast for myself. In that case, however, 95% of the time, it will be a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Quick, easy, tasty. It was good enough for my father. It works for me too. Technically, the sandwich in the photo is Spam-and-cheese, but that's another story.

As for number 6, what can I say? I love words. I find them fascinating. I love reading about them: their meanings, their connotations, their etymologies. Sure, my wife thinks I'm a complete geek for that but, when she wants to know what an autodidact is or the like, I get my respect.

Numbers 5 and 7 I'll deal with together, though perhaps they may someday stand alone. For years I worked in the music business in various capacities. I still do, though I no longer attempt to make a living at it. Making a living in music is equal parts luck, talent, work, and schmooze, any one of which can make the difference between working or not. Through a bit of both luck and schmooze, I met a concert promoter who worked mainly with acts from the 50s. This led to a lot of work for me and over the years I met lots of the artists who are still active. A couple of road stories:

I was working a large outdoor show featuring, in my opinion, the true King of Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry. I was just a roadie, hauling sound gear: nothing fancy, pure, sweaty grunt-work. It's long hours, but if things go well, most of them are free. You show up early, work like a maniac, then hang around until the last note is played and everyone goes home. Then you work like a maniac again. There's a reason most people in the business smoke heavily. It gives you something to do in between.

So I was doing just that, sitting on some cases behind the main stage when a big, black Town Car pulled up. The window rolled down, and there he was, Chuck himself. He asked if I knew where a liquor store was. Degenerate that I was, I did, since I had been there early that morning to stock up for later. I started to tell him how to get there.
No, no. Get in.
What would you do? I hopped in the car. He turned around and we motorvated out of there. I told him how much I enjoyed his music. I was politely acknowledged with a quick smile. He seemed preoccupied and not in the mood for much conversation. We drove quickly, in silence except for an occasional direction. The store was close, maybe ten minutes. We arrived and he peeled off a twenty from a fair-sized roll. He handed it to me.
I went in and bought a bottle. We left. When we arrived back at the venue, he parked the car behind the stage, opened the bottle, and took a healthy swig. He looked me up and down, then offered it to me. How could I say no? We passed it back and forth for a bit. Though I felt the booze pretty quickly, it seemed to have no effect on him. After a while, he thanked me and excused himself. He headed off behind the stage. I went to look for a chaser.

As is usual for me in those situations, I had no pen, no paper, no camera: just my eyes and ears. As an interesting coda, years later, I heard that Chuck denies ever using drugs or alcohol. The man I met clearly wanted a drink and was no thimble-belly. I do sometimes wonder, though. Did someone just put me on because I thought he was Chuck, or was it really him? All I can say is it sure looked like him and, though I may never know 100%, I believe it was.

The Five Satins story played out differently. I had been given directions to pick up Bill Baker, the lead singer at the time, at his home in Connecticut, and bring him to a show in Pennsylvania where the group would be joining a package tour. Fair enough. I headed out and arrived at his modest ranch house. I rang the bell and he answered the door and asked me if I'd help him carry some gear. So far, so good.

When we got to my car, he looked a bit dismayed. I asked if something was wrong. As often happens in these situations, there had been a miscommunication, possibly intentional. He was under the impression that I was bringing the whole group down. This changed things a bit. Several phone calls later, we decided that we'd have to manage, though we were now going to be crammed in and behind schedule. We drove around picking up the others and got on the road.

Some of the guys in the group were not much older than me. We talked amongst ourselves for a while. When the conversations flagged, Bill suggested they rehearse. He asked if I minded. Mind? Hell, no. For almost the next four hours, they sang some of the most amazing harmonies I've ever heard. That is what doo-wop is all about: five guys with a song to sing. I will never hear In The Still Of The Night the same way ever again.

And speaking of singing, I do sing evil nursery rhymes to my sons. Well, they're boys, after all. Sometimes these are traditional, like the Hearse Song. Other times, they're variations on traditional themes:
Mary had a little lamb... with mashed potato and corn.
And down will come baby... SPLAT! That's all.
Still others are improvised on the spot:
A boy who won't behave, is stepping in his grave,
the cold, cold, lonely graaaave!
Perhaps Dr. Spock would disagree. I think it's squarely in the folk tradition. And they seem to like them well enough. As Basil Fawlty would say: "Just enjoying myself, dear."

Which brings us to number 9, number 9, number 9.... Yes, I was in fact pulled over while walking, but not for drunkenness. I was walking a dirt road that led to some wonderful out-of-the-way beaches. This road also happens to pass through piping plover nesting grounds. One day, as I was walking home, I heard behind me, of all things, a siren. I turned around and realized I was being called over to a truck with the markings of the Department of Environmental Protection or, as we called them, the "bird police."

He asked if I could wait a few minutes so that some plover chicks could cross the road. They had crossed the road to feed. They were attempting to return to their nest when I walked by. Apparently, instead of just waiting for me to go away, they were walking along, waiting for me to go away, and would have followed me a mile down the road until I turned. That shows exactly what a half-teaspoon of brains will get you.

I stopped and waited. Four sandy puffballs crossed the road. I went on my way. I heard later they had been eaten by feral cats. That, once more, shows exactly what a half-teaspoon of brains will get you. Well, I did my part.

Last, and perhaps least, I have never ridden a horse but have ridden a camel and an elephant. I'm a city boy. No opportunities to ride horses. The fair did come to town though. And once, when I had sampled everything the midway had to offer, I stumbled across camel and elephant rides. I couldn't resist, if only to say one day that I had done that. Evidently, that day has come. I wish I had been on safari, but that's not it at all. I can say for certain, though, that elephants are big.

I believe all people are insane, once you truly get to know them. I offer these stories as a peek at my own loose screws. You may be no better off for having read them, but at least we've increased our level of intimacy, haven't we? Special praise to Ananda Girl for her astute guess, and thanks to Suldog for the initial inspiration. Now, wasn't it the truth I told ye?

Respectfully Yours,


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Truth Or Fiction

Today is not a day for deep thoughts. It's a day when I feel like someone has substituted Folger's decaf for my regular coffee. I'm still waiting for the camera crew to jump out. Nothing yet.

It's the kind of day where I know I will lose my car keys at least twice. I will walk into rooms and stand there, wondering what I went in there for. I will go shopping and buy everything except the milk, which was why I went shopping in the first place.

If I remember to bring my son to his dentist's appointment, I will sit in the waiting room, reading a three month old copy of Car and Driver. I will read the same sentence over and over, without caring, understanding, or noticing.

It's the kind of day when I could easily become engrossed in an infomercial. I could watch it from start to finish, yet still be unable to tell you what product they were selling five minutes later. I can feel it. I'd better just go with it.

Since my synapses are poorly this morning, let's try something new, vaguely inspired by Suldog's 3 Falsehoods, 1 Truth. I can't spin a tall tale anywhere near as well as he. Today, I'll be lucky to write a sentence with a subject and a verb. So I'll do that. Here are ten statements about me. I leave it to you, dear readers, to determine which, if any, are the truth.

1) I painted my toaster-oven yesterday.

2) I put El Yucateco habanero sauce on just about everything.

3) My usual breakfast is a ham-and-cheese sandwich.

4) I keep a printed menu for my family, as well as a chalkboard with daily specials. I often prepare four different meals for four people. As each is finished, I ring a bell and shout "Order up!"

5) In 1988, Chuck Berry got me roaring drunk.

6) I enjoy reading the dictionary. I keep one bedside.

7) I once drove the Five Satins from Bridgeport, CT to Lancaster PA in my 1980 Chevy Caprice. They rehearsed in the car almost all the way. That is how Doo-Wop should be heard.

8) I sing my sons evil nursery rhymes, similar to the Gashlycrumb Tinies. These usually end in the grim death of the protagonist. They seem to enjoy them.

9) I was once pulled over while walking.

10) I have never ridden a horse, but I have ridden both a camel and an elephant.

Well, there you have it. Should you have nothing better to do, venture a guess; which, if any, are true? If there is sufficient interest, I may even tell you. Now, where did I put those keys....

Respectfully Yours,


Friday, June 4, 2010


Have you a patron saint, and an angel?
Thank you. Even though the nights are never dangerous,
I have one of everything.

Thomas Merton


She was getting angry. It was one of those casual conversations that had run right off the rails.

The problem with you is you're happy with what you have!

I laughed. I knew this was bad. I knew it would make her angrier but I couldn't help it. She was absolutely right, of course. I just would not have put it that way.

And that's a problem because...
Oh, nevermind.

It all began when we drove past the Powerball billboard. The jackpot was getting up there, somewhere near $200 million. Even though you only take home about half of that, it's still a tidy sum. It started innocently enough: a suggestion that we stop for a quick-pick on the way home. We aren't too big on the lottery, since the odds of actually winning the jackpot fall somewhere between being struck by a meteorite and being abducted by aliens. The volunteer tax program, I call it. Still, without a ticket the odds are exactly zero. So far, so good.

Sure, why not?

Inevitably, we drifted into the world of dreams.

If we won, what would you do with the money?
Well, first I'd pay off the house...
WHAT?!? You'd still want to live here?!?

Well, actually, I would. At the very least, I wouldn't be in any rush to move. I like our house. I think I would still like it with a big bank account. It may be unspectacular but it's home. Sure, I might spend a little money on it, maybe even hire people to do some work instead of doing it myself. Maybe. Why move just because you can?

Well, you could still buy that beach house you've always wanted...

She wasn't having it.

But you'd still want to live here?!?
I think so.
(sigh) Well, what about the kids?
What about them?
Would you want to send them to different schools?

I tried to avoid an outright no.

Well, I'd have to think about that.

It went downhill from there. There we were, almost fighting over money that we didn't have and probably never will.

The problem with you is you're happy with what you have!

Is that a problem?


I was reminded of the old joke:

A man comes home and says "Honey, I won the lottery! Pack your bags!"
His wife runs upstairs and quickly packs.
She comes down and says "I'm all packed.
Where are we going?"
"Nowhere. Get out."

Don't get me wrong. I love my wife. For one thing, she puts up with me: a truly redeeming quality, I think. Still, most of us have thought at one time or another: if only I won the lottery.... Now part of me thinks, well, just give me the $100 million and we'll work things out after. We all should have such "problems." I'm not so sure, though.

I have to wonder: would our marriage survive winning the lottery? My honest answer could only be maybe. It would certainly change things. The question is, how? Perhaps some things are better left unchanged. It's true, we could do with a little extra sometimes, but we usually have enough.

Isn't that enough?


I was not blessed with great ambition. I was blessed with the ability to make do. I was not blessed with great wealth. I was blessed with enough. It has been that way all my life. There has rarely been extra. There has usually been enough.

This morning, my car wouldn't start. In ten years, it has failed me twice. Both times it was in my driveway on a day when it didn't really matter that much. I could complain, I suppose, but I won't. It seems good enough.

At one point, it seemed to me that every time I came into a little extra money, through some overtime or side work, I also came into a surprise bill in almost the same amount. It used to irritate me. Why can't I seem to get ahead? I think it was a little lesson in humility. Why be ungrateful? You asked for your daily bread. Here it is. Isn't that enough?

The problem with you is you're happy with what you have!

That may be true, but I don't think it's a problem. I may not have everything I want, but I have everything I need, and a lot more besides. Why be ungrateful?

Have you a patron saint, and an angel? Thank you. I have one of everything.

That is enough.

Respectfully Yours,