Archive for the ‘Michiana Chronicles’ Category

Going to See the Mouse

January 10, 2003 Comments off

I discovered that planning a trip to Disney World is very much like getting on one of the Disney rides. Almost anywhere you sit in the Magic Kingdom, you find a chrome bar settling across your lap, and then they’ve got you. The theme music revs up, the gears engage, the little carriage or hollow log or space ship you’re in lurches forward, and there’s no getting off until you reach the gift shop. Similarly, once you let anyone at the Disney Corporation or its subsidiaries or affiliates know that you are even thinking of going to see the Mouse, the brightly-colored wheels start turning. Someone with eight big fingers and a taste for white gloves types your name into a computer, grabs the red ball at the end of a long lever, pulls down, and presto! You’re on Walt’s mailing list.

Before we could say Jiminy Cricket, beautiful envelopes started appearing in the mail. They contained glossy pictures of wonderful amusement park rides, dazzling hotel pools, and spotless street corners where famous cartoon characters stood larger than life among their young human fans. Next a free videocassette arrived, and we quickly found ourselves washed over by joyful sounds and images of family life under the palm trees. After watching the video I felt more nostalgia for Disney World than I thought a person could feel for something he’s never experienced. With our emotions engaged, the trip took on a momentum of its own. Nobody could remember any longer whose idea the trip had been. Nobody knew how much it would cost. But it appeared that neither my wife nor I was strong enough to just say no. It appeared that we were going to see the Mouse.

I went on the web and got prices for flights and hotel and park tickets and food and souvenirs. The total was shocking. Then I figured out how many hours we’d be there, divided by the number of family members, and came up with a round figure of $10 an hour. To get our money’s worth, each family member would need to have $10 worth of fun every waking hour for the entire time we were in Orlando. Could the four of us have $40 worth of fun every hour? How much fun is that, anyway? I didn’t know what to make of these figures, but, frankly, I wasn’t sure an old-fashioned Midwestern family should be having that much fun. So I marched down the hall and offered the children $500 each not to go to Disney World. They turned me down. I suspect that someone in white gloves had tipped them off that I could have raised my offer quite substantially and still come out ahead. Now more than ever, it appeared we were going to see the Mouse.

I went to the public library and checked out books on how to visit Disney World properly. I was alarmed to learn from these books that there would be a rush at the start of each business day, with crowds of people running up Main Street U.S.A. to be the first in line at the most desirable rides. I learned that you are supposed to run on the right side of the street if you want to start the day in Tomorrowland and on the left side if you want to head for Frontierland. I learned to say Disney World’s new mantra, Fastpass (Fastpass, Fastpass). That’s the computerized ticket system that saves people hours of standing in line for rides and gives them that much more time for opening their wallets in the gift shops.

My wife will deny it, but it’s true, we went to Disney World and it was everything I imagined it would be, and more. Did I get to meet Mickey? All I can say is this: when our very early wake-up call came on that last morning in the hotel, just before we headed back to the airport, I heard a wonderfully familiar high-pitched voice on the other end of the line. He was saying, “Rise and shine, Buster, there’s big doin’s planned for today.” By the time the children ran over to hear that magical voice, he was gone.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired January 10, 2003 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

On Becoming a Crank

November 29, 2002 Comments off

I was walking home from work the other day, scrambling and unscrambling the day’s broken eggs. When I reached the dysfunctional three-way intersection about a block from our house, I looked up from my imaginary omelette to check the traffic before crossing. A large white truck was making its way down Longfellow, using that residential street as a business thoroughfare. From the truck’s speed I could tell that the driver had no intention of pausing at the first of the two stop signs he would encounter in the poorly designed intersection.

The street department rebuilt the intersection a few years ago and improved it, but since then I’ve still seen a few dozen people run that first stop sign as I’ve been walking past. Having kids of my own not far away and knowing that other people’s children play nearby, I find these careless drivers alarming. I have even, shall we say, “called out” to a few of them, reminding them in a loud voice that the red octagon whizzing past on the side of the road is actually a stop sign. Most drivers ignore me, but a few have lifted their right hand from the steering wheel to model a famous finger gesture, and a few others have demonstrated their bountiful contempt for civil order by running the second stop sign too.

I had just about gotten over my crank behavior, this habit of yelling at dangerous drivers in the neighborhood – I can’t remember the last time I “called out” to a driver – but something about that big white truck caught my eye. Who knows, maybe I had suppressed one too many emotions at work that day, but when I saw the open window, I knew that the passenger and maybe the driver, too, would hear me, and so I called out. I had time to say my usual “Stop sign!” as the truck passed. The driver did halt at the second stop sign, and by then the passenger had his head out the window and was hooting and laughing derisively.

After I’ve yelled at a driver, I use the last block of my walk home to bring my blood pressure back down, and I sometimes think about John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp. The book’s main character, a concerned father named Garp, regularly runs after and scolds dangerous drivers in his neighborhood. But later Garp himself takes a playful, though reckless, lights-out midnight joyride down his own block, and he ends up killing one person and injuring others and all but destroying his own family in a collision right there in his own dark driveway. How many cranks hold other people to higher standards than they manage for themselves, I wonder? Even so, we may sometimes have a civic duty to be a crank.

I thought of that duty, too, during the fall elections. As you would expect, the national Democratic and Republican parties both wanted badly to win our up-for-grabs seat in Congress, and they sent out campaign advisors, advertising experts, and money. In addition, important national political figures from both parties flew into town, gave stump speeches at big public rallies and threw their weight behind their candidates. I heard fifteen seconds of one of those speeches on the evening news. The famous national politician was telling the buoyant partisan crowd that he liked his party’s candidate because the fellow didn’t tailor his views to match the results of focus groups. This was the moment where there needed to be a crank in the crowd, but there wasn’t one. In all the partisan excitement, nobody thought clearly enough to see that a modern major-party candidate surely uses tools like focus groups to decide what to tell voters. Nobody felt an angry surge of adrenaline at having been spoken to with such carelessness or perhaps even contempt. Nobody called out to that very important visitor. Nobody dissented. Nobody said, you’re lying to us and maybe to yourself too! Where are the cranks when we need them?

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 29, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Autumn in the Neighborhood

November 1, 2002 Comments off

This summer we remembered to pinch the buds off our chrysanthemum plants in late July, and so for several weeks now we have enjoyed a stout row of bushy chrysanthemums covered with rusty yellow and red blossoms below the front window. A couple of weeks ago, to top it off, our children painted a four or five-foot jack-o-lantern on that window. Each sister handled half the design, so Jack ended up with one side of his huge mouth smiling and the other side frowning. The kitchen light glows behind him on dark evenings, making a perfect contribution to the neighborhood’s Halloween traditions.

Not long ago, three or four bales of straw appeared in the driveway next door, a sign that our neighbors planned to make their usual contribution, too. They have grandchildren now, but they’ve been building an intricate and spooky Halloween display on their corner lot since their own kids were old enough to enjoy it. They have ghostly music playing, and wild, flickering jack-o-lanterns and spider webs and ugly creatures with stuffed shirts climbing out of graves and skeletons leaning on tombstones, and a couple of spotlights throw long shadows across the whole spectacle. Two or three adults in monstrous attire pace around the scene handing out candy and staying ominously in character the whole time. People all over the neighborhood make a point to come see the display each year.

I feel nostalgic for neighborhood customs in late autumn, seeing the gardens fade and knowing that several months will pass before we start hanging out in the front yard again, enjoying unscheduled visits with neighborhood walkers. I was out in the yard one mild morning a few weeks ago when the neighbors whose baby was due came very slowly around the corner. They paused in front of the next house, and by the way the wife leaned on her husband I could tell that she was finally in labor. Two women, probably the midwives, followed them. A few hours after their detour onto our sidewalk, in a long, successful home birth, they had their third son. Some afternoons I run into the little guy snoozing in his stroller, which helps explain why we sometimes see his bedroom window shining when we’re turning off our lights for the night. He’s still setting his body clock to neighborhood time.

There are other newcomers, too. A family moved in near the railroad tracks. The father is a firefighter, and on his off days he’s been tearing out a long row of yew bushes that circled the house. First he sawed off the tops, then plant by plant he dug down deep and chopped out the roots, leaving the soil clear for next year’s flower beds. I respect his hard work, his attention to detail, his desire to do a job right.

Other families have been squeezing in one last home improvement project before the cold sets in. Friends a couple blocks over managed to scrape and paint their house in September, which inspired their next-door neighbors to do the same in October, just before their first child was due. Now this week I see a flag hanging from that house, showing a baby bottle and a blue ribbon on a field of blue. They will be great parents. The last time I ran into the father, he was buying some lumber to use in mending the porch of an older woman from their church.

It’s been good to walk through the neighborhood, to see new people moving in and new children being born, people keeping up their houses and their holiday traditions. These things serve as an antidote to the hard news we’ve had this season from around the country and abroad. Snipers and bombs, war and rumors of war. Looking out at the neighborhood but remembering the news, I sometimes think, there but for the grace of God go you and I. The new father, the one who put out the blue flag, is in the armed forces, and soldiers like him will go into battle if the President leads us to war. When you know your neighbors, national and international news strikes closer to home.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 1, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Opinion Polls, Common Sense, and the Pleasures of Reading Essays

September 20, 2002 Comments off

For several months this year pollsters said that President Bush had an absolutely tremendous approval rating. Huge majorities of people applauded his approach to various aspects of public policy. Whether I agree or disagree with their popular views, mega-majorities like this make me nervous, and I’m usually glad when any politician’s rating dips back down to a more humbling and motivational 45 % or so. It’s not normal for people to come to a tidy agreement about complex issues, so when approval ratings soar I start to wonder whether the backbone has gone out of the old democracy.

Every year or two a pollster reports that a small percentage of Americans still think that the world is flat or that the moon landings were actually filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. I like to hear these dissenting voices, even when their opinions are plainly wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong, because it means there is still room in our society for thinking your own thoughts. It amazes me that there are people who believe, for example, that Keanu Reeves can act, or that an Indy 500 race car is the proudest emblem of the state’s history and so should appear on the back of Indiana’s new state quarter, but I’m glad when people who hold these opinions speak up. They give me something to think about, at least for a moment.

And anyway, some of their views are probably not much more kooky that some of my own views. For the average person, what could be more mystical than, say, accepting a physicist’s claim that there are invisible forces of attraction linking every atom to every other atom in the universe? When it comes down to it, perhaps all of us spend a portion of our time doing what essayist Joan Didion called “felling trees in some interior wilderness.” If we build cabins out of those imaginary logs, and sit by the window typing manifestos in those imaginary cabins, who can say ahead of time how the manifestos will hold up in the give and take of public debate back here in the world as we know it. That is, if there is a debate.

In the meantime, we need more quirky voices talking up their experiences and their views. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of essays, taking pleasure in that sly, heretical literary form that often quietly and playfully serves, as practitioner E. B. White said, as “the last resort of the egoist.” Essayists trot out their favorite stories and announce their articles of faith, not least of which is a clear-eyed but absolute love for their hero, their Everywoman or Everyman, who goes by the name of I and who often sets traps for any disciples of conformity and common sense who may follow them through their pages. Essayists imply and persuade the thing Walt Whitman said directly at the start of his poetic masterpiece, “I celebrate myself and sing myself,/ and what I assume you shall assume,/ for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I recommend both of the big anthologies that have come out in recent years, one called The Art of the Personal Essay and the other called Best American Essays of the Twentieth Century. Also take a look at any of the annual volumes from the Best American Essays series.

From that first book I’m rather fond right now of G. K. Chesterton’s little essay called “On Running After One’s Hat.” In this essay the author notices that most people are annoyed when the wind gusts and suddenly they find themselves running down the avenue chasing their hat. Chesterton attacks our petty, selfish, common sense notion that a roving hat is an inconvenience rather than a chance for an unscheduled adventure. In that spirit, he says that “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”

“Think otherwise,” then, is the essayist’s proper motto. Imagine a new coffee house somewhere in town, with a small sign hanging near the door that says, “Holders of popular views and common sense notions have no special privileges here.” I would gladly walk in and fling my chapeau, Frisbee-like, toward that shop’s hat rack anytime.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired September 20, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Pride and Hype Along the Interstate

August 23, 2002 Comments off

If you traveled this summer you probably saw something thoroughly dispiriting once or twice along the way. I know I did. There was, for example, my visit to Wall Drug. Tucked in between the sacred, scenic Black Hills and the arid moonscape of the Badlands is the little town of Wall, South Dakota, where the once modest drug store has long been a major tourist destination, thanks in part to the dozens of playful billboards that hype the place for hundreds of miles along the interstate. Cars from all over North America overflow a much-expanded parking lot, and the famous store now fills a whole block and sells such things as polished gemstones, plastic sun visors, rubber tomahawks, and t-shirts. There were shelves and shelves of the sort of cheap trinkets that wily Europeans are supposed to have used centuries ago to help sucker childlike Native Americans into handing over their valuable continent, only now they were being used to separate today’s North Americans from their cash. I bought my daughters a couple of small souvenirs, but I have forgotten what they were, and the girls have probably forgotten too. I have to report that the store’s trademark free ice water was somewhere between lukewarm and tepid when I tasted it. That may have been the saddest part of the visit, since the proprietor’s wet and wonderful idea of giving out free ice water saved the drug store from withering away there on the sun-baked South Dakota plains several decades ago.

You might defend the Wall Drug hype by saying that the owners have simply and even brilliantly played the cards they were dealt, and besides, what town on the interstate isn’t tempted by the lure of the tourist dollar? Why should all that money zoom down the highway into someone else’s pocket, when it could just as easily be theirs? It’s America, so let the buyer beware.

But hype or exaggeration is so pervasive these days that it’s hard to keep up one’s guard. In Austin, Minnesota, I came across something called the Spam Museum. That’s Spam, the canned meat product, not spam, the unwanted email. After I read the museum’s billboard with the disarming slogan, “Believe the Hype,” I wasn’t sure I could even trust my understanding of the English language any longer, and I wondered a little about the people living there too. There were banners proudly proclaiming that Austin was Spam Town USA. There was a little paddle-wheeler boat called the Spam Town Belle giving rides across the municipal lake for $2 a person. In front of the corporate headquarters, a life-sized statue of a pig stood in the shelter of a much more than life-sized, full-color replica of a can of Spam that ironically served as the pig’s home. Several blocks before we could see the Spam canning plant its (shall we say) forceful aroma announced itself via our car’s air conditioner vents.

At some point in the visit I started humming Monty Python’s Spam song and wondering how much of the civic identity had been ground up into Spam. Did they have a Spam festival? Did they find a beautiful girl and crown her Spam Queen? I’m happy to say that in spite of living near a factory that produces 7 cans of Spam a second, the good people of Austin appear to have kept their sense of humor. Check out their web site, spamtownusa, or the corporate site, spamgifts. You’ll find a beautiful picture of the earth from outer space, with cans of Spam orbiting around it.

Some businesses along the highway have more interesting products to work with or choose to establish a stronger, less hype-driven relationship to their home community and the people passing by. When I drove back to Michiana and saw billboards for older corporate citizens like the beautiful Woodwind and Brasswind music store or younger entries like the delicious South Bend Chocolate Cafe, I was cheered and felt a bit of civic pride. A musical instrument will serve as a creative outlet for many years, but even a fleeting cup of coffee and a chocolate dessert with friends can add something of value to our lives. And an honest, understated corporate relationship to customers and community is a thing of beauty. And then, orbiting around us all, there’s Spam.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired August 23, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Potawatomi Zoo

August 9, 2002 Comments off

It’s only been a few days since two or three feral dogs found their way into South Bend’s Potawatomi Zoo. Once inside, the dogs entered the Australian exhibit, where they killed thirteen of the zoo’s fourteen wallabies and injured some other animals. Now at the entrance to the zoo a large rustic wreath of carefully woven sticks and flowers commemorates the lost ones.

If you know the zoo, you recall the Australian exhibit, a grassy, open-air home for kangaroos, their smaller cousins the wallabies, black swans, emu, and other birds. Visitors can watch from the perimeter — the other day my daughters and I spotted the female black swan and her five fuzzy gray cygnets, large now but still in their ugly duckling phase, sticking close to each other in the thick grass. It was good to see signs of life in the exhibit so soon after the attack. The adult male, a cantankerous fellow named Black Bart, was seriously injured fending off the dogs and is being tended in the zoo’s infirmary.

Once things settle down I’m sure they’ll reopen the path that winds through the middle of this large exhibit. The path is one of the zoo’s best features, taking you past the shady area where kangaroos rest on a summer day and along the small ravine where the wallabies would often gather. It curves by the pond and passes the grassy slope where the swans usually build their nest. I remember holding my oldest daughter high in the air there when she was four so she could count the eggs in the nest. From the path patient visitors had a good chance to see young wallabies jumping in and out of their mother’s pouches. People who looked very carefully would locate the smallest ones, joeys who might be almost entirely hidden. I remember seeing one who revealed no more than its small wedge of a face and several inches of tail at the top of its mother’s pouch. Sensing my presence, the joey was completely still the entire time I watched it.

I’ve visited Potawatomi Zoo several dozen times over the last few years, first with my older daughter and then with her sister, who has become our family’s great zoo fan. I’ve come to respect the zoo staff for careful planning and making good choices with what must be limited resources. They add new animals each year, and as in the older Australian area, most of the new or updated exhibits reward a careful watcher. For example, it’s great to see the squirrel monkeys face to face when they are indoors, in their traditional winter quarters, but in mild weather they are at their best, ranging nimbly across the highest and slenderest branches of the willow trees on their island home, far above the trumpeter swans that swim below on the pond. Or take a look at the beautiful new red panda that sometimes bounces around at ground level but often takes a long view on life from twenty-five or thirty feet up one of the spruce trees.

And don’t wait too long before you go to see the new lion cubs, those two curious and rambunctious brothers who must be about seven months old now and still have their youthful spots. As unlikely as it seems, the portly penguins are among the zoo’s most graceful creatures when they swim beneath the surface of their pool — “like airplanes,” my daughter said. I’m fond of the tiny blue poison dart frogs myself and their misty jungle enclosures. Even though ours is a small zoo, there are many animals and exhibits that are good to watch closely. I suppose it goes against the grain of our channel-surfing way of life, but Potawatomi Zoo definitely becomes more interesting the more slowly you make your way through it.

Let’s hope the zoo can restock the Australian exhibit quickly and restore this jewel of the collection. They’ve established a Remember the Wallabies Fund for those who wish to make contributions, and many children have, they say, been bringing in their savings to help out. Tomorrow the previously scheduled playful day of events celebrating Sammy, the zoo’s chimpanzee who likes to paint, has been amended to include a 3:00 commemorative gathering at the Australian exhibit. In case you’re wondering, Sammy is an abstract expressionist. And today, from 11:00 to 3:00, the zoo concession stand will be holding a fund raiser cookout in the parking lot. Of course after you get yourself a hot dog you’d be crazy not to stroll into the zoo and see if you can spot a squirrel monkey playing Tarzan in the weeping willow, or a tarantula meditating in its burrow. As the song says, it’s all happening at the zoo.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired August 9, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Vacation Mishaps

July 12, 2002 Comments off

When I was visiting relatives last week I heard several old stories of vacation mishaps and I realized that I haven’t had that kind of problem lately. Sure, my wife, my daughters, and I have been snagged in highway traffic near Chicago on a Friday evening, one of those mind-rending back-ups where as an antidote to despair people eventually climb out of their trapped vehicles and stretch their legs and strike up a conversation with the folks from the next car. And who hasn’t spent the worst part of a day in some airport or another? A few years ago I ended up between flights having breakfast at O’Hare airport at 4:30 in the morning. The best thing I can say about that trip back from San Francisco was that it was quicker than walking.

But those are the new style mishaps of our increasingly complex, overly managed and mismanaged way of life. I want to talk, instead, about the quirky old vacation misadventures of long ago. At the risk of sounding like a lunatic, let me say that when it comes to vacation mishaps, like many other things in life, they just don’t make them the way they used to.

Here, for example, is my oldest memory of a vacation snafu. It’s somewhere around 1965. We’re camping in the Ozarks with family friends. The sun has been down for about an hour. The leaves and branches of the big trees above us are lit only by our campfire and our Coleman lantern. My father sets up his four young sons with marshmallow roasting sticks. My mother finishes the dinner dishes over at the dim edge of the flickering pool of light that marks our campsite. I toss a dry twig into the bright embers of the fire and watch it flame.

Suddenly a woman’s scream tears through the night. I recognize my mother’s voice. All the adults leap up, but luckily she is okay. There in the darkness some arboreal creature had mistaken her leg for a tree and had started climbing. You can’t get that kind of unscheduled personal attention from the creatures at Disneyworld, I’ll wager.

Or rather, some of us probably are not as willing as we used to be to stand at the edge of the unprogrammed darkness and take even a few mild chances on our vacation. I, for one, am not quite as dumb as I once was about risky recreation. In 1978 my friend Gene and I got caught in a snowstorm on the last day of a winter backpacking trip. By the time we reached our car it was standing alone in the parking lot under six inches of fresh snow. With evening coming on, we were the only two people presently enjoying the wonders of Clark National Forest.

In case you are a 20 year old guy who still believes he’s immortal, let me point out that what you’ll hear next is the especially dumb part of the story. Guess what? The car cranked for a moment and then the battery died. Gene and I were much too macho to walk for another hour down the road to the nearest house and ask for help. We had a few matches, so we thought about building a fire, but the wind was picking up and we needed to get out of there. We did not want to be rescued. How embarrassing.

Instead, we lit our camping stove inside the shelter of the trunk. For you Car Talk fans I should say that it was a 1969 Opel Kadett, the model with the gas tank strapped right there in the trunk. We unhooked the car battery and gently, gently warmed it over the stove. We tried not to think about the trouble we would have getting dates if the battery exploded in our faces. Once a few friendly bubbles began boiling up the sides of the battery, we hooked it back up to the engine, and the car started. Within moments we were making our way up the old logging road toward civilization. Within moments the tire chains broke and were lost in the snow. Gene steered and I pushed the car up several long, steep hills before we finally found a plowed road. And now I will close the curtains on that ridiculous evening of long ago.

But there may be some compromises still available, some way to get off the paths that have been paved so prettily for us and make a real adventure of our own choosing, without teaching our children the dumb risks that come either from being terminally young or from being desperate to avoid an overly programmed life. So here I am, with bifocals and balding, still willing to risk the right kind of vacation mishap, if I can find it.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired July 12, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

A Season Pass to the Beach

June 14, 2002 Comments off

I have come to think that New Year’s resolutions are wasted here in the upper Midwest. When we’re trudging under dismal skies through those wet and chilly winter days, how many of us can find the time for proper introspection, and then commit enough psychic energy to change our lives? Our climate may also lead us to make larger resolutions than we should, big unrealistic plans for change we hope will counter the quiet desolation that can sneak up on a person who has been on duty here, one way or another, for a long time. No, early summer is the realistic season for making resolutions in the Midwest, I think, and those resolutions should start small.

I made a small resolution on Saturday afternoon, when I took my daughters to our favorite Lake Michigan beach for the first time this summer. Instead of paying $5 at the gate for a one-day ticket, I plunked down six times that much for the season pass. If you had seen me there you probably would have thought, “Ah, one more father with his kids at the beach. Check out those aviator clip-ons and the ball cap and the faded swim trunks and the green station wagon, no less.” You wouldn’t have known that I had just made a silent vow to go to the beach at least 6 times this summer, not to get my money’s worth but because at that moment buying a season pass was the small, affirming, life-changing thing to do.

I can see how you might resist that claim just a little. You might say, surely even in America, spending money on recreation can’t have much credibility as an uplifting or spiritual enterprise. For one thing, business always gets there ahead of us to arrange the whole consumer experience and collect its fee. And we don’t have to look far up or down Lake Michigan to confirm that. Think of those shore towns with the big marinas and the cigarette boats chugging out to the lake, the rows of gift shops selling things you would never miss if they had never been invented, the restaurants serving food designed to shorten your life, the stretches of beach guarded by opulent homes huddled in the dune-side equivalent of a gated community. There is still a lot of truth in the advice the mysterious Watergate informant called Deep Throat gave reporters Woodward and Bernstein all those years ago: Follow the money if you want to know how America works.

But we don’t have to look to the wealthy or even drive an hour to the lake to find a life of embarrassing excess. Somehow we’ve all been talked into living much more extravagantly than our parents or grandparents did. For example, when I was a kid my grandmother enjoyed drinking Coca-Cola from a 6 ½ ounce glass bottle. Today no store would bother stocking a soft drink in such a tiny container. Instead, we’ve developed a taste for the 20 ounce plastic bottles, the big gulps, the giant waxy cups of sugar water we can purchase on the run anywhere we go. We Americans want more of everything every year, and it is becoming hard to imagine a different way of life.

That’s where the season pass comes in handy, if you choose the right kind of beach. The one we like is just a town beach with a few campsites but no marina, no posh gift shops, no restaurants by the pier, no costumed cartoon characters, no rides, no Dolby sound systems. This is the first year they’ve had the money, finally, to pave the old gravel parking lot. For about $5 a visit you get to swim, to dig in the sand, to walk to the top of the dune. That’s almost all there is to do there, and that’s the virtue, the breathtaking contrast, the antidote to everyday life.

My small resolution paid off immediately Saturday when I took a walk with my daughters in the woods behind the dune. Without any supercharged entertainments to distract me, I actually learned something about my children. It turns out that they are brave in different ways: the five year old charged straight up the steepest part of the dune, and the eight year old crossed the stream by walking like a gymnast on a fallen tree. They agreed about one small thing, however: walking in the woods together was something they wanted to call an adventure.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired June 14, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Home Repair and Family History

April 26, 2002 Comments off

The metal storm door was sticking last week, and when I ignored it for a few days the lower panel popped out and dropped onto the ground. I took the whole door down and reassembled it and tightened it with corner brackets, but I figured I would have to trim the wooden door frame to keep it from sticking again later. This got me into uncharted territory. However, I drew courage from a dim memory of some upscale PBS home repair show, and pretty soon I was back from the hardware store with a wood chisel, ready to work.

I placed the chisel blade against the frame, and when I struck the handle with a hammer a slice of wood curled away beautifully from the blade, just like on TV. It was very satisfying, I have to say. But after a few more strokes of hammer on chisel I could see that my finished job wasn’t going to be pretty. If I tried very hard I could chisel sections that ended up somewhere between corrugated and rippled, but definitely not smooth or square. I had to admit that I was plainly a novice, chewing up the door frame with this fancy new tool.

I felt a little embarrassed, as if someone was watching me, and suddenly I knew who it was – my grandfather, my mother’s father, the carpenter and family patriarch who died a few years ago in his late eighties. I wished I could have called him on the phone and asked him to teach me how to use a wood chisel. He would have been glad to oblige. Not that he wouldn’t have made some comment when he saw the zigzags I carved in that once respectable piece of lumber. Oh, he would have had a word or two to say about that.

I remember helping him tie a tarp over a trailer once when I was a teenager. He quickly finished his side of the trailer and came over to lend me a hand, or maybe just to see what was taking so long. He had been a Boy Scout troop leader for decades, and many summers he spent more than a month taking various troops on week-long canoe trips down Ozark rivers. I had no doubt that he knew every knot in the Scout manual by heart. When he saw my sad, spaghetti-like entanglements, he shook his head. “You were never a scout, were you?” he recalled. He was disappointed for me, with maybe a hint of pity in his voice when he said, “You missed half your life.”

Why do I remember that moment more than thirty years later? I think it’s because I knew, even as a teenager, that he was a person who said what mattered to him and who knew how a job was supposed to be done, and he took the trouble to do things right. When he turned sixty-five his company was nearly a year away from finishing a 40 story building, so he asked permission to work past retirement age, even though it cost him some pension money. This was the biggest construction job of his life, I believe, and he wanted to finish it. He was proud of doing good work.

And that’s who I felt looking over my shoulder as I mangled the door frame the other day. I remember the last time I drove past the old house where he and my grandmother lived for most of their sixty-seven year marriage. The place was empty, and one window was boarded up. This was a shocking and tangible sign that they were gone, because neither of them would have let a day pass with a broken or boarded window on their property. They were never rich, but they knew better than to live like that.

It was natural, I guess, to think of them as I took care of my own old house. But I was surprised to discover that even a bit of home maintenance is so tied up with family history and carries its own psychic weight. And instead of taking my usual competencies for granted, here I am in middle age with a chance to be a beginner again, to recall the good example set by a family elder, and to be ready to learn.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired April 26, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

A Talent for Happiness

March 29, 2002 Comments off

The last few times I’ve driven into Chicago I’ve been lucky with the traffic, but you know how it goes on the Dan Ryan Expressway – on a bad day, you can spend an hour between any two mile markers, watching your knuckles turn white on the steering wheel. This week, on my way back from a meeting in the blustery city, as I sped up the Skyway ramp I could see the poor drivers below me on the Dan Ryan starting their regular impersonation of a ten-lane parking lot. I counted my blessings and got ready to pay the tolls, grateful for all the cheapskates who can’t stand the Skyway. I had capped off a good business meeting with a spicy $6 plate of Pad Thai at a restaurant near the Loop, my brand-new economy rental car was gliding past Gary like a limousine at well over a mile a minute, and I was going to get home in time for a family dinner. Ah, life is good.

But that hadn’t stopped the four of us at lunch from a bit of gentle griping about our careers. Depending on the tone, of course, venting a little about this or that work problem with old friends is probably healthy, and we traded a few ideas about problem-solving in our field. But finally we all admitted that we like our work, or the heart of it, anyway. Then the conversation wandered off to some stories of people on weird, thwarted quests for happiness. Priscilla recalled a fellow she dated in high school who thought the name his parents had given him, Wayne, was too ordinary and wasn’t macho and exotic enough for a virile young soccer player like himself. He seemed to think that his unlucky name was holding him back in life, so one day he asked Priscilla, “When we’re alone, would you mind calling me Ian?” Suzanne suggested that one might not want to be alone with Wayne / Ian, and in spite of his vulnerable striving after his dream the four of us had a laugh at poor unlucky Ian’s expense.

You have to be lucky to live well, I think, but the story of Ian reminds me that some people have no talent for happiness. After all, once you have met your basic material needs, happiness is probably more a skill you practice than a condition you find yourself in. I told everyone at lunch about the minor character who falls in love with a waitress in the charming French movie Amelie that’s been showing in South Bend lately. After the relationship falls apart, he takes up the destructive and self-destructive ritual of going to the bistro where she works and keeping notes on a little tape recorder of all her conversations with male customers. Now that’s a person with a talent for unhappiness who doesn’t know how to let old wounds heal. And as wonderful and whimsical as she is, the main character Amelie also has to learn how to heal and let a new life unfold.

Surely everyday life calls for not just luck but also small, frequent rituals of healing just to unload the stresses of making a living. Out in Colorado my in-laws hike most evenings in a nearby parcel of wild parkland called Bear Creek. When we lived in New Jersey my wife and I would walk around Manhattan for hours on a Saturday to get the pressures of her graduate school classes out of her muscles and off her mind. And now we go fairly often to Chicago for the day. On our last family trip we came out of the Field Museum with friends in the late afternoon to see clusters of snowflakes as wide as ping pong balls sifting slowly down out of the sky, and the eight of us walked across the white landscape of the park delighted by our good fortune. In the summer we buy a season pass to Weko Beach and go once a week and stay until the trumpeter plays Taps from the top of the dune as the sun vanishes somewhere on the other side of Lake Michigan. Then I drive us all home playing the family’s latest favorite tape loud enough to keep myself awake. If everyone else dozes, I might recite the final stanza of Gerald Stern’s wonderful poem about healing at the Jersey shore, from his book called Lucky Life. After cataloguing all the little wounds of everyday life, he describes his family’s summer beach ritual. Their week at the beach reminds him that he does have a skill for healing and a talent for happiness, and so Stern ends the poem by saying, “Lucky life is like that. Lucky Life. Oh lucky life. / Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired March 29, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.