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Farewell, Olympians

February 22, 2002 Comments off

It’s almost time to extinguish the giant flame, and shoo away the crowds, and fold up the Spiderman suits, and shelve the endless highlight clips, and get on with our lives. We’ll do without the Winter Olympics for four years, and then another generation of super athletes and referees will stand before the world and vow to compete without doping and judge without making deals. But in spite of some all-too-human failings, while the Olympians are away, I’ll miss their gigantic twirling leaps, their almost inhuman speed and precision, and, especially, their extraordinary passion.

It’s best to admit, though, that the athletes are not like you and me. In this age of skin-tight racing clothes, you see it first in the beautiful curves of their bodies, the powerful muscles they have crafted in years of working out. You see it in the privacy and intensity of their faces as they prepare to compete, and in the well-earned brilliant smiles and searing tears when they are done. Who would not want to be as alive as they are? But how many of us are willing to land hard on a broken foot or fight our way back to excellence after a liver transplant? In some ways the athletes are so much better than those of us watching at home. I am surprised they never mention it.

A classical pianist touched upon this point once in an interview, when she complained about the fans who came up to her and said, “I would give anything to be able to play the piano the way you do.” The pianist confessed that she longed to reply rudely whenever someone said this to her. She wanted to say, “Do you mean practicing nine hours every day for years and years? That’s what you have to give, but since I’ve never heard of you I have to assume that, actually, you wouldn’t give much of anything at all. You don’t have it in you.” Her anger wasn’t pretty, but the pianist was trying to acknowledge how much time and labor she had traded for her beautiful skill. Like the Olympians, she had two rare talents, one for her chosen field and one for the focused sacrifice that makes excellence possible.

Every field has stars who display those two talents. Three years ago a reckless driver hit Stephen King on the side of the road and broke bones in 24 places in his body. Five weeks later the novelist was back at his desk writing, even before the pain of the injuries and the reconstructive surgeries had subsided. King says he writes 2000 words every day, starting in the morning and staying with it until he finishes the day’s work. Now in his fifties, he has written more than thirty best-sellers, something you have to admire whether you’re a fan of his or not.

Like the athletes, King learned how to shape his life around something he loved. I remember thinking one day when I was a kid that it would be really neat to have written a book. I was well on my way to middle age before I figured out the problem with that visionary moment. I had the verb tense all wrong. Sure, it might be really neat to have written a book, but Stephen King probably says to himself, “It is really neat to be writing this book,” and keeps on saying it every day until the book is written. No passionate skater gets up for a pre-dawn workout because he thinks it would be really neat to have been an Olympic athlete. That’s too pale a dream for one who is truly great.

Maybe the example those artists and athletes set is too potent, too severe, and finally out of our reach. What if, instead, you could find just an hour a day for the thing you love to do? That would be about thirty hours a month. That’s the same as nine full-time forty-hour work weeks a year, doing something you love. While an hour a day won’t make me into an Olympic athlete or a concert pianist, each of us could accomplish something pretty special with that much time. Learn the blues guitar? Teach someone how to read? Take up aikido? Write a small book? I’ll be curious to hear what you decide to do.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired February 22, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

The Con Man

January 18, 2002 Comments off

I was nineteen when I first encountered a con man. The greenhouse where I worked usually hired single guys like me, youngsters without any plans who could get by on a dime or two more than minimum wage. But one day the boss brought in a white-haired fellow named George. He was not much taller than the women who worked at the potting benches, he had an oval face and a padded body, and he moved comfortably along the rows of plants, whether he was watering in the morning or carrying a woman’s wax begonia to her car in the afternoon. When his wife picked him up at five each day, they looked like a matched set of happy retirees. I figured he was cushioning a meager pension with a retail job among the ficus and the ferns.

As you would expect of someone who turned out to be a con man, George had the common touch. He would strike up rambling conversations about almost anything. Whether the topic was Watergate or what you got for lunch, he steered us along with quick questions and light comments. In the first few days I had an odd sense of him as a very friendly guy I would never get to know very well. Then one day he brought a big sack to the morning break and showed me the craft project he and his wife worked on in the evenings. They would cover an empty wine bottle with short strips of masking tape. Then they coated the tape with brown shoe polish and buffed it until it shined. From a distance, at first glance, the result looked like a beautiful old leather bottle, something none of us on a dime over minimum wage could afford. But George wanted me to buy two of these shoe polish bottles for $5.00. That was about three hours’ pay. He was a little pushy about it, but I said no thank you.

George stayed at the greenhouse for less than two months. One Friday he missed work, and we never saw him again. Sometime that day two paychecks vanished from their usual spot tucked in behind the time cards. The first check was George’s and the second belonged to one of the young guys, Bob Grant. Nobody knew what to make of this, nor of the tray of tiny, multicolored cactus plants that was also missing. When the bank found the checks a few days later, the curtain parted and we saw George another way.

It turned out that he had become a regular visitor to a bar across town, buying drinks and telling people his name was Bob Grant. On that last Friday George cashed his own paycheck somewhere else and then headed for the bar where everyone thought he was Bob. He ordered a round for the regulars, then told the bartender he had forgotten his wallet. The bartender agreed to cash the second paycheck – after all, he had known this amiable fellow who called himself Bob Grant for several weeks by then. Money in hand, George and his wife headed out of town in their old car, with their clothes and a few possessions, and who knows, maybe a tray of odd little cactus plants to sell at their next stop.

Back at the greenhouse we could finally see the clues. George – if that was his real name – tempted others to reveal themselves, he always asked questions but never answered any, and he pushed a little selling those bottles just to see how far pushing would take him. Perhaps we were naive not to notice that he and his wife were as phony as the bottles they tried to sell – not lovely old leather, just masking tape polished until it shined – and now they were gone, in search of the next shortcut, the next scam.

In spite of his social skills, his gift of gab, his strategic reserve, his ability to spot a person’s weaknesses and exploit them, George made little for all his troubles. He had only Bob’s $75 dollar paycheck and a tray of little plants to show for the chances he took and the bridges he burned. And what would happen, I wondered, if his wife become ill and could no longer run with him from town to town? What if she died? I came to imagine him spending his final years without her, immersed in loneliness, a punishment he more or less chose for himself, I thought, when he realized he could keep the world at arm’s length and still find just within his reach the things he wanted to steal.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired January 18, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Turtle Lamps and Other Gifts

December 21, 2001 Comments off

Like thousands of the other Michiana residents, I took my chances in the commercial canyons of Grape Road this week. Of course the traffic was terrible — by local standards, anyway — but I found a couple of presents for my wife. First I bought her — well, I can’t really tell you, in case she’s listening, but I think she’ll make good use of the stuff this winter. While I was wandering around on Grape Road I also bought our daughters a few small chocolate ornaments wrapped in colorful foil. Each one is shaped like a character from the Nutcracker ballet.

We took the kids to see the Nutcracker earlier this month, and since then the two of them have been staging surprising new versions of the dances and sword fights in our living room, with the cd player turned up high. The other day when I came downstairs the children, with full orchestral accompaniment, were leaping grandly off the arms of the couch. If the director of our local Nutcracker desires any really fresh ideas for next year’s production, I suggest he stop by some afternoon and take a look. I think the chocolate ornaments are going to be popular around our house, and the infusion of sugar may help our four and seven year old artistes create even more extravagant versions of the famous ballet.

While I was out there on Grape Road I visited a couple of smaller stores for the first time. One is a tea and coffee shop with the classic burlap bags of dark roasted beans open all around the room and the aroma of fresh coffee wafting out onto the sidewalk. Next door is a friendly guitar shop called Hoosierdad’s, a tuneful place with rows of cool and lovely instruments on display. When I was there a customer was picking a sweet blues-y melody on an acoustic guitar. We’ve all heard the complaints about the commercialism of the holidays, but when small businesses offer such treats for the senses, I say to any Charlie Browns out there, “Lighten up for once!” Besides, a small business with a name as playful as Hoosierdad’s deserves a good spirit award, I think. Hurray for our local purveyors of happy goods and services.

I admit that there is some pressure during the holidays. My wife and I have been anxious about our as yet unfinished Christmas letter. During my Grape Road adventure I stopped by a one-hour photo service to order reprints of a family picture that we’ll slide into envelopes along with a copy of the letter. I carefully handed the negative over to the clerk and she promptly put a fingerprint on it. I had to repeat the “Serenity now” mantra all the way back to the car.

There is also some pressure about choosing the right present. In one mega-store I saw a weary woman carrying two identical little boxes to the checkout lanes. The picture on each box showed a brown lump of stained glass, about the size of an overturned cereal bowl, roughly shaped into the form of a turtle. I gathered that this was a turtle lamp, but judging by the homely picture it was destined, at best, to keep the dust off a few square inches of someone’s knickknack shelf. Can that woman really have not one, but two friends for whom a turtle lamp is a thoughtful gift? Perhaps she was just running low on patience or money or ideas. I wonder if Thoreau had Christmas shoppers in mind when he wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation? When it comes to turtle lamps, maybe it’s the thought that counts.

Or is it? In a dark corner of our basement right now there is a long, oddly-shaped box hidden under a blanket. I can tell you a few things about it: it’s not very heavy for its size, it wasn’t particularly expensive, it didn’t fit very well in the trunk of the car, and it didn’t come from a store anywhere near Grape Road. I can’t offer any more hints, in case you-know-who is listening. Somebody suggested this present a few weeks ago, and I didn’t give it a moment’s thought. I knew immediately it fulfilled all my guidelines for a store-bought birthday or holiday present. Here are the guidelines: make the present a surprise, if you can; be a little bit extravagant, if the budget allows; and most important, choose a present that fits your friend or family member’s life and also adds something to it. No matter how late the mall stays open this week, you have to know someone well to satisfy these guidelines, and that might be the best part of the holiday season.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired December 21, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Santa’s Helicopter

November 23, 2001 Comments off

When I was a kid, Santa Claus flew over our house in a helicopter every year on the morning after Thanksgiving. My brothers and I might be running pass patterns in the front yard when we’d hear the thudding of the rotors. Then we’d see the fishbowl of Santa’s two-seat helicopter moving quickly south over the bare treetops. Like nearly everyone else in town, Santa was headed for the mall. He always landed there by mid-morning, but the poor guy never managed to beat the crowd.

I enjoyed this strange tradition, and I still picture us in our maroon sweatshirts and muddy blue jeans looking up into the November sky as the great man flew over. How ya doing, Santa? But it’s difficult to drum up real holiday nostalgia for an old public relations spectacle sponsored by a mall whose slogan was, “Where the Big Stores Are.”

These days I’m more fond of traditions that take some work, maybe even some teamwork. I have a particular one in mind, but first let me say that I have no serious credentials as a sports fan. I spend as much as two minutes a week reading the sports page, and when they added twenty thousand extra seats to the local football stadium, they still didn’t add a seat with my name on it. But I feel lucky, even blessed, to live in a town with a first rate college marching band.

We often go as a family to watch the band practice, say on a clear, cool autumn evening a couple of days before a home game. Even though the musicians aren’t in uniform, my daughters adore the extravagance of the thing, all these shiny objects being wheeled about, drums pounding loudly, horns piercing through with melody, musicians turning, high stepping, dazzling and grand and full of happy, orderly, luxurious excess. It sweeps a person away a little bit, and we like that, just as kids like being swept in the fast arc of a merry-go-round.

But I also go to hear the band director teach. He often stops the band after twenty or thirty bars and tells the students something about their performance. He might remind the brass section how crisp and dramatic a horn entrance can be, and then he’ll ask them to play it again. He shows these young people how to listen and think more clearly and hear their mistakes. Then they practice together and correct them and make something jazzy in the process. Now that’s a great, hard-working, joyful tradition.

I’m also fond of traditions handed down from long ago and those we update or invent ourselves. The most homely, homegrown Thanksgiving tradition at our house is something we call breakfast pie. Like many families, we have pumpkin pie at the big meal on Thursday, but later on, as the clock strikes midnight, the leftover pumpkin pie transforms magically. Then on Friday morning, right about this time, we head into the kitchen for coffee and a slice of breakfast pie.

Yesterday, on Thanksgiving evening, in the light of the candles, with the tensions of modern life softened by a day off, the companionship of family and old friends, a glass of wine, and the fabled calming properties of roasted turkey, it was easy to see tradition as a steadying influence on our lives, a source of strength and peace and value. Look at the table, spread with the same foods each year. Look at our faces, laughing over the same stories we’ve told until we’ve worn them smooth, polished and perfected them. One of these years I’m afraid my wife is going to forbid me from telling the stories of my famous Alaska trip in her presence, or maybe her protests too have become part of the tradition.

And now it’s Friday, the morning after Thanksgiving. We won’t hear Santa fly over this year, but the friend I hiked with in Alaska when we were nineteen is here with his family for the whole weekend. We’ve known them for a long time now. They drove 400 miles to get here, so we’re feeling lucky to share the holiday with them. There is a little bit of whipped cream left in the refrigerator. The coffee is hot. I think it’s time to reacquaint our guests, our friends, with the tradition of breakfast pie.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 23, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Watching the Firefighters

October 26, 2001 Comments off

I took my daughters to the neighborhood grade school last Thursday for the annual book fair and chili supper. Later, in the gymnasium, a team of South Bend firefighters told us about fire safety and about their work. This turned out to be the highlight of the evening. There were six firefighters, three in the bleachers with the crowd and three standing on the basketball court with their yellow safety gear set up on the floor around them. At the end they took questions from the students about how heavy the suits are, how hot the air is inside a burning house, why they chop a hole in the roof, and how they protect themselves from heat and flames. Their leader set off the eerie, warbling alarm that the safety gear automatically makes when a firefighter falls down, and he told of people hearing dozens of these haunting warbling notes calling out from the rubble of the World Trade Center after it fell.

A few minutes before the end of the presentation, their radio squawked and the dispatcher, a very serious woman, came on the air to announce a fire in progress. She directed several engines to a furniture store, including some of the firefighters who were there with us that evening. Two of the men on the gymnasium floor stepped into their boots, pulled up the heavy pants, slipped hoods over their heads, pulled on their coats, and strapped air tanks to their backs. In only a moment, with fire hats in hand, they were on their way. But before the men reached the gymnasium door, the crowd in the bleachers broke into applause. They had just helped us imagine their work, so we were keenly aware of the risks they faced on our behalf, and we knew how much they deserved our gratitude and respect. Because they dressed for the fire in public, we could acknowledge with our applause what they were about to do.

The spontaneous applause reminded me of something I overheard not long ago in a restaurant. The six people at the next table might have been anybody’s gray-haired grandparents enjoying a weekend away from home. I ate my meal and talked with my friend, but their table was so close by that I heard a few of their comments about the coal mining district in West Virginia where they lived. One woman, perhaps the youngest, said her father had worked in the mines for more than forty years. Instantly an older woman chimed in, quietly and firmly saying “God bless him.” One of the men hadn’t heard it quite right, so the first woman repeated, “My father worked in the mines more than forty years.” Again, instantly, without any other comment or gesture, the older woman gave her refrain, “God bless him.” As I drove home that day, I couldn’t forget her.

Most of what I know about coal mining comes from a few old movies that each center around a classic scene. The emergency siren screams out and people hear it from all over the town, and they hurry to the mine. Their faces are full of dread as they ask, frantically, what has gone wrong down below. I thought the woman’s three repeated words meant that she had gathered from direct experience a vivid understanding of the sacrifices miners make for their families and for all who benefit from their labor. And now she had become their witness. Even so, I guessed that there was a name she was not saying, some miner who taught her what risk and sacrifice mean. Whoever he was, he embarrassed me as I thought of my own safety and ease.

I met a brave firefighter once who risked his life to rescue a small child who fell down a narrow well. This man, who grew up in Michiana, was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show after the rescue. But many public servants perform their work almost in private, and we acknowledge them only occasionally and often from a safe distance. I don’t know any of the miners who risk their lives to provide coal for our foundries and power plants. For that matter, I don’t know the name of anyone who digs foxholes or picks coffee beans or packs bunches of bananas into crates or sews leather uppers to the soles of shoes or picks up trash at the curb. Sometimes I wonder if this is the central, the most ambivalent middle class luxury – not having to know.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired October 26, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

Wick

May 8, 2001 Comments off

I have found that having children enlarges a person’s vocabulary. For example, I learned the word wick when April, my wife, came across it in a British children’s book she was reading our daughters last summer. The garden was wick in the spring, the book said, so Grace, who is 6, asked, “What’s wick mean?” There were enough clues in the passage for April to show that wick means lively, full of life, bursting with renewed life.

The children are much better linguists than I am. I probably would have forgotten that wick means “full of life” if they hadn’t worked it into one of their games a day or two later. I watched them as Grace and her younger sister, Miriam, ran back and forth across the front lawn that day. “The girls are wick,” Grace paused to say. “The girls are very, very wick. Don’t you wish you were as wick as we are?” she asked, and then she ran on.

One evening this spring our neighbor, Mrs. D, was in her side yard reading a novel in the sunlight. The girls picked a fistful of new herbs for her as a surprise, then hustled back home looking for some new adventure. I was muttering to myself about how to finish the brick edging on the little piece of garden we have beside the house. Last summer I bought the bricks and put most of them in place, but I ran into a chunk of cement about a foot and a half long near the old coal bin door. I hammered and hammered on the cement in August, and chipped away some of it, but there is a lot of hammering left to do.

Even on the mildest spring evening I was not in the mood for going back to that chain gang hammering work. I placed a few loose bricks back in line and tamped down the soil beside them, and I jotted “cement-breaking” on the very bottom of my mental list of household chores. While I was muttering and tapping bricks in place the girls kept running by on quiet little missions to the back yard that I didn’t quite understand. In the time it took me to postpone, maybe even give up on, the edging project, my daughters had conceived and launched into and finished a project of their own.

Grace has become a steady writer in first grade, and in the front yard she had taken some pink and blue chalk and written “Happy Spring” in big, thick letters on the sidewalk. Then over the letters she and Miriam sprinkled herbs and flower petals from around the yard. That explained all the running back and forth that I hadn’t quite focused on while I was muttering to myself about the chunk of cement.

They had gathered peach-colored petals from the flowering quince, and daffodils and a few dandelion heads already bright yellow, and some red and orange tulip petals a little past their prime. They also picked some mint leaves and wild onion. Then they tore the larger petals and leaves into small pieces, and sprinkled all the colorful and aromatic bits over the chalk letters.

Just about then our friend Joe came by with Arjuna, the little curly-tailed dog who became blind over the winter. While Arjuna sniffed around the flowers and herbs and snorted into them, Grace and Miriam told Joe that passers-by should each take one, as a small gift to celebrate spring. Joe thanked them, and he and Arjuna headed off on their walk.

The girls ran into the house to fetch their mother, since she hadn’t seen their project yet. I looked over the big chalk letters and the herb and floral display and thought to myself, “The girls are wick, they are very, very wick.” And I wished I were as wick as they are. If you had walked by our house that evening, Miriam and Grace would have wished you too a happy spring with flowers and herbs sprinkled over for passers-by to take one as they go.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired May 8, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.