Friday, December 23, 2011

Cantique de Noel

Cantique de Noel - O Holy Night.  Every year but one, since I can remember I have performed this song, in some form or another.  Without this song Christmas is incomplete.   I've played it in all sorts of settings, solo piano, solo accordion, on church organs, with tenors, with choirs, and back in grade school Christmas programs as a part of the Heavenly Host.  It's a resonant infusion of peace and exuberant joy that can barely be contained in the human spirit - "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices".

But, last year, Christmas came and went without Cantique de Noel.  This one sad year, we had toiled away the entire week before Christmas, and only stopped working because other businesses had gone home for the holiday. We were setting up a new business, and there were not enough hours in the day. In the evening, my wife was making us some tuna casserole, (a Polish Christmas tradition) and she sent me out to read the marquee in front of the church, because they wouldn't answer their phone, so we'd know when their Christmas morning service started.

On the way, I turned off the music in my mini-van, unusual for me.  Big flakes of snow were falling, making Milwaukee's south side look like a Christmas card.  The various Christmas decorations lit the silent night, and the warm light coming from the house windows brought back memories of all the Christmases passed.  I felt an overpowering longing for the notes of  Cantique de Noel.  I realized, at that moment that Christmas pass you entirely by. At Christmas the slightest bit of giving, sharing, joy, can be returned to you a thousandfold.  But only if you give a little, else there will be nothing in it or you.  It's up to you. You have to put the tiniest light in your window, so the Christ Child can enter in.

This year, Cantique de Noel is back in my life. Bette hurt herself in a fall, and I was substituted for her piano accompaniment in Julie's show while Bette is recovering.   And, Julie and I  "did it up proper"!   Julie sang it in Db - perfectly suited to her vocal range, and, in my opinion, perfectly suited to the soul of a piano.  I even remembered the extra chords that Mr. Richter always threw in on the organ pedals back in the grade school days, a strange augmentation having something to do with fifths that propels the melody to the heavens.  Did I mention that I love this song?

So, here's my favorite rendition of Cantique de Noel - captured on December 17, 2011 by Julie's husband Bill on video:

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Simulated Alligator Wallet.....

The night before the show, Julie called me to ask if I could substitute for an injured piano player - Bette had fallen and could not perform.   A Christmas show - no prob.  I had "done my time" in the Great American Christmas Songbook - if you ever need a piano player or accordioniste for a Christmas show, give me a call - Salvation Army tested and ready to go.  And Bette was not seriously hurt in her fall, she's on the mend, and I hope to see her at our New Year's Day gathering.

It was my privilege to work with Julie Alonzo-Calteaux, one of my favorite Milwaukee singers. With a hurried Saturday morning rehearsal, we made a few adjustments (She didn't think it was appropriate that I sing "Sisters" with her - what a relief!) and by noon we had the show ready to go.

Here's one of the songs from the Saturday show - Thanks to Julie's husband Bill for the excellent camera work.  That's me on piano.  A hilarious rendition of an Alan Sherman parody on the standard "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  

Merry Christmas to you all!. I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winston's Christmas - A Christmas Story - Part Two of Two Parts

Follow this link to Part One, if you're tuning in late.

Back to The Plan 
As he watched the truck recede into the distance, with his Christmas list on the old leather front seat, Winston stood stunned for a moment. "Maybe I don't have the list, but I've got most of it memorized!” There was no time to waste, now. Winston ran back up the hill to his bike. His feet mercilessly pounded the pedals of his trail bike slamming it into Turbo Warp Velocity. His head was swirling with the items of his list, trying to remember all of them, letting none slip away. As he reached the Brookridge Mall, Winston hit the ground running, leaving his bicycle on its side right next to the main entrance. He ran to the center court of the mall.

 But, something was wrong. It was too quiet in there, hardly any people. Santa was not in his customary place. “Maybe he's on his break” Winston hoped frantically to himself. 'Here Comes Santa Claus’ was blaring frantically from the ceiling, a jabbering chorus of of annoying adults trying to sound like annoying children.

A voice interrupted the music. “It is now 3:55 p.m. The Brookridge Mall will be closing in five minutes. Happy Holidays” The music cut back in, a frantic cacophany of Deck the Halls with blaring guitars and artificial snare drums.

Eyes wide with panic, Winston cut through Santa's village over to the registration desk. A teenager in an elf costume was talking on her cell phone. He tugged at her sleeve, to get her attention. She snapped her head around and glowered at Winston.

“Where's Santa?” Winston nearly shouted.

The elf-girl, annoyed, said “I'm sorry, we're closed.”

“I’ve got to see Santa!” Winston tried to keep the panic out of his voice.

“I SAID, I’m sorry, we’re closed. I need you to leave, now. Have a nice day.”

As he left, Winston said under his breath, “I need you to fall off a cliff”

And the cold, gray reality came rushing around him like an icy fog. Winston was too late. Jagged fragments of his utterly failed plan fell about him as he slouched out of the mall, and back into the cold late-afternoon sunlight. Santa would never know, now, what he wanted for Christmas. Even the reconstructed list (which could possibly be missing a few items) was worthless now. Just as his brother had been telling him -- Santa would make the assumption, since he hadn’t heard from Winston, that Winston didn't want anything at all this year for Christmas. Or, worse yet, Santa would think that Winston didn't believe in him.

As he headed back up the hill, he came to the spot where he had met the truck. He could see the skid marks his bicycle had made earlier, back in a happier time when he had been a Robot Ranger traveling full of hope at Turbo Warp Velocity. He had been on a mission - a Robot Rangers Expedition. Winston stopped his bicycle, no need to hurry now, and looked back down the hill. Under the last reddish glow of sunset, the lights of the town below were coming on. In the wind-less, chill silence, Winston realized how seriously his mission had failed. “Operation Giftwrap”— indeed. His words came back to mock him.

“Well, at least I got that old man’s damn truck started!” he said to himself, fighting back the tears. “I hope that old fool has a nice Christmas, in his stupid old truck!” In the early evening sky, a falling star winked brightly and briefly, or maybe it was just one of the town lights distorted in a tear.

Back home, Winston passed unnoticed through the front hallway, where his sister was on the phone with one of her girlfriends. “Yes, a pen and pencil set. A Stupid Pen and a Stupid Pencil in a little velvet box. Yes, I showed him the necklace in the catalog. But my father said 'it wouldn't be appropriate'. Too young, my eye! I'm 16.

A Valuable Lesson
In the living room, his older brother Joshua had already opened his present from Mom and Dad — a Remington manual typewriter. "Back to basics" his father had reasoned. “Computers make things too easy, and the Internet takes all the challenge out of doing research.” Joshua poked listlessly at the keys, pressing them randomly, just for the old-time sound they made as they hit the paper.

Winston, sat down, talking to nobody. From the kitchen, he could hear his father's voice talking to his mother “This should teach him a valuable lesson in cooperation”. Great. His own parents turned against him, too! A valuable lesson! That’s what he’d be getting for Christmas. A valuable, bleak, hopeless and empty lesson. He pretended not to hear, just staring straight ahead without seeing. .

A sound penetrated Winston’s thoughtful wall of despair. A regular thumping noise seemed to come from inside the wall of the living room next to the front door, repeating at one-second intervals. From the kitchen, Winston's mother said, “Winston, what's that noise? What's going on out there? ”

Joshua could see that Winston was just sitting limply in his chair. He taunted — “Maybe it's Santa's reindeer on the roof with your stuff. Maybe we should all go out and help you bring in the big haul! HAHAHAH!” Winston jumped up, ready to punch his brother, but paused when the thumping noise stopped.

The sound of a truck door slamming. Winston froze as, one second later, an explosive POW! was followed by a deep roaring engine-sound that resonated with something recent in his memory. Winston bounded for the front door, and ran out onto the lawn looking down the road. But all he could see was a cloud of dense dark-gray smoke covering the road, tinged blue in the cold Christmas Eve moonlight. The engine sound was fading, and Winston thought he heard someone shouting “Merry Christmas” over the engine's roar.

Winston turned back to the house. It was unbelievable. The thumping sound they had all heard was explained. Packages were stacked on the front porch, on both sides of the front door. The veranda was FULL of gift-wrapped presents, and all of them had Winston's name on them!

Joshua put the typewriter in the attic, only to discover it a few years later. The attic became his “garret” from which he still writes all of his best-selling novels.

Megan began doodling with her pen and pencil set, and, as anyone who frequents art galleries will tell you, the rest is history.

And Winston? — Well, let's just say, he's in the Package Delivery business. And, yes, he works on holidays...

Merry Christmas!  "God Bless Us, Every One!"

The preceding is a work of fiction. If you notice any resemblance to real persons living or dead, then I did it right.  It was originally written for a Christmas variety show about 10 years ago, and has been re-written many times since.  Maybe this is it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winston's Christmas - a Christmas Story - Part One of Two

 One week before Christmas .
“Hey, kid, I don't care if you don't get any presents or not, but no matter what you say to Santa Claus, if Mom and Dad don't find out what you want for Christmas, you won't get anything!”   With Christmas less than two days away, Joshua was trying to reason with Winston, his younger brother.  

But Winston held his hands up, covering his ears. “Nope. Santa Claus is the only one who can handle a list this big. ”

“Hey, Nitwit! . Do you really think you're going to get everything on that list anyway? It must be eight pages long”

Nine,” Winston snapped.

"What Ever!” Joshua shouted, pulling out his I-phone. After a few flicks and clicks he quoted stridently: “Do you realize that if each child in the world gets nothing more than a medium-sized Lego set at 2 pounds net weight, Santa’s sleigh would be carrying 321,300 tons, and that’s not counting Santa himself. Conventional reindeer in the Ukraine can pull no more than 300 pounds. So we'd need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Just for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.”

Oh why don't you just take your facts and go text them to somebody!” Winston snarled.

“.... Just sayin’ “  Joshua taunted back.

Christmas Eve
It was THE DAY OF. . . Winston had eluded his family's repeated entreaties to please let them know what was on his Christmas list.  These now-wrinkled pages were Winston’s most carefully guarded possession.  “For Santa's Eyes Only”.

His parents were frustrated to the point of anger. It would probably teach them all a good lesson if nobody got anything this Christmas.” Winston's father said loudly his mother, in hopes of being overheard by the children.

The Plan

But now, it was three o'clock, and deployment of The Plan commenced right on schedule. In scripted moves that he had been rehearsing for weeks, Winston jumped into his parka, grabbed the neatly-folded list, threw on his gloves, jammed on his helmet, and stormed out through the kitchen into the garage. Through his head was racing the theme song from “Robot Rangers”, his favorite Saturday morning show.  Winston was a card-carrying Robot Ranger. He was well-versed in the techniques and strict training the Rangers used to "Keep the World Rolling by being Ready".

He punched the garage door opener button - he adjusted his helmet as the door rumbled up. Then he pushed the “down” button, meanwhile jumping on his all-terrain bicycle and streaking out of the garage before the door closed, missing his rear fender by fractions of an inch.. His bicycle was a specially modified Robot Rangers Turbo Cycle. It gave him a feeling of independence to be able to ride the half-mile down to the mall whenever he wanted to, without asking his parents or his brother or sister for a ride.

Winston spoke through his imaginary helmet microphone to an imaginary control tower as he shot out the driveway. “Robot Ranger Winston leaving exit hatch for completion of Operation ‘Giftwrap’ Fifteen Hundred Hours - over!”. His first burst of energy propelled him to the top of the hill. Once he had crested the hill, it was time to deploy “Turbo Warp Velocity”. Head down, Winston pedaled as hard as he could downhill to achieve as much speed as his trail bike could safely handle, the bike frame nearly disintegrating from the demands of Turbo-Warp Velocity.

Winston glanced up - INFORMATION OVERLOAD!  The first thing he saw was that he was fast approaching a completely blocked road. A stopped truck entirely blocked Winston's downhill lane. A car approaching uphill completely cut off hope to escape to the left. At his present “Turbo-Warp Velocity”, the brakes on his Robot Rangers Trail Bike were incapable of stopping him before he either hit the stalled truck or put himself head-on with the oncoming car.

Snap decision - his adrenaline-pumped system gave him a lucid picture of what must be done. Winston jumped the bike over the shoulder and up the curb - a Robot Ranger was capable of making lightning-fast life-and-death decisions!  As Winston began to congratulate himself on his quick thinking, he tried to bring the two-wheeler to a halt. Although the bicycle had hit the ground on both wheels, still Winston lost his balance. Bike and rider slid on their sides to a skidding halt in the muddy brown grass, stopping halfway past the truck’s right side, muddy but intact.

"You OK?"
From the uphill vehicle, Winston heard the voice of his next-door neighbor shouting at the truck’s driver “Get that heap off of the road if it doesn't run!” and tromped the accelerator to drive away tires squealing and engine revving.  He lay for an instant in the grass. Winston’s jangled eyes focused on the “heap”  At first he saw it sideways, then upright, but some of the details were hard to comprehend at first.  Winston rose to his feet. The truck was black, and old, very old -- an antiquity.  Although it resembled a pickup truck it was like no pickup Winston had ever seen. The headlights stood up on mounts by the front fenders, like an old Model T, and the wheels had spokes. There were running boards under the doors, and the cargo box was made of wood. And the truck was undeniably very heavily loaded; it sat very low on the chassis springs.  An old yellowish-brown canvas tarp was carefully tied over the entire load, so Winston could not see what the truck was carrying. As he watched, from the front of the truck, the engine groaned like a tired, very old horse, and then was silent.  Under the truck, Winston could see the driver's feet as he got out of the truck.

As the driver walked around the truck, Winston got up, and began brushing himself off. The truck's driver was a large, old man with long, curly, gray, almost white hair. He looked at Winston with eyes almost as gray as his hair.  “You OK, kiddo?” the driver asked.

I’m OK, I didn't hit anything. But, Mister -  why did you stop right in the middle of the hill?  Nobody ever parks there.” Winston said indignantly.

"So Far to Go...."
She just quit, and now it sounds like the battery's dead, too.” the old man said. There was a weariness in his voice as he said, almost to himself. “And I've got so far to go...”

Winston knew he had to help this man, however he could. You don’t sit through all those Saturday morning shows without learning the Code of the Robot Rangers.  It’s one of the precepts by which a Robot Ranger lives:  A man's ride is more important than anything else.

That makes two of us, Old Timer”, said Winston in his best Robot Ranger's no-nonsense voice. “Let's see if we can get this thing started... Allow me.” Winston swaggered over to the driver's door, and, although he was not old enough to drive, opened the door and climbed up to sit behind the wheel. Each episode of Robot Rangers contained a semi-educational theme, and Winston always used this as a justification for the vast amounts of time he spent watching the show. Each week, Ranger Bob would explain some scientific principles that made things work, usually transportation-related.  “Don't smell gas, so she ain't flooded” Winston said, sniffing the air. He turned the ignition key. The engine gave a single shudder.  WUH -- and nothing more.

Winston paused, as he remembered Ranger Bob’s imperturbable, calm "airline-pilot voice".  Panic is your worst enemy in an emergency.  Winston thought back to a segment he had seen about Ranger Bob starting an old farm tractor, trying to remember the steps.

Winston said to the old man. “Maybe we can pop the clutch. It's a perfect setup, an old-timer truck, pointed downhill, and all.” Not certain the plan would work, but with nothing really to lose by trying, Winston clicked the ignition key to the right, then got out of the truck. “Now, hold down the clutch” he told the old man, “and I’ll push from behind. When I say NOW!,  you let the clutch go. We’re only going to get one chance at this, so everything’s got to go perfect the first time”  

The old man nodded, and his sad gray eyes looked trustingly at Winston.  The plan was to force the engine to turn, using the truck’s forward momentum to turn the engine, perhaps to start it running. It had worked on that old tractor for Ranger Bob.

The old man climbed into the truck and pushed the clutch pedal down.  Winston got behind the truck, and pushed. Nothing happened.  Even pointed downhill, he had to rock the heavily loaded truck back and forth a few times until it finally started to roll forward. The truck gradually picked up speed. Soon, the truck reached a speed faster than Winston could run. That’s when Winston yelled “NOW!”

The truck lurched, a low groan of overworked metal, and an explosive backfire.  With a low throaty rumble, the engine roared to life. A cloud of blue smoke formed behind the truck, as it roared down the hill. “WOO HOO!” Winston danced a little high-five dance in the road, then suddenly, his face turning to panic, he slapped the pocket of his jacket, and then began running after the truck, shouting, arms waving. “Hey, wait! My list!  It’s on your front seat! Stop!” The truck was already at the bottom of the hill. Winston just stood in the middle of the road. His shoulders sagged as he realized that the black truck was not going to stop. The dull red tail lights receded in the light of the fading Christmas Eve afternoon.


Continued Tomorrow!

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I wrote this story about 10 years ago for a Christmas variety show. I've been re-writing it ever since.  Hope you can tune in tomorrow for the second part.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


It occurred to me as I started writing this, that, at the time this takes place, 1959, my grandfather was the same age that I am now.  He always seemed so old, even then...When he was at home, my grandfather, Lionel Kuhn, would wear a white t-shirt and blue-and-white pinstripe bib overalls.  He'd be constantly puffing on a cheap cigar - White Owls were his favorite. 

Grandpa worked for a commercial painting contractor.  When he was not on an out-of-town contract,  Grandpa's world was a finished basement in the house he had built himself on Center Street in Watertown in the 1930s.  Every corner of the basement was finished - ceilings tiled, walls papered, and floors painted, kitchen, refrigerator stocked with frosty bottles of Hamm's beer.  

One of Grandpa's favorite pastimes on weekends was cleaning paint brushes.  Raue and Sons would supply their workers with the finest paintbrushes available, but at the end of the week, the brushes would be tossed away, for a new start the following week.  Properly cleaning a brush is a time-consuming process, and the contractor found it more cost-effective to discard the brushes.   Grandpa would save the old brushes in sealed paint cans, and would take them home and clean them.  Sometimes there would even be remnants of paint, which Grandpa would meticulously strain, and bring to proper consistency.  Grandpa knew and loved paint.  From his arsenal of thinners, linseed oil, turpentine and white lead, he could practically build his own paint. 

We'd use wire brushes, and a crank-operated brush spinner, and plenty of hard work to get the brushes back to like-new cleanliness.  Grandpa had hundreds of paintbrushes that he had rescued, and kept them in a metal steamer trunk. While we worked, there was plenty of entertainment.  An old phonograph worked away at a stack of 78s.  The Missouri Waltz, polkas and waltzes by Bernie Roberts, Lawrence Duchow, and Frankie Yankovic, Oh Them Golden Slippers, organ music by Ken Griffin, and tunes by the Andrews Sisters.  We'd sing along, beat on the table with paint sticks

And ... we'd cuss.  Why, where the hell else is a kid going to learn to say "Goddammit!" when he hits his thumb with a hammer?  Hey, what happens in Grandpa's goddam basement stays in Grandpa's basement!

Grandma seldom came down into the basement - only to do the washing.  But she had Grandpa trained to come whenever he was called.  So, no matter how inconvenient, when the call came floating down the stairs, he was there for her ....

"Lionel, I can't find the Windex!  Were you using it to wash the car?"

under his breath, "Goddammit!", then, yelling back up the stairs


Even though he heard her the first time, he'd make her repeat the question a few times just to be cantankerous.  Grandpa looked quickly through the shelves of the paint room, and found a bottle of Sparkle Window Cleaner, but no Windex.  He went to the bottom of the step:  

"I've got Sparkle!"

Grandma's smoldering reply to this helpful hint came booming back down the steps:  

"I'LL SPARKLE YOUR ASS! Go downtown and get me some Windex!"

We were stunned, at first. She was really in a mood, today.  Then Grandpa, aside to me mimicked softly  "I'll Sparkle your ass!"
Have you ever been laughing so hard that you couldn't even breathe?  Neither of us could speak for about 10 minutes, we were laughing so hard, and then, Grandpa would gasp out in a whisper "I'll Sparkle your ass!"  and we'd start laughing all over again.

We resigned ourselves to having to go downtown.  But, it wasn't all that inconvenient - there were plenty of other necessary side-trips on the way to National Tea - Albrecht's Badger Paint, Kusel's Hardware, coffee and donuts at Zweig's Grill, Charlie Howard's Tavern if Ed Raue's truck was there, Drost's Smoke Shop for some more cigars -- another story another time.  But, we almost drove Grandpa's '39 Chevy into a light post when Grandpa once again whispered "I'll Sparkle your ass!"

To this day, with a little turpentine and a cigar, I can travel in time back to my Grandpa's basement. 

Friday, November 25, 2011


After more than 50 times around the old Carousel of Time, it's just one of those days where, as Paul Simon says, I "hung one more year on the line".  Got the paper in while the computer was warming up.  Syd the cat was checking in a new consignment of dried leaves that blew in the door.  And then, I went to my desk, and my computer was full to overflowing, a cornucopia of birthday greetings!.  

From all over the world, and I mean - all. over.  the. world., my gang of friends - those crazy people that I quack together with every day in Facebook,  Twitter, and emails.  We share thoughts, greetings, events, we help one another find the humor in our common experiences.  Social media friends are different than other people you run into.  They are there only because they want to be there. 
From Germany (GMT+1) came the first one, arrived when it was still yesterday here (GMT-6).  And they just kept coming - Texas, Birmingham, DC, Kansas, Washington, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Watertown, Muskego, even some from right down the street in Milwaukee.  Overwhelming!  

Thank you all, my friends - Love You All!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thanksgiving - Grinding Guts for Grandma

Ah, the Norman Rockwell feast, "Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother's House!".  Only, during Thanksgiving week, we kids would try to sneak over the river on the 4th Street bridge, and try to get past Grandma's house without detection.  But, it was no use, Grandma knew when we got off of school, and would be waiting there to holler out the screen door as we snuck by, for us to come and "visit" her.  
Oh, yeah, Grandma, like we don't know what you're up to.  Having time off of school around Thanksgiving meant only one thing:  Free slave labor for Grandma.  The Holiday Season brought all kinds of new, wonderful "little jobs" Grandma would have lined up for us kids:

Bringing up the turkey from the "cold room".  There was not much refrigeration at Grandma's.  The refrigerator upstairs was always full, so that was no help.  The refrigerator in the basement had Grandpa's beer in it, and he'd have to take that out so we could crowd things in there, things like the ring molds.  There was always some Jello mixed with cabbage, lots of cabbage.  But then once the basement refrigerator was full, there was only the "cold room"  - a basement room built under the garage, and it was somewhat cold in there, but surely would not meet modern standards of food hygiene.  And yet none of us got sick,  accidentally, that is. The "cold room" was where refrigerator surplus and leftovers were stored, including things we didn't want to ask about, such as a pig head peeking out from a towel in a roasting pan.

The turkey would start thawing on Monday, so by Tuesday night Grandma could make the dressing, with our help.  The inside of the turkey had to be picked clean of the greasy little boogery things that clung in there.  From the inside of the turkey we'd extract the giblets - neck, gizzard, heart, and liver, a slimy wax paper packet that had to be run through a cast-iron grinder, for the dressing, as they called the turkey stuffing.  It made a ripping noise as it passed through the grinder, a sound that a foley artist would welcome into his library for his next horror film.  The same sound your finger would make if you cranked it through the grinder. The smell was overpowering, and the ground-up guts formed a quivering pile of . . . well. ... guts - a stinking miasma that had to be scraped up and plopped into the mixing bowl.   Then the onions and celery.  Nothing like having the greasy guts slime on your hands, and then peeling onions and grinding them.  So, your eyes were watering but you sure didn't want to touch them, not until a few weeks from now.  And then some dried bread crumbs, and don't get them all over!  I broke off the moldy parts before putting them in the grinder. Finally, "the dressing" was done.  The whole slimy mess mixed in a huge crock mixing bowl.   Whew! We're done!  Guess again!

Now the iron grinder has to be taken apart and washed.  The grinding process stuffs all the guts and onions into the remotest corners of each and every cast-iron part.  So, scraping off what I could, I'd put the rest in the sink.  Greasy pans and utensils stacked high on both sides of the sink.  The water was cold, and there was stuff floating on top of it in a cold greasy slick.  And, I dassn't  change the water for some nice hot soapy water - Grandma was watching, and you know how kids like to waste water!.  The dishrag and scouring pad were both encrusted with the same slime that covered the grinder.  How was I to get this clean?   More soap!    

By "soap", Grandma meant a bar of homemade lye soap that Aunt Meta had made.  The whole extended family saved all their cooking grease in coffee cans for Aunt Meta. Meta would render the grease into soap, and sell it back to the family members.  Well, hooray for the planet, for recycling, for a sense of family community, for homemade knowhow passed on from generation to generation.  But there is one truth that must be faced:  The lye soap didn't work that well, and only made the cold greasy mess more sliimy -- if that were possible.

And finally, St. Beverly the Liberator arrived!  The front doorbell rang, and in breezed Aunt Bev, or Aunt Bumpie as she was called back in the days when she married her sailor.  She had been married a few years now, and the two of them had a kid, a mere toddler who, fortunately for him, couldn't reach the sink.   Your day is coming, Bobby Boy!  

Well, Aunt Bumpy walked over to the sink, and said.  "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"   "He just started," Grandma snapped. "BUT THAT WATER IS SO DIRTY, AND I BET IT ISN'T EVEN HOT ANYMORE!"  

Aunt Bumpy could do anything she wanted to do in her mother's house. She was Grandpa's little girl, and she always got her way.  Aunt Bumpy made me drain the sink and start over with hot, soapy water!  Real soap!  Thrill Dish Liquid!  And the hot water was so -- pure and cleansing. Bless you, Aunt Bumpy, wherever you are! Thanks for the Thrill!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gathering the Nuts for Winter

I hesitate to say this, because I know what happens when I brag about it.  I've got most of the winter stuff done. Like a squirrel gathering his nuts, I've got all the summer things ready for winter.  Patio decorations on the deck we never had time to use this year, all put away.  
Planters stripped and put away, except for a set of die-hard marigold pots that just won't quit.  I don't want to spoil the party, so I left them alone - Bloom away, little Orange Dudes.. Nobody told the marigolds that it was almost winter.    Also, I've gathered enough marigold seeds to foliate the entire neighborhood next spring.
The leaves are all swept up, and I shake my tiny fist at the heavens at the injustice of this.  In our entire empire, we do not have a lawn, much less a tree.  It's all concrete and blacktop, and we like it that way! And yet, last night I swooped up four cubic yards of the neighbors' leaves from our grounds.   The neighbors didn't want the leaves back, but the leaves have to be removed, because otherwise they turn my snow blower into a high-velocity compost shredder spreader.
Down in "the pit", there's a valve i have to deploy that drains the external water pipes, so the pipes won't break when it freezes.  I take a ladder over the wall, then lower the ladder into the pit, until i'm 2-1/2 stories below the wall.  Turn the valve, reverse, repeat.  Over the wall!
Boilers all tested, expansion tanks drained.  New filters in the forced-air furnaces, new batteries in all the thermostats.

The gooey sump pump project is done at last.  I never wanted to take a camera down there, so trust me on this. Suffice it to say that whenever I was working in this area, my wife wouldn't let me in the house without immediately changing clothes.  I thought I had if fixed once, but the new pump was of such a light construction that the weight of the water column caused it to tip over, and then it would sit on its floaty thing so it wouldn't shut off and it would go BWAAAAAAAA! in the middle of the night.  I restrained it with rigid PVC connections, and finally got all the fittings adapted to the various diameters to connect it with the sewer.  Stinky Tinker Toys..
And so, Happy Fall!  Keep warm!

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


He's Gone  
Ghandi left us, today.
After an extended illness, Ghandi had deteriorated from 16 lbs to a mere 5 pounds, and was having great difficulty with all his basic activities, walking, eating, drinking, everything.

We are grateful, each of us in our own way for the time Ghandi spent with us.

Joyce will miss her constant companion who followed her around and watched her every move.

I will miss him for his disgraceful un-catlike degree of affection.  And I'll miss the intelligent way he always looked down on me. 
You miss someone the most when you remember happy moments that you experienced with them, or because of them.   Here are some links from the Life of Ghandi, aka Gondi, aka The Boy, aka The Puss, aka Mama's Liddle Snookums, etc. etc.
The Declining Years
Award-Winning Cat
The Truth Comes Out

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How the Pilgrims Almost Killed Thanksgiving

Why is so much left out of the traditional account of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving? A different story altogether would be discovered if we go right to the journal of Governor Bradford, written as events happened.  Things which somehow have been forgotten in the school textbooks and re-enactments we see on TV. 

Before it achieved a prosperity worthy of a Thanksgiving celebration, the Plymouth colony almost collapsed and died due to -- a failed experiment in Socialism. Anything in quotes in the following account comes directly from Governor Bradford's journal, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620 - 1647.
Winter of 1620-21. Agricultural plans for the 1621 growing season were underway for the sustainability of the Plymouth colony. It was a meticulously planned new communal social order. Here, there will be NO private property and NO division of labor. All will share equally in the duties of the fields of the Plymouth Plantation. And the resulting harvest will be shared by all. Fairly and equally. 

Bradford writes, "all profits and benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means" were given to the common stock of the colony. And, now for the sharing! "All such persons as are of this colony are to have their meat, drink, apparel and all provisions out of the common stock."

In other words, we all put in all that we are able to, and we take only what we need. But, how the grand plan worked out in practice is told by Governor Bradford, in his own words:

"Young men that are most able and fit for labor and service" complained about being forced to "spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children."

"And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, etc., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it." The young ones, the strong ones, the ones doing most of the work, "had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak." (this paragraph in Bradford's original spelling)

And so, as it has always been, the slothful and the schemers gave greatly unto themselves. And the able workers, to their credit, got tired of the giving of themselves unto others without a just return on their labors. They would outright refuse to work any more than was minimally required.

And food was stolen. Bradford: "The crops were small because much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable". To each according to his needs? Or every man for himself? Father, Son, Holy Ghost - He that grabs the fastest gets the most!

The harvest of 1621 was minimal. Although the Pilgrims held a harvest feast with the Indians, it was not associated with an official declaration of thanksgiving. The harvest of 1622 was meager. The pilgrims survived the winter by doing chores for the Indians in exchange for food.

The colony was in the final phases of starving into oblivion. And in 1623, Bradford established a new order of things, and that new order was -- private property. The colony was divided up into individual private plots. The common storehouse idea was abolished. Each family would now be on their own land, producing their own food. Whatever they produced on their land, they were allowed to keep for their own use. Note in the following quotes how this changed things:

Bradford writes: "They began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop, that they might not still thus languish in misery...And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of the number, for that end, only for present use . . . and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use"

Resentment was replaced by contentment.

And - behold, a miracle! - Those who had formerly been too weak - those who proclaimed themselves "disabled" - rose from their rest and worked.

Bradford says: "The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; "

And so, Plymouth Colony prospered. In 1623 the colony declared a Feast of Thanksgiving. Under the new private land-use system, and in spite of the drought that had plagued the summer, the pilgrims held a feast of thanksgiving.

Within a few years, the colony would have so much surplus corn that it became an export item. Prosperity is the reward of personal labor.

Bradford sums up the failure of the socialist experiment: "The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community it was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort."

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. And thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Vignettes, 20th Century

Going through some old boxes in the basement tonight, I came across some first drafts of letters I wrote to people around 1990, back in the 20th Century.  I used to draft letters on whatever small scraps of paper I could find, and then copy the finished letter onto a readable sheet of stationery.  Back then, when you sent out a letter, you didn't have a floppy disk, or an extra file copy on your printer, because you were the printer.   You printed it on paper, with a Bic 19 cent stick pen.  So, I'm glad I saved some of these notes from the past, but I can't imagine where I got so much energy 20 years ago.  (sigh!) Life in Milwaukee. 

Carl's South Shore Fruit
... slow, it must be something they put in the water, here in Bedford Falls, I mean Milwaukee's South Side.  It's a bit strange over here; they've got McDonald's but the hamburgers are still 39 cents.  At Carl's South Shore Fruit, they don't sell fruit any more Carl says "... these people come in and shop all morning for one banana.  And, sure enough, he had a box of bananas, but they were all pulled apart, that is, no two bananas were attached to one another.  And, the bananas looked somehow, tired, and, shop-worn.  

Carl sells sweatshirts now that say "Hug Me, I'm Polish".  and other authentic "Polish Imports", and he does quite a business renting U-Hauls.  Lots of folks moving (in? out?).

The South Shore Water Frolics
A few hours at the South Shore Water Frolics, and you're never quite the same.  "A Rock and Roll Extravaganza"  played by the Milwaukee Police Band.  1989 was the year they electrified the accordions, and they had to unplug the air pump on the 30-foot tall Spuds MacKenzie balloon, so there'd be enough power to polka.  Without power, Spuds kind of leaned over toward the stage, limply bowing to the musicians.

And Miss South Shore Auto Body did her Hawaiian Dance number, as part of the Water Frolics Beauty Contest.  But the stage was so hot from the sun, they had to start the dance over.  She did the whole thing on a throw rug because that was more authentic than doing it with her shoes on.

3285 - Happy Food
I've still got my cat, 3285 Unwanted (that was her name on the Humane Society cage, and we kind of stuck with it - friends call her '32 for short.)  She's still as stupid as ever, only now she's more blind, which doesn't bother her much unless I rearrange the furniture.  And as little as I run the TV, she heard that ad for Happy Food, you know that plastic jar with the snap top lid, and that's the only food there is now, because it keeps fresh in there, as she explains to me.

Single Unrequited Love Bird
This bird one day decides to fly down to the floor and manage the house.  He's been strutting around ever since.  He follows 3285 around, and he likes Happy Food now, too.  Sometimes he lets the cat have some, but not the catnip mouse - that's his love.   He bit off the bell, and pulled her eyes out (the catnip mouse, not 3285), and Miss Mousie is his main squeeze now.  3285 doesn't mind letting him have her catnip mouse, because when The Bird is spending quality time with Miss Mousie, he's not eating her food, and biting her ears.  He's learning how to use 3285 for transportation by standing on her back, but he's having a little trouble steering her, because she's blind.

Playing Accordion for The Salvation Army
The "Home for the Holidays Tour" at the Grand Avenue was only in its third day of fund-raising when I booked a job with the manager of Boston Store, chasing old ladies up and down the escalators with Santa Claus and my accordion at the Senior Citizen sales event.  Who could refuse a job like that?  And Norman came in from Madison to do some jobs with me on Friday or Saturday.  We've always talked about doing something like this, and it's at the Grand Avenue -- where Christmas originates!.

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mom!

My mom died ten days after her 47th birthday, in 1974.  After devoting her entire life to raising my brothers and sisters, and me, she never got to see how well her efforts have paid off.  Five, normal, healthy, unusually happy lives.  She instilled in each of us a strong work ethic, a love of music, a wry sense of humor, and so much more.

Please take the time to thank those who have devoted large portions of their lives to your well-being.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

When a Bachelor Bird Gets Lonely

A bird lives under the canopy in front of our studio.  He stays year-round inside an aluminum support, a spacious ultra-modern birdie-condo.  But sometimes, he gets lonely.  So, whenever a car is parked in front of his canopy, he comes down and gets real sociable with the passenger's side-view mirror.  Sometimes, he gets carried away, so, it's not a good idea to park cars in that spot if they're a dark color.... This was filmed on Oct 22, 2011.

The musical background is a composition of mine, entitled Lydia.

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, October 31, 2011

John Tetzel - A Lutheran Nightmare

Wenn das Gelt in Kasten Klingt
Dann zu Himmel die Seele springt!
That's Johann Tetzel. He's the one. From second grade on, we learned about John Tetzel. Second only to Satan in evil, Tetzel was the poster-boy for Lutheran grade-school students' hatred of Catholics. Just two blocks away from the safety of our classroom (relative safety, if you counted Miss Taras's classroom), children were being marched straight through the Box Office to the Gates of Hell. Yes, Catholicism! Satan would see a Catholic coming, and say "Ah, a Catholic - come right in, we left the light on!".

Just two blocks away was St. Henry's - the church with the idol on the outside of the building. And an entire school devoted to the destruction of children's faith, the stealing of their souls. At St. Henry's, we were told in school, they worshiped idols, they prayed to dead people, they kept people in Purgatory and wouldn't let them go to heaven. The Rosary - an obvious cultic scheme to earn one's salvation by meaningless repetition. And those nuns, sneaking around in their penguin suits - what were they up to? And then there was Johann Tetzel.

October 31, 1517. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. The 95 Theses formed a concise declaration of Luther's argument with the established Catholic Church at the time. Most of Luther's objections to the teachings of the day were embodied in the ministry of Johann Tetzel. Johann Tetzel sold indulgences If you bought an indulgence, your sins were forgiven. So, if you were a sinner, and for some reason wanted to go to heaven when you die, you had options. You could make nice with God, or you could buy indulgences. This was very popular among the organized crime bosses of the time, because they had their sins all arranged on the calendar at the beginning of each week, and it was a good way to streamline their operations. A translation of the caption verse above:
"When the Gold in Coffers Rings
Then the soul to Heaven springs"

Luther declared, in his Theses, that you couldn't buy the stairway to heaven, and, since nobody had ever heard of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant at the time, Luther was correct. Coincidentally, the construction of St. Peter's Basilica was being financed by the sale of indulgences - so, when Luther was preaching against the sale of indulgences, he was rocking a very big-ga boat indeed.

In later years, we found out that many of the claims put forth by our grade-school teachers regarding Catholics were exaggerations and fabrications. We had more than enough in common with our Catholic peers to overcome some of our differences. But the doctrine of indulgences exists to this day. Here's a link to the Catholic Encyclopedia doctrine of indulgences, for further reading:

Thanks for listening and commenting. I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Livin La Vida del Cerdo

One picture could have replaced this post.  As we all know, nothing says "Best Wishes to the New Piggly Wiggly on the south side of Milwaukee" like a 35-foot high pig.   But, I went to photograph the 8th wonder of the civilized world, and, you can see for yourself, nothing was there. Yes, I saw a 35-foot pig in front of the store a few days before when I didn't have the camera along - he was taller than the building - really, I saw this with my own eyes!  So, without the 35-foot porcine edifice, I'll attempt to recount how the Pig has changed my life for the better.

My journey to  La Vie de porc began when I was just a child.  Kroger's was Watertown's favorite grocery store, and schoolmate Karen's father was the manager.  But, in those turbulent '60s, Kroger, Inc. announced that it was pulling out of Wisconsin.  What were we going to do, now?  That would leave only A&P and National Tea and countless corner groceries.  Well, Karen's dad wasn't about to let us down, and soon there was a new Pig in town in the old Kroger's building.

Свинья Жизни - what more can I say?

Piggly Wiggly continues to serve the Watertown area, in a newer more corporate-friendly location on the edge of town.  Their prices were fair, their produce and meat were the finest, and once I even won $100 worth of groceries playing Pig Bingo. That was long ago, in the early 1980s.

So, it was with great delight that I learned that die Schweineleben was coming to Milwaukee.  At last we would have a friendly low-priced alternative to Pick n Shove.  Ever since that Monopoly incident, where Chairman Bob got ahold of my grocery list, and specially marked up everything I used, so I could get extra Monopoly tokens and win $10 at the end after losing hundreds in markups.  And that $4.70 quart of Miracle Whip still bothers me every time I go to the refrigerator.  It's $3.50, Bobbo, at the most - $2.50 on sale! $4.70 I had to pay - and it didn't even come down when the Monopoly game was over!

The Pig brought to town his own affordable brand of food, as well as Food Club and Valu Time brand.  There are Pig chips, Pig butter, Pig Peanut Butter, Pig Cheese, Frozen Pig Peas, Pig Yogurt - virtually everything a person could possibly eat is available in the Pig brand - you'll have to sort out the high-fructose for yourself - it's not for everybody. 
As if that weren't enough - thanks to the innovations of technology, vita porcus brings you:
Each week at checkout time, you present your Pig Card, and receive a detailed statement of your Pig Point Account - Talk about a sense of wealth!
Well, as the nozzle in the picture would indicate, these Pig Points will buy you gallons and gallons of gasoline, no doubt superior to the gasoline others motorvate with.  So, now the Pig is even driving us to the grocery store.  Truly, readers, it doesn't get any better than this.

Heigh Ho - The Pig Life!

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don't Give a Hell

Saturday mornings when you're eleven and it's fall!  You get up early, and it's still dark out. Inside the house, the oil furnace kicks in with a hot smell that's still new for the season. Outside everything is full of frost, and the grass is slippery when you run on it.  There's a smell of burning leaves always in the air.  And the freedom of two whole days away from school stretches out endlessly before you full of uncharted opportunity.  There were chores to do around the house, but since we put the wooden storm windows on the house the week before, (a mandatory full-family project.) the parents were kind of easy-going about anything that really has to be done today. Early Saturday morning!

I was rolling an inner tube around in the back yard. It left a track in the white frost that had formed on the grass.  "Hey, what ya doin?" My friend Max was here - somebody else liked getting out of the house early in the morning!  We took turns at the inner tube, and there were some other small baby buggy wheels below the garage.  Rolling the wheels around, devising different trajectories to run the wheels into one another.  There was a certain backspin you could put on the inner tube, and roll it up the slide on the neighbor's gym set. It came hurtling down the slide with twice the normal velocity. So one of us would roll the smaller wheels cross-wise, and the other would try to time the inner tube so that it could take out the smaller wheels as they rolled by.  Demolition!

Max wondered out loud if it was cold enough to freeze over the creek that ran in back of his house. We decided that this had to be investigated first-hand.  So, we put away the wheels and headed for Max's house.  My mother suggested we be back for lunch.  Max was delighted for the invite, and looked forward to it.  We walked.  Max didn't have a bicycle at the time.  And we'd have to stop at Max's house and ask permission in order for us to go to the creek.  This made the trip all the more adventurous - I'd never seen the creek. His dad might not be home, yet, He could ask Lil, though.

Lil?    I told Max: "My mother doesn't want us to call her by her first name"

"Oh, no, Lil's not my mother.  Lil is our 'housekeeper'"

Max's mother, it turns out had "gone away".  She wasn't dead, but he never saw her.  "Housekeeper" it turned out, was his father's euphemism for a live-in girlfriend.  In those days, especially among Lutherans, "living in sin" was something whispered behind someone's back.  And I could give you a list of Lutherans who never ran out of things to whisper behind people's backs!  Had my mother been as strict a Lutheran as some of my classmates' parents, I wouldn't have been allowed to play with Max. They would have considered him "wild", and a bad influence, visiting upon the children the sins of the parents, Thus Saith the Lord.  I didn't take any chances, and only filled in as much information as my mother asked me about.  Being with Max was being on the cutting edge of adventure!

We got to Max's house.  He told me to wait outside.  "I'll be back in no time".

Max had learned survival techniques for living in a broken home.  He knew that Lil would probably still be sleeping, if his father wasn't home, because she had no doubt stayed out late the night before.  Lil would be missing out on the freedom and frosty wonder of this glorious Saturday morning. Waking her up too suddenly would be a very bad idea, when there were favors to be asked...  I went around to the back of the house to wait, a dark olive wooden pre-fab with no basement.  The walls were very thin, and from the back yard I could hear Max walking around inside.  Something spoken softly, then, a loud cigarette-low bellow thick with sleep voice:  "You're not supposed to go there."  More soft spoken pleading, and then again, the Voice of Lil:  "Go ahead, then, and I don't give a Hell if you fall in."   Something all too sincere in that tone of voice.  I pictured the rest of the day wilting away into gray ordinariness, under the shadow of this moment.  To me, it sounded like a "no".  And it sounded like she really, truly did not give a Hell.

Max came back out.  I expected him to say that maybe we shouldn't go to the creek today. But he was wearing a slightly contrived grin.  "She said it was okay."  He didn't know that I had overheard practically the entire exchange.

"You sure?" I asked.

In a Curly-Joe Three Stooges voice "Wy, Soitenly!" and socked me in the shoulder.

The adventure continued -  we went to the creek, which was unaffected as yet by the cold temperatures, and actually not enough action for us.   You seen one creek, you've seen 'em all!  So, we continued cross-country to Spaulding Street.  Some low spots had water in them, which had frozen, some so thick we couldn't smash them with our shoes.  We hiked up the hill and across the railroad tracks to the Rock River Farm Co-op.  We got hold of some ears of dry corn that had missed the corncrib by the railroad tracks.  And shelled the corn off the cobs as we walked, stuffing the kernels into our jacket pockets, for what? for ammo? for duck food?  for exchange value?  I don't remember why we did it - we just did it because this was our glorious day of liberty, so we didn't give a Hell. We headed to my house for lunch.

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.