April 24, 2009

Ramblings of Springtime

Category: Ramblings — Ira @ 6:51 pm


Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it’s all right.
It’s all right.

The Beatles, lyrics: Here comes the Sun

I’ve heard it said that extended lack of sunshine causes depression. And I certainly believe it can. Or at least a deflation of spirits. For me, it triggers moodiness, and a deep sense of brooding. Plenty of reason for all that this spring. The sun hasn’t been around much.

Until last weekend. After about three straight days of incessant drizzling rain last week, right into Thursday afternoon. Farmers were the only ones cheering; I guess they needed it. After work, as usual, I was exercising at the gym. Still had some office-related errands to run, so it was an expedited session. A quick workout, a stint in the hot dry sauna. I walked out, refreshed. To an entirely new world.

The clouds had departed and were fleeing to the east and south. The sun was slanting to the western horizon. It was clear, and warm. The air was clean, crackling, fresh. The grass shimmered wet, a dark sea of Irish green. Specks of mist rose here and there from the ground.

I stopped. Stood there beside Big Blue and drank it all in. Breathed it. Absorbed it.

Which in itself was unusual. I’m the guy who always measures the pain and loss of things. Mulls the past. Lost time, lost days, broken relationships. Laments what no longer is, what might have been, what should have been, what should be.

And I’ve always been the type who bristles when someone says, “Have a nice day.” Don’t tell me to have a nice day. I’ll have one if I want. Won’t if I don’t want. Keep your annoying cheeriness to yourself.

So I don’t know why it struck me as it did. Maybe it was the exhilaration after a good workout. Maybe it was the approaching end of the week, the anticipation of a few beautiful summer days of doing my own thing. Maybe I was just so happy and relieved to see the sun.

But I stopped, soaked it all in. The intense colors. The moment. I almost felt high, as in stoned. And spoke the words aloud. “It’s so good to be alive.”

And it was. Gloriously so.

I don’t do that very often, pause and reflect consciously like that. On something so basic. Always too wrapped up in the cares of the day, and the problems of tomorrow. Can’t remember the last time I did something like that, really. But it was and is just a great thing to be alive. Despite all the economic uncertainty stalking through the land. Despite what life might have in store this year, for any one of us. Despite all the troubles, all the unknowns rolling and shifting about under the surface of things. Despite the frustrations and pain of the past few years.

Standing there in that instant of profound awareness, I felt deeply grateful. I still do. For simple things. To see spring finally break free. To soak in the sun. To feel so alive. To BE alive.

Used to be I did most of my grocery shopping at Giant, our local grocery chain. Not so much anymore, as Lancaster County is blessed with a myriad of “bent and dent” stores. One of the best is about half a mile from my house. So I shop there for my meager needs, mostly. Still go to Giant for some of the stuff not available at the discount stores.

I was horrified a few weeks ago, after a long absence from Giant. At the prices. Every-thing’s zoomed up, and I mean zoomed. I have only myself to feed, and not a family of four or ten. I don’t see how people make it.

At the office, I always run down to a nearby grocery store/restaurant and pick up a salad for lunch. Gets me outside for a few minutes. (And no, I’m not a yuppie. I eat salads to keep my weight down.) I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the restaurant staff. “Salad bar’s closed,” they holler when they see me coming. All in jest, of course. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

One day a few weeks ago, I noticed that Jane, the excellent salad bar prep lady, seemed a bit uptight. I prepared my takeout salad as usual, just under a pound or so. Jane weighed it and stuck the price tag on top. I glanced at it. It was high, much higher than usual.

“Jane, you punched in the wrong code,” I admonished. “Look, it’s almost five bucks. No way I got that much salad. Unless you’ve been watering the lettuce again. Here, weigh it again.”

Jane looked grim. “The manager just put the price up this morning,” she half snapped. “And everyone’s been yelling at us. Can’t help it. It went up a buck a pound.”

I gaped. And growled. A buck a pound increase. No way. I wouldn’t stand for that. I asked to see the restaurant manager. Jane grimly fetched him. A shifty-eyed young guy. He smiled inanely at me.

“Look,” I lectured. Firmly. “You can’t just go increasing your salad price by a buck a pound. That’s 30%. We’re in a Depression here. Prices should be going down, not up. A slight increase I can deal with. But not a buck a pound. You’ll drive away your regulars.”

“I’ll take your advice into consideration,” he lied, still looking shifty. Smiling smarmily. I knew nothing would be done.

Back at the office, I fumed. “This will not stand,” I raged to Patrick, my boss. “I’ll eat at McDonalds before paying five bucks for a salad.” A bit of hyperbole there. You couldn’t pay me to eat the junk at McDonalds.

The next day, and the next, salad prices remained the same. I raged at Jane. Well, not at her, at her manager to her. “Go to the store manager,” she advised me the second day. “He’s the boss over the restaurant manager. We’re tired of it too. Everyone yells at us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Go take care of it for us.”

No further prodding was needed. Couldn’t have other customers yelling at the help and getting everyone upset. So I promptly marched to the customer service counter in the main grocery store. Asked to see the manager. Of the entire store. I wasn’t going away quietly. The nice customer service lady dialed the manager and told him some-one wanted to see him. She smiled at me brightly. He’d be right down.

Sure enough, he soon walked up, a tall lean mustachioed guy. Smiling. Shook my hand. What could he do for me?

I showed him my tiny sad excuse of a salad, which I’d just paid for. “Look,” I said. “I come in here every day of the year. Every weekday, anyway. I like your store. I like your restaurant, and the staff who works there. But I just paid five bucks for this itty bitty salad. Because the restaurant manager increased the price by a dollar a pound.”

I paused. He stood there, smiling. He was good. I continued. “I won’t be coming in here every day anymore, if that price increase stays. I just won’t. Ain’t gonna do it.”

“Tell you what,” he said smoothly. “Why don’t we just give you this salad today?” He turned to the nice customer service lady. “Give him a refund.”

Oh, boy. Now I’d done it. He thought I was a freeloader. I protested. “That’s not why I asked for you, to get a free salad. I’m just telling you the price increase is outrageous. And it will drive away regular customers.”

He was good. Waved off my protests. Promised he’d see what he could do. Shook my hand again and thanked me. Smiling all the while. Genuinely, too, it seemed. I shame-facedly took my refund and left. The salad was particularly crisp and tasty that day, though. “Free” works a lot of magic.

The next day Jane and her coworkers were all smiles. The salad price had dropped. By fifty cents a pound. I’d won half the battle, anyway. And I could live with that. And so I have. I still make my daily trips to Jane’s salad bar.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Update on Anne Marie. About two months ago, she had her first MRI scan since the brain tumor operation in December. The results were quite good. No visible new growth. A copy of the results was sent to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for review.

Johns Hopkins was very slow in responding. After emailing, calling and waiting for more than a month, Paul and Anne Marie finally received their opinion. No radiation recommended as of this time. Anne Marie was encouraged to continue her natural program. JH will also review each new MRI scan in the future.

Paul and Anne Marie were delighted. Disbelieving, but delighted. That an institution like JH would recommend no radiation, and a natural treatment.

Anne Marie, of course, looks great as always. Radiant and healthy. Bouncing around with more energy than most people could imagine. She’s busy planting her garden and caring for Cody and Adrianna. I am still a regular welcomed Sunday night guest at their house on most weekends.

Earth Day came and went Wednesday, along with all the expected asinine prattling from politicians, leftists and a host of other wussy do-gooders. Every day is Earth Day, the more pious ones love to gush. Gag me. To combat them, I lit all the lights in my house for a couple of hours and idled Big Blue on the drive for awhile. Just kidding. These people will not stop until we all live in caves. Or at least simplify, like the Amish.

This weekend is the great annual Gospel Express fundraiser auction at Mel’s Stables in New Holland. A huge tent set up for the auction, another huge tent for tons of good delicious Amish and Mennonite food. Not good for you, but good. Nelson and the boys will be whooping, hollering and singing, to raise funds. I always stop by on Saturday around noon to grab a good old Lancaster County grilled sausage sandwich. And to see a few friends and chat with lots of acquaintances that I see about once a year, there at the auction.

Baseball and the Phillies mourn the loss of legendary announcer Harry Kalas, who “died with his boots on” in the broadcast booth. The league and the team paid proper respects. It’s ironic that his team won the last World Series of his lifetime.

Years ago, I used to watch the Phillies just to hear his stentorian tones. No one, but no one, could deliver that trademark line like he could. “That ball’s OUT’A HERE!!!!”

April 17, 2009

Songs of Youth

Category: News — Ira @ 5:50 pm


“And they called back to him forgotten memories: Old songs, old faces,
old memories, and all strange, wordless, and unspoken things men know
and live and feel, and never find a language for…”

—Thomas Wolfe

I didn’t think I’d go at first. When my Amish friends invited me to the youth singing at their home a few weeks ago. Scheduled for the following Sunday night. I wouldn’t know anyone. And everyone would stare. Deep down, I’m really a pretty shy guy. So I told them thanks, but I probably wouldn’t attend. I’d keep it in mind in case anything changed, I assured them. That’s what you always say, when trying to maneuver out of an invitation to somewhere you don’t particularly want to go.

Sunday night rolled around, and I had second thoughts. Got a hankering to go. Or a notion, as my Dad would say. The singing started at 7:30. I could slip in a little late. So I changed into “going away” clothes and headed out.

My friends live only a few miles from my house. As I approached, dusk was settling. Line after line of gray/black buggies sat parked neatly in a nearby field. Lancaster buggies. Rectangular boxes with distinct rounded tops. I inched into the drive, drove Big Blue into the field and parked beside a temporary volleyball court.

I heard the soaring voices as I approached the shop where they were singing. Walked up to a back door and slipped in unseen. Took a chair behind the men. The shop was long and low. Two bench-tables had been set up. Girls sat on one side of each table, boys on the other. Benches lined the remainder of the floor behind each table, benches filled with row after row of Amish youth. Girls on one side of the room, boys on the other.

They were singing German songs. Fast tunes, with some English choruses. The music swelled and rolled and echoed from the shop’s low ceiling. Perfect four part harmony. About 150 youth, singing their hearts out. Someone noticed me and handed me a song book. I found the page and sang along. Scanned the room around me.

Everyone was singing. The youth, the married men, the women. Even the children. Everyone was absorbed in the moment, or so it seemed. They were a part of this system. This group. This community. And suddenly I was struck by a deep brooding sense of loss and sadness.

They belonged.

I didn’t. I was an intruder.

The song ended. Another was promptly announced and someone started it. Off they soared again, the swelling rolls of harmony pealing through the building and outside into the night.

It was breathtakingly, hauntingly beautiful and it took me back. I sat there, silent, lost in the moment and in the mist of memories from the past.

Back twenty-seven years or so, to one of a thousand summer nights in Bloomfield, Iowa. A small Amish community at that time, consisting of two districts. The youth all gathered as one group for the Sunday evening suppers and singings.

They were a diverse group, assembled from a wide swath of Amish communities, big and small. Bloomfield was just a young pup of a settlement in those days. Families had moved in from fairly progressive places like Kokomo, Indiana and Arthur, Illinois. And from such regressive areas as Fortuna, Missouri and Buchanan County, Iowa. And every shade between.

It made for an interesting mix of young people. They developed into groups, loose factions, as those with similar interests gravitated to each other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A tall lithe young man walked among them. Dark complexion. Wild shocks of curly, coal black hair. Always a ready smile. Intelligent. Good natured. Quick to laugh. Outgoing, intensely loyal to his friends.

His brooding brown eyes absorbed all that went on around him. The things he saw and lived and felt, he considered in his heart and carefully stored in the recesses of his memory.

There was sadness too, in those eyes, and a hint of something restless and lost. He was a part of this group, these youth. These were his people. Yet, he sometimes felt detached, alone.

These were his people, but he knew there was so much more beyond this world, out-side its secure borders. And its ancient ways. Out there, waiting for him. He’d left once or twice, short spasmatic excursions into that other world, then returned. Tasted the forbidden fruit for a time, before nostalgia and homesickness drowned out reason and turned his face again to the place from whence he came.

But he found home wasn’t quite the same. It would never be again. Could never be again. And he could never truly return. Even as he participated in the community, its life and customs. He loved the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging. But, wherever he was at any given moment, the grass always seemed greener on the other side. When he was home, he heard the siren’s song of the outside world. When he followed that song into that outside world, the memories of home tugged at his heart and pulled him back.

Even so, he lived in a perpetual state of vague undefined optimism. He would live forever; he had no grasp, no concept of the rapidly accelerating flow of the river of time, and the years. The nebulous dreams, the joys, the pain, the turmoil of youth stirred in him. Always the thought, the dream, the knowledge, the great promise of a shining tomorrow. Where the intense passions and desires that burned in him would be soothed, requited.

Always he grasped, with tenuous grip the anticipation of something, something great and grand and fine. Something beyond. Always tomorrow, with its visions of splendor and a shining city. Always the dreams of adventures in strange and distant lands, to come home again after wandering the far country, tired, satiated, ready to settle down in peace and solitude in the quiet land. Always a brighter future of happiness and contentment, always just beyond the tip of his outstretched hand.

But that tomorrow never came. It would never come.

And so he mingled in, immersed himself in the vibrant details of life around him.

He enjoyed the singings, mostly. The buggies clattering as they gathered, around 6:30 or so, on a Sunday night. Rattling steel rimmed wheels on the gravel roads. The horses unhitched and tied up in the barn or at flatbed wagons strewn with chunks of hay. Small knots of youth drifting toward the house, where supper would be served. Hanging with his buddies as they all gathered in. The house father calling everyone to attention, all heads bowed for silent prayer.

Then the serious business of eating the evening meal with his friends. A long bench-table set up in the kitchen, laden with large pots of starchy foods. Mashed potatoes, noodles, some form of hamburger-helper laced meat, baked beans, potato salad and bread. And they filed slowly past and dipped great globs of sustenance onto plastic picnic trays. Walked outside to sit under shade trees or benches in the yard, and wolf their food.

Then dessert and coffee and hanging out, the swaggering boisterous talk, the local gossip, who was dating who, swapping tall tales, or adventures about hunting and fishing and trapping, or work about the farm.

Sometimes they played volleyball after supper, over makeshift nets, with rubber hoses as boundary lines, or baler twine. Shouting, leaping, hair flying as they played. Not a whole lot of strategy involved; everyone just merrily whacking the ball over the net.

As eight o’clock approached, a quick trip to the barn for “business,” then everyone standing about combing and patting down unruly heads of hair. He and his friends often filed in early, so as to grab the treasured back bench against the wall. Two reasons: they’d have a wall to lean against, and they could get away with more monkeyshines, unnoticed in the back. Bloomfield didn’t use tables at the singings, just row after row of benches. A row of boys, a row of girls, a row of boys, a row of girls.

At eight sharp, the first song was announced. And they sang. He didn’t consider himself much of a singer (he wasn’t), but he enjoyed it. Some nights, it was fun and inspiring. Other times, it was something less. All depended on how the evening started. And on the room’s acoustics. A small room with low ceilings, the singing swelled and echoed. A large room or heaven forbid, singing outside, and it just did not go so well. The first forty-five minutes they sang German songs, then English songs for the final half. In four part harmony, a practice Aylmer had never allowed, and one that was almost banned in Bloomfield.

And the minutes crept by, and they sang and sang. The old classic hymns. And the more edgy stuff. “No, no it’s not an easy road.” “You gotta walk this lonesome valley.” And it seemed to him sometimes, as the harmony swelled around him and his spirit soared and he consciously reveled in the mellow waves of song, that he could never leave, never forsake this ancient heritage, this priceless legacy. That no sacrifice would be too great to draw these things inside and keep them in his heart.

And the evening passed, and 9:30 approached. Someone announced and led the parting song. After its last notes faded, the young men got up from the benches and walked out single file. The singing was over for one more week.

They milled about outside. Socialized and chatted for awhile. Those who were dating were the first to scurry away, the young men to hitch up their horses. Each one pulled up to the walkway, where his date would hurry out, wrapped in a black shawl, head covered in a bonnet, and step up into the buggy. And off they clattered. In Bloomfield, courting couples tended to leave post haste for the girl’s house, because the date was decreed over at midnight.

And one by one, he and his friends hitched up their horses and left. Out onto the graveled or blacktopped roads, a long convoy of buggies with blinking orange lights.

When there was no opposing traffic, they sometimes raced their horses. Turned the highway into a drag strip. The challenger pulled up close behind, then lurched out to pass. And the challenged gradually released his reins, the horses opened up into full stride. Side by side, at breakneck speed, the buggies rocking dangerously, the horses straining with every possible ounce of muscle and sweat. Until one or the other pulled ahead and the loser conceded. Sometimes a car approached in the distance; the challenger was expected to pull back in line.

Then onto the gravel road, and up and down the hills surrounding his home. And eventually up the half mile long lane to the house. He and his brothers, laughing and discussing the day’s events. Scoffing at this thing, chortling at that. One of them led the steaming horse to barn or pasture, and they all gathered around the kitchen table for a few minutes, snacking on whatever goodies they could scavenge, before retiring for the night.

This was who he was. In time, he would conclude this was all there was.

And it was not enough.

I sang along again that night with the Lancaster youth. The first time in more than a decade that I’d attended a Sunday evening singing. Around nine, the parting hymn, and it was over. The young people sat around and visited, the few I knew came and shook my hand in welcome. Soon the buggies trickled out and headed down the road.

And I sat there for a spell and visited with my hosts. Thanked them for their gracious hospitality. Someone asked if the singing that night had stirred in me old memories of my youth. I nodded.

“It was so long ago,” I said.