The sound of silence

You’ve got to be careful what you ask for in a Christmas gift, because you just might get it.
I usually ask for a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, and little else. I’m not good at making lists, so I’m generally satisfied to get one more holiday excuse to buy another book or two.
But before this last Christmas, I thought it would be fun to make my own CD. To do it, however, I’d need to get a microphone compatible with my home desktop computer. It would be fun, I thought, to set up my own little recording studio and create MP3s with my own music and with my own voice and my trusty acoustic guitar. I’d record my singing onto CDs for my kids and grandkids and give it to them when the next Christmas came around.
Sure enough, at Christmas 2015, one of my children presented me with everything I’d need. Suddenly, I had the microphone and the software available to do what I warned them … I mean, promised them … I would do.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the novelty of that plan is, alas, beginning to wear off.
Do you remember your reaction the first time you listened to yourself on a tape recorder? Do you remember how weird you sounded? Do you remember asking, “Is that me? Do I really sound like that?”
Sure you do. You weren’t impressed, were you?
It’s exactly like that listening to the playback of myself recording a song. I don’t sound so good.
I’ve never been impressed with my own voice, frankly. I consider myself a halfway-decent guitarist, in that I can play all the chords and I can do it with the proper timing and accent. And I can sing in tune, provided the song is within my limited range. But there’s nothing special about it, believe me.
I practiced recording my first song by doing the Beatles’ tune, “Blackbird.” The song features a great deal of chord changes, so it’s a song not everyone can perform well. I’ve practiced it often enough over the years to have become pretty adept at it, and it’s one of the songs Kari — who gifted me the microphone package — specifically requested for my CD.
But face it: one plain acoustic guitar and one thin voice (especially if it’s mine) doesn’t get record producers rushing to your door. I suppose the kids want me to make this CD for sentimental reasons. They’ve grown up listening to me sing and play, and in spite of my deficiencies they’ve grown comfortable with it. My youngest daughter Laura, for instance, still likes it when I play “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” which I did for her when she was little.
The problem with recording these songs, however, is that I have to listen to myself.
I haven’t attempted to record another song for weeks. I guess I’ve got most of 2016 to continue putting it off.
Or I could look at it another way, I guess. I’ve got the rest of 2016 to become a better singer.

New definitions of sportsmanship

I went to a high school basketball game in Worthington last week and I saw the most outrageous displays of unsportsmanlike behavior. The situation was no better the next evening when I covered the Minnesota West women’s game against Anoka-Ramsey. And then last night I was at a local prep hockey game here in town.
In all three instances, I saw people in the crowd cheering for their favorite team. Clapping, obviously. And several of them cheered openly. You could hear them all over the building. In all three cases, fans of both teams were behaving in this manner. Some fans even questioned the eyesight of the officials loud enough for them to hear. I was shocked.
I mean, this is 2016. In this enlightened era, it is of utmost importance to be polite at sporting events and to avoid, at all costs, disrespecting opponents in any way.
Fortunately, we have the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) to thank for putting sportsmanship issues in the proper context. Last week the state sports body banned several chants that, traditionally, have been commonly heard at events all over the country.
You’ve surely heard the chant, “Air-ball! Air-ball!” at basketball games after an opponent misses the backboard and rim completely while attempting a shot. This student chant will no longer be allowed at Wisconsin high school games because, according to the WIAA, it is “clearly intended to taunt or disrespect.”
Other items on the no-chant list include: “Scoreboard” (as in, “Look at the scoreboard, you fool, you’re behind by 35 points!”), “You can’t do that”, “Fundamentals”, “There’s a net there”, “Sieve”, “We can’t hear you” and “Season’s over.”
It’s only a matter of time before the list of banned phrases are expanded. Because, as we all know, it’s just as easy to sing “Na, na, na, na … Na, na, na, na … Hey, Hey … Goodbye!” as it is to say “Season’s over.”
These are modern times, and it’s a new generation. Your father’s cheers and jeers at sports events are no longer acceptable. Imagine a group of students in a cheering section yelling at a football game today, as I remember doing 40 years ago, “Ree, ree, ree, kick ‘em in the knee … Rass, rass, rass, kick ‘em in the other knee!” How disgraceful!
Well, first of all, let me say congratulations to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association for striking a blow for decency. I suppose it’s only a matter of time now before the Minnesota State High School League follows suit.
And if I may be so bold: Perhaps they should start by banning clapping at all sporting events. It may seem like a harmless thing to applaud your favorite team when they do well, but it makes the other team feel bad. It makes them feel excluded.
And once that’s done, we probably will want to eliminate the state tournament concept because, well, playing down to only one state champion is the most exclusionary thing of all. Just give everybody a participant ribbon, I say.

Going home again

Going home again

A short story I read this week got me thinking about what I think is an almost universal human desire to go home — to return to one’s roots — to experience our youthful lives all over again because at some point as we get older, we realize that it’s all happened too fast.
I happened upon an old book a few months ago at a Nobles County Library sale. I bought it for (if I remember correctly) 10 cents. Quite a bargain, because it was a compilation of short stories written by the famous Rod Serling — of Twilight Zone fame — and the name of the book, “From the Twilight Zone,” made its subject matter quite obvious. Its copyright date was 1960, which was perfect. As a childhood fan of the TV show, I figured I’d be reading some vintage science fiction.
I was correct. Serling, I was reminded, was not only a creative television producer in his day, but also a very talented writer. His short stories began for me as predictable, from my memories of the “Twilight Zone” episodes I’d seen as a kid, but they diverged from the script in ways that kept me interested.
A story called “Walking Distance” stood out from the rest. It’s the story of a 30-something highly successful ad agency executive living the fast, hectic life in New York City who suddenly longs for his childhood in his rural home town of Homewood, population 3,000. Homewood is a town we all have heard about, with an old-fashioned malt shop, little boys who play marbles with aggies and steelies, big maple trees standing sentinel on Oak Street, and a bandstand in the park pavilion where concerts are played on sultry summer nights.
The story really takes off when the central character, Martin Sloan, anxious to remember his hometown 20 years after he’d left it for good, parks his sports car a mile away from the city limits for repairs. He decides to walk the distance from the service station back to Homewood where he finds, inexplicably, that he has literally walked into his hometown as it existed when he was 11.
The story, at that point, could have gone in any of several directions. But in Sloan’s case, he is accidentally reunited with himself as a pre-teen. He later revisits his old home. He attempts to reconnect with his mother and father, who obviously think he’s a nut case. Spooked and hurt by the rejection, he runs away in distress but leaves his billfold behind — containing his identification.
Later, his father finds him. He knows Martin is his own son because he checked his driver’s license, “which expires 25 years from now” — and he sees the dates on the dollar bills, dates that hadn’t arrived yet.
The realization becomes a very tender moment. In the story, Martin knows that his father died suddenly when he was still a boy. But his father chooses not to know anything about the future Martin knows. “That’s part of the mystery we live with. I think it should always be a mystery,” he says.
The best part of the story, for me, was when his father explains to him that he must return to his present life. “The little boy … the one I know, (is) the one who belongs here,” the father tells him. “This is his summer, Martin. Just as it was yours one time.”
The story ends back in New York City. As Martin walks out of Homewood, he walks into his present life as an adult. And in doing so, he discovers, in a way the rest of us can only imagine, that Homewood isn’t walking distance.

It’s the little things

My advice on this Christmas Eve is to sit back and reflect. You may not have very much time for that, of course, because at this very moment you might have a house-full of relatives on your hands. You may be getting ready to unwrap a wagon-load of presents, or you may be about to embark on a feast worthy of Thanksgiving.
But if, or when, you have a few moments to yourself, please feel free to unwrap yourself from the hectic nature of the holiday and think about the things that really matter — consider carefully the once-a-year event that is unlike any other holiday. Give pause. A little quiet time is in order.
This Christmas Eve happens to be a time of relaxation for the Wolter family. We had our hectic Christmas celebration last weekend with our three daughters, their husbands and our six grandkids. Today we have Sandy’s parents with us, which makes Christmas a bit quieter, with less an emphasis on gifts, than it was the previous week. Which is nice.
I returned from Mankato to Worthington on the heels of that festive Wolter Christmas extravaganza thinking about the little things. Yes, it’s the little things that stay with you sometimes.
We planned for an early dinner so as to get started with the gift exchange as quickly as possible. There are now 15 of us, and we insist on congregating in a circle and allowing only one present to be opened at a time. It takes hours to finish.
Shannon was late, so we wolfed down our dinner about a half-hour later than we’d expected. We forgave her (after all, it IS Christmas) and the gift exchange soon commenced. These are the little episodes I’ll remember most about the day:
— My oldest grandchild Mia typically is chosen to read the Christmas story from Luke before the gift-wrapping flies. But Kari, my middle daughter, mentioned that she was going to bring out my mother’s Bible (mom left us just before Christmas 2012) for me to read from. I told her as discreetly as I could that, since it’s mom’s Bible I’d be reading from, I didn’t want to take the chance that I might get emotional. So Mia read it, and as usual she did it wonderfully.
— Nixon, Kari and Mike’s 3-year-old, jealously cried on his mama’s shoulder moments after his cousin Tyson, Laura and Nathan’s 5-year-old, opened his big green Transformer toy. Seconds later Nix was happy again when he unwrapped his green Hulk pajamas, and within moments he was prancing around the room pretending to be his favorite super-hero.
— I received a microphone system for my home computer to make MP3s with my guitar and save them onto CDs for my kids. I don’t know why my kids want to hear a CD of me singing songs on my guitar. I would barely call myself passable as a singer. But it was a very nice thought, anyway.
— We stayed at Kari and Mike’s overnight, so on Sunday we went with them to church to hear their sons’ 6-year-old Jake and Nixon perform in their Christmas pageant. Kari dressed them up in very pretty neckties, which they wore for the entire performance. When the songs began Jake sang every line and was perfect with every hand motion. Nixon, keeping a close eye on Jake, mimicked his actions like a trooper.
— As Sandy and I returned home to Worthington following the program, I smiled to myself while I remembered one more thing: I went through the whole weekend without watching a single football game. And I didn’t mind a bit!

Red lights, green lights, or white?

I’d love to bestow my personal award for the most Scrooge-like anti-Christmas accounts I’ve heard, but where would I start? There are so many examples. And every year, they seem to get more and more hilarious.

There is the one from New York, where mall operators opted for a Santa display designed not to offend anyone. They went with a futuristic white contrivance that looked like a hollowed-out plastic glacier. When patrons threatened the mall with a boycott, the politically-correct monstrosity was dismantled.

At Cornell University, a committee told students not to hang mistletoe because some people might associate it with the Christian religion. Not to be outdone, University of Tennessee administrators disgorged a reminder intended to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” which included the injunction to refrain from exchanging “Secret Santa” gifts and to offer only inclusive refreshments “not specific to any religion or culture.”

At another college (I’m not sure which one) it was explained that students are free to display traditional Christmas-themed items in their dorms — provided, of course, they display them discreetly.

Elected officials are always tinkering with Christmas, of course, so in Roselle Park, N.J., a councilwoman quit after the town council decided to name the town’s Christmas tree lighting event a (wait for it …) “Christmas tree lighting.” She was incensed at the council’s exclusionary bent.

I think my favorite one emanates from Fort Collins, Colo., where a special task force recommended that red and green lights be banned from city displays. The colors of red and green, the committee explained, have known religious connotations.

To be safe, said the Fort Collinites, white lights work best.

Some people — the more religious ones — get pretty incensed by all the people getting incensed about Christmas. They don’t appreciate being told that their celebration of the birth of Christ Jesus is unappreciated. On top of all that, they’re constantly told that this “war on Christmas” that they decry is a figment of their imaginations.

Poppycock. If the above examples (and there are so many more available to us) don’t constitute an assault on the historical essence of the holiday, what else could it be?

And it’s all so odd. Nobody wishes to diminish the meaning of Hanukkah. Nobody wants to undermine the Fourth of July so that the English won’t feel excluded. Presidents Day is still about U.S. presidents (even the ones that nobody likes) and no one complains.

Christmas is not only about “good will toward men,” as President Obama stated recently. It’s also about the birth of a Savior, the Lamb of God. But the good thing about Christmas is that it’s never been meant to be exclusionary, in spite of what the Scrooges say.

Celebrate it any way you like. It’s still about love and joy and peace and hope and renewal, any way you cut it. It’s OK to make Santa the center of your Christmas, if that’s what you prefer. It’s the season of kindness, the season of selfless giving. So display all the red and green lights you want — and white ones, too.

Nothing goes together like football and holidays

My teen-age grandson Clay seemed stunned on Thanksgiving Day when he stepped into my family room to spy myself and two of his uncles watching the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles tangle on TV.
It was 11:45 a.m. and the Wolter clan was only minutes away from serving the turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, brown rice, buns, Jell-O, and pumpkin pie for the annual feast.
“Grandpa!” he exclaimed, looking astonished. “You said you weren’t going to watch any football today!”
Now, it’s the holiday season. And if Clay were 4 instead of 14, I might have been embarrassed to have to fill him in on one of the inevitable facts of life: Like we all must learn the truth about Santa Claus, the younger Wolter family members must come to a realization about football.
And that is, the games must go on, and they must be watched.
I smiled facetiously and said to the little dear, “Well … I changed my mind.”
Clay, that wonderful grandchild of mine whose middle name is my father’s — but who prefers archery to football — had been hoping grandpa might forgo football on Thanksgiving and start a game of Monopoly with him instead. But what he didn’t know was that the lure of football can be powerful, even during the holiday season.
I often chuckle up my sleeve at all those critics of the National Football League who predict the future demise of professional football, citing its violence, the concussions, the drop-off of participation in youth leagues. But I know there are millions of Americans like me for whom football season is one of life’s essential ingredients. And as long as there are fans, there will be football.
Not very many years ago, the NFL annually broadcast two afternoon games on Thanksgiving Day. Now they’re doing three, and the only reason they don’t schedule four or five is because the games would then begin to run into each other like too-thin gravy on mashed potatoes mingling with the green bean dish.
Actually, this year I really did plan to abandon my traditional pursuit of football on Thanksgiving, as I proudly explained to anyone who would listen. But, I confess, in the back of my mind I knew I’d probably wind up in front of the TV like any other year.
I mean, I knew my two sons-in-law, Mike and Nathan, were determined to watch football anyway, and being a good host I just decided to have the game on when they arrived.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
I remember just a few years ago, on Christmas Day, the NFL scheduled another game that was to run through the very time my family had set aside to open presents together. I remember I lobbied my family to allow me to watch the game with the sound turned off. They refused. I relented.
Yesterday, I looked ahead and I saw that Christmas Day 2015 is safe. There is, however, a game scheduled between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders on Christmas Eve, and another one scheduled between the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles on the day after Christmas.
Perhaps the NFL is finally getting its priorities in order. I, perhaps, still have a ways to go.

What is required of us?

I remember watching reports from Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, when Operation Desert Shield commenced. The pictures of spectacular explosions in Saddam Hussein’s sand box had an effect on me that I hadn’t experienced before, or since.
I wanted desperately to join the fight. I wanted to run to my nearest military recruiter and offer my services. I was struck dumb with a super-heightened sense of patriotism and could hardly contain myself. I remember my wife, Sandy, trying to tune me out. But when I continued to go on and on about my desperate desire to be an active part of the war, exasperation set in. “Well, go ahead then, if you must,” she said.
Obviously, my emotions had once again gotten the best of me. I was 34 years old at the time. I had three young children at home. I had never been in the military and, frankly, wouldn’t know the first thing to do if I’d suddenly found myself in the theatre of operations. No recruiter would want any part of me, anyway. And besides, I probably wouldn’t have lasted a week without wishing I could click my heels and return home to my wife and kids.
Looking back, I am sure my temporary insanity was spurred by thoughts of my father, a World War II veteran who’d gone to his great reward only three months earlier. I was still in the throes of grief. I was well aware that I hadn’t done anything heroic in my life like Dad had, and the fireworks in Iraq had awakened an abiding latent urge.
The above recollection illustrates the foolishness of letting emotions dictate policy. Persons, and governments too, have often trotted off to war without thinking things through.
There are times, however, when ultimate actions are both necessary and just.
Several days ago, despicable attacks were perpetrated in Paris, a blatant act of war that — according to every rule of civilized behavior — requires a determined, sustained military response.
The Islamic terrorists who perpetrated these coordinated attacks on France have announced to the world that they are planning more of them. They aim for the destruction not only of French society, but of Western Civilization altogether. And whereas our response to the threat they pose has been tepid up to this point, I wonder what it will take for our sense of outrage to rise to the level it now demands.
The charge is often made that America has grown soft, too lazy and too self-indulgent to embark on a grand crusade like one my father participated in more than 70 years ago. There is a surreal self-delusional dance going on; we still repeat the mantra, “Never again,” as we remember the Holocaust. But there is another holocaust happening now in large areas of the Middle East, where Muslims deemed “undesirable” are being tortured and killed, where Christians by the thousands are being forced to flee their homelands or be brutally murdered.
While this is happening, America continues its navel-gazing. We can’t confront the Islamists. We can’t even confront each other. In our universities — where we are growing our next generation of leaders — students are demanding “safe spaces” lest somebody present an idea that challenges their convenient little ideologies.
Meanwhile, immediately after Paris, our present-day leaders make speeches that sound just as empty as the ones that preceded them. I hope I’m wrong, but my guess is that in another week or two, when the rhetoric dies down, we’ll settle back into our comfortable self-indulgences and just hope for the best. You see, we’re tired of war. We’re sick of it, actually.
We don’t want any more of that brutality. Of course we don’t. Problem is, our enemies are just getting started.

What is required of us?

 

I remember watching reports from Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, when Operation Desert Shield commenced. The pictures of spectacular explosions in Saddam Hussein’s sand box had an effect on me that I hadn’t experienced before, or since.

I wanted desperately to join the fight. I wanted to run to my nearest military recruiter and offer my services. I was struck dumb with a super-heightened sense of patriotism and could hardly contain myself. I remember my wife, Sandy, trying to tune me out. But when I continued to go on and on about my desperate desire to be an active part of the war, exasperation set in. “Well, go ahead then, if you must,” she said.

Obviously, my emotions had once again gotten the best of me. I was 34 years old at the time. I had three young children at home. I had never been in the military and, frankly, wouldn’t know the first thing to do if I’d suddenly found myself in the theatre of operations. No recruiter would want any part of me, anyway. And besides, I probably wouldn’t have lasted a week without wishing I could click my heels and return home to my wife and kids.

Looking back, I am sure my temporary insanity was spurred by thoughts of my father, a World War II veteran who’d gone to his great reward only three months earlier. I was still in the throes of grief. I was well aware that I hadn’t done anything heroic in my life like dad had, and the fireworks in Iraq had awakened an abiding latent urge.

The above recollection illustrates the foolishness of letting emotions dictate policy. Persons, and governments too, have often trotted off to war without thinking things through.

There are times, however, when ultimate actions are both necessary and just.

Several days ago, despicable attacks were perpetrated in Paris, a blatant act of war that — according to every rule of civilized behavior — requires a determined, sustained military response.

The Islamic terrorists who perpetrated these coordinated attacks on France have announced to the world that they are planning more of them. They aim for the destruction not only of French society, but of Western Civilization altogether. And whereas our response to the threat they pose has been tepid up to this point, I wonder what it will take for our sense of outrage to rise to the level it now demands.

The charge is often made that America has grown soft, too lazy, and too self-indulgent to embark on a grand crusade like one my father participated in more than 70 years ago. There is a surreal self-delusional dance going on; we still repeat the mantra, “Never again,” as we remember the Holocaust. But there is another holocaust happening now in large areas of the Middle East, where undesirable Muslims are being tortured and killed, where Christians by the thousands are being forced to flee their homelands or be brutally murdered.

While this is happening, America continues its navel-gazing. We can’t confront the Islamists. We can’t even confront each other. In our universities — where we are growing our next generation of leaders — students are demanding “safe spaces” lest somebody present an idea that challenges their convenient little ideologies.

Meanwhile, immediately after Paris, our present-day leaders make speeches that sound just as empty as the ones that preceded them. I hope I’m wrong, but my guess is that in another week or two, when the rhetoric dies down, we’ll settle back into our comfortable self-indulgences and just hope for the best. You see, we’re tired of war. We’re sick of it, actually.

We don’t want any more of that brutality. Of course we don’t. Problem is, our enemies are just getting started.

A story excerpt from “Absolute Summer and Other Stories”

 

Here is an excerpt from “The Global Athletic Legitimacy League,” one of 10 short stories contained in Doug Wolter’s new book “Absolute Summer and Other Stories.” In the humorous story “The Global Athletic Legitimacy League,” Steve, Tom, Bernie and Vince escape their hum-drum lives bi-weekly in the sanctuary of Steve’s basement to solve all the sporting world’s most intractable issues as founding members of GALL. What follows are the exploits of our four heroes, a few connected episodes in which their wives and acquaintances play a part.

 “Absolute Summer and Other Stories” may be purchased at the author’s discount at a book signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Daily Globe. The author looks forward to seeing you there.

***

Revolted about the fact that rhythmic gymnastics was ever an Olympic sport, the Global Athletic Legitimacy League (GALL), consisting of Steve, Tom, Bernie and Vince, decided to meet in Steve’s basement and determine once and for all what constitutes a legitimate sporting activity.

The meeting lasted two and a half hours and required the consuming of three family-size bags of pretzels, seven tacos and 13 cans of lite beer. When the official meeting ended, the following legislation was agreed to: A real sport must, by rule, involve strenuous physical activity and not just mental exercises (thereby eliminating chess, checkers, card games and so-called gymnastics spectacles where women dress up in fairy costumes and flit around on their tippy-toes) AND must also involve a ball, puck, gun or motorized vehicle. There were certain exceptions made for the following non-ball sports — wrestling (not pro style), boxing, skiing and archery. Competitive eating was debated, then rejected on the grounds that it was just stupid.

The resolution was hereby agreed upon unanimously in spite of Tom’s pointing out that, according to the new rules, cycling — meaning the Tour de France — would not be covered as a sport.

Vince said he was OK with that, and the meeting was adjourned.

+++

Not at all in the mood for a casserole, Bernie Cravatz sat on a stool at Mildred’s Downtown Café, perusing the day’s version of USA Today, and he read aloud to the guy seated next to him, local farmer Gary Bryngelson, about something funny that happened across the ocean in China. Seemed that some Chinese government officials were reprimanded for dining on a rare salamander.

“Those things are delicacies,” responded Mr. Bryngelson between sips of black coffee.

“Yeah? What do you know about it?” said Bernie, quick-witted as always.

“I got a batch of them things just the other day,” said Bryngelson. “Tastes like chicken.”

“And where do you go get them things?” said Bernie, thinking he had him this time.

“I get ‘em over at the Hy-Vee. … In the salamander section, next to the fish sticks.”

This kind of repartee goes on all the time at Mildred’s Downtown Café, by the way. It is the place to go for humor, which is sadly going out of style if you ask Gary Bryngelson.

+++

At Friday’s GALL meeting, Bernie introduced a guest analyst, his brother-in-law Bill, who confirmed his good faith by carrying with him a large plastic jar stuffed with individually-wrapped beef jerky ropes. Bill was also an experienced Texas hold ‘em player and the GALL members were anxious to get a crack at him.

To become accepted as a guest analyst, one had to (a) be a certified sports fan, and not just someone able to pass himself off as one at parties, (b) vow, under oath, not to be an active supporter of the New York Yankees or Duke Blue Devils (former Yankees or Duke fans were required to write a short essay showing remorse for their past sins), and (c) adhere to a strict code of secrecy.

Potential guests also had to fill out an advance questionnaire, administered by the league secretary, which probed for personality defects. It isn’t quite the intrusion college football seniors are subjected to before the NFL draft, but it is enough to weed out undesirables. One multiple choice question, for instance, asks: “When hosting a Super Bowl party, do you serve (a) pizza, (b) tacos and chili, (c) brats, or (d) Basil Caesar Salad?

You’d be surprised how many people get that one wrong.

Anyway, Bill passed the test and was thrilled to get in on the discussion involving how to deal with the interminable closing minutes of college and NBA basketball games. The problem, as everyone who’s ever watched these things knows, is that the last three minutes can take 40 minutes, the last two minutes 30 minutes, and so on. Tom said watching a tight NBA game in the closing seconds can seem like trying to get to work during rush hour. Bernie said it’s worse than that — it’s like repeatedly arriving at the cure for cancer and being interrupted at the last moment by someone who says, “But first … a word from our sponsor.”

“The Lakers and the Spurs played last night,” testified Steve with the passion of an evangelist, “and I swear when the time clock struck 2:55 the world stopped spinning. I thought time itself had slowed down to a crawl, and then froze altogether. I looked at my own little clock on the mantel and it was at 10:35. Time-out. Then the Lakers had a possession that took 16 seconds. Another time-out. They came back and ran another play. Twelve seconds off the clock. Time-out. Over and over again it went. I looked at the clock on my mantel: 10:55. I looked at the game clock in the corner of my TV set: 2:07 remaining. Another play, another time-out. More commercials. I was beginning to see the same commercials I’d seen only 20 seconds earlier. They went back to the game. More standing around. Talking. Coaches giving instructions to players. Players looking off into space, wondering THEMSELVES if they were EVER going to get to finish this stupid game so they could go home to their everlovin’ families. I should have gone to bed, but I just had to watch. Why? I don’t know. I was stuck in an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and I couldn’t get out. Finally, as I could feel my beard growing like Rip Van Winkle, the game clock fell under one minute. But there were more time-outs. With every new possession there was a new time-out. I covered my mouth because I felt like I would have to scream. I could no longer bear to look at the clock on my mantel — I no longer wanted to know exactly how much more of my life I let waste away trying to come to the conclusion of this game. I don’t know. It must have been past midnight when the game finally ended. The final two seconds went by in slow-motion. I fell down to my knees and prayed. Thank you, God, it didn’t go overtime!”

It was a highly successful GALL meeting, everyone agreed. The poker game had a special feel to it, thanks mostly to Bill’s new money, and his beef jerky ropes went down well with the beer. But the highlight was, without a doubt, Steve’s speech about the Lakers-Spurs marathon. It was a stem-winder to go down in the annals of the greatest Global Athletic Legitimacy League speeches ever, and it instantly sucked out of the room any whiff of wimpishness regarding what they all knew they had to do to save basketball from itself.

Vince offered a motion that college and NBA basketball teams be limited to no more than two time-outs inside the final two minutes of every game, thus speeding the flow to a more satisfying conclusion.

But that wasn’t good enough for Bernie, who proposed that one time-out would be even better.

“The Speech,” which is what it would be called ever after, had been that powerful. Bernie’s motion was seconded. And it was carried. Unanimously. Then they all applauded themselves and carried Steve up the basement stairs on their shoulders, never dropping him once.

+++

For three days Doris Hardtack moped around the house in a deep funk. Finally, pulling his head out of the sports section, Vince asked her, “What’s goin’ on?”

Since for Vince this kind of response was as close as he ever came to offering genuine sympathy, Doris told him that she felt the urge to write the story of her life. Doris was a voracious reader and had been devouring a biography about Oprah Winfrey, and she explained to her husband that she thought she was now ready to wax eloquent in print about her own life.

“So what’s the problem?” Vince shrugged, diverting his eyes off of her and onto a preview of the upcoming NFL draft.

“The problem is that my life is boring. What have I done with my life? Surely nothing of any importance that anybody would care to read about,” Doris said, hoping against common sense that her inattentive mate might say something to turn her melancholy around.

Vince thought for a moment. He recalled to her the four children the two of them raised together, all of them who turned out to be fine human beings. He recalled all those years she served as treasurer of their church, and that time 17 years ago that she saved the congregation $4,000 just because she happened to notice something nobody else noticed. He mentioned how she’s such a great cook, and that she’s always kept the house so clean for her family and for visitors.

“That should count for something,” he continued.

He mentioned her gift for giving, about the time they put up the Viskers in their basement for six weeks after their roof got a hole in it from that June storm so many summers ago. And how Mrs. Visker said Doris was the nicest person she’s ever met, and that Mrs. Visker said she was determined to help a needy person just because of Doris Hardtack’s inspiration.

Vince went back further. He recalled how Doris made it through college in less than four years while working for next to nothing in that cheesy Country Kitchen restaurant. “Oh, the stories you could tell,” Vince went on.

Doris just stood there and listened. The frown had disappeared from her face. Vince kept droning on and on, dredging up the past and remembering their years together.

“But I never had my own TV show like Oprah did,” she interjected mildly. “I’ll never be rich and famous, not for as long as I live. Nobody will remember me when I’m gone.”

Vince threw down his newspaper. “And what am I, a nobody?”

That night the Hardtacks went out to eat at the local Perkins Restaurant. Then they returned home and plopped in the DVD they had of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” …

 

  • “Absolute Summer and Other Stories” can be purchased for the author’s discount price of $12 at a Nov. 13 book signing at the Daily Globe.

Story excerpt from “Absolute Summer and Other Stories”

 

Here is an excerpt from “PEF Rancourt’s World,” one of 10 short stories contained in Doug Wolter’s new book “Absolute Summer and Other Stories.” The story “PEF Rancourt’s World” is set in the future, in a society where people of faith have been deemed enemies of the state, where “principle essence facilitators” assume positions once filled by church pastors. In this world, Leander Rancourt wields his malignant power unconcerned about the damage he inflicts on everyone he meets. This excerpt is where Leander Rancourt is introduced, confidently asserting his privilege as the arbiter of untruth oblivious to surprises that await him.

“Absolute Summer and Other Stories” may be purchased at the author’s discount at a book signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Daily Globe. The author looks forward to seeing you there.

Look for another story excerpt at this location later this week.

***

 

He told Mrs. Anawaty with an almost imperceptible upturn of his chin that he would return in an hour or so, and he walked out the big doors of North Side Mind-Faith Assembly a moment later, stepping his way onto the sidewalk of Primrose Street in the drab pursuit of everyday duty.

His hard, shiny black shoes strode briskly along the pavement at precise intervals, making a regular light clicking noise like that of a well-ordered metronome. He looked neither right nor left. His eyes adjusted briefly to the woman jogger with the stocking cap and ear buds who nearly bumped into him, but his head didn’t move. She did not apologize as she brushed by. He continued assiduously on to his destination.

The crisp pleats on the cuffs of his black dress pants bobbed gaily as he walked, in contrast to his dour face. Mr. Leander Rancourt’s thin colorless lips pressed down tight. His rather white, chalky face looked even whiter against the black upraised collar of his long black coat that swung all the way below his knees. His pale blue eyes, protected by thin eyelids, narrowed. The receding light brown hair on his scalp was close-cropped above the oval of his clean-shaven face, which he held together like a statue.

To look at him now, you wouldn’t suspect Counselor Rancourt enjoyed his job very much. Oh, but he did. As the only tenured principle essence facilitator on the entire north side of the city, he possessed a certain respectability that other PEFs didn’t have. The government salary he earned wasn’t what made him feel so special, and why should it? It wasn’t all that much, really. But others in his profession looked up to him, and why shouldn’t they? He had written books.

Mr. Rancourt’s destination was close at hand now. It had been only three blocks away from the Assembly, after all, and with his hands still hidden in his coat pockets he took the five steps which brought him to the entrance of a three-story red-brick apartment building. He drew out his right hand and grabbed hold of the brass handle. Inside, he glanced at the names of the residents on the slender tin mailboxes affixed to a nearby wall. He found her. Anne Crestmann, second floor, apartment 5B.

What did she want? Mrs. Crestmann had been a semi-regular attender of the Assembly, and when she was there she usually sat in the first row of pews. Rancourt often wondered if she had wanted to make herself conspicuous to the facilitator, because when he read passages from the books he’d picked out for instruction and encouragement, she’d take out a book of her own, open it, and display it on her lap. It was a thick black book, a superstitious book full of worthless myths — a book that he consciously tried not to acknowledge among his congregants.

A younger woman opened the door to Mrs. Crestmann’s apartment. She said she was her daughter, and would he please follow her to her mother’s bedroom. There, the old lady’s bed was semi-made with two fluffy white pillows propped against a dark chestnut headboard, the top pillow still indented from where her head had rested. Mrs. Crestmann sat in a straight-backed chair, stiff and upright, and thanked the counselor for coming.

“Anne,” he began.

Calling her Anne sounded strange to Rancourt. They were never close, and rarely did they even speak to each other when she appeared at the Assembly. But he knew every regular or semi-regular attender by name.  Although the sanctuary (actually nobody ever really called it a sanctuary very much anymore) seated 400, on a normal Sunday less than a 100 could be expected to show up. The only large gatherings occurred at the Winter Festival celebration, which old-timers used to call Christmas.

“I haven’t been to your services lately,” Mrs. Crestmann said. “It’s been a couple of months.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed,” said Rancourt.

“I have cancer,” Mrs. Crestmann said in a craggy voice. “I am feeling well enough at the moment to sit in my chair. But I don’t get out much anymore. I would like to receive Holy Communion.”

Rancourt fidgeted as he slowly eased his wide rump on the straight chair Mrs. Crestmann’s daughter provided for him. He sighed, and said, “Dear Mrs. Crestmann. You must know that I am not authorized to administer Christian communion. To anyone.”

“I explained that to her, Counselor,” interjected the daughter quietly and respectfully. “But she insisted that I ask you to come. She’s … she’s my mother, you know. And I…”

Rancourt smiled at the woman in the chair, who gazed at him in a way that to him seemed like a quiet pleading. Mrs. Crestmann seemed so frail in that chair. The bony hands that she held in her lap, lined with protruding veins, shook faintly.

He reached inside his large coat and took out a little green leather-bound book. “What I have, I give you,” he said.

He turned quickly to page 87. “This is from an anonymous writer,” he said.

“What do you require … in your time of need? Those who love you are here to help … Your community of friends is here for you, and only for you … To comfort … To share …What do you require, dear friend?…

He glanced up from the page to look on Mrs. Crestmann. He saw her looking at her daughter, and saw the old woman’s daughter return the glance, pained.

Rancourt coughed, then continued.

“Pray, do not deny the reality of your pain. Go to it, and go with courage, for if it be that this present world is all that we have… Remember that the sunshine penetrates the darkness. See it. Embrace it… Go to it now, for it calls to you…”

Mrs. Crestmann looked at him now with expressionless eyes.

“Perhaps this will help,” he said, flipping through the pages. He stopped on page 142. “I have a wonderful poem here by Emily Dickinson. You may find some comfort in it. … I have William Wordsworth also in this book. Or Elizabeth Barrett Browning… Perhaps you prefer someone more contemporary, such as Maya Angelou.”

He looked again at Mrs. Crestmann’s daughter. Then back again at Mrs. Crestmann, sitting wordless in the chair, her 82-year-old eyes watery and searching.

“I have others still living. Uh … maybe we should dispense with the poems today. Would you simply like to converse?” And he reached out and touched the old woman lightly on her right hand that had been resting on her lap.

“I would like Holy Communion, please,” she said…

 

  • “Absolute Summer and Other Stories” can be purchased for the author’s discount price of $12 at a Nov. 13 book signing at the Daily Globe.