Can I Get A Hallelujah!

It was Sunday and we were in Church. Well, Costco actually, but it is a large open space where people congregate. The shelves reach to the sky, and you tithe with annual dues. Oh, and their private-label brand is Kirkland, which means Churchland in Scotland.

We grabbed a program from the parishioner at the front and made our way past people preaching about the saving graces of DirectTV over cable, how heavenly it was breaking bread with Cutco knives, and how devilishly the Ninja blender sliced and diced.

Alex examined her program carefully since it contained clues to the sites we had to make a pilgrimage to that day. Basically, all the stuff we’d waited to buy until it went on sale. This was going to be a long service. Good thing we had on comfortable shoes.

We took communion from many a minister of samples as we walked around a maze of humanity toward a warm glow emanating from the back center of the sanctuary. This was the Mecca where you could get a sublime roast chicken for just $4.99.

On the way out there was a flash like a sign from God. I turned and came upon something that could possibly change my life: Glide floss, multipack, on sale. The angels sang as I picked up the package and put it into our giant cart. Okay, it was me who sang, but still.

That night was a religious experience flossing with the silky smooth string. No more hard string floss for me, hallelujah!… as long as it’s on sale anyway, that stuff’s expensive.

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Light the Fire

Her flame burned bright not long ago
A shining light for wayward souls
Seems we’ve all been bought or sold
And this old place is turning cold
Yeah, this old place is turning cold

But we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of liberty

She’s taken hits, she’s taken blows
She’s eaten cake, she’s eaten crow
Her torch is out on payday loan
But there’s still a spark way down below
There’s still a spark way down below

And we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of  liberty

Our truths are self evident
Our rights are our own
Our gift is our giving
To those that need more

Yes we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of  liberty

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Italian Ice

Alex looked out the window of our early morning Alitalia flight from Naples back to the U.S. and sighed: “Well, that airport security guy is gonna’ have a nice dinner tonight with our leg of prosciutto.” I was just glad we hadn’t been arrested.

Between the cop pulling us over on our way to the airport, and the taxi driver at the rental return lot demanding 30 Euros I didn’t have, and wasn’t about to pay, for his shady maneuver getting us into a taxi to go 100 yards down the road, and numerous other misdeeds like, oh… hitting a pedestrian with our car (which sounds worse than it was). Well, I’d say we were kinda’ lucky to be getting out of there at all.

“Arrivederci Italy,” I said thankfully as the plane left the ground.

The trip started three weeks earlier in Venice from another plane window at dusk. The view below looked like two twinkling fish in either a yin and yang embrace or dual to the death.

Duality, we discovered, was to be a constant companion on this journey.

When we were planning the trip, there wasn’t a single person that could say a single negative thing about Italy. “Oh, the food!” they’d gush. “The wine!” “The views!” And on and on and on. They were right about all of it, but they left out some important facts.

I lugged our suitcases onto the water bus that would take us to our hotel in Venice. We cut through the Grand Canal past elegant buildings with glass chandeliers whose bottom floors doubled as seawalls. The glimmering water below lapped against them as a constant reminder of who was here first.

Our first item of business was to find some food. It was not the high tourist season, so places were closing early. We browsed a menu outside of a quaint, romantic-looking place. Dark wood booths inside, tables for two with candles and flowers outside. Perfect. Except for the prices. We decided we’d split something so as not to break the bank on our first night.

Now we love Italian food, but before this trip we would almost exclusively enjoy it out of the comfort of our own kitchen. Alex makes homemade pumpkin ravioli in the fall, pesto and pine nut pasta in the spring, or homemade pizza anytime.

That first meal out in Venice was good, but we got the check and thought they’d given us the wrong bill. Either that, or they had charged us a whole lot for a split plate. Turns out it was a coperto, or cover-charge, but not for a band or a show, just for the pleasure of taking a seat. As we paid, I asked the waitress where the band was and she looked at me like I was an annoying tourist.

We left the restaurant shaking our heads, but found a peaceful piazza to take our minds off the coperto. A church tower loomed over one end, lit by the light of the Mediterranean moon. A fountain bubbled. A big boat full of fresh vegetables was anchored on the adjoining canal. And a colorful gelato stand pulled us in for a late-night nibble.

That night we enjoyed our first real Italian gelato and felt for a minute like all was right in the world.

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My Ovechkin Story

Alex Ovechkin was one of the most outgoing of the Russians. He always said hello with a crooked smile and asked about me and my Easton equipment. He was known to dress a bit garishly, when not in the NHL mandated travel suit and tie, and caught some flak from his mates because of it: His white apres-ski boots and fur coat ensemble were a highlight.

Beyond the big personality, he was a considerate guy. I witnessed this a few times. I was there late after practice one day helping assemble some of our new helmets with shields and team logos, and someone comes in and says “Ovy bought lunch.” We walked into the team lounge area, with couches and TV’s and Ping-Pong tables, and there was a spread of Sushi and Asian foods that could feed three teams. Apparently, he gave his black Amex card to someone and told them to get something good to eat.

Another time, I walk into practice early, and Ovy is being measured in the hall by a small Frenchman. This was his suit guy. Yes, the guy would fly in to tailor Ovy. I didn’t get a price, but I imagine it was high. With the little fellow down around Ovy’s crotch area, a low-level assistant coach walked by: “Get a room,” the assistant coach joked. Ovy laughed and called him over. “You want a suit?” he asks. The lower-level assistants weren’t paid too much, and did the job more for the experience and the love of the game. The guy probably only had a couple of Men’s Warehouse specials.

“No, I’m okay,” said the assistant, looking at the garishly colored pin-striped number that Ovy was being fitted for. “You need a suit!” Ovy declared. “Okay, okay, as long as it’s not in that ugly pin-stripe,” joked the assistant.

Just like the suit maker, when Ovechkin asked us to make some custom sticks for him, we tailored them to his specific taste, and we hand-delivered them. For most players we’d make two sample sticks, and not always hand-deliver. For Ovechkin we did six, and two of us hand-delivered them.

My plant boss, Mac, and I arrived the evening before and sat down to dinner. We had steak and a bottle of good wine as a kind of pre-celebration. “Do you realize how big this is?” said Mac. “If we can get Ovechkin to like our stick enough that he drops his contract with CCM…. Huge.” This was potentially so big, we didn’t even have to share a hotel room to cut expenses.

That night, from the towel-dimmed light of my hotel room desk, I emailed the Capitals equipment manager Brock, just to reconfirm that the eagle had landed and we would see them in the morning.

We got a few looks, lugging the six sticks across the hotel lobby in the bulky long bag out to our cab. The driver reached down to help with the bag, but Mac held it tight. “This stays with me,” he said, fearful the cabbie might slam a trunk on them. Mac put the stick bag through the middle of the cab and we made our way to the rink.

Once there, we waited impatiently for the players to roll in. We were just inside the rope, where autograph-seekers stood to get a quick look at their heroes. Suddenly, people started shouting; “Ovy, Ovy!” He smiled at us before going over to engage with his fans.

Walking back toward the locker room, he brought us with him. “So, what you got?” he asked. Mac opened the bag and proudly pulled out the black, silver and blue Easton S17 sticks. “Now, the colors can obviously be changed to whatever you want,” said Mac, knowing we were in red, white and blue territory here. “I’m not worried about that,” said Ovechkin. “I just want to see how they play.” As he twirled the blade in the air and took it to the ground to feel the flex on the shaft, there was a slight cracking sound. He looked up at us with a raised eyebrow. “Just the materials settling,” Mac quickly affirmed.

About a half-hour later, Mac and I stood along the boards and watched as Ovechkin took the ice with our stick. After some warm-ups, the team got into a passing and shooting drill: A line of players in each corner; one corner guy skates around past the blue line and comes back in to catch a pass from the opposite corner guy and shoots on the goalie.

Ovechkin’s turn, and he swoops around, grabs a quick pass from the corner, flicks his wrists to take a snapshot… and breaks the Plexiglass behind the goaltender’s head. Mac and I looked at each other and high-fived. We couldn’t believe it. I mean, the power our stick had in Ovy’s hands was out of this world. The shot was from almost 60 feet away. And a snapshot to boot!

For the next 15 minutes or so, we watched as Ovy tried to control the puck better. He bobbled a few passes, but hey, he bobbled passes with his CCM stick too—it was his shot that was his money-maker. A few minutes later, he put the Easton stick down and grabbed one of his old CCM’s…. And that was it.

“We made him a Ferrari and he wanted a BMW,” Mac analogized later over beers. “Well, can we soften it up a little, make him a hybrid of the two?” I asked. “Even if we did Kirky, you usually only get one chance with these guys.”

And he was right. The only thing I got out of the whole ordeal was an Ovechkin custom sample stick for myself, and a story to tell.

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The Musicave

It all started with the rug. Alex found it on a Nextdoor type app. We didn’t need a rug, but she wanted to soften up the concrete floor of our unfinished basement and this one appeared to be in good shape and basically free.

She had already hung white fabric walls and a mini-chandelier in the space to try to make it more like a room than a bunch of two by fours and some insulation.

The rug pulled it all together. Its boho-chicness brought to mind an intimate acoustic concert space with a barefoot musician singing amongst flickering candles. We decided then and there to create a music room.

A leather couch someone was giving away, a repurposed neo-classical fireplace mantel, an old upright piano, and we felt like we were channeling the Chateau Marmont in its rock-era heyday.

To cap it all off, we were at Ballard’s Outlet and found a bunch of misfit letters. There was no M, so we turned a W upside down. There were not enough identical sizes, colors, textures or fonts. But we came up with our sign. It read MUSICAVE (yes, with one C, and the E is a funky cheetah print- the most Rock & Roll of all the letters).

We proudly showed off the basement to the first friend who came over. He saw the sign and said “Music Avenue?”

“Sure, that too,” I replied.

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My Old Friend

It’s like an old friend’s voice when you hear it again after a long time apart. The vibrations warm and familiar. Melodic timing. Notes combining to make chords.

I took my acoustic guitar for granted until recently. It’s not an expensive Martin, or a Taylor or a Gibson- it’s a Yamaha FG, which I just learned stands for “First Guitar”. Well this “First Guitar” has been in my possession now for over 30 years, and still sounds better to me than many a fancy guitar I’ve played alongside.

This guitar has traveled from Atlanta to LA and back again over the course of many years. I used to play it just about every night. It’s got some dings and scratches, but nothing serious. On the head there’s a bird with wings spread, and one ding that resembles one of the bird’s wings on the body. I find that one kind of poetic.

The musical poet Jackson Browne was talking about guitars in a radio interview and he said one of his favorites is a guitar he found in a store window. He didn’t even know the make of the instrument but it had the name Cody Lee scratched into it, apparently the name of the previous owner, so that’s what he called it. Jackson then went on to play a haunting rendition of  “Something Fine”.

At first I learned only the intro to songs. I could play the heck out of the bassy first few notes of the Stones Under My Thumb. The hammer-ons and pull-offs of Zeppelin’s Black Dog. The three sweet acoustic intro chords of The Almond Brother’s Sweet Melissa.

I eventually learned complete songs and even wrote songs of my own, but unfortunately today my guitar gently weeps in the corner of the room from lack of attention. I’ve even lost the fingertip callouses I had built up proudly from regular playing.

Fortunately, my wife has always encouraged my playing- even when I was still in the song intro stage, and even while (still?) finding my voice- and she has been slowly redoing a room in our unfinished basement that we’re calling “The Musicave”.

We’ve got the requisite oriental rug, funky crystal chandelier, a cozy caramel leather couch, and an old fireplace mantle that she repurposed.

I don’t know if the FG will live down there, but I’m sure it will be a frequent guest. I kinda’ like it to be close by, like an old friend should be.

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Thanks Jimmy Connors

Jimmy Connors used the T3000 to win Wimbledon and the US Open. I use it to defend myself against wasps and bees while I grill, and volley a carpenter bee or two away from my wood soffits. I’m all for preserving the bee population, but not when they are literally eating my house.

This was a statement racket when it came out and still is today. The thing could be at home on the grass courts of Wimbledon, or in the hands of a villain in one of the Mad Max films. If you squint, it could be some kind of torture device.

I picked up the thing at a garage sale a few years back. It was sitting in the corner of the garage and probably hadn’t been used since Mel Gibson was considered sexy.

My wife thought I was crazy. “You’ve got a tennis racket,” she said. “But this is no ordinary racket,” I said, “this is the T3000.” She shook her head at me, but we kind of had an understanding that if it was cheap enough, you do you.

Cut to today, and we’re enjoying a nice cool spring afternoon on our front porch. Early cocktails after spending the day cleaning outdoor furniture and decks after an extremely dusty pollen season. I was starting to think our furniture was forever yellow.

I went in for more cocktails and when I came back out, Alex had been re-dusted; but not by pollen, by a carpenter bee. It was either tiny wood chips, or tiny bee poop, but either one was not good.

“Get the T3000!” she cried out in exasperation.

I returned with the weapon, glistening in the afternoon sun. “Where is it?” I asked. “He was hovering up there near those two holes in our house.” I held the weapon at the ready, but alas, no sign of the intruder.

I leaned the racket next to us, and we enjoyed ten minutes or so with nary a carpenter bee in sight. In our minds, it was the mere sight of the T3000 that had these things at bay.

“That racket was well worth the dollar or two you spent on it,” Alex admitted. “I told you this was no ordinary racket,” I said as I raised my beer for an imaginary toast: “Thanks Jimmy Connors.”

Clean Sheets

We rolled around in the middle of a cool spring night. “Clean sheets,” I mumbled to Alex who offered a pleasurable sigh in response.

This was not what you may be thinking. It was simply the acknowledgement that there wasn’t a whole lot better than clean sheets in your own bed after being away for a while.

My mom used to clean the house before we went on family trips and I’d always get frustrated with her. I’d say something like “Mom, who are you cleaning for?! No one’s coming into the house while we’re gone.”

What I didn’t realize until later was that she was cleaning for herself. For the pleasure of walking barefoot on a clean floor, leaning into a dust-free couch pillow, running a hand across clean cold granite, wiggling feet in fresh clean sheets.

We woke up the next morning to the sound of rain on the roof. Gray light of dusk sifting through the sides of curtains. This was Ambien to Alex.

“You getting up?” I asked rhetorically. “Clean sheets,” she said as she rolled over for a few more winks.

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Farewell Tour

The Who Farewell Tour tickets were to go on sale soon, so all we had to do was come up with some money, get in line early to secure tickets, and convince my mom it was a good idea. That third one was going to be a doozy.

My mom loved us and all, but she was strict, and not just with her own kids- she would scold anyone: The mailman who gave her the neighbor’s mail by accident, the gas meter-reader who walked through her bushes instead of around, even the poor kid working at the mall store who had the music loud enough to actually hear it.

She was also the one who cooked all our meals, cleaned all our clothes, and kept us all on our different schedules like clockwork.

Dinners were mostly at home around the dinner table. She used to summon us with a train whistle when we were young kids running loose around the neighborhood. As we got older, we didn’t need a whistle, we’d just sit around waiting for the food to come out; our teenage bodies requiring constant fuel.

We gathered around the table that night as usual. The meal consisted of meat and my most and least favorite things: potatoes and Brussels sprouts. I guess I grabbed a bigger heaping of potatoes than normal since I got a smack on the backside of my hand from the wooden spatula my mom was holding. I held my temper and pushed around the gooey eyeball-shaped Brussels sprouts while I prepared my pitch for going to The Who in Birmingham.

About midway through the meal, my dad said something my mom laughed at, and I saw an opening. “Mom, who was your favorite band growing up?” “Well, we didn’t really have bands like you do, per se…. We liked types of music.” “Okay, then what was your favorite type of music?” “When I was young? I don’t know, maybe classical.” She was killing me, but I was determined. “Well, you like Tom Jones, right? I mean, you have the album.” My dad took this as a cue and he sang: “What’s new pussycat…” Then together they sang, “whoa, ooh whoa, ooh whoa oh!” I about gagged on my potatoes, but realized this was my opening.

“So, what if Tom Jones announced a retirement tour and he was coming to a town near here? You’d want to go right?” “Oh, is Tom Jones retiring?” “I don’t know mom, I was making a point.” “What’s your point then?”

I couldn’t hold it in any longer, so I just spit it out. “The Who is retiring and the closest concert to us is in Birmingham and Dave and I want to go.” She looked at my dad, who shrugged like he didn’t have anything to do with this, and didn’t really want to. “Eat your Brussels sprouts and we’ll see,” she said.

I spent the next ten minutes trying to finish those nasty things and prove to my mom I meant business.

I made a point of showing her my empty plate before offering to do the dishes. She stepped aside with a surprised look on her face. “So, when is this concert?” she asked as she eyed every plate I washed to make sure it was clean enough to put in the dishwasher, and then made sure every item was put in its rightful dishwasher place.

“It’s the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.” “A school night?” she asked rhetorically.

I realized I still had some work to do if I was ever going to see The Who live.

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A Short Full Life

Walking around Charleston, south of Broad, we came upon a plaque commemorating a man with my last name: Smith. This fellow, Thomas Smith, was a planter, merchant, surgeon and Governor of Carolina all before his death at the age of 46 in the late 1600’s.

Now, I’ve planted my share of things, and I’m a salesman. My father was a surgeon- which doesn’t do much for my plaque- and as for politician… well I used to think I had too many skeletons in the closet, but these days that doesn’t seem to matter much.

I joked to Alex that we should introduce ourselves around town as The Smiths of Charleston. Maybe get invited to a soiree of some sort. She joked back that we might find out he was a hated man, who only got the plaque due to his money and power, and we’d get blackballed by Charleston’s high society.

As we ambled down brick paths amongst houses that hadn’t changed much since the late 1600’s, we took in curved stairs covered in green creeping fig, broad porches accented by red, pink and purple window box flowers, freshly painted front doors decorated with gas lanterns and brass doorknockers, the pride of ownership and attention to detail palpable.

But I couldn’t get Thomas Smith out of my mind. How can someone do so much in so short a period of time, I thought.

Well I’d guess the governorship was granted, and I’m not certain, but I’d bet there were a few less steps to becoming a surgeon back then. I mean, I read somewhere that around that time they used to irrigate wounds with syringes filled with wine. Now, I’ve irrigated many-a-wound with wine, but not through a syringe. I’d even guess that some of the tools to be a surgeon then could be used to be a planter and vice-versa, so maybe it was a natural transition. And of course there were no Kardashians to keep up with, or to waste your precious time watching….

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