The Reunion by Regan Burke

In the locked ward of the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I was withdrawing from my demons – cheap wine, LSD, amphetamines and marijuana – when my long-absent father appeared before me. I was 24 years old. The last time I’d seen him, the week before I was to enter Monmouth College, I’d knocked on the door of his mid-town Manhattan apartment seeking money to pay my first year’s tuition. He was drunk, wrapped tight in a dirty blue bathrobe. He wrote me a check, then stopped payment before I could get to the Admissions Office in Long Branch, an hour down the Garden State Parkway.

Fresh out of a straight-jacket, I had no clothes or shoes of my own, having arrived at the public madhouse in an ambulance after a drug overdose. I wore a short-sleeved baggy muslin dress from the institutional collection designed and made by the permanent residents.

“You have a visitor,” the nurse said before escorting me from my cell-like room to the end of the hallway into a clean and airy space she called the Day Room. There were windows along the wall opposite the door, starting maybe six feet up from the floor and reaching the ceiling. For the first time I realized my confinement was subterranean.

My father turned toward me. His brown felt fedora, soft brimmed with a hand-creased crown, topped his elegant duds: white open-necked shirt, tweed sports jacket, gabardine trousers and cordovan wing-tips. A miasma of feelings engulfed me. I feared him. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him.

Why didn’t she say it was my father? I had no idea how to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. My body shook and rattled as I searched for some kind of appropriate words. I knew only hippy language.

“Hey, man. Far out. You’re here. I’m a little strung out.”

He told me his story of recovery from alcoholism. He loved the effect from his first teenage beer. After that, once he picked up the first drink he binged until he was forced to stop. He had been in and out of jail for getting in fights, drunken driving and cashing bad checks. He couldn’t hold a job. In the end, he holed up in the New York apartment drinking quarts of scotch round the clock until an old friend knocked on his door.

“Had enough, Burke?”

After years of trying on his own, these bewitching words got him to open the door and allow a few men from Alcoholics Anonymous to enter his life. The obsession to drink lifted. “A miracle,” he called it.

He told me about an AA meeting at the hospital. He didn’t suggest I go, didn’t offer to take me, didn’t tell whoever was charged with moving me around my current existence. He just laid the words down. And then he left. He never removed his hat.

About 25 years into my own recovery — admitting defeat, examining resentments, practicing forgiveness, making amends and consciously increasing a spiritual life — that reunion with my father came back to me. I now know supernatural love and courage drove him to bestow his abundant legacy, the gift of sobriety.

Morrigan Go Bragh by Regan Burke

On the southwest coast of Ireland known as West Cork, I monitor a murder of grey-backed black-crowned crows cruising around the wild Irish garden of the home I’m visiting in the hills above the harbour of Baltimore, an old pirate town. I’m not a thbirdwatcher, but enough of a bird lover to know these elegant, regal beauties are not something I see in the trees in or around my home in Chicago.

I sit in the peace of soft rain watching three Grey Crows preen on the dead unpruned branches of an ancient apple tree less than 50 feet from my morning coffee. I throw kitchen scraps onto the stone veranda adjacent to the dining room to entice the 20-inch long birds to come nearer to me. They swoop gracefully from their perch, plunk down and waddle toward the bounty, as I knew they would, like their foraging junk-eating U.S. cousins, the American Black Crow.

I open my laptop and look them up. Wikipedia has not only facts and figures of the Grey Crow but also a link to Celtic myths and legends of this western European corvus. I click into the world of Irish folklore where the Grey Crow is known as a manifestation of  The Morrigan. The Morrígan is a mythical figure, a foreteller of doom and death, deriving her name from the word “mara” connoting terror or monstrousness as in night-mare. Mara is my older sister’s name. The “rigan” in mor-rigan translates as queen, as in my name, Regan. Mara-Regan equals Mor-rigan, or the nightmarish queen, manifested in the Grey Crow keeping watch o’er my morning. So here I am on my Irish vacation, hiking heather and heath, having great craic with my Irish host, Vivienne DeCourcy, when I’m reminded that my sister Mara and I are ferally joined for all time in blood and tradition.

“Mara” has a place in many traditions. It means bitter in Hebrew, demon in Sanskrit. My mother benignly named my sister, thinking it a noble Gaelic name for Mary, never researching the root of it. The human Mara lived up to the historic iterations of her name: she killed me off before I was born, bullied and tormented me as a child until, as a fully-ripened adult, she declared she no longer considered me a part of her family.

This new knowledge awakens old fears and crams them into a contemporaneous morass. Is The Morrigan perched outside my window an omen on this mid-August day in 2017 as Donald Trump is heralding white supremacy in mythological statements that intertwine fact and fiction? Some say ancient Irish bands of young lawless warrior-hunters who lived on the fringe of civilisation were dedicated to The Morrigan similar to the white supremacists’ infatuation with Trump. The tenants of this wild Irish countryside fear Trump is a modern-day Morrigan cawing out lunatic signals, picking at trash and digesting hate. I trust Trump is a temporary danger, unlike Mara whose talons are forever embedded in my soul.

 

Learning the Art of Patience by Dave Schanding

by Dave Schanding

Mom asked dad, “Can you find some duct tape or a rope so we can tie this boy to a chair and get him to stop moving for a little while?”

Four weeks ago I had hip replacement surgery and two weeks ago I wanted to graduate from a walker to crutches. I felt like the walker made me look older (I’m 64). And now I was re-entering the real world, and crutches looked younger and more athletic. I could pretend like I’d had a skiing accident or sprained my ankle doing a triple Lutz at Millennium Park’s ice rink.  Well, at least I could pretend my hip didn’t just need replacing because my over-sized body wore it out prematurely.

I had in-home physical therapy on the Friday before my transition day, and I asked my physical therapist if I could practice walking with crutches outside. Thirty feet into my walk she grabbed the back of my jacket and asked me to slow down. There was no need to rush. We would get where we wanted to go in plenty of time. But I handled crutches like I’ve handled most things in life—with little patience.

I flunked the Palmer method of handwriting. I guess I was in too much of a hurry to carefully form letters. I don’t know who Palmer was, but Catholic schools seemed to love him or her. My mom saved all of my report cards and my kids loved seeing that their dad actually got an “F” in handwriting one year. I got the usual, ‘you should be a doctor when you grow up because no one can read their writing either.’ Even at age 64, I continue to take classes and take notes. Many of the courses use Power Point and have lights dimmed. My punishment for not doing well in writing in grade school is that I can’t read my own writing today.

Let’s try putting together a model car or airplane. Or maybe a LEGO set with instructions discarded.

Model cars that I put together were liberally smeared with glue as I wasn’t patient to wait for two pieces to truly bond together before trying to add more. While I finished quickly, I was reluctant to show my messy finished product. And I was frequently compared negatively to my one year younger brother, who did everything slowly, deliberately, and to perfection. So I realized impatience had its shortcomings.

But the world is against my mother, my third-grade writing teacher and my physical therapist.

We drove down the Kennedy expressway (Chicago) on Sunday in a snowstorm. A BMW was apparently in a hurry and zig-zagged between cars in the express lanes as we neared downtown. I oftentimes wonder what drivers do with that precious 30-60 seconds they gain by putting us all in danger. I did learn patience here.

For me, trying to learn foreign languages is an exercise in patience. I must be doing something wrong. The TV commercials say one can learn a language in a weekend with their revolutionary teaching system. I remember hearing that we speak hundreds of words every day. And some of today’s words are different than yesterday’s words. Can one really learn 800 words of vocabulary in a weekend? One night many years back, our son put on headphones and started the CD of a language program. They promised fluency by morning. I guess the headphones must have fallen off sometime during the night. I have learned that worthwhile accomplishments take time, and I’m more patient with my language progress.

In my working days, I was director at a time when our agency was just getting computerized. Computers would freeze up, crash, and occasionally wipe out things we didn’t want wiped out. I was able and willing to plow through getting these temperamental machines up and running again. A co-worker diagnosed my seeming endless patience to having children. One hopefully learns patience as children go through stages of development. They learn some new tasks quickly and others much more slowly. I seemed to have become more patient through that process.

Now TiVo has a feature that allows one to speed up a television show by 14%. At this enhanced speed, speech is minimally distorted, and a 30-minute show, which can be reduced to 22 minutes by speeding through commercials, can now be further reduced to 19 minutes. So between 6pm and the 10pm news I can watch almost 13 shows in the time that I would have seen 8 shows at regular speed with commercials. I should become an expert on solving Wheel of Fortune puzzles and selecting the right house on House Hunters. I’ll also have to figure out how to shave 14% off meal preparation, dinner and showering.

Being impatient has had its pluses and minuses. I have my printed photos in albums, where many buy albums but never managed to get their photos out of those envelopes from Walgreens (large drug store chain). I have scanned all documents and old photos so that I don’t have paper clutter. On the one hand, these are handy accomplishments. But most people are content to not get these things done. So my impatience has only led to partial satisfaction.

So where is this impatient young man today? I feel less driven on a daily basis as I don’t have the energy I had in my youth. I still want to feel like I’ve accomplished something each day, but I’m more content with what I actually manage to do. I still like my way of doing things, so I will likely still try to learn languages, type out my class notes, and rid my life of most paper clutter. Mom never really duct-taped me to a chair in my youth, and I think she’d feel a partial success in getting me to become more patient. And, no, I haven’t started watching television 14% faster yet either.

D-O-N-K-E-Y by Dave Schanding

D-O-N-K-E-Y is a card game for three or more players. There are clothes pins in the middle of the table—one less pin than the number of players. Each player is dealt four cards. The object is to get a four-card pair, then grab a clothes pin. Once one person grabs a clothes pin, everyone else is entitled to grab one. The player that doesn’t grab a pin gets a letter.

In Hamilton!OH folks hung out their worsh (Chicago translation: wash) to dry, and everyone had clothes lines in their back yards and a basket of clothes pins to pin the wet clothes up. On rainy days and late evenings, our family sometimes played DONKEY, borrowing some of mom’s clothes pins. With a family of six kids, we could usually muster up at least four kids and one parent to play. There was strategy, of course. Greg was quiet and quick of hand. Margie distracted everyone by talking constantly, oftentimes bringing up real or imagined embarrassing stories to unnerve. Jane was quiet and moved a little slower than the rest, so sometimes a clothes pin would be nudged her way. Chris was wiry and also quick of hand. Little Kath was the youngest and shortest, and, since she couldn’t reach the middle of the table, she also was the recipient of frequent nudged clothes pins. Dad and Mom had enough years’ experience with card games to provide for a strong advantage. I probably played it the straightest—no real strategy other than to look for a four-card pair.

After the dealer distributes four cards to each player, he or she begins looking at cards in the remaining deck. Discards go to the next player, who examines these cards against the ones in his hand. Each round continues until someone manages to get a four-card pair and picks up a clothes pin. Then a mad scramble takes place, with the final player getting no clothes pin and gaining a letter. The first time you don’t get a clothes pin, you get a “D”. Second time is an “O”. You get the idea.

Greg and Chris were quick-handed enough that sometimes they’d grab a clothes pin, then continue passing cards along. A game might go a minute or two before someone realized that a clothes pin was missing from the middle. Then the mad scramble would begin. Sometimes one of us would grab for a clothes pin and not have a pair. This fake grab might draw others into grabbing one for themselves. While this stopped play, I don’t recall anyone being penalized for grabbing a clothes pin when no actual pair was present, but we had fun fooling one another.

The deal rotates, so each person gets first-shot at looking for pairs. Sometimes someone will notice that the threes or queens are passing by, alerting a player down the line to consider collecting them. According to rules, a person should never have more than five cards in their hand, and should discard one before picking up another in the rotation. As a practical matter, as time passed, players would grab a small handful of cards. The downside of having a mitt-full of cards is that it’s harder to free up a hand to grab a clothes pin.

Aunt Julia was one of those persons that always lets the child win. She was known to announce, “I have four fives.” Everyone, except her, would grab a clothes pin. We kids generally didn’t like this strategy. While we liked the adults giving us breaks, we wanted the game to be competitive.

One might think that it would take hours for all participants but one to get DONKEY. Here, the second phase of the game begins. Once a person is a DONKEY, his or her task is to get the other players to talk with him.

Margie could annoy as she never shut up. Chris was more cunning and would ask the player next to him if they were saving, say, sixes. If the person responded, they became an instant DONKEY. We rarely got mom or dad to talk—I guess they had too many years’ of card playing experience. It didn’t seem to take long for all but one to become DONKEYs, either by clothes pins or by talking to a DONKEY.

After I married and began a family, I introduced the game to our children, and the first thing I had to do was acquaint them with clothes pins. We always use a clothes dryer and have never had a clothes line in our back yard. Even in recent years, when I have returned home visiting Hamilton, we now-adult children have been known to dig out the clothes pins and play like old times. Margie still talks too much. Greg and Chris still laugh quietly and grab a clothes pin when no one is looking. Little Kath is 52 years old but still gets help from some older brother or sister.  And I don’t think Dad has ever become a DONKEY from not grabbing clothes pins. Ah, the simple pleasures obtained from a deck of cards and a pile of clothes pins. I wonder if my smart phone has an ‘app’ for that.

I am that guy by Dave Schanding

Writer’s note: We were to write as if we were another person. Beginning around 2010, my wife and I began taking and enjoying cruise vacations. I wrote about a Filipino housekeeper we got to know on one longer cruise. I got into a little difficulty in class for singling out one ethnic group. I realized in discussion with a classmate afterwards that our classmates didn’t realize that 70-80% of cruise staff come from the Philippines and Indonesia. I intended to portray the reality—that the majority of service staff on cruises are from these islands and that they are universally seen as being extraordinarily friendly on cruises. But one must keep one’s reading audience in mind, and I missed the mark that day. The learning curve continues…

These cruisers must think that all Filipinos are perpetually happy and smiling. Most of us have learned to be this way as our job is to make the cruise patrons feel like they are REALLY on the vacation of a lifetime. My friend, Maribel, tells me she enjoys seeing the smiles on people’s faces as she sprays their hands with a hand cleanser as they enter the dining room. Her “happy, happy, washy, washy” sounds like she just came from a remote village, but it gets a smile and helps keep food borne illnesses down on our ship.

I’ve been with the company for eight years now, cleaning bedrooms, 10 per day, twice a day. We call the bedrooms ‘staterooms’ or ‘penthouse suites’ and this seems to make our guests happier with the money they’ve spent. And I’m NOT a housekeeper. I’m a stateroom attendant. Some of my cruisers learn my name and talk with me like I’m a fellow human being. Others just talk with me when they need an extra towel or a bucket of ice. Regardless, I do my job well and keep smiling.

I could write a book on the habits of my cruisers. Some leave clean staterooms that look like I’ve already been there. Others don’t seem to know that drawers and closets are the preferred location to store one’s clothes. I won’t go into the conditions of bathrooms I clean.

I start my day at 8 a.m.. I get a three-hour break in the afternoon, then do my evening rounds. I put in 10 hours of work. We work every day for eight months, then we get a two-month paid vacation. Sometimes I use my 3-hour break to head into the town we are visiting. This week we’re traveling to Croatia and Greece. Over the years I’ve visited several of the Greek Islands.

Yesterday I used my afternoon break to head into town in Corfu. I went along with Maribel, and we stopped for some local cuisine. We looked at trinkets that looked like Corfu, Greece but probably were made in Corfu, China. I ran into the couple from Stateroom 8662. I don’t think they recognized me. 8670 seemed embarrassed that they didn’t know my name and didn’t know what to say to me away from my job duties. The fellow in 8630 yelled out my name and chatted like we were old buddies. I feel really good when I’m greeted like this. After all, I am more than my stateroom attendant self.

I’ve learned to swallow. Like when I ask a guest how his day went and get a barrage of how it was too hot and the pavement was too uneven and how the filet wasn’t cooked to his satisfaction. Oh, you poor thing, I think. I had to work extra today, so I missed the chance to get out. And my feet are ALWAYS tired at the end of the day. And the only filet mignon I get is ground up and says 84% lean. Yes, I swallow and smile. Mr Smith, it must have been a trying day for you.

It’s a strange life working on a cruise ship. If my guests are nasty, I have solace in the fact that they will be gone in a week or two. And I always seem to have one room of this type. When my guests are friendly and ask about my life, my family, my opportunities to see the sites they see, I feel sad when their tour of duty is over. People come on cruises to be pampered and to see interesting places, and I enjoy helping this happen, at least most of the time. And I’d definitely rather clean staterooms than greet everyone with ‘happy, happy, washy, washy’.

by Dave Schanding

Ozzy the Arhat by Regan Burke

 

Do the dead always visit us in the morning? I wake up listening for the click-clacking tap-dancing, rat-a-tat across my hardened floors. Ozzy had well-padded soles, wide feet and solid toenails meant to root out rats and badgers from their earthen dens. No Scottie-level potted plants ever made it past the first day, neither inside nor on my third-floor balcony. His diggers instinctively, fanatically worked their way into the soil to get to something, anything that proved his worth, duty done. Satisfied with nothing more than a dirty nose and paws, he gave me a message: don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any danger, man or beast.

At the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered aloud to my 20-year-old grandson, CJ Kelly, why the artist painted so many colorful frogs at the feet of the arhats. CJ mindfully revealed those are the arhats’ toenails, not frogs. Ah, toenails. Murakami’s arhats are Buddhist spirits who hesitate between two worlds, the physical and the not, to comfort suffering earthly beings. His bulbous toenails are a tribute to the noble path of those enlightened ones whose feet are moving them through their death and decay. The parade of toenails is Murakami’s day-glo gratitude for arhats who stop along the way to ease our sorrows.

Murakami called his Chicago exhibit, The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, based on an ancient Japanese adage that an octopus eats its own decrepit limb to save itself from death rot. A new leg grows back, the octopus is healed and lives a long and healthy life.

In the exhibit, the 33-foot-long painting, 100 Arhats, has 1,000 intricately painted toenails. I misinterpreted the toe protectors, thought they were frogs. After all, how could toenails mean so much to anyone but me? I harbor an unspoken repulsion of human toenails. Summer sandals expose these keratin plates sitting atop ugly toes that hardly ever match each other—some curled under, some straight, some turned outward, some inward—all on the same foot.  Toenails are often fungus-rotted discolored thick globs that women hide with colorful paint instead of covering with cool shoes. God clearly missed the boat in his design of the human toe apparatus.

But Ozzy’s coal-black, perfectly formed, hardy toenails witchy-curled out of his all-business paws, ever-ready for the hunt, the prowl. At rest, his legs stretched out before him showing off his toenails as if he’d just had a pedicure.

His body turned in on him overnight. Like the octopus, his system ate up his dying kidneys and liver but left a beleaguered heart that had to be put to rest. I now have my own arhat who will walk me through the sound of silent, unseen toenails until the hard margins at the edges of grief fade into the path.

murakami_portrait
Takashi Murakami in front of his epic work “The 500 Arhats.” (Courtesy MCA Chicago)

 

Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman by Regan Burke

In Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, the following brief memoir was excerpted. I post it for those who’ve asked for the full story.  Check out Beth’s book for more stories from Chicago writers: Writing Out Loud.

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Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician, one who acted in the best interest of the whole. Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In October 1991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next-day schedule. He descended the jet stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his graceful elongated fingers up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered in my ear.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next six years.

In the early still of a hot D.C. August morning in 1995, NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my phony world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in soft yellow, a flowery cotton frock, and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat—don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”