Wednesday, September 19, 2012
In the 1960's, Paulene Helsper lived in Hawaii for three years. She camped on the beach with her boyfriend, Lyndle, and only returned to the Midwest because they thought he developed a severe coconut allergy. As it turned out, Lyndle was allergic to the straw in the Panama hat he sported, but it wasn't discovered until they migrated back to Chicago and established new lives. As Paulene tells it, "That goddamned hat ruined my life."
Stranded in the Midwest, Paulene began converting her attached garage into her "Hawaiian room," complete with tiki lights (electric, since the tiki-fire incident), a six-inch-deep layer of sand on the floor, and a wicker lazy boy where she sits most days, sipping a piña colada while imagining Hawaii. There's a mural of Mt. Kilauea on one wall and the surf crashing on a Maui beach on another, along with two large kentia palms that require a daily spritzing. She keeps an apparel trunk full of Hawaiian shirts and island attire for visitors; no one is allowed in the Hawaiian room without a dose of island garb. Even the meter-reader dons one of her emergency leis while reading her gas meter.
Paulene gives ukelele lessons and lives on Hawaiian time. Every one of her clocks are set to Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time. If it's midnight in Chicago, it's usually seven o'clock in the evening in Paulene's world. I say "usually" because Hawaii doesn't bother with daylight savings time, so sometimes Paulene is only four hours behind. She's late to everything; she celebrates New Years Eve at 4am Chicago time. And if you make a date with her, it gets all jumbly due to the time zone calculations.
Paulene greets everyone with "aloha." She knows lots of Hawaiian phrases and rarely misses an opportunity to slip one into a conversation. It's nearly impossible to get her to leave the Hawaiian room unless it's to attend the Tradewind Buffet at Club Waikiki. When I asked her to accompany me to the Bowl 'n Roll for a sandwich, her reply was, "Is it Hawaii outside?"
"No," I said, "It's Chicago outside."
"Well then, forget it."
I've been taking ukelele lessons from Paulene. She’s a ukelele virtuoso and gets steamed when the instrument is pronounced incorrectly. As she's reminded me a thousand times in her raspy voice, “It's 'OOK-a-lay-lee,' not 'YOUKE-a-lay-lee.'" She can play any Beatle song on the uke, and her rendition of The McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy" is as enchanting as an ocean breeze.
Sometimes the piña coladas reveal Paulene's indelicate undercurrent. During my last lesson, she stopped in the middle of our duet, a spirited version of Sonny and Cher’s "I Got You, Babe."
–Paulene: Hold it one minute.
–Me: What's wrong?
–Paulene: You play like a goddamn freight train. Wikiwiki..... too fast.
–Me: I was imagining I was Sonny.
–Paulene: Find a gentle rhythm, like the waves lapping up on Waimea beach.
–Me: I was wondering, did Cher break up with Sonny or was it the other way round.
–Paulene: Grab yourself one of those grass skirts from the apparel trunk.
–Me: Keep in mind, I’m Sonny, not Cher.
–Paulene: Strip down, put on the skirt, and sway your hips. The motion of the grass against your skin’ll dictate the rhythm.
–Me: But what if Mr. Happy peeks out from the grass.
–Paulene: Me and Lyndle used to spend every day, naked on the beach.
–Me: Instead, how about I play air uke and sort of follow you.
–Paulene: Nobody plays air uke.
–Me: I’ve been practicing to a Yanni video.
–Paulene: Are you going to slip into the skirt?
–Me: Not without a matching coconut bra.
–Paulene: Lots of men wear grass skirts.
–Me: Not around here.
–Paulene: We’re not around here; we’re in Hawaii.
–Me: What if there’s a fire and I have to dash out in the street.
–Paulene: Suit up, buster, and follow the flow of the grass.
–Me: When did I become your Ken Doll?
–Paulene: If Sonny was as much trouble as you, Cher made the break.
–Me: Thought so.
–Paulene: Oh hell, put on the goddamn skirt.
–Me: Oh...look at the time. It’s past 4am; I have to run.
–Me: I’m going to look that up.
–Paulene: When you do, put a “big” in front of it.
It’s a time-worn trick, but sometimes a quick glance at a clock can turn a thing around and, despite some offshore name-calling, offer a graceful exit, especially when the clock is set to Hawaiian Standard Time.
Posted by Dale Wickum at 2:20 PM
Friday, August 3, 2012
Laskie was Duane Noddin's dog. Duane worked with Laskie til she knew a hundred and one tricks, one more, he claimed, than Lassie. He liked to tell people that Laskie was the dog who showed Lassie everything. After making a few successful appearances with Laskie at local Chicago schools and shopping centers, Duane decided to capitalize on the heels of the Lassie craze and take Laskie on the road. I, of course, the owner of a faded-red Dodge van nicknamed "The Eraser," was chosen as driver, assistant, and general dog walker. The profits from the venture were to be split fifty-fifty; he had the dog, I had the van, an unmitigated, symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.
Laskie loved to travel. Her favorite spot was the passenger seat where she could stick her head out the window and sniff the subtleties of the road. Whenever we started the van, she'd bark as if calling "shotgun!" and hop into her seat. We drove back and forth across America, stopping in cities and small towns everywhere. Laskie performed her many tricks for gatherings of appreciative crowds at store openings, car dealerships, roadside diners; anywhere that would have us. Sometimes the establishment paid us to attract business and other times we passed the hat. We sold eight-by-ten glossy photos of Laskie with a stamped, paw-print autograph. It quickly became apparent that people heard and saw what they wanted; most people ignored the "k" in Laskie's name and walked away thinking they actually witnessed the TV Lassie. Invariably, upon leaving, children and adults alike would wave goodbye while shouting, "Goodbye Lassie!"
During Laskie's performance, it was my job to work the crowd, telling people all sorts of fantastic stories of Laskie's exploits and rescues. And the more outlandish the story, the more entranced the crowd became. Throughout the summer, Laskie chalked up a remarkable resume: rescuing people from burning barns, wrecked cars, swimming out to stranded boaters, and pushing teenagers out of the way of oncoming trains.
They say that behind every great celebrity, there's a prevaricator of humongous proportions. And that was me, the Titanic of liars. It seemed my duty to make up more and more stuff heralding our sweet wonder dog. While driving between towns I spent most of my time thinking of different scenarios that would further Laskie's status as the heroine she'd become. It was an adventure not to be forgotten.
The other night I was at a dinner party where all twelve guests were discussing their travels to Venice. They conversed in a restrained, but emphatic, manner about the Venetian experience. Apparently, Venice brings out the transcendental National Geographic in people. A few even presented pictures of their trips, and one couple had a photo book made of themselves posing in front of every significant landmark in Venice. The one-upping of Venice was a never-ending crescendo of expository fawning. I sat silent for an hour or more, listening patiently to the testimonials. I'd never been to Venice as its never been ballyhooed as a van-friendly city.
Towards the end of the evening, after running out of saucy gondolier anecdotes, someone asked if I'd ever been to Venice. "No," I said, "But long ago I spent a summer with a certain celebrity collie, Laskie, traveling the country as her handler."
A rare silence bloomed over the Venetians. "Oh, I loved that show as a child," agreed a few. Clearly, they heard "Lassie," as had those who'd gone before them.
"Yes," I went on, the lies pouring out of me as they had so many years ago, "I saw that remarkable dog pull someone out of the water in the rapids above Niagara Falls, and once, on the Golden Gate bridge, she stopped a woman from jumping to her death. She understood five hundred words of English and could place an order at any Mexican restaurant by planting her paw on the menu near the word "burrito." And she had her own barking language that only a few people knew about. There was no dog like her."
"And," I added, "I asked her once if she wanted to see Venice, and she barked twice, very loudly, which meant a definite 'no!' So that was that and the subject was never brought up again, unless you count the time she chewed up the venetian blinds in a motel room in Biloxi, adding a distinct punctuation to the question."
Switching gears during the puzzled silence, I complimented the hostess, "The custard pie is terrific. If you don't mind, I think I'll have another piece in honor of Laskie. She couldn't make pies, of course, but custard was her favorite." It's difficult to put on the brakes when the room is finally yours, even if only for a moment. Laskie knew all too well about the ephemeral spotlight, her season of notoriety, or as I like to call it, "The Summer of Laskie."
Posted by Dale Wickum at 6:32 PM
Sunday, June 10, 2012
My daytime bicycle trips to the store are met with smiles and polite "hellos" from everyone, including Ted Wang of Wang's Health Foods, who always calls out, "Ten percent discount for bike rider!" It's all very lighthearted and uplifting except for the Elm Street Busybody. Blessed with scowl marks, etched in her face from a lifetime of self-righteous indignation, she appears out of nowhere. Every time our paths cross, she screams the same thing, "Helmet!" It doesn't matter where she is, from her car window or standing on her front lawn, it's always, "Helmet!" shouted like a drill sergeant at a bunch of new recruits.
I'll admit, I'm the kind of bad seed that mothers warn their children not to emulate; an outlaw living on the fringe who once toted eleven items into the ten-items-or-less checkout lane at the grocery store, a crime that's had me looking over my shoulder for twenty years. When it comes to the helmet issue, I'm pro-choice, and, as I've said at many a Thanksgiving toast, "That turkey looks delicious. I'll darned well do with my head what I want." I'm pretty sure Davy Crockett, if he were alive today, would scoff at the helmet, despite the fact that he fancied the furry head-gear. I suppose I live by the Katherine Hepburn quote, "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun."
When I see a guy with a helmet, I think the poor bastard must've been the guy who actually wore those rubber boots his mother sent him to school with instead of tossing them in the weeds like any other self-respecting kid. But I would never dream of yelling, "Hey pal, ditch the helmet, your mom will never know!" It's his choice and not mine in which to meddle.
If this was two hundred years ago, I'm almost certain the Elm Street Busybody and her brethren would be leading a potpourri of lynch mobs, burning witches and ridding society of the colorful miscreants who challenge their moral superiority. If the Elm Street Busybody had her way, incorrigible renegades like me would do serious jail time for not wearing a helmet. I can imagine the conversation between my cellmate and me:
--Me: What are you in for?
--Cellmate: Killed two cops in a bank holdup; left two more wounded and trashed three squad cars in a high-speed chase. How 'bout you, what'd they get you for?
--Me: No helmet while riding my bicycle.
--Cellmate: You're one of those, huh. Well, back off, man; I don't want no trouble.
As fate would have it, the other day, my doorbell rang, and who was standing on my porch, none other than the Elm Street Busybody with an armful of envelopes, pamphlets, and a clipboard. "Hello," she said, "I'm collecting for the American Heart Association. Heart disease is the nation's number one killer."
I interrupted her,"You live on Elm Street and carp at me like a banshee when I'm on my bicycle."
"Well," she said, "You should wear a helmet. It's for your own good."
"If you feel it necessary to be so sanctimonious, why don't you hike over to Carl's Fireside Fondue and holler "cheese!" at all the cheese-eaters? You just told me heart disease is the nation's number one killer."
Then I fetched my checkbook and wrote a check for one hundred dollars to the American Heart Association. I showed it to her and said I would deliver it to her personally if, for the next three times I pass her on my bike, she politely waves and doesn't scream anything about a helmet. I waved the check in the air. "Three times," I said, "That's all I ask. Three times."
She continued from her imaginary soapbox, "Don't think you're so god-damned special. I yell at bigger people than you. Big-shots, I give 'em the full whammy."
As she began her descent down the middle of my front porch stairs, I mustered up my inner Stanley Kowalski and bellowed, as he would've at Stella, the one word to punctuate our feud, "Railing!"
I'm guessing this is not over.....not by a long-shot.
A reservation has been made in my future for the full whammy.
Posted by Dale Wickum at 11:31 PM
Friday, May 25, 2012
In the spirit of those authors of handbooks who have gone before me, I embarked on an enthusiastic manual for living comfortably and getting along together under the roof that covers our house. I call it "Tips for Making Life a Breeze Around Here." Meredith Baxter-Birney may never star in a movie-of-the-week derived from the work, but it’s an ambitious, though small book, with plenty of easy-to-follow directions. Its intent is to offer guidelines that bring harmony to an otherwise discordant living arrangement. According to Dollar-Store-Dave, the unheralded literary critic who's opinions flow freely for the price of an uplifting beverage, some of the most intriguing chapter headings are:
--Stop doing that.
--What’s the deal with that funny-smellin’ soap.
--Where’s the scissors.
--Cutting lemons: slice or wedge.
--Where's the tape.
--The protocol of the last cookie.
--Does "I got dibs" really count for anything.
--Why do I get all the jobs that involve crawling under stuff.
--Why is the phrase "way to go" always directed towards me.
--Are you still mad.
--There's no need to strip-search the meter-reader.
--Your pillow smells like pigeons.
--Why is that in the garbage.
--This is a perfectly good shirt.
--Pants are sometimes an option.
The chapters speak for themselves; it's a recipe for living in veritable connubial bliss, but when presented to the woman who signed up for this carnival ride, it was met with the type of disdain normally reserved for finding a centipede in a seldom-used corner of the broom closet (which, incidentally, is the heading of another chapter on tidiness).
"What the hell is this crap," were the exact words spoken before tossing the book in the trashcan (completely overlooking the chapter, "Why is That in the Garbage," which clearly emphasizes the concept of thinking twice before discarding unique or otherwise valuable items). She says the title of her book will be "Who Died and Left You in Charge of Crap." Again, with the word "crap," (making me think she barely skimmed the chapter on annoying, repetitive descriptors).
Rummaging through the trash to retrieve the only copy of "Tips for Making Life a Breeze Around Here," it dawned on me how Aldous Huxley and George Orwell must have felt when their books were banned, burned, discounted, and discarded. It's an elite group whose ranks I've inauspiciously joined, and following their exalted paths, offers hope that history will vindicate me, and "Tips for Making Life a Breeze Around Here" will rise from its desecration. It's almost intoxicating to anticipate the hoopla when Banned Books Week rolls around, and the cautionary reminders at libraries across the country feature a display of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," along with the newest addition to the list, "Tips for Making Life a Breeze Around Here."
But, to quote an old ants-in-the-pants adage, "The waiting is the hardest part."
Posted by Dale Wickum at 12:17 PM
Thursday, April 19, 2012
"It's a matter of routine," says my doctor while she measures my height. Then she says, "Five-feet, ten inches."
"Hold your horses; stop the music," I protest. "I was five-feet-eleven and some change when I graduated from high school." I remember quite clearly because, on the rare occasion when the situation called for a young man's boasting, I used to throw my shoulders back, stand up real tall, and round-up to six feet.
She says, matter-of-factly, "These things happen; we shrink as we get older."
I ask when her measuring gizmo was last calibrated, and question whether her medical school provided the latest height-measuring techniques, or was that one of those seminars she skipped during the summer she followed the Grateful Dead. At my request, after some unnecessary, but noticeable, eye-rolling, she double checks her measurement and comes up with five-feet-nine and seven eighths. So I ask if we couldn't round-up to her original figure, five-feet-ten. "Let's go with that," I say, "It's even, and fractions are for complaining nit-pickers."
Then she hands me a cup, points to Mr. happy, and says, "Fill it halfway, big guy," putting emphasis on "big guy." Just for the not-so-subtle mocking placation, which contained implications beyond medical propriety, I fill it almost to the brim, the same amount of pee I estimate would flow from a healthy six-footer. I throw my shoulders back, walk real tall, and very carefully, with a slight swagger and a renewed sense of pride, return the bountiful cup.
I'm not certain what, exactly, she writes in her notes, but I think of calling my insurance company and ask if they wouldn't mind springing for a second opinion regarding this medically significant matter. Perhaps they could recommend a non-flippant height specialist who enjoyed the less-distractible sounds of England Dan and John Ford Coley during medical school. A nose to the grindstone seems to be an increasingly rare attribute these days.
On the way home, all I can think of is that if this shrinking thing continues, how long will it be before I'm living, lost and unnoticed, in a corner of the basement, battling a spider for some tiny crumbs of cake. Maybe I should buy a set of tiny doll furniture, complete with quilts, a tiny sink, and tiny toilet, and place the whole shebang in a strategic place in the house where no one walks. I'll rope off the area and give it a name like "Poco Valle," and before it's too late, get everyone accustomed to walking a wide circle around it. One thing I'm doing for sure is stopping at the hardware store and buying a handful of signs that offer the cautionary future reminder, "Watch Your Step."
Posted by Dale Wickum at 7:54 PM
Sunday, February 19, 2012
LaVoo Wilson claims she can read auras. "There's colors emitting from everyone, like a tattle-tale cloud hovering over their head. The color tells me all I need to know about a person." (LaVoo Wilson of Kankakee, Illinois).
Cindy Peltz, the folk singer with the barely-noticeable cough, had a two-for-one coupon for Miss LaVoo's Aura Readings and asked if I'd go along in case the whole deal turned creepy-sour. My reading was to be free, compliments of her neatly-clipped coupon.
Miss LaVoo operates out of what she calls her "emporium," which, to the casual observer, is more of a paint-peeled duplex with a couple of wind chimes and out-of-season Christmas lights hanging over the front porch. If not for the Aunt Jemima red bandanna, two gem-encrusted rings on every finger, and an otherworldly gaze, Miss LaVoo could breeze through any emissions test facility without so much as a sideways glance from the attendant.
There were exaggerated, swooping arm gestures, akin to an auto show spokes-model's, guiding the way to the aura room. Cindy's reading was quick and flattering. After staring at Cindy in the "aura chair" for a couple of minutes, accompanied by some slippery, hocus-pocus, circular hand movements, Miss LaVoo declared her aura to be magenta, indicating an artistic personality with great creative potential, enough potential, in fact, to be taken to the next, more detailed, level of aura reading for an additional twenty dollars. Sensing a bit of snake-oil-salesmanship, I casually handed Miss LaVoo our coupon.
--LaVoo: OK, have a seat, Mr. Coupon.
--Me: What do you see?
--LaVoo: Mr. Coupon needs to be quiet for a moment.
--Me: If I'm beige, let me down easy.
--LaVoo: Miss LaVoo sees a cloud, a muddy-grey cloud.
--Me: Is that because of the coupon?
--LaVoo: There's bits of lightning in your cloud.
--Me: That's terrible, isn't it?
--LaVoo: Tell me, do dogs bark at you?
--Me: Dogs bark at everyone.
--LaVoo: They bark louder at you.
--Me: Why's that?
--LaVoo: Animals see your aura. It's odious.
--Me: There's a squirrel that likes me.
--LaVoo: Squirrels don't count; they like everybody.
--Me: Come to think of it, my neighbor's parrot calls me names.
--LaVoo: Parrots speak for all animals.
--Me: And my cat shuns me.
--LaVoo: Cats see the astral realm.
--Me: What can I do about my cloud?
--LaVoo: Aura therapy. Ten sessions will put some color in your aura.
--Me: And snare some money from my wallet.
--LaVoo: You have a gift for the unvarnished.
--Me: Maybe this grey cloud is a good thing.
--LaVoo: How's that?
--Me: It keeps angry dogs and indifferent cats at bay.
--LaVoo: People avoid you as well.
--Me: I've noticed that.
--LaVoo: Aura therapy will change the color of your cloud.
--Me: I've grown accustomed to my cloud.
--LaVoo: You're destined for many dark days.
--Me: Perhaps the little bits of lightning will brighten them up.
--LaVoo: Your cloud brings unhappiness.
--Me: I'm quite happy with my unhappiness.
--LaVoo: Go now, Mr. Coupon. Take your hapless grey cloud and go.
--Me: How about if I carried an umbrella?
--LaVoo: On the way out, don't let the dream-catcher hit you in the ass.
It was a long and mostly silent drive home until Cindy broke the ice.
--Cindy: You upset Miss LaVoo. Next time, I'm going alone.
--Me: Why would you go back; you already know your aura is the oh-so-lovely and creative magenta.
--Cindy: You grey-clouds can't begin to understand us magentas.
--Me: You have a lot in common with my cat.
--Cindy: Well, Miss LaVoo nailed you.
--Me: Oh, so sorry, Miss Magenta. May your color be free of my odious cloud.
--Cindy: That's right, Mr. Coupon.
--Me: So now I'm Mr. Coupon.
--Cindy: You heard Miss Lavoo, you're Mr. Coupon.
--Me: But it was your coupon.
--Cindy: Doesn't matter, LaVoo said you're Mr. Coupon.
--Me: Can I drop you at the "I Know You Are But What Am I" store?
--Cindy: Just take me home, Mr. Coupon-Grey Cloud.
--Me: Coupon-Grey Cloud.... has the ring of a thrifty Indian.
--Cindy: More like a cheap mental patient.
This is what I get for being helpful; it always backfires, and I wind up looking like the not-so-helpful guy. My aura is now a coupon, and who knows what problems may arise later in life from that. I'd like to say I'm done with helping people, but pretty soon someone else will ask for a favor and I'll do it with the usual skip to my step and then, sure-as-shootin', something will go haywire. You'd think I'd be used to this by now, after all, I've spent a lifetime dodging those pesky, ass-slapping dream catchers.
Posted by Dale Wickum at 12:19 AM
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
I like art as much as the next guy, but, for me, it has to look like something. It’s why my art appreciation is limited to people like Edward Hopper and Trula Peoples. Most people are familiar with Edward Hopper. His classic, “Nighthawks,” is my favorite. But few are familiar with the work of my friend, Trula Peoples. Trula paints pictures of cows, and, for my money, paints them with an unequaled flair for the bovine experience. Some of her recent works are:
–Cows with Hula-Hoops
–Cows Watching TV
–Cows Eating Tacos
–Cows Grazing at Bed Bath and Beyond
Trula’s paintings are straight-forward. They are what they appear to be, cows doing stuff. I had the good fortune to acquire one of her paintings I’d admired for quite some time. It’s called “Migrating Cows,” and it depicts cows flying in an orderly formation, like a flock of geese. It cost me eighty-eight dollars and a Jerry and the Pacemakers Greatest Hits CD, a pretty good deal, I think, considering I’d already listened to “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” about a thousand times.
“Migrating Cows” is a big canvas and hangs over our couch; I like to stare at it and wonder where the cow's flight will take them and imagine they won’t be so easily harvested and turned into hamburgers. The one dent in this hubcap is that every so often, “Migrating Cows” must be replaced with “Urban Mindscape,” a painting by Reena Pinkwater. Reena is also a friend, and she bestowed “Urban Mindscape” on me with great fanfare at a gallery opening where some pretty good cake was served. Not that I don’t like an intriguing gift now and then, but I can’t begin to make heads or tails out of Reena’s painting. It’s one of those abstract things with splotches and squiggles going every which way. Honestly, if it fell off the wall, I wouldn’t know which way to rehang it.
When fancy art people, who personally know Reena, come over to our house, I make sure her painting is hanging over the couch. They make exaggerated swooping gestures while discussing its significance and all the stuff they see in it, that I, for the life of me, don't see. Some of this modern art is like looking at constellations in the night sky. Really, the only constellation that looks like what it’s supposed to be is the Big Dipper. As for the rest, those ancient shepherds must’ve been gooped-up on some bad frankincense during the identification process. There is, however, one other constellation, “The Pointed, Provocative, Breasts of Venus” that my childhood friend, Herby Lawrence, pointed out on a summer night in the eighth grade. And he astutely observed that when a wispy cloud passed in front of the constellation, it was a dead ringer for the image of Kim Novak wearing an angora sweater. I’m still not certain it’s a genuine constellation as my replicating description was circled in red ink on a high school astronomy exam. When the science teacher asked for an explanation of my answer, all I could say was that every shepherd has his own dreams. I got half a point.
Once, Reena came over to my house unannounced, and before answering the door, I had to make a mad dash for the living room in order to hide “Migrating Cows” behind the couch (where Reena’s painting usually resides) and quickly hang “Urban Mindscape” in its place, a switch I’ve become adept at making. I've visited Reena’s studio several times, and, one time, she yelled at me for traipsing on a canvas. It was lying flat on the floor and had paint splattered all over it, and I mistakenly thought it was a drop-cloth. I apologized left and right and wanted desperately to make it up to her. Embarrassed, I pretended to study the creation in great detail and walked around it several times, taking in every angle. I grasped at anything in order to pay her a compliment that would cover my uncultured tracks. The first thing that came to mind was, “I think I see 'The Pointed, Provocative, Breasts of Venus' in this piece.”
She looked at me, stunned for a moment, before replying, “That’s exactly what I intended.”
And I wondered how I might one day thank my old friend, the stargazing visionary, Herby Lawrence.
Posted by Dale Wickum at 6:41 PM