Monday, July 11, 2011

A Day to Reflect & Remember


Today is a sad day, a day to stop and reflect, ruminate and remember.

My Grandmother Merle McCracken Ellis passed away today, this morning, her grown children nearby there in Tennessee, so far away from us, from having the chance to introduce Otis to her. Someday I’ll introduce him to her stories, as we will for all our elders that can’t be around to meet him in person. 

When we met Grandmother not too long after my Mom and Dad began dating; I took to calling her "Mike's Mom", slurring it all together into one word, which my brother took to actually be one word, as natural as Ravioli or Snoopy birthday cake. She smiled and indulged us for a couple weeks before introducing herself as Grandmother. And though with no small effort my brother and I were able to adjust to a more suitable title, today of all days I'm a kid again meeting her afresh and thinking how lucky we must be to have Mike's Mom in our lives, because she made us feel welcome, appreciated, and at home. 

This is additionally poignant as Grandmother Ellis is the last of my grandparents to pass away. Grandma Christy passed last year, last of all her sisters that I miss as well. Over the years my Grandma & Grandpa Van Dussen, my God Grandparents Arlene and Vernon Howe, Granny McCracken and Granny Lou, and adopted elders Grandma Dawsey and Mr. Richard C. Shacklett have all transcended, have shuffled of this mortal coil.

Not a single passing has made adapting easier, or diminished the nagging ache, that feeling of a thousand things still left unsaid. I watched as my sisters dug up and posted old family pictures to Facebook and feel their loss, a sense of it, though they were always understandably closer to her, and their grief all the more gripping. I wish I could reach through the distance and hug all of my family, or be hugged by them, all of the above. We all have pursued our various grand adventures, and the sad byproduct is distance, physical and emotional, a disconnection of the day to day, lost track of one another’s minutia.

Upon a time I couldn’t wait to have more room, not be cramped up in the back seat with my siblings for epic road trips to Grandmother’s house, or Pete & Elaine’s, to Greg & Jackie’s, or on up to Grandma & Grandpa’s place in Canada. Right about now I’d trade all my Legos for a couple weeks to revisit all those places, in particular the people that have since moved on to greener pastures no frequent flyer miles can ever connect you too for a stopover visit.
To ride bouncily along with my Grandpa in his yearly painted red hardtop jeep down the pioneer trail he’d kept cleared, giant mosquitoes dancing against the windshield. 
To have a heaping bowl of Apple Jacks and talk about baseball while my Granda Christy washes dishes wearing only a bra, or go with Helen and May and Kate to get burgers with coleslaw and chopped up boiled peanuts on them from the drive in place where wheeled warrior waitresses deliver to your car directly. And an ice cream cake that one fine birthday, first and finest I’ve ever tasted. And the softball mitt I still have safely stored to someday pass on to Otis.

To beg Grandmother Ellis for more left over Bisquick sausage balls or rice and hamburger cabbage rolls before running outside to play with my Dad’s Marx Civil War figures from his childhood in the flowerbed, stealing the occasionally sour purple grape from the grape vine overgrowing one side of the screened in back porch with the trunk thick as a man’s leg. 
To walk the white fluffy dog around the neighborhood with Vernon Howe after a day of watching him water ski from the back of the boat his wife Arlene expertly drove. To go with Arlene to see live performances of Godspell and see Clint Eastwood in a crime thriller projected on a small screen in a church basement.  

To listen to stories about snapping the fishery photo that got Dick Shacklett into Life magazine as he tunes up with his band of buddies for a living room jam session of old time classics.

To sit in Granny Lou’s rail tie log cabin eating blackberry cobbler and warming my feet by the wood burning stove in compact the kitchen.

To roam around Granny McCracken’s rooms and yard meeting step-cousins and wondering how much that pointy metal clock in the green hued living room must weight.
To see another movie or enjoy a dinner out with Grandma Dawsey, or just sit with her and her children and their children and enjoy some BBQ and the sound of the breeze in the trees.

A toast to the elders I miss, the patron saints of my family unit. You have my respect, love, and admiration. You’ve given me stories to tell and helped to shape what is good about the person I am, or when at my best can strive to be. I wish I had known all of you better, had been more able to pause from the distractions of youth to absorb more, ask more, listen more. At least some of who you were managed to get through to me via osmosis, make lasting impressions that will help guild my patience as a new parent, and give legends to paint across the sky for Otis some fine afternoon as we dally on the gentle slope of a riverbank as the clouds pass by and the breeze gossips amongst the willows.

Grandma McCracken Ellis in 1949 in Japan w. my Dad

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Fine Art of Block Parties

Neighborhood block parties can be amazing things. Especially if you’ve have the misfortune of seeing one go sideways before contributing to one that goes better than planned.

While still living in Cincinnati and working at the drive in, Lisa Marie, Jeff Ware, a real life clone of Blair from Facts of Life named Christie, and I shared a house in a blue collar / industrial neighborhood so rough around the edges to even warrant an Irish beer & shot bar. One day we walked up to our front door to discover an announcement of a block party printed with black toner at the local Kinko’s onto bright pink paper. I recall looking up and down the block and wondering aloud who else would be there other than us, the occupants of the only house on the visible block sandwiched between warehouses and foreclosures like Paper Street in Fight Club.

Didn’t have to wait long to find out, the block party would happen the impending Saturday, meaning, three of the four occupants of the house would miss it since we all worked for either the Oakley Drive In or the second run discount theater downtown, and the fourth wouldn’t be caught dead rubbing elbows with the blue collar locals.

Fate intervened somehow and we all three found ourselves home that fine Saturday night, too white and chicken shit to venture off the porch, though we waved a plenty as we sucked back our cans of beer and hibachi BBQ burgers by the bun load. We watched with bemused amazement as entire families manifest from seemingly thin air to hobnob, flirt, cavort, kid swap, grill, spoon, feed, drink, and be generally merry. Suddenly we were surrounded by our neighbors, proof that we reside inside an actual neighborhood. And for a few naïve moments we drank the Kool-Aide and thought about how exciting Halloween would be, handing out candies to all the best double headed denizens welfare leveraging might beget. England calls folks like our newly discovered neighbors that fine, Sunkist advertisement sparkly day, “Chavs.” We simply called them surprising, and until the sun went down, sort of neat. The sun did eventually go down, the kids were whisked off to bed, and that’s when the real fun began. 

Honestly, no idea when the tide turned. We were chatting amongst ourselves, thrilled to have an evening off from our respective theaters, and drunk on life, or at least, crap canned beer, meat sweats creeping in from the opulent paddies Jeff’d composed. We were practically glowing, hell, maybe Lisa and I might’ve even gotten cuddly and forget all about that epic fight Lisa and I had had the week before, the one that ended with having to replace a pane in the window of our second story bedroom on the same day I found out my Grandfather had passed. Don’t dramatically throw combat boots around in a tiny room full of pane glass windows, by the way, sort of a Goth equivalent to billiard balls in Fabergé houses, really.

One moment, Lisa is letting me pat her knee, the next minute we’re cowering inside watching events unfold through parted blinds while giving a 911 phone operator updates with hushed, frantic voices lest the idiot maniacs hear us while two burly drunk white trash women pulled one another’s tube tops off as they beat and tackled and tussled until eventually one windsock chested stallionette is pounding the others forehead concave against the top of the three steps that lead up and over the one meter retaining wall holding our lawn from spilling out across the sidewalk.

Trying to deconstruct the events that lead up to the unsavory version of a cat-fight, we recalled someone loaning or discovering they’d loaned someone else their motorcycle to try out, and by “try out” I mean try to drive as fast as possible through the throng of people assembled in the street outside our house, a street supposedly closed to traffic to accommodate this civic event, as though they were the road warrior mutants in Weird Science intend on kicking over grills, women, and fatties like points were being tabulated by hidden Japanese TV hosts, Beat Takashi and subsequently Spike TV included.
So then the group consensus is that the women fighting we either for their men’s honor or to fight as surrogates for their saddle rides because if the men were to actually fight they’d get thrown back into the pen for parole violation. Just a layman’s guess, though. Maybe these ladies just needed to throw down the way football hooligans and broke nail hairdressers do.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and imagine my reservations when I see black toner copies on bright pink paper posted to the phone poles and sides of electrical boxes in our neighborhood announcing the Union Street, Strathcona block party. Visions of succor sluts danced in my head. Thankfully Lindz had more faith in our neighbors, and glad she did. Because at the time we were just considering moving into the neighborhood, and just then making an offer to buy a home. The block party would happen in early July, while should we buy the home, we’d take possession in August. In a way, the block party became a sort of litmus test for our neighborhood. And despite the neighborhood’s proximity to all the problems that plague Hastings, that block party gave us hope, moreover made us excited to become a part of the Strathcona neighborhood. 
This year is our fifth Union Street block party, with a nifty change of musical acts that brought the event even closer to home, as the Hard Working Minors from previous years featured Rob who is a long time acquaintance from the Dog House for  most of the designers on Scarface; The World is Yours, however the replacement band, a rockabilly ensemble, featured Ian “Buddy” McNeil of the Stingin’ Hornets and GI Blues and Pointed Sticks, the same cat that helmed the rockabilly band that played Lindz and mine’s wedding on the porch and lawn of Stanley’s in the midst of Stanley Park back when. 

True, the follow up band clearly aimed to appease the hipsters newly discovering the cinema that my high school years enjoyed. That’s OK, this old timer needed to be in bed by now anyway.

This year one of the neighbors spent the day roasting a lamb for the party. In past years various neighbors have done as much to ensure there is food, drink, and entertainment for all comers, local and passing through alike. 
True, some cyclists look less than favorably on the fact that a one block chunk of their bike route has been diverted that a neighborhood might take a moment for the neighbors to get to know one another a bit better, or a better all over again, a year after the last grand block party. The bikers that get pissy or try to bike through a crowd of revelers and their children despite the warning tape or on hand presence of off duty firefighters, police men, and their “Get to Know Us” task forces, really should stop and realize that the world is around them, and despite their sense of self entitlement, the world will always win out sooner or later. Meaning if you hit my kid with your bike, I will do my best to tear off your tube top and turn your forehead concave against my front steps.

The fire department and some years the police department as well send cars and staff with ample items of interest to entertain the kids and inform the adults as to what is how is why. My favorite part of all this is twofold. 

First part is seeing the kids go insane, and as much learn that as base and face value, firemen and cops are really there to help, serve, and protect as best as they are able as human beings. And I love that. 

Second part is seeing the Suicide Girls mud leagues appeal to a whole other element of authority of fire, rescue, and security. And this year the firemen were prepared, for the gaggle of Australian tattooed girls wearing fire helmets and snapping pictures of one another all over the massive fire engine, the fire chief had a roll of temporary Vancouver Fire and Rescue tattoos to hand out. I really, really loved that.

I’ll add pictures to spice this up when time allows. For now, use your imagination, and visualize a block of city core neighborhood filled with dozens of families, children, friends, people from adjacent streets, all getting along, finding common ground, trying one another's pot luck contributions, bringing enough beer or wine or sangria to share with the rest of the class, and overall having a great time that winds out well after midnight. That is one of the many reasons I love my hood. And the bar I now will subsequently set for any neighborhood I would consider moving to hereafter.
For sure Strathcona has problems, like the riffraff that wander in and try to do dumb shit from Hastings, like the B&E cowboy in the news lately, or the prostitutes using the swing area by the elementary school as a deflowering station on weekends. All the more reason for a neighborhood to know its collective parts, I suppose.

I’ll take a flawed neighborhood of acquaintances over a lock down gated community of strangers any day.