Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Over forty years ago the Erie Thunderbirds Drum and Bugle Corps was working on a routine when the music abruptly stopped. After a murmur from within the ranks, the drum major called out, “Would you kiss your mother with those lips?” Obviously somebody had fouled up and let slip some colorful language. Marchers and spectators alike laughed long and loud, and I tucked that jocular question into my mental chest of superb comebacks.

As Mom has been on my mind lately—and Dad, too—the drum major’s words have emerged from mothballs and nagged me. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about manners. I don’t remember first learning them, but the four Coleman kids knew the drill. Some rules were about appearance, like not holding your spoon like a shovel, but most focused on how we treated other people. Only recently have I begun to appreciate “mind your manners” and what that expression implied at 2225 Wagner Avenue. People matter. Their feelings matter. Their well-being matters. Their time matters.

Nerdy Museum Cardigan (Credit: Wikipedia)

My mother was a curriculum of care and tenderness unto herself. I fell asleep with my head in her lap. She tucked my 1970s hair behind my ear, which annoyed me back then. I miss that now. My father was also loving, but with a no-nonsense edge. If you wanted to see him scowl, boo from the bleachers. Not even a lousy performance deserved that. At one Thunderbirds practice, the soloist who played “Brian’s Song” was absent, so another horn stumbled through the piece. As Dad and I walked to the car afterwards, I said too loudly for his taste, “Boy, they sound like crap without Ronnie.” I can’t recall the verbiage, but his message was clear: My remark was not only impolite, but hurtful.

People matter. So when they ask how you’re doing, you ask about them, too. Please and thank you. Hold the door. Leave things better than you found them.

Awkward Museum Sneakers (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Name-calling was unacceptable. Once while shooting hoops in a neighbor’s driveway, my buddies and I spotted old Louie walking to the bus stop. He was grieving the passing of his partner of many years, but we hid in some bushes and roared a slur that begins with “f” and ends with “aggot.” Mr. Snell was out his back door before the echo died: “Johnny, we don’t say things like that.” In my fifty-seventh year, the shame still sits heavy in my throat.

Such schooling was bruising, but the diploma has been a blessing. When kindness reigns, peace like a river attendeth my way. It follows, then, that rancor and distain dam up my soul. This reality visited me a couple weeks ago as I watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a profile of Mister Rogers on public television. He is my hero, which may suggest to you my definition of wisdom and bravery.

The man’s voice alone sent me into a crying jag. Wondering what Fred Rogers would say about how folks treat each other in 2018 got me teary. Picturing him bent low, comforting an immigrant child who had been separated from her family brought me to my knees. I was undone.

Images of terrified toddlers are more than sob-worthy, but my upset runs deeper still. With each passing day, with each cackling, growling news cycle, the land I love becomes more a hostile stranger and less a trusted friend.

What’s gotten into us? Have those of us fortunate enough to grow up in healthy homes forgotten where we came from? Is it acceptable to treat our fellow citizens with disdain and shout vulgarities at each other as I did at Louie, hiding like a punk behind shrubbery? What about the trash babbled within the cowardly foliage of social media? And is shabby behavior, no matter the provocation, respectable as long as our parents have gone on to glory or aren’t watching?

Extinct Bronze Hero? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, should we feast on fearful and scurvy impulses just because our elected officials routinely do so, turning their backs on values they ought to champion? Of course not! It’s easy to dismiss the drum major’s question as silly, but half-truths are often spoken in jest. The point, after all, isn’t about kissing our parents, but conducting ourselves in ways that would break their hearts.

Or maybe our upbringing is best seen in a rearview mirror. Maybe dear Mister Rogers is not only dead, but extinct. Or maybe the manners we’ve left behind and the love once shown us are exactly what the world needs, as my father used to say, “immediately if not sooner.”

What the World Needs

Whispering Gratitude for a Dancing Yam and a Cursing Son

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for twelve years now: 624 weeks of sermons, give or take; hundreds of teaching moments, hospital visits, and pastoral counseling sessions; scores of babies baptized, couples married (“let no one put asunder”), and brothers and sisters buried; thousands of hours in prayer; Lord knows how many books read and Bible studies led. I’ve looked into dying eyes and held dying hands.

After all this and more, you’d think I’d have a handle on what exactly I believe in the God department. The truth is, when I pray these days, I feel as though I’m standing at the edge of a Grand Canyon. I’ve no clue how this world is put together and how it works. Some folks I love and respect believe that God has a plan for each of us; they may well be right. The problem is, I grew exhausted years ago trying to figure out what kind of divine plans could include teenagers taking their own lives when old people pray for death’s relief. If God does have plans, I’m content for now to be ignorant of them.


“Whatever You say.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

What I am interested in is letting go. My prayers leap into Grand Canyons, trusting that the Eternal Loving Now will see to both flight and landing. I open my mouth, but not much comes out. Lately, I’ve spoken three sincere words: “Whatever You say”—now and forever. I keep a framed photograph of Mister Rogers on my office wall. Yes, Mister Rogers. I tore it out of a magazine. At the bottom of the photograph is a quote: “Frankly, I think that after we die, we have this wide understanding of what’s real. And we’ll probably say, ‘Ah, so that’s what it was all about.’” Amen.


Crappy Fred Rogers photograph on my office wall. (Original credit: Pittsburgh Magazine)

I also pray “thank you” a lot, but it’s no easy gratitude. I don’t believe that God looks at one father and says, “You know, I think John could use a break. I’m going to cure his son’s heroin addiction” and looks at one mother and says, “You know, I think Mary could use a good soul smashing. I’m going to give her son brain cancer and take him slowly.” My current narrow understanding can’t abide this brand of lordship. Each “thank you” I pray is whispered out of my chest and clutched throat into an extravagant, Grand Canyon Mystery. I cry the same way.

For a long time, sadness had the upper hand, but lately, gratitude has been winning. While gladness is hanging around, I’m wallowing in it.

This morning during yogurt and applesauce, I looked out at the backyard. Wife Kathy grows flowers, food, and foliage. Days go by when I forget to notice. Occasionally she takes me by the ear for a tour—that was yesterday, in fact, immediately after we got home from her colonoscopy and EGD. Who would want to assess begonias after taking such a plunging? That’s my wife.


Breakfast view.


Kathy’s foliage, neighbor’s shabby-chic garage.


What Kathy calls her puddle. What dog Watson calls his drinking fountain.


Garage ferns, etc. End of tour.


Kathy after the procedure and yard tour, cat and old K-Mart box fan looking on.

This afternoon I met with several church families and was struck by their goodness. These mothers and fathers treat their kids with love and tenderness and try hard to raise them with wisdom. As a father who’s messed up in the past with great intentions, I’m moved by parents who do their best. The hosts also served pesto-jack cheese, mango salsa, a great Southern Tier wheat ale, and brownies Mom thought were a bust—I ate three on my way out the door and could have taken out more had I not been worried about a diabetic coma.

I followed the brownies with a forty-five minute siesta on the old pre-school mats in my church office. Gracious! I slept for fifteen minutes at most, but woke feeling as if my whole body had a cleansing breath.

Back to this morning: I read a great quote by Charles Kuralt in Booknotes by Brian Lamb. Nappers everywhere should put this on the refrigerator:

I met a fellow in Key West, which is undoubtedly our most laid-back American community. [His name was] Clyde Hensley. Clyde says human beings were not made to labor from dawn until dusk. Human beings were just made to hang out. . . . Human beings were just intended to be on this earth to enjoy themselves a bit. It’s a philosophy you don’t hear much in this intense, work-oriented society of ours. But to the extent that one can survive without working from dawn to dusk, I’ve about decided Clyde is right.


Charles Kuralt (Credit: Wikipedia)

My future grandchild, presently the size of a yam, has rhythm. Sparkling daughter Elena reports that her virtuoso husband Matt was strumming his guitar by her belly, and little tater started to dance. I suggested they play Marvin Gaye and see if the kid’s got soul.


Elena with dancing yam bump.

A fellow blogger responded to one of my recent posts with a great quote by Calvin Coolidge, which will go in my worrier’s file (nice blog, by the way, and worth checking out: unexpectedincommonhours).

If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.

Another fellow blogger lives one block west of my house. Her dachshund Sophie tools around the neighborhood in a doggie wheelchair. (Her blog, Our Dachshund Sophie, is also a winner.) All this dog has to do is roll by, and my mood’s improved for an hour.


Neighbor Sophie

One last thank you: as Kathy and I relaxed at Starbucks this evening, son Micah texted to ask if I’d bring him home a coffee. “Ur order, sir?” I answered. (If you’re easily offended, skip his response.)

A decaf venti vanilla latte with 5 shots v[anilla syrup]. And can u poor the amount of vanilla powder in that an asshole would do? Just unscrew the cap and dump a shit ton in.

Why does this toilet-mouth text merit thanks? Because this is reality. I’ve got my son, and he’s clean, working full time, and a joy to be around. So I’ll bring him a disgustingly sweet latte. Bawdy heretic that I am, I chuckled at his two shots of vulgarity. My answer to his request? “Ok, rumphole.”


A clean Micah in good spirits, modeling a new sunhat.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s dark out now. Lying in bed soon, I’ll be leaping into a Grand Canyon, whispering gratitude to the Eternal Loving Now and trusting in a safe landing.