Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another New Year's Gig

At the stroke of midnight, I'll be playing the tenor saxophone in a big band and we'll be playing a swing arrangement of Auld Lang's Syne. Sound like fun? It is. Making music is something I've been blessed to be able to do since....1963, I think. That's when I started to learn the saxophone, an old Conn alto that my Dad rented from Miller Music in Des Moines, Iowa. And the rest is history, my musical history, at least.

Pep Band gig, 1971. I'm in the middle
front row with the groovy neckstrap.
It dawned on me the other day that I've been playing the saxophone for 50 years in 2013. And in those 50 years I've had a litany of fun, interesting, challenging, ordinary, weird and memorable gigs.  

In junior high, I organized a combo that was called the "Burnished Brass" and we played a lot of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass songs. Our claim to fame was playing for Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 at the Iowa State Fair when he was running for president. That was a cool gig.

With few exceptions, for most of the last 50 years I've had a gig to look forward to. A concert band gig, a Dixieland gig, a rock n' soul band gig and like tonight, a big band jazz gig. I've played in glorious auditoriums, on football fields and baseball stadiums, in tawdry bars and smoke-filled nightclubs and in hotel ballrooms. In the Skybox suites at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE, in city parks, Elks Clubs, Moose Lodges, Legion clubs, and small town ballrooms in the middle of nowhere. I played the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa where Buddy Holly played his last gig. I've played at weddings, funerals, birthday parties, dances, and at pretenous county club and high society affairs. I've played for pay and I've played for free.

I've played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" so many times I can play it in my sleep. At an Elks Club gig years ago, a crusty old tenor player sitting next to me named Tuffy Epstein muttered under his breath as the crowd squealed with delight when this song was announced, "I hate this F'ing song". That pretty much sums up how I feel about that tune.

Same thing goes for Mustang Sally or Midnight Hour when I played in an oldies band a few years back. These are classic songs until you've played them one too many times in front of an inebriated crowd where the drunk guy tries to convince you that "you play better than Clarence Clemmons" as you head for your car.

But for everyone of those comical, routine and nonchalant experiences,there have been  grand and glorious musical moments. Playing Carmen Dragon's classic arrangement of "America the Beautful" never gets old. Nor does Percy Graingers's "Irish Tune from Couny Derry", which never fails to give me goosebumps.

Swingtones Big Band, mid 1990"s
I'm the second from the left in the front row.
Tonight, I'll be playing in an 18 piece big band at an event in downtown Omaha from 9:30 to midnight. I've played with this group, the Swingtones, since 1988. These are old friends as well as fellow musicians. The crowd will be dancing to the sounds of "Fly Me To the Moon", "Pennies from Heaven" and "Moonlight Serenade". There will be a waltz or two, a polka, a samba, even "The Bunny Hop".

Truth be told, there is a part of me that would just like to stay home with Georgette and Grace to bring in the New Year in a quiet, warm and serene manner. But I'm also aware that these gigs won't last forever. Someday I will play no more. Whenever and however that last gig comes to be, I will have had a marvelous ride through this musical life of mine, playing the saxophone and looking forward to the next gig.

So if you are still up at 11:55 pm, CST, hum a few choruses of "In the Mood" as we play that song, one  more time. And as I usher in my 51st year of playing the saxophone.

Unless of course, you hate that F'ing song.

Happy New Year and have a blessed 2014.

Swingtones at Stinson Park, 2012

Remembering Katie

This picture was taken on Christmas Eve, 1957 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. From the left is Tony, Shelley, Joe and me.

Like so many of those earliest Christmases, I don't remember much about this one. What I do remember is my Dad coming home that evening  and telling us we had a new baby sister. Katie, who given name was Katherine Mary, was the fifth of what was to be 8 children in my family of origin. She was our Christmas Eve baby, a gift that I'm sure we older children ever appreciated as much as we could have. I'm quite sure I was more captivated by the stethoscope from the toy doctors kit I received than by the arrival of another sibling.

What I wouldn't give to have another Christmas with Katie. She left us much too soon when she passed away in November of 2011.  The innocence and simplicity portrayed in this black and white snapshot reminds me of the joy that Christmas brought to our young lives before life got serious...before we all had to grow up too soon.

As the 5th child out of 8, I'm sure Katie had a different version of what it was like to grow up in a large, somewhat chaotic family,  than I did. I remember her being the ringleader of the 3 siblings that followed her.  She was also the ringleader for numerous stray neighborhood kids and stray neighborhood cats of the feline variety. She had a unique way of getting people to do things for her.

Katie spent most of her career in the restaurant industry, the last 25 of it in Manhattan, New York. To see her in action in the small restaurant she managed down in the Cooper Square area of lower Manahattan was a sight to behold. Speaking a blended combination of Midwest English and whatever language one of her cooks, waiters or other staff spoke was part comedy and part genius. There were times when I think she just made words up and relied on her gestures and inflections to do the rest. Either way, she was a master manager or master manipulator, depending on your personal point of view.

There was the night in the late 80's when my brother Joe and I were visiting my older sister, Shelley,  who lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  We had spent the day wandering around Manhattan ending up in Katie's restaurant for the evening. After a late evening of drinking and dining, we needed to get back to Brooklyn. It was around 2am so instead of taking the subway, Katie said she would hail us a taxi. It wasn't long after we crossed the East River that I realized we were lost. Katie, who rarely left Manhattan, had given the cab driver the wrong directions and we were smack dab in the middle of an area we had no business being in. The driver, obviously new to driving a taxi, was getting nervous and so were we. Finally a deliver driver pulled up next us at a red light and gave us directions that sent us in the right direction and eased our panic. What should have been a $20.00 cab fare ended up costing us about $50.00. We never told Katie.

Katie eventually went to work for an Itialian restaurant on the Upper East side as the office manager. She met and married Ivan and they moved to Queens. They adopted a son, Andres, from Columbia, South America, Ivan's home country and life seemed to be going well. And it did for a while.

But as life has a way of doing, what seems to be the good life can slowly and insidiously turn into a tragic life. Katie actively struggled alcoholism, at least the last 10 years of her life. Her first treatment was in 2002, I think. She knew I was sober and every now and then she would reach out to me for a listening ear. In 2010, she entered another treatment program, having lost her job and was separated for her husband. She struggled without work and with limited income. But in May of 2011, she sent me an e-mail that had "Look what happened the otherday on  my journey through life" in the subject line. In the message was a picture of a cake presented to her by her AA sponsor on her one-year sobriety birthday. The cake had the words "Miracles Happen" written on it.

I can't begin to describe the joy and elation I felt for her when I read that e-mail. I called her and we had a good conversation and she sounded really good for the first time in a long time.

The summer passed and we didn't talk again for a while. I just assumed everything was alright. I was wrong. On the last Sunday in October, a Sunday, Katie called me. She had relapsed in August and ended up in the hospital again, but had a few days or weeks of sobriety, I'm not really sure. I listened and encouraged her to pick up where she left off, that she had earned a year on we before and that she could do it again. And we talked a lot about her son, Andres, who was now a sophomore at Stanford. Oh, how proud she was of her son.  That was the last time I spoke with her. 

Katie passed away alone in her apartment sometime during the next weekend. And when I led her funeral service held at an. old neighborhood funeral home in Queens later that week, I heard myself telling those who had gathered that has she had simply run out of time.  

The truth is there Is nothing simple about alcoholism and there wasn't much simple about Katie's life.
Her death haunts me from time to time, not only because she was the first sibling we lost, but because she and I shared a common disease with a common solution. "But for the Grace of God, there go I" couldn't ring truer for Katie and I. Her passing has only strengthened my resolve to achieve my only remaining life wish-to die sober.

So on this Christmas Eve of 2013, I will ponder and remember my sister Katie, who left us too soon and who left behind a wonderfully gifted and kind son, Andres, who I know misses her immensely.

Friday, December 13, 2013

My Name is Dan and I'm an.......

Got your attention? This probably isn't headed where you think it is. But I hope it will give you  something to think about. It did me.

I attended a holiday function earlier in the week for a professional organization I belong to. It's a good group of folks who work on the field of organizational development, which is a fancy term for what some would consider a "non-job". Our guest speaker was a storyteller and she was delightful. But that's not what this story is about.

Before the storyteller was introduced and after we had done the perfunctory mingling and small talk while noshing on the over-sized breakfast burritos, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. You know the drill- your name, where you work and what your job title is. Seems simple enough. Been there done that.

If you've been through one of  these rituals before you probably have noticed that some people, in my humble opinion, have a tone that some might describe as...shall we say...pretentious. Admit it, you've thought that, haven't you. "I'm the executive director of people strategy, human capital and corporate jargon maximization".  "I'm the project lead for enterprise agility, nimbleness and silly talk". No wonder people think we have "non-jobs". 

Then  there is the person who tries too hard to be cute or make their job title sound cutting edge. "I'm the zen master for creative energy and people realization" Stop it. I'm going to barf if you keep it up.

I'm happy to say that no one in this group went that far over the edge. Most simply repeated what their company had titled them. But when it came time for me to introduce myself, I said, "Dan Kingkade, Blah-blah-blah company. I'm am encourager." Said it pretty straight forward...I didn't even milk it for a laugh.

A few people chuckled. A few nodded in approval. And I'm sure a few probably thought "He's being pretentious" or "He's trying too hard". Or maybe they thought, "That guy is annoying". But I was serious about what I said. "I'm an encourager."

Here is a list of the job titles I've had in my lifetime: Crew member, corn detassler, gas station attendant, stockroom clerk, band director, department manager, human resource manager, manager of training and development, employee assistance counselor, consultant, guest speaker, learning consultant, senior learning consultant, organizational development manager.....and there are more that I haven't listed but you get the picture. I've had lots of jobs and lots of titles. And in just a few more years, I will step away from the world of fancy titles and job descriptions-the ones that someone else decides for you.

I've been really fortunate that my talents and strengths lie in the area of working with people. The jobs I've had have always put me in situations where I've been able to be helpful to others, sometimes in  ways that weren't on my job description or in my job title. In the last couple of months, I've had several people describe me a mentor and I find myself seeking out even more situations where I can be encouraging to others. 

Just before I wrote this, I left a young man who I mentor weekly at a local high school. I'm having lunch today with a friend I've known for 23 years. Yesterday afternoon, I sat and listened to one of our nurse managers who is struggling with her team. It's a good gig.

So when the opportunity came to share  my job title, I picked the one that fit who I am and who I will continue to strive to be-with or without a job. "I'm an encourager"

Someone I know was laid off from her job this week, after 20 years of service. I hope that when she thinks about what she does next, she is able to continue to do what she does best, with or without a job title or job description.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Chocolate Covered Cherries, Bic Pens and a Comb

There is a present under the Christmas tree wrapped in aluminum foil. It showed up almost immediately after the tree was decorated. It may never be opened or used, but it is the most important gift under the tree.

I've been overhearing a lot  of chatter about holiday stress from co-workers lately. Seems that the pressure to buy the right presents is a big deal for people. Or having to buy when you can't really afford it. It got me to thinking about what Christmas would be like without presents or gifts.  It got me thinking about chocolate covered cherries, Bic pens and combs.

Growing up in a large family, Christmas was a big deal. One of the memories that stands out is waking on Christmas morning before my parents were awake and sneaking out into the living room to discover all the presents under the tree. By 1962, there were 8 kids so that would make for a ton o' presents even if our per-person gift count was less than smaller families.

We would put our presents in piles to see who had the tallest stack. But that bubble was burst when we compared what we got to our next door neighbors, who not only got more stuff, but they got cooler stuff. 

There was the year when some of us received used toys."That electric train set is for you 3 older boys" Mom said. It was bad enough that we had to share presents, but used toys?? I remember feeling ashamed because we got used toys, then feeling ashamed of feeling ashamed because I was old enough to know how tight money must have been for my parents. You can bet that I never mentioned the word "used" when comparing what I got for Christmas with my pals out on the playground.

One year, in 1995, I almost didn't get any presents at all. I had just moved to Lincoln that fall for a new job and was not in a relationship, and thus, had no plans for the holidays. When word of this got out at work, one of my co-workers insisted I join her family on Christmas Eve for pizza. I accepted, had a wonderful time and she gave me a shirt as a gift. I was touched.

And Georgette, who was  just a co-worker at the time, invited me to join her extended family, also known as "too loud and too many", for dinner on Christmas Day. I accepted. The gift she gave me turned into an even bigger gift when we started our relationship about a month later.

So back to the aluminum foil wrapped present under the tree.  It was important to my parents that the youngest children buy gifts for rest of the family. Each of them would be given a couple of dollars to buy 9 presents. That's about 40-50 cents a person. Off to the "5 and Dime store" we would go and  the older kids would help the younger kids pick out their gifts. Popular among the items you could buy for 40 or 50 cents were combs, Bic Pens, spiral notebooks and....cheap boxes of chocolate covered cherries-the cheaper the better. Because wrapping paper was expensive and in short supply, the boxes of chocolate covered cherries got wrapped in aluminum foil. There would always be at least 5-10 boxes of chocolate covered cherries under the tree.

We were given strict orders to act excited and surprised when opening our gifts from the "little kids". Good acting skills were helpful. "Oh thanks, Jerry. A comb!" "Thanks for the Bic pens, Jane"  And if you were real lucky, you received a box of chocolate covered cherries-one that had not been opened. You see, it was real easy to sneak into a box of someones cherries, take a few out of the box and wrap it back up with the aluminum foil. 

When our parents divorced in the mid 70's our Kingkade family Christmases ended abruptly along with any traditions we had in place.  We all scattered to new families and relationships and new traditions replaced the ones we grew up with. Except at my house.

The first present that I place under our tree every year is a box of cheap chocolate covered cherries wrapped in aluminum foil. It may not get opened. It certainly won't have been opened early by some sneaky sibling. It's my connection to past Christmases. When Christmas was magic. Before I learned about the difference between presents and gifts.

I'm not sure what I'm getting for Christmas presents this year.  Don't really care. I just know there will be gifts. Even when the presents were few or used, I always received gifts. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Goops and Lumpy Cream of Wheat

Sitting down to another Sunday morning breakfast on a snowy morning, with the fireplace glowing and cheesy holiday music playing in the background, I am reminded how I won the second chance lottery. 

"The cream of wheat is a little lumpy". Something about how you are supposed to prepare it a certain way.

In front of me is a bowl of cream of wheat. It looks fine to me. And a plate with a slice of homemade pumpkin bread, the kind with walnuts and raisins in it. And a couple of slices of bacon, the thick kind done extra crispy on the griddle. A glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee.

I let the comment about the lumpy cream of wheat pass. 

Grace, the beagle, is also enjoying her lottery prize. A scrambled egg in her dog food bowl, a Sunday morning ritual. When she sees the activity in the kitchen and hears the egg crack, she parks herself underfoot and gives the cook the "chop, chop" stare. Also known as waiting impatiently.

When I smear a dab of butter on my pumpkin bread and then decide it is too big to pick up with my hands, I go to reach for my fork when......where's the fork?  No problem, I'll just use my knife. I cut a slice of the bread and put the knife under it and lift it up and problem solved. "Yum, that is good pumpkin bread."

 I glance over at the cook and see I'm getting the look. The "Goop" look. Are you acquainted with the Goops? Let me introduce you to the Goops:

I was introduced to the Goops as a child through a nursery rhyme book read to me by my mother who then attempted to use the concept as a behavior modification technique. It didn't stick.

"You obviously didn't receive etiquette lessons, did you?" It more of a statement than a question. "You could go get a knife if you want one"

"No, this will work fine" 

 By now, Grace has picked all of the scrambled egg out of her bowl  and has moved under the table to beg for some people food. "Not going to happen, Grace. Not a chance". 

 Grace has not learned the concept of "always a gift, never an expectation". Breakfast this morning was a perfect example of the "always a gift, never an expectation" way of living. 

We live by rituals at our house.  On Sunday, mornings we read the paper, drink coffee, go for some exercise, and then the cook makes breakfast. I can bank on that just like the sun rises in the east. And I never know what will be served and I never ask.  I just show up.

In our nearly 17 years of marriage we have shared thousands of meal together. It's one of the things I love most about our life. The table is set with place mats, condiments are put in ramekins or bowls and a full set of silverware (fork, knife and spoon for you fellow Goops out there) is set properly on the table. Say nothing for the quality of the food that is prepared-it is excellent, I must say. 

Now you are starting to get that "lottery" reference if you like to dine as much as I do. Left to my own devices I would rarely use a place mat,  I might eat some things right out of the container or package, and my creativity in meal-planning is......simple might be overstating it.

 So when the cream of wheat was a little lumpy, big deal. And no fork, no problem. This isn't rocket science, as we used to say.  

I can't pinpoint exactly when, but I do know that I had a moment of clarity some time ago. I could see the things in my life such as having meals planned and prepared, clothes washed, holiday plans organized, and hundred other things-as an expectation or as a gift.

What's the difference? For me, the difference is huge. Lumpy cream of wheat...cop an attitude. No fork...act inconvenienced or put out. That's about expectations.

"Always a gift" means I show up at the table with a grateful heart and an empty stomach.

 "Always a gift" is a kind of grace that causes me to say "Oh well" instead of  "what the ...?!!" when things do go as expected.

See, I think it is OK to have expectations. But expectations that are gift-wrapped are better than expectations that come with a scorecard or tally sheet. And there are and will be times when things don't go as planned, when forks are left off the table, when the gravy is lumpy or perhaps when the one you love is simply human. Or when I am simply human.

Grace the beagle hasn't figured this out yet. But she's gets a pass because she's a beagle and her name is Grace. She gets to to be a beagle Goop.

I won the second chance lottery because I have breakfast prepared almost every Sunday morning, in spite of eating my pumpkin bread with a knife. 

I won the second chance lottery because the gifts I receive go way beyond breakfast and lumpy Cream of Wheat.

 I won the second chance lottery when I made a decision to embrace the concept of "always a gift, never an expectation"

Now excuse me, I see a bowl of pumpkin bread batter I need to stick my finger into. Once a Goop, always a Goop.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

In Search of Christmas Spirit(s)

Yesterday was about as nice a day outside as we could expect here in Nebraska on Nov. 30th. It sure didn't feel like the Christmas season was up and running yet, in spite of having just celebrated Thanksgiving and  survived Black Friday. Something is missing. I feel like Charlie Brown searching for the true meaning of Christmas and bemoaning the over the  commercialization of the season. I just didn't have the Christmas spirit yet.

But there's hope. You see, for me, the Christmas spirit season begins in earnest when we go to see old cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge go from grouchy to joyful in "The Christmas Carol" at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  It's just not Christmas if I don't get to get my dose of old Ebenezer Scrooge and witness him being visited by the 3 Christmas spirits. And while this will be the 10th year in a row Georgette and I have attended this production, a tradition we started when we moved here In 2003, my love of the Charles Dickens classic began many years prior.

As a young boy, I remember lying in the living room floor and looking up at the ceiling while Mom read the story to us it's original version, using  all of my imagination to conjure up an image of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. 

And then there was the 9th grade musical at my junior high where I was cast as none other than Ebenezer himself, in a play called "Mr. Scrooge". 

I know what some of you are thinking- that I was typecast. Hold that thought.

One of the songs I sang was titled, "Christmas is a Nasty, Noisy Nightmare".  A quick Internet search today uncovered a partial copy of the play book where I found the lyrics to that song I sang back in 1967. It comes early in the play when nephew Fred comes calling on Scrooge in his counting house to wish him a merry Christmas.

"Christmas is a nasty, noisy nightmare,
With forth the carol singers leading the abuse!
And those ruddy Christmas bells,
That sound as though all hells breaking loose, 
Oh, Christmas is enough to cook your goose!"

"Oh, the gluttonous gorging of turkey,
And pudding and candy cane,
And you wonder why next morning, 
you wake up with excruciating pain, fools!"

"Christmas is a universal madness,
Every citizen of London goes insane,
Even starchy plutocrats, put on silly hats,
And the cockney finds a taste for champagne."

Fortunately or unfortunately, there aren't pictures or recordings of the production, but I do have the program shown here above. I found a photo of another production I was in where I was cast as a grouchy mean guy who terrorized women and taunted young children-from the musical "Oliver" where I played Bill Sykes in 1984.  

What was that about typecasting? Never mind.
Me, in the red coat, As Bill Sykes in "Oliver"
Going to see " the Christmas Carol" has become one of my holiday rituals along with playing the Living Strings album and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I will probably listen to an audio book rendition of the Dickens classic and maybe read the book in its entirety. 

There is a lot about this story that has made it one of my all-time favorites.  I love the idea of second chances-to rebuild your life or to begin anew. I've certainly been given a chance to live a second life, one with more clarity and purpose the one I was living 23 years ago.  Dickens touches on aspects of the human experience that are time worn regardless of one's religion or faith-greed, selfishness and contempt for those who have less than you. He  challenges the reader to extend mercy, kindness and charity to those who are less fortunate. And forgiveness-if the Christmas Carol is about anything, it's about forgiveness and making amends.

I've lived my own version of the ghost of Christmas past and present and, but by the grace of God, have managed to avoid a visit by the ghost of Christmas future. And while I didn't go to sleep a broken man one night and wake to become a new man the next morning, I have experienced a "spirit-tual" awakening that has enabled me to forge a new life, one that has been rich and bountiful.

I'm going to let you in a little secret.  There are times during the performance when I feel the emotion start to well up inside me. I guess I can relate to old Ebenezer.

So maybe being cast as Ebenezer Scrooge in a 9th grade musical was a foreshadowing of my life to come-a visit by the ghost of Christmas future, 1967 style.

 Coincidence. Maybe?

Typecasting? You be the judge.

Either way, I've seen the play and I like the ending.