Is There Life After Retirement?

Archive for the ‘Character Sketches’ Category

Yesterday I attended a huge surprise retirement party for one of my high school teachers.  He’s only about a decade older than me, so we’re from his “early days” of teaching.  He tried to retire awhile back but it didn’t stick.  This time – forty years later – is for real.  We’ve kept in touch during the past four decades so he has gone from “idolized teacher” and drama coach to friend and then finally – by some crazy twist of fate – educational peer.  John’s cool wife (also a teacher, btw) asked us to bring a page of funny or inspired reminiscing for a binder compilation.  I thought about it, thought about it, thought about it some more and finally – three hours before the event and true to form for me – I finally wrote it and submitted it to the binder.

But today I’m not posting this to honor him.  I’m posting it for all the teachers that I know.  We often hear “our educational system is broken” and sadly, I agree.  But I also see dedicated teachers slogging away every day, trying to make a difference.  And you are the reason I’m posting this now.  Forty years ago I had a good, no, a GREAT History teacher.  That’s all.  Just a couple years of my life.  I sat in a class, I got inspired, I did plays.  And I moved on.  Yet as I look at my life with the most objective eyes I can find, I see the influence that this one teacher had on this uppity, creative, high-strung (yes, I was), smart in a raw clay kinda way, small blue collar town girl.  So when you (and you know who you are) get discouraged and wonder why you do this, please remember this.  Every single teacher in the world may not totally rock, but ALL the ones that I know do.  Seriously.

First time I encountered “Mr. Minor” from afar – I was a 14 year-old Junior High freshman, newly and unwillingly transferred from Buchanan Jr High. My new friends and I were chowing  down on snacks from Minnie’s, while waiting for our bus when we heard the unmistakable sound to our left – a VW bus.  (really – nothing else sounds like those things – like they have a sewing machine for an engine).  I turned around and immediately asked Kathy Lucas who it was.  She explained it was Mr. Minor, from the high school.  My response was, “Wow … he looks just like Michael Caine!”

Most embarrassing moment in high school – I was late for The Miracle Worker rehersal because Doug Wagner asked me to paint a flag on the electric keyboard that he’d be using for the senior assembly.  As soon as I walked in to the rehersal in progress, Minor growled “You’re late!” to which I dramatically replied: “Well, I had to paint Doug’s organ!” Cheryl Williams burst into laughter, followed by pretty much everyone else in the room and it was just too much for my 18 year old cool/uncool meter.  Funny now, though.

Greatest influence on my career, first as a trainer and now as a college professor – On one of the first days of World History at Mingo High School, Minor had us each start with a clean sheet of paper with the only instructions being to “Write.  Whatever you want.  Anything.  Just start writing and don’t stop until I tell you to.  If you can’t think of anything to say, just write a word over and over.  But keep writing.”  Being a chatty 17 year old who was overly enamored of her own opinion, I had no problem filling multiple pages, and was suprised to see that many classmates had difficulty with this exercise.  At the conclusion, he explained to us that, thus far, we had mainly been taught to memorize.  In this class, however, he would try and teach us to think.  I got it and never forgot it.

Best foundation ever – 1971 was a very emotionally charged year politically, with Vietnam at the forefront of many heated debates.  What we “knew” was that – if you were old, you were likely to be supportive of it, and if you were young, you were supposed to be against it. Luckily, it was the year that I had Minor because he … EXPLAINED … it.  He conversationally and matter-of-factly briefly explained Indochina, used the ideas of pillars propping it up as an analogy, which subsequently explained why – even if the support was ill-conceived, there’d be a strong cause/effect response to removing them.  No one – and I mean NO ONE had ever done that. Now I’m not going to credit him for ALL of this, but I must say – this is the first time I remember being consciously aware of the value of looking at ALL factors of a specific issue.

Strangest revelation about the idea of “history” – somewhere in my thirties or forties, my husband and I came home for a visit and I decided to drop in on John, to see what he was up to all these decades later.  Now this was at Wintersville High School, and I had known him at Mingo High School.  So the school was different, the classroom was different.  But the chalkboard was EXACTLY the same – same handwriting and (I’ll be damned) the exact same notes on Hitler.  I joked about it but he explained, “History doesn’t change.  Our perspective might, but it doesn’t.  That’s why we study it.”  Dang.

And then there was a couple weeks ago – Sitting at Hillsboro Tavern with my classmates as we are on the verge of turning 60, most of us quite happy with our lives, not so happy with our bones and joints … I looked over at John – who I was trying to not talk to because I was petrified I’d spill the beans about tonight – and it struck me: this man was one of the most influential people of my entire life. No exaggeration, no shit. When you influence a person during those “formative years” the effect seems to increase exponentially over time.  And I couldn’t possibly be happier about that.  Okay, so he’s not really Michael Caine.  But I’d be the Lulu to his Sidney Poitier and – if I could carry a tune, which we all know I can’t – would belt out that song with my whole heart.

Ya did good, Minor.


*for the unititated, the song referenced was “To Sir, With Love” from the movie of the same name.


There is a wonderful site called “Six Sentences” where the challenge is to tell a story in exactly six sentences.  Very challenging and a good writing exercise.  I did this one last last year:

He paced the length of the stage, ebony hair falling in tendrils around his shoulders, forest green Calcutta tunic matching the intensity and color of his eyes as he pitched the secrets of healing and salvation.

“Do you think this guy’s for real?” the boy next to her whispered in a voice that’s never really low enough and always an unwanted interruption.

Ignoring the question, she tried to focus on the man’s practical explanation of chakras but was drawn instead to the bearing of this enigmatic, self-proclaimed healer – gently intelligent yet unnervingly masculine – and so very handsome.

“He probably does this just to hook up with women,” her cynical young row mate snickered.

Pretending those thoughts had never occurred to her, she tossed the boy an “of course not” scowl and returned her attention to the speaker.

Seeing that he was looking directly at her, she quickly her lowered head, afraid that the flush of her cheeks would reveal she was totally and irrevocably smitten.

“See, this is where they made the incision.”

Emma tried to avoid direct eye contact with the bloated white belly proudly thrust into her line of vision.

“Uh yeah, I see. You can put your shirt down before a customer comes in, okay, Jack?”

Not really hearing her, he continued his story of recent surgical adventures. A burly middle-aged man with a booming voice, Jack seemed more like a bright child in the middle of show and tell. Shirt still bunched mid-chest, his belly flopped and his graying pony tail swayed, both in sync with his animated story telling.

Emma had been acquainted with Jack for years, starting from her early days in this small town. She didn’t know him well, but knew he was both eccentric and exceedingly intelligent. This combination of traits led to a specific conversational pattern between them. It would start off with Emma being totally, exhilaratingly engaged in debate. But somewhere in the middle of the discussion she would invariably find herself lost while Jack continued down his unique synaptic path. Be it that he outmatched her either in wit or in strangeness, the relevance of the chat would trail off permanently at that point. He and his former wife moved away and Emma hadn’t really heard about him since.

Now here he stood – as colorfully mismatched as ever, patriotically decal-ed cane waving to punctuate each unsolicited opinion. But something was different about Jack now. In the old days, his eccentricities could be shrugged off as a living example of Thoreau’s different drummer essay. But the man in front of her today seemed unable to spend more than a few moments in the commonly agreed upon sense of reality shared by average and regular humans.

“Oh, isn’t this just the cutest little thang?” Emma’s thoughts were interrupted by a small flock of tour bus escapees trying to squeeze into the small gift shop. Before she could greet them, Jack sprang into action.

“YOU WON’T FIND PALM TREE SALT AND PEPPER SHAKERS ANYWHERE ELSE ON THIS ISLAND! GET THESE AND YOU WON’T BE SORRY, UNCLE JACK PROMISES YOU THAT!” His voice boomed and echoed throughout the tiny space. Emma held her breath for a timeless instant until the three 60something ladies dissolved into a group giggle.  Breathing a sigh of relief, she allowed the repartee to continue for a minute or so, until she sensed that Jack was getting too intense and saw the ladies almost backing away in response.

“Jack.” Emma said quietly, trying to get his attention. He turned towards her. “Sit down,” as she pointed to the chair in front of her cash register.

“Wait, I’ll get this sale for –“

“Sit down.” Her voice still low, it nevertheless carried a mom tone that meant do it NOW.

Looking rather dejected, he sat. Emma left her station to deal with the customers, mentally debating what she was going to do with Jack after the ladies left. She was within her rights to eject him from the store and wasn’t cowed by the stack of expensive merchandise he was intending to buy. Emma had no qualms about laying things on the proverbial line. But still…his loneliness was palpable.

When the store cleared, he began his lament, “All I was trying to do was — ” but she cut him off before he could finish.

“Okay, here’s the deal. You’re welcome to stay and chat. But these are the conditions. One – stop playing clerk. That’s my job, not yours. Two – you have a voice made for the stage but you don’t realize how loud it is. When I give you the sign, it means speak softly. Three – well, I’ll let you know when I think of number three. Understand?”

Like a puppy recently scolded but knowing that his human was still his human, Jack tried to look contrite. “Yes. I get it.”

For the next few moments they sat there in silence, Emma doing paperwork, Jack looking around the shop, each smiling inwardly.

The afternoon progressed without major incident. Occasional conspiracy rants were interwoven with the proud showing of grandkid pictures, with no mention of various ex-wives or where he’d been during the past decade. Visitors wandered in and out of the shop. Jack kept a watchful eye on Emma, waiting for a sign that would indicate the acceptability level of his behavior.

During a quiet moment, Emma contemplated the pile of merchandise Jack had accrued. A combination of practical and frivolous, the items now figured into several hundred dollars. Putting this together with recent tales of Jack’s extravagant three-week stay at the local luxury hotel, Emma couldn’t resist asking what the whole town had been wondering.

“So what’s the deal? You win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes or something?”

“Yeah, something like that.” The rueful laugh told her it was anything but.

And then a few minutes later:

“Can you believe they send me all kinds of money every month now?”


“Who else? Big Brother.”

Emma thought about this for a moment. Assessing his age and remembering that several of her Vietnam Vet neighbors had recently “retired” early from their jobs, she began to get a clearer idea of what was going on with Jack. She offered only a feeble “Uh, better late than never?” which was met with a derisive snort. She didn’t know what to say, but was silently thankful that her usual selfishness seemed to be on break today. His new thoracic scar was nothing compared to the ones responsible for this recent windfall.

“So how’s Sadie these days?” His youngest daughter was a classmate of Emma’s stepson, so this was good common ground. They laughed and chatted and her exasperation with his Jackness was tempered by knowing that there was only an hour left of this.

Finally it was time to close the shop. She gave him one last chance to curtail his shopping craziness.

“Okay, if you want this stuff I’ve got to ring it up now. But if not, let’s put it back.”

“No, no! I really want it!”

Emma went through the stack, ringing up some of the items and tossing others aside while muttering, “nope, I’m not selling you a sequined evening bag,” folding/bagging as she went. Finally she hit the total key and $285 popped up, which was probably the all time highest sale the small shop would ever have – and it was time to pay up.

Jack dumped a wallet full of credit cards onto the counter. “Pick one” he instructed. Emma selected a colorful VISA.

“Sorry. It’s declined.”

Jack handed her a red, white and blue MASTERCARD.


“I just don’t pay attention to what gets paid when.”

About the time Emma began to wonder if this was just a game, the local Hawaiian Bank VISA with the sandy blue waves was promptly accepted.

He helped her sweep and close the shop. As she was leaving, Emma noticed the bouquet of fresh flowers on the counter and remembered the shop would be closed tomorrow and that the flowers wouldn’t make it until Monday. Rather than deal with tossing them away now or making the Monday person do it, Emma turned to Jack, “Would you like to take these flowers back to your room?”

“Really? I can pay for them.”

“Oh no, I don’t mean buy them, I just thought you might want them and –“ She started to explain that it would save her the trouble of dumping them, but stopped when she saw the look on his face.

“I’d love to have them.” His voice was quiet with a slight waver. “Thank you. Thank you, Emma. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

The sincerity of his words, combined with knowing how flippantly the offer was made cut straight to her heart. “Sure, no problem. You enjoy them, okay?”

By now they were leaving the shop, Emma locking the door behind them. She smiled and waved goodbye as she walked towards her car.


She turned. “Yeah, Jack?”

“Thanks. Thank you for everything. I mean it.”

Not sure what exactly she was being thanked for, Emma replied simply, “You’re welcome, Jack.”

Watching him clumsily stuff his purchases and precious floral cargo into his rental car, she murmured “please take care of him” to no one in particular. Swallowing past a tightness in her throat, Emma could feel a sadness rising. She hurried to her own car, hoping to beat the deluge.

This was a writing exercise for ‘Six Sentences” where the posts are supposed to be exactly, well, six sentences.  It’s wayyy harder than it sounds, and leads to some very creative punctuation:

The worst trouble I’d ever gotten into were the times she thought evil had befallen her only daughter.

The first time I remember was the afternoon I called out to her, through Dad’s winter coat and my snowsuit, to let her know I’d locked myself in the closet and needed her to rescue me and no, I was NOT lying at the bottom of the basement stairs with a broken neck.

Then there was the time, while taking huge steps through the fresh mud with my red rubber boots and brand new socks, the left boot got stuck in the ooze and I yelled for help because I knew if the perfectly clean white sock came into the house covered with wet brown dirt, there would be hell to pay. And no, I was NOT about to be swallowed up by quick mud (in the middle of Ohio).

By adulthood our roles reversed, as evidenced by the time an ostrich got loose from the petting zoo and barreled down the Fort Steuben Mall towards us and she dealt with it by using me – her only offspring and light of her life (allegedly) as a shield, for cryin’ out loud.

She would have been eighty-three today.

Colorado, 1977

Colorado, 1977

“I am JT, the Branch Manager!”It wasn’t the words that caught my attention; it was the way he said them. Spoken slightly louder than necessary, with equal emphasis on I and Manager, it was less of an introduction as it was an announcement, as though he couldn’t quite believe it himself. This had must be pride from the recently promoted, I thought to myself.

Watching him preside over the tiny car rental outlet, all five feet, five inches of perfect posture and immaculate aloha business attire, I thought back to the first time I was able to claim the word manager. For me it was “I’m Marti, the Assistant Advertising Manager for Madison’s,” emphasis on ADVERTISING and MADISON’S, as the field and the classy women’s clothing chain were the important parts of my introduction/announcement. It was the first time a job and its title really meant something to me.

JT, the Branch Manager had a day that industry folks refer to as getting snowed. It was Boat Day in Kahului – when the cruise ship docks and central Maui is flooded with several thousand folks with ocean fever – and impulse car rentals are common. On this day the “boat people” descended upon the small lot like a swarm of photo snapping locusts. By noon the rows of parking stalls were nearly empty, but the waiting room was full.

Nevertheless, JT, the Branch Manager didn’t waver. He stuck by the troops, greeting, registering, apologizing for delays, always in that voice slightly louder than necessary, as though the Regional Manager was spying on him from behind the silk ficus tree over by the soda machine.

“So to summarize, you elect NOT to take the totally inclusive, just walk away with a new rental insurance that would prevent you from being totally liable for any damage done to the car whatsoever?” As the exhausted customer glared at him in silence, JT the Branch Manager regrouped, offered a chipper “All right, then!” and finished the transaction.

I finally got the keys to my hastily washed white Hyundai and as I left, he thanked me and shook my hand, as he did with everyone else. “If you have any questions, please feel free to call me. I’m JT and I’m -–“

We finished the sentence together: “…the Branch Manager.”

Instantly contrite for being such a smart ass, I was relieved that he missed my sarcasm completely. He smiled broadly, “Yes, I am.”

Pulling away from the now quiet lot, I wondered where JT will be a year from now. Will he still be front and center? Or will be hiding in the back office, surfing the web and avoiding the customers that he now nearly body slams with Guest Contact 101?

Turning on my left blinker, I waited for an opening onto the Hana Highway. Easing into traffic, I headed home hoping the more seasoned JT of the future manages to keep his spark.


I wrote this one about four years ago, right when I was stretching my writing jones. I want to rip it apart and re-write it, but decided to keep it as is.

Last Saturday I was sitting at Ruby’s Diner with my kid, waiting for our lunch to arrive. Ruby’s is a crowded, noisy, colorful, touristy kind of place, with lots of things to watch and hear. Being the nosy person that I am, I passed the time doing some people watching. Sometimes it’s better than a movie, y’know? Hand me some popcorn and I’m in.

Anyway, my attention was drawn to a large booth that was literally overflowing with various members of a happy, animated and highly interactive family. I could determine three generations, with the grandparents being a little older than me, 30ish parents and children from toddler to young elementary age. Everyone in this family seemed close and to genuinely LIKE each other. The 30ish “prodigal son” was obviously adored by his parents and his wife – though still somewhat tentative – was in the process of developing a loving relationship with her in-laws. And the grandkids were practically bouncing off the walls. Pretty normal stuff.

But in the midst of this active family and restaurant hustle and bustle, my eye was drawn to a very specific relationship – the interaction between the grandfather and a girl of about six. They appeared to communicate on a level beyond that of the rest, which was supported by the warm and knowing glances of the other family members regarding them. After mulling it over a bid, I finally found the word that describes the specialness of their bond. They share a degree of intimacy.

I love that word. lists six definitions for the word “intimacy.” The first five are as follows: 1)Marked by close acquaintance, association, or familiarity 2)Relating to or indicative of one’s deepest nature 3)Essential; innermost 4) Marked by informality and privacy 5)Very personal

In relation to these two, I’m putting my money on definition #2.

Here is a relationship where, for the rest of this girl’s life, she will have an absolute favorite lap to crawl into, and absolute favorite voice to hear on the other end of the phone and an absolute favorite person to tell her most important things. And this man will have the honor of watching her grow and become the person she was meant to be, knowing that he will be lucky enough to be the one who is given special glimpses of the process as it unfolds.

It got me to thinking about the relationships in my own life where I’ve experienced that sense of intimacy, and how special it is when it occurs.  Often, it’s in the context of friendship. And yes, there were six definitions of intimacy, with the 6th being: “of or involved in a sexual nature.” I omitted it because I didn’t want to confuse the issue.

At one point I got busted for my people watching. I glanced around and the mom/wife/grandma was watching me watch her husband and granddaughter. We smiled at each other warmly and I looked away. Luckily about that time our food came and I refocused my attention on the biggest Cobb salad I’ve ever seen. Eventually the family left without me being aware of them doing so and life continued. I am, however, thinking I should start wearing sunglasses in restaurants.

Yes, intimacy. I like that word.

    • Joyce Burke: This was great too read
    • Debbie: I'm with miracarroll--it's your story, so create however you want. Leave the rest of us wondering which of the (mis)adventures are real, which might b
    • miracarroll: Marti, surely the people in your life are wise enough to know (especially after you say it) that you're a writer and in fiction, everything is fair ga