(A pin drops)
You have no idea who I am, do you?
That’s okay. Neither did I before I came up with what I’m about to tell you. To best understand who I am, I need to tell you about who I was. In order to do that, I need to go back to the beginning, to Cleveland, where I was born. To a place where everyone believed that I, Zeke Klompus, had been preparing for something big my entire life, or at least since Kindergarten. That’s when I was thrust, along with a thousand other kids at William McKinley Elementary, into the very competitive sport of duck duck goose during gym class. You may remember the game. But there was something different about my initiation to duck duck goose than the way the other kids took to it. It appeared I was a natural. Some would say a prodigy.
No one was more excited about watching me grow up than the high school track coach, Les Manning. Every year he petitioned the principal of William McKinley Elementary, asking about me skipping “a grade or two” so I can start high school early. Every year he got the same answer: “You’re going to have to wait.”
For those of you who never played duck duck goose, it’s a game where children sit in a large circle. One child is “it” and “it” walks on the outside of the circle, usually counter-clockwise, tapping the heads of his classmates with his left hand while saying duck, duck, duck and so on. When “it” says goose, the person whose head was tapped last is required to get up and chase “it” around the circle. The goal is for the “goose” to catch “it” before “it” reaches the place where the “goose” was sitting. If the “goose” is slow, “it” takes that seat and the “goose” is now “it.” Whew! Are you still there? Of course you are! This is a TED audience I’m talking to!
Folks, I don’t like to brag. The last thing I want in life is for you to walk away today and tell your friends that Zeke Klompus is nothing but an arrogant, duck duck goose playing elitist who wouldn’t know what modesty was if it hit him in the head. No, seriously, nothing would make me happier than if you decided to throw ‘handsome’ and ‘commanding’ into the mix!
(Laughter, rip-roaring applause)
I digress. But if you ask anyone in town, they’d tell you that they never saw Zeke Klompus get caught or fail to catch anyone while playing duck duck goose all 8 years of elementary school. They’d tell you that I was a legend at William McKinley. They’d tell you how the state looked the other way when gym teachers were still opening the floor to duck duck goose long after we were way too old to be playing duck duck goose by the time 8th grade rolled around. But because of Zeke Klompus, and the spectacle he was putting on, duck duck goose became an integral part of our learning experience. Had the Olympic Committee come to our proud city on the banks of Lake Erie, it would have sanctioned duck duck goose an Olympic sport, and good ol’ Zeke Klompus would have given Soviet duck duck goose players something to worry about.
I should explain that the height of my career took place during the Cold War. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev was more interested in securing his nation’s dominance of international duck duck goose (utka utka gus’) than he was in his later policies of Glasnost and Perestroika. But I really idolized the Soviet players. They were a big influence on me and in the way I played the game.
Soon high school rolled around. Everyone thought I was going to be Coach Manning’s ticket to the state meet! But I couldn’t run to save my life. Not the 100 meters, not the 200, and definitely not the mile! Whatever event Coach Manning put me in, I finished dead last. Then one day Coach had an idea. He had the entire student body (1,219 young men and women) sit with 2,000 volunteers from the city just inside lane 1 of William McKinley High School’s regulation size track. He then told me that I was “it” and that he wanted me to show him some of that old magic he had heard so much about. So I did what he told me. When I was being chased I set an unofficial state record in the 400 meters. When I was chasing I set another unofficial record in the 400 meters. I tagged the guy who called me goose within the first few strides then just kept going!
With back-to-back state records under my belt, even though they didn’t count, can you imagine what kind of success followed? I’ll save you the trouble. Zilch! Try as hard as I might, I could not relate running track to how I did in duck duck goose. I failed miserably. I let Coach down. I embarrassed my school. I fell into a state of “averageness” that I could not get out of. My legacy of being the greatest duck duck goose player in William McKinley Elementary history faded the summer before sophomore year. I would spend the rest of high school leaning against the wall waiting for someone to ask me to dance.
Years went by. I graduated in relative obscurity from a small liberal arts college close to home. After that I became a chimney sweeper. I was also a toll booth operator on the weekends. Then I was a sales clerk at a sporting goods store. These were important jobs to the people who buy these services, but they offered little advancement and zero satisfaction. I was floundering in a sea of frustration. I had plenty of ideas but I didn’t know how to design a mission around them.
So one day, feeling blue, I went to mass at Saint Stanislaus Catholic Church in Cleveland. St. Stan’s is a lovely building with statues and stained glass windows that are rivaled only by the two spires out front that pierce the sky at 122 feet. The church was founded in 1891 by the Polish immigrants who worked in the steel mills nearby. I was raised Catholic, but I hadn’t been to church in some time. I used to like going to mass when I was a boy. I even thought of becoming an altar boy, but those jobs were taken by the Catholic School boys. A “public” like me could never be an altar boy.
When I was a boy my favorite part of mass was right after the readings. This is when everyone sits down and the priest tells them a story. This, if you’re not familiar with the proceedings of a Catholic mass, is called a homily. When I returned to St. Stan’s that day, I was praying for the priest to tell us the mother of all homilies. After all, I was a 26-year old washed-up duck duck goose player who was scraping the bottom of life’s barrel with the scruff of my unshaven face. I needed a miracle, the ultimate pick-me-up. What I got was a cure for insomnia! The priest’s failure to use inflection and his lackluster use of adjectives and action verbs not only bored me to death, they prompted me to write him a letter urging him to get new material or risk losing 50% of his parishioners within five years.
The Catholic Church likes statistics, especially ones that impact the weight of the collection basket. I got a phone call three days later. “Meet me in the rectory. Come alone.”
Off to St. Stan’s I went.
“What’s this you say about my homilies, you little twerp? I’ve never even seen you at mass before!”
“I’ve been away for a while, Father, but I want to come back.”
“You think you can make something of yourself here?”
“I need to make something of myself, Father.”
“Write me a homily for fifty bucks?”
“Oh I don’t know how to write. What’s that you say, fifty bucks?”
“I’m guessing whatever you write has to be better than what I write. What’d you call it, “’fighting to stay awake while having your legs chewed off by Tasmanian devils?”’
“You liked that, huh?”
“Recite 4 Hail Marys, an Act of Contrition, and have that homily on my desk by 8 AM Sunday morning. Good day!”
Thus began my career writing homilies and selling them to priests on the black market. Cash-only transactions in church halls and rectories. Sometimes in sacristies, where wine never ages and bread is stacked on shelves like Necco Wafers. Within weeks I had 27 clients stretching from the Cleveland diocese all the way to Toledo. There was a race to get lapsed parishioners back in pews before other denominations gobbled them up and converted them. I was heading up an experiment on a scale the size of the Manhattan Project. Not since duck duck goose had I had a more important calling. My homilies helped make people feel good about going to church. Even babies were pushing up their baptisms to get in!
I became a philosopher, a sociologist, and a writer all in one. I tackled the issues facing the United States and wrote stories that inspired people to act. Hunger, disease, wars, natural disasters, homelessness — you name it! The content was there. It was up to the priests to bring my stories to life. If they had any doubt whatsoever about their speaking skills, they joined Toastmasters and became better orators.
I grew to 500 clients. Every state plus Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In 2008 there were 72 million Catholics in the U.S. There are now close to 140 million. If you think I’m filthy rich, take a look at the amount of money traveling to Rome every month. For the first time ever, Congress has a Catholic majority. And once Supreme Court justices start falling, look for Catholics to replace them. It’s just a matter of time before Roe v. Wade goes the way of the Volstead Act.
(Cheers from the right side of the room, jeers from the left)
Ouch! It appears we have some remnants of the Know Nothing Party in attendance.
By 2015 my secret was out. Parables-R-Us was just getting too big to operate underground. I went public with my business and I worked out a deal with the IRS to catch up on back taxes. Then I threw my hat into the philanthropy ring. I donated 99% of my profits to charity. This excited Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg, who were old hands at this. We formed an alliance called The 4 Apostles. When a crisis erupts anywhere in the world, we throw like a gazillion dollars at it. Which means I have to write more than ever and pray that priests won’t move their writing in house. As for the priests of tomorrow, I did some checking. There isn’t a single seminary out there that offers advanced degrees in creative writing. My job is safe for a while. And thanks to Verizon I can write, save and email from anywhere in the world. Here, watch this! Spell-check. Save. Send. Done! A homily about visiting shut-ins is on its way to Father Manuel Vargas at our Lady of Perpetual Mercy in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
(Shock and awe)
Sorry about the interruption, folks. But at Parables-R-Us, every time an email sends a priest gets his wings! That’s all I have for today.
Illustrated by Keely Sajovie