Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ah, Christmas!

Ghost of Christmas Past: "I am here for your welfare, Ebenezer."
Scrooge: "My welfare? To be awakened by a ghost at one o'clock in the morning is hardly conducive to my welfare!"
(From the 1970 musical "Scrooge," starring Albert Finney)
We actually celebrated Christmas with my in-laws on Sunday, two days early. This year the usual December 25 date didn't fit everyone's plan, so we just rescheduled it. I love the concept. Kind of like a giant TiVo.
There was a half-hour of caroling at the church before the service last night. Someone in the congregation would shout the name of a favorite carol and that's what would be played and sung. I wanted to hold a cigarette lighter over my head and yell, "Layla!" but I don't think they would have gotten it, or appreciated it if they did.
Cookies matter at Christmas, of course, and this year's gingerbread men seemed to work out. There were the classic gingerbread men:
From the "Great Artists" series (left to right: Van Gogh, Picasso, and Toulous Lautrec)
The "You've Got Mail" gingerbread man:
And the "CSI - North Pole" gingerbread man:
Overall it's been quite a year. Every year, for everyone, has its large events, pleasant and not, and this year herehasn't been so different except it's been more like three years worth of it all.

It was the year I lost my father, and my cat. It was the year I learned the course I've taught for 14 years is probably being phased out after this school year.
It was also the year my father finally got peace from a brave, difficult battle that went on for years. The year my cat's long, healthy life ended with a short illness and minimal suffering. And the year I'm getting the opportunity to take on new challenges after successfully handling the same one for 14 years. It's all in the interpretation, and how I end up remembering it is up to me. That's a valuable lesson I learned from one of my favorite people.

A big first yesterday morning. Sitting right here typing, for the first time the cats came up into my lap. Lily came up first and then Willie, seeing the attention Lily was getting and being a true petting gourmond, followed. It's their first holiday in an environment they're just now getting used to. At first they just kind of stared at the tree with cautious reverence, like the 2001 apes looking at the monolith except without the weird music. After that phase came the delighted recognition that a tree that blooms cat toys grew right there in the living room. Lily's the smaller of the two, and can climb nearly to the top of the Christmas tree effortlessly. I probably should tell her not to but it's just beautiful to watch. Willie has started to get up that high too, though not quite as gracefully. When he pushes off with his back legs to jump out, the tree almost looks like it's coming down. The tree started out nice but keeping it that way quickly became hopeless. I really don't mind. So far they've left the other decorations in the house alone. I take all of this to be a good sign for the coming year.
Best wishes to all for a great Christmas and a great New Year. As for me, I have to check the date of the Super Bowl. If I'm busy that day I want to make sure the NFL has enough time to reschedule it. 

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sermonized For Your Protection

"If one has morals, they can't be taken away by me or anyone else." (Lily St. Cyr, legendary 40's and 50's stripper)

This weekend, "The Golden Compass" opened (to mediocre reviews and box office) at a theater near you. It's a movie based on a book I never heard of that was written by an author I never heard of. Or hadn't heard of until I started getting mass-mailing e-mails a few weeks ago warning of the dire consequences sure to result if anyone sees this movie.

If the idea is to make sure no one sees a movie, a campaign to tell people about the movie is a curious approach. In any event, I understand the campaign's objections to be two-fold.

First, the writer, Philip Pullman, is an affirmed atheist whose writings generally portray major religions as groups of people engaged in widespread, organized efforts to tell the less-enlightened people what to do. To counter this portrayal, groups of  offended religious people have organized widespread campaigns to tell the rest of us not to see this movie.  (And on the eighth day, the Lord created irony...)

Second, some of those offended have expressed concerns not about this movie or the book on which it is based, but rather about the more openly critical second and third books in the trilogy. It's felt that after reading the first book, there's a chance there could turn out to be a possibility that maybe someone could conceivably read one of the other books at some time in the future and potentially be influenced by it to some degree. Sure sounds to me like something to spend today fretting about. And I'm sure these folks, in protecting their religious beliefs from any form of disagreement, must have a good reason for disregarding Jesus' own admonition from the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:34 NIV)  

Being fair, many of the concerns are understandable. Not long ago, these same folks were warning us about the rush of youth enrollmont into witchcraft-practicing cults after the Harry Potter books and movies were released and, sure enough, isn't that just what happened? It was the most shocking display of social deterioration I've seen since the epidemic of alcoholism that resulted from Lucy doing the still-shocking Vita-Meta-Vegimin episode.

If children ever started getting hold of Phillips' books there's no telling what could happen. Just ask any child who has already read one of the fifteen million copies of books in the trilogy sold since 1995.

Regular readers of this journal know God is an important part of my life, so I'm certainly not taking any kind of anti-religious stance. Regardless of whether I agree with someone's concerns about a movie or book, I can respectfully accept them if they've seen the movie, read the book, etc. We need to think a bit more than we sometimes do before preaching a sermon from the Book of Reefer Madness about how we know the sky is falling because we heard it from someone who saw it in an e-mail he got from a guy he knows who read a synopsis.

Now let's go out there and protect our children from the threat of wizards and golden compasses, and give them more wholesome concepts like talking lions.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200

Back from relaxing for a couple of days in Atlantic City. (The photo below isn't mine - in fact, I didn't take any this weekend - but it will do for now.)
I hadn't been there in quite some time, maybe four years, and for all the building and rebuilding the place remains a great constant. For international readers, Atlantic City is a small beach town in southern New Jersey that over the years has become the east coast's answer to Las Vegas, with better fudge and salt water taffy.
It's a curious place. A boardwalk lined with the gaudy lights of big-money casinos. There are some big-name chi-chi stores with high end jewelry, clothing and such for that day's lucky big winners, punctuated by junk shops and greasy food joints for the rest. Lots of storefronts featuring oriental foot and back massages. (These, as far as I know, are actual massages, as opposed to the "massages (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)" one can get in Las Vegas, where "massages (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)" are legal, a code word for taxable.) And, of course, souvenirs for everyone to remember the trip. What is life without a "someone I know went to Atlantic City and all I got was this t-shirt" t-shirt?
There's a Korean War Veterans memorial that's powerful even if the boardwalk does seem a curious location for it. It includes plaques for each of the native New Jersey recipients of the Medal of Honor, with a brief description of what each did to earn that distinction. The descriptions read like the heroic scenes from a big-budget action movie, and then you remember these guys did it for real and without knowing if the script would bring them out alive. In most cases, it didn't. If you visit Atlantic City and think looking out at the ocean leaves you feeling awestruck and humbled, turn the other way and read the plaques. I'll never call some guy who hits home runs or makes 3-point shots a hero again.
When first built-up years ago, the casinos were supposed to benefit the city, in particular the schools, but travel a couple of Monopoly-named streets past the boardwalk and the poverty tells a different story. Visiting high rollers, rooms and drinks provided free in return for dropping a couple of thousand dollars at the craps tables, walk past glitzy casinos alongside the busloads of regular folks who could probably be doing better things with their money than trying to double it at a slot machine or blackjack table. And together they pass local folks trying to get a few dollars by singing, playing plastic-bucket percussion or just by being there. It's very democratic, in a sad kind of way. Most sobering for me have always been the pawn shops, right across the street from the casinos, with big signs offering immediate cash for gold jewelry.
Still, the boardwalk has things to offer the non-gambler. Fresh air. Good shows too, though it's a bit off season for entertainment until it's closer to Christmas. The only big-name show this weekend was Jay Leno at Caesars (top ticket price: $175). We decided on a Beatles tribute band concert (top ticket price: $25). So realistic I almost yelled out, "Don't marry Heather!" Afterward we went back to our motel (about a twenty minute drive from the pricier hotels on the boardwalk) and watched a Letterman rerun.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Life Soup

Some moments to write, finally. It's just been that kind of couple of weeks. But enough chit-chat...on to the issues.

Issue 1: Barry, We Hardly Knew Ye

So now we find out Barry Bonds took steroids. Who would have thought it? It's a sad day for baseball, of course, but an even sadder day for the legions of young boys and girls who look up to sports figures like Bonds and believe in their young hearts that if you work hard and never lose sight of your dreams, it really is possible for anyone to grow large muscles and increase their head size in a matter of weeks.

In Tom Wolfe's great book about the American space program, The Right Stuff, he describes the mindset of a group of test pilots whenever one is killed in a testing accident. They're saddened, of course, but each man's mind also invariably finds all the reasons he wouldn't have crashed the way the doomed pilot did. I think a similar thing can happen when someone is too long on the pedestal of public adulation, thinking that the laws (of man as well as physics) only apply to regular people.

The charges against Barry Bonds aren't for taking steroids per se. Rather, they are for lying about it under oath. It's the same kind of thing that sent Martha Stewart to the big house when she decided to mislead investigators looking into those insider trading allegations. I've never agreed with those who said she was sent to prison because she's a celebrity. First, since when has that ever gotten anyone hard treatment in court? Second, taking it upon yourself to hamper a criminal investigation is a serious matter, sometimes more serious than whatever the original investigation was about. Where do these people think they are, FEMA?

Nixon lied about Watergate and became synonymous with political evil. (Considering our politics and politicians, that's really saying something.) Conversely, Reagan owned up to Iran Contra and ended up all but beatified. Clinton...well, he's Clinton.

With Bonds being a free agent I have to think no team will sign him with this indictment hanging over his head. We'll see how it all plays out, but it's starting to look like we won't have Barry Bonds to kick around any more.

Issue 2: This Will Sleigh You

A news item today reported that some Santa's (Santae?) in Australia have been directed not to say "ho ho ho" because it could be considered offensive by some women. Even if Santa were pointing at the perp walk from a brothel raid when he said it, I'm not sure the average three or four year old would get the inference. (Though I've known a few who probably would.) I think when someone created the expression, "You can't make this stuff up," this is the kind of thing they had in mind.

Issue 3: Residential Demolition, While You Wait

This is the latest photo of Willie (on the right) and Lily (on the left). (Yes, we decided to fix the spellings of their names.) Pulling clothes off hangers, throwing laundry around the bedroom and running around in a way that recreates the sound from every cowboy movie ever made wherein a herd of horses gallops in from the plains is hard work, and they need to rest sometime. Seeing them this way makes me think of a lot of things. Mostly about how witnessing life in its pure, innocent form underscores how very badly we've screwed up everything else. 

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Coming Out of the Dark

I read something recently, I don't even remember where, pointing out that DaVinci, Michelangelo and Edison all had the same 24 hours in a day that each of us has. It was supposed to be encouraging. At least I think it was. It was actually kind of depressing.

On to what matters. Our new babies have decided it's no longer necessary to steal about cautiously and then run back under the chair. They now run around like double-parked bank-robbers on amphetamines, occasionally redecorating whatever's in their path, and then run back under the bed. Still, they're coming out for longer periods now and even letting us pet them, though picking up is still on the forbidden list. They're even starting to venture into areas lit well enough for that strange man they see living with them to take pictures. Not great pictures yet, more like the surveillance photos Jim Phelps used to pull out of the envelope before the tape self-destructed, but it's a start. They're easy to tell apart. The white triangle between Lillie's eyes points to her left/our right. On Willy it points to his right/our left.
It's fascinating to see their personalities start to emerge. So far, Willy seems to have a lot of the life-in-the-slow-lane approach to life that Skids had, though it may just be shyness he'll get over. Lillie is already showing great spitfire potential. She's transporter-cat, going from point A to point B apparently without ever being at any point in between. For a fraction of a moment I thought about renaming her Lamont Cranston because of her ability to cloud men's minds so they can't see her, but I'm not sure how many people would get it. Besides, we like the names their rescuers gave them, even if they are spelled funny. The other day she came running up the stairs and under the bed with a glove in her mouth that was nearly as big as she is. It's good to know if our home is ever overrun by gloves she'll track them down and kill them. As it is, I nearly fell over laughing, in spite of hating myself right then for not having a camera poised and ready to shoot at any moment.
Willy, still preferring the shadows

Monday, October 15, 2007

Proud Daddy

Quite a weekend here.

Did some baking - always a good sign - and after two attempts successfully made some really good strawberry jam. (The first attempt resulted in a brick-like substance that smelled like burnt strawberries.) And we went to the Cat Championship Show at Madison Square Garden. (Most readers probably already know where this is going.)

The show itself was great. Thousands of people paying $15 each to look at other people's cats and worth every bit of it. There were hundreds of the most exquisitely colored and patterned pedigreed cats. Short-tailed breeds considered exotic here but that are common street cats in Japan. (To be fair, the Japanese consider our typical short-hair long-tails to be exotic. Go figure.) Abyssinians, Maus, Russian Blues, Himalayans. (That last one's a particularly interesting breed, their unique faces naturally forming a kind of scowl, making them the only cat breed with a facial expression to match the attitude.) In one area, a woman was leading, if it can be called that, a cat through a series of obstacles. (The "tricks" consisted of her dangling a toy while the cat climbed the steps, went through the tube, or did whatever else to get to it. Seems to me any cat will do that, but what do I know?) Finally she held the toy on the other side of a hoop, expecting the cat to go through to get to it. The cat, no doubt aware of the symbolism of going through a hoop at a human's bidding, look at the toy, the hoop, and the woman, and turned around and went back into the tube, refusing to come out. As the folks in the American Express commercials would day, priceless. And exactly the reason why all those people who came love cats so much. You don't have to spend much time around cats to understand why they weren't made with middle fingers.

And I'm sure you still know where this is going.

Another area was an adoption fair for rescued strays. So many cats of so many ages and enthusiasm levels. Though it's far too late to make this long story short, our interest in meeting a short-hair kitten of moderate energy level (and, I admit, that didn't look just like Skids, the better to view a new family member as an individual) led us to Willy and Lillie. They're four-month old white and grey brother and sister short-hairs who cuddled together, cleaned each other, and generally displayed a mutual devotion that would be somewhat disturbing between human siblings but that is adorable in cats. We were only looking for one cat, but it seemed unimaginable to separate them. Two adoption fees and one train ride later, I am the proud poppa of two beautiful furry new family members. At long last, my sons, who are twins, will get to be the ones saying, "Which one are you?"

I'd hoped to have pictures to include here but after only a day Willy and Lillie are still in the "we'd better stay under this chair or that strange man will eat us" phase.

Leaving the supermarket last night with a cart loaded with cat things, a lady I passed watched my cart intently. I saw her and beamed like a proud new poppa.

As I said...you knew where this was going.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Ach Du Lieber Augustine

Good thoughts can show up in the damnedest places. I found this one in an ad for a church on the downtown #2 subway to Brooklyn. It's from St. Augustine:
"People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering."
I've seen a few entries in other journals criticizing them harshly, and even was told (by a close friend, no less) that my own is "a desperate cry for help." These bothered me a bit - ok, more than a bit - and then St. Augustine came along and the whole thing got put into perspective. I don't know about you, but I don't care much about the height of mountains and have never been a beach person. You can't see the stars here a lot of the time, and if the river you've lived with your whole life were the Hudson you wouldn't be any more enamored of its size (or chemical content) than I am. What we do in these journals - really, what anyone who writes from their insides does - is refuse to pass by ourselves without wondering.
So here's to us, the people who give ourselves over to that creative urge just because it's ours, with or without permission. To sculpting thoughts and feelings into words, infusing them with rhythm and making them breath, and approaching it no differently whether we're being read by 12 or by 12,000 because we know no other way. To understanding the minor miracle of getting pixels on a glass screen, or bits of ink on a piece of paper, to induce a reaction in another person's mind, or heart.
This applies to more than writing, of course, but if I'm going to be self-serving why not go all the way?
In an unrelated news item, I see that Newt Gingrich has said he will not be running for president in 2008. What I really want to know is this: who's the twit who asked him that in the first place?
In another unrelated item, to the collection of "frequent buyer" cards I carry (for the supermarket, pharmacy, and office supply store) recently got added one for Lindt Chocolate shops. What have I become?
Third unrelated item (I promise to stop after this): yesterday the Yankees lost a playoff game due in part to an enormous swarm of gnats that descended onto their pitcher late in the game while they were holding onto a slim lead. I love my team, but when that happens it's hard not to think that mighty Umpire in the sky clearly does not want you to win. Our best chance in tomorrow's must-win game will be to get good starting pitching, mark the locker-room door the night before with lamb's blood, and hope there are no first-borns in the starting line-up.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Fasting and Wordless Eloquence

This didn't start out as a long entry. Turns out the whims of current events had other plans.
Item 1: One of the great mysteries in the history of Judaism is this: why do they call it a fast when it goes so slowly?
The idea that a person can atone for a year's worth of sins with a day of fasting seems, at least in my case, wistful at best. A team of people fasting on my behalf for a month might - I say might - begin to scratch the surface. Still, with the fear of catching a lightning bolt in the tuchas fresh in my mind, in observance of Yom Kippur dinner Friday and breakfast and lunch Saturday were replaced by healthy servings of atonement, with a booming voice from heaven asking, "Do you want to supersize that?"
One learns things over the years that help: go into the fast with a saturated body - it's the water you miss more than the food - and keep the physical exertion to a minimum. And you do get hardened to it after a while. (My kids thought I was insane spending a good bit of Saturday making tomato sauce.)
And candles. It's a Jewish practice to light special memorial candles on Yom Kippur in memory of departed loved ones. (The candles usually cost $0.79 each, but earlier in the day I'd found them locally on sale for $0.25. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.) There were a lot of new candles this year - for my father, of course, and for family I didn't know but have started wanting to. A special "unofficial" candle in a votive for Skids. (I'm not sure how God would feel about lighting an "official" candle for a pet, but it didn't feel right not to include her in some way. I take it as a sign of His approval that this candle, too, was on sale.) I think of the collection of candles my grandmother used to lay out, covering the top of her television - I'd started out years ago with the one or two I'd seen my parents put out - and am sobered for a moment by the passage of time.
Item 2: Wordless Eloquence
I was all set to end this entry after the Fasting part. Then I read a news item this morning on the passing of Marcel Marceau and felt things I needed to express. Definitely an "awww" moment. Every era has its luminaries and, after a good run during their lives, they pass and the new generation comes along. It's a good system that gives each generation what it needs without over-burdening history. (Do we really need to know about whatever ancient Egyptian comedians Ramses thought were hilarious?) It's really something when you have the opportunity to experience the work of someone you know will still be talked about a hundred years from now. A man I know, himself a skilled and accomplished mime and clown, studied with him years ago and still refers reverently to "Mr. Marceau."
A few years ago I'd heard about a performance Marceau was going to be doing in New York City. It got me thinking about hearing that my grandmother had once seen Houdini perform, and gave me the idea that this was a chance to give my children, probably 11 or 12 years old at the time, the chance to tell their grandchildren they once saw a truly great artist. While the performance turned out to be a little above their young heads, it's testimony to the skills of a great artist that it spoke clearly to an older mime-illiterate like me. The level of detail Marceau evoked with only his body and movements still amazes me. (Example: In once piece he was depicting a man who, in buttoning an imaginary shirt, kept mis-aligning the button-holes and having a piece of the shirt front hanging down on one side. After the third attempt, he picked up an imaginary scissor and cut away the part hanging down. It was funny, but more than that, it was brilliant in its clarity.) There was more funny and sweet stuff, of course, but most of all I remember a piece he closed the show with called, "Bip's Dream." Without a clue going in as to what this curiously titled piece was about, in short order it became clear it was a powerfully moving description of the experience of a young man growing up in Nazi-occupied France. In his obituary, it didn't surprise me at all to learn he was himself a Holocaust survivor who as a young man lost his father in Auschwitz and was very active in the French resistance.
Marceau himself once said, "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?" Indeed they sometimes do, Mr. Marceau. Thanks for giving me an experience I'll be proud to share, albeit with the limitations of words, with my grandchildren.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Never Again

No doubt there are many 9/11 posts being made today. Some will be written by people who really were part of the tragic story, while others will be by people who, in the telling, make themselves part of it. No one has the definitive word, nor should they. Everyone, if only by being human, has some connection to that awful day. In a way it was my generation's JFK assassination: we'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again.

My own involvement, if it can even be called that, was limited to observing from a safe distance. At the time I wasn't sure why I was taking the photos included here, or whether it was even in good taste to do so. Since it was clear history was happening even before we knew its full extent, I decided to take the pictures while I could and sort out the other issues later.

With my friends in other places in mind, I eventually decided to try to create a small record of the events and their aftermath that was not filtered through professional news reports, but rather that was as seen through the eyes of an average New Yorker. It is in this spirit that I offer these photos.

I had a lot more words written and then realized it would be more appropriate to let the images speak for themselves to whomever will listen, just as they first spoke to me six years ago. I have added only a few minor captions under some of the photos.

A few minutes after the south tower fell.

Mid-town Manhattan (about a mile north of the site) a couple of hours after the attacks. These streets would normally be packed with people, cars and buses.

Later that afternoon, from across the Hudson River on a train in Newark, New Jersey.

In this photo and the two below are, for me, some of the most heart-wrenching images from the weeks following the attacks: flyers posted everywhere by family members desperately holding on to a thread of hope, seeking information on the whereabouts of missing loved ones.


A couple of days after the attacks, a sign outside Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan lists all events as being cancelled.

For weeks after the attacks, smoke rose from the site as the building materials and contents continued to smolder.


Saturday, September 1, 2007

We Now Return to our Regularly Scheduled Rant

As sadness moves over enough to allow room for other emotions, and we once again thank everyone who showed us such great kindness and empathy, a bit of normalcy begins to return. We start to welcome happy memories, a bit of laughter, and, perhaps most normal of all, the need for a rant.
As I write this, one of my sons is in Germany on a school band trip that brings high school musicians from several countries together for nine days of friendship, cooperation and shared education, after which time they will go back to their respective countries and think of each other as unsophisticated savages again. It's a long way from Berlin to New Jersey. ("Mister Governor...tear down that turnpike rest stop!")
We sent him off prepared, of course. American dollars for use stateside, Euros for once he's in Germany, or if he lands on Boardwalk or Park Place along the way and needs to pay rent. A voltage converter to avoid a life threatening emergency should his Ipod run out of power. Dramamine and, of course, hair gel.
Most interesting to me is this, which was in the handout material given to the students: "You may meet, and most certainly will interact with people who have never met Americans. We would like to leave a good impression that will be a lasting positive experience in our partners' minds. Stereotypes exist of Americans too. Do you fit them? We are all pushy, self-centered and rude. We are uneducated and indifferent about the rest of the world. We only eat fast food. We all own guns. We're all a bunch of cowboys."
To the rest of the world we're one giant Jack Black movie.
Pushy, self-centered and rude? That's ridiculous. I am not pushy. And guns...I'm sure they know the only one that might get past the airport's metal detectors is that plastic gun. The Glock. And which one of us invented that one, Johann? (Maybe someone can do something really useful for airline passengers and use some of that Glock-plastic to make a nail clipper.)
As for being indifferent about the rest of the world, I think I can clear that up. That's just Democrats. Republicans care about other countries so much they send in troops to be greeted as liberators. That balances, doesn't it?
Fast food...um, well...let's go on to the next point...
It's not true that all Americans are cowboys, of course, but it never hurt Clint Eastwood and I always thought Gary Cooper was very cool. Maybe we should think about it.
I hope I've been able to dispel some of these American stereotypes for my overseas readers and foster an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. I'd write more, but I have to finish my Big Mac and supersized chocolate shake, load up my six-shooter and ride into town for the hanging. And if anyone thinks that's bad manners, hey, I got your manners, right here.   

Monday, August 20, 2007

Daddy's Pretty Girl

[Unabashed emoting warning.]

The vet in the emergency room yesterday morning said improvement, if there was to be any at all, would be noticable within 48 hours. I accepted that as a sensible plan. Skids, whom I'd started to suspect a while ago was smarter than she liked to let on, knew better than either of us. This morning, her face said it all: no more. Laying still, looking nearly lifeless except for the movement of her chest, her mouth not opening to accept the medicine of the 48 hour plan others were trying to impose on her, it was one final magnificent act of "I'm the cat here, I'm in charge."

It's a curious thing. I'd long feared the day this decision would have to be made. How would I really know when enough was enough when she couldn't tell me what was going on inside? And would she understand in her heart why someone she'd trusted nearly her whole life was now having her injected with the chemicals that would call it a life?

I should have known the answer all along. I wouldn't be making the decision at all. She would. My job was to listen, and to respect her right - everyone's right - to decide when they're tired of fighting. She was not surrendering. She was taking charge.

She gave me no fight lifting her into the box that would serve as her final carrier. At the vet's office, they were properly compassionate and reserved. Again, no fight being lifted from the box to the table. Did I want to stay during the procedure? I didn't want to, but I said yes anyway. I owed her that. The last face she was going to see was going to be mine, not a technician's. The last voice she would hear would be the one she'd heard countless times before, stroking her head, between her eyes just the way she liked it, telling her one last time she's daddy's pretty girl as she drifted off to her eternal sleep. (This time she didn't have to head-butt me to get me to do it.) I assured her God would take good care of her, even better than we were able to, and that she should behave for Him and not wet His couch.

With the second injection I turned my head slightly, and I think the doctor saw it, because she gently told me they don't close their eyes.

Finally the doctor held a stethescope to Skids' chest, and said softly, "she's gone."

She's in heaven now, probably trying to find who in God's household she can tap on the hand with her paw and get something to eat. Whoever it is will surely find it as adorable as I did and give her anything she wants.

Rest in peace, sweet girl. And know, always, that I am really glad you were here.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Another Damn Growth Opportunity

Today was a day of great emotion - what I once heard someone call "another damn growth opportunity" - and to be open about it, I'm drained. Though I normally try to write with a point in mind, be warned: today I can't promise one. Points are for words of the mind; these are from my gut. If this reads like a reaching out for the patience of people who have been kind, well, maybe it is then.
We frequently hear how things happen in threes, and the coincidence factor of today's trifecta is high. It's the day my grandfather died back in 1970, my first experience at losing a loved one. It's my grandmother's yahrzeit, the date on the Hebrew calendar on which the anniversary of someone's death is observed. (In the solar-based English calendar, she died on September 2 in 1984. In the Hebrew calendar, the corresponding English date is different every year. Supposedly that's somehow because it's a lunar calendar, though I've always suspected it's really totally random dates picked out of a giant yarmulkah at some secret underground bunker in Tel Aviv.) And, closest to the surface, today was my father's unveiling, literally the ceremonial unveiling of someone's headstone or, in our case, plaque. My cousin's daughter, a rabbinical student whose grace and humility while accomplishing big things have her well on her way to following in her mother's footsteps as a truly magnificent human being, led the ceremony, making it even more personal and emotional. Look up in the sky tonight and find the brightest star you can. There's a good chance it's my dad smiling.
Knowing there'd be plenty of feelings to feel today, I figured I'd probably want to write tonight. What I didn't expect was that it would be something else, something unrelated, that has me at the keyboard, feeling slightly tenderized and looking for catharsis. Specifically, a trip to the emergency room - with my cat.
Readers may remember Skids, the small furry person who's kind enough to let me live in her home and sleep in her bed. This morning I took one look at her and knew something was really, really wrong - laying on the floor, still and in kind of an odd position, breathing heavily and crying out, especially when touched. When she struggled to take a couple of steps it was with the gait of an injured drunk. Hardest of all, damn it to hell, she was unable to give me any clue as to what happened and what was hurting. A phone call to a vet emergency room, describing what we knew and saw - they said maybe a stroke, a possibility with some of the other conditions she's experienced. Bring her in, pronto. Cat carrier? Forget it. The only thing she'd let us put her in, and that with a good bit of heart-wrenching yowling, was a cardboard filing box lined with a towel.
Drive to the vet, about 20 minutes, asking over and over for the serenity to accept what I can't change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Not knowing what her thoughts through the pain might be, but feeling like a loving, merciful God would understand them as a prayer more pure than any clumsy words I could verbalize. Arrive at the vet. Physical exam, the doctor suspicious of the way Skids' spine was. X-rays might provide some guidance. Might not. I say do it. Some insights come out of it - a couple of disks, the pads between the vertebrae, blown out. Not sure how exactly, but if they're not in good shape (and Skids is nearly 16) a harsh movement like jumping off a table the wrong way could put them over the edge. And, love her though I do, Skids is not the most graceful cat ever created. Ok, what now? Morphine to relieve the current pain, and a prescription of prednisolone, the kind of stuff baseball players get in trouble for taking, to (hopefully) build up some strength where she needs it. Benefits, if they're going to happen, should come in a couple of days. If it doesn't take, I know I've got to put my love for her first and do what's best for her, and hope to God she understands somehow. In the meantime, keep the food, water and a shallow litter box (easier to step into) where she doesn't have to go far to get to them.
Tonight we saw she moved a little. She seems to have eaten a little and there are signs used the litter box. She lays, staring and motionless except for breathing, and didn't give me a hard time taking her medicine. Same with her hydration (kind of like an i.v. except it goes under the skin rather than into a vein) though I'd prefer she'd have given me her usual resistance. I wasn't sure how I was going to give it to her in her current state, but was more sure than I've ever been of anything in my life that I had to try.
I'm grudgingly coming to accept that it's not right to keep a suffering pet alive a little while longer out of our own sense of fear, and though that point may not be far away we're not quite there yet. In the meantime there's still fighting left to do. 

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Waiting for an Opening

Today's nice weather let me spend the morning and afternoon doing overdue work in the yard and garden. There's nothing like several hours spent communing with nature to remind you of what's really important. For example, it reminded me of why I chose a career at a desk in an air conditioned office.
As the peace and focus cleared the cobwebs from my brain's ceiling-corners, I found my thoughts wandering to great advice I'd received over the years. Not the standard stuff - don't stick your finger in an electric outlet, never draw to an inside straight, etc. - but rather real things too easily forgotten once the starting gun goes off on Monday morning. I've compiled some for sharing. Since I don't make nearly the good use of these that I should, perhaps someone else might get some benefit from one or two of them. Other than the first two, which are my favorites, they are given in no particular order.
Item 1: Keeping Things In Perspective
Some years back, I was driving and my father was in the passenger seat, and we were trying to pull out of a parking lot onto a busy highway. Getting impatient waiting for a break in the traffic, I said something like, boy, this is going to be hard. My father, who, as I've written in previous posts, was very good at keeping things in perspective, said, "There's nothing hard about it. If there's an opening, you go. If there's not an opening, you don't go." I don't know about you, but for me this was an epiphany. It was the greatest driving advice I ever got, but it's really about so much more than that, about going with the nature of things instead of frustrating myself trying to hammer it into conforming to me. I'm still working on it.
Item 2: Responsibility
Even more years back than Item 1, I got up in the middle of the night and walked into the kitchen in the dark to get a glass of water. My bare foot hit the side of a floor-mounted cabinet and I broke the little toe. The next day, the doctor patched it up, explained to me what I needed to do to take care of it, and finished with words I still think about after almost twenty years: "...and if you ever go walking barefoot in the dark again, you'll deserve whatever happens to you." I can't tell you the number of times I've seen someone else, or myself, making certain choices and I'd say to myself, man, you are walking barefoot in the dark.
Item 3: Time Management
I could not compile a collection of wise words without including my grandmother. Like everyone, I'm pulled in a lot of directions most of the time. I often stop and repeat to myself the words of my grandmother. (A grammar school education didn't prevent her from being one of the smartest people I've ever met, a summa cum laude graduate from Real Life University.) With unadorned wisdom, she'd say, "You can't have your butt in two places." (Ok, that's not exactly the way she put it, but this is a public forum.) There's a Yiddish saying that translates to, "You can't dance at two weddings." I like my grandmother's version better.
Item 4: Common Sense
A friend from Alabama once told me that during hot weather people in the north would frequently say to her, "Well, you're a southerner. You know how to deal with the heat." She said, yes, southerners know how to deal with the heat. We go where it's air conditioned. For some reason, northerners feel a need to go mano-a-mano with 90 and 100 degree days.
Item 5: Humility
I'm not proud of this, but between the ages of 18 and 21 I spent a lot of time hanging around stage doors asking for autographs. This one day, through a series of happenstances, I found myself at the dressing room door of a well-known actor who was particularly hot at the time. It was an army-themed show, and when I knocked on the door, he opened it wearing his fatigue pants, shirtless, and smoking a cigar. Having read countless newspaper stories about actors throwing hissy fits because their dressing room was not the right color, or didn't have the proper flowers in it, etc., I was struck by how modest the star's dressing room was, only slightly larger than a residential bathroom. As he signed my Playbill, I said, with a teenager's blissful ignorance, "A big star like you should have a bigger dressing room than this." Rather than having a security guard wrestle me to the ground for my insolence, he was very gracious and said nonchalantly, "It's just a place to change your clothes." I try to remember his demonstration of the difference between seeing yourself as a star and seeing yourself as an actor who other people think of as a star. Especially when I find myself in a metaphorical dressing room that's less than stellar. It is, indeed, just a place to change your clothes.
Item 6: Guarding Your Flank
Another from my father. He told me never to get a tattoo of a woman's name. I never did. This advice might have helped a good buddy of mine who, as a Marine stationed in the Philippines, made two poor choices: the woman he married, and having her name tattooed on his arm. Years later, getting rid of her was a lot easier than getting rid of the tattoo.
As for me, I'm still working on what sage advice to give my own sons. So far, we've got "patience keeps you out of trouble when you're driving," and "spreadsheets are our friends." When the situations are there and the ideas come, I'll give the advice. Till then I'm not going to force it. If there's an opening, you go. If there's not an opening, you don't go.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Dammit, Lindsay...

I'm not a fan. I'm certainly not any kind of celebrity hobbyist. In fact, I find the whole concept of celebrity degrading to the human spirit, a surrender of our own value to what we're seeing as someone else's higher value just because they work in some public forum. So why did a little bit of my heart break today when I saw a news item that Lindsay Lohan got picked up again, this time for both DUI and coke possession?
There's a great lesson I learned from a friend some time back, and maybe that's part of the reason I'm saddened by Lohan, and maybe a little angry at her too, the way you get angry at someone, even someone you don't know, for exercising their right to waste something precious. In the case of my friend, she took an extended trip way too far down into the depths of substance abuse, including alcohol, nearly lost her life, did lose her job, and almost her whole career too, with a hefty portion of humiliation thrown in for good measure. My friend is a lady of some means, and when she told me she'd tried all the well-known rehab programs, she was serious and was referring to the ones we've all read about. None, she said, did her any good. One day, years ago, she put aside the coddling feel-good centers and walked into the local AA meeting, and through their guidance and her own on-going hard work, has been clean and sober and wonderfully alive ever since. 
Back before he lost his show for making one too many mistakes of his own, Don Imus - himself a successfully recovering alcoholic and cocaine user - used to say that it didn't matter how long you were in recovery. You spend the rest of your life one drink away from being a drunk.
Earlier today I read a story in the local paper about a young man, an 18 year old honors student, who was killed over the weekend on a local highway when the car he was driving plowed into a concrete divider. The cause is still being investigated so no details are known, or at least none have been released. I realized while reading the story that the details of the accident don't even matter. If it turns out he was killed because he made some stupid mistake, well, 18 year olds make stupid mistakes. I sure did, many worse than whatever this young man might have done, if that's even what happened to him. The same is probably true for most people reading this. The biggest difference is our luck, yours and mine, held out, and his didn't. Hardly something I'd hoist myself up on a righteous pedestal for.  
Back to Lindsay. This is not some middle-aged booze hound, or a dumb-as-a-fox con artist (cough-cough-AnnaNicole-cough-cough). This is a 21 year old woman with a full life and brilliant career in front of her, if she lives long enough to see it. At 47 I know little enough about life now; I knew even less at 21, or 18. Among all those folks earning their livings from Lindsay Lohan, isn't there one willing to tell her the truth in terms that will get through to her?
I hope so. I really do.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Here she is...

As usual, the past few days have seen several news stories coming at us over and over again. Lady Bird Johnson. The upcoming release of The Simpsons movie. (The media coverage and product placement leave me pining for the more modest, dignified coverage we had for Paris Hilton's jail time.) And Amy Palumbo.

Amy who?

Amy Palumbo, the young woman recently crowned Miss New Jersey. As you've no doubt heard, an anonymous blackmailer had threatened to release "unladylike" photos unless Palumbo gave up her crown (or tiara, or whatever it is they pin on these women's heads).

Purely as a service to my readers, I've made an extensive search of thousands of documents to locate the photos. (Ok, I googled her name.) Bottom line: no nudity. No "Girls Gone Wild" flashing. No parts of her bare body touching parts of the other person's bare body in out-of-the-ordinary ways. Not one of the photos has anything considered objectionable since the 13th century. And believe me, I looked. Hard. Purely as a service to my readers, of course.

Professionally and personally, Miss Palumbo has been put through the wringer with absolutely no justification. And do you know what?

I don't care.

I mean it. I don't care. My guiding principles - or what passes for them in polite company - have long included a complete lack of sympathy for anyone experiencing problems stemming from their participation in a beauty contest. (Claims that these pageants are about scholarship and social responsibility - nudge nudge wink wink - are nonsense. They are and will always be thinly veiled beauty contests.)

It's not personal. Nobody has had more trouble in this category than Vanessa Williams, and who doesn't like her?

The point is simple. Every time some young woman who may not be a bimbette but is willing to play one on tv is anointed the feminine ideal, it's a slap across the face. To whom? To women of any age, social position, education, ethnicity, marital status, sexual orientation, child bearing history, personal history of things overcome - you get the idea - who exemplify everyday greatness without being twenty-something, without having perfect teeth, and without having 12" hips with a bust measurement that, relative to her body size, makes her liable to topple over at any moment.

Don't get me wrong. Amy Palumbo has shown herself to be a bright, poised young woman who has handled the current crisis with grace. It's just that if we really mean what we say about selecting a woman to honor as representing all that's possible, good and admirable, we've got to realize she may be too busy keeping a real life together - hers or someone else's - to attend the ceremony.

In an unrelated item...

I just saw a magazine article from several weeks ago that said Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn are back together. WHY DOES NO ONE TELL ME THESE THINGS?



Monday, July 2, 2007

And that's the way it is...

This borrowed from the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (July 2) - President Bush spared former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from a 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case Monday, delivering a political thunderbolt in a highly charged criminal case. Bush said the sentence was just too harsh.

As rich a topic as this would be to write about, Unsaid is not a political space. At the risk of disappointing its valued readers, I will not use this journal as a vehicle for my own personal feelings about whether our president is living proof that you can be born into wealth and privilege and still be arrogant trailer trash with no sense of shame or responsibility who doesn't hold anyone in his administration accountable for anything. As an impartial reporter of the facts, I am also obligated to keep readers guessing as to whether I feel attempts to cite the trangressions of people who are no longer president as a defense would amount to little more than a smoke screen to keep attention off the current president. 

I just wanted to be clear on these points.


Saturday, June 30, 2007

Painting With Fire

Like a reunion tour of middle-aged rock stars who now get more looped from standing up too fast than they ever did from drugs, we took it on the road this week as part of College Tour 2007. For the past three days, instead of sex, drugs, and rock and roll it was cheap motel rooms, hundreds of miles of driving and what felt like almost as much walking. (While we didn't get to trash our rooms, the shower rod and curtain in one of the motel rooms in which we stayed came crashing down completely on their own. My son James, who was in the shower at the time, somehow missed seeing the humor.)
Focusing on Pennsylvania, we saw Millersville, a fine and impressive medium-sized college, and Penn State, a respected college whose size would have to be reduced by half before you could call it enormous. At its present size, it has the area, infrastructure and population of a city. (It is, I'm told, the only campus in America with its own zip code. Not kidding.) Both colleges deserve great and public praise for the job they did with their tours, including successfully accomodating my wife's mobility problems.
The real purpose of this entry, though, is education of an entirely different kind. On our return trip we visited the Frank Frazetta museum in East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania. (The title of this entry is borrowed - ok, stolen - from a documentary done a while back on Frazetta's life and work.) Finding the museum (which is located on the breathtaking 75 acre Frazetta estate) in the first place is a test of how much you value the experience of going there; they do not advertise anywhere -it's all by word of mouth; their web site includes general directions but no address; and from where it's located having a street address probably wouldn't help anyone find it anyway. Despite this, visitors were there today from Hawaii, and in recent days from France and Bali.
The museum is not large in terms of its square footage, but it's thoughtfully (and efficiently) filled with about 80 or so wonderful paintings. The images, most (though not all) of which might be described as sword/sorcery/fantasy, jump off the canvas at you with an energy that's striking. (The paintings, of course, are copyrighted and can't be shown here, but for a great look at some of what's there, check out http://www.frazettaartgallery.com/ff/musem/index.html ).
As striking as the paintings themselves is the integrity with which the museum is run. A helpful gentleman keeps an eye on the exhibition space, and the gift shop is run by Ellie Frazetta, the charming and friendly wife of the great artist. I mentioned to her one of the things I thought about as I toured the space, that while it's not unusual to see exhibits of a particular artist's work, usually they're pieces purchased by the museum or a private collector. Every one of the paintings we saw could have been sold by the artist for enormous amounts of money and yet the Frazetta's preferred to keep the artist's gifts available for the world to enjoy. (Mrs. Frazetta told me of turning down an offer she'd received of $1,000,000 for a painting I'd mentioned was one of my favorites.) That would be great enough to hear from anybody. To find an artist of Frank Frazetta's stature maintaining that position is beyond refreshing, it's inspiring.
I'm not sure if an on-line journal officially qualifies as word-of-mouth but I'm hoping it does. This museum and the experience surrounding it was a real treat.
In an unrelated item, I saw today that Joel Siegel, who (among many other accomplishments) did movie reviews for Good Morning America and some other ABC-TV programs, passed away. I got to meet him years ago, interviewed him actually, for my high school newspaper when I was about 13 or 14. It was after a speaking engagement he did at the men's club breakfast at my local synagogue. He was a nice man, enduring my clumsy, insipid questions and total lack of interview skills with grace and kind patience. I hope somehow it's possible for him to know the adult version of that kid he was so gracious towards still remembers, and still appreciates.
In another unrelated item, there's a magazine here on my desk that has a picture of a priest on the cover. A few minutes ago I killed a fly on it. Do you suppose that means something?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

My Father's Way

This is my first Father's Day without my father. In January, after a lifetime of quiet strength, great dignity, and exemplary devotion to family, he found peace from his long, brave fight with his illnesses. He was a private man and probably would prefer that I not to put all of this out onto the Internet for all the world to see. And it's not that a lot of other people don't have stories to tell of a great father. They do. It's just that...this one's mine.


My father was a man of great, very gentle strength. As an adult, and a father now myself, I better appreciate how my father spent a lifetime working, sacrificing, doing what had to be done and never making a big deal out of it. Because to make a big deal out of it was not my father’s way.


Somewhere in the middle of my father being ill I was reminded of a song. (That’s fitting because for almost situation it was not only my father’s way to have a song, but a song that practically no one had ever heard of.) The song I was reminded of is an old song called Old Rivers, one of those spoken songs popular in the late 50's that the actor Walter Brennan had a big hit with. In the song, a young man is talking about a farmer he knew named Old Rivers. He said,


“Well, that old fellow did a heap of work.

Spent his whole life walking plowed ground….


He'd say, one of these days
I'm gonna climb that mountain
Walk up there among the clouds
Where the cotton's high
And the corn's a-growin'
And there ain't no fields to plow.

My dad spent a great deal of his life doing a heap of work. As a man devoted to family, he exemplified a very high standard. There are many stories, but I’ll stay with this one, which is kind of a family favorite. We’d gone on a day trip down to the Cherry Hill (NJ) area, which is about an hour and a half south of where we lived. My sister, who was three or four at the time, left her purse at one of the places we'd gone, and she was very upset. It was just a kid’s pocketbook. Who knows if it even had anything in it? The next day, my father drove an hour and a half down, and an hour and a half back, just to retrieve that little pocketbook. Just as important, he never made a big deal out of it, seeing it as just something daddies do. (He was known to enjoy telling the story of the looks he got when he stopped for something to eat and walked in carrying a small pocketbook.)


It is simply impossible to discuss my father and not bring up his sense of humor. Not an over-the-top, hilarious, joke-telling sense of humor. It was more of a light-hearted way of avoiding whatever drama was trying to make its way into some situation. It showed up in the most amazing places. Several years ago my father survived being shot. A few weeks later, he called me at work, and the secretary who answered the phone was very concerned and asked how he was feeling. He said, “Not bad for a target.” It was his way of saying, “It’s not necessary to make a big deal out of it.” Again, my father’s way.


Four years as a soldier in World War II had a profound impact on him for the rest of his life. He talked about it quite a bit. My father worked hard to bring the character and values he’d learned in the army to everything he did. Toward the end, people who knew he was ill would ask me, “How’s your dad doing?” And sometimes I’d answer by saying, “He’s a good soldier.” And they understood what it meant as an answer to their question. They understood it was my father’s way.


Even as a gravely ill patient, he soldiered on. Managing household paperwork. Planning. Advising. All with quiet bravery. It was good for my father. And it was good for the rest of us, too. His courage made it easier for the people around him to be brave. Like all great leaders, he never said, “I’m a great leader.” He just led. And this, too, was very much my father’s way.


We're going to spend the rest of our lives discovering all the wonderful ways he’ll always be right here with us. And each time we do, we’re going to do something that will make him very happy. We’re going to smile.


So take your rest now, Dad, and have the peace you’ve worked so hard to earn. Be very proud of what you’ve done. Stand tall and climb that mountain. Walk up there among the clouds. Where the cotton’s high. Where the corn is growing. And where there ain’t no fields for you to have to plow.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Thought Salad

Like fraternal twins in the womb kicking the living daylights out of each other to get out (a habit I find they still have after almost 17 years), some possibly unconnected thoughts make their way into the world this morning.
Issue 1: Angels. Lately I've been spending time thinking about them. Not the winged variety, hauling harps all over the place. I mean the ones who show up in the form of friends, co-workers, people you meet, or don't meet and just pass somewhere and yet who still make an impact. They do something, or write something, or say something, and a light goes on and you realize you've just received something you needed someone to give you. They can come along suddenly, or can be in your life for years and one day the angel moment happens. Maybe the angel quality was there all along, waiting for its cue. Maybe it was sent from elsewhere right then and the person was just right to serve as the conduit. What I've noticed is that what angels do in your life is usually not big and obvious, though it can be. Most of the time it's not the size of what they do, it's the divinely perfect timing of it. And to those of my angels who are reading this, if you even know who you are, know that I am grateful.
Issue 2: A guy is willing to expose two continents to a rare, drug-resistant form of TB to be with the woman he loves. Who says there's no real romance anymore? Add a Rodgers and Hart score, choreography by Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant in a supporting role as the sardonically witty CDC TB expert who's also the protagonist's father-in-law, and it would have made a great MGM musical.
Issue 3: It's good to see the right reverends Sharpton and Jackson following up on their promises to take on racist rap lyrics now that Imus is gone. I haven't seen an effort this intense since OJ's crusade to find the real killers.  
Issue 4: Yesterday I planted a tree. I'd been at the garden store and saw these little fern-type things that are supposed to grow to only about 15 feet. There's an area of our garden-in-progress that I hadn't yet decided what to do with, and this seemed a good solution. It didn't come with much in the way of instructions, but I'm figuring it's a tree, how hard can this be? The thing I noticed when I got home was that planting it felt different from anything else I've ever planted. There always was something spiritual for me about planting a garden anyway, but there was something downright sacred about planting a tree. It reminded me of that feeling when baking bread that it's beyond cooking, that you're getting to participate in a kind of holy process. Proof that it really is possible to feel centered and serene. And the timing of it was perfect. Those angels really do know what they're doing, don't they?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Location, Location, Location

Big weekend here. We completed the purchase of some fine Bergen County (NJ) real estate. Nothing built on the property yet, and we're not planning on developing it for a while. Still, it's in a beautiful part of the state, right next to a golf course, and the area is quiet and private.
Ok, ok. It's a cemetery plot.
You might be thinking it's a little creepy to hold in your hands the very pieces of dirt they're going to be shoveling onto you, and I admit it gives one pause. I've seen the subtle recoil in several friends when I've mentioned the purchase to them. Buying it just seemed like a good idea after we counted the graves, both occupied and reserved, in the plot my grandmother bought years ago, and found there was one left for about six of us. (You want creepy? Now that's creepy.) Besides, everyone - even if they're horizontal - has to be somewhere. My main focus now is not to die within the next ten days, before the check clears.
I got to visit it yesterday, meet the neighbors, that sort of thing. It's in a new area of the memorial park, so many of the nearby plots aren't sold yet or, at the very least, haven't had anybody (perhaps that should be any body) move in. The plot is only 20 or 25 feet off the roadway, so if my kids can develop a good hook shot they won't even have to get out of the car to leave flowers.
If all goes well we won't be sowing anything there, as it were, any time soon. In the meantime, it seems a bit of a shame to let prime real estate sit unused. One idea I had was to put a metal storage shed there while we're, well, waiting. Keep the kids' bicycles there, the snow shovels, things like that. When the time comes, we can just clear out the stored items, or maybe just push them to the side, spray paint my name on the front and have a very reasonably priced mausoleum.
Another question I have to find out about: is our ownership limited to the first six feet of depth? It may not seem important now, but if oil or gold is ever discovered there it's going to matter.
Have I considered avoiding all of this by being cremated? Yes, but I quickly dispelled the idea. I just don't see the point of burning twice.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Letters, We Get Letters...

The previous posting got a number of great comments, both posted here and sent to me privately. One of them in particular, from a marvelous lady you've gotten to know as Oldhousegal, triggered today's thoughts.
She wrote, in part, "I heard that Oprah once did a show asking audience members questions about various general knowledge topics, such as whether the earth revolved around the sun or vice versa.  One woman (who answered the question incorrectly) stated that 'she never felt anything moving.' "
My initial thought, of course, was probably the same as most people's: it's a trick question - everyone knows the world revolves around Oprah. Beyond that, though, it reminded me of one of the finest mini-soliloquies I've ever heard in a movie. If you saw Men In Black, there's a good chance you'll remember the scene in which Wil Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are sitting on a park bench. Tommy Lee has just shown Wil that there are aliens on earth everywhere. Wil asks, "Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it." And Tommy Lee, bless his manly-man heart, had this response:
"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicy, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everbody knew the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."
I love that. It makes me think. And it got me thinking about other movie lines I keep as favorites because they make me think.
From Superman (the first one) comes the only quote that beats the Men In Black one as my all-time favorite. This is Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, after explaining his plot to do evil things:
"Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe."
For me that's just a great description of what an eloquent friend once called our "sacred search."
And this from Clint Eastwood's great western, The Unforgiven. Eastwood is Will Munny, a retired gunfighter whose career included killing men, women, children and animals and, as one of his lines says, "deserve" had nothing to do with it. The Schofield Kid, a young, inexperienced gunfighter wannabe, has just helped Munny kill a man, his first. Shaken and looking for reassurance, the Kid turns to Munny and nervously says, "Yeah, well, I guess he had it coming." To really get this, as you read, squint, snear a little, and imitate Eastwood's trademark disengaged cynicism. Ok, ready?
"We all got it coming, kid."
Now that's something to think about.
I could go on - I love quotes, including movie quotes - but I'll keep it at these for now. Besides, I have to start working on the true meaning of gum base, corn syrup, glycerin and extract of peppermint.
In another unrelated item (there seem to be a lot of those in this space lately) I just saw a news item reporting that Dick Cheney made an unannounced visit to Iraq. How unspeakably cool would it be if, as he was preparing to leave in a day or so, he got told his stay was being extended an additional three months? Just asking...

Sunday, May 6, 2007

You Report, We Decide - To Lose Interest

Compiled from the Associated Press -- Former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey claims his wife knew he was gay before they married. "On the offhand chance she wasn't paying attention, I AM A GAY AMERICAN," McGreevey wrote, using capital letters and referencing the term he used to describe himself when he announced his resignation in August 2004. McGreevey says a snipe by his estranged wife about [his alleged lover's] appointment [to the position of state homeland security adviser] is "evidence of a bitter vengeful woman."

Dina Matos McGreevey, who is seeking custody of their young daughter, claimed that the ex-governor exposed the child to erotic artwork. McGreevey countered that his wife "HAS NEVER SEEN THE PHOTOGRAPH" of the nude male model, again using capital letters for emphasis, and that she "tries to remain on a pedestal while hawking her tell-all book." [His own tell-all book was published last summer.]

As vitriolic as their divorce proceedings have been (and no doubt will continue to be), anyone who's been involved with, or even a close observer to, a divorce involving child custody recognizes this behavior as typical. The only difference here is that this one involves a former NJ governor who resigned with the revelation that he is a "Gay American."

This labeling is unfortunate. As a society, we should be well past looking at McGreevey and saying, "I see a gay man." We should simply be saying, "I see a man. A corrupt man, forced to resign from public office in disgrace under the weight of more scandals than there are stars in the sky, but a man nonetheless."

I really don't need wall-to-wall news coverage of the McGreevey's child custody arguments, or the Baldwins', or anyone else's. Two people announce they're getting divorced, and suddenly we're a step away from CNN giving the story its own theme music. There aren't many rules governing my life, but one of them is this: there are more reliable sources of information about a person than their estranged or ex-spouse.

None of this, of course, is new. Years ago a television program I was watching was broken into. I don't know about you, but "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special news bulletin" shoots a chill through my back. It means the president's been shot, or we've started bombing somewhere, or that something else has just happened, something big, and you must know about before 6:00. So what was the emergency? Woody Allen was holding a press conference to respond to Mia Farrow's allegations of improper conduct regarding the children. It was surreal, like something you'd see in, well, a Woody Allen movie.

Let's all make an effort to focus on real news, shall we? The things that matter. Things like videos of David Hasselhoff rolling around on the floor. Now there's a story.

An unrelated item...

You've probably seen the news items about a limited edition gold coin issued by The Royal Canadian Mint. Equal to $1 million Canadian paper currency (familiar to non-Canadians as Monopoly money), it weighs 220 pounds and is the size of a pizza.

Combining money and pizza - be still my heart! Now if the coin just had a picture of naked woman drinking a cup of coffee, everything important to me would be contained in a single place.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tenth Life

I write this partly out of great joy, and partly as a warning to readers who may come as close as I did to making a very serious mistake.
Like many of us, I am owned by a cat. Her name is Skids, derived from the way she takes fast turns on bare wood floors. Or the way she used to take fast turns, back before she gave up the nasty habit of doing things that involve getting up once in a while. She's a tiny little thing - about five and a half pounds - and gets more milage out of being cute than Anna Nicole Smith and Sanjaya combined ever could have.
Skids is about 15 years old and has enjoyed good health throughout her life. It is only recently that she began to experience problems. (The problems involved her bladder and digestive systems; I'll spare you the details.) A couple of courses of antibiotics and some intravenous rehydrations later, there was no improvement. The vet took a urine specimen for some super-detailed testing, and told us if this didn't do anything to help it might be time to put her (Skids, not the vet) to sleep. (I detest that expression, by the way.)
In the meantime, my wife - whom I gratefully admit is smarter than I am - decided on her own to try something. Skids had been on a prescription diet for her dry food and, more recently, her wet food. (I know what you're thinking; her food was not among the ones affected by the recent contamination.) She (my wife, not Skids) decided to stop the prescription wet food and replace it with tuna fish. Skids, for her part, agreed to the experiment. In a matter of days, the symptoms that had been present for weeks cleared up, and testing indicated her levels of various cat things were within normal ranges. It turns out that Dr. Mom is not only a pediatrician, but a vet as well. (Makes a great meatloaf too.)
Today, the member of our family we refer to as the little furry person wet the sofa again. She's done it dozens of times over the years. And do you know what? This time, unlike any time before, I smiled. 

Monday, April 16, 2007

Jack, Lee Harvey, and Me

Tonight I was having some trouble sleeping and went downstairs to watch television. My kids having misplaced the remote (or taken it up to their room after misplacing theirs, I'm not sure which), I actually had to suffer the indignity of getting up from the chair and changing channels by hand.
On the History Channel I found a program about the JFK assassination. There have been dozens of programs on the subject, of course, and most address various conspiracy theories. This program mentioned those things as a kind of side issue. Mostly it attempted to explore Oswald's motivations. Jack Ruby's too.
What appeared to put Oswald over the top was not his communism-obsessed belief system. Rather, it was his obsessive desire to be a big shot - pun not intended - within that belief system. To make his mark, and get respect in the process. He posed for iconic photos with his firearms, and offered himself to the Cuban and Soviet embassies. (Both turned him away.) Oswald's fatal flaw was not that he was a communist. It was that he felt a need to be a star, and became overwhelmed by frustration when the world - even the communist world - didn't raise him above the rest.
And then there was Jack Ruby, the Dallas strip club owner who associated with penny-ante hoods and liked to hang out at the police station. Loved JFK. Wanted to feel important. No, more than important: he wanted to be elevated to the status of hero.
Are we noticing a pattern here? I am, especially when I added the third data point: stresses and frustrations I've felt building lately - one friend accurately called it being very prickly - when I point out to the world that it's not conforming to my vision for it, and the world glares back and says, "Who the hell asked you?"
It was quite a revelation, this business of recognizing some part of me, some part of a lot of us I suppose, in vilified historical figures whom we've always felt safely separated from. That their cases are much more extreme is just a detail, and doesn't excuse the more basic form of the problem others of us have inside us.
There's a book I quite literally keep right next to my Bible. It's an AA book called, "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," known to AA's as the "12 and 12." (Although I'm not a drinker, and some of what AA presents is specific to substance abuse, I've found the majority can be thought of as "take out drinking and fill in your favorite self-destructive behavior.") This has, for me, been a life-changing book and if someone out there is feeling a little lost you might find it so too. But I digress...
Part of the chapter on Step Four - "We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" - reads as follows: "It is from our twisted relations with family, friends and society at large that many of us have suffered the most...The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being...Either we insist upon dominating the people we know, or we depend on them far too much...We have not once sought to be one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society. Always we tried to struggle to the top of the heap, or to hide underneath it. This self-centered behavior blocked a partnership relation with any one of those about us." 
A few hours from now, when on the train commuting to work, I think I know what I'm going to get back into reading.

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Long and Whining Road...

Ok. Enough nice guy. Time for a rant.

The nearby and normally quiet city of Bayonne, NJ - well, quiet by Hudson County standards anyway - has been shaken in recent months by growing social unrest no one seems to be able to resolve. State and federal lawsuits, civil protests and inflammatory speeches normally reserved for hot-button issues like gun control and abortion are now addressing something even bigger: school uniforms.

Last summer, the Bayonne Board of Education instituted a requirement for students in their public grammar schools to wear uniforms. In December, the State Education Commission upheld the requirement over the objections of a group of local parents, and gave the parents a 90-day deadline to file an appeal with the State Board of Education. Showing the same sense of responsibility that they're teaching their children, the parents filed an appeal after the 90-day deadline expired, and it was rejected on that basis.

Understand please, dear reader, that this rant is not about school uniforms per se. Though I'm the father of two teenage sons, both of whom wore school uniforms in a public grammar school and who now adhere to a strict dress code at a public high school, I'm not against uniforms or dress codes. I'm also not against people who are against uniforms or dress codes. I'm against - Bayonne parents, please listen carefully - WHINEY PARENTS and their AREN'T-WE-PRECIOUS CHILDREN!

So what are the parents saying?

One described the uniform requirement as "very non-democratic, highly punitive dictation from a political government group." First, requiring students to do homework is non-democratic. I don't know what school this mom went to, but I've never seen a classroom that's a democracy. Second, I'm not sure the jailed political dissidents in Russia, Cuba, and a whole bunch of other places would agree with their sister-in-arms in Bayonne, NJ about uniforms being highly punitive dictation. But what would they know of the oppressive regime of the Bayonne Board of Education, what with being in jail so long and all that?

This same woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the board for prohibiting her son from wearing an anti-uniform emblem depicting Hitler Youth. (Charming young man, don't you think?) I just hope, when all the fuss about school uniforms is over, that this woman and her spoiled son never really have to find out what the Hitler Youth movement was about. (Here's a hint, honey. It had nothing to do with school uniforms.)

Another parent, this one a father, was also concerned. "The school board doesn't have the right to tell me how to raise my kid..." No dude, but they do have the responsibility to hold him to a set of reasonably high standards at school. It's kind of what they're there for, like, you know? Otherwise, the child is liable to grow up into the kind of irresponsible adult who, oh, I don't know, let's say, waits till the deadline has passed before filing an appeal and then blames everyone but themselves when it's turned away.

I'd love to be there when junior's boss tell him the office has a dress code he's expected to follow. Who's mommy going to sue then?

Society has - as it should -certain expectations about following rules you may not always like. The question for me is not whether students should wear school uniforms. I really don't care if they do or they don't. The question in my mind is this: what are any of these people - the whiney adults and the spoiled kids they're serving as examples for - going to do if they're ever faced with a real problem?

So as not to end this on a negative note, let me tell you a joke. How many Bayonne public school students does it take to change a light bulb?

It takes one to hold the bulb still, and nine parents to stand around expecting the world to revolve around him.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Middle Age - Dat Be Whack, Yo*

* In some urban areas, "dat be whack" is an expression of deep concern, and possibly dissatisfaction, over something. "Yo" may be roughly translated as, "and I really mean it." For example, "The Dow Industrial Average decreased by nearly 100 points on reports of a downturn in petroleum futures and concerns over inflation? Dat be whack, yo."

The good thing about early Sunday morning hours is that they're quiet, and I get to sit and think. The bad thing about them is that they're quiet, and I get to sit and think. This morning, the thoughts are of having "life experience." You know...middle age.

Yes, I know. It's bad enough I've added one more blog to the world. Now I'm using that blog to give the world one more entry about middle age. But you see, this one is different from all those other people writing about reaching middle age. This one is about ME reaching middle age. I don't know about you, but for me, this is a key difference.
While not every effect nature's process has had will be discussed here <ahem>, there
are a few examples I'll share.
My hair is longer in back, down to about the base of my neck. The mid-life crisis period is, if nothing else, a call to action. When you can't afford a canary yellow corvette, when no 20 year-old co-ed will give you a second look, and when - crisis or not - you're still not crazy enough to sky-dive or bungee-jump, there aren't a lot of options left. Hence, the hair. My family appears to be ok with this, though my sons did advise me to grow it longer on the sides too, lest it start looking like a mullet. This, I've been led to believe, would be considered the ultimate step in the embarrassing-your-kids process.
I'm ok with the fact that I'm an older man to the women in my class of fourth year college students. What's harder to accept is realizing that a man half my age is an older man to them.
Even my cel phone has gotten involved. I wear it on my belt, and keep it on vibrate. I cannot tell you, dear reader, how many times I've reached down to answer a call, only to find out it was just some internal body part rumbling.
Still, we are here, and happy, and that is something. And you know, now that the sun is up I'm remembering  corvettes are ok, but the really cool guys cruise in a Saturn station wagon. As long as it's freshly washed. And driven by a guy with life experience.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Can You Dig It?

A couple of years ago I was working at a charity fundraising banquet doing small magic tricks at each of the tables. At one of them, the man nearest me picked my deck of cards up from the table and fanned through them, trying to "catch" me with whatever gimmick he thought I might be using. ("Hey Sherlock, if I'm putting the cards where a poor sport like you can just grab them, you can bet the mortgage there's nothing in them for you to find.") His actions were rude and childish - this was a man I'd put in his fifties - but they show the misguided tendency we all have at one time or another to feel threatened by anything that has us mystified.

Recent news reports of Harry Houdini's grand-nephews wanting to exhume his body, and of his widow Bess' grand-nephews opposing it, reminded me of this. Harry's side wants a forensic study to determine if he was murdered by the spiritualists whose scams he'd spent a good part of his later career exposing. Bess' camp is calling it an exploitive attempt to promote sales of a recent biography that explored, among other things, the decades-old murder rumors.

So who should we listen to?

It could be argued that Harry's blood relatives ("dig him up") should be given priority over his relatives-through-marriage ("leave him where he is"). One might also ask: after someone has been dead for 81 years, are his blood-descendants really "relatives?"

Then there's the big question that no one has asked: since the forensic investigation is not going to reveal what person would have murdered Houdini, and any perpetrators would be long-dead anyway, what purpose would exhuming him serve? Certainly not justice. It's more likely another case of satisfying a curiosity, and not the scholarly kind either.

Once any forensic results - whatever they show - are known, the fascination that's endured for 81 years won't last another 81 days. We can only guess what Harry himself would want done, but we do know that while he was alive he stopped at nothing and used everything - from the complex and highly technical to the shockingly simple - to make sure people remained mystified about him at all times, and in all ways.

If exhuming Harry Houdini were really about justice I'd be all for it. And yes, I admit there is part of me that is curious and that would want to hear every detail. There's some part of all of us that always seems to want to grab the cards, expose the gimmick, and endthe mystery. The problem is that when the immediate gratification from doing that fades - and it does fade - we end up having lost something much bigger.

On a completely different subject...

It took a while but I finally figured out the difference between American Idol and the Bush administration, and it is this: on American Idol, people with approval ratings lower than Sanjaya's are gotten rid of.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome. If you're not on aol and would like to post a comment, just send it to me by e-mail and I'll make sure it gets in.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Don't Look Down, Mr. President

Tonight the Associated Press report said, "A defiant President Bush warned Democrats Tuesday to accept his offer to have top aides speak about the firings of federal prosecutors only privately and not under oath, or risk a constitutional showdown from which he would not back down."

Yeah, yeah, we heard you, big guy. What else you got?

Bush talking tough to Congress at this point is reminding me of Saddam Hussein acting like he was in charge while standing on a trap door with a rope around his neck. The long fall caught him by surprise too, though everyone else in the room saw it coming.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Do Me A Flavor

It was not my intention to write a post today. Busy getting ready for friends coming over for corned beef and cabbage tonight, that sort of thing. Then my wife sent me to the convenience store to buy rye bread, and the man in front of me at the checkout was buying - so help me, I'm not making this up - a pineapple flavored cigar.

This is not about the fact that I'm not a smoker. If it were, the point would be that the man was buying a cigar. But the point is not that the man was buying a cigar. The point is the man was buying A FRIGGIN' PINEAPPLE FLAVORED CIGAR!

My curiosity was now aroused: what started someone thinking how great it would be if the taste of cigar tobacco were combined with the taste of pineapple? Was this some adult version of the bored kids at cook outs who think it would be a great idea to combine Coca-Cola and coleslaw, or was there more to it than that?

Once home, Google led me to a couple of on-line cigar community bulletin boards. On one, the pineapple smoking experience was described thus: "a dazzling mélange of artificial pineapple, burning rubber, stale urine and 11 year old Tahitian vanilla assaulted my senses and left them bruised, battered and befuddled in a clump on the floor." ( http://www.cigartrends.com/viewtopic.php?t=63 ) A posting in the other offered this: "[The cigar manufacturer] has to flavor their cigars because they use such a low grade tobacco. You're basically puffing on stems, paper, and sometimes woodchips...Why not just eat a piece of chocolate?" ( http://forums.cigaraficionado.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/6346086/m/231105614 )

Reading the experts, I felt positively smug enjoying the chocolate-covered raspberry ring gels I'd bought along with the rye bread.

Added Note 1: A couple of posts ago I wrote about one of my students, the one whose creativity in overcoming cramped exam conditions left me fascinated and just a bit envious. I recently received an e-mail from her. A project she entered into a lighting design competition won her second place and $1500. How about that?

Added Note 2: Encouraged by the positive e-mails I've received from kind readers, I've added the ability topost responses and comments here. Your thoughts have always been welcome; hopefully this will make sharing them a little easier.