Saturday, December 27, 2008

Waffle Iron 1 Ben 0

Do you know how kids, when they're young, wake up at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning and dive headfirst downstairs to look under the tree, while mom and dad are hoping for a little more sleep first? Fast forward to a few years later, when the same kids are home from college for the holidays and, around 11:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, mom and dad are saying, "Are they ever going to wake up and come down here?"

I got a gift this year I'd really been hoping for: a waffle iron. I'd wanted it since getting used to having fresh waffles while on vacation earlier this year, when the hotel had an electric one in the lobby as part of their breakfast set-up. Since the last thing I need is another electric appliance on my kitchen counter, I got one of the old-fashioned cast iron kind for the stove top.

If you've never had cast iron cooking equipment, your first is
a real experience. First you have to bake it to clean off the paraffin used to protect it during shipping. Then you have to oil it and bake it again to "condition" it. Turns out cast iron is not naturally non-stick. Who knew? For washing, ti's water only. If you use soap, it undoes all that conditioning.

Combining the conve
nient parts of several batter recipes, including some I just made up, I proceeded eagerly into this new adventure and made my first waffle. Or what would have been my first waffle had the half that didn't overflow onto the stove not burnt to an unrecognizable crisp and gotten shredded as I tried scraping it out. A few minutes and one quick visit to the Internet later (and now armed with information on how to actually use a cast iron waffle maker), it was time to scrape it clean for another attempt. I was determined to make as many tries as it would take to cook something edible. (That's what big bowls of batter are for, right?) The second try wasn't much better, though at least it didn't overflow. The third try came out overcooked but moderately edible, assuming the person you gave it to was either really hungry or in a charitable mood. The fourth and fifth tries came out reasonably. The fifth quickly became a total disaster when I poured the last of the batter into the bottom half of the waffle iron and then, drunk with my new-found waffle-making successes, put the top half on up-side down. (In the true spirit of foolishness, the fact that the two sides of the top half look nothing alike wasn't enough to prevent me from doing this.) What I was able to scrape off became my portion, but that's ok. One of the great parts of cooking things yourself is that food which you'd recognize as horrible if someone else made it ends up tasting great to you.

The waffle iron is now rinsed, oiled and stored away till I get a rematch. And this time it's personal.

Class of 2008

I may not have put decorations on the tree or remembered to buy a wreath, but at this time of year the gingerbread cookies just have to get made. Some readers may recall that last year, in addition to making conventional gingerbread men I put together a kind of designer series. (They're at Right click on the partial photo and select "view image" to see the whole photo.) This year, I am pleased to announce the following new additions:

The Jennifer Aniston:

The Governor Blagojevich:

The Plaxico Burress:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lost Soles

"It's not funny the first time you see it, but after 15 times you start laughing."
(My niece Caroline discussing "Napoleon Dynomite.")
Finally taking a break from the pressures of the season How easily a busy work schedule and holiday preparations distract us from the important things: guessing what Michelle Obama is going to wear to the inauguration.

Like everyone, I've seen over and over again that clip of the Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at Bush. After my initial anger at how they were treating our president - I thought only we could treat our president that way - I started wondering about a couple of things. First and perhaps most obvious is: you're 15 feet away - HOW COULD YOU MISS??? Second, especially after learning that this, apparently, is a traditional means of expressing disrespect in Iraqi culture, I started wondering exactly how many shoes does the average Iraqi own that they can do this? Think about it. If you threw one or two shoes every time you felt dislike for someone, how many times could you do it before you'd run out and have to control your emotions or, failing that, start throwing socks? And does the cost and general condition of the shoe factor in somehow? ("I hate you so much you're not worth me throwing my new Bostonians. Eat these old Payless shower flip-flops, you dog!")

Unrelated Item: Timber!

A couple of nights ago I was up for a bit in the middle of the night, though the crash downstairs probably would have wakened me anyway. Prepared to take on a vicious gang of hoodlums, I walked downstairs and in the living room found the Christmas tree laying on its side with the vacuum cleaner and various other items that were in the tree's fall-path knocked down as well. Also there were two cats staring up from the rubble, their concerned expressions clearly saying, "Don't worry, Daddy. We'll find whoever did this awful thing!"

There is a certain futility that comes with having a Christmas tree and cats in the same house.

It's an artificial tree set in a heavy concrete base that's supposed to be hard to overturn. (Having raised twin sons and, in the process, lost all faith in the word "unbreakable", I probably should have known better.) Although it could have been either of them, I suspect it was Willie whose physics experiment led to the tree incident. He's grown into a muscular and athletic fellow we call "mighty cat." (Motto: why walk when you can leap?) Catch the right spot on the tree with a well timed leap and the concrete base doesn't stand a chance.

Happy Holidays to all!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Am I The Only One Who Thinks This Is Funny?

Photos have always held a fascination for me for the way they so often capture things the photographer could not have anticipated. A photo in my local newspaper today showed a group of parochial school kids depicting a nativity scene in a Christmas pageant.

Sometime between now and December 25th photos of things like that will be in nearly every small newspaper. Yet this one stands out for its inclusion, even unintentionally, of an additional religion icon...

Poetry, it seems, does not always need words. Sometimes numbers will do just fine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bubble and Squeak

As much as it may sound like the name of a Saturday morning children's cartoon, the title is from an English style of cooking. It involves taking a bunch of leftovers - meat, potatoes, vegetables, and anything else that can't run away - and mushing them together into a thick patty for pan-frying. Think larger version of the futuristic meal-in-a-pill concept from science fiction and you'll have the idea. It seemed a good name for unrelated thoughts ground up in the processor of my mind and presented as some kind of loose-fitting, if unrecognizable, unit. Better than "Thought Hash" or, worse, "Thought Sausage."

Change We Can Believe In

I've been home on vacation this week, so today's rants may not seem so, well, ranty. One by one, the items on the to-do list have been falling, always a sign of a good vacation. The most significant of these - and, I confess, the one I honestly didn't expect to accomplish - was finishing the tiling of the kitchen floor. (Forget what they show in you the tv commercials; there's a lot more to this than peeling off the paper backing and sticking a shiny new tile onto the floor. Minor things like cutting plywood sub-flooring around door frames and other irregularly shaped obstacles, removing doors from their hinges and trimming the bottoms to accommodate the new flooring height, etc. But I digress.) I'd started it weeks - ok, months - ago and ran out of time, and since then the unfinished project was a constant reminder of everything I'd ever failed to accomplish now that I'm firmly entrenched in middle-age. I'm happy to report that with enough focus and a minimum of bloodshed (I've spilled more grating potatoes), it's now been finished, a reminder that of all the things I've failed to accomplish, there's now one less. Just don't tell my kids. I want them to be surprised.

You've Got to be In It to Win It

At the newsstand the other day there was a sign advertising a phone number for getting that day's winning lottery numbers before they appeared in the newspaper. Each call costs $0.49/minute. (That's about 1/3 pound for my friends across the big pond.) Below it, in much smaller print, was another phone number to call if you have a gambling problem. By gambling problem, I suppose they mean people who feel a need to spend $0.49/minute several times a week instead of just waiting a few hours to read the winning numbers in the newspaper.

Remember Where You Heard It

I saw Miley Cyrus on Dancing With The Stars last night. (Yes, I'm a fan of the show. There, I admitted it.) Some day somebody's going to get her to stop doing Britney's act (on AND off stage), strip away the overblown Superbowl Half-Time Show production, and we're going to see that she's really very good.

Just a Little Politics...

I have to confess it's with no small amusement I'm watching Joe Lieberman's "thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another" act these days, now that it turns out he joyfully yapped at the heels of the wrong candidate the past several months. One wonders if, in letting Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship, Obama and the other Democrats really are following the lead of Abraham Lincoln's politics of inclusion, or the advice of Michael Corleone: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Good for the Environment

Do you know how people in office waiting rooms wastefully take a new cup every time they get a drink of water? Earlier this week I was in a doctor's office, and they had a great way of handling this. Next to the bathroom sink there were some plastic cups and a permanent marker, along with a small sign saying to put your initials on the cup. I thought this was a very clever way for the office to get people to hold onto their cups and reuse them if they were still thirsty.

Happy Thanksgiving, all...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

"Eating waffles from a bowl with a spoon isn't as easy at it looks."
(This from my son James a while back, and seemed worth sharing.)

I'm trying to get away from writing so much about politics and the presidential election, but it's the story that just won't go away. This time, it's the news reports of a sharp increase in gun sales following Obama's election that are keeping me political.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a gun owner and a believer in the second amendment: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." I'm also a believer, at least theoretically, of tempering things with judgment and common sense. So when the people who advocate that someone wanting to buy a gun shouldn't have his background checked respond to Obama's election by stockpiling firearms, I'm left wondering exactly how many guns does a person need to defend himself adequately. In our rush to quote the part about "the right of the People," we pass right by that pesky "well regulated" thing. The irony, of course, is that these same folks raised hell back in April when then-candidate Obama referred to people who
"get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Unrelated Item: I Thought This Was Bloggable

It finally happened. I received an e-mail from someone saying that if I needed to reach him he would be "blackberryable." English is an evolving language, but I always thought of evolution as a gradual process. This is more like evolution by sledgehammer.

Unrelated Item: Pack Small, Play Big

The title is an expression used by children's entertainers, almost certainly created by some middle-aged magician who carried heavy bags and cases up and down stairs to a birthday party one too many times. It seems to apply as well to a fellow in Birmingham, England who creates detailed sculptures roughly the size of a grain of sand and mounts them in the eye of a sewing needle. A friend sent me the attached link and I found it mind-boggling, something that needed to be shared. The execution of the sculpting is amazing, but equally important for me was that this man, having had the idea, believed so strongly it could be done in the first place. I hope you'll watch it. I did, and was glad afterward.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Final - Or Not - Election Thoughts

I'm glad Obama's victory was by decisive numbers but I'd lie if I said it never crossed my mind that it would have been mischievously poetic if McCain won the popular vote, and Obama got the presidency by the electoral vote.

It was great seeing Obama's and Biden's families together on stage after Obama's acceptance. It also got me thinking there should have been one more debate during the campaign, a smackdown between Biden's mother and McCain's. Now THAT would have outdrawn Biden-Palin and, if publicized the right way, probably the Superbowl too.

I know I'm not alone in hearing McCain's gracious and respectful concession and thinking, "Now THAT'S the John McCain I've admired and respected for so long." Who was that guy who looked like McCain who, for the past several months, has been traveling the country saying un-McCain -like things? Mac, at last, really is back, and I truly believe we're better for it.

In analyzing the election results, nearly every commentator I've heard has mentioned how the McCain campaign's death slide was greased by his party affiliation with, and I'm quoting here, an "unpopular president."

Unpopular? Sorry, folks. A 45% approval rating would make for an "unpopular" president. A 24% approval rating qualifies as a "lousy" president. And there's no spinning this as a partisan issue. When 76% of the country disapproves of your administration, there are a lot of members of your own party who think you suck.

The same commentators are suggesting that Sarah Palin will be a serious contender for president in 2012. This journalism-by-speculation ignores a couple of realities:
  1. Four years is the equivalent of several lifetimes in the world of national politics. We just had an election between two people, neither of whom in 2004 were considered likely to be their party's respective nominee in 2008.
  2. Sarah Palin may have excited the 24% of people who took time out from stockpiling canned goods and ammunition to say they think George Bush has been a good president. The rest of the population - including many leading Republicans - has recognized that she was a significant contributor to McCain's presidential demise and, as such, has political herpes serious enough to discourage all but the most desperate vote-seeker from letting their electoral ambition get too intimate with hers. She may have a working knowledge of current events in Alaska, but if she thinks anyone is going to elect a president - or a vice-president - who'll sit across a table from Vladimir Putin and say, "Hmmm...let me get back to ya on that!" she's out of her mind. Does she think he's sitting in the Kremlin thinking about how he can see Alaska from some parts of Russia?

By the way...

Did I mention not to pay any attention to my gut feelings?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Play Ball!

A few thoughts as we prepare for the world series of number crunching to begin...

Can You Come Back in a Minute? I'm Still Deciding

New and, presumably, near-final polls for tomorrow's election all show undecideds hovering around 5%. This naturally leads me to wonder:
  • Will they vote for Obama or McCain;
  • Might they express some frustration (and impact the election) by voting for one of the fringe candidates; and
What do these people think they're going to hear in the next twelve hours that they haven't heard in the last twelve months? Are they planning on going into the booth and doing eenie-meenie-miney-moe, or will they try to remember what went on at each debate and possibly confuse it with something they saw on Saturday Night Live? Admittedly, elections have been decided on less (coughcough2000coughcough), but still...

Répondez S'il Vous Plaît

In her interview with Katie Couric from a few weeks ago, Sarah Palin responded to a question on foreign policy by thinking a moment and saying, "Let me get back to you on that." I wonder if she ever did.

The Audacity of Hoping I'm Wrong

I hesitate even to write this, but I must. I try to stay pretty even-handed in this space, though it's probably pretty obvious I'm supporting Obama in this election. Standing your ground doesn't mean you can't be respectful. That said, I'm not at peace right now in spite of all the numbers showing Obama winning this thing tomorrow. I just can't escape the feeling that McCain is going to pull it out. I don't know if the undecideds, like the donkey who starved to death because he had two bowls of food in front of him and couldn't decide which one to eat, will just not vote and affect things. Or if a whole bunch of those people who told the pollsters they would vote for Obama will get into the booth and, suddenly faced with the reality of voting without regard to race will revert to something less civilized. Or maybe the polls were just wrong, that margin-of-error thing they always mention at the end. There's not a non-partisan poll anywhere to support any of this, and the electoral college scenarios by which it could happen all sound pretty pie-in-the-sky. It's just a gut feeling from a guy for whom one of life's greatest joys is worrying, and not a pleasant one at that.

And On An Unrelated Note

Tonight I was at the supermarket and, be still my heart, Mallomars were on sale. After circling the display a number of times like a hyena, I needed to admit I was powerless, and that only a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. Those admissions made, I walked away without buying any. One day at a time, indeed. Go me!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Did You Hear The One About The Two Polls?

Like a lot of people I'm watching the polls these days, trying to get a sneak-peak at who destiny will give the unenviable task of trying to straighten out the current mess. Not surprisingly, the numbers vary from poll to poll, sometimes widely. Surprisingly, practically all of the polls address the election in terms of the popular vote, failing to take into account the only thing that really matters, the Electoral College.

For international readers not familiar with the difference, the popular vote is what most people outside of South America and Cuba think of when they think of an election. Taking the country as a whole, x% of the votes were for candidate A, y% were for candidate B, and 0.000001% were for the green party candidate. Whoever's percentage is bigger is declared the winner. One person, one vote. (Contrary to popular belief, this is true even in New Jersey. We just happen to extend our definition of "person" to include Disney characters and dead people, that's all. You got a problem with that?)

This simple majority-rules model is how every election in America is decided except, of course, for the big one, for which was created the Electoral College. In technical terms, the Electoral College system is what statistical analysts categorize as a useless, outdated system that was created when America consisted of disjointed agricultural communities and that defies all logic in the modern world where we have things like mass communication. Under this system, once 51% of the voters in a state have voted for a particular candidate, all other votes - for either candidate - don't count for anything. It's rare, but possible, for the majority of votes to be for one candidate (let's call him, say, "Al") and for the mathematical quirkiness of the Electoral College system to put another candidate (say, "George"), into office like some twisted real-life version of The Twilight Zone. This would happen even if "George" were the only candidate on the planet even less qualified than "Al." All this is hypothetical, of course, but you get the idea.

The presidential election has something in common with High School Musical 3, and it is this: I wish they would both be over with already and just go away. With 8 days left and trailing in the polls, McCain is sounding more like Palin, rather than the other way around, and that's not a good thing for anyone not on Saturday Night Live. Hail Mary's are exciting if you're playing football. In leadership, they're just sad. None of this is to suggest the election has been decided. At the same time, the McCain campaign has entered the polls-don't-vote-people-do phase, with increasingly frequent severe episodes of my-opponent's-not-patriotic and blame-the-media. That's usually the next-to-last stage of the political dying process, right after denial, anger, bargaining and just before acceptance. Let's just hope McCain, or more likely his substance-challenged (but impeccably dressed) running mate, don't start talking about Wildcats.

Unrelated Item: Recession? What Recession?

I heard a news report yesterday that said 65% of people surveyed are planning to spend less for the holidays this year than in previous years. The survey must not have included anyone from Paramus, NJ.

Paramus, in northern New Jersey, for decades has been the center of the retail universe, with no less than four mega-malls punctuated by several bizillion strip malls. On Saturday I stopped into one of the mega-malls, expecting that the wind, chilly rain and the even chillier economy would have made the place at least a little sane. Instead, it took about fifteen minutes of driving around to find a distant parking space in a lot so big there are shuttle buses going from one section to another. At first I thought someone moved Christmas to October and didn't tell me. Bergen County, where Paramus is located, is a Republican enclave in a state that is otherwise solidly Democratic, but I would have thought someone there would understand economics.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Keeping It Real and Other Guilty Pleasures

Debate III has come and gone, and it was not pretty. One hopes nothing in this campaign - however it is run and whatever its outcome - will prevent John McCain from being rightfully remembered as a great American and a genuine hero. But this past Wednesday, he could have saved himself a lot of effort by simply showing up at Hofstra with a big sign that said, "I am desperate." Choosing Bill Ayers and Joe the Plumber reflected on McCain about as well choosing Sarah Palin.

Still, I can't help but to think how lucky we are this election season, even as I walk through the ruins of our economy, stepping over bodies. Previous presidential campaigns have generally been what I sometimes call "death-by-fire-or-death-by-water" elections. (Bush or Kerry? Gore or Bush? Puh-leeze!) This time around, that' s not the case. The heat of the battle (and the occasional horrifying running-mate selection) notwithstanding, this year we've had the best choices we've seen in a long time. Yes, like everyone I end up preferring one candidate over another, but when you come right down to it, I'd have at least some comfort level with either Obama, McCain or, for that matter, Hillary winning. That's a pretty good position to be in.

The Democrat who can't list Obama's electoral shortcomings isn't being honest with himself and misunderstands the realities of the election process. Ditto the Republicans and McCain's electoral shortcomings. I'll even include Biden in this. (Palen supporters, with the exception of comedy professionals with a vested interest, are a breed unto themselves and aren't included in this.) It's a search for the lesser of two, or three, or however many evils, and perfection is not an option.

Unrelated Item 1: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Do you remember that very funny "This Land Is Your Land" clip made for the Bush-Kerry election in 2004? It turns out that the folks at JibJab, who created it, have come up with one for Obama-McCain. It is with great pleasure (and great thanks to the friend who sent it to me) that I include the link here. Just so you know what everyone is talking about at the water cooler tomorrow.

Unrelated Item 2: Aye, Lad, Just Do It

This past Thursday, the news reported that Waterford Crystal would be laying off almost all the workers at its famous plant in Ireland and moving its operations "overseas." We're not sure yet where that is exactly, but the thought of the world's finest crystal being churned out by underpaid young children in sweatshops, one table over from the kids making Nike sneakers, is more than a little disturbing. Oh wait, they're not young children. They're 16. Sorry, I forgot.

Monday, October 13, 2008

You Gotta Believe

One of the headlines on the AOL Welcome screen today read, "Father of Bristol Palin's Baby Shoots Down Rumors." I can't possibly be the only person who read that and wondered if he did it from a helicopter.

Ok, with that off my chest, now for the real topic. Regular readers may remember I love movie quotes, and though it's not among my favorites, this one has got me thinking:

"I believe in the soul ... the small of a woman's back, the hanging curveball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days." (Crash Davis [Kevin Costner], "Bull Durham," 1988)

Ok, so I'm not Kevin Costner. There are still a few things I believe in and, for whatever it may be worth, this seemed no worse a time than any other to compile them. In no particular order:

1. Small pieces of birthday cake are a waste of everyone's time.

2. The vast majority of mankind's problems eventually trace back to some form of trying to get something for nothing.

3. I want what's mine, and I don't want what's not mine.

4. I don't accept pieces of paper that someone in the street tries to hand me, regardless of how they're dressed. Similarly, I don't speak to people with clipboards who try to stop me in the street.

5. Love is like any other form of comedy: it's all in the timing.

6. Love, friendship and other forms of familiarity are not an excuse for discourteous behavior.

7. ALWAYS buy a handmade poppy when you see a veteran selling them for donations.

8. The secret to a successful long-term relationship is this: do whatever you have to do never to find out what your spouse talks about with his/her best friend.

9. I believe in charitable giving. Just not at traffic lights.

10. When we find ourselves trying to decide how far we're willing to go in treating a segment of society like human beings, it's time to stop and take a deep breath.

11. The people who make the biggest show of saying they don't take crap from people are usually the ones who make it a point to give other people the most crap.

12. There's a special place in heaven waiting for seeing-eye dogs and other animals whose entire existence is devoted to service.

13. There's a very hot place in hell waiting for the guy who invented the four-way traffic stop. (Someone I mentioned this to suggested traffic circles too, but in Jersey we're just used to those.)

14. Someday they're going to give a Nobel Prize for baking, and it's going to go to the guy who invented parchment.

So what do you believe?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Changing All Those Changes

The pieces begin coming together as transition gradually becomes improvement. A few items to note, done in the hope of making it easier to post comments:

  • Posting comments will no longer require that irritating word verification. (That's the 60's-acid-flashback lettering you have to input to prove you're not a computer sending out spam.) Thanks to Cathy for a great suggestion on that.
  • I've opened up the ability to comment to anyone, anywhere, who has a computer. Since hardly anyone has a computer and the widespread use of the Internet is still years away, I'm figuring it's safe to do that.
  • Since, in the time it took to type the previous bullet-item another 600,000 sociopaths, miscreants, and other people with IQ's that would embarrass a slug have made their way onto the Internet anonymously, comments will be subject to review by the moderator before appearing on the site. Not to worry - the moderator's a reasonable guy, and he's looking only to filter out the spam that the first two bullet-items subject the site and its valued readers to. It is not intended to filter out dissenting opinions, though I can't imagine there could be any anyway.
  • The above notwithstanding, the moderator's tolerance for anonymous letters (which are permitted by the system when it's opened up to everyone) is very low, so you won't be suffering through a lot of those either.
And there you have it for now!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

This will be but a brief test to make sure I can post to the new site.

I'm looking forward to posting new content soon and, since (if I've got this right) folks from any ISP will be able to view the site and post comments, expanding to heretofore unexplored corners of the globe.

So what do you all think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


As I enter the beginning hours of the Yom Kippur fast (only 20 hours and 48 minutes of air diet to go!), thoughts of trying to atone for past sins lead naturally to the current campaign for president. It's the magical season when Americans of all viewpoints come together in a common celebration of what joins us as one nation; specifically, the willingness to forget for a few weeks that they're all liars and crooks.

Presidential debate II has come and gone, and the most striking thing to come out of it was that for the second time in a row, the two men who think they can lead the free world got beaten in the ratings by their vice-presidents. (Maybe people thought Biden was debating Tina Fey.) Although the debate did put Obama and McCain one step closer to coming to blows, which you have to admit would be kind of exciting, I thought they stayed pretty even throughout. The pundits tell us this is not good news for McCain, though it seems to me it's still far too early for anyone to think Obama has this won. Republicans have repeatedly shown themselves to be effective campaigners who can take full advantage of the first mistake the Democrats might make in the remaining weeks. Look who they got elected the last two times around.

It's still not clear if Palin was a profitable choice for McCain. She's enormously popular among many hard-core Republicans, but so is Bush, so how much is that really saying? For the rest of us, the jury on her may still be out, but they're keeping themselves amused heating up the tar and plucking the chickens. I'm starting to think McCain's numbers might have gotten a bigger boost had he picked Cloris Leachman as his running mate.

I saw a poll question the other day: aside from McCain and Obama, who would you like to see running for president? I haven't come up with anyone yet, but it did get me thinking I'd like to see Dan Quayle running for vice-president. Think about it - how wickedly delicious would it be watching him and Sarah Palin debating one another? People would think they were watching a Saturday Night Live sketch. My other thought was that the guy who's judgement I'm seriously questioning at this point isn't even John McCain; it's Palin's husband, Todd. Seriously - after hearing her interviews and the debate, can you imaging living with this woman?

On more important topics, I've received tonight an e-mail from AOL regarding the transferring of journal content to another system. After I go over it, I'll post the information about where things that are better left unsaid will soon be found. Your visits to this site, wherever it resides, are appreciated.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I'll Give Up My Journal When They Pry It From My Cold Dead Fingers...

...and maybe not then either. I'll see how I feel.

The late-night e-mail from AOL said that as of October 31, they will be shutting down all journals. They don't give a reason, but they didn't need to: it's a transparent attempt by the Bush administration to silence me. An effort by a failing president to still the voice of change and create the illusion of relevance so desperate that they've forced AOL to shut down everyone else's journal just to eliminate this one.

Well, it's not going to work.

According to the letter, AOL is putting together some kind of journal bail-out package that will transfer journal content to another provider. We'll see. Just to be safe, I'm going to contact my congressmen and tell them to stop wasting time with small things like rampant bank failures and people's life savings, and focus on important matters like my journal.

More to come, dear readers. I'll keep you informed.





Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dueling Bracelets

The DAR ladies will be downstairs shortly for a meeting. I figure I should hide up here in my office or they'll eat me. This turns out to be a good thing since it gives me a chance to write and, just as important, they usually leave good snacks after they're done.

With McCain having decided that it might be a good idea after all for the president to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, the first debate of the election season is now in the record books. Everybody's offering post-debate analysis, so here's mine.

First, as with so many debates in recent years, the first thing we seem to obsess over is, "who won?" I've never understood that. It's political punditry for people with MTV attention spans, focusing on some imaginary number of points scored while forgetting all about the details of everything that was said.

Last night's debate was a good one for both candidates, though I doubt anything said changed anyone's mind. Obama and McCain were both solid, and the points, counter-points and fact-twisting seemed evenly divided. Both candidates pointed out they were wearing bracelets in honor of a fallen soldier, proving the line between compassion and demagoguery can be a thin one indeed. Kudos to Jim Lehrer for repeating questions when they weren't answered the first time, something most political reporters seem unwilling to do.

Thursday's vice-presidential debate should be as cynically entertaining as it will be informative. It will be the longest Gov. Palin has been exposed to those pesky questions without her script. After her less-than-impressive (a nicer phrase than "occasionally insipid") performance in her interview with Katie Couric, it should be interesting to see how she manages against the formidable debating skills of Sen. Biden. (My son's recent comment on the previous post said it better than I could ever hope to. I'd written at first about Palin that only time would tell if she would stand up under closer scrutiny. His elegantly concise response: "Time told. :-(" )If nothing else, we can keep ourselves amused by counting how many times she says you can see Russia from Alaska while claiming to have opposed the "Bridge to Nowhere." At first I had thought her candidacy would, if nothing else, give credibility to wearing glasses, the way Ronald Reagan once made it fashionable to wear brown suits in the business environment. Now that we're getting to know more about her, even that's not working out.

A final thought as we prepare to watch the remaining debates. Around this time of the election season, we frequently hear how most people who watched the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates on television said that Kennedy won, and that most who listened to it on the radio said that Nixon won. I wasn't there, or at least wasn't listening at the tender age of 1, but I can accept it as probably true. What I don't accept is the point people usually are trying to make when they bring it up, that Kennedy's "win" was due primarily to his good looks. I don't know about you, but when I'm hiring someone for an important job, I don't just want to hear what he's saying. I think it's just as important to see his eyes when he's saying it. Think of serving on a jury and only hearing what a witness is saying. Now think of how much more you have to work with if you get to see him saying it. I don't expect this will put that Kennedy-Nixon thing to rest because people seem to like it too much. It's just something we may want to consider as we make an important decision we're going to have to live with for a long time.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Just a Regular Hockey Mom who Shoots Bears from Airplanes

Thanks for your patience with the time between posts, folks. I could say I'm going to make sure I do better in the future, but we all know better than that.

I love this time of every four years. It's the time when people of all political persuasions get whooped up about one vice-presidential candidate or another, in preparation for forgetting they exist after the election. (Ok, Dick "five draft deferments" Cheney has achieved the same infamy as his boss, which itself is no mean feat, but that's the exception.)

There's Sarah Palin, of course (more on her in a moment), but before that was the selection of Joe Biden and the criticism from the right that his selection signals a lack of self-confidence in Obama. That criticism - which, like most extreme criticism by either side, gets the partisans energized but ultimately falls apart after, say, five seconds of thought - appears to suggest some kind of new business model: show how confident you are in your leadership abilities by bringing only unqualified yes-men into your organization. After eight years of that very thing, you'd think they'd have learned by now. Who was Obama supposed to pick, a latter-day Dan Quayle?

Palin herself is an interesting choice for McCain. A great public speaker - Obama's good, but so far Palin looks like the best of the four - with a zip and charm ideal for the age of sound bite logic. (The two biggest applause points in John McCain's nomination acceptance speech were his first mention of Sarah Palin, and when she came out at the end. What are we saying here?) Will she hold up under scrutiny? Time will tell, and we'll learn more about her and the others as the campaign rolls on. Handlers are already moaning that she's the only one not getting privileged treatment from the media. Perhaps what Phil Gramm meant to say a few weeks ago was "we've become a party of whiners." I'm not sure it would have gotten him into any less trouble, but at least it would have addressed this point.

My take to date on Palin is this: she's presents herself well, is not afraid to make decisions, and has packed a lot of executive experience into a fairly short time. Plus, she's a woman, as the photo-ops with Mrs. Bush and Mrs. McCain remind us. And remind us. And let's not forget this one: frame it how you will, all these admirable personal attributes have been, and will continue to be, used to push the same old mean-spirited right-wing agenda that has been such a big part of getting us into the current mess. A colorful personality doesn't change that. She was suggested to McCain by Newt Gingrich, for heaven's sake. What does that tell you?

Yes, I know. Palin-McCain, sorry, I meant McCain-Palin, say they're about change. But - campaign-season emotions notwithstanding - hasn't experience taught us that "change" would just be code for a new, slightly modified mean-spirited right wing agenda? Sometimes we get so enamored with someone's plain talking style that we forget to pay attention to what they're saying.

It's ironic, then, that I'm not convinced any of this really matters. History has shown us that at the final moment people vote for a presidential candidate, not for a running-mate. Everyone remembers Lloyd Bentson leaving Dan Quayle speechless with his "You're no John Kennedy" punch, arguably still the most famous remark made in any debate, ever. (I didn't say most important. I said most famous.) It was strong stuff. And come election day, the ticket Quayle was on won, and the ticket Bentson was on was never seen or heard from again.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Olympic Thoughts

Please understand: I'm not real big on the Olympics. I don't dislike them. I just don't get all worked up about them. Still, even we casual watch-as-you-walk-past-the-tv types pick up on certain things.

I have to begin with the men's swimming, especially that 400 meter swimming relay a few days ago. That's the one the American team won after the French team said they came to the Olympics to, and I quote, "crush" the Americans. Now, I'm a New York sports fan, and trash talk is certainly nothing new here, but it still seems out of place for what the Olympics are supposed to represent. More important, though, is that it may be a good time for someone to give Pepe Le Pew a refresher course in manners, starting with the fact that if it weren't for the Americans, he'd be swimming for the German team.

Did a small animal die on Bob Costas' head, or does he just need someone to be really honest with him about toupees? It's hard to tell.

Seeing that between-the-events report the other day about the Chinese street-food-on-a-stick delicacies of scorpions, starfish, silkworms, political dissidents, and heaven only knows what else was like watching a bloody scene in a slasher movie, the ones that make you shut your eyes and turn away while listening for something to indicate when it's over. Not like the normal treats I grew up eating in Jewish delis, things like beef tongue and kishke. (The first is just what it sounds like, sliced thin and served warm on rye with a good deli mustard. The second - trust me, you don't want to know.) In any case, I really didn't need that close-up of the guy shoving a scorpion-pop into his mouth. And, so help me, I'll smack the first one of them who ever says anything again about what's in hot dogs.

Don't you love sportscasters who say that an athlete "settled" for a bronze medal? There are 6,000,000,000 people in the world. To get a bronze medal, you have to outscore all but two. I'd "settle" for that.

Explain it to me again: how exactly did beach volleyball become an Olympic sport?
Many Americans expressed disapproval of Bush's decision to go to Beijing to attend the opening ceremonies. Not me. I thought it was the right thing to do. My main disappointment was his decision to come back.

That little gymnast on the Chinese women's team is absolutely adorable, and an amazing athlete. So well preserved, too, for 16. You'd think she was ten or 11 at most. Must be the scorpion pops.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Luckiest Woman on the Face of the Earth

Yesterday was Old Timer's Day at Yankee Stadium, and it got me thinking about the great, understated courage of a woman I feel fortunate to have known. If that seems like a convoluted six-degrees-of-separation thing for emotions instead of people, well, maybe it is. Bear with me.

Old Timer's Day is always a lot of fun: legends and non-legends I'd seen play, and others I've only heard about. Watching is like hearing a Beatles song on the radio; not reliving a particular moment but rather peeking in on what we thought and felt in other eras of our lives. Eras that feel simpler now though, in actual fact, they probably weren't. For fans, baseball has always had a lot of emotion tied to it. Aside from this being the Yankee's last year in this historic stadium (something I'm not as worked up about as a lot of other people seem to be - they're only moving across the street), there were the losses this past year of two very beloved Yankees, the fine gentleman Bobby Murcer only a few weeks ago, and the fun and colorful Phil Rizzuto. Seeing Mrs. Rizzuto throw out the first ball to Derek Jeter, the future legend currently at her husband's old shortstop position, packed something touching and human I don't think you have to even be a baseball fan to feel or understand.

There's something I've been wanting to write for some time, waiting for an appropriate moment, and it occurred to me yesterday that this was it. It has to do with how20Old Timer's Day originated. It's an often-told story, and you may have heard it, but the tradition goes back to when the Yankees invited old team-mates back to join in an on-field tribute to a terminally-ill Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. That was the day Gehrig gave that unforgettable speech in which he mentioned all the wonderful things in his life and, with great and understated bravery, said he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. (There aren't a lot of speeches, particularly by athletes, that people still remember nearly 70 years later.)

A Washington Post reporter who attended wrote this:
“I saw strong men weep this afternoon, expressionless umpires swallow hard, and emotion pump the hearts and glaze the eyes of 61,000 baseball fans in Yankee Stadium. It was Lou Gehrig, tributes, honors, gifts heaped upon him, getting an overabundance of the thing he wanted least—sympathy. But it wasn’t maudlin. His friends were just letting their hair down in their earnestness to pay him honor. And they stopped just short of a good, mass cry.”

Fast-forward to July, 2007. Denise, a woman I knew only from on-line conversations but liked very much, was in her early-to-mid 40's and diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast and liver cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Although we exchanged a number of letters, this is from the one that stands out most:

"Please beg your wife to have mammograms. If nothing else comes out of this, at least I know my friends are all getting checked now.

"I have been on chemo for 3 months, I feel I have the best care possible. With treatment and prayers I hope to live to see my only child graduate from High school next May [2008]. I just want to see him become a man. He is a great  kid and I am truly blessed.

"I have learned in all of this that I have wonderful loving friends, a loving family, and many people who touch my life everyday to let me know they care.
"I do not see this as tragedy Ben, I see it as a gift. I will have no unfinished business, nothing left undone. Tragedy is getting killed by a drunk driver. I am given the gift of knowing that I need to take care of business and make sure I talk to my son about everything I want him to know in life. That is a gift when you know. Nobody is promised tomorrow but I am living as though everyday is precious and a gift."

It's one of those things we know and still can be reminded of once in a while: there is an everyday brand of courage that doesn't involve battlefields or daring rescues from burning buildings. Gehrig had it. So did Denise. We know others; for this journal-community, surely Kim comes to mind as well. (I shaved my legs for this? )

I've asked around but never got any official word about Denise. An e-mail I sent a few weeks ago was returned undeliverable: her account has been canceled. In the context of what she wrote, even I can figure out what that means. I share this now with the feeling she wouldn't mind. And in the hope Denise knew how much respect and admiration she inspired, even when all she had really set out to do was address a difficult situation the best way she knew how.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beyond Reason

Sorry, folks, but I really have to rant.

This morning I was watching television news coverage of that horrible church shooting in Tennessee. (For international readers, over the weekend a gunman walked into a church during a youth performance and opened fire, killing two adults and wounding seven others.) The news reporters gave some details of what happened, interviewed some witnesses and then, to no one's surprise, said that ridiculous thing news reporters always seem to say when covering tragic events like this: we still don't know the reason he did it.

I can end the mystery right now. Here's the reason. The man walked into a church with a shotgun and started shooting people because he's a frigging nut! Is there really any other reason, any valid thought process, that leads someone to enter a church and start blasting away?

It's a lazy reporter's cliche I first noticed when another psycho walked into an Amish schoolhouse a couple of years ago and started shooting little girls. Shaking their heads sensitively for emphasis, the newsmen reported they discovered why the gunman struck: he had had some kind of social rejection once upon a time and felt anger toward school girls.

Is what triggers some psychopath's individual demons really the "reason" he attacks? And are the news people somehow suggesting there are degrees of senselessness in those reasons for shooting people in churches and classrooms? Obviously, these reporters would never try to make a joke out of this tragedy; that would be disrespectful. Here's my point: is it any less so for them to infuse the event with artificial drama and a complete unwillingness to think about what's being reported? 


Not-Sure-If-Related Item: We Respectfully Request the Honor of your Going Ahead and Making Our Day

With the foregoing rant still fresh in my labanza, I saw this item today in the local newspaper, or what passes for one. Around dinner time this past Saturday night, a local woman, aged 60, was arrested for approaching her loud-partying neighbors with a handgun. According to the article, the woman "admitted bringing the gun out but denied pointing it at anyone, saying she had politely asked the family to keep the noise down because she was trying to sleep."We can only guess what Emily Post would suggest as a polite way for asking a neighbor to keep the noise down while you're holding a handgun. Maybe she had her pinky up while reaching for the trigger. In any event, for the next several months she'll no doubt be dividing her time between working with her attorney to prepare her defense, and writing thank-you notes to all those nice people at Smith and Wesson.


Totally Unrelated Item: I Have a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore

A while back I wrote about some favorite movie quotes. I'm shocked - shocked! - to discover I somehow left out one that should have been at, or at least very near, the top of the list.

Wizard: As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don't know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they're unbreakable.

Tin Man: But I still want one.


It's Always Something

I wanted to end this on a positive note. This past weekend I had the most wonderful time working at an event - the annual "Noogie Carnival" - with an amazing group of people at a local Gilda's Club chapter. For anyone unfamiliar with it, Gilda's Club is a network of community-based support groups for people touched by cancer; that's everyone from the patients themselves to their families and friends, adults and children. The environment there is welcoming, well thought-out, and just plain phenomenal. They don't provide medical care, but complement it in the most warmly human way with emotional and social support. [Housekeeping note: I borrowed a good bit of that description from their mission statement.]  Named, of course, for the great Gilda Radner, it was started after she passed away by her husband, her cancer psychotherapist, and some friends who wanted to carry on the kind of community-based support Gilda herself had found comfort in during her illness. These are great people doing really important work. I've never used this space for this kind of item before (at least I don't think so), and I have no intention of making a habit of doing so, but in this case I'm happy and proud to make the exception. If you check them out - - I strongly suspect you'll be glad you did.

And that's a rant I'm glad to share.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Teach Them Well and Let Them Lead the Way

"I'm living my life based on decisions a 17-year-old made." (Stew, "Passing Strange")
The young men - I'm going to have to get used to not saying "boys" anymore - are now 18 and high school graduates. (They actually graduated a couple of weeks ago, but it takes time to get to things sometimes, you know?)
If you've had the experience, you know it's a time of great joy, and great emotion. There's seeing a fast-forward version of the maturing of your own children, of course. And having that underscored by seeing their classmates, the ones you've watched grow since kindergarten, as adults themselves. And realizing that along with growing older yourself, you've grown and changed in almost as many ways as they have. What you heard all those years ago really is true: adults don't make children. Children make adults. And it's a process that ends only when you do.
The ceremony itself was fun, dignified and mercifully short. The mayor spoke (zzzzzzzzzzz), as did the superintendant of schools, who expressed dismay over how much he was having to pay to send his own children to college. (Must be hard on that $200,000 a year salary, Mr. Superintendant.) My mother and sister came with us, as did my father-in-law and his friend. I thought of my dad. At my 40th birthday party some years ago (ok, a big bunch of years ago), I told my father, who had not been well at the time, how great it was that he was able to be there and he said, "If I had to crawl to be here, I would." As I sat at the graduation looking upward, hoping he was getting to see his cherished boys graduating, I heard the words: "If I had to crawl to be here, I would." It still brings tears.
Afterward, we went out to a nice dinner at a Japanese restaurant, one of those places where the chef cooks at the table while juggling the food, the knives and anything else he can get his hands on. The highlights included embarassing the boys by having the waitstaff parade around singing "Happy Birthday" with the maitre d' leading them wearing a dragon head, and listening to my father-in-law, speaking loudly and slowly, trying to order a Beefeater martini on the rocks from a waiter who barely spoke English. I have no idea what he ended up getting, but it didn't look much like a martini.
Now, those two little babies - the ones we once struggled to get two-ounce bottles of formula into and who now take down small mountains of pizza, mac-and-cheese, and all the other basic teenage food groups - prepare to go off on their own and make their way in a brave new world of responsibility and independence. (I speak, of course, about them going to their first Bon Jovi concert, though I suppose college is kind of a big deal too.) The pride, fulfillment, and faith I'm feeling in the future of the world are more than I have words to express. It will be an adjustment for us in September when they're living on campus, I think more so for a father who generally doesn't get to spend as much time with them over the years as a mother does. I'm hoping to keep my mind off the sudden quiet by keeping busy with household projects like converting their room into a hot tub.
I've often fretted for the future of the world, especially now that our president has declared the new Russian president is a "smart man who understands the issues," thereby giving the Russians two big advantages over us. The men and women of the Class of 2008 really do leave me hopeful for the slowing down of the descent of this handbasket we're in. In particular, I've enjoyed reading the quotes some of the graduates selected for their yearbook to memorialize where they feel they are at this touchstone moment. As one of the students quoted J.K. Rowling, "It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." From the Class of 2008 come these fine selections:
"Never make someone a priority when all you are is their option."
"In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: surely God has appointed the one as well as the other." (Ecclesiastes 7:14)
"Ask me about my vow of silence."
"Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards."
"I do not fear a man who has practiced 10,000 kicks only once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. (Bruce Lee)"
"To love is to risk not being loved in return, but risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing at all." (Leo Buscaglia)
"The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese."
"He attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it was often difficult to tell which was which." (Douglas Adams)
"Being uncomfortable is one of the secrets of the universe."
Take heart, dear readers. I've seen the future, and it's looking up. On the left, the future at 9 years old. On the right, at 18 years, as well as the past or present or something at an age we won't discuss...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Brilliant Anarchy

The world is now down two great thinkers and, let's face it folks, there weren't that many to start with.

Tim Russert and George Carlin present an interesting study in contrasts. Russert got us thinking by learning his subject's points of view and then taking the opposite position with a flow that was totally natural. He could move seamlessly from right to left and visit everywhere in between, all with an unassuming enthusiasm that often belied his questions' underlying toughness.

George Carlin never varied his position for the situation. Liberal anger and combative nonconformity were the swords he handled deftly. Mercilessly, too. No attitude or institution was safe. I didn't always agree with what he had to say - part of me wants to say I rarely did - and he frequently made me very uncomfortable and wanting to speak back to the television or radio. And I am grateful for that. I can't think of a single case in which he changed my mind about something, but he had a genius for making you push your emotions through the filter of your intellect, the way an espresso machine forces water through the coffee under pressure and you end up with something richer and stronger. When George Carlin got on a roll you had no choice but to gel and verbalize ideas you were satisfied with only feeling instinctively before that. It was no longer enough to figure out what you thought; out of self-defense you were driven to figuring out why you thought it. He recognized the irony of instant information becoming a superficial cover-up for an epidemic of unexamined lives, and he would have none of it.

A few years back, when Richard Pryor, another seminal comedian, passed away, some pious friends expressed mild outrage that such a fuss was being made over this comedian known for using crude language. I tried explaining that, well, there was content in between the salty expressions, but was rebuffed with some out-of-context biblical quote about "the word." Regular readers know matters of faith are important to me. That said, I am firm in my belief that you should run, and fast, from people who use expressions like "the word" with a self-satisfied, hands-folded piety that oozes the very divisiveness and hatred they say they're railing against from high atop their sanctimonious pedestals. (Not that I'm bitter about it.) I'd love to hear what they have to say about George Carlin.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Musings at the End of a Father's Day

From the great songwriter Harry Ruby came this:

"Today, father, is Father's Day, and we're giving you a tie.
It's not much, you know. It's just our way of showing you we think you're a regular guy.
You'll say that it was nice of us to bother, but it really was a pleasure to fuss.
For, according to our mother, you're our father. And that's good enough for us."

As one might reasonably expect, I'm thinking of fathers today. My own, of course, missing him much. Thinking good thoughts too for Mary, whose fine journal is one of my favorites, and of this being her first Father's Day without hers. And of other fathers I've observed, and the nature of fatherhood itself. Odd as it may seem, I was reminded of some of this by recent news coverage of a convicted hedge-fund swindler who, on his way to report to prison, parked his car on a bridge with a suicide reference written on the hood . No body has been found yet, and I'm fairly certain that when authorities do find it the heart will be beating and the body temperature will be something like 98.6 F.

Why does this remind me of fatherhood? It starts with my having the peculiar distinction of having known, or at least having been acquainted with, a man who spent nearly two years in the mid-1980's as No. 1 on the Federal Marshall's Most Wanted list. No joke. Multiple journal entries could be devoted in their entireties to his adventures/misadventures. For now it will do that while he was awaiting sentencing for taking about
$2.2 million from a Teamsters pension fund (remember, back then that was a lot of money), the news reported he had disappeared in a scuba-diving "accident" and was presumably killed. Now, the reaction you'd have if you heard most people you know were killed in a diving accident would be something like, "Wow. That, really terrible. How sad." In this case, my reaction - and that of most people to whom I spoke who also knew him - was "Yeah. Right." He was eventually found - tan, smiling, and running a chain of successful scuba-gear stores on the appropriately named Maldive Islands. (I suppose if a guy is dumb enough to steal from the Teamsters, he's dumb enough to live a conspicuous life while on thelam.) After his capture, I was struck by a newspaper article's mention of the love and loyalty his daughter, a lovely kid I knew while in high school, continued to demonstrate. I know she had to feel great hurt and shame, and yet - he was her dad. This was more than 20 years ago, and I still think about that. Not so much in terms of him, but in terms of her.

More fatherhood stuff, oddly timed too. In my office there's a bookshelf where people bring books they've finished reading so other people can borrow them. This past Friday, I saw someone had brought in Tim Russert's "Big Russ and Me," a book I'd been wanting to read about his relationship with and admiration for his father. When it was time to leave I picked up the book to put it in my bag, and stopped to read the forward. Thinking about my own father, I teared up a little at Russert's account of accepting an award at the American Legion in Buffalo, and calling his father up to give it to him instead in thanks for the values and courage he and this room full of old soldiers have lived and given us. Suitably moved, I left the office, and on the ride down in the elevator saw the item on the video screen about Russert's sudden passing at 58.

At Last I Understand

This started with song lyrics. Here are some more to finish. (I'm providing a link since the lyrics are under copyright.) They're from Bobby Russell, whose better known lyrics include "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," "Little Green Apples," and the inexplicably successful "Honey." These are from "Saturday Morning Confusion," one of those songs - "Is That All There Is" and "It Was a Very Good Year" being two others that come to mind - that you really don't understand till you get a whole bunch of years under your belt. Fatherhood in a nutshell...

And this to close...

A few weeks ago we were pulling out of the church parking lot after the service and were trying to decide where to go for lunch. My sons wanted Taco Bell.

Me: Did you bring your driver's licenses with you?
Them: No.
Me: Then we can't go to Taco Bell.
Them: Why not?
Me: Because if I eat at Taco Bell I'll keel over and die, and without your licenses you'd have no way to get home.
Them: You mean if we'd brought our licenses we could have gone to Taco Bell?

Happy Father's Day, everyone.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Learning By Trowel and Error

Finally, and with about three weeks advance planning, this past three-day Memorial Day weekend provided a  great opportunity for relaxation and recreation. Or it would have, if I hadn't had a backyard makeover project that's been in a state of partial completion for about three years. The yard had not been touched since the end of the last growing season, so that alone tells you something about what kind of shape it was in as we entered the weekend.

Some background to clarify. About three years ago my all-concrete back yard had deteriorated to the point at which anyone going back there risked serious bodily injury. More importantly, they might sue me. Even in those cheap-oil days, the cost of concrete had skyrocketed to where the cost of repaving the entire yard was far beyond the budget, assuming (incorrectly) that there was a budget. Since I'd been gardening for years in planters, we decided to save on concrete - and, for that matter, planters - by repaving only about half the yard and keeping the rest exposed so I could remake it into an in-ground garden in all that spare time I have. In the ensuing three years, I learned some valuable lessons:

Lesson 1. Hand-digging the heavy clay soil found in this part of New Jersey is a bear.

Lesson 2. Lesson 1 is not helped by the presence of large, heavy rocks and construction debris left behind by the guys who built the house about 60 years ago. (They've probably gone on to that great construction project in the sky by now. My heartfelt wish is that they spend eternity laying in heavy clay soil with large rocks and construction debris.)

Lesson 3. Placing, one-by-one, a pallet and a half of stone pavers so they form a level network of walking paths throughout the garden is a really big bear.

Lesson 4. After said pavers have been placed, sweep sand into the cracks immediately. If you wait, oh, say, 3 years, weeds and grass grow between them with roots that extend down to around the earth's molten center. Pulling them out is an absolutely enormous bear.

Lesson 5. Hauling half a pallet of 80 pound bags of soil (or, as we call it in Jersey, "dirt") is no big deal for a tall strong guy who over the years has made sure he kept himself in shape.

Lesson 6: Hauling half a pallet of 80 pounds bags of soil is quite a big deal for a short, skinny middle-aged technocrat whose main form of exercise is pushing a pencil.

After far too long of tellingmyself I was sure going to finish this project "someday," my biological clock had had enough. (Yes, men have those too. Ours have us feeling we have to earn large sums of money or complete manly projects by a certain age.) I entered the three-day weekend with but one goal: finish the yard. A doctor friend I shared my three-day plan with advised me to get the Advil ready. I consider it a sign of prophetic cosmic approval that as I left to go home for the weekend after work on Friday, the Advil folks decided to hold a promotion and hand out free samples on the street. I got four or five packets, and was ready.

Having been neglected for more than half a year, a good bit of the yard was so overgrown with weeds you might have thought it an abandoned lot. The lawn, or rather the 10' x 18' patch of grass that passes for one, symbolized how the yard looked like an unkempt vagrant badly in need of a haircut. Introducing my two teenagers to the idea that manual labor is not a guy in their Spanish class, we got off to a good start that had the yard looking like a semi-kempt vagrant with a bad haircut in no time.

My boys took immediately to the task of weeding the areas that hadn't been planted last year and that had the most weed growth. Mostly they were enormously entertained by the variety of insect life forms one encounters while digging up old soil. By the time we got to developing the last planting sector I was unable to bear the thought of hauling one more bag of soil or laying one more stone paver. Solution: put up a steel arch-type trellis from a kit, put a hanging basket of something-or-other (petunias I think, but who was paying attention by that point), and mulch the living daylights out of that heavy clay soil.

By the time we ran out of daylight, the only remaining work was the weeding of a portion of the pavers, and some normal-maintenance weeding that actually has nothing to do with the makeover. And oh yeah, I have to find some way of getting rid of all those old planters. With only enough energy left at the end to run a hot bath and open a cold beer, I couldn't help feeling that life was a pretty good place.

Should you be interested, dear readers, here's the progress. The photo on the left is the old planter garden, arranged with great artistry in a 4 x 4 grid that may not seem like much to normal people but that engineers think is beautiful. On the right is the 2008 version. (The grass area is where the planters were in the photo on the left.) Please disregard my neighbor's Mesozoic-era fence that we hope to cover with one of our own some time soon.


Sunday, May 11, 2008


Back in high school, a good friend (who went on to write professionally) wrote a column called "Graffiti" in the school newspaper. It was a collection of short, odds-and-ends items, and I was reminded of that title while gathering the mini-rants below.

Britney's mom must be feeling kind of slighted right now

A mothers organization in Long Island, NY has given Lindsay Lohan's mother a "Top Mom" award. No, really, I'm serious, and so, apparently, are the members of the mothers organization. I'm cheering Lindsay on in her recovery efforts, but let's face it, folks: giving Dina Lohan a mothering award would be as ridiculous as, say, George Bush offering his administration's expertise on responding to a natural disaster. And how dumb would THAT be?

Heck of a job, George

The hearts of any civilized human being have to go out to the people of Myanmar, and everything humanly possible that can be done to help them should be done. That said, am I the only one who finds a cruel irony in our current president offering his administration's expertise for responding to a natural disaster?

Do they still have to attack if he calls it "nucular?"

This past Tuesday morning, the Today Show had a piece where Al Roker got to go into one of the top-secret underground silos from which nuclear attacks would be launched. Roker asked some interesting questions of the dedicated soldiers who - quite literally - have their fingers on the buttons, exploring how they'd feel if a strike were ordered, but forgot to ask this one: are they concerned that the person who could order a nuclear attack is a self-absorbed, morally bankrupt, short-sighted, self-righteous, self-deluding fool who can't handle the complexities of putting a subject and a predicate together to form a sentence?

While on the subject of the president, please join me, dear readers, in offering heartfelt congratulations to his daughter Jenna for her wedding day. And in praying, really hard, that they don't procreate.

Here's looking at you, kid...

Want to know what's wrong with the world? I'll tell you what's wrong with the world. The current issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story about how Robert Kennedy's evolving thoughts on the Viet Nam war influenced his decision to run for president. It's hugely powerful stuff that has enormous relevance today. And does anyone even know the article is there? No, because the same issue has two photos of entertainer Miley Cyrus that are much more important for us to talk and write about.We do it to ourselves, folks.

Iron Chef Freedonia

A couple of weeks ago I had the great experience of seeing Duck Soup, my favorite Marx Brothers movie, on a 50 foot screen at the beautiful old Loews theater here I've written about previously. I couldn't have been the only person there who thought Zeppo had an eerie resemblance to Bobby Flay.

(A semi-unrelated item I couldn't resist sharing: Around the time Duck Soup (which takes place in "Freedonia") first came out, the upstate NY city of Fredonia complained about the use of so similar a name. From Groucho came this response: "Change the name of your town. It's hurting our picture.") 

Gratuitous American Idol Item

So now we learn that a good bit of the the "live" comments given by the judges for each performance are prepared before the show based on rehearsals. Who could have guessed the judging process on that show wasn't completely proper? I certainly don't see anything wrong with people being judged on their ability to stand at a microphone and sing by a panel of people, not one of whom - and I'm including Paula in this - could themselves stand a microphone and sing. Nor is there anything wrong with contests being decided by an uninformed general public voting multiple times in the same election. It's done all the time here in New Jersey.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

New York, New York, a Hell of a Town

Sorry for the time between posts. It's been a whirlwind here, though I can't actually think of anything that's getting done in all the activity. To quote Lewis Carroll, it's taking all the running I can do to stay in the same place.
New York City has been a study in all sorts of human things these past weeks. Michael R. (for "Rich beyond your imagination") Bloomberg, billionaire and NYC mayor, had proposed "congestion pricing," a plan by which drivers would be charged several dollars to enter Manhattan during peak hours. Though it's a city plan, it would require state approval to implement. Despite Bloomberg's extended full court press on the state legislature - or maybe because of it - the state dismissed the plan without so much as putting it up for a vote.
Bloomberg is, overall, a reasonably popular mayor, and we're hearing calls here and there for the two-term limit to be done away with so that he can be elected again. Still, like generals, billionaires enter public office with a disadvantage. They're accustomed to saying, "This is what you are to do," and having people snap to attention and do it. It's a shock when they find out what happens when you say that to people in a more general society.
The big story here, though, has been the Pope's visit. He's making other US stops, but most of his activity centers on New York City. He's visiting abuse victims; speaking to world leaders at the U.N. (if, by "world leader," we mean people whose function is to park illegally with diplomatic immunity and debate whether they will "condemn" or simply "deplore" the latest terrorist attack); speaking with Jewish leaders at a synagogue; conducting masses at St. Patrick's Cathedral and Yankee Stadium (where, at 81, he will be only the third oldest person ever to take the field, after Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina); seeing the World Trade Center site; and just generally being seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of faithful, semi-faithful, and never-heard-of-faithful. It is a time of deep spiritual renewal and enlightenment, after which time we will all go back to being exactly the same as we were before his arrival.
I actually got to see the Pope once, not Benedict but John Paul II, on his first trip to the U.S. in 1979. I was a college student in those days, or at least was attending college, the "student" part being debatable, and his motorcade passed along 8th Street in the village, just a couple of blocks from my school. This was before the assassination attempt, so he was still riding in an open-topped car, with Cardinal Cooke holding an umbrella to fend off the rain. Between the rain and the fact that I was still learning to use the first 35 mm SLR camera I ever owned, the picture below isn't great. Still, it reminds me of how I had at the time no understanding at all that to be that close to the Pope - 30 or 40 feet at most - is nearly unheard of, and is a privilege millions around the world would give much for. Not bad for a Jewish kid.
Unrelated Topic: Nice Buns
I recently finished reading a wonderful book, "How I Learned to Cook," by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan. It's a compilation of early experiences related by a collection of well-known chefs. One of the chapters was from Nancy Silverton, co-founder (and bread expert) of a number of high-level restaurants in California. What she said included this:
"I realized I couldn't think about bread the way I thought about pastry or pasta or any other typical culinary undertaking. Bread is alive. Minor inconsistencies are a fact of life, not a mark of failure. The tiny variation in the loaves from day to day made them unique, not imperfect. And the relationship of a baker to her bread is like any other kind of serious relationship you have with anybody in life. It's never perfect. It takes so much work. And every time you think that you've mastered it, the next day you're brought back to reality and it needs some more work."
I love that.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Conspiracy Conspiracy

A while back my aunt passed away and, while looking up the cemetery on the Internet (location, directions, things like that), I found it has two claims to fame. First, it is the burial place of poet Alan Ginsburg. Second, no less than 141 web sites say it is the place where a man - a "former member of the Israeli Defense Force" who, of course, asked that his name not be used - was taking clippings of English ivy in October, 2000 and says he overheard three men talking, in Hebrew no less. He heard one of the men say, "The Americans will learn what it is to live with terrorists after the planes hit the twins in September."

Wait...this gets better...

When one of the men later asks if the upcoming (November 2000) presidential election will affect the plan, another of them replied, "Don't worry, we have people in high places and no matter who gets elected, they will take care of everything." Oy.

If you saw this on a tv show, you'd probably say "Who writes this garbage?" and change the channel.

I was reminded of this recently by new reports about the RFK assassination claiming new evidence of a multiple-gunman conspiracy. RFK being kind of a hero of mine, if you'll forgive someone my age still using expressions like that, the story caught my eye. Seems some new electronic enhancements of recordings made at the time show more shots fired than at first thought and that proves there was a second gunman and that shows there was a larger conspiracy that was covered up by the official investigation blah-blah zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

RFK assassination conspiracy theories are certainly not new. Reports of a mysterious woman in a polka-dot dress shouting, "We shot him!" came out almost immediately after it happened nearly 40 years ago. Other theories that made it all the way into publication include that Sirhan was hypnotized, that he had amnesia, and that the killing was arranged by Aristotle Onassis so that Kennedy wouldn't interfere with Ari's plan to marry Jacqueline. (Credible reports do suggest RFK would smack you if you referred to his sister-in-law as "Jackie.") Back in pre-Internet days, someone told me that it doesn't matter how ridiculous an idea is; if you can show it was published somewhere it will have instant credibility.

In the RFK case, it's easy to see how these theories started. There were surface inconsistencies: ballistic markings from test-firings of Sirhan's gun differ from those on the bullets that hit RFK; the coroner's report that RFK was hit in the back of the head, whereas Sirhan was standing to his right; two additional bullet holes found a in a door frame pre-maturely destroyed by investigators would have brought the total bullets found to 10. (Sirhan's gun held eight.) And then, of course, there's the woman in the polka dot dress. The manner in which the LAPD and District Attorney's office responded with secrecy and bureaucracy only added fuel.

Valid questions to ask, but they've been answered, and years ago at that, by people who didn't jump to conclusions. Ballistics differed because of barrel fouling caused by repeated test firings by investigators. (Ballistics of the first few test shots, before the fouling occurred, reportedly were a match for the three victim bullets.) The two unaccounted-for holes in the door frame were found to be too small to have been made by bullets. Analysis shows that shows RFK turned to his left just as the shots were fired, so that a bullet from the right would have entered the back of his head. Eyewitnesses do confirm there were at least two women in polka dots that night, but the campaign staffer who made the claim one of them was involved later failed a polygraph test and recanted. One of the "polka dot" women did say she ran from the room shouting, "he's been shot!"

For the human race to regularly put out hasty, nonsensical theories seems inconsistent with its mind-boggling history of technical, artistic, social and intellectual accomplishments. We've put men on the moon. (Wait...maybe that's not a good example.) In any event, something doesn't add up. Somebody - my guess is the government - is covering something up, and I'm going to find out what. I'll check some published materials and the Internet and get back to you.

Unrelated Item 1: Have It Your Way (Assuming by "you" is meant "Stephen King")

Is it just me, or is that rubber-masked Burger King character on the tv commercials really scary looking in a serious way?

Monday, March 17, 2008

"May You Live In Interesting Times"

It's St. Patrick's Day, when the world takes a moment from a hectic schedule to acknowledge the rich history and culture of Ireland and its proud people, and reduce them to green bagels, green paper hats, green beer and cardboard leprechauns. But I digress.
The last few days at work have been interesting, to say the least.

I suppose that sounds like the entries in countless other journals. Ho hum, why should anyone really care? Ok, so let me start this over again.

The last few days at my job working for the New York State government - yes, that New York State government - have been interesting, to say the least. The somewhat tumultuous times we were experiencing anyway took a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up turn last week when governor no. 54 became client no. 9.

It's not that this will affect my job directly - I'm way too low on the food chain for that. But with a new governor often comes new management for state agencies. And while they have no idea I exist, they do appoint people who promote people who designate people who, in some cases, have seen my name on an e-mail somewhere.  A change in top leadership can create turmoil under the most stable conditions. In recent months our agency has been seeing rapid organizational changes anyway, with more promised to come, and so a top-management change now would be turmoil squared. I've decided to take a wait-and-see approach, primarily because I'll be damned if I can think of any other idea.

Fortunately, events have wasted no time taking absurdity to heights Bill-and-Monica never got close to achieving. I don't want the state's economy being presided over by someone who thinks $4000 for two hours of his, um, special friend working under him (literally, in this case) is a good deal. (Some newspaper accounts of the recorded telephone conversations have reported this amount was agreed to after some haggling by the then-governor.) There's more absurdity in that the man who, as a hard line prosecutor, used wiretaps and monitored bank transactions to indict other people got caught by means guessed it...wiretaps and monitored bank transactions. Moral and legal issues not withstanding, the - sorry, I have to use the word - stupidity of that is stunning.

I think my favorite absurdity came earlier this week. It seems Ashley Dupre, the mistress in question, had some R-rated photos on her Facebook page and got upset when newspapers covering the story published them. Do you remember that old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you're an orphan? With the new century seems to have come a new definition: posting pictures of yourself on the Internet and then taking legal action against someone because you consider the pictures private. I love this stuff.

One of the saddest spectacles has been the now-former governor parading his wife out to stand next to him while he makes his various public confessions. This has been widely - and, I believe, appropriately - criticized. Her efforts not to look completely mortified are gallant but unsuccessful. It's hard to know what he's thinking having her do that, except perhaps that as long as they're in a public place she can't disembowel him. If that's the case, it might be the most common sense he's shown in this whole episode.
Unrelated Item 1: Heather in the Sky with Diamonds. Large, Expensive Diamonds.
With the American economy currently in an extended downturn (in economist terminology, it "sucks") I'm seriously considering flying to England and seeing if I can get Paul McCartney to marry me for a few months. I'll keep you all posted on my progress.
Unrelated Item 2: With Special Guest Appearance By...
It's looking like the latest fashion in Washington is making "unannounced" visits to Iraq. Every week it seems the "Survivor: Baghdad" show features a different surprise guest doing essential fact finding, as if facts ever had anything to do with our engagement there. And, ok, while we're here, I suppose there's no harm in having our picture sent back home looking iconic and statesmanlike while meeting with the troops or with local officials.
Unrelated Item 3: Memories are Made of This
I don't think Dean Martin will ever get the full credit he deserved as one of the most superbly well-rounded entertainers of our lifetimes. Just thought I'd mention that. 

Saturday, March 8, 2008

March Forth

I just read a friend's blog entry about traveling as part of a group to Albany, NY to lobby the state government there about cultural funding issues. It reminded me of getting to march on Washington on a couple of occasions, lots of years ago, once during Bush XLI (I love that we number our presidents like Superbowls.) and once during the Clinton administration. These marches concerned housing issues, something I was active in at that time. (It was a period when I had time for political activity beyond turning off the radio whenever Bush starts to speak and saying, "oh, shut the hell up already.")
The trips, about five hours each direction from where I live, were made on a packed school bus, the seats in which were too small for us even when we were kids with much smaller seats ourselves. My travel-mates were strangers, but like-minded ones, so the trips were pleasant enough. For some reason, I remember one trip in which the adults had brought a lot of big signs about the importance of saying no to drugs. This was fine until we made a rest-stop half way down and we all made a run to the coffee stand that would have put to shame a bus-load of desperate opium addicts parking in a poppy field. (The other irony is that I'm drawing tokes myself from a now-cold-but-I-don't-care-just-give-me-the-damn-coffee cup as I write these words. But I'm not an addict. I'm a joy sipper. I can stop any time I want to. I just don't want to, that's all.)  
It was energizing, this idea of being one of countless thousands marching through the streets of this powerful place, and gathering within sight of the Capitol Building to hear important speakers. Coretta Scott King was one. Richie Havens sang. So did Rita Coolidge. Others as well.
The first march, large though it was, got relegated to the minor media coverage heap when Bette Davis died the same day and got our front page. (For the record, I don't blame Ms. Davis for this and, in fact, am pretty sure she wasn't any happier about it than we were.) The second time we scored a little better. I really wouldn't mind doing it again sometime.
Another Political Item
One of the hazards of not writing entries more often is that the ones that do get written are overburdened with topics. Bear with me please, dear readers, on some political analysis absolutely no one asked for.
On the Republican side, we now know John McCain is in. I guess even Mike Huckabee saw his prospects were dwindling as we had primaries in more and more states where people wear shoes and don't marry their sisters. His pulling out of the campaign reminded me somewhat of those tv-shows where someone tells his boss, "You can't fire me, I quit!" The man was trailing in delegates to Mitt Romney, who stopped running weeks ago, for crying out loud.
I like McCain, and although my disagreement with him on certain issues makes it impossible for me to vote for him, he has more of my respect than all of the other candidates combined. At the same time, if he's to keep his reputation as a guy who talks straight, he's got to stop doing things like campaigning in Texas by calling the Bushes two of the greatest presidents we've ever had. Most Republicans don't even believe that.
And don't you love the politicians who are coming out endorsing McCain now that he's already getting the nomination?
Among the Democrats, it's not surprising this is looking like it will go to the convention without yet being resolved. In policy terms, I don't think there are strong differences between Obama and Clinton, and the Democratic primary system of apportioning delegates in proportion to the popular vote, rather than doing winner-take-all, practically guarantees a photo finish. The real difference between the two candidates is less what they say they want to accomplish, and more about how it looks like they'll go about trying to accomplish it. It's the diplomat vs. the street fighter. Notwithstanding any ads which, as near as I can tell, are saying that you can call Hillary on the telephone at  3:00 am, either approach has some value.
Hillary, now on a first-name basis with the world (like Elvis, Liza, and Yanni) seems almost Shakespearian in her complexity and inner conflicts. It's hard sometimes not to feel there are two Hillaries: the compassionate social leader with the heart and intelligence to lead a nation to great things; and the disingenuous pandering politician who stands out even among other disingenuous pandering politicians. The latter, I fear, too often forms a crust around the former, though both are present at all times.
I also wish she would stop speaking in applause points, raising her voice at pre-determined moments in a kind of verbal "applause-please" pose that does nothing to dispel the image many have of her as insincere. It's painful to watch. The great speakers don't do that, and never did. They just speak, knowing that if what they're saying warrants it, the applause will come.
Regarding Obama, the oft-heard criticism is that his campaign has achieved cult status. That he speaks well and gets people excited is somehow framed as a liability. But read any book about leadership, and you'll see that the ability to get people excited about what they're doing is among the greatest qualities anyone in a position of leadership can possess.
Finally, I have to ask...why is it Stephen Colbert was told he couldn't run for president because his was not a serious candidacy, but now Ralph Nader can? Is a campaign centered on astute political humor really less valuable than one based on vanity?
Sort of Political Item, But Not Really
I meant to write sooner about the passing of William Buckley. It would be hard to find someone from whom I differ more politically. And yet he was someone whose writing I admired greatly. Regardless of whether one agreed with Buckley's content, his skill at creating sentences of mind-bogglingly complex structure and yet making them understandable was unequalled. The man juggled subordinate clauses that had subordinate clauses and managed to keep them all in the air, never dropping one. I think of him as one of two must-read-for-their-styles writers, Peggy Noonan for her gorgeous prose being the other.