Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“Auld Lang Syne” Revisited

A night when old and new become indiscernible is a cause for celebration. 

The modern young in sequined gown or cummerbund and tails know this and faithfully obey.  They spare no expense for guests as well as for themselves.  Occasionally they may survey the large ballroom or intimate living room with its streamers and balloons and noise makers and favors, and smile.  They then merge into the flowing moment and cheer with the feeling of accomplishment and success from all that has been done over the course of an hour, a day, a season, a passing year, a passing lifetime and the hope or what still lies ahead.

At some point in that evening when the fabric of time cuts through us like the glint and glitter of that sequined gown, someone will inevitably break into song:  “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And never brought to min’?/ Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And days o’ lang syne?”  The song was written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns over 200 years ago.  Burns was known to be quite addicted to excesses at social events, which offers us a better understanding to the glass clinking tune.

A pleasant ditty to be sure and barely tolerable for the umpteen renderings within the twenty-four hour period known as New Year and I hesitate to entertain one more.  However, very few people have ever heard the song in its entirety and, for that matter, know what in the world it means. 

Here to follow then is a modern translation from the Scottish and a somewhat liberal interpretation of the New Year’s Eve perennial, “Auld Lang Syne.”  Please note:  the lines in quotations ought to be read aloud in the deepest Scottish accent you can muster.  The other lines should to be read aloud like Regis Filbin or Rosie O’Donnell.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to min’?”
Hey!  Great to see you.  It’s been way too long, you know.  What was it again we had that fight about?  Shouldn’t we all just forget about those things that have happened between us in the past?  Wasn’t it something about a G.I. Joe?
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days o’ lang syne?”
Shouldn’t we all just forget about things we said long ago?  To forgive is to forget, right?

(chorus) “For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne,”
Come on, let’s let bygones be bygones for old time sake, I mean, let’s be reasonable.  Your eyebrows grew back, didn’t they?
“We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne!”
Look, let me make you a drink.  Really.  This time I promise, no flaming Grand Marnier.

“We twa hae run about the braes, And pu’d the gowans fine,”
Hey, remember when we were kids and got into your mom’s room wearing her gowns around our necks jumping up and down screaming “I’m Batman,” and using her bras as parachutes for our collection of G.I. Joes as we flung them all out of the second floor window and watched them soar. 
“But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot, Sin’ auld lang syne.”
But we’ve grown and matured and have come a long way since those days of long ago.  But I’ve still got my G.I. Joe in near mint condition except for that foot that busted when you threw him off the porch screaming, “High Dive!”

“We twa hae paid’t i’ the burn, Frae morning sun till dine:”
Do you know how much money I could have been paid for a G.I. Joe in mint condition?
 “But seas between us braid hae roar’d, Sin’ auld lang syne.”
A lot of water under the bridge since those days when you did the following to me listed here in no particular order:  sat on my lunch box, connected my chicken pox, squashed my ham and cheese, pelted my head with peas, pushed me in the girls room, sprayed me with cheap perfume, referred to me as a so-and-so, ate my last pistachio.

“And here’s a hand my trusty fiere, And gies a hand o’ thine,”
So, put ‘er there, pal.  All’s forgotten.  Now how about a nice flaming Grand Marnier?
“And we’ll tak a right guid willie waught, For auld lang syne!”
Whoa!  Hold it a minute.  Who you calling a willie waught, you rotten son of a…

“And surely ye’ll be your pint stoup, And surely I’ll be mine;”
Fine!  Ya ingrate.  Take your stupid pint and go your way no more will I impose.
“And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.”
I’ll take this cup o’ kindness yet and stick it up your nose.

(chorus) “For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne,”
For old time sake, Bud, I think we’ll come to blows.
‘We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne!”
I’ll take this cup o’ kindness yet and stick it up your nose.

Remember, a new year is a fresh start, an opportunity to start anew all the excuses we’ll be using when the holiday season finds us once again scrambling for rationalizations and running for cover. 

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

True Confessions of a Fruitcake Convert

Here's a holiday piece that I resuscitated.  It appeared in a slightly different form in the Christian Science Monitor in December, 2003.  Long live the fruitcake!

I used to be one of those people - the kind of person who repeatedly dusted off old jokes from that guy who preceded Jay Leno -- the first time -- on the "Tonight Show," chortling and pointing at stacks of fruitcake tins in the grocery store, ridiculing anyone who would actually admit to ingesting one.

Ten years ago, I would have applauded the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority's recent ban on fruitcake in the interest of safety - fruitcakes are so dense they could hide not just a knife, but an entire kitchen drawer full of cutlery. I would have quipped that humanity had long known about other fruitcake-related risks such as chipped teeth, broken toes, and severed friendships.

But all that has changed. I have eaten my words.

Ten years ago, my wife announced one December morning that she wanted to make that cumbrous Christmas classic. Ignoring my litany of one-liners (one doesn't make fruitcake, darling, one mines it), she told me that every year her grandmother, an English immigrant, made traditional Victorian Christmas "goodies" that included plum pudding, figgy pudding, mincemeat pies, and fruitcake.

She confessed having fruitcake in the house every yuletide and actually enjoying it. My wife described the cake her grandmother made in terms I had never fully associated with the dessert before: spicy, sweet, nutty, and fruity. Alas, her grandmother, who measured ingredients by the palm of her hand and the arc of the pour, never wrote down any recipes. And ever since her grandmother's passing, my wife had been feeling a holiday culinary void. Thus began her quest for the perfect recipe.

She researched and gathered recipes from books, magazines, websites, and newspapers. Then came the experiments. With the somber seriousness of biochemist, she tested this recipe and that recipe, taking ingredients from some and adding to others.

As she performed her empirical lab work, I reviewed some of her findings. Roman soldiers apparently carried cakes made of raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds mixed in a barley mash (tasty). Some food scholars dated fruitcake all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who considered it essential sustenance for the dead in the next life (hardly surprising).

"Hey, honey," I called from the dining room, "now I know how the pyramids have lasted thousands of years." A green candied maraschino projectile sailed from the kitchen in response.

But one night a few weeks later, while I was engrossed in the evening news, my wife entered the living room and handed me a round, deep brown cake. The top had a glossy sheen and was decorated with colorful bubbles of candied red and green cherries. It was weighty.

She handed me a knife and tentatively, I cut a slice. The knife passed through without effort. I took a bite. And then another. Before I knew it, I was helping myself to another piece. Some may say that it was the systematic deadening of my taste buds from unremitting subjections to one failed experiment after another, while others may argue it was simply fatigue, but the fruitcake tasted good. In fact, it was delicious. It was moist and chewy and laden with spice that lifted the corners of my mouth into an unavoidable smile. She had done it.

Ever since, I have been an advocate, eagerly explaining to unbelievers that fruitcakes are sort of like people: Some are dry and dense while others are packed with fruit and spice. And some just need a little extra holiday care to help them turn out just right.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Holly Jolly Holiday Final

This time of year always reminds me of that great feeling of finishing that last fall semester final.  Regardless of the outcome, the cessation of academic stress is gratefully replaced by the sensation of holiday stress and a few weeks of time found.

I’m thinking about finals because I’ve just heard on the radio Burl Ives’ rendition of “Holly Jolly Christmas."  Whenever I hear that song, I cannot help but think about my biology final at Atlantic Cape Community College in southern New Jersey because the professor looked just like Burl Ives, though, to tell the truth, he resembled more the snowman on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I dreaded my biology final.  Every time I’d try to study for it, I would easily find more a more pressing activity like cutting my toenails.  It wasn’t that I disliked the course; I just wasn’t into it.  What made it even worse for me was the professor seemed to take the approach that everyone in the class was destined for a career in medicine or some sort of scientific hodge-podge which couldn’t have been further from my own aspirations.  Science has never been a favorite subject of mine.  I would much rather dissect fiction than frogs. 

The morning of my biology final I woke up with a high fever.  I had two finals scheduled for that day:  Psychology of Adolescence/Adulthood and Biology of Our World, and I thought I would have been fine if I could only stop shivering.  I popped a couple of Tylenol and drove to campus.

Midway through my Psych final my chest began burning with every inhale, I struggled to hold back coughs, and the little dots on the Scan-Tron form started moving around in dizzying swirling patterns.  I randomly filled in the last five questions to put an end to the misery.  But I still had a second exam in a half an hour.  When I broke into uncontrollable fits of coughing, I realized I had little choice.

I walked into my professor’s office and explained to him my situation.  Keeping to the other side of his desk, he jotted down his home phone number and told me to call him as soon as I felt better.

Four days later, two days before Christmas, I called him expecting to schedule a make-up exam for sometime during the first week of the spring semester.  Instead he asked me what I was doing that afternoon and gave me directions to his home.

At his front door, I held out a doctor’s note, written evidence of my bronchitis, but he only smiled, bid me entrance and led me into his kitchen.  The house was decorated for the holiday for both sight and smell.  Hints of cinnamon and nutmeg lingered about boughs of garland, laurel and holly.

The professor offered me a seat at the table and asked if I liked mulled cider.  I confessed that I had never tasted it.  Cider was only served cold in my house, I told him.  He smiled again, walked over to the counter and lifted the lid off of a crock-pot.  What I had taken for a scented candle when I entered the house was actually the aroma emanating from this potion.  He placed an oversized coffee mug in front of me and then handed me a stapled packet of papers.  Enjoy, he said and then left the room.

I reached maybe the third question when his wife walked into the kitchen, placed a plate of holiday cookies and some napkins on the table, said she had some last minute shopping to do, wished me luck, and left the room.  For the next hour and a half I worked on the exam interrupted only once when my professor refilled my cup and told me to help myself to more if I so desired.

When I was done, I took my test into his living room.  The professor was sitting in an easy chair reading a book next to a Franklin Stove with doors ajar enough to show a glowing flame.  The whole scene seemed almost too cliché to me, and yet there it was. 

I thanked my professor for his trouble.  He insisted that it was his pleasure, and he wished me a merry Christmas. 

On my drive home “Holly Jolly Christmas” came on the radio. 

Maybe it was the fact that what I presumed as a stogy science professor treated an undergrad in a gen-ed class with empathy and genuine kindness that had made a life-long impression on me, or maybe it was the image of the snowman that told me the story of Rudolph every year of my life sipping a mug of mulled cider, nibbling on a Christmas cookie and grading my exam because without any degree of certainty, I couldn’t name one thing that was on that test. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Let's Blame TV...Again!

And once again, our beloved TV is under attack..

Health experts are stating that television influences what, where and how much children eat showing a direct correlation between television viewing and obesity. A California study said that a quarter of a child’s total food intake occurs in front of the TV, while another study claims a direct connection between the number of commercials advertising unhealthy foods a child views and the child’s weight.

Come on.  Obesity is now TV’s fault?  Weren’t there any fat little kids before television?  What about the Little Rascals character Spanky?  He certainly tilted the scales on the jolly side.

Haven’t we already blamed child violence, disrespectful attitudes, failing grades, illiteracy and a multitude of various domestic disturbances – especially during football season – on television? 

Is there nothing we can’t blame on good ol’ television?

Why not road rage?  Besides being inspired by examples of the violent highway phenomenon on the evening news, being stuck in traffic while hurrying home to see a specific show on TV will rile up the dander of the most passive driver.

All crime could be televisions fault as well.  What could be more rousing to the aspiring criminal than a slick bank robbery, a cool chase, and a mutual respect between robbers and cops as seen on TV?

Stupidity itself, if not wholly television’s fault, could easily be correlated to the amount of television viewing from the simplest, a dumbest, childish stunt on a skateboard to corporate abracadabra.  One interesting study could be how many hours big bank executives watched Dallas and Dynasty during the Eighties.  It’s surprising that greed was listed in the top seven most deadly sins before television.  How could everyone have known about it without seeing it on TV?

It is obvious to me that television, like lawyers in the Eighties and disco in the Seventies, has become the scapegoat of our time.

But where are her defenders?  Where are all those who were raised on television?  Have they abandoned her when she needs them the most?

Lest we forget that she has always been there for us.  When we were learning how to count and to say our ABC’s, who was there to sing them to us?  When we had nothing to do on Saturday mornings, who was there to animate our day?  When we were feeling sad, who made us laugh with the likes of Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Tony Danza and Tom Hanks wearing a dress?  When we were feeling unloved, who gave us hope with the Love Boat?  When our lives seem dull, who gave us Fantasy Island?  When we needed good, wholesome fatherly advice, who gave us Mike Brady?  When we needed to learn how to be cool, who gave us the Fonz?  When we were never cool, who gave us Square Pegs to tell us it was okay?  When girls were supposed to live at home until marriage, who showed us the way with Laverne and Shirley?  When we would do something embarrassingly dumb, who gave us Seinfeld to show us how to laugh at ourselves?  When we would feel guilt for tinges of prejudice in our jokes, who was it that gave us Archie Bunker to show us just how funny bigotry is.

Who did all this for us?  Television, that’s who.

She needs us now more than ever.  We must rally to her defense.  We must show her support by taking responsibility for our own actions, for allowing our children to watch television unsupervised for hours upon hours.  You can’t blame the cigarette for emphysema, the drink for alcoholism, the gun for murder, right?  So you can’t blame television for anything but fine, loving companionship.

We don’t need anyone to tell us about our television.  Remember, how it felt when we were too sick to go to school but not to sick to watch TV.  Remember how we’d watch the Price Is Right and how we knew that a box of Rice-A-Roni (that San Francisco Treat) was less expensive than a box of Bisquick because we always had to go grocery shopping with our mothers on Saturday mornings.  Mmmm.  Rice-A-Roni. That reminds me, I am getting a little hungry.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Future

I am sitting watching the six o’clock news while my youngest son plays on the floor in front of the TV.

Yet another story comes on about some towns and cities across the nation referring to Christmas trees as Holiday trees.  I look at my son and wonder how far all this will go.  I think about how it will be when he’s in his golden years; I imagine ghosts of Christmas future:  an aged grandfather and a bright little boy:

“Will you tell me about what Winter Holiday was like when you were a little boy?”

“Sure.  Come here and sit by me.  Way back in the early part of this century, things were very different from the way they are today.  First of all, when I was small, the holiday was still called Christmas and, even though there were many people trying to bleach Christmas out of our social fabric, the holiday was still pretty much widely accepted.”

“You mean people didn’t have to hide in their basements with blackened windows and celebrate in secret?”

“No, not at all.  We’d decorate the house while listening to Christmas carols on the radio.”

“What, did you have to buy a special channel or something?”

“No.  As Christmastime approached, you would just start hearing Christmas songs.  Of course this was back when radio was free.  I remember my father telling me about when television was actually free.  There may have been fewer channels to choose from, I remember him telling me, but with less of a selection came greater quality.”

“Christmas songs on the open airwaves?  Wow.”

“Talk about putting things out there, I remember my father hanging Christmas lights outside on our house. We even had a nativity scene.”

“Outside?  Where everyone could see it?  Wasn’t he afraid of offending a passer-by and being arrested for religious intimidation or even being sued?”

“Back then things like that didn’t happen.  Well, it did, but not to individuals.  Only municipalities were being sued for openly acknowledging Christmas for was it really is.”
“For what it really was?”

“Mmm hmm.  Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.”

“Giggle giggle, giggle.”


“You said a bad word.  Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”

“I appreciate that.  It wasn’t until the late Twenties when even Christmas displays on private property were being outlawed.  There was this idea called tolerance that meant you were supposed to accept and celebrate differences in people.  And that idea seemed to work well unless your own particular difference happened to be in the majority; then it was view upon as politically incorrect and culturally insensitive.  So the tolerance movement became a front for erasing any differences among all people.”

“Mommy says ‘we must oppose the tendency towards selfish departmentalism by which the interests of one’s own unit are looked after to the exclusion of those of others.’”

“Yes, and so did Mao Tsetung.  But I suppose the roots to the change go back to when I was only two years old, right after a huge hurricane called Katrina had hit.  You see, the government realized that private industry could do a better job at providing support services for natural disasters and people in need, so the government began taking over corporations.  It wasn’t too long after that when the Electoral College was dissolved and all elected officials were voted in office by people living in places like Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington.  That’s why we’ve had nothing but democrats in office since 2008.”

“What’s a democrat?”

“Oh, that’s the name of the People’s Party before they changed it, back before people were forbidden to cross boarders of certain towns unless they were driving a particular type of car with a specified mileage and had an x number of passengers, before cameras watched our every move, before the tobacco speakeasies, before keeping Christ in Christmas was considered an inexcusable offense.”

“Aren’t you glad we live in times like these now, Comrade Grandfather.”

“I supposed I’d have to say yes, now wouldn’t I, or you’d report me to Comrade General, wouldn’t you, you little scamp?”

“Oh, Comrade Grandfather, you’re so silly.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

Species of the Black Friday Shopper

Contemporary folklore tells us that Black Friday is so called because it is the day that retail businesses’ books go from being in the red, financial losses, to going into the black, financial profits.  Folklore indeed!  To most of us who tend to fight the ever rising tide of holiday bargain chasers and department store debutants, the black in Black Friday is less representational of glorified booty than it is of impending doom.

It is amazing to see the array of people bustling through a store, ransacking the discount bins leaving behind scraps of torn fabric, plastic wrapping, odd sized garments and the occasional finger or two.  It is these people who make up the species called shopper.  Of course, within this species there are several varieties.  Although these varieties of shoppers exist throughout the year, Black Friday is to the shopper like Groundhog’s Day is to the groundhog that brings our focus to the spices.

Always the first to be observed is the “marathoeous patroni,” or the Black Hole shopper.  This is the person who is waiting for the store doors to open in the morning.  They walk around the store like a depression in the fabric of space and time, that mysterious gravitational pull that sucks money from any and all points surrounding it.  The Black Hole shopper is difficult to see to the inexperienced because they are in the stores so long that they are often mistaken for employees.

Then there is the “upendus displayus,” also known as the Black Beard shopper.  This is the person who is constantly digging through bins like there is buried treasure at the bottom.  If they cannot find the exact item in their choice of size, style, shape or color, they’ll completely disrupt the entire department before being convinced that the store is out of inventory.

Very difficult to see and even more difficult to hear is the “montyous hallus,” or the Black Market shopper.  This shopper thinks every new store is the opportunity for a new deal.  They’ll negotiate everything from a store display to a mannequin’s clothing to a box of tacks with the price tag missing.

It isn’t until the shopper population is at it’s highest when we can spot the dreaded “kicksomeofus behindus,” or, commonly known as the Black Belt shopper.  This is the person who vows to get the popular toy of that particular year, and no one will get in its way.  This shopper can be quite dangerous and it is suggested to just get out of it’s way or you both may end up sitting in the store’s security office.

Of course it is wise for the novice to beware of all these species of shoppers, but the one most feared is the “wantus allofit” or the Black Widow shopper.  She is the deadliest of all shoppers with her bite most venomous.  Indeed it is the innocent mate who bares the brunt of the Black Widow’s sting.  She shops and spends unconcerned for her mate.   Once bitten by the Black Widow shopper spending, illness and severe pain follows.  As the mate waits in the home web, he is unaware that, if he makes the wrong move, the slightest error, the faulty comment, he can and will be eaten alive.

Not to be forgotten are the completely innocent victims of Black Friday:  the children.  Those poor little Santa seekers who are literally drug from store to store, standing in those women's sections where they sell those...things with their moms telling them to hold this for her while she checks the sales flyer, mothers avoiding any toy store or department like the plague, the Black Plague, and the embarrassment caused by being seen with your mom eating at the “cool” mall pizza place will still be a topic of conversation long into therapy sessions for years to come.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I am Merging my Family

Company mergers are nothing new, but I have recently become convinced that merging must be more than a mere mercantile roll in the corporate hay.  There really must be something to this merger thing or industrial giants would never consider it.  So, I figure, if it’s good enough for corporate America, it must be good enough for me.  That’s why I’ve decided it’s time to follow their lead.  I’ve decided to merge my family with the family down the street.

Merging is nothing new to my family.  We’ve already managed to merge the dining room with the living room so breakfast, cartoons, kids and mom may coexist peacefully and the bathroom and the family room must have merged because every time I’m up there, a sudden family run on the plumbing arises.

Now, as to the merger -- first of all, the family down the street has a far larger house, that is, physical plant, than I have.  Their two and a half baths combined with my one will improve employee as well as customer satisfaction by a whopping 250%! 

As one large single-family unit, I can drop my health insurance coverage and accept a generous buy-out check (adding fuel to the tax-your-benefits debate) resulting in an increase of liquid assets while utilizing the family down the street’s insurance more efficiently.  Even though the family down the street’s insurance may not be as good, it’s cheaper.

We will file our taxes jointly giving us a total of seven children and two stay-at-home moms guaranteeing us virtually tax-free status for at least the next 21 years.  That’s better than any old tax moratorium or shelter.

Instead of being a two-car family, we will now boast a fleet of four vehicles which, even though we may never actually need them all, must be a good thing because we’re bigger and have more stuff and can buy car wax by the bulk. 

Of course, as in any merger, there is bound to be a duplication of services that, as difficult as it may be, must be dwelt with.  Although years of devoted, faithful, loyal, productive service have been provided, it is with sincere and deepest regret that, in order to maintain an even greater profit margin, certain family members’ positions must be dissolved.  The position of father will be named by the family with the most assets brought to the table.  A position will be created for the other father with the job title of great uncle visiting from a Midwestern state to be named at a later date.  The position of mother will be maintained by the mothers from both families.  The said mothers will create their own job descriptions.  At first, an early retirement option was proposed for one of the mothers, but after realizing both mothers wanted it, the offer was quickly withdrawn.  Some children may have to be let go.  If there weight as a tax deduction is less than their benefit to the family, they can and will be pink slipped.  Please note that it is not the responsibility of the family to place them elsewhere.  It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been with the family.  They’ve picked up skills.  They’ll land on their feet.  We’ll give them a right jolly letter of recommendation.  Besides, there are plenty of programs out there to retrain them as adorable orphans.

As for any family pets:  any and all will be stored in a warehouse in Piscataway, New Jersey for no longer than five years and, if no use is found for them, they can and will be sold at auction along with any unused furniture, fixture or appliance.  What is not sold at auction will be abandoned.

When we are one large, functioning family, we will begin to eye up other families on the block for hostile takeovers.  Since we can now buy higher, sell lower, work faster and more efficiently; other small families haven’t a chance at survival.  After we’ve acquired the block, we’ll market an aggressive expansion program into the next block and then the next until anti-trust laws stop us or our competition is merely a handful of other larger-than-life families who will work with us to keep everyone’s prices and wages even and “fair.”

As businesses begin to meld into larger and larger institutions, the smaller, middle-of-the-road businesses have less of a chance of success let alone survival.  If this trend continues, society will be split into two classes:  the laboring class and the executive class.  History tells us what happens next.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

They Don't Call It a Number Two for Nothing

Every great society throughout history has had its vulnerabilities.  The Trojans had their horse.  The Romans had their hedonistic excesses.  The Russians had their inequality of classes and the French had all their heavy sauces and thick creamy pastries.  It seems that one of America's vulnerabilities has been under our noses all along, but no one seemed to notice:  the number 2 pencil.

The first writing implement handed to a child is generally the crayon -- that colorful extension of an unbridled imagination and that great waxy smell.  With the crayon the sky can be green, grass can be purple and smiles can be larger than the faces that hold them.  Maybe people would be a little happier if they colored at least once or twice a week.  It's fun.  And don't worry about staying within the lines.  Too many people get hung up on coloring within the lines.  A teacher once told my parents that I had trouble coloring in the lines, but my original artwork was brilliant.

The first pencil most kids use is that thick blue one that makes those wonderfully broad soft lines on green paper with the wide spaces between the lines for big capital letters and numbers.  Suddenly the child's work is grayed a little and the lines within which they colored have become rigid and taught and highly structured so the letter "E" will always and forever have only three lines sticking out of one and not four or five or eight.  This shift from creative openness to unbending lines will, to many, be associated with the pencil.

Without warning the thick blue pencil that felt like something of substance in your hand is ripped away.  The child is told that it is now pass to use big blue.  I have even teachers "actively ignore" kids ridiculing their peers for holding onto the big blue pencil.  Now it is the thin, mousy yellow number two that is introduced.  And like a virus, it grows into the consciousness of society that this by which you will be tried, assessed, judged, measured, quantified, discriminated, condemned.

Thanks to the “No Child Left Behind” act, by third grade the number two pencil is used for the standardized test that will assess little more than the ability of an eight or nine year old to take a test.  It begins the conditioning process that fools our society into believing that standardized tests actually reflect knowledge and predict future academic success.

If it wasn't for the number two pencil, our school curriculums wouldn't be destroyed by being "aligned" to state and national tests.  By changing curriculums to what is being tested sends the message that anything taught that is not covered on the state tests is irrelevant and unimportant. 

If it wasn't for the number two pencil, kids who have vision and drive, but were not lucky enough to live in an affluent area where schools could afford to give them enrichment classes on the tricks to taking standardized tests, could get into better colleges.

If it wasn't for the number two pencil, people could be judged on ability and authentic knowledge and aptitude and not word games and numbers play.

The day I see a standard child is the day I will agree that standardized tests are good for more than just keeping testing services in business, school administrators in excuses and the less fortunate in repression.

The more we rely on the number two, the less likely we will be to find number one.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Coffee Level

­Living in an area where commuting is not only essential to earn a living but also necessary to buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, most frequent drivers have become especially sensitive to road rage. 

To safely survive jaunts about our highways, it is wise to keep more than just a level head.  The poet Seamus Heaney, in his book, “The Spirit Level,” tells his son to run “And tell your mother to try/ To find me a bubble for the spirit level...”  Literally, a spirit level is what the Irish call a carpenter’s level, but what Heaney is referring to is more of a state of mind.  However, if drivers cannot find a “bubble” for their spirit level, then I have another solution:  simply maintain a coffee level.

I like most of my commuter counterparts, drink coffee in the car.  (Please note acceptable substitutions:  tea (green or otherwise), hot cocoa, soda, or any other staining liquid.)  Keeping the coffee at an even keel will act as a good barometer for friendly driving, although it’s imperative for me to have a cup or three prior to departure. Before my first cup, I can barely speak, let alone think straight enough to find my car in the driveway.  Herein lies a paradox:  I need coffee to think straight and I need to think straight to make coffee. 

The other morning, while making coffee, another paradox hit me right in the forehead.  I was reaching up in the cabinet for the stack of filters for the electric drip coffee machine.  Half the stack tumbled and I was plummeted with coffee filters parachuting down looking like an invasion of a tiny army.  After picking up the mess, I tried to separate two filters so I could make the coffee.  The paradox:  It takes the dexterity of a neurosurgeon to pull these things apart and it takes at least a cup and a half of coffee for me to have the dexterity to pick my nose.

No matter whether it’s in a $20 travel mug or a convenience store paper cup, by observing the coffee level, commuters will have no choice but to maintain proper vehicular etiquette.  Sudden moves like merging into a space that couldn’t fit a tricycle or changing lanes without signaling can upset the coffee level. 

Flying past as many cars as possible until the merging lane ends forcing traffic to halt just to let in a car that is now riding on the shoulder of the road instead of merging when there is a space available tips the coffee level of several. 

A gaper, one who stares with mouth wide open, is never good for the coffee level of commuters on the road and those who haven’t even left home yet.  Innocently cutting someone off without the apologetic wave is a serious disruption to the coffee level as is not offering the “thank you” wave after someone has slowed to let a car in.

 Other pointers for maintaining the coffee level:  listen to music, leave talk radio to the unemployed; put in a tape or CD before departure, not doing 68 mph while changing lanes in time to merge; leave the other half of the doughnut on the floor, it’s not the dirt that’s unhealthy; and, for goodness sake, shut off the cell phone, the possible price of the call is just not worth it!

People of the highways, let’s preserve our coffee levels.  Let’s keep our papers free from dirty brown spots.  Let’s have our pants and ties stainless.  Let’s keep our cars free from the smell of old spilled coffee.  Just think, if the smallest spot of coffee on a freshly pressed white shirt is enough to spoil a person’s entire day, imagine what blood can do.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When Alternate Route Becomes Routine

Living in a state where your alternate route needs an alternate route, one must not let a little highway congestion develop into a serious road condition which is easier said than done when studies show that we New Jerseyans sit in traffic for over thirty hours a year. 

Nevertheless, we commuters cherish our alternate routes even when they, too, back up longer than the line at the convenience store when winning lottery amounts are up while all you want is a gallon of milk.  Our alternate routes are so valued in fact that we are scarce to let anyone in on them.  I was once at an early morning meeting that was supposed to start at eight.  As people drifted in around eight-twenty, many looked at me and asked if I had hit the back-up on the highway.  I shrugged my shoulders.  “How did you get around it?”  They asked.  I plastered the dumbest expression I could muster on my face, shrugged again and shook my head because everyone knows that the less people know about an alternate route, the more effective the route.

And then, one morning, for no reason at all, I took my alternate route to work.  There was no accident, no wet roadways, no gaper delays, no on-going construction, no police or fire activity.  In fact, it was moderate to light traffic.  But I exited nonetheless.  When I arrived at work, it was really no sooner or later than when I usually arrived.  And then, the next day, I did it again.  Before I knew it, I was taking my alternate route to work more often than my main route.

Suddenly my commute was a calmer, gentler ride and I started noticing things.

A man in slippers walking his dog and I remembered Tammy, the beagle of my childhood.  I remembered running with her in the back yard when she was only a puppy.  I remembered when I was a senior in high school, gently placing her paralyzed body in a box, wrapped warm with the yellow blanket that she’d had for as long as I could remember, and carrying her into the vet’s office and saying good-bye.

Children waiting for a school bus – the younger ones with enthusiasm in their eyes, the older with sleep in theirs and I remembered picking little purple wildflowers for Miss Lalama, my second grade teacher with whom I was madly in love.  I remembered waiting for the bus for the last time in high school.

A deer nibbling tender sprouts of grass at the edge of the woods and I remembered the woods that we kids once ruled.  The trails, the forts, the make-believe hunting with pop guns.  I remembered going back there later, after my parents had passed away, walking along that path I had known so well, disoriented by its overgrowth, etching it in my mind, knowing that, in all probability, I would never find my way back there again.

A woman in a robe holding a baby, both waving bye-bye to Daddy and all I wanted to do was turn the car around and give my wife and kids one more good-bye hug and kiss.
I also noticed how people behind you react when you actually go twenty-five in a twenty-five miles per hour zone.  Try it sometime.  See just how slow twenty-five can feel.  People swerve across the white lines to see if they can pass, they veer into the shoulder to see if something in front of you is slowing you down.  You can actually read their lips as they yell for you to speed up because no one really goes twenty-five miles an hour anymore.

And right before I was about to give in to the urge to go faster, I noticed a man in a suit sitting on the steps in front of his house, his briefcase on one side and a little boy on the other and I remembered mornings with my dad.  I remembered him putting down his briefcase and picking me up, telling me to be a good boy and he was there with me, next to me and he told me that I was doing the best I could, and that being a father was like commuting to work:  While traffic jams were inevitable, there were always ways around them.

By taking my alternate route more often than not, now I am slowing down, yet not losing any time.  I am somehow gaining time, and more than that, I am getting some lost time back.  Not a bad way to start a day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Smoking Images, Part 1

Old pictures have a way of stoking smoldering embers into flares of memory.  I was rummaging through a shoebox filled with old pictures.  The pictures weren’t the yellowed-edged, faded color of my childhood; they were the modish black and white of a ring-a-ding-ding couple before they were my parents.

Two pictures stood out for me:  one of my father kneeling in a snow bank with a dog I’d never met, the other of my mother looking like a young Lauren Bacall, lips pursed around a slim cigarette while ribbons of smoke wreathe her head – the laurels of prowess and independence.

Looking at that image of my mother made me wonder about old movies and if actors, actresses and the movie industry could be held as accountable for smoking related illnesses as the tobacco companies have been because of images they create.  Images are powerful and ambiguous and pliable, bending so that they often validate our decisions.

Every night after dinner when I couldn’t have been more than six or seven, my mother and father would lounge on the couch and match a cigarette.  I remember watching them and feeling a little envious.  It was like they were having another desert.  They seemed to enjoy it so thoroughly that with every exhale came the stresses of their day.

They looked so good doing it, too.  They are young in this image, their hair still dark, their faces still smooth, their bodies slender and strong.  They looked like the commercials I longed to be in.  I remember sitting on the floor, just watching them, anxious for the day when I would be allowed to smoke.

When no one was looking, I once took two cigarettes from my dad’s pack.  My best friend Chuck and I ran down into the woods and lit up.  The menthol taste was so offensive to us that we could not get beyond a few puffs.  “Let’s try my dad’s,” Chuck suggested, and he pulled out two regular cigarettes.  “Mmmmm.  Now that’s a cigarette,” I said like a seasoned connoisseur.  

Chuck and I continued sneaking cigarettes from his dad as often as possible.  We even, upon occasion, bought our own packs.  Since both our fathers used to send us to the store to pick up a pack of cigarettes for them like our moms would send us for a loaf of bread, it was easy and there were no questions asked.

When I was in sixth grade, my mother stopped smoking.  She told my brothers and me that it was bad for you.  “But Dad smokes,” we said.  It’s bad for him too, she said. I never remember seeing my mother with a cigarette in her hand again.

My father continued smoking – one to two packs a day.  Chuck and I continued our smoking as well.  It had such delicious adult flavor and smooth social significance in the world of bubblegum and skinned knee, it would have been senseless to stop.  I continued smoking off and on from about the fifth grade through college.

When my father died of bladder cancer at 56, it was clear that his smoking was a direct cause of his early demise.  The nicotine concentrates in the bladder, the doctors explained, bathing it with the richness of cool carcinogens.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Timing is Everything

Timing is everything.

Take my morning commute.  There is a small window of opportunity to make it through traffic in a reasonable amount of time.  Five minutes one way or the other can make all the difference between a twenty-five minute commute and an hour and a half commute. 

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to being on time even though I take all the precautions of which I know.  I make sure to set the clock on my nightstand ahead by twelve minutes so that when I hit the snooze button, I’m still three minutes ahead of schedule.

If I just hadn’t checked my email before going to work, I probably wouldn’t have had any problems.

The Net was running slow that morning because I was in a hurry.  I had forgotten that the fabric of time is cotton when the weather calls for wool.  I remember back when I had first subscribed to America Online in the early 1990s, whenever I went online, I’d always have a book with me so I’d have something to do while I waited for the pages to load.  If a page loaded in less than five minutes, or one good chapter, whichever came first, I was in good shape.  These days if a search takes longer than zero point two five seconds, I’m having a conniption.  This morning cyber space was sluggish and I was beginning to feel the agitation, the seeds of conniption, fester in my gut.  

After finding nothing but spam, two chain letters from friends who ought to know better, and a couple of daily updates from newspapers, I shut down the computer feeling a little flustered that I had wasted so much time.  However, I was only a few minutes behind schedule – nothing that a gentle five miles-per-hour over the speed limit and a few rolling stops couldn’t resolve.

I hadn’t even made it out the backdoor to embark on my morning commute when the top of my travel mug jostled off and coffee trickled down the front of my light tan khakis.  I took a deep breath and stormed back into the house.

Back up in the bedroom I found I had a choice, I could either change my outfit completely, which would mean standing in front of the closet for eight to ten minutes trying to figure out what shirt matches what pants goes with what necktie while struggling to remember what color socks I had put on, or I could dig into the hamper and pull out my only other pair of light tan khakis that I had worn two days before.

I sat on the edge of the bed weighing my options when I looked down and realized I actually had two different color socks on.  I kid you not, and believe me, this is no Freyism.  Those of us who often get dressed in the dark are accustomed to such things.  Now I had only to decide whether to go with the brown sock or the black one.

Fifteen minutes later I am finally in my car thinking about the maximum amount of speeding with the minimum amount of risk.  If I go just eight or nine miles-per-hour over the speed limit, maybe blow through a couple of yellow lights, I could easily shave off enough time not to be late enough for anyone to really notice.

As I approached my first traffic light, I looked at my watch to check my time only to discover that, in my rush, I had neglected to put it on.  At this point turning around was not an option, so I sought out signs for time.

According to the clock on my dashboard radio, I was about forty-five minutes late for work, only I couldn’t remember how far ahead I had set the time in the first place.  Was it ten minutes?  If so, I was okay.  If it was twenty minutes, then I was in trouble. 

I slowed by a bank and stared at the marquee sign.  Free checking.  APR financing. The car behind me flashed his lights.  Home equity, come on, come on.  Fifty-seven degrees.  I passed the bank and saw the time on the sign through my rearview mirror, but I hadn’t had quite enough coffee make out the reversed numbers.  If only I hadn’t spilled it.

Once at work I realized I really wasn’t all that late, a couple of minutes at best.  I realized that it didn’t matter either, that time wasn’t something to taunt and trick, but something to embrace and enjoy like riches.  I vowed to change my ways, to set my clocks to the one true time, and relax because when you get there, you get there.

I looked at my watchless wrist, hyperventilated, and made a note to set my alarm clock ahead five more minutes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Modern Day's Huck Finn

Modern day’s Huck Finn is rafting across the drainage run-off retention pond.  While ducks bob in the wake of his plastic milk bottles and packaging Styrofoam and cable wire cleverly concocted into a young boy’s seaworthy vessel, a woman from the second floor balcony of the condominiums, frowned upon by the executive single family homes across the street, looks on unseen by the boy and the man with a fishing pole standing on the large concrete pipe which opens to the pond.  Huck pulls and pushes and pulls and pushes himself along with a long, hollow, aluminum rod from which once hung a shower curtain.  Little does he know that with each stroke, the rod bends slightly, weakening, stressing until finally it snaps and the boy is stranded in the center of the pond.

The man recasts with a long, soft whizzzz then kurplunk and cranks his lewer back again.

Unnoticed by the boy or the man, the woman from the second floor balcony, hidden, catches the beauty of the boy and the man and the mallards and drakes and Canadian Snow geese and the pond which is high today because of the rain; she catches the beauty of the pond, of its evolution from mere gravel hole dug by man’s powerful machines, to living, breathing nature; she catches the beauty of the pond and its creator and its symbiotic relationship with the cluster of condominiums and houses – homes – developed and smoothly paved streets with curbs and gutters angled precisely to feed it; she catches the beauty of the pond and its acceptance by the water fowl that no longer fly farther south because nature now provides them enough crumbs of cakes and bits of bread.

Now taking the risk and assured he is close enough to shore, the boy leaps from the raft pushing it back into the center  and over toward the other side, startling the twice collared geese into abrupt flight.  With a splash and a hop, Huck stumbles and stands, raises his hands in victory then strides away, proud of his boyhood accomplishment.

The woman on the balcony must have smiled as she steps inside, closing the sliding glass door, fading beyond the vertical blinds, resigning herself the responsibility of awareness.

The man recasts with a long, soft whizzzz then kurplunk and cranks his lewer back again, neverminding that nothing is there to be caught.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Another Ruin of a Life in Progress

A few weeks ago, as I was taking my family to a corn maze, hayride, and pumpkin picking, we drove past Kessler Memorial Hospital, a small country hospital in Hammonton, NJ, that was closed down a couple of years ago. Seeing this remnant of my childhood jogged loose a memory that had been left crinkled in the bottom of a file tagged “childhood.” 

I was a patient there twice between 1971 and 1972 when I was in second grade. 

I had been experiencing chronic sore throats and ear infections.  So, in the fall of 1971, like many others my age during that era, I had my tonsils taken out.  I also had my adenoids scrapped which back then I likened to falling off my bike and scrapping my knees.  That summer I had tubes put in my ears to help open up the ear canal.  I wished that those two procedures could have been flip-flopped because I wasn’t allowed to go swimming while the tubes were still in my ears.  I remember the doctor telling my mom that I could use ear plugs, but Mom was way too cautious for that, and so I dryly sat on the sandy sideline of summer fun.

Though I know I was at Kessler twice, the experiences have blended themselves into one recollection.  Memory has a way of condensing time.  It’s like having one file drawer that will only fit so many manila folders.  At some point your folders labeled gas and electric are pulled and filed together under utilities.

Days before being admitted, I remember telling people at school about my impending dilemma.  I received encouragement from my teacher, Miss Lalama, who touted the ice cream benefit of the tonsillectomy.  Then there were the condolences from my friends and the “better-you-than-me” looks. 

In the hospital I had a roommate named Tommy who is probably a composite of the two roommates I had with a little bit of the playground set thrown in, and his name may not have even been Tommy, but that’s how I remember him. 

Tommy was having the same procedure I was having.  I remember watching our parents talking to each other at the foot of our beds during most of the time they were there.  There was a large window at the end of the hallway that looked over a lake and further out toward the White Horse Pike.  I stood at that window after my parents left that first night, trying to see their car on the highway.  After watching for a long while, I picked a set of red rear lights that looked like what I thought might be on our car and decided that was Mom and Dad on their way home.  Knowing how my father hated highway driving, they probably took some back road home.

As I stood at the window, a nurse asked me if I wanted to take a ride in a wheelchair.  Sure, I said.  Tommy was also taking this joyride with us, and we both climbed into one wheelchair anticipating the fun.  After rolling through several corridors that all looked alike, we ended in a large room where we were given chest x-rays and had vials of blood taken from us.  This wasn’t a joyride at all.  Tommy and I both felt a little duped.  Later on the nurse asked us again if we wanted to take a ride.  We both declined afraid that she was planning on taking us to some diabolical experiments that would leave us looking like the sons of Frankenstein.

The morning of our surgery, I was awakened when it was still dark outside and given a shot.  The nurse said it was to relax me before I was taken to the operating room.  She gave one to Tommy, too.  Tommy and I didn’t talk much that morning.  I guess we were both lying in our beds that resembled oversized cribs, deep in our own thoughts about the meaning of it all or, more important, what flavor ice cream would be waiting for us in the end.

The shot was making me feel a different kind of drowsy I was used to feeling lying on the floor watching TV.  I asked Tommy if he felt it, too, but he was sound asleep.  I considered surrendering to the feeling, but decided to fight it because I wanted to see what was going to happen.

Soon an orderly came in the room to roll me to the operating room.  He seemed surprised I was still awake.

Once in the operating room I was scooted onto the table.  There was a lot of commotion around me, doctors, nurses, talking in what seemed another language, and certainly not the English I was used to.

A man held what looked to me like an athletic cup up to my face and asked me to count backwards from one hundred.  Not much past ninety-eight, I woke up with a sore throat.  And Mom and Dad were there.

While Kessler Hospital becomes another ruin of a life in progress, like the old neighborhoods and open fields, it’s the remembered stories, true to the teller, simple or severe, that will keep its doors open for generations to come.