Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Burned bucks

July 29th, 2015

BURNTBUCKYesterday, crossing the Slattery bridge over Boston’s Fairmount train line, I noticed this burned U.S. dollar on the sidewalk. Who knows the trivial tale here?

While my first thought was that some young person was showing off lighting a blunt. Yet, as the bill seemed to have been lit in the middle, that’s not likely.

Instead, perhaps someone who’d been drinking or was otherwise high decided it would be fun and funny to burn currency.

Regardless, it brought me to a flashback to a post here five years ago. That deserves a reprise.



abecentSkipping pennies was and remains a teen amusement. Yet when I was in high school a dear friend a little older than my mother wove an entirely different tapestry and forever changed my mind.

She was Evelyn Justice, my biscuit lady. We had known each other from my elementary-school days in Danville, Virginia. She worked for the dentist we used and became a family friend. She was surely the kindest and happiest person I have ever known. We were sad when she and her husband moved to Plainfield, New Jersey.

Jump to high school and my mother moved us to that same city. There, I would walk across a broad park and a few more blocks to her house. She was a master biscuit maker (look and feel; no measuring) and glad to oblige me.

One afternoon though, Evelyn was still upset from what she had experienced walking home. She had been just behind three guys from school — my school. They gouged pennies from their jeans and with one in hand, they took turns skipping it along the sidewalk.

She was aghast and transported to earlier times and distant places. She had grown up in a tiny town in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The region, including her family, was among the hardest of the hardscrabble during the Great Depression. Few had much and no one had anything to spare.

To Evelyn, one U.S. cent, one one-hundredth of a dollar, was real money. A few pennies could make the difference of the family eating OK that week. Every cent was precious. The family coin jar was a shrine.

In Plainfield, nearly four decades later, she was riven by the puerile pleasures of those young men. A penny by itself didn’t count for much to them, so little in fact that they could use them as disposable toys. Those guys did not share in family fears of want and deprivation. They did not save, remake, repair and conserve.

She said that she followed behind them, picking up every penny they threw away. She didn’t care if they thought she was a crazy old lady. She knew what a cent had meant and still meant to her. She didn’t really need a palm of pennies, but she would be damned (a word she never would profane the air with herself) if she would let them literally throw away what had been so powerful to her.

She asked me and I was able to say that I never engaged in skipping pennies. Yet when she asked I realized that it would not have been out of the question for me. I had never been presented with the activity. Plus, I had never been wasteful. I had earned money selling vegetables, being a paperboy, life-guarding, and on and on. I made my own money and quite literally did not throw it on the street.

My mother said that she realized in college that she had been shielded from the Depression. Her father had a full-time job on the B&O Railroad for 48 years, including those when many were unemployed and hopeless. He also grew one or more one-acre vegetable and fruit gardens every summer for fresh and cannable food. He sold Chevys on the side.

He also had a tailor shop and made clothes for the family. That led to a story my mother told on herself. She was always embarrassed to be wearing clothes her father made rather than store-bought dresses, skirts and blouses. She was short but long-waisted and could hardly wait to be fashionable when she was away from home. She rushed with her spending money to buy off the rack and was flabbergasted. Nothing fit. She had lived her life in tailored clothes!

Even so, like many of the WWII generation, raised by those who navigated the Depression for their families, my mother carried that mindset. She taught us as she had been thought — respect objects, whether they be food, clothes or pennies.

So in Plainfield, Evelyn had me tearing up with her. Her tales of how a few pennies might mean subsistence or the rarest of the rare, a treat, brought me beyond my frugality. In our nation of plenty, even in these hard times, we toss much, thinking nothing of what it means to those who have nothing or what it might have meant to other Americans.

You’ll never catch me skipping pennies. That’s a lesson that went from Evelyn to me to my three sons and now to you.

Mysteries of gym locker doors

July 1st, 2015
open gym locker

open gym locker

Two flavors of locker jerks:

  1. Door slammers
  2. Don’t close the door types

At my local Y, about one in three men are one of those two.  At another Boston Y we used to go to, there is a third variety. There, they hand out one small towel per visit. About half the men toss their wet towel near but not in the hamper by the exit door, on the floor, or on a bench.

From my Southern background, I have to wonder who their people are. That is, how were these guys raised that such inconsideration is automatic?

Ridge runner philosophy

I often refer to drugstore psychology. It could ask easily be called lunch counter or barstool instead of drugstore.

For me though, as a youth, I philosophized often in the Romney Rexall drugstore in the small West Virginia town where I spent summers and holidays. Other local sages of various ages did too.

The drug store had a big magazine rack with window seating, a stand-up area near the coffee equipment, and maybe six round glass top tables with cafe chairs between the front and the pharmacy area. The tables each had a locking door under the top, which let employees put impulse-purchase goods, like eyeshadow or hair brushes, on display. It seemed to be good promotion, as girls would have their lime rickeys and buy cosmetics on the way out.

For my friends and me though, the magazine rack was it. We could clearly see and sneak peeks at comics and more sensational fare, like True Detective magazine.

Each group of philosophers solved various problems and mysteries in their own corners.

Locker logic

On occasion, I have said something to the locker slammers, like “Wow, that’s really loud.” I don’t expect that will change their behavior any more than their seeing me quietly close my locker will.

I do often wonder though if they are aware of what they are doing and whether there’s anything other than emotion behind their slamming lockers or leaving them open. For slammers, they are going to trouble to make a display and make noise. They are aware they are startling and annoying others…and don’t seem to care. Those who leave the doors open may be smart enough to know they are leaving sharp edges that can hurt the unalert. At the least, they have to know that someone more considerate and polite will have to close the doors they leave open.

My drugstore psychology has it for each:

Slammers — Simple male insecurity here. My wife verifies that she has never seen or heard a woman slam a locker door. On the men’s side, men often make big movements and loud displays as though they consider those manly. They’ll grunt and bellow when lifting even light weights. Some will make huge noises when tying shoes, like they were delivering a child. Some plop down on benches or chairs with loud exhalation, regardless of how it affects others nearby. They need attention and feign strain from the most ordinary activities. I figure they came from fathers and brothers who also had to prove their manliness with silly displays. Poor them, locked in a cycle of melodrama.

Open Door Types — I peg these as momma’s boys. Their mommies closed their doors and drawers for them. Their mommies picked up their socks and underpants and towels. Likely their wives do that now, as they’d marry someone very much like mommy. They leave the doors open because growing up they found that nothing was too good for mommy’s best boy. He didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want. It’s only right that someone else should clean up after them. They are special. Yawn.

There’s still a drugstore on Main Street in Romney, but it’s a Rite Aid and in a different place. The Rexall is gone. Philosophizing likely takes place in the cafes and little restaurants. Folk wisdom abides.

Pic note: Published under Creative Commons with attribution to middleagedmormon.com. I also enhanced the contrast and cropped the original.

The case of the missing dagger

June 30th, 2015

Well, it’s nothing like the confidentiality or trust that goes with a doctor or priest or lawyer, but I have expectations of mail order. Yes, of mail order.

From the backs of comic books to cereal-box offers to catalogs and now for decades the internet, I order. Things arrive. It’s almost like Christmas, except I’m buying my own presents. I love it.

Now lately with Amazon Prime, my new stuff may arrive in one or two days. Mirabile dictu!

Stabbed by a dagger

Last week, the impossible (or so I’d thought) happened — an envelope came with an empty box inside. Somewhere in the chain of custody, my dirk went missing.

Amazon must not be as inexperienced or naive in the ways of missing mail-order goods as I. They responded in a few minutes to my email complaint. They arranged for UPS to show up the next business day with a label to pick up the envelope. They promised to refund the price as soon as they got the package.

They were better than their word. Shortly after the UPS guy picked up the envelope, they sent email confirmation of the refund. UPS possession was all they needed.

Granted that this was an inexpensive purchase. I would not have suffered financially if I had to eat the cost. Yet this small offense was against the order of things as I have long known them, since I was about 7 years old.

In a previous career, way back, I worked for the original materials-handling magazine. I learned much about manufacturing, warehousing, picking and shipping. With that tedious background, I wondered:

  • Did someone at the warehouse stock an empty box, leading the picker to read the bin and label, choosing a non-product?
  • Did someone at the warehouse lust after a cheap knife and just take one, returning the empty box to the bin?
  • Did someone in the shipping department take the dagger and prepare the envelope for UPS anyway?
  • Why was the envelope not really sealed and not taped or otherwise securely closed?
  • Did the UPS handling cause the loose envelope to disgorge the box, tempting some UPS lackey to take the stabby thing?
  • As the envelope arrived with our #10 mail in the same rubberband, I assume this was a UPS to USPS hand-off. Thus, the previous question goes to the Postal guys.

By Occam’s razor, I’d lean toward UPS pilferage. The vendor is likely blameless, particularly with such a cheap item. There were surely many hands and conveyor belts in the UPS chain of custody. Then there was the pretty much unsealed envelope. I can point to the seller for poor packaging but likely not theft.

Dirty dirk

I should admit that this dagger is to complete my costume. I recently decided to go ahead and spring for a kilt. My eldest son, DIL and even grandson are all kilted. She is very proud of her Scottish heritage.

Of course, the kilt is the least of it. As with the stereotypes of a woman buying a dress, only to need, absolutely need, appropriate dress, shoes, hoses, hat, purse and on and on, so goes the tartan skirt.

I ordered ghillie brogues, from Scotland, as a good mark of frugality, the selection and price was superior to U.S. purchase. I shopped for and bought, frugally, of course, a sporran, a ghillie shirt, kilt socks, and flashes.

Some accessories were flat out for me. You’re not likely to ever see me wearing a tam and certainly not that twee Prince Charles jacket.

I had avoided the affectation of the sgian dubh, the dagger that traditionally goes into one of the socks.Then with everything else in hand, it was, why not?

It turns out there is a good why not. After the failed order and then a reorder last evening, I wondered if my fair commonwealth restricts these. You bet they do.

Massachusetts has one of the tightest set of knife regulation sets around. For example, under our general laws, chapter 269, section 12, you can buy, sell or own virtually any knife. You just can’t carry or wear it. The exceptions are for folding pocket knives like for workmen or fishing sorts, or huge bladed things carried while hunting. Otherwise, the knife has to be locked in a car trunk or box. So there.

My reading of the law is that tucking the traditional sgian dubh is totally illegal, and God help you if you commit any crime and the cops find a knife in your possession. The fines and jail terms compound.

Once burned

I’m known to ridicule Scientologists as once burned, 10,000 times shy. That’s the only justification I can see for their engram fixation and spending all their time and money to go clear. I’m more in the get-back-up-on-the-horse mindset.

Clearly I need to order something today and something else tomorrow. A single purloined geegaw should not alter my self-present purchasing lifestyle.

 

 

Newspaper Withdrawal

May 30th, 2015

From newspaper worshipers and collectors, we suddenly will get only one Sunday and no dailies on our sidewalk. That is big for us and comes as we felt forced into it.

Not long ago, we had three delivered — Boston Globe, all 7 days; New York Times, all 7 days, and Financial Times, all 6 days. We accepted that was too much, particularly when we also got such demanding weeklies as The Nation and New Yorker. We went down to the Globe at 7 days and the Sunday NYT.  Then yesterday, I cancelled the Globe.

The reasons are prosaic. Yet, we grieve. We’ll try the overpriced and hard to navigate facsimile Globe, but I don’t have high hopes of sustaining interest.

We were both newspaper reporters and magazine editors. I came out of J-school. Until macular degeneration blinded my mother at the end of her life, she got multiple papers daily. I grew up reading two or three she had delivered. It was always the local daily (two when we lived next to Manhattan) and the closest best one (like the Washington Post when we were in Virginia).

I offer a 15-minute rant on my disappointment and grief, and what led to this. Click the player below for that.

The short of it is that the greed of the Globe publisher, John Henry, piled on us and broke our will. He exceeded my chokepoint a couple of days ago. There are far better things I can do or buy with $750 a year than make a billionaire richer.

Alternate view

My wife dismissed the latest price hike to $14.34 a week by saying Henry seemed intent on going out of business. That probably is partially true. Globe management clearly likes the online model, publishing with no extra physical and human costs per copy.

Plus they charge top dollar, $3.99 a week for online. That’s more than any other daily, even a bit more than the NYT. Of course, the Times has tremendous expenses, like foreign bureaus and a still substantial reporting and editing staff. In  contrast, the Globe has slashed its staff for many years. Its local coverage is weak and not as granular as the hyperlocal Universal Hub site.

globTo start the sports analogy, I see the paper going for only the home run. Their reporters seem under an edict to produce potential Pulitzer features and series. The sports comes in as Henry is principal owner of both the paper and the Red Sox.

Until he revamped the Sox, locals would snort disdainfully in the direction of the Bronx. The Yankees, they’d say self-righteously, bought their championships by paying for overpriced players. Mirabile dictu. When Henry did the same and the Sox delivered a long-awaited World Series championship, I didn’t hear anyone slamming the local team for checkbook titles.

In fact, Henry’s attitude is to drain whatever he can from his various customers. The Sox ticket prices are MLB’s highest and his paper charges more for both delivered and online versions that comparable or higher quality papers. He seems determined to push costs as high as he can.

What’s a Subscriber?

Newspapers have long been cash rich and inventory sparse. The earn their profits from advertising, for which they get paid quickly or even in advance by those who want the discounted cost. Then unlike book publishers or grocers or most businesses, papers don’t carry large, costly amounts of perishable inventory.

Newspaper publishers long ago lost perspective on the value of their customers. In particular at a time when most cities have a single daily, they don’t have to care.

Yet, the size of the subscriber base gives them a way to price advertising. Most advertisers can’t prove their get their money’s worth from what the ad reps call “selling space” (ooo, space). Yet, defensively, many don’t want to be the only one in their field to pass on advertising…just in case.

You’d think paper publishers would treasure subscribers and do whatever it takes to keep them happy and renewing automatically. Yet many newspapers buy into two relatively modern ideas. First, they use that dreadful term monetize in erecting paywalls, lest hoi polloi read the paper for free. So if you get the paper delivered or pay a separate online fee, you can look. The second and more recent conceit is that physical newspapers are dead. Everyone will read news online on computer, phone or tablet.

Instead, driving away Boomers and their children is leaving subscribers, influence and money on the floor.

You can tell you’re dealing with the truly dumb when she or he says, “I wasn’t even born yet!” (always emphatically). That is to cover for ignorance of history, ideas or technology. That covers and excuses nothing. Bragging about what you don’t know and won’t think about is a major flaw.

Yes, some people skim news online and pretend they are informed. We saw that even with the WWII generation who began to get all their news from TV snippets. The dumb have always been with us.

Pushed away

The Globe‘s default customer support is, of course, now an online chat. I typed with Jill there, saying among other things that we wanted to cancel delivery. I allowed that we’d try the facsimile version for a bit, even though it was also overpriced. She said they had no mechanism to handle credit-card info in the chat (more tech failures, says I). She’d call me the next morning.

She did and we set it up. I didn’t berate her personally but did say that Henry’s crew was greedy and had pushed too far with the most recent of numerous price hikes. Like a good soldier she said she had no input into pricing, that they just got the memo and worked with the new reality. However, she did let slip that many callers were unhappy and cancelling.

By my long term habit as well as age, I should be the subscriber the Globe wants to keep. They certainly don’t understand how to do that.

Their online subscription model seems unlikely to work well to increase revenue. Perhaps their margins will fatten, but higher percentages of fewer dollars is a poor business model. Plus the fickle 20-somethings and younger are unlikely to play.

A mess of beans

April 20th, 2015

Praise muscle memory and felt sense. Let us not get into the emotion-driven impulse decisions that so taint our lives. Instead, marvel in how our senses take note in background.

From infancy, we learn the likes of how to push food into our mouths without stabbing our lips with tines. We pour liquids. Heck, we know seemingly instinctively what a cup of this or that means in a glass.

I experience this magic personally and at the weekly Haymarket trip. Tell the vendor you want three pounds of grapes and see him (or much more rarely her) grab bunches of various sizes, plop them on the scale, and poof, three pounds almost every time.

They appreciate their skill and are invariably happy when I praise them with a low-key compliment, like, “I guess you’ve done this before.”

I don’t get smug about it, but this is a skill I have too. Sometimes, I display it when forced. I’ll point to the tomatoes or Persian cukes and ask for two pounds. If the vendor tells me to pick what I want and he’ll weigh it, I almost always nail the amount. They are likewise impressed, but invariably put it down to coincidence.

In fact, this is a grandfather-related ability. The dozen summers I spent with him in his massive gardens came with unremarkable and remarkable skills. For the former, put rototilling and hand weeding. Among the latter is picking a mess of string beans.

Yes, I know that almost all modern green bean varieties are stringless hybrids, but we old-school boomers remember when you had to unzip them to make them edible.

The standard quantity of green beans was that mess. In country talk, that translates into two pounds. Granddad has a box of small brown paper bags for such orders. Whether it was for home or a relative or a customer, I picked a mess thousands of times. I just knew when I had two pounds in the bag by the feel. My body remembered and still does.

We each likely have a dozen or more such acts of magic we perform daily, without being aware.

The Faces We’re Born With

April 6th, 2015

Decades ago, I was stunned to be fired from one of my first jobs. I was highly competent and well liked.More on that in a few paragraphs.

I recalled that plunge today as I read a column on looks in Mad Men by Robin Abrahams, the Boston Globe’s Miss Conduct columnist. She wrote of how lookism affected both men and women in the TV series, along with such insights as when it is beneficial to be a babyfaced man (specifically a Black CEO).

I grew up in a home run by a mother who was a manager. She was not a lookist, in fact, did not stereotype people. You produced and behaved or she’d try to make those things happen. Man or woman, old or young, pretty or plug ugly, none of those were relevant to her.

Thus, on jobs where I was the boss, I treated people as my mother taught me As a result, they tended to perform for me. They knew being unctuous or attractive meant little.Doing your job well and getting along with coworkers did. So there.

So just after the Mad Men era, in an office overlooking the Chrysler Building gargoyles, I was perking along as writer/editor at a weekly magazine of a professional society. The biggest part of the job was covering the weekly luncheon meeting of its influential members. The speaker was a powerful and often well-known person who often spoke of big ideas.

It was kind of trivial but still fun. Out of J-school and with considerable newspaper experience, I was in my element. I photographed the speaker and covered the remarks. Of course, I had to be flawless and present the speech coverage to reveal the high points in a compelling narrative. Hell, though, that’s what I’d done for many years in high school. college and  and on newspaper staffs.

Alas, vanity and ego came visiting the office, not mine though. The founder and long-term executive director of the society was old and retired. His middle-aged junior promptly jettisoned me.

I was stunned. Several coworkers were not. Moreover, the printer of the weekly magazine I filled took me to lunch for a talk right after the news.

The printer was a bright, highly competent, very flexible and particularly nice fellow I had a lot of business with on the job. Turns out he was also black Irish (thick and dark hair, ruddy skin) which came into play as he spoke. He said he had figured that would happen when the old man stepped down.

It was obvious to the printer and several staff members that I threatened the new boss and he was biding his time to dump me. Word is the ascendant chief told people I was jockeying for the top job.Moreover, the traits I figured ensured my longevity foretold my demise. Competence and likeability are too much for the mediocre to tolerate.

I had no interest whatever in taking over a professional society and making insincere kissy-face to0 big shots. I wanted to report on speeches and take good pix.

Once number two got it in his head that I was a snake waiting to slay him, I was dead as soon as possible.

The printer was very positive though. He said I was well rid of the job and would find something better quickly. He was right on both counts. In addition, he offered a truism likely from his own experience that has stuck with me — “It’s never going to hurt you to be a blond WASP.”

That’s a very dated, remarkably lookist comment, but spot on.

 

Farewell to our Spock and to mine

March 2nd, 2015

llapIt’s not a stretch to say I was raised by Spock, or at least a Spock. As so many of us note the passing and mourn the death of Leonard Nimoy, I felt particular twinges remembering my mother, Wanda.

We see that Science Officer Spock’s live-long-and-prosper hand is ubiquitous lately. That’s as it should, or rather that is logical.

When the Star Trek original series started, I immediately recognized Spock as Wanda. That as not at all bad, merely entertaining and even assuring.

Wanda was unlike other mothers, other fathers, and other parental pairs. Like Spock, she was a cooly logical as a Vulcan, yet with a very human half.

For one specific, when she was raising my sister and me by herself, she did not betray reason with the extreme stupidity of, “Because I said so.” Wanda has reasons for every decision, every pronouncement, every argument.

Awanda1nd for arguments…my friends were astonished to hear her policy. If my sister or I could provide better reasons to do something than what she proposed, we prevailed. If not, she held sway. Not only did that make us feel invested in decisions, but it also inspired (me particularly) us to analyze what was going on or proposed, to pay attention, and to present our own positions.

Yes, Wanda was a single parent, an awkward status for the boomer generation just coming to terms with the flood of post-WWII marriages and almost as large flood of divorces. The term broken home was muttered like a diagnosis of leprosy. My sister and I found much humor in the expressions of pity as we moved every few years while  Wanda slowly advanced to support us, getting to see and know many families of friends and relatives. We had no doubt we were far better off than kids raised in homes with one or both married parents were drunks, where the children were regularly beaten, where mom, dad or both yelled at each other and the kids, and where the parental units were, well, illogical.

Wanda was an omnivorous reader. We had several thousand books, including multiple sets of encyclopedia and other reference texts. Wanda knew tremendous amounts on many subjects. That was a precursor to Wikipedia when I was very young. I’d ask a why, what or how question and she almost invariably knew. When we didn’t, she’d hit the books and tell me.

Tuen when I was in elementary school, she’d say, “Look it up.” We had to references. I did look it up. It drove me to read random volumes of our various encyclopedia, random pages of our unabridged dictionary, random entries in the world almanac and book of facts or pages in one of several atlases. “Look it up” served me well throughout school and beyond. I still do.

Wanda did not stay Spock to her death. Yet, she was while I was growing up. Toward the end, cancer, chemo, hormonal changes, financial reverses and love disaster all changed her. Most of her massive pressures came in a short period and I can’t think less of her for changing.

On the other hand, for all those years, she was my Vulcan mentor. When other kids lived under the arbitrary and emotional rule of a Kirk-like parent(s), I had the better of it.

Oh, glänzenden Weihnachtsbaum (Shiny Christmas Tree)

December 16th, 2014

A huge shock of my late teen years was to make the annual pilgrimage to my grandparents’ West Virginia home to find…an aluminum Christmas tree in the living room. My very bright, stern but rational grandmother had her reasons.

That was a betrayal on numerous levels. Yes, yes, it was her home, but it was also mine. I moved every few years throughout my childhood. A constant was summers and holidays in the eastern panhandle of WV, now known amusingly as the Potomac Highlands.

Among the state’s abundances are mountains and trees, lots of evergreens. In fact, the small house itself sported two gigantic blue spruces that were wee when my grandfather planted them or his three then tiny children. He still decorated them with those old-style big light ropes. Inside we always had a fresh local tree. I remember going with family fried and relative by marriage old Charlie Long to cut a tree from his land. That was back in the days when you changed a pickup truck to four-wheel drive by hitting the hubs into position with a hammer…by cracky. Charlie was older than Granddad but he still liked Christmas trees and was delighted to help me pick, cut and load one.

2013treeIt turns out Baba, as my older sister had named our grandmother, had been plotting all those years. When the grandkids were in college, the new living room order would take charge.

Note that she had had her way with the heating system a few years before. Her children and then grandchildren had grown to big sizes with a coal furnace. The work fell to her husband, then her son, then to me. Of course, I did not enjoy lugging the gigantic galvanized cans of slag and powder remains to the curb. Likely the trash guys didn’t like their role either. I did like, no love, stoking the furnace. It was a fair dragon, with roaring mouth of flame and heat begging for more food. I was happy to oblige.

When she could Baba badgered her husband into converting to a very tame gas boiler. Boo.

Her underlying motivation though was simple. she never liked the faint smell of the coal heat in the vents. She absolutely hated cleaning off the faint gray smudges above the living room vents that appeared after a month or two of heat.

Honestly, killing the dragon for a few wisps of residue?

It turns out the Christmas tree ran afoul of similar sins. Her children, grandchildren and husband had always provided and mounted the tree. We had climbed into the attic and retrieved the balls, tinsel and lights. We had decorated to the sweet and dreadful strains of Lawrence Welk and other seasonal shows providing carols and show tunes of the season.

Baba, however, was affronted by violations of her space.

Worst was the profusion of needles. On the wooden floor, on the carpet and rugs, in the presents, somehow spreading like hair from some gigantic green cat. There was also the tinsel…Granddad had to have tinsel on the tree. It too seemed to reproduce and leave spoor even beyond what we had purchased and draped.

Apparently in a curtain lecture, she had let her husband know that when we were all in college, there’ d be no more living, shedding trees in her very own living room.

Baba’s folly aside, in our 35 years in Boston, we have had trees. We are down to two of our three sons  — one is off on that other coast and a father himself — living with us. We have decorations that go waaaay back. My late mother-in-law Sylvia made us a pottery creche. My late mother for years bought personalized ornaments for her grandsons. Our sons produced their own ornaments at preschool. Friends have brought tree baubles which we hung and maintain.

The tree above from last year is typical of our garish display. It includes numerous strands of NM chili lights too.

One son is off visiting his ridge-runner fiancée this holiday. The first  son spent Thanksgiving with us including his wife and toddler. He’ll be with his in-laws for Christmas.  Yet the three of us have the non-metallic evergreen yet again. We have made one concession, dialing it down a notch from roughly 8 feet to maybe six and one-half. I’m not sure we can jam all the ornaments and lights on. We shall try.

Ho ho.

Team Turkey Day v. My Kitchen

November 28th, 2014

mymableWe had family and friends, close and far and very far this week for turkey goose day. In addition so many of us (almost all with Southern roots) have been assembling for over 20 years for the instant-to-concrete tribe, I love how it’s become a blood group effort.

Growing up, I knew different, as did my wife. Both her mother and my maternal grandmother, Mable or as named by my older sister Baba, identified strongly as THE family cook. Her hand to your mouth. You could set up, clean up and otherwise perform only narrowly defined tasks for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter feasts. Her kitchen…

Mable was a fine cook, really a chef and baker. I should never complain. Yet both my mother and later my wife did. Their mothers did not let them prepare meals, much less pass along the great folk art and magic of sustenance, of sacred sacrifice on the familial altar.

A few years after my parents married in Fort Sill, they headed to Japan with their two tots as part of the Occupation Army. A few years after that, they returned to Fort Sill and accepting they married blind, they divorced.

While we were in Japan, numerous servants tended to us. They adored the two blond kids, me particularly as the boy. They also cooked for us.

After the divorce when my mother began raising us solo, the full impact of knowing squat about food was all too obvious to her. Her mother fed her, then her college cafeteria, then the Army, then servants. Then what?

So this is a plea. If you are the family cook, teach your kids and if necessary your spouse. You might go away, they might go away, you might get run over by a careering armored truck.

This Thanksgiving, I did prepare most of the overly abundant carte. That would be the likes of goose with cracked peppercorns, cruditiés with four dips, roasted yams with orange, port wine cranberry chutney, wild and jasmine rice, key lime pie and on and on. I get in a groove.

However, the full-time family residents did their do. My uxorial unit is a great pastry baker. She made a highly decorative and delicious tart-cherry pie and a huge plate of deviled eggs. Son 2 made saffron ice cream and brie en croute. Son 3 did an extremely popular stuffed shells with from-scratch tomato sauce.

And so it went…

I likely could have made every dish. In fact, I held off on several I had in mind to make. We were already in overkill. Plus, various guests showed with nosh offerings, wines, ciders, and of course, their own pies — pecan, buttermilk and sweet potato. Our Thanksgiving clan has a real pie jones.

It’s nice….it’s better…t’s great…when everyone feels and exhibits ownership of the life and pleasure giving role. It’s a boat that everyone helps steer, When you arrive, you are happy for the journey.

Give thanks.

 

Die or Grow Beyond Fear

September 2nd, 2014

swimLake, ocean, pool or river can be inviting, calming or terrifying. For the latter camp, a solid NYT piece with vid of an man who just had to get over his wet anxiety brought back pubescent times.

First know I’m a water guy, as in:

  • My water-safety instructor (WSI) mother taught me to swim in the South Branch of the Potomac at Romney WV
  • My sister and I became instructors and lifeguards
  • I coached a summer swim team two years
  • I was on my high school, then freshman college swim team
  • I got all the Boy Scout aquatics merit badges
  • I swam at beaches from Florida (yucky hot) to Maine (my God! cold) and lakes all over

Water is my buddy. I meditate while swimming several times each week and I never feel as graceful as in the water.

Yet I was surprised at 12 or just 13 to have the head swimming teacher at a man-made lake in Virginia ask for help. My sister and I were taking life-saving classes and killing time afterward swimming and diving. We would wait until our mother, who ran the local Red Cross chapter, to come by and drive us home.

Turns out the teacher had a lot more in mind that just getting me to help her. What she really wanted and cannily figured out was that I could teach some gray hairs to swim.

Had she put it like that I’m pretty sure I would have said I wasn’t able. In no small part both the times and central Virginia locale made that unlikely. I was a Ma’am and Sir, respect-elders boy. It would seem to betray the natural order for a kid to teach maybe 8 folk in the 60s and 70s anything.

Yet, the teacher knew my mother, sister and me. She knew that many of the Red Cross volunteers aged up to 80 or so had me call them by their first names from when I was 6 or 7. Yes, I was polite and attentive, had a large vocabulary and never ever would have called them by another other than Mr.., Miss or Mrs. (last name) unless they insisted. They did.

I was also a water prize, getting my advanced-swimmer card young. I was my mother’s son. So maybe it wasn’t so crazy to ask me to help.

I didn’t know any of the 8 or so men and women in my instant class. In retrospect I guess the median age was 72. The teacher introduced us and said I’d show them how to get used to the water. Then she left.

Well, I was a sincere little boy and that’s just what I did. I’d bet they were both charmed a lad their grandchildren’s age was in charge and comfortable that if I could do this water stuff they had a shot.

I was in for my own shock when they told me, almost to a one, that they were afraid to put their faces in the water. They never had in the 70-some years. They were born at the very end of the 19th or very beginning of the 20th Century. Shower baths were rare. they would bath in a tub but never do as I was used to — shampooing and plunging my whole head underwater repeatedly while rinsing, repeating. They said they wet washcloths and used them on their faces.

That was not a chapter in the WSI manuals at home and in the chapter buildings. I read those on the sofa or on the toilet. When I went into a new level of swimming class I already knew what we were supposed to do and generally had already mastered it on my own. Yet, afraid of water? Never put your face in water in your entire life?

Well, it turns out the clever teacher had it right. My job was to teach this group to be okay in the water. By then it never seemed possible to do less and maybe a lot more. The students were certainly willing.  I got them bobbing, splashing water on their heads and faces as they stood in thigh-high water, and eventually putting their faces down in water while keeping control by blowing air through their noses. We went on as I had learned in my first few levels of classes to back floating, front floating, using a kickboard and basic rhythmic breathing. We did dog-paddling and backstroke.

I didn’t have time to teach them how to swim, as in how I swam. They let me know how far we had come though. At the end of one class, they told me together that they felt they had learned to fly. They had been afraid of water their whole lives and now were able to float, to do basic strokes, and to breathe out with their faces in the water was mastering a whole new element, just water instead of air.

Since then, I’ve taught photography, writing, various aspects of computer use, and management. Apparently I’m good at doing that, but never since that lake have my students compared what they learned to mastering a whole new element. When students and teachers are in it together, there is elegance, beauty and fulfillment. That class is still my touchstone for a splendid job.

I hadn’t thought of those happy moments in a long time, until the NYT piece. I was with Attis Clopton all along. That’s the thrill of learning at its best.