Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Monday, December 26, 2011

15,000 And Counting...

I'm happy to say that since my first post in March 2011, The Squeaky Pen has tallied more than 15,000 page views, which puts the blog somewhere between "Up and Coming" and "Loyal Following." Not only is TSP being read in the U.S.A., but in countries around the world, including (starting with the most readers): Russia, Germany, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Latvia, Iran, France, and Canada. Other notable reader locations are Singapore, Poland, Sweden, South Korea, Chile, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Denmark, Colombia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, India, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Italy, Malaysia, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Mexico, Slovenia, South Africa, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. To my regular readers, a big thank you! 

The Squeaky Pen is going on vacation (only a week) to rest, relax, and regroup for the new year. When  I return, TSP will have a different look (not unlike rearranging the furniture, it's time for a change), so don't think you're in the wrong place when you check back in. My next column will be posted on Tuesday, January 3.

Happy New Year to all my Squeaky Pen readers around the world. See you in 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Twas The Night

We're decked out around here. Lights, tree(s), stockings, Santa, action. I'm spending these final hours before the big day making bourbon balls and cookies and fudge. The guests arrive Saturday night when more cooking will launch: southern pork barbecue, sausage rolls, and Polish delicacies like pierogis and kielbasa. Early Christmas morning there'll be hot coffee and French toast followed later by Champagne mimosas and lobster tails. The gifts are wrapped with sparkles, and on Christmas night: fire and cards and family and a tiny sighing dog. 

Count your blessings this year, one by one. You probably have more than you realize. Wishing everyone a wonderful Christmas from The Squeaky Pen!

(PS: following is an old favorite...enjoy!)

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a Hollywood Christmas

I've been watching the weather channel on an hourly basis as many of us do (some might say pathologically) here in central New York. Fifty one weeks a year I listen to meteorologists with squinted eye, waiting for the inevitable news: rain (well, there goes golf); wind (and there goes my garbage can down the street). In winter months, the news is usually snow. And snow. And snow. Last year, if memory serves, it started snowing in early December and didn't stop until spring. At one point in March I recall standing hip-deep in the stuff searching for tiny Harry, who had vanished into a snowbank. The flakes are great from inside the house, drifting past the window in magical patterns. Outside, when the car wheels are spinning and the steps are buried, the magic fades.

This week, though, I'm clicking on the weather channel with eyes wide open, cheering for cold temperatures and plump clouds. We got a dusting over the weekend, which caused me to squeal with delight (I squealed, I actually did). The snow is pretty much gone now as is my squealing. Christmas is Sunday and I want a white one. WHITE, not greenish brown. Are you hearing me Al Roker?

What's the deal with wanting a white Christmas anyway? I have Florida friends who brag about hitting the beach after opening presents, a practice so antithetical my own holiday visions that, in hearing about it, my brain has to reboot itself. Swimsuits and Santa? That does not compute. Facts are facts, however: warm weather at Christmas works fine for many people and clearly, this dogged need for snow on December 25th is a problem of my own. Again, why?

My nephew answered the question for me recently. He was in a restaurant and there was music playing in the background. Somebody asked who was singing and Thad said, "Bing Crosby." Are you sure? the questioner insisted. "Uh, yeah," my nephew said. "I was raised on White Christmas."

My sister and I, short of the singing and dancing portions, could perform the movie White Christmas on stage with no rehearsal required. We've probably seen the film a combined total of 200 times, figuring conservatively that we started watching it at age 10 and tuned in at least twice a year ever since. For anybody who has recently emerged from fifty-seven years of incarceration with no television or movie privileges, White Christmas (released in 1954) is the story of four people who travel from Florida to Vermont in search of snow, only upon arrival in New England to find the weather isn't cooperating (there are other plot points, like love and war and kind-hearted soldiers who bring a special gift to an old general, that I won't go into here). In the final scene the snow starts to fall, and the movie ends with a gleaming, tinsel-laden tree, a rural snow scene complete with horse-drawn sleigh, and a bunch of people dressed up in red and white velvet outfits singing and toasting and generally appearing to be having a fabulous time. As bossy family matriarchs, my sister and I subjected her children to The White Christmas Movie Event each twelfth month until they were old enough to flee the house. Pat and I have performed the song "Sisters" every year, either alone or in front of relatives (and once on videotape). We have dissected the film to oblivion, and annually point out editing mistakes and the fact that Vera Ellen, one of the "sisters," is impossibly skinny and wears turtleneck-only clothing, even in bed (she turned out to be anorexic). Our knowledge of this movie is extreme; perhaps, some might say, pathological. We are -- not to put too find a point on it -- White Christmas People. 

So thank you, Thad. You have clarified for me, in relating a 30-second restaurant conversation, why I wake up every morning the week before Christmas and peer out the window, hands clasped, begging for snow; why I want to slap the local weatherman when he chirps, as he has this week, "sunny, with temperatures above normal!" I want a horse-drawn sleigh to shuusssh by the house. I want to be at an inn in Vermont with soldiers and dancers. I want a tinsel-laden Christmas tree with a blizzard in the background, and I want Bing Crosby crooning in my living room. Good grief. I am a slobbering product of Hollywood. And you know what? I don't care!

I suspect I'm going to be snow disappointed this year and that, barring a surprise storm, a white Christmas will not be. If the weatherman is right, my plan is to pull the shades on Christmas Eve, flip on the DVD player, and watch Bing and Rosemary and Danny and Vera cavort in Vermont in crimson clothes. I'll watch the general's grateful face when he sees the first flakes, knowing that his ski lodge has been saved from financial ruin, and I'll watch (and probably cry for the 200th time) as the soldiers march out and sing "we'll follow the old man wherever he wants to go, as long as he wants to go, opposite to the foe..." Most importantly, I'll watch the snowfall, even if the only magical white stuff I get this year is on the screen of my television. In fact, as my beloved family guests snooze in their beds upstairs, I may even watch it twice.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

For Ed

Mothers are important. We all know this, and even if we didn't every media communication tells us so. "As a mother, I'm outraged," say mothers on the news about child abuse. "As a mother I have maternal instincts," say mothers on talk shows about mothering. "As a mother..." say mothers on Facebook about everything else. And on and on. Sometimes it feels that, with all this attention paid to mothers, fathers take a back seat in the importance of raising a child. 

Mothers, the good ones anyway, do all sorts of things for children. Women are nesters. Moms often (although not always) take on the tasks of cooking and clean beds and clean clothes and comfort. Women are supposedly the gentler sex and are there with soft hands when the boy arrives home with a boo-boo, having been tossed around by the schoolyard bully. Dad's alleged job is then to take the boy, now bandaged, and teach him some skills of defense. At least, that's what our cultural media has taught us, from Leave It To Beaver to Rosanne to Malcolm In The Middle. 

In reality, though, there may be no more important figure than a dad, and not because he can teach his son how to block a punch. The gifts of a father to a child, and particularly to a boy child, are lessons no mother can teach. How to treat a girl, and later, a woman, with kindness and respect. That putting an animal out of its misery after being hit by a car isn't the same as killing that animal for fun. A father teaches a son the value of hard work, how to support himself, and a family, and later, if necessary, the elderly parents who raised him. A father teaches a son to be strong and gentle, to be honest and true and to stand in a storm. To fight, when necessary; to walk away, when necessary; and the wisdom to know the difference. A father teaches a son to protect loved ones at all costs, and that it isn't an affront to his manhood to bring a cup of coffee -- or a Diet Coke -- to a wife still tucked in morning quilts. Moms are important, we have no doubt of this. But a good father is a blessing from the gods. He fills in those vital human puzzle pieces that a good mother, try as she might, cannot.

My friend Ed lost his father this week. I didn't know Ed's dad, but I know Ed, and perhaps have never encountered a more genuine soul. Ed is a man who, when a bold criminal walked into Ed's wife's kitchen to steal a box of CDs, chased the culprit down the street, into a store, and slammed him up against the wall (the CDs returned home). Ed is also a man who, upon finding a dead robin in the driveway, lifts the bird gently and buries it in the back yard, because "all creatures need a decent grave." Ed is an artist, and a carpenter, both skills he accomplishes with love and perfection. Ed is a good cook. He can fix anything, in fact could build a house alone if so challenged. He tends to a garden well, and tends to his family better. He is not a man to cross, yet placed a tiny American flag on the grave of his cat, Red, an animal he still mourns after many years. Ed is a man of principal, a man of adjectives: warm, rugged, affectionate, flinty, hospitable, stern, tender, funny, creative. If we could assign only one word to my friend Ed, however, that word would be whole.

Before his death, Ed's father was comforted by his only boy, now grown. Ed held his father's hand, combed his hair, told him how much he was loved. Now Ed will stand tough and go about tending to final business for his family as his father taught him to do. I did not need to meet Ed's dad to know his qualities. In Ed's every action, in every word, I see his father because of the son he produced, a son with ethics and grit and heart. 

For Ed: though a piece of you is gone, rejoice. You were one of the lucky. And you made your daddy proud.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Good News! I'm Gonna Be A Multi-Millionaire!!

I'm down with a cold, but the good news is that I went to the post office today and got a letter from Mrs. Kate K. Moroka, whose husband is (quote) "BARRISTER Andrew J. Moroka from South Africa." It seems Mrs. Moroka, who informs me she and her husband have two kids, is the manager of vault services in charge of the foreign remittance department at an African bank. Some poor soul, Mrs. Moroka tells me, died with his entire family in "a ghastly plane crash in Tanzania" in 2005. Before his death, he deposited 77,700,000 U.S. dollars in her bank's vault, and...glory be!...his wife's surname was the same as mine! So Mrs. Moroka is offering me a business proposition that involves my getting some percentage of this money because my name is the same as the maiden name of the poor soul's wife. In inspecting this letter, I notice that the postage stamps are from Tanzania in spite of the fact that Mrs. Moroka's husband THE BARRISTER works in South Africa. I guess Mrs. Moroka and THE BARRISTER imagine me to be something of an idiot. Turns out I've had a bit of education and am aware that Tanzania is pretty far from South Africa...like, 1,500 miles. That would be like my living in upstate New York and my husband living in Cuba (well, maybe the Marokas are having marital issues). Nonetheless, how exciting! There's an abandoned 7.7 million dollars sitting around in Africa with my name on it!!

Mrs. Moroka goes on to say that due to reasons of confidentiality, not to mention her important position at the bank, she wants to speak with me personally but doesn't want me to call her. Instead, she wants me to send my contact information by fax -- full name, address, and telephone numbers  -- to THE BARRISTER in South Africa, at which point he'll forward this information to her and she'll give me a jingle to discuss this important transaction. She "demands" my "ultimate honesty, cooperation, and" (oops) "confidentiality." She further "guarantees" me "that this process would be executed under a legitimate arrangement" that would protect me from "any breach of law." She even includes a link to the news story about the tycoon and his family who died in the crash, Alan Williams, and his wife Sue. Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Williams, wealthy candle company people, did tragically die in a plane crash in Tanzania in 2005. There it is, the link to a true story! I guess this must be on the level!!

Okay. Sarcasm aside. These dopey correspondences usually arrive via email, but astonishingly "Mrs. Moroka" has somehow gotten hold of my physical address and is now busily sending me actual mail, on actual paper in an actual envelope. I must say, I was surprised today when I opened this letter. These con artists are now using the U.S. postal service to try to bilk people out of their life savings, or whatever it is they accomplish in their "abandoned money" scams. There's a part of me that's almost tempted to contact THE BARRISTER and start the process just to see how far it goes, and how long it takes them to ask me for my bank account numbers, investment account numbers, ATM card number, credit card number, social security number, security codes, passwords, PINs, and mother's maiden name. When they think the hook has been sunk, what's next? Is it a simple "give us your bank account number and we'll transfer the funds" scam so they can in turn shift all my hard-earned money to their own account, or is there more? Then again, what more could there be? They're criminals, and sloppy ones at that. They want my money and hope I'm greedy and stupid enough for them to get it. Seacrest out.

Ah well, I guess I'll let it go. I'm sneezing and sniffling and miserable, and the letter was an entertaining diversion for a few minutes. At least I got some nice stamps from Tanzania.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Long Time Gone

I'm writing this on Thursday, December 8. Thirty one years ago today I was living in Arkansas, and at that time had a dog named Zack. Zack was a cutie: small, black, a Pekinese/cocker spaniel mix. He was also outrageously stupid and was impossible to house train. 

Thirty one years ago today, I recall being in bed when the telephone rang. Now I was never exactly bohemian, but in 1980 I'd only been out of college a couple of years and my living conditions were a bit loose. That is to say, my mattress was on the floor, as was my telephone. I remember answering the phone that night and hearing a college friend on the other end of the line sobbing. I knew something was wrong. I was distracted, though, by the fact that my ear and the left side of my face were wet. After what seemed like a long time of puzzling I finally put it all together, and that's how I found out John Lennon had been killed. There in bed, with dog urine all over my face. 

The Beatles, as many of us remember, were something quite special. Before The Beatles, American kids cruised around in cars and had drag races. After The Beatles American kids took to the streets in protest. John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed our hair, our clothes, and the way we listened to music. Songs were no longer toe-tapping dance tunes. After The Beatles, we pressed our ears to radio speakers and listened for messages, trying to decipher what (if anything) the boys from Britain were trying to tell us. The four moptops weren't just a band. They represented a turning point in history, and whether or not they actually kicked off the change didn't matter. For better or worse, The Beatles changed our lives forever, and nothing after The Beatles would ever be quite the same.

Then, on a chilly day in early December thirty one years ago, somebody shot  John Lennon outside his apartment building in New York City. I couldn't make sense of such a heinous act then, and in 2011 I still can't. All I know is that on December 8, 1980, the world became a little bit darker. Just as The Beatles were a turning point for so many of us back in the 1960s and '70s, Mark David Chapman's act of selfish violence signaled another turning point. John Lennon was dead and life would go on, but somehow...nothing would ever be quite the same.   

It's hard to believe John has been gone so long, and for my part, I hope Mr. Chapman has not enjoyed his time in captivity. What he stole from us these long years can never be recovered: the gifts one of music's most prolific and profound songwriters might have given us in the three decades since his voice was silenced for good -- and for no reason -- on a dark street in New York.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

One Down

Well, it's official. Herman Cain has suspended his bid for the Republican presidential nomination because of what he continues to insist are false accusations about sexual harassment and, now, a 13-year extramarital affair with Ginger White. I can't say I'm sorry to see him go. In fact, I'm glad to see him go, though not so much because of his messy private life.

Forget for a moment Sharon Bialek's claim that Cain put his hand up her skirt and tried to force her head to his crotch. Forget, too, that three other women, one named, two anonymous, have lodged sexual harassment complaints. And, if possible, let's also forget that Ginger White has said while she was having sex with Mr. Cain she was looking up at the ceiling and thinking about what she was going to buy at the grocery store. Short of being present in the car with Herman Cain and Ms. Bialek, or between the sheets with the supermarket-daydreaming Ms. White, we can never be certain of the facts. Still: when there's one allegation...okay, maybe somebody's trying to besmirch his name. Two? Hmm. Four? Uh oh. And now reports of an affair with a woman who took his money and engaged in intimate woolgathering about the frozen food aisle? Mr. Cain called these tidbits campaign "distractions." I should say so. 

Clearly, it was time for the Godfather Pizza fellow to walk away, but not only because of alleged womanizing. The sexual harassment implications paint him as something of a cad, and the reported affair...well that's really between him and his wife,  isn't it?, poor Gloria Cain who I would imagine met him at the door after all this with a frying pan in her hand. It's astonishing that Cain kept denying the accusations (blaming in no particular order a conspiracy orchestrated by his Republican opponents, the Democrats, and the liberal media), and even more astonishing that with what looks like a very tricky personal past he had the nerve to run for president in the first place. The real reason he needed to make his exit as a potential nominee is because he isn't prepared to be president of this country. His remarks about immigration, having to do with electrified fences and moats and alligators, were tasteless and not funny, in spite of his claims that he was making a joke. He seemed a bit clueless in the debate about foreign affairs, he didn't know the name of the president of "Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan," he bumbled over questions about Libya in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board, and on November 16 made reference to the "Cuban" language. Yes, I realize he has all sorts of things "twirling around in his head," but it seems to me that a man who's running for the U.S. presidency should at least know that the folks in Cuba speak Spanish, not "Cuban." 

The bottom line is that Cain never should have gotten this far. More than likely he threw his hat into the ring to get some publicity and promote his book, and glory be, his poll numbers went up for some godforsaken reason. When push came to shove, his own dicey past brought him down, along with a cringe-worthy lack of knowledge about the country he proposed to run, and the global community with whom we share this planet.

Herman will probably go quietly into the night, first whining, then murmuring that somebody -- Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, the media, the mafia, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir -- were responsible for his demise. However, as the dear-departed Michael Jackson might have crooned, Mr. Cain needs to look at the man in the mirror when playing the blame game. One way or another...and another, and another...the campaign rocket that crashed and burned had Herman Cain, CEO, as pilot.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Devil's In The Details

I decided this year to put an electric candle in every window for Christmas in addition to the strings of white lights I usually tack to the eaves of my porches. As I may have mentioned, I live in a sort of rambling Victorian that has many windows. Many, many windows. Fifty to be exact (not counting those in the basement that I pretty much ignore in terms of cleaning, opening, or decorating). Electrifying 50 windows is no small task, one that requires the electric candles themselves, working bulbs, tape, miles of extension cords, and properly functioning tiny tiny fuses that I didn't even know existed until this week.

There are other project ingredients that are also important: perseverance. And patience.

I started out ahead of the game. I happen to own a huge plastic bin full of window candles (collected no doubt in my hoarding phase), most electrified, some light-sensitive, quite a few battery-operated, and two that flicker in real candle simulation. Preferring not to have to mess with batteries I opted for the electrified units, whose cords are mysteriously short. What's the point of this? Why don't the electrified candle people put a cord on these things longer than a chopstick? Are they in cahoots with the extension cord people? Not to mention the candlestick is made out of thin plastic, so when you put it on a window sill the short though heavier cord causes the cheap taper to topple to the floor unless you use tape, tape that pulls the paint off the wood when you discover you need to reposition the candlestick. This was only the beginning.

For three days I battled this project. I hunted through every drawer and cabinet in the house to find enough extension cords -- green ones, white ones, brown ones, and the heavy-duty orange and yellow kind -- stringing them together like so many train cars. I taped plastic bottoms to window sills, and in some cases to the windows themselves. I changed burned-out bulbs, pirating from ancient light strings so all would be white. I illuminated the upstairs windows the first day, crawling over furniture and moving bureaus, and on the second day did the same downstairs. Day three was reserved for the attic, where I have four windows and no electricity. I now have a curling snake of connecting cords running from the front of the house, through the dark third floor, down the attic stairs and around the corner to an outlet in my office that will undoubtedly cause me to go lurching face-first before this silly season is done. The spaghetti-knotting of wire draped all over my house is enough to make the fire marshall keel over in a dead faint. At the end of day three, however,  the undertaking was complete. Every window had a candlelight. Every window except one. 


If I'd been short three, or even two, I might have let it go, might have said "Oh hey, I don't need one in the laundry room window." But one short was too much to take. I was on a mission. Every single window, I told a clearly puzzled Harry, is going to be glowing with a candle this year, dammit!

So I trekked to the store, bought one electric candle, and no sooner did I string the extension cords in the dusty gloomy attic to put a light in the north window than a bulb blew in one of the bedrooms. Now I was out of white bulbs. I went back to the store, bought a three-pack, and replaced the bedroom bulb. Then I looked in the dining room. A bulb had popped off there. Swearing, I replaced that one, then made a full-house inspection, General Patton in a Santa hat marching upstairs and down, daring a lightbulb to blow. All was as it should be. I took a deep, satisfied breath and ventured to the front lawn to take a picture, delighted that my hard albeit frustrating work had paid off. Outside, while aiming my camera at this holiday masterpiece, the white-lighted wreath on my front door blinked out. 

Running NORAD is easier than this. 

The last thing I did on my illumination project was to replace the string of white lights on the door wreath. Then I took a picture, went inside, and poured myself a big glass of wine. For all I care every window candle can burn out, as can the hundreds of lights on the porches. With age comes wisdom, and with wisdom (eventually) comes the knowledge that it's pointless to sweat the small stuff. There are some things you just can't control.

As Harry snored on the sofa nearby, I glanced out the family room window and noticed half the lights on the back porch string were dark. I sat down, put my feet up, patted Harry's sleeping head, sipped my wine, and muttered "Whatever."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

American Nightmare

I've been waxing nostalgic this week over Thanksgiving. Now I'm going to wax some more, reaching, I'm afraid, a sad conclusion.

Like Thanksgiving, Christmas has always been a big deal in my family. The Friday after Thanksgiving used to be the day my dad would crook his finger and off he and I would go to fetch the Christmas tree. We'd hop in his truck and drive into the hills while my mother and sister stayed behind and got the house ready, rearranging furniture and pulling boxes out of the attic. In the rural 1960s trees were pretty cheap: a dollar if you chopped one yourself, two dollars if you picked one already cut. Without exception we cut our own, both because doing so was financially prudent and because a fresh tree lasted longer. As though yesterday, I can see my short, skinny self in hat and coat stomping through snowy woods in search of the perfect tree, patient pop close behind with his hatchet. When the deed was done, dad would haul the tree back, pay the dollar, and home we would go, my father singing The Bear Came Over The Mountain and I rubbing my child hands together, picturing nature's artwork over by the staircase a-glitter with our handiwork, with twinkle bulbs and ornaments and tinsel and star. 

My childhood memories of the day after Thanksgiving have nothing to do with shopping, and most certainly do not harken back to WalMart riots where thousands of people charge into a store at 5 a.m. to save a few bucks on a Chinese-made television. 

What is happening to us?

I'm not suggesting that my life growing up was a Norman Rockwell painting. We had our struggles like everybody else: we weren't wealthy by any standard, sometimes my parents were out of work, and sometimes my mother and father were angry or sad or cross. Sometimes my sister and I got spanked (yes...gasp...spanked). We got yelled at and punished and most of the time the punishment was inflicted because we had it coming: we were being selfish, or we were mouthing off to adults, or we weren't doing our jobs, like chores and schoolwork. My non-Norman Rockwell parents taught us to be honest and to work hard; they taught us to be generous with people who had less than we did; they taught us the importance of being educated, to save money, and that to try with conviction was to succeed. They taught us ethics and values. When times were good we got nice Christmas presents, and when times weren't we didn't. We had one television, one telephone, and one record player, all of which had been paid for in cash. My parents did not have credit cards, and they did not clamor for bargains. If there was no money to pay for something, that something didn't get bought. My mother sewed many of her own clothes, and mine. I was not a fashion plate. But I was warm and fed and loved and raised by good, hard-working people. In the 1960s, that was enough. With that rearing, the likelihood of my shoving people out of the way at the crack of dawn to get a deal on a WalMart toaster is on par with the likelihood of Martians landing on my front porch tonight and carrying me off. So I say again: what is happening to us?

News about the Black Friday mobs fills me with profound sadness. I'm also angry, less so with the mindless human cattle who stampede to buy a two-dollar waffle iron and more with the corporations so desperate to fill their cash registers that they have created this shopping "event." What I feel about the shoppers is fear. A writer at the Hawaii News Daily posed this question: "If Americans will literally fight each other over saving 20 bucks, what is going to happen someday when millions of them don't know where their next meal is coming from?" All of us...consumers, stores, and the corporate suits who lit this stick of dynamite in the first place...should be ashamed, although I'm not sure shame is even a part of our vernacular anymore. "Entitled" has replaced any concept of behavior that is simply wrong. We've all listened to Madison Avenue and now believe we're entitled to whatever we can get our hands on, and have the right to the object at any cost, even if it means killing another person to put the thing in our shopping cart.

Speaking of which, in Buffalo a man was trampled at a Target when throngs of people rushed through the doors at 4 a.m. He said later "I thought I was going to die." In another incident in San Leandro California, a man was wounded after being shot following Black Friday shopping. And then there's the lady with the pepper spray (also in California), who injured 20 people while waiting in line for a new Xbox 360. The woman reportedly started spraying people to "get an advantage" in the shopping frenzy, and was in the company of two children. What a lovely holiday keepsake. Merry Christmas, kids.

As for me, I'm clinging to the memory of that one-dollar pine tree and hoping we can right this vessel before it goes down, before those of us who were raised to be humans are all dead and leave in our wake a nightmare ship of snarling animals tearing each other to pieces...over plastic toys.

How about this? In 2012, on the day after Thanksgiving, all the stores close, and instead of shopping every American who is a "have" finds somebody who's a "have not" and takes them a big basket of turkey and stuffing and potatoes and pie. Wouldn't it be great if we could turn Black Friday into a day that actually is about giving?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sometimes a Scent is Priceless

My friend Angela mentioned something today that, coincidentally, I was thinking about just this morning: what's the best part of Thanksgiving? There's the menu planning, trying to come up with something different every year to accompany the standard turkey and potatoes and pumpkin pie. There's the baking the night before, and the cooking the day of with Macy's parade on TV. There's the table setting; don't ask why, but I love seeing the table sparkle with my amber Depression glass and gold (well, golden) charger plates, the crystal glasses, the good silver. There's the food, and the family, and the blazing fire after dinner. And cards or other games if we haven't all collapsed from overeating. But like Angela said, what's the favorite thing?

All families have their traditions, I guess. My family nowadays likes to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner after dark, around six, making the most of the day by nibbling and preparing and being in each other's company. My mom, on the other hand, set noon as the dinner hour, which meant the turkey needed to be in the oven rather early...like 5 a.m. early. Not in all the years of my youth did I understand why she got up in the middle of the night to stuff and dress the holiday bird, but I have to say some of my most vivid and happy memories as a child were waking up before the sun rose to the smell of turkey roasting, and knowing that my mother was downstairs in a warm kitchen, rolling pie crusts and, more than likely, humming a Patsy Cline tune. 

So I think the answer to my favorite part of Thanksgiving is the smells: of candles, and of the simmering celery/onion/mushroom/butter mixture that goes into the stuffing; of apple pie; of crisp autumn air when family comes through the door; and of turkey, filling the house with an aroma that reminds me of my early-bird mom and her lilac sachet, and a holiday that in the end is all about being with the ones you love. 

Hoping your day this year was a special one, even if times right now aren't the best, and that you took a few moments to acknowledge the good things you do have with a little nod of thanks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

One Woman's Story

I've been watching with great interest the Occupy Wall Street protests around the country, the latest news as of this writing the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. I find myself asking what it is they want. Then I answered my own question this morning when I came across some paperwork from a recent experience I had with a Long Island bank. How quickly we forget.

To make a very long story short, in early 2010 I wanted to set up a loan modification for my home on Long Island, which at that time was on the market but not selling. I was one month behind on the mortgage after 12 years of on-time monthly payments. I approached my mortgage holder, Chase Bank, and chatted with a representative (in person), who told me I needed to stop paying my mortgage for the bank to even consider a modification. When I asked about the bank taking action if I didn't make monthly payments he further said Chase wouldn't do anything for 6-8 months. Surprising news (not to mention surprising advice from a bank rep), but hey! I thought. The guy must know what he's talking about, right? Shortly after speaking to the rep I got a serious bite on the house with talk of closing in a few months.  Since I had a bit of a grace period from the bank (I thought) and, since I would still need a modification if the sale fell through, I took the rep's advice and didn't make another mortgage payment.

Twenty-one days later Chase Bank foreclosed on me. I was unaware they had because I was upstate at the time, in process of relocating here permanently. My mail was being forwarded, but Chase didn't mail the foreclosure notice. Somebody from the bank put the notice in my Long Island mailbox.

I found out about the foreclosure six weeks later when my realtor called to inform me Chase had posted a notice on my front door that the house had been deemed "abandoned" and that they were going to take possession, change the locks, and board up the windows. Now let me explain something here: my home was in a lovely neighborhood and was a well-kept ranch house with a professionally manicured lawn. There was absolutely nothing to suggest the house had been "abandoned." Not surprisingly, I was furious, called the bank, was shuffled around through various departments and automated systems, and was cut off FOUR TIMES before finally getting on the line with a person who told me in a monotone foreign accent that if I didn't make the mortgage payments (now three months past due) plus $8,000 in attorney fees by 5 p.m. the next day the foreclosure would go through and I would lose my home. I then called the bank rep I spoke with initially and, to his credit, he was horrified, told me he'd never heard of anything like this before, apologized profusely, but ultimately said there was nothing he could do. There are not words...nor expletives...to describe my outrage. I paid the money and called my attorney, who for six months after tried -- and failed -- to communicate with the bank's attorney, the bank attorney I might add whose initial response to hearing about legal fees of $8,000, was "For what??" Then he went underground and never responded to my lawyer again. The bank, and its legal goons, waited me out. And won.

I've been in the work force since the month after I graduated from college. I've made my money and paid my taxes, purchased homes, contributed to the economy, never so much as collected one dime in unemployment in 30 years, and, as I said, was a solid citizen who paid her bills and did what she was supposed to do. This, after three decades, was my reward. Eight grand paid into the overflowing pockets of Chase Bank. I'm confident the Chase attorneys didn't get the money, the bank did, gallingly as the result of my taking advice from one of its own, albeit apologetic, representatives.

As I reread the paperwork this morning, I heard myself muttering "Yeah, I get it now, the occupy movement." Bless those people who are saying with their protests and sit-ins and signs what I wanted to say when the untouchable dinosaurs at Chase Bank squashed me down; who, figuratively, doused me with pepper spray. I'm not in a position to protest, and if truth be known I'm not sure I would if I could. I'm glad someone else has more guts than I do, glad there are brave people out there who are speaking for me. What they're saying on my, and on everyone else's behalf -- those of us who have been trampled and mauled and cast away as insignificant -- is ENOUGH.

To the occupy protesters from one insignificant writer, thank you. More people are behind you than you know.

Technological Meltdown

Stay tuned--Friday column and updates will be posted as soon as possible.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

November Observations

Temps are falling. Animals have transitioned to undercover sleeping. My space on the mattress now measures about 12 inches. Harry and I have a new game: I let him outside at 6 a.m. and when he returns we race each other back to bed. Generally he wins.

Things I haven't done: raked leaves; put the chimnea in the carriage house; put the lawn furniture away; most other necessary autumn duties. I did, however, clean the wax off some candlesticks and pull out a box of Christmas lights.

My technological problems deepen. Fried computer has been carried off by one who promises to revive it, or at least save its brain; Mac keeps getting knocked offline; another desktop is quirky and failing. The other night my TV shut itself off as I sat watching. Family room lights have been blinking. Techno-spooks at work.

Bought bananas yesterday after deciding the pain in my knees is from potassium-deficiency and not old age. I also realized for the first time that I'll be doing laundry for the rest of my life. 

Buzz words of the month: occupy Wall Street; protests; Newt; Fannie Mae; Freddie Mac; Mitt; flip-flop; crony capitalism; Perry; gaffe; oops; Cain; sexual harassment; Penn State; jock horseplay; Tea Party; deficit; Iowa; New Hampshire; 9-9-9; 99%; polls; China; Iran; Israel; economy; economy; economy. Makes me want to buy a shopping cart full of canned food and bottled water, put tin foil on the windows, and build a bunker.

Saw a flock of Canada geese today, up there high above all this. Non-political, non-financial, non-nuclear, non-middle class, non-Republican, non-Democrat, non-presidential. Just geese doing what they do, flying through the valley and up over the hill. I stood on my back porch and watched, wishing I could go with them. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Technological Cobwebs Have Spiders That Bite

My last blog post, on Friday, covered my fears about the date 11-11-11. I said I wouldn't get out of bed, which didn't happen. I did in fact get out of bed and went, as I usually do, to my office. I turned on my computer, answered a few emails, and, within 20 minutes or so of turning the thing on, it crashed. Fried. My Dell, of which I have been so fond for so long, is deceased.

11-11-11. I knew it.

I'm fortunate in that I have more than one computer, and at the moment am working on my laptop (a Mac). The Mac's great. It does not, however, play host to all of the many and, as I thread through my computer life, varied informational tidbits that I foolishly stuffed into the Dell. Financial information. Work information. Contact lists. My written works: books, columns, articles, letters, and God only knows what else. I have not been particularly good at backing up, but as a hoarder struggling to reform, I do have much of what I've lost on the Dell stashed elsewhere. On flash drives and in hard copy, on other computers (yes, there are more), and on email. I haven't been as smart as my friend Gloria, who stores her vital information "in the void" on an ftp site. But like so many in our new techie world, I trusted that the dots on the screen and then mysteriously stored in a black box at my feet were safe. They were, as it turns out, not.

This 11-11-11 debacle of mine caused me on Friday to shut down. Having misplaced my Blackberry in a quest to reorganize my bedroom, I figured this was a sign from above to just go ahead and tune out entirely. I did keep in touch with "out there" via the television (which was more background noise than anything else over the weekend) and I was lucky that the telephone never rang for three days. Nobody knocked at the door. I was, as it were, unplugged. 

I gotta say, while I'm not happy that my computer crashed and that my Blackberry went missing, the experience was wonderful. I puttered. I sorted Christmas ornaments and did laundry. I scratched an unidentifiable substance off the kitchen faucet handles. I built fires and gave the dog a bath. Then on Saturday night I gave myself a bath, swishing around in the bubbles in utter silence. I treated my hair to a deep condition and filed my nails. I pampered my house and my dog and myself and never had to speak a word to another human being, not on the phone, in person, by text, or by way of any other means we all now have of keeping in touch. Sometimes, I don't want to keep in touch. I love my friends and family and appreciate every one of them. But man, sometimes you have to lock the door and turn off the lights, both literally and otherwise.

Not unlike my poor sad computer, our brains have to be shut down every once in awhile or we'll crash, and recovering the information stored between the part in my hair and my jawline would be vastly more difficult than rummaging around in my desk drawer for a flash drive. I woke up this morning alert and repaired, able now to face the unfortunate situation going on in Dell-land. I fired up the Mac, found my Blackberry, and surged ahead, cobwebs gone.

I didn't grow up with all the media input the technology experts have inflicted on the young. And I really hope kids who are labeled ADD or ADHD or any other number of "diagnoses" doctors have for explaining the inability to focus can learn that sometimes they need to unplug from the network of communication. It's difficult, I know. I love email, too, and texting, and being able to call somebody in Belgium from a tiny piece of plastic in my pocket...while standing in the grocery check-out line. Still, I hope our kids who are so overwhelmed with the lust to communicate learn that sometimes taking a few days to scrub the grout and poke around in the Christmas boxes might be enough to refresh the best computer ever made, the one right there above the neck that occasionally needs to be placed gently on a pillow in a quiet room and given a chance to reboot.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

11-11-11...And More Bad News

The news has been so busy this week. Herman Cain and his sexual harassment troubles. The Republican debates, where Rick Perry had a "brain freeze" when he tried to come up with the three agencies he'd obliterate as president, and the Penn State abuse scandal, featuring students rioting because they're upset that "legend" Joe Paterno, the school's football coach, was fired because he neglected to contact police after he found out his former assistant Jerry Sandusky was seen molesting a boy in the Penn State showers...nine years ago.

Since I don't know where to begin...should I talk about Herman, and the now four accusers who claim he sexually harassed them? Or that he called former speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi "Princess Nancy" during the debate? Or that his only responses to questions last night seemed to be "I have a BOLD plan, 9-9-9"? Should I beg Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman to learn to pronounce the country in which she lives, and for which she is running for president: Michelle, it's not "The Uninined States", it's The UniTed States." Should I talk about Mitt Romney's flip-flop views, or Rick Santorum's bragging about putting people to work on the natural gas project and never mentioning the possible negative effects on the environment and on the people who live near the wells? (or that the moderators didn't bother to question him about same?). Should I get on board with every other news outlet and mention over and over and over that Rick Perry has no more business running for president than a jumping bean? Or talk about Ron Paul, who while always entertaining and is maybe a good guy to have on staff is just a hair too out there to be president? Then there's Newt, clearly a smart man but slightly over the top on brain science as one of his key platform points, and Jon Huntsman, the only person on the stage who seems to have any sense and whose poll numbers suggest he'll be one of the first to drop out. I could talk also about Penn State, and how utterly mystified I am that students are filling the streets and shouting "Joe Don't Go!", seeming to forget entirely that there are eight boys, and maybe (probably) more, whose lives have been shattered by this monster Sandusky and that Pantero, in the name of football, did nothing to stop it.

But I can't. I can't talk about any of these things for two reasons: my head is bursting with absurdity of our Republican presidental candidates and the horror of the Penn State scandal, and because at the time of this writing it's the eve of 11-11-11.

For years I've been consumed with the number 11. January 11 (1/11), November 11 (11/11), and (egads!) when the clock strikes 11:11. 9-11 was no surprise to me (in that there was an 11 in the date), nor was the fact that one of the flights that hit the Trade Centers was American Flight 11. The number 11 and any of its variations has terrible connotations for me. I used to have to cover the digital clock in my car with a post-it note because I became so obsessed 1:11 and 11:11. It got so bad that if I happened to see those numbers I'd look away, then look again, and then believed that if I looked at the numbers a third time it meant bad luck. Yes yes yes, I realize this is a bit OCD. But what can you do? We all have our...well, our OCD moments I guess.

A friend of mine, who is aware of this little problem I have, sent me an email tonight about all the people who are getting married on 11-11-11, and all the gamblers who are betting on 11-11-11, and all the others who think this date has some kind of magical qualities. Good for them. In fact, I wish I was one of them. But I'm not. For years (no kidding) I've planned what I'd do on November 11, 2011. I'm not going to the local veterans' day parade. I'm not getting married. I'm not going to the casino and throwing my life savings on the roulette wheel's number 11. What I am doing is absolutely nothing tomorrow. I'm not getting in the car, I'm not turning on the stove, and in fact may not even get out of bed. I'm thinking I may just stay put, with quilts pulled up to my chin, hug the dog, and wait for 12:01 a.m., November 12, to arrive. My only problem is that if I don't set a foot on the floor tomorrow I'll probably find myself turning on the TV, and in the process will be forced to listen to more dreadful details about sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and Republican debate gaffes, not to mention dropping points on the stock market.

I'm not in the least surprised all this bad news is happening this week. Tomorrow is 11-11-11. I don't know about you, but I'm keeping my head down.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Library is More Than A Building

Autumn is here in this small town. I took a walk tonight and enjoyed maybe the last gasp of fall. Leaves blew around on the sidewalk in a warmish breeze. There was no moon in our clear sky. I breathed it in: the smell of early November when snow is around the corner, a hint of crispness tonight but one that is surely a promise in the weeks...maybe days...to come. Tonight felt like a turning point in the seasons, an evening ripe with waiting.

I was in Manhattan over the weekend and was asked no less than ten times if I enjoyed living here, if in fact I'd adjusted to a rural life. My answer, ten times, was yes, although I admit there are moments when I do miss an urban sensibility. The convenience to airports and movie theaters. The lively streets. The bagels. All in all, the scales tip toward rural now for me though there are certainly people and places I miss in New York City. I had a grand life there. Now that a page has turned, life here, too, is good.

On my walk tonight I thought these things as I passed the library, lighted and majestic in a quiet downtown. I am deeply moved by libraries, with their books and soft-soled attendants. A library evokes quiet nobility to all who enter, an enchanted spot where you need only sign your name to have a world of learning at your fingertips. I didn't give libraries much thought when I lived downstate. At my fingertips was the computer, a library in a can so to speak, sitting heavily on my desk. I couldn't even tell you where the library was in my town on Long Island. I didn't go, but I appreciated it from afar, knew the importance of these institutions without actually getting involved in that library's day-to-day.

Like so many other changes in my new life, I'm very involved with the library I passed tonight on my walk. In fact, I'm on the board of trustees. I was honored to be asked and am on a fast learning curve, absorbing information about budgets and renovations and, overall, the care and feeding of an enterprise that's been in my village for a hundred years. This is a task I don't take lightly, especially in an age of electronic readers and information now available on a lighted screen in my office. The truth is, my computer might crash at any moment, my only recourse in such a catastrophe being a clever nephew or a frantic call to The Geek Squad. The information in our library has more traditional caretakers, tended by delicate hands of humans who still appreciate the feel of bindings, the smell of ink, and the gentle voice of the storytime lady holding up a picture book to a room full of youngsters. In a way, when I look at the brick and roof and doors and the volumes, I see a huge computer there, contained behind safe walls filled with words on pages. The library, like the computer, is a font of knowledge. Unlike this humming box at my feet, however, it is also filled with texture and history, soft carpets and soft voices, distant laughter from the children's reading room. There are happy ghosts there, drifting through the stacks, spirits who remember a time when there was not computer nor television. There was only the library, a tranquil place of pages filled with history and love and drama and news and adventure, a place to learn. 

I stood in front of the building for awhile tonight on my walk, a balmy night for November. The windows were alight with warmth now that darkness falls early and I could see people passing, busying themselves behind century-old walls. One day, maybe a hundred years from now, my spirit will be gliding through those rows of books, proud of my own part in caring for such a fine place. Next time I'm asked if I've adjusted to rural life, I'll say most certainly. In a small town, I'll say, it seems easier to make a difference. And those differences seem richer because they're blocks on top of building blocks, laid by people who were born here, and made a difference here, and died here, and who are now up on the hill past town, a hundred years under stone.

My Dell, while a fine tool, pales in comparison to that magnificent library downtown. Here, words are dots on a screen. There, words are life.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

When Will it be Politically Incorrect to be Politically Correct?

Back in the 1980s I worked in a small publishing company in Manhattan. I was in my late twenties and was something of an innocent, having been raised in upstate New York and, prior to the publishing gig, had only one other real job, as a newspaper reporter in Arkansas. I've never been what you might call naive, but I was a bit inexperienced in the ways of the big city.

There were many people at the company who were my superiors on the pecking order, but I answered directly to two men. One of them, who I'll call Mr. X for the purpose of anonymity, thought himself quite the charmer. Whenever he came into the office he'd wink and carry on with me, saying my name in a sultry way and acting generally flirtatious. He was married (I was not) and was quite a bit older than I, probably by 15 years or so. He was okay looking and for the sake of office getting along, sometimes I'd flirt back. Nothing serious. Back then, office flirting was not uncommon and certainly wasn't looked upon as being politically incorrect.

After awhile, though, Mr. X started taking things too far. His mild flirtations became highly suggestive, and the more he came at me the farther back I pulled. I no longer flirted, and in fact started mentioning to him that I really wasn't comfortable with his advances. The truth is I think he was too much of a chicken to actually carry out any of drivel that came out of his mouth, but that didn't mean the drivel didn't bug me. And, of course, he was my boss.

So one Saturday a bunch of the office crew came in to work on a project that had a nearing deadline. There were maybe seven of us in a conference room and Mr. X started in with me, remarking on my clothes and my hair and spouting off with what I'm sure he considered to be charming sexual remarks. I'd had enough. In front of the entire room full of my officemates, I slammed my hand down on the table and said "Do ya really want to? I mean, do ya REALLY? Because if you do let's go, pal. Right here. On the table. Let's just go ahead and get it over with already!" The room fell quiet (although there were more than a few smirks being hidden behind surprised hands) and Mr. X clammed up. Then he rose and left the room. I don't really remember if he came back in, and I have no clue what, if anything, was said after that. All I remember is that I handled it. A few days later he slunk into my office and told me how I'd humiliated him in front of the staff. I responded "Good. Now you know how you've been making me feel." From that day forward, our relationship returned to one of employer and employee. We even became friends, though at a distance, and a year or so after the incident went our separate ways, into our own careers.

I haven't been able to turn on the news this week without hearing about Herman Cain's sexual harassment situation. I'm not a supporter of Mr. Cain, nor am I a non-supporter. I'm interested in his ideas for turning the country around, and he seems like an intelligent and successful guy. I'm also interested in hearing the details of the sexual harassment charges because I'm wondering what in the world he might have done to cause one, then two, and now three women, years later, to start talking about how he harassed them. I'm interested because I wonder if he was as blatant as my Mr. X in his advances, if in fact he made advances at all. Did he tell a raw joke? Did he remark on a nice outfit? Or did he attempt to have sex with one or all and threaten their jobs if they didn't go along? I'd like to hear why one or more of these women went on to get settlements for his alleged off-color behavior, whatever it was, and how much the lawyers got when all was said and done. Most of all, I'd really like to ask these women why they didn't just handle it, like I did; why they didn't tell him to stop, and, like Dolly Parton in the movie 9 to 5, tell him they'd turn him from a rooster to a hen in one shot if he didn't back off.

I get the importance of being politically correct in many situations, I really do. When it comes to flirtations in an office setting, however, I'm conflicted. By today's definition of sexual harassment I've been harassed ten dozen times, by bosses, co-workers, clients, doctors, contractors, bartenders, gas station attendants, and friends. Men flirt. So do women. Men say stupid things. So do women. Men tell dirty jokes and assess, unsolicited, various parts of the human body. So do women. If we all stopped flirting and talking and assessing nobody would ever go on a date again. Ladies, when unwanted advances get on your nerves, tell the guy to stop. If they don't, humiliate them into stopping. And if they still don't? If they threaten your job? Yeah, okay, take it to a higher authority, but only as a last resort unless you're feeling genuinely threatened. If the guy is some clown where you work...yes, even your boss...there are ways to handle the situation without involving lawyers and getting settlements and stirring the pot years later because now the guy is running for president.

As I said, I don't know what Herman Cain did or didn't do, other than try to cover up the "scandal" (which as it's turning out was a colossally bad idea). I actually don't much care about his lack of political correctness back then because I have a sneaky feeling his telling a saucy joke in the office hallway or flirting with a secretary...or possibly worse in that category...doesn't tell us much about how he's going to deal with global financial meltdown. Yes, let's be PC when we're talking about ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientation or skin color. Let's not insult people for no good reason. Let's not be cruel in humor. But let's also be careful about ruining somebody's career and good name when it isn't warranted. Maybe campaign meltdown will be warranted in Mr. Cain's case, at this point none of us can say. However I can say that in my case with Mr. X I handled it instead of getting a lawyer and running away with a big check in my hand...and possibly a big book deal in my future. 

I'm not sure I'm all that interested in what Mr. Cain has to say about this. I'm very interested in hearing the other side, because I've been there.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

No Tricks, All Treat

All week the TV airwaves have been rife with slasher movies. This genre is not my favorite in spite of my own tendency to write thriller fiction. I can read it, I can write it, but I can't watch it. The reason every movie channel seemed to be all about murder and mayhem this week was, of course, because of Halloween.

I'm a big fan of Halloween, have been since my own trick-or-treating days. There's something about glowing Jack-o-lanterns and kids in costume roaming the village streets that makes my silly heart sing. While begging door to door for food and money on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages, I was surprised to learn that trick-or-treating as we know it really took hold in the U.S. in the late '40s and early '50s. My personal experience back in the 1960s was pastoral. Unlike in the new millennium, kids then were set loose and allowed to wander unattended until sacks were full of candy and popcorn balls and apples. There were no predators, then, or at least none we heard about. My costumes were classic and (I like to think) charming: ghost, witch, cowgirl, princess. Masks were inflexible plastic and pretty basic, with ill-fitting eyeholes that caused plenty of fencepost bumping. Home-cooked treats were not uncommon, and I don't remember a time when I wasn't allowed to consume what I collected. There were no slasher movies on TV back then. Only excited kids ringing doorbells on a chilly night in October, shouting trick-or-treat and getting compliments on a costume well done.

Here I go again, right? Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses?

So yesterday was Halloween. I spent much of the day busying myself with All Hallows' Eve tasks. I carved four Jack-o-lanterns and set them up on the front porch, one in a chair with full jacket and slacks attire. I took out all the bright porch bulbs and replaced them with one 40-watter, so as to keep the light on as the trick-or-treat come-on-over signal, but still dim enough to create a spooky mood. I hung rubber bats and cobwebs. Then I got dressed in a long black flowing cape and wild-eyed mask. I pinned my hair into crazy flyaway swirls and got the big bowl of candy ready. Then I hoped. Hoped there wouldn't be shaving cream and eggs, and that teenagers wouldn't be racing through the streets smashing pumpkins and vandalizing. I hoped that I'd see a ghost or a princess out there, figuring my rose-colored glasses would be busted out one more time because hey, it's new world, right? With slasher movies and angry citizens and economic decline? How delightful, once in awhile, not to be disappointed.

There were moments last night, peeking out through my front door, when I thought the stained glass view had somehow transported me back to childhood. The streets were positively flooded with little kids and smiling parents. I lost count of how many feet approached my spooky threshold, tiny voices chirping "Trick-or-treat!" and holding bags politely. I had friends here, and we took turns answering the door, delighted at the skeletons and aliens, jumping back in "fright" and heaping compliments on costumes, some home-made, some fresh from the store. Occasionally I'd sit next to my Jack-o-lantern man, very still, and reach out to an unsuspecting child. One boy pointed and said "Watch out! That's one's real! She's going to move, you'll see!" (which of course I did to delighted laughter). After one mad dash to the store for more candy, we finally gave up and shut off the porch light, so many were those who prowled the neighborhood just having good old-fashioned fun. With millions of people out of work and political candidates sniping and headlines shouting bad news, how nice it was to have a few hours when the world was as it should be.

I'm taking my Jack-o-lanterns off the porch today, will throw a couple in the garden and maybe make a pie from the others, their orange smiles now just holes in autumn gourds. I'll replace the bulbs and take down the rubber bats, and later will tuck the mask and vampire teeth and cape back into the Halloween trunk and put it in the basement until next year. What won't be tucked away, though, is hope: that, while life has gotten somehow harder and meaner in these strange times, there's still sweetness in the world, a sweetness in the simple joy of seeing a kid in a princess costume come knocking at my door on Halloween.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name Might Stink

One of Oprah Winfrey's self-help proteges is a woman named Iyanla Vanzant, whose claim to fame is serving as a so-called empowerment specialist, inspirational speaker, and new thought spiritual teacher. She spouts words of wisdom like "If you see crazy comin', cross the street!" Maybe she is an expert of some sort, I really can't say. I mention her because of her name. And her attitude about it.

I caught a piece of a show recently where she and Oprah were handing out relationship advice to callers. When one lady caller pronounced Iyanla's name "Ee-lan-ya" (the correct pronunciation is apparently "Ee-yan-la"), Ms. Vanzant chewed the caller out, advising her that if she was going to get advice from Ee-yan-la, she'd better get the name right...or something along those lines.

I'm sorry, but if you have a name like Iyanla, you need to work on toughening up your hide. Take my last name, for example: YASAS. Yasas is of Lithuanian origin, and in fact was spelled Jasas before the folks at Ellis Island got hold of it back when my grandparents made the trip across the pond. I've heard every imaginable mispronunciation of my name, which I've taken in stride. The correct pronunciation, YA-sis, with the accent on the first syllable, has been transformed into such versions as ya-SASS, YAZ-is, yaaaay-sis, and yas-ASS, the latter a popular one with grade school bullies. Worse still are attempts to spell it, including Yasiss, Yassass, Yassas, Yaesis, Yases, and, my personal favorite, Wasas. Wasas usually comes about when I spell my name over the phone and the person at the other end hears "Why-A-S-A-S." Many the situation has occurred when I'm checking into a hotel or trying to pick up a rental car and am told I have no reservation. "Look under W," I say patiently to the frowning clerk. I'm always polite when, embarrassed, they apologize for the mistake. Whatever, I inevitably say. It's a weird name and I've accepted it. I don't chew them out, and I certainly don't inform them that if they want my credit card they'd better get my name right.

Iyanla Vanzant, like so many people these days, has an unusual name. Parents at some point in our history decided that having a weird last name wasn't enough, and so started giving their kids names that would challenge the best of spellers. Take for example some of these: Morania, Aaliya, Navaeh, Beautiphul, Sophronia, and Xylophila. I personally blame this trend on Frank Zappa, who either under a drug-induced haze or who had a particularly odd sense of humor named his daughter Moon Unit. Moon Unit Zappa. Can you see the question mark over my head? And let us not forget other celebrities who followed suit with such first names as Daisy Boo, Apple, Indiana August, Kae-El, Nahla Ariela, Pax Thien, Petal Rainbow Blossom, and Poppy Honey. I ask you: isn't life hard enough without having to slog through name pronunciations, explanations, and spellings to the sometimes impossibly dense employees of insurance companies, internet providers, telephone services, and the department of motor vehicles? If my parents had named me Daisy Boo Yasas I would have run away from home.

So yes. Okay. The world has moved on. As I'm fond of saying these days, it is what it is. However, when I -- who has a last name like Yasas -- hear a self-proclaimed counselor mouthing off to a person who called her for help, I want to drop a note and give HER some advice: "Dear Ee-Yan-La -- I don't know if your parents gave you that name or you gave it to yourself, but it is what it is. If you don't like the way people pronounce your name, Ms. New Thought Spiritual Teacher, then change it to Sally. And if you don't want to change it? Then buck up and be nice. Signed KATH-leen YA-sas, New Thought Get Over Yourself Teacher."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In Their Own Words

I've been amused and equally saddened by some of the stuff that comes out of the mouths of American politicians. Below are a few quotes from the Republicans running for president. Draw your own conclusions. 

"Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of -- against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it -- was before -- he was before the social programs from the standpoint of -- he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against first -- Roe v. Wade?"
Rick Perry in GOP presidental debate, September 22, 2011

"I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed."
Mitt Romney, speaking in 2011 to unemployed people in Florida. Romney's net worth is estimated at over $200 million.

"Put your baby in a dumpster, that's okay."
Newt Gingrich explaining what liberals want when he was questioned about his plan to initiate 19th Century orphanages.

"I think it's a sin because of my biblical beliefs and, although people don't agree with me, I happen to think that [being gay] is a personal choice."
Herman Cain, talking with Piers Morgan October 19, 2011.

"The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years, if not hundreds of years, has been this hoax on global warming."
Ron Paul on Fox Business, November 4, 2009

"9/11 families and everybody else in America should be furious at this president that he's walking around taking credit for, you know, getting Osama bin Laden. He didn't get Osama bin Laden! The president of the United States simply said -- courageous act, give him credit for saying yes -- but that's all he did, is say yes. He didn't do the hard work."
Rick Santorum, following bin Laden's death in May 2011.

"He (Obama) put us in Libya and now he's putting us in Africa."
Michelle Bachmann, Republican Debates, October 16, 2011. It should be noted that Libya is in Africa.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I Am Not A Star-Bellied Sneetch

One of my earliest memories from childhood is pink flamingos in the front yard. No, I didn't grow up in Florida, or wherever flamingos are indigenous. I grew up in upstate New York. And the pink flamingos in my yard were plastic.

Sticking so-called decorative objects in the yard or on the sides of houses or fences isn't new. Flamingos in the front bushes were popular 50+ years ago, as were gazing balls and kissing figurines and (eek) lawn jockeys. Some of the more unfortunate of the yard decor over the years are items like the bathtub flower pot, the flower "bed" made from a real bed frame, with the head- and footboards buried on either end of the daffodil patch, tires with petunias popping up from inside, and perhaps the most objectionable of all, the toilet bowl planter. Okay, I suppose we can chalk some of this up to people without much taste trying to be creative. I guess they figure flowers are nice no matter what they're planted in.

Just lately, though, maybe in the last 10 or 15 years, lawn "art" has gone a little haywire. There was the cut-out of the fat lady bending over in the garden, the squatting gnome with his bare bottom showing, the giant butterflies stuck to the side of the house, and, more recently, the creepy dark and shadowy figure of a bear lurking near the back door, or even worse, the creepy dark and shadowy figure of a cowboy-type leaning against a post smoking a cigarette. I can't count the number of times I've spasmed in the car at twilight when driving by somebody's house and seeing that guy skulking near a neighbor's fence.

Now there's a new one. Stars. Big stars, little stars, giant stars, dozens of stars affixed to barns and homes. What's with all the stars?? I've gotten into the habit of paying attention now to the explosion of stars that people have decided to tack to the doors and gables and clapboard. They're bothering me so much I've come to believe it's some kind of cult and that the star people know something we non-star people don't.

This kind of thinking, of course, led me to ponder Dr. Seuss's story about star-bellied sneetches. Sneetches, yellow creatures who live on the beach, are split into two groups: those with a green star on their bellies and those without. The story is Dr. S's way of teaching kids about discrimination. The star-bellied steetches think they're somehow better and cooler than the sneetches without stars. When a crafty entrepreneur comes along and charges the non-star sneetches to put a star on their bellies with his special machine, the star-bellied sneetches get crazy and want their stars removed, which is accomplished with his other special machine. The sneetches run back and forth between the machines until, as Dr. Seuss put it, "neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew whether this one was that one or that one was this one or which one was what one or what one was who." The sneetches ultimately run out of money and, in true Dr. Seuss fashion, learn to get along.

I can't look at a star on a house these days without thinking of the Star-Bellies. Do the star people think they're cooler, or better, than those of us without stars? Is there some kooky star cult out there that us non-star folk know nothing about? Or is this just one more goofy outside ornament that a crafty entrepreneur has come up with to bilk money out of unsuspecting consumers? I suppose time will tell.

In the meantime, I'm keeping a sharp eye on the star-people houses. Because you never know.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Eyes Still Don't Have It

I'm delayed in posting today because of my eyes. Looking at the computer screen is a bit like sitting a foot in front of a car with its high beams on. Twelve days have passed since I received the news about my infected corneas. I've been a good patient, lubricating my eyes with drops during the day and coating them with ointment before bed, ointment that's essentially Vaseline in a tube. The fear of going blind from this has been raging inside me in spite of the doctor's assurance that I won't. I can't be sure until my next appointment, but I think the eyes are getting better. They don't hurt, they don't itch, and the redness is gone, and although my vision still isn't good, I'm improving. Not surprisingly, the last week and a half of bumping around the house has caused me to wonder what it would be like to lose my sight.

Absent all of the obvious trauma of such a disastrous result, one tiny situation of blindness (though not so tiny as it turns out) is bugs. Specifically, mosquitoes. There is no insect I hate more than the mosquito, with its whining scree when near an ear. There has been a mosquito in my bedroom for the past three nights, torturing me after lights out. The ointment I'm squeezing into my eyes doesn't exactly cause blindness in the classic way (ie, total darkness), but it does nonetheless render me unable to see. Imagine peering through a bowl of mottled gelatin. The first night, after applying the ointment, I turned around and fell over the luggage rack, scrambled up and felt my way into bed. My lamp hadn't been turned off for more than a minute before I heard it...the unmistakable high pitch of a mosquito nearby. My first thought: what is a mosquito doing around in October? My second: there's nothing I can do about it. I can't see. I flailed my arms around for a few seconds and held my breath, knowing that mosquitoes are drawn to exhaled carbon dioxide. I turned on the light and blinked, trying to clear the ointment away for a few seconds, which of course didn't work. I couldn't see the dog much less a mosquito. Defeated, I shut off the light and buried my head under the covers until I fell asleep. The next morning I woke up with a bite on my forehead.

Night Two Of The Mosquito was pretty much the same. Ointment, stumbling, lights out, high-pitched scree, arm waving, breath holding, under the covers. Morning two: another bite, this one on my arm.

So last night I decided to forego the ointment. I got in bed, shut off the light, and waited. Sure enough he was back (he, or another of his brethren). I sprang out of bed and turned on the lamp, already armed with my fly swatter. There it was, the ghastly bug, perched on skinny legs clinging to my wall. I swatted him and he fell dead. Ha! I shouted triumphantly as Harry looked on, puzzled and frowning. I returned to bed and sighed with relief, muttering to the deceased bug I am NOT blind, buddy boy. You messed with the wrong girl.

What, though, would it be like if I were blind? I couldn't get the idea out of my head last night. Before now, when I thought of the blind I imagined the difficulty of travel, crossing the street, negotiating household duties, not being able to drive or use the computer or read. It never occurred to me that something as seemingly insignificant as a mosquito...which we sighted folks see, swat, and move past...might be such a huge issue. Before nodding off to sleep, I said a little thank you that I was born with sight, and still have it, my current blurry view of the world notwithstanding.

Stephen King, of whom I am a great fan, has a predisposition to macular degeneration. I read an interview once during which he made light of the situation, saying something like writers should be looking out of the corners of their eyes anyway. I'm not sure I could take such a diagnosis in stride, and let's hope I don't have to. I'm not sure how this problem is going to play out over the next six months, but I am sure of one thing: I'll never take my vision for granted again. I'm really not asking for much. I could live without seeing the stars clearly again, and would be greatly troubled if I couldn't drive. But please...never let my vision fail so completely that I'm unable to swat an October mosquito.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guest Post: Goodnight, Sweet Princess

My friend Cathi recently put her down her 15-year-old Labrador retriever. The following guest post is Cathi's tribute to her beloved Maggie. As for me, I'll hug my Harry a little tighter tonight, and make sure to appreciate his sweet brown eyes and wagging tail on this day, and on all days forward. KMY

Goodnight, Sweet Princess
By Cathleen Hoefler

Age and disease have ravaged you beyond what I had seen. Either my eyes have been unwilling or your accepting nature has belied the deterioration. Today we can all see. The life in your body is slipping away as surely as the tufts of fur that drop to the floor with every movement. You respond to my voice when I enter, catch my scent, though who knows what your eyes can tell you now. You tremble at my touch and your legs threaten to buckle under the weight of my arms draped across your body, so I lighten my embrace.

What else can I do for you now but stop this suffering?

There is little left of your outward beauty and yet you are beautiful. You remain as valiant as a knight, mortally wounded, stoic and dignified to the end. I wish to have been more present to you here at the end. I have satisfied myself with reports of lazy, sleep-filled days and satisfying meals. I can only hope there is truth in them.

Now is my time to act; to serve you as you have so patiently served me.

The activity around us begins to recede as we enter into that space of transition. It is a place reserved for those who must cross the river and for those who will assist them at the form. Others too dull to appreciate the sacred intimacy of this place make clumsy efforts to communicate and are quickly dismissed.

She who has the skill to guide you arrives, hearing even those words I do not speak aloud. Likewise, she answers, audibly for some, but as much with her eyes for me. We move to a quiet chamber. The door closes behind us and the outside world disappears completely. It is meaningless.

Someone must take you from me to place an IV, allowing them to gently push you across the water. You hesitate to leave my side, but obey, as you always do. When you return, you lower yourself painfully one last time onto the blanket they have provided. Your head comes to rest easily in my arms, and there is no more cancer, no foul odor of decay. You are regal and by my side, where you have been so many times before.

The first sedation enters your bloodstream and you exhale deeply, as pain and anxiety fade away. I feel your broken body relax. We stay like that for awhile, your two young charges sitting behind us. I sense their sadness and uncertainty in watching this tragedy play out. It is right that they are here. They too have loved you and laughed with you, but I do not look at them now. This time is between you and me to wander the paths of our life together...

You arrived abused, no doubt discouraged by the ignorance and cruel capacity of those from whom you deserved neither. Patiently you gave your heart, without bitterness and with unwavering trust.

There you are, bounding across a snowy yard.

There you are, stretched before the fire, content next to me in the winter moonlight.

Now you are sitting upright and proud in the driver's seat waiting for me to return to the car -- my chauffeur, mildly offended I think by my laughter.

Now you look up innocently, even while the loaf of bread you have stolen lies open on the floor nearby.

Can we count how many times I paused at my desk, moving my legs ever so gently, smiling to find you patiently curled at my feet, though I never saw you enter the room? So many nights I slept curled like a pretzel, preferring your presence to the ability to straighten myself, or woke sensing your absence, hanging an arm over the edge, seeking the reassuring touch of your fur. You would always raise your head, ever present, ever watchful, surprised, perhaps, that I would question your whereabouts.

You take with you now a piece of my heart and reminders of a unique time in my life. A time filled with dreams, some satisfied beyond expectation, some left broken along the way. A time remembered in part as more than I had hoped for and yet, increasingly, as less than it may have appeared. In any case, the years and memories will always pay tribute to the continuity of your love and devotion...

She enters again. I stroke your ear with one hand while the other holds your head closer to me. I bend and whisper, "Do not be afraid," although I know it is you offering that silent guidance to me.

After your noble heart ceases to beat, after everyone else has departed, I stretch out full length beside you in silence, taking comfort from you even now. Longing, for a moment, to join you and leave behind the chaos beyond this room.

You are on the far shore, free at last from the confines of this body. Your eyes are bright and your spirit is swift on the wind. Say hello to all who await you...to Grandpa, and Molly. And visit me now and again, Sweet Princess, on a snowy day or quiet night.

Goodbye, my Maggie. I will always love you.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum