Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

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

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Little Win is Better Than None

A couple of weeks ago I went to court for the first time in my life. Speeding ticket, going 40 in a 30. Not exactly the crime of the century, but I got the ticket in March and promptly forgot about it. Then whoops, in June I got a notice from the DMV saying they were suspending my license if I didn’t get my forgetful butt into court. Called to confessed my sins and the nice clerk told me to come in at 9 a.m. anytime before July 17. So off I went.

I was kind of excited about going, actually. Since I like research (and arguing), I often thought I’d missed my calling as a lawyer. I’d gotten the ticket in Rome, New York, on a street that’s a half a mile long, straight as a blade, and quiet. Just the kind of street where a driver might forget the speed limit is so low. I’d been warned by my cousin many times about this street, “Watch out, there are always cops around.” And sure enough, that sunny morning in March I was cruising along ten miles an hour over the limit and there he was, Mr. Cop, pointing a radar gun at me. Busted.

I’ve had maybe five speeding tickets in my life in spite of the fact that I go over the speed limit all the time. I spent 30 years driving five hours upstate from New York City, so it’s remarkable that I’ve gotten so few tickets. My attitude about getting a ticket is pretty simple: I speed (though not to excess). Statistically speaking, I’m going to get nailed once in awhile. Fair is fair, right?

On the day I got the ticket I was a little peevish, however, since the street on which the speed limit is 30 is begging for a revision. There’s no reason I can see that this street shouldn’t carry a 40 mph limit, or even 45. So when I rolled down the window and the officer strolled up, I said sarcastically: “Well ya got me. I was going 40.” Mistakenly, I thought telling the truth might help my case and he’d let me go. I’m quite sure the sarcasm didn’t help.

At any rate, I went into court prepared to say yeah yeah yeah, I was speeding, scold me, fine me and let me get out of here. There weren’t many people in the courtroom that day and, again, it was kind of exciting to see our system in action. As the “criminals” who got there earlier than I did went before the judge I looked at the ticket, which I hadn’t ever looked at carefully before tossing it on my desk back in March (stupid, I know). Under violation the cop had written “47 mph in a 30.” And under comments was this: “Driver said ‘Well, you got me fair and square. I was speeding.’”

Now I have great respect for the police. But this guy had out and out lied. Suddenly, the casual county shawl that I’ve been wearing since I relocated from Long Island fell away. When the judge called my name I clicked up the aisle in my high heels and black New York City suit. The judge read the charges and said how do you plead? I said guilty, but held up a finger.

“Do you have something to say?” he said.

“Yes, Your Honor, I do,” I said, and proceeded to explain I was NOT going 47, I was going 40, and that I most certainly did NOT say “You got me fair and square,” a phrase I’ve never used in my life. “It’s true, your honor, I was speeding. I was going 40. And this policeman lied, saying I was going 17 miles over the speed limit when it was only ten. I spoke sarcastically to him, Your Honor, when I said you got me, I was going 40, because in my humble opinion it’s ridiculous that the speed limit on that street is 30. Maybe I shouldn’t have been sarcastic, and I admit guilt for 40, but I do NOT admit guilt for 47 but it just isn’t true.” I stared him down.

The judge, a reasonable man, asked the assistant DA if I could plead down to 40 and the ADA said yes. I marched out proud, winning (sorta) my case. I’m cool with being guilty if I am. I am not, however, cool with being lied about by some cop who didn’t like my tone. Having an attitude with a policeman may be ill-advised, but it isn’t illegal. At least not yet.

I drove home, triumphant. We hear so much about our corrupt system, about how you can’t get a fair shake, that nobody cares, that everybody’s out to get us. Often, and sadly, that’s true in this imperfect place we call America. But in my tiny world, the court system worked. I fought the good fight against Officer What’s-His-Name and won, even though he wasn’t present and didn’t know that his lie didn’t take. Next time (and there will be a next time, statistically speaking) I’ll pay attention, read the ticket on the spot, and, if necessary, face another Officer What’s-His-Name in court. If he lies, watch out. Kathleen Yasas, Pseudo-Esq, will be on the case.

Friday, July 22, 2011

101 Tips From My Depression-Era Kin

When I was five and my sister was eleven, our parents worked in a factory. That summer they were both on lay-off. These days I often hear people say they've been “laid off” when in fact the correct word is "fired." I guess it’s a change in our vernacular, but a “lay-off,” at least when I was a kid, meant something else. When the company a person worked for completed a specific contract, it was common for the factory employees to be “laid off” until a new contract was negotiated. With a new contract, employees went back to work. Lay-off was sort of a mini-vacation, except that you got unemployment insurance, something my parents were never happy about. They wanted to work.

At any rate, that summer in 1961 my parents were laid off. They didn’t work at the same factory and it was unusual for both of them to be on lay-off at the same time. But they were. Of course my sister and I never knew the family was having financial problems. Our lifestyle was more than adequate, and we were unaware that at night mom and dad were tearing at their hair trying to figure out how support us, my widowed maternal grandmother, and half a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins who periodically landed on our doorstep. But the folks did okay and managed to take care of business without letting on that there was money trouble.
My father, John, had an odd sense of humor. He was first generation American, his parents having come over on the boat from Lithuania. He spent his first few years in Brooklyn before the family moved to upstate New York, where he and my aunt Mary were raised and where he eventually met and married my mother. A smart man, he had to drop out of school in eighth grade to help support his family. His father, my grandfather, fled the wife and returned to Lithuania, never to be seen again. Grandma was a tough one: loud, angry, and dead in her fifties. All this to say that dad had a difficult childhood, fought the good fight in WWII, and knew how to dig in and survive. 

So the summer my parents were on lay-off, dad was in the kitchen one day making cat food. An explanation may be necessary here: pets back then weren’t pampered like they are today. They didn't sleep on store-bought beds and eat special food specific to their urinary tract and aging teeth. Cats were cats. They lived outside, chased mice, and were fed in big tin bowls left on the back step. For reasons that remain unexplained to me, John would take vegetable peelings and leftover meat scraps and cook them all up in a big pot on the stove for the cats. For my part, going to the store for a can of cat food seems more sensible, but then I speak from a non-Depression era mentality. For him, boiling up God knows what on the stove and feeding it to the cats was a rational project.           

Helen and Alec, friends of my parents who were not in the same difficult financial situation at the time, stopped in one day to say hello (my mother wasn’t at home, was probably at the grocery store not buying cat food). They appeared in the kitchen and saw my father stirring gray muck in a big pot on the stove. Helen asked what he was doing. Straight-faced, he said: “Well Helen, we have to feed the girls something.”

Helen, not surprisingly, was horrified.

After a short visit, Helen and Alec left and my mother returned home. An hour later the couple reappeared with five bags of groceries. John hadn't shared his little joke with my mother, and she was bewildered to see friends arriving with food. When Helen explained she couldn't bear the idea that my sister and I were eating potato peelings for supper, my dad burst out laughing. My mother, however, was touched. Those were the days when it wasn't so hard to believe that parents might have to feed their kids vegetable scraps; days when friends did such things unasked, brought groceries to people who they thought needed help. 

My mom and dad and their friends were people of The Great Depression. They understood hardship, and the importance of saving money because you never really know what tomorrow will bring.

It's difficult to imagine that we today, in the age of the iPad and the drive-through, might ever have to endure such burdens. American stores are bursting with food and merchandise as our children spin about racking up cell phone bills. But recent events in the U.S. economy might well bring us all back to a time when life isn't the easy place it's been for so many decades. Retirement accounts are dwindling. Gas prices fluctuate between astonishing and eye-popping. Food costs are rising. The global market is faltering. When my mother passed away 19 years ago I found 24 outdated cans of stewed tomatoes in her pantry, dozens of disposable salt and pepper shakers, and a baggie full of used bread wrapper twist ties. They were there just in case. I didn't get this "just in case" mentality then. Just in case of what? I wondered as I filled the garbage can. The woman was lovely, but a bit paranoid. Now, two decades later, I read the financial news and find myself musing, paranoid? maybe not.

Only yesterday an optimistic friend remarked that the current economic trials may not be a bad thing, that such financial tribulations get thinkers to thinking and solutions flowing. I hope he's right. In the event he's not, however, I've come up with 101 money-saving tips in these times when cash is king, Depression-era ways my family elders might, if they were alive today, maneuver their way around the economic crisis we're all facing. Some of the tips are interestingly practical. Some are a little nutty. And some are downright frightening, that we might ever need to employ them. Let's hope we never do. But it's not a bad idea to hunker down and live lean and mean, save a few dollars, and have a plan. 

Just in case.

(PS: If you have your own tip, please share in the comments section!)

Tip 1
Cut your kids' hair. The younger the kid, the better
Yes, they'll complain. Some will freak out. They'll want to go to the barber or the salon. They'll insist you pay $40, $50, $60+ so they'll "fit in" at school. Rest assured: unless you're cutting their hair with the lawn mower there's a good chance nobody will even notice their new do was styled in the kitchen, a bath towel over their shoulders. During the Depression kids didn't run the show. Plop them in the chair and start snipping. They'll survive. If they really freak out? Cut their hair in between professional visits. The pennies will add up.

Check back tomorrow for Tip 2.       

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Those who deny freedom for others deserve it not for themselves."

Abraham Lincoln

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a nephew named Thad (the kayaker). Thad is the eldest of my two nephews, and as he was the first born to my only sister I was delighted at his arrival.

Thad was a great kid…creative, smart, chatty. In fact, when he was in early grade school one of his teachers reported: “He has so much to share with the class!” code for “Thad talks too much.” To this I remember thinking “Terrific!” In my view, talking is great. The results of talking are intellectual stimulation, close friendships, and strong bonds with family, all of which Thad now enjoys as a creative, smart, and chatty 34-year-old man.

My nephew was a good high school student, and went on to graduate from a fine college with a degree in studio arts. After graduation he moved to Long Island and lived with me…and was employed at my company…for six years. He was an outstanding (if sloppy) roommate and an excellent, successful meeting planner. Our clients admired his work ethic, and in fact came to request that he attend all our international meetings. He dated, of course, but never found “The One.” A few years ago he returned upstate and met the love of his life, truly. We were all so happy for him because honestly, doesn’t everybody want that for their kids? To find the one person who fills their heart with joy?

The relatives have embraced Thad’s fiancé…yes! there is talk of marriage. My sister, myself, Thad and his fiancé, my nephew Nick, our cousins and friends and shirttail kin spend holidays together, linger in the dining room after all-hands-on-deck dinners, eat too much ice cream, play cards and board games, and have long visits in front of warm fires. I have always considered myself fortunate to have such closeness with my relations, and soon we will officially add another loved one as whispers of a 2012 wedding circulate. We are An American Family.

Thad is one of the lucky few, to have found someone kind and gentle, attractive, smart, funny, sensitive, accomplished, honest, hard-working, and a superb cook. A new chapter in our family’s book has begun. Our little boy has grown up, will marry, will buy a house, and will go forward in his life to become the fine man we always knew he would be. By his side will be his true love.

The true love’s name is Duke.

Just as I was thrilled when Thad was born, I am equally thrilled that New York State has passed a law saying my nephew can legally stand before a judge or clergy and proclaim to the world that he is in love and intends to spend the rest of his life with Duke. Their relationship is one of trust and commitment, mutual affection, devotion, and family. Frankly, what they have is more than what I’ve seen in hundreds of so-called “normal” marriages over the years. Never in my wildest dreams would I tell Thad he has no right to legally marry the person he cherishes, just as I would expect no one to say that to me. If there is a God, I am convinced he will bless this union. Unlike the conservative right these days, God isn’t about judgment or shame. God, if he exists, is about tolerance and love.

I have many gay friends, all of whom – bar none – have added meaning and pleasure to my little corner of the world. I couldn’t care less about their sex lives just as I’m sure they couldn’t care less about mine. Intimate life is one’s own business, not the business of shouting religious fanatics and certainly not the business of obtuse and/or manipulative politicians who sign pledges and use buzz words like “family values” and rail against “immorality” as a way to garner votes. No one is telling Michele Bachmann, for example, who she should or should not love and marry, and I’d just as soon she and her cronies keep their big beaks out the churches and temples and bedrooms of my gay friends. Michele seems to think that a legal union between people of the same sex will somehow send a message to children that “being gay is normal.” She fears for our children, in fact said in 2004 that the “normalization” of homosexuality would lead to “desensitization.” She added: “Very effective way to do this with a bunch of second graders is take a picture of The Lion King for instance, and a teacher might say ‘Do you know that the music for this movie was written by a gay man?’ The message is: I’m better at what I do because I’m gay.” If I’m reading her right, the Minnesota congresswoman predicts the ghastly result of such teaching is second graders, en mass, rushing off to experiment with their same sex sand box buddies.

I’m not sure what went on in MB’s childhood, but people talking about heterosexuality didn’t make me straight. As Lady Gaga is fond of saying, I was born that way, just like I was born with blue eyes and light skin. My genetic make-up caused me to prefer men, not a teacher talking about a Broadway show. The biggest point Bachmann seems to miss is that there isn’t anything wrong with being gay. It’s not like second graders are going to become axe murderers. In fact, if the guy who wrote the music for Lion King was a serial killer, does she think all the kids are going to dash to the hardware store and buy a hatchet?

We have gigantic problems to solve in this country. Bad news, Michele, but my nephew and his boyfriend walking down the aisle isn’t one of them. I find myself wondering who might be next on your short list of the “immoral?” Heterosexuals who have had more than twenty sexual partners in their life? More than ten? More than one? People who drink? Or eat too much? Directors who put racy scenes in their films? People who curse? Or wear bikinis? Or swat the cat when it jumps on the dinner table? Will your sanctimonious finger-wagging end only when you have enough votes? Or, more frightening, do you really believe you have the right to invade and dictate the personal lives of your constituents?

We Americans are adrift in a surge against alleged immorality brought on by unscrupulous politicians, talking heads, and religious masses who claim to speak for God and who are intolerant of anything “different.” The problem: immoral and different by whose definition? Personally, I think it’s immoral to target a group of people who have brought so much art and music and literature and beauty and entrepreneurial spirit into the world, and who only want to be left alone to love and marry a person of their choosing. I’m sure you’re not reading my little blog, Ms. Bachmann, but on the off chance you are, know this: you are the immoral one in this picture, not my nephew and not those in the gay community. As you claim to be a politician, stick to politics and leave the institution of marriage alone. It’s none of your business. And as you fear for our children, I fear for our country if you, heaven forbid, get anywhere near the White House.

I could go on (and on), but I’ll resist. Instead I’ll end with another thought-provoking quote:

“Parallel to the training of the body a struggle against the poisoning of the soul must begin. Our whole public life today is like a hothouse for sexual ideas and simulations. Just look at the bill of fare served up in our movies and theaters, and you will hardly be able to deny that this is not the right kind of food, particularly for the youth... Theater, art, literature, cinema, press, posters, and window displays must be cleansed of all manifestations of our rotting world and placed in the service of a moral, political, and cultural idea.”

No, the charming and self-proclaimed moral champion Michele Bachmann didn’t say this.

Adolf Hitler did.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest."

Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes I think we forget that our pets are walking a thin line between adorable fuzzy photogenic balls of fun and wild beasts of the forest.

I’ve always been quite aware that cats are the criminals of the animal kingdom. I can’t even begin to count how many birds and baby rabbits I’ve wrested from the jaws of what were once tumbling kittens. Even minus front claws, my cats are killers. They’re quick, accurate, and without mercy in their yard prowling, something I’ve come to accept as a fact of life. If blue jay or bunny dare wander near they should expect to be found at my doorstep later, a deceased gift in the pernicious yaw of cats who when not torturing prey are curled sighing (though slit-eyed) on a pillow somewhere, pretending to have no cunning in their hearts.

But dogs…dogs are supposed to be on this side of the criminal kingdom line. They slobber and grin, they follow us everywhere, they lap water and chase stuffed toys. They cuddle under the covers and wake us with happy licks in the morning. Dogs are man’s (and woman’s) best friend. In this category dogs are supposed to behave themselves when it comes to fellow creatures of the great outdoors.

I discovered this week I have been deceiving myself.

On Tuesday I was standing on my side porch discussing a project with Grant, my housepainter. Dog Harry, beloved and agreeable Harry who on Monday pranced around chasing a Frisbee with my family, was in the back yard. Suddenly there was commotion. A squirrel had appeared on the outside of the fence and was darting back and forth, taunting Harry who was matching the squirrel step for step. When the squirrel decided to make a run for his tree (which was inside the fence), he bolted forward through the pickets and at full tilt Harry made his move, grabbed the squirrel by the back of the neck and shook him ragged. I screamed and ran for the fence, but too late. The squirrel lay twitching for a few minutes. And died. Harry bounded around with great excitement until I picked him up and tossed him in the house. Grant and I stood over the squirrel and made the decision to bury him in the garden, his shroud a plastic grocery bag. Borrowing a line from the movie Lonesome Dove, I murmured “Life is short, shorter for some than others. Amen.” Grant was nice enough to dig the hole and said with a thin smile, “It’s always interesting coming over to your house, Kathy.”

I was prostrate with grief all day, ridiculous I know. But my adorable dog had murdered a squirrel before my very eyes and now Harry was somehow...altered. He’d fallen into the domain of cats, an animal criminal. I realize what happened was instinct. I realize, since Harry is some sort of terrier, that in his world he was doing his job. I get it. Nonetheless we’re different now, Harry and I. Or maybe, I’m different now.

I’ve been teased by those in my circle who say “For heaven sake, it was just a squirrel!” One friend said he was proud of Harry because that’s what the little fellow is supposed to do, hunt down rodents, and another was aghast that I buried the thing, said I should have tossed it in the garbage pail.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, that I feel so badly for a squirrel who more than likely in the still hours of early morning was chewing on my newly sprouted carrots. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong. I have another friend, Ed, who has the kind of sensitivity – and comprehension of a bigger picture – to which I relate, Ed who buries every little creature that happens to pass away on his property. There’s something very right about that, a respect for life no matter how small. Life is indeed short, and shorter for some than others, but that doesn’t mean we have to toss a small critter in the garbage pail because it didn’t go to medical school. I’ll get over this, that the squirrel perished and that Harry, who I suppose was doing his dog job, slammed poor squirrelly around and broke his neck. Still, I think I might plant a flower there where the squirrel is buried. Because Ed probably would. Or maybe, just because.

This morning in bed Harry and I lay face to face. He was snoring and tiny and peaceful and guilt-free, has already forgotten the excitement of Tuesday morning. I will always love my Harry of course. But I look at him with a squinted eye now. Harry is not, in fact, my cute little baby. He’s an animal, and a deadly one at that.

To be highly cliché, I learned this week never to judge a book by its snoozing cover. We never really know what perilous instincts lurk there, deep down inside, do we? 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Glug, Glug, Glug

I love New York City. I lived there for almost 30 years, rural worm in the Big Apple. The buildings, the people, the theater, the hubbub (the bagels). I don’t regret a moment of my life there. But as I’ve mentioned before, my world has moved on.

And now I’m living in the country…fabulous! The wildlife, the friendly faces, the garden, the tranquility, the river. Meandering nearby my town is the lovely Chenango with its balmy shores and amicable currents. The Chenango is a reasonable river, narrow, gurgling, twisting along the valley like a sparkling and gentle serpent.

Recently my nephew suggested we go kayaking on the Chenango. “Certainly!” I chirped. Having been around boats all my life and once, in the distant past, having served as editor of a boating magazine, I was, so to speak, fully on board with the idea. After all, my dad had rowboats and powerboats, and while in New York I spent many a fine sunset sailing around Long Island Sound.

When I announced to friends I was going kayaking down the river I was pummeled with warnings, dreadful tales of hapless kayakers being tossed overboard and swept away by rapids or being knocked senseless by treacherous river trees. “Nonsense,” I said, repeating my battle cry: “I’ve been around boats all my life!”

So on an abrosial Thursday afternoon Thad and I set off for the Chenango River, jolly in our van with two kayaks and a jug of cucumber martinis. I imagined the experience: floating side by side with my beloved kin, paddling gently along pointing out birds and fishes until finding a spot where we might stop and sip our drinks and discuss all manner of pastoral existence.


We arrived at the riverbank and I noticed right away that the water was low. Okay, I thought, this is probably a good thing since my friend’s admonitions about taking on the river had not completely escaped me. While yes, I’d been around boats all my life yada yada yada, I had never in fact attempted water travel in a kayak. But Thad had assured me. “Nothing to it!”

The next thing I noticed was that my nephew carried both kayaks out of the van and plopped them in the water. “Uh, they seem light….” I said as he waved away my concern. This should have been my first warning.

His plan, he explained, was that we would kayak upriver and then, after a mile or so, glide serenely back to fulfill my imagined martini drinking and fish and bird observations. I liked the gliding back part. The “paddling upriver” part didn’t seem so idyllic to my 55-year-old upper body muscles, but as the saying goes, in for penny in for a pound. I’m a country girl again! And into the kayak I went.

Within approximately 65 seconds and no more than ten yards from shore, I pointed my kayak into what appeared to me to be less than amicable currents. In fact, the currents were anything but amicable. Before I had time to be surprised that an aquatic channel with so little water could be so forceful, the kayak and myself were snatched up by rapids, spun 180 degrees and flung under what can only be described as a treacherous river tree. My nephew, an experienced kayaker (or so I thought) raced to my rescue and was, in kind, snatched, spun, and flung to exactly the same spot. There we were, tangled in branches and wedged in a jam that included two kayaks, downed timber, cascading leaves, and a jug of cucumber martinis.

Both of us having relatively high IQs (all evidence to the contrary), we managed to fight our way out of the tree and agreed that perhaps a more calm body of water was in order. With twigs in our hair we struggled our way back to shore and did indeed find another spot, a local reservoir where martinis were drunk, birds were spotted, and conversation was good. In the end it was lovely day.

Which brings me to this day. I just got off the telephone with my sister, who reported that Thad and his father Bill went kayaking this afternoon. In the Chenango (I guess Thad thought problems with the earlier incident lay with me). It seems as they were gliding along  Thad’s father pointed his kayak into some rapids and whoops! was snatched, spun, and flung into a treacherous river tree. A baptism ensued, and from the report I got Bill was seen by his horrified son to be flailing around underwater until finally an arm and a paddle emerged. In the end the fellows decamped unscathed, if you don’t count pounding hearts and at least one boater with soaking wet duds.

Last I heard Thad was at home having a cucumber martini and recalibrating his kayaking strategies. As for Bill, I’m thinking of giving him a call and gloating, “At least I didn’t go into the water...”

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