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."

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