September 28, 2010

The Canonical Penguin: Family Sunday Outings

It is funny how family traditions start. We do something we like, over and over, and then one day looking back, see it as a tradition, rather than just as something we all liked. I have talked about some of these “traditions” in my family before, like going to the airport and watching the planes take off and land or feeding the ducks. Well, this is a family tradition we had when I was growing up that still to this day brings me a smile. It involved three things – pigeons, the ferry and the Automat. Let me explain.

My parents were always looking for a way to entertain us kids, and cheap was best. We did like to travel as a family and did our share of car rides for vacations and the like. One weekend staple was this trip to NYC. We did it regularly, always essentially the same events although in different order but still the same. And the trip went like this.

Pile into the station wagon early on a Sunday morning after mass. Drive into NYC through the tunnel and head all the way downtown to Battery Park. Feed the pigeons there. Get on the Staten Island Ferry for boat ride. Return on Staten Island Ferry to car. Drive uptown to City Hall Plaza area (near the Brooklyn Bridge) where we would go to the Horn and Hardart Automat for a snack. Ride home through the tunnel again. So let me break this down for you even further…

Going to mass was essential for the family, we went to the 9am service, out of there and on the road by 10 am. We would take the Long Island Expressway into Manhattan. The world’s largest parking lot during the week, my dad knew it was the fastest way into the city when there was no traffic and on a Sunday morning, none would be encountered. We would pass the site of the 1964 World’s Fair just past Flushing, Queens and would see the Unisphere as we drove by. The mid town tunnel was an experience. Just the thought that there was water above you as you cruised through was enough to get the skin crawling when you are a kid. The slight rise to the road meant the trip through was almost done.
Battery Park is at the southern most tip of Manhattan. We would park near there and walk over to the park, where we would see some horse drawn wagons/carriages and feed the thousands (and I mean thousands) of pigeons. There was always someone there who could be termed a “professional pigeon feeder” who would be casting handfuls of seeds across the sidewalk to the delight of tourists and pigeons alike. Next, onto the ferry.
The Staten Island ferry is a commuter boat from the borough of Staten Island to lower Manhattan. Each day thousands of people park and boat to work this way. Perhaps less so with the different commuter rails that have been built but I still think this is a preferred way of travel. During the week it is for commuters, on weekends it was the best nickel boat ride around. That’s right, a nickel. Now this is not one of those “back in my day, you could get a whole meal in a restaurant for 10 cents” facts. The ferry was subsidized at a lower cost to keep it being used. Even when the cost of the NYC subway was 50 cents, a ferry ride was a nickel. From the Ferry website – “The 5 cents fare was established 1897. On October 10, 1972 the fare was raised to 10 cents. In 1975 the fare was increased to 25 cents. On August 1, 1990 the fare went up to 50 cents. Finally on July 4, 1997 the fare for foot passengers on the ferry was eliminated. “

The ride took about 30 minutes and would pass Governor’s Island and the statue of Liberty as well as other ferries. When we got to the terminal on the other side, we ran down the ramp back through the turnstiles and back on board for the trip back.

Back to the car and a drive all of a mile uptown to City Hall Park, by the Municipal Courthouse, for our favorite part of the day, a trip to the Automat. From Wiki – “An automat is a fast food restaurant where simple foods and drink are served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines. Originally, the machines took only nickels. In the original format, a cashier would sit in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter with five to eight rounded depressions in it. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, which was hinged at the top, to remove the meal, which was generally wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were filled from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats also had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled out of steaming tureens. The first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912 and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities. Horn & Hardart was the most prominent automat chain. In its heyday, recipes were kept in a safe, and described how to place the food on the plate as well as how to make it. The automats were popular with a wide variety of patrons, including Walter Winchell, Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era.”
We entered and walked down a flight of marble stairs and through a revolving door into the automat. Our parents would give us a few nickels and we would grab some pie or cake and then put a nickel into the slot and pulling a crank, held a glass under the mouth of a chrome lion that dispensed milk. Wow, what a treat. My parents would go through the steam table area and get some food – I remember mashed potatoes and vegetables mostly, along with a cup of coffee from huge chrome tanks and we all sat together dining. Then the ride home, another successful Sunday family outing completed.
(These are stories about things that actually happened with plenty of witnesses. It has passed from the apocryphal to canonical in nature. Wiki says of canon – “material that is considered to be "genuine", "something that actually happened", or can be directly referenced as material produced by the original author or creator.”)

September 26, 2010

Killer Penguin

No, this is not me but something outstanding, none the less.

CollegeBoy came home last weekend from college to go to a wedding with his girlfriend. He never comes home for a visit empty handed, usually dragging a large bag of laundry to do while he is home. But this time was different. CollegeBoy was different, having turned 21 just a few weeks ago. As such, his list of frequent stops, in the town where he goes to school, now includes occasional bars and liquor stores. Well, we must have done a good job raising him, as this weekend, he came home with several new beers to sample. Ah yes, he is his father’s son!

Amongst the trio of beers he brought for us to sample was an outstanding ale with a catchy name “Killer Penguin.” It is referred to as barleywine ale, brewed by the Boulder Beer Company of Boulder, Colorado. It is very mindful of the beer that we ourselves brewed and liked so much, Blue Canary Cream Ale. It was full of hops, great color, smooth, very fresh tasting. “Killer Penguin” is brewed in a limited fashion, a seasonal beer, made in a 50 barrel batch, and sold in a 22 ounce bottle. It contains 10% alcohol, which is almost triple the standard US beer 3.2 – 3.5% alcohol, so it does provide a nice kick too. One other unique point is the fact that the bottle has a red wax seal over the cap, which includes a wooden button with the year of brew on it. Just another example of their fine attention to detail.

The brewer, Boulder Beer, has a website which details a lot about the company and their beer goal. When you get in it, there is a bit about this beer on the “Magical Mystery Tap” under the “Beers” link. With only 50 barrels of this special beer, it might be difficult to find but it would be worth a try. I would also have a positive feeling about any beer this company makes and look forward to trying some of the others in their fine line.

Now, if they only make a “Killer Penguin” baseball cap! Special thanks to CollegeBoy for the tip and treat!

September 25, 2010

My Barber Died this Week

I saw the sign in the window of the barber shop on the way to work yesterday morning, but couldn't read it. I was late and just kept going, knowing I would be back that way late in the day and would stop in to get my hair cut and get a bit of news. But when I arrived, the shop was dark and I stopped to read the sign. It noted the passing of Mitchell “Mitch” Ciesak over the weekend.

I do not like haircuts, tolerating them as a necessity rather than as something I like to get. I get the least amount possible. I feel the same way about shaving which is why I have had a beard for 27 years (except for one week, but I will tell you about that another time.) I had been getting my haircut by Mitch for about 27 years. Not every time but I could count the number of times someone else did it in those 27 years on two hands and one time it was my son’s girlfriend doing a trim before we went on a cruise.

His obituary said in part that “His wife of 59 years, Ruth F. (Sullivan) Cieslak died in 2007. He was born and grew up in Warren, son of the late Jacob and Alexsandra (Wierzbowski) Cieslak and lived there until moving to West Brookfield in 2002. He graduated from the former Warren High School. Mr. Cieslak owned and operated Mitch's Barber Shop in Warren for more than 54 years until becoming ill recently.” But here is what it didn’t say.

His shop reminded me of the stereotypic barber shop, like the one in the Andy Griffith Show, with Floyd, the barber. Barber pole outside, warm shaving cream dispenser inside. Used to have the leather strap to hone the straight edge razor he had too. No, Mitch didn’t look like Floyd, but Mitch’s shop was a center of universe in the little town of Warren. Mitch was friendly, funny, and a gentleman, but not someone afraid to have an opinion and say it. He had his run-ins with local politicians but everyone was always welcome in his shop. Many times there would be 3-4 people sitting in his chairs, not to read the old magazines or comics, not to get a haircut even, but to just be there to chat about what was going on in town or in the state or even the universe. It was there I learned that the one big town business was in trouble and being sold. There, where I learned that the builder of the first condo units in the town was accused of using shoddy materials and practices and that there would be trouble for him down the line. There where I heard all about the local political dirt.

I took CollegeBoy there to get his first haircut when he was 3 or 4 years old because that is what fathers do. Mitch treated him like he was one of the boys and he got a lollypop at the end. Not some simple piece of candy but a real tootsie pop.

One favorite story of mine is that there was a blind man who lived across the street from the barber shop and he ended up in one of the chairs holding court with Mitch very often. One day CB was with me to get a haircut and this gentleman, being the very friendly sort, was talking to him as I got my hair cut. He kept asking CB questions which he responded to with a shake of his head. "Do you like soccer?" he asked. CB shakes head yes. The man patiently told him he was blind and could not hear him shake his head. We all laughed and CB began answering with a somewhat meek, one word answer to his questions. But I think we all learned something that day.

The obit mentions his wife who passed away 3 years ago. It didn’t mention that she had ALS or that Mitch took care of her almost to the end of her life, until he could not manage the physical things she needed to have done. He was almost 80 at the time. He never said a bad word about her either, although he did say one time that the secret to their marriage was separate vacations. He liked golf and antiquing. She liked something else and so they did their own things for a few days or a week each year.

The obit says he was born in Warren and moved to West Brookfield in 2002. It doesn’t say that you could almost hit both of his homes with a stone from where his shop was. He lived his entire life in a circle, probably not more than mile or two wide. He also was the town barber for 54 years. He dabbled in real estate, antiques, local politics and town news. So basically he lived and worked in this circle and had a full wonderful life that he enjoyed. He did not get cheated and he will be missed.

I got my haircut yesterday by a different barber in a different town. He did a nice job. Same haircut and beard trim, but somehow, not the same.

September 23, 2010

The Anniversary

It passed very quietly, without fanfare, which is really the way I like it, but last month was the fifth anniversary of my amputation. In June 2005 I had three toes amputated on my left foot, did 12 weeks of intravenous antibiotics, ended up anyway with a raging infection that almost cost me my life and had a below knee amputation of my left leg. I was in rehab until Columbus Day weekend that year and then came home to a life that was totally different then the one I had left.

After 5 years, I do not think about it anymore when I put on or take off my leg. A tug here, little turn there, tuck in the stump sock and then I am on my way. But every once in a while, maybe once every 3-4 months I really think about what I have to do. Usually some factor exerts some force that is different. A person who I now consider a friend, Peggy, a fellow amputee wrote about it recently when she wrote about the hazards of walking outside this time of the year on her rural property with all the acorns and hickory nuts threatening to upset her balance. So maybe this was on my mind. Maybe it is thoughts of the impending 9 months of winter that we have in New England complete with ice and snow which so threatens my feelings of balance. I guess that that is on my mind too (as is moving to Las Cruces where I understand they have no words to describe ice and snow…) But this morning I had one of those moments.

It was 5:30 or so when I woke up and first realized it. I needed to use the bathroom but now this is not as easy a task as it once was. Putting on my leg takes a minute or so and in the dark, can be a sometimes challenge getting it right. So I disregarded the urge and went back to sleep. Not fully asleep as the feeling in my bladder was tapping out this urgent message – “get up, get going or you are going to leave a little present on the sheets and mattress.” I ignored it until 5 minutes before the alarm usually goes off and quickly put on the leg to go and take care of business. And then it happened. As I pulled the stump sock on and put the leg on, I dreaded each and every moment of the process. It would have been easy to just lay back down and forget about the leg. Of course my bladder would have really protested but I just wanted to lay there. Not having a leg is a hassle. All that extra work is a hassle. Doing it every single day is a hassle. Wearing long pants (which makes it difficult to adjust the leg) is a hassle. My life is a hassle…

(Not my leg, this one was found washed up on a Florida beach and was ultimately returned to the owner. Talk about a hassle!)

It took me a few moments to get out of this funk. By the time I had taken all my medicines and vitamins, tested my blood sugar and got dressed, it was gone. I was thinking about that big, hot Dunkin Donuts coffee in my immediate future. I was thinking about what I needed to do at work today. I was thinking about the haircut I need to get this afternoon, the podcast we did last night and the rain delay at Yankee Stadium yesterday. In other words, all routines were back to normal.

Happy anniversary…

September 22, 2010

The Canonical Penguin: Characters of 215th Street – Brief Case Lady

This next character I am going to tell you about is the one I am the most uncomfortable with. The images I have are haunting and scary to this day, the sort of things that nightmares are made of. Sure, I mentioned being afraid of Mrs. Perkin’s blue veined hands. Sure, Witchy and Mo across the street were creepy too. But these were the kinds of things that lost their fear factor as I got older. The woman with the brief case still creeps me out to this day.

Before I start, let me just say that I am in no way now or did I then make fun of her. I think even as a kid, I realized that she was “off a bit”. Today, I would say emotionally handicapped or possibly schizophrenic. But there she was and then we were all scared of her.

She dressed the same each day. A man like suit with a shirt and tie, light tan overcoat, umbrella in one hand, brown leather brief case in the other. She wore a hat but her longish hair showed out the back. She had on white cotton gloves. And she wore make up, lots of it, caked on pretty thick, pancake makeup, with no lipstick or eye shadow. It gave her an almost ghostly appearance. Could it have been my first experience with a transvestite or with a cross dresser? Yes it could. But my parents were of no help in this matter answering questions about who she was with answers like “leave her alone.”

This was one rule we did not break. We saw here every day, walking up the block most mornings and down the block most afternoons, across the street from where we lived. We did not know where she lived or where she was going to or coming from but we were always caution just the same. When we were younger, if we were playing in the street when she approached we sort of drifted to our side of the street, to our stoop or sidewalk until she passed. When we were older, we would continue to play baseball or football or whatever we were doing but always kept an eye on her as she walked past.

We did not interact with her in any way whatsoever. We did not say hello as we did to most other pedestrians who walked by. We did not approach her. One time I remember a ball we were playing with bouncing toward her. Whoever was close to it made a move toward the ball as it came to rest a few feet from where she was approaching. She raised her umbrella as if to indicate she would hit that person but did not attempt to do so. She simply kept walking by at the same pace and the kid waited until she was past in order to retrieve the errant ball.

In my mind’s eye I can still see her raising her umbrella that day, not in fear of her but astonishment. It still creeps me out to think about her today.

(These are stories about things that actually happened with plenty of witnesses. It has passed from the apocryphal to canonical in nature. Wiki says of canon – “material that is considered to be "genuine", "something that actually happened", or can be directly referenced as material produced by the original author or creator.”)

September 20, 2010

We have made the big time!

Just a quick note today. You may remember back to this episode when I proposed a story writing experiment which resulted in a nice 10 paragraph story by nine authors. Well, I submitted it to a podcast "Air Out My Shorts" with Preston Buttons and the Word Whore, and they read it on their podcast!!! Complete with a funny series of comments, you can listen to it here Air Out My Shorts. It was episode #143 "Ash to Mouth" and can be listened to righ on the computer. They begin with the story"s dramatic reading, complete with sound effects at about the 11:25 mark and it runs for about 12 minutes i believe. Enjoy it and give the AOMS guys a few props! Thanks Preston and the Word Whore!

September 17, 2010

The Canonical Penguin: Characters of 215th Street - Witchy Poo and Mo-Mo

As mentioned in many previous entries, I grew up on 215th Street in Bayside, Queens, a commuter suburb of NYC. In those days each area, each block almost was a neighborhood. There were plenty of kids to play with, short walks to the stores and parks and movies and other entertainment. And there were characters. I told you about Mrs. Watson and Mrs. Perkins here. Today I tell you about our neighbors across the street, Witchy Poo and Mo-Mo.

First the names. That’s what we called them, probably came from my sister Jo, but I have no idea about the history of the names. Yes, the old woman had a “witch” like appearance to her, like the Halloween decoration, without the hat but her son, called Mo-Mo and I have no idea why.

They lived in the townhouses across the street from out home. They we in the first floor apartment, above a single car garage although they did not have a car. I’m sure it was used for storage, I

remember them often coming out of the side door, carrying a shovel, broom or pushing a lawnmower. And it was the lawn that was the battleground.

There was a tiny patch of grass at the sidewalk/curb area and a small rectangle of grass close to the house. We played in the street all matters of games with balls and they sometimes went down the driveway or made it to one of the patches of grasses. While we played, often we would see one of the pair staring out the window at us to seemingly make sure we did not “hurt” their grass. If we got too close, one of them would come out with a broom to sweep the sidewalk or driveway or just watch us. Spooky.

I am sure, our ball playing did not hurt their grass. We did no damage to their house, did not hurt their concrete sidewalk or steps. They just disliked us and we them. This is why there was the plastic bead incident. That image is one I will never forget.

By the way, this is a modern picture of that house and except for the car in the driveway and the tree and bush in the small patches of grass, it is exactly as I remember. Witchy and Mo don’t live there anymore but the neighborhood has changed so much over the last twenty years and life has changed so much over the past 30 years, I doubt there are any kids around to run on the lawn anyway…

(These are stories about things that actually happened with plenty of witnesses. It has passed from the apocryphal to canonical in nature. Wiki says of canon – “material that is considered to be "genuine", "something that actually happened", or can be directly referenced as material produced by the original author or creator.”)

September 12, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Guinea Pig Diaries by A. J. Jacobs

So MillieJupiter brought me an audio book the other day just out of the blue. Never heard of it, never heard of the author. She told me she had not read it but had it recommended by several of her patrons (she is a librarian…) This is not a recipe for getting me to read something but contrary to my norm, I decided to give this one a try and I am so glad I did.

This book is funny, downright, laugh out loud funny, look around while driving to see if other people are seeing you laugh funny. The author performs social / psychological experiments on himself, and details the results. His first book was about living an entire year following the rules of the bible. Not just the obvious “thou shalt not kill” stuff but things like not cutting his beard and not wearing clothes of mixed fabrics. “The Guinea Pig Diaries” takes this concept a bit further, detailing a number of social experiments and then discussing the good and bad of each. What kind of experiments you ask?

Well, he poses as a beautiful woman on a dating web site to understand the frustrations a woman in this position would feel. He totally accepts radical honesty therapy and lives his life for a time being brutally honest. He out sources his life to India, hiring two different firms to handle his business and personal life. He does everything his wife asks for a month. He impersonates a movie star at the Oscar Awards, poses nude for a article in Esquire magazine. He lives his life according to George Washington’s 110 rules of behavior. All these and more are reported on, both the positives and negatives of his experience.

He reads the audio book himself which adds to the experience in my opinion. He has a bit of a quirky voice, nasally with accents and emphasis in different places than you would expect which adds to the humor. And then there is the various stories he tells. In his honesty experiment telling his mother-in-law, he hates her birthday present to him (a gift card, he feels like he is given a chore to do). Having an argument with his wife thru the Indian outsourcing group and having them answer his email and write press releases are both hysterical. Letting some guy down gently after he realizes he is not right for “her” is a classic. Having the Indian group purchase gifts for his wife and son for their birthdays and reading to his son one night when he has work to do, is just scream out loud funny as he details a man with an accent read the newspaper to his 4 year old (it’s not the words that are important but the cadence and tone of the voice that helps him off to sleep).

Overall, I give this book a rating of Four Penguins.

The thing that keeps me from giving it five penguins is that some people might be irritated by his voice and I wondered how the stories would be in print, rather than just listening. It has humor, it is entertaining and it is fun. If you want a taste of his style, he was on Stephen Colbert, and this link will bring you to several of Jacobs’ videos about the experiments and his books. Very good stuff.

September 11, 2010

The Modern Penguin: The Nathan’s Trip

(By Modern Penguin I mean stories that are part of my adult life, that are in my memory banks as well as in the memory banks of others. This does not mean I am not misremembering, just that this is the way I recall it. I am sure that Mrsfabp or CollegeBoy or MillieJupiter or someone will quickly correct my stories so that they are accurate…)

When I was in college one of the guys I hung around with, I’ll call him Hud, was from Brooklyn and he had some very strong Brooklyn tastes. He like his bagels and lox, loved his Brooklyn pizza, cold, and had a special place in his heart for Coney Island.

For those who might not know better, Coney Island, was the equivalent of Six Flags Amusement Park at the beach. There was sand and boardwalk and amusement park rides and one of the world’s oldest and best roller coasters, The Cyclone. This is where the Hot Dog Eating Contest is held every year, right in from of the famous hot dog and Coney Island staple, Nathan’s.

You can buy a Nathan’s hot dog at the grocery store now a days but as good as it is, it is not as good as one eaten with relish (yes, double entendre there!) with the sound of the surf in your ears and the smell of the ocean in your nostrils. Well, Hud was partial to the dogs there and to raw clams on the half shell so it was not out of the ordinary for him to ask if anyone with a car might be interested in a 2 am trip to Nathan’s. It was only 20 minutes from school at that time of night, more like an hour during the day, fighting the Kennedy Airport traffic, so it was an easy trip and I had a car.

So one night, 3 am or so, Hud knocks on the door and asks about a Nathan’s run. On top of the hot dog and raw clam goodness, he has an opportunity to introduce a non-city boy, we’ll call him Noel, to the greatness of hot dogs at that hour. Noel was from the northern NYC suburbs, had never been to Coney Island or had a Nathan’s dog so a trip it was.

No traffic, no problems and before you could say Gulden’s mustard, we were on the sidewalk in front of Nathan’s. Of course it was quiet but there were some people there, probably headed home from their local tavern and in need of a bite to eat. Well, it was hot dogs and sodas all around and Hud got a plate of raw clams, drenched in hot sauce and awaiting a slurp, which he did oh so well. This is where things get interesting.

We are standing, munching out on the dogs, when Noel notices that Hud has something different. He asks what that was and Hud says clams, would you like one. Noel says sure and Hud spends a minute explaining how to tilt the head back and slurp it down. Noel does the job like a pro and then Hud asks him what he thought of it. He said (a paraphrase after 30+ years but pretty damn accurate) “Well, it’s a bit salty but I was expecting it to be hot. It’s weird that they would cook it and then cool it down.” Hud replied in three simple words “They are raw” at which point Noel doubled over, grabbed his stomach and evacuated its contents onto the sidewalk. Yes he threw up on the sidewalk in front of Nathan’s. Quickly one of the workers ran out with a hose and washed the clam, hot dog bits and soda off the sidewalk and onto the street.

After a few minutes, we climbed back into the car for the drive back to school with a story I would remember and tell several times a year ever since then. MillieJupiter just came in and with a smile told me this is her favorite story that I tell and I have to admit I think it is my favorite too.

September 9, 2010

To go or not to go

The idea of me going to school early is one that has bothered me for a lifetime. In retrospect I think that starting school when one is not emotionally prepared is not a great idea. With our daughter MillieJupiter and son, CollegeBoy, we dealt with the same issues, and I’m note sure we did the right thing then either. In my previous post I said: “I was too immature for school then, and this issue dogged me well into college as I was always younger than my school mates and more immature too. This was a source of extreme conflict for me. Understand first that my mother went “out on a limb” insisting I was ready for school and so she kept tight reins on me.” To give this a better perspective, because of the Catholic School Policy and my mother’s rule bending, I was the youngest kid in the class, and would be for all 8 grades of my grammar school career. I was at least 5 months short of the official start age date, and in reality was 8-10 months younger than everyone else. I did not go to kindergarten, was home for my whole life up to that point with an overprotective, and maternally centered (mother and grandmother) system, so I was doomed. It continued thru my starting college as again I was always the youngest and needed to grow up a bit to say the least. I don’t think I felt like I ever caught up to my friends even during college. It was going out and living on my own and working at my first couple of jobs that finally solidified that concept of adulthood for me and got me away from feeling so immature as compared to others.

As I thought about this whole situation recently, one issue that I didn’t realize bothered me much then but did so more later in life, was my mother’s reaction to my brother Mike in this. He was a May baby, two years younger than I and more than a month short of the cutoff Catholic School date. By my standards he was more than ready to confront the challenges of grammar school. However, perhaps because of the experience with me, or maybe as a result of the angst of all my issues, Mike got a choice and it stuck in my craw then. I’m note sure he even remembers the situation, but I do. It was a Labor Day Monday and school was to begin the next day. I was upstairs getting my school uniform ready for the next day when I saw my mother standing at the top of the stairs, next to my room. She called down to Mike, who was in the downstairs hall and said “So Michael, do you want to start school tomorrow?” Mike looked up and after a couple of seconds said simply “No” and that was that. There was some discussion between my parents and grandmother about this being best, etc. but nothing further I was privy to. He stayed home that next day and for the entire year and so that is why even though he is only 2 years 3 months younger than me, he was 3 grades behind.

Am I bitter to this day? Nahhhhhh, not so much...

September 8, 2010

Labor Day, Hurricanes and the First Day of School

This time of year always puts me in mind of these three separate ideas which over time have become entangled together in my mind. I thought I would explain how this happens for me.

I was born in February 1955 so in September 1960 I was 5 ½ years old, too young for the first grade by the Catholic School Standards, which required you to be 6 years old by July 1st of the year you were to begin first grade. However my mother used her influence to get me tested before the previous school year ended, to see if I was “ready” for the first grade early. I can remember sitting in a school desk in the middle of the gym, facing a single Sister of Mercy nun, in the classic nun/penguin suit, while the hustle and bustle of the grammar school went on around us. I guess I passed, not remembering the questions now, but I was given a glimpse into the first grade classroom of Mrs. Menzie as we left, and being told this was where I would be in September.

First grade was to begin the day after Labor Day in 1960 but this plan was interrupted by Hurricane Donna. “For nine days, September 2 to September 11, Donna consistently had maximum sustained winds of at least 115 mph (185 km/h). From the time it became a tropical depression to when it dissipated after becoming an extratropical storm, Donna roamed the Atlantic from August 29 to September 14, a total of 17 days. While crossing the Atlantic, Donna briefly achieved Category 5 strength” (Thanks Wiki for the hurricane information). I was all set to begin but class was cancelled that first day. We sat in our kitchen watching several large trees in our yard sway until a large one, in the corner of the yard, broke, crushing our and a neighbors’ fence. I remember late that afternoon and the next day watching our neighbors’ son, cutting up and removing the fallen tree. He was about 16, very handsome boy, the kind a six year old would look up to. He was a good kid. A couple of years later, he enlisted in the Navy and died soon after in a training accident, the victim of drowning. I remember there being all sorts of whispers about this event – alcohol related, fight related, and can remember years later wondering if he was an early victim of the Viet Nam War that was gearing up in the early 1960’s.

I was too immature for school then, and this issue dogged me well into college as I was always younger than my school mates and more immature too. This was a source of extreme conflict for me. Understand first that my mother went “out on a limb” insisting I was ready for school and so she kept tight reins on me. Nothing happened in the class that was not relayed home by the time my day had ended, whether by my teacher, a fellow teacher or school principal, all who were good friends with my mother. Two situations stand out, both involving another boy with whom I had an obvious personality conflict. One day we were working on math concepts and Mrs. Menzie had a large container of wooden blocks. Somehow, this other boy, Michael Harrington, his name I believe, got into a block building pissing match which ended with us knocking over each others block towers we had built on our desks. Needless to say, I was punished that night at home and the next day saw a new “ONLY TEN BLOCKS PER PERSON” Policy in place in the class room. I mean we were doing simple single digit math, no need for 50 blocks now was there?

The second situation was more serious. My angst partner in crime, Michael Harrington, and I were conflicting over pencils as we were allowed to go to the back of the room to sharpen them and of course both of us wanted the sharpest pencil. In the course of pushing and shoving and strutting, Michael jerked his arm and stabbed a fellow student, girl type, in the arm. Not seriously, but bleeding none the less. Amid all the yelling and crying, both Michael and I were sentenced to walk home right then and there and not return until we had a note form our parents. Needless to say punishment ensued and a first grade girl will wear the scar of a lead pencil stabbing for the rest of her life.

To follow is a commentary about starting school earlier than one should…

September 7, 2010

Book Review: The Pluto Files, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I really like Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is the Director of the Haden Planetarium in NYC and I became familiar with him on his many TV show appearances, including some very memorable ones on The Stephen Colbert Show (search YouTube for some of them). He is smart, articulate and able to communicate with the masses on subject mostly over our heads (pun intended!). He has become a pop culture icon, on the lines of Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye, the Science guy, while also maintaining a standing in the group of scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan.

After reading Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Almost Everything” I commented in my review that I was getting into these science books and Tyson’s fit the bill. I dare say that I was right in that this book too does a good job of describing, evaluating and coming to a plausible resolution to a question that has bothered scientists for generations – Is Pluto a Planet?

Tyson sets off to deal with this issue in a wonderful way. First he begins by stating the problem and then gives us a history lesson in how Pluto was discovered and considered a planet. Then he gets into the cultural and societal impact this has (plutonium named after Pluto, Disney Pluto, not so). This is then contrasted to societal reactions to the possibility of the declassification of Pluto status which he highlights I by including texts from letters and emails he received from young and old alike, decrying this change. Finally he spends a good part of the book discussing his role as the director of the Haden Planetarium as the Rose Center was built which included information about the status of Pluto. Tyson’s words and actions reveal a person open to further learning and considerate of the effect those changes will have on others. This is wonderfully punctuated by many, many emails and letters he includes that show the strong feelings on both sides of this issue. They are funny, witty and really show how much people care about something as simple as this.

One final note. I love Tyson’s voice, its cadence and balance and the sense of wonderment and excitement he is able to convey so I was very disappointed to find out he did not do the reading of this book, rather it was Mirron Willis. Willis is good, a winner of several audio book reading awards but I was disappointed none the less. It is for this reason that I can only give this book a rating of 4 Penguins. I wanted Dr. Tyson to read it to me!

It is well structured, entertaining and I could easily recommend it to anyone. Lots of positives, only the reader situation could be considered a negative at all. Enjoy it!

September 2, 2010

CollegeBoy Turns 21 Today

September 3, 2010
Happy Birthday dear son.

At 21 years of age, you are now well on your way to a wonderful life, complete with challenges, successes, some momentary failures and lots and lots of good times you will truly enjoy. You are past that “my parents are so stupid’ phase and very close to the “boy they have a lot of experience they share with me’ phase. We like this phase much better.

For gifts, you have received a bunch already. You have education – something most people desire yet find so hard to attain. You have experience, the kind that will always be there for you to rely on when things are tough or unsolvable. You have love, the kind that only a father or mother has for their child, striking out on his own in this sometimes terrible and scary thing we call life. You have people who “have your back” as you journey forward – a wonderful, loving sister, a fantastic girlfriend, lots of good school friends and home friends and most of all, people watching out for you.
At 21 you get the title, adult, but you have had that for a while now, sort of in training. You have been there for others, have shared yourself with unending graciousness, spent a great deal of time helping others. These are the things that I can promise will return to you tenfold as you move on.

You were there for me when I was sick, and struggling to make it to another day, and you were there to offer encouragement and a smile and hug to let me know. I offer those back to you now as you continue your adventure. The day you left the cottage this summer, to return to school was one of the most difficult for us but also the most gratifying for your mom and I, as we see you growing up right before our eyes. You will always be our child but you along with MillieJupiter and your mom are also my best friends.

Enjoy your day, enjoy your friends, enjoy your celebration. But most of all, welcome to this club. Us adults don’t always know what we are doing but I can’t help but think you are going to be a welcome addition to the fold in helping us figure that out.

Best wishes always,

I am a teacher again!

“Those who can -- do. Those who can't -- teach.” H.L. Mencken, American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, acerbic critic of American life and culture, and a student of American English (Wiki)

Up until a few years ago I used to teach adult education computer classes. I taught classes at my job when we were converting to a computerized medical system. I did it for a year in the local high school and then for three years at the regional high school. They were beginner’s classes, mostly older people who had little or no experience with a computer. Their common tale was that they were given an old computer by their son, daughter other relative and wanted to find out about what they could do. I literally introduced dozens of people to things like email, WORD documents and excel spreadsheets, and the internet. I really enjoyed it very much and was happy that I was able to affect some change in people’s lives. But then I lost my leg to a bone infection and things changed for me.

The last few years have been difficult medically for me, including a deformity in my good foot that has led to 3 ulcers that took months to heal and needed skin grafts, and swelling during the summers that made it difficult to wear my prosthesis. But Mrsfabp kept after me and I found a good foot specialist who really saved my good foot with some surgeries and the skin grafts, and a cardiologist who got me on a good mix of medications and got me away from too much sodium (although I know I can be better about that) and I had the best summer health wise in the last 5. And this got me thinking about how much I missed teaching.

With some encouragement from mrsfabp again, I called the evening ed program director who was very happy to hear from me and who offered me a position on the spot to get back into the swing of things. It helps that not many people want to work with beginners on computers (student: what is this thing? Me: a mouse. Student: is it connected to this box thing? Me: Yes, we call that a computer…) and they are in need of teachers. So I am a back up for this semester, if they fill up one class and have enough overflow for another, and get to design a class or two on my own for the spring semester. I am thinking about doing a class about starting a blog.

Now, if I can only get them to understand that the CD ROM drawer is not a cup holder…

We don't need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

“Another brick in the Wall"


(In honer of my renewed status as teacher I have included two of my favorite FAR SIDE cartoons to celebrate!! ENJOY them too!)

September 1, 2010

Follow Up Story to "Why so Sad?"

My friend Maqz, of podcast and blog fame, commented on this post I did about the Vuvuzelas and CollegeBoy and MissNicole. He mentioned that he thought that the Vuvuzelas looks like something designed or named by Dr. Seuss. Maqz is my go to guy in anything related to the infamous Dr. Seuss, having once been threatened by his estate for copyright infringement. But that is a story for him to tell, not me.

Anyway I give you these two illustrations and ask if you see the Dr. Seuss influence?