Thursday, December 16, 2010

Driving myself to distraction

Lots of traffic today, but I’m finally on the highway. And none too soon. I have my fork, napkin’s here…let me get the lid off this coffee—hey, who taught you to drive, lady? Yeesh…get the straw into my orange juice, and I’m in business. Mmmm…good eggs. Toast? Just right. Let me get a piece of sausage onto my fork…oops, missed. Whoa, buddy! Why don’t I pull into your driveway and lean on the horn while you’re having breakfast?

Oh, yeah, gotta get the GPS ready for those errands I need to run over lunch. Let me set it up, plug it in, turn it on…. Excuse me, guy, there’s plenty of room in the right lane, last I checked! What was that address again? Oh, yeah, W-H-I-T-E SPACE P-L-A-I-N-S. Okay, okay! so I took my eyes off the road for a second! Maybe I was going to exit, did you ever think about that, huh? M-A-M-A-R-O-N-E-C-J…oops. It was your fault for yelling out your window, stupid. M-A-M-A-R-O…oh, forget it, these people are getting on my nerves. I’ll do it later. Creeps! Did your mother teach you those words?

Now…darn, breakfast’s getting cold. Let me just…. Well you wouldn’t expect me to spear dead air instead of home fries, would you? I have to see what I’m eating! Oh, okay, lots of traffic here, let me watch where I’m going. Hmmm…that bumper sticker looks clever. But that…type is too…tiny. Hey, no slamming on the brakes—I don’t care if there’s a turkey on the road, what about the one in the driver’s seat? Just because I help bring home the bacon doesn’t mean I want it draped over the brake pedal. Oh, forget it. Some coffee, that’s what I need. Ahhh! Oh, but it needs sugar. I have some here in the glove compartment….somewhere here…behind—yes, Bub, sometimes I do need both lanes! Can’t you see I’m busy? Do I tell you how to have your coffee?

Here’s the sugar. Oh, and I forgot I had this CD. Let me put it in—oh, not that song, it was the…sixth or seventh I liked best…no, not that one, no, not the next—or maybe it was the fifth. Anyway…oh, what’s that buzz? A text! I was wondering when I was going to hear back from my friend. Is it? Hmmm…no, I don’t recognize that number. I don’t…I don’t know this person! Stupid, stupid, I don’t care about you or where you’ll be when…and I’m going…to tell you that…right now…. Oh, hey, my speedometer’s broken or something, I never go that fast. Oh…oh, I’ll be at work in ten minutes, and I haven’t even started in the newspaper!

And now, uh oh, flashing lights behind me…let me get over here so he can get whoever—or is “whomever”? The grammar book is under the seat. Or was that the thesaurus? Let me just reach down and find…. Hmmm, he’s getting over, too. He wants…me? Aren’t these guys supposed to be going after d-dangerous p-people?

Officer, w-was I…hey, where’d he go? I’m not…wait a minute…I’m not on the highway. I’m lying on my bed! I’ve been asleep! It must have been…the Vicodin, my pain medication…plus lingering anesthesia from my shoulder surgery this morning. What a…what a nightmare!

Oh, I was so scared—thank God it wasn’t real! Well, another couple days recovering, and I’ll be back to work. Back on the road, too. And just in time to be behind the wheel again. After all, I haven’t yet finished my latest DVD.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Revenge of the machines

Their attitude doesn’t get any plainer than it did this week in Spokane, Washington. At one corner crossing, a walk/don’t-walk signal was signaling pedestrians not only to wait but also, it seems, to stand in mute surprise as the signal delivered a digital insult. City officials claimed snow was blocking display of the top half of all but the middle finger of the red stop icon. But we know better, don’t we?

We’ve all shown our frustration at machines that do us wrong, and they’re certainly not feeling the love. It could be your car, a home appliance, or myriad other devices we count on. Or maybe your computer—no, scratch the maybe. And if the computer is networked, you remember too well the day the network went down the single time you forgot to save your work.

For us, this year will go down in family lore for a series of back-to-back assaults that told us just what that Spokane traffic signal told pedestrians. At first, the small mishaps didn’t concern us. Just because the bread is about to catch fire, after all, is no reason to worry that the toaster’s “cancel” button has become just for show. If a burner on our electric stove occasionally prefers not to heat up when ordered, I suppose we all have our bad days. And if the kitchen sink’s sprayer prefers to dispense water below the sink instead of above it, well, isn’t it just a difference of opinion?

Shaking our heads, Elena and I decided that nuisances like these were the dues homeowners pay. But such lackadaisical responses on our part apparently didn’t sit well among household’s machinery. “Human up,” the machines would soon tell us in their own creative way.

The upstairs toilet first decided it was wasteful to empty its contents as often as we, not to mention civilized society, expected. Next came our desktop computer, the one Elena uses for her freelance-editing work, when it seceded from Google and decided to form its own Internet deep in the jungles of Laos. Our washer, judging from the noise, then joined Second Life in the avatar of a jet plane. Amid all this, the boiler began to pretend its temperature gauge was part of one of those carnival hammer games. And someone had just swung the mallet very hard.

They weren’t done. Although my laptop wasn’t hosting the stable of Trojans we learned were on the desktop PC, it rebelled in a way reminiscent of the Groucho Marx line: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Any program I launched, I could brew coffee and finish the cup before learning if my request was granted. The PC might start the program in two or three minutes. It might start up two or three copies of the program. Or it might pretend I didn’t exist, which happened most often.

Ultimately, we fought off the attacks. An obscure utility, for example, cleaned up the desktop PC. We bought a new washer before our old one could break through the roof and achieve cruising speed. A local handyman replaced a simple part on the upstairs toilet. And the boiler men came about three times.

The strange part of all this is that I understand the machines’ complaint. Humans design and build products and peddle them to a world of unwilling product testers. And then, when things break, we blame the machines first. Wouldn’t you rebel if you got the blame for your own genetic code? And then, of course, there’s nature’s own tendency to rust and otherwise weaken parts. Humans, ahem, wouldn’t know anything about that.

Being an avid fan of horror movies, I should have realized the machines weren’t finished with us once we felt in the clear. One sunny morning, I was testing the new backup pump I’d bought for the basement. My plumbing, my wiring. For those two reasons, it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. That’s when I thought to check the outdoor pump, the one that serves as our front line of defense against flooding during our springtime monsoon, springing into action when water surrounds its base. I connected the hose and sprayer. I stretched the hose out to the pump’s pit, opened the hatch and began spraying. As the pit filled with water, the automatic pump stood silent. I didn’t.


Monday, November 22, 2010

And kiss those Crackerjacks prizes goodbye

Now that election day is behind us, local governments can return their attention to doing what they do best: writing legislation that leaves people scratching their heads, not to mention shaking their fists. Their latest serving? Moderately Happy Meals to the children of San Francisco.

On Election Day, San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted to ban fast-food restaurants' practice of including toys with kids' meals. “Good grief,” one proud citizen wrote the board, “we are being lead by a bunch of idiots!”

Never mind that any McDonald’s would require about five minutes to re-price those Happy Meals without the toys and sell them as a separate item on the menu board.

Never mind, too, that parents have always been able to take the family elsewhere for a low-sodium, low-fat meal with fruit and veggies. And afterward, of course, to stop into McDonald’s to buy just the toy—tugging along their wailing offspring, who by now are starving.

Besides those inconvenient truths, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the things McDonald’s includes with kids’ meals. (Those 12 million Shrek glasses with the cadmium-laced paint were sold separately.) So why didn’t San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors do what they really wanted and try banning the high-sodium, high-fat meal that lacked fruit and vegetables? Besides lawsuits, I mean, from grownups who inhale even more of the food.

We might never know. But you’ve heard the saying, "As California goes, so goes the nation.” So since San Francisco's board of supervisors has overridden the mayor's veto, you might as well get ready for other laws, across the nation but inspired by San Francisco, that ban one thing to stop another—in this case, the ingestion of foods the government deems undesirable for their sugar, salt or fat content. And by accident, spreading this practice from the Golden State to the rest of us would even fix more vexing problems.

Everybody liked making fun of airline food till it mostly went away, and now you can’t even bring a bottle of water aboard to wash down the sandwich and chips you crammed into your carry-on bag. But once airlines can’t throw in free sodium-laden pretzels with the purchase of an airline ticket, you’ll have to sit in the terminal, ticket in hand, and eat those pretzels—and never fly anywhere. Added benefit: You get to avoid the humiliating TSA pat-down.

Liked to be fussed over in a luxury hotel, with the little pleasure of getting back from dinner to find a small mint placed upon your pillow? Can’t have that sugar spike, Congress is bound to decree. So you can check in at the desk, pay up-front for your posh room and be handed—instead of a key—just the mint. You’ll never see the room. Added benefit: You won’t take any bedbugs home.

You can tell I’m not in the travel industry for saying this practice wouldn’t be all bad. Take those catered meetings at the office. If they’re held first in the morning, you might get coffee and donuts; if lunchtime, maybe pizza. But the conference-room phone is ringing…however did Congress get this number? Okay, we get it…can’t have both the meeting and the grub.

We might not get any more work done, but we’ll sure call those meals happy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Doing my bit for international diplomacy

Senior year is well under way for our college-student daughter, Katie. And from what Elena and I can tell, the study-abroad trend that proves such a rich educational experience hasn’t taken hold in this college household. I guess we’ll have to learn some other way how to go broke under dual monetary systems.

Nobody was talking about rounding out my college experience once I enrolled full-time. With a 2.59-mile drive to campus from where I spent my entire youth, what was to round? But when I look back on the break between high school and college, I guess my Asian vacation qualifies.

I was barely older than Katie is today when I decided to take four weeks’ leave and visit Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Singapore while I was in the Coast Guard, stationed on Guam. I’d saved a few bucks that I figured would do. I had my passport and somehow learned enough about getting visas. I even had a few notions of where to stay, if not what to do—at least in the first two destinations. And I had all my flights arranged.

Arranged, that is, in the only way you could arrange government flights. MAC flights—the acronym stood for Military Airlift Command—were a way military personnel could hitch along on flights headed for another air base. They came and went when they felt like, on no pre-announced schedule. And as long as you were okay with spending, oh, six to thirty-six hours hanging out in a terminal that didn’t even have a candy machine, you could fly thousands of miles for ten bucks.

From Guam, it was a short hop to Japan once I got a seat, actually some canvas stretched out on a frame, on a mail flight. My plan, or what passed for one, was to get from Yokota Air Base to Tokyo. I’d stay at a U.S. military-run hotel; I had the address, if not a reservation. I would just head for the subway and….

Wouldn’t you know it, people spoke a completely different language over there.

English has taken over much of the world by now, but the same wasn’t true in 1981. Another fact not yet true, even today: I’m willing to try any food. I couldn’t have guessed that in the following year, on a dare to the class from an anthropology professor, I’d eat a grasshopper from a jar. Because once I hit Tokyo, with no way to order from a Japanese menu, I quickly accepted that American fast food was the way to go.

Somehow, I navigated the subway system. I resisted the urge to teach those primitives how to properly shove their way onto a train, but only because my growling stomach would have drowned out their complaints. Once I reached what I understood to be my stop, I needed lunch. I looked around. Exactly what did someone who spoke English look like?

Across the street and down the block stood a white-haired man. I stepped gingerly into the street, since cars there went the wrong way, and approached the gentleman, who didn’t budge from his position. “Excuse me, sir, but do you speak—”

Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice I was speaking to a life-size Colonel Sanders statue in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. And a short while later, my stomach amply full, I decided Japan was an okay place after all.

But my studying abroad had only begun. Having eaten fried food for lunch, I realized I needed something more nutritious for dinner. So, after careful research, I settled on a McDonald’s. This wasn’t going to be easy, notwithstanding a digestive system weeks into adulthood. I wanted a burger, make it two, with no cheese, ketchup, pickles or onions—everything put on McDonald’s burgers back home. Plus fries and a shake. Would you please, I asked my bilingual hotel clerk, write all this down in Japanese?

It went smoothly—at least in the few seconds before the “What is…hamburger?” question. But once I put my drawing skills to work, the clerk understood and wrote out my order. Which I didn’t need because I found a cashier who was delighted to use her English. In the end, I got almost exactly what I was after: burgers with nothing on them. The world was becoming as small as my mind.

I indeed learned more than how to eat like a traditional low-class American in a culinary paradise. From running out of cash in Okinawa before I could get to the Philippines or Singapore, I learned how to plan spending before my next trip. And from having to run back to my Osan, South Korea, hotel before the 9 p.m. curfew, when the soldiers began patrolling with orders to shoot, I learned that I'd lived something of a sheltered life. Something in my time in the service, including this four-weeks vacation, mattered once I hit full-time college: I earned a half-semester of credit for “life experience.”

I suppose students who’ve studied abroad are later asked to write about their travails—what they liked and what they didn’t. What would I write, for instance, about what I’d have done differently?

That’s an easy one. I’d have gotten those burgers without mustard, too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

People I can count on

Growing up in a big family must come naturally to most people fortunate enough to have had the experience. Me? I distinctly remember asking myself one day—I believe I was about two—who all these people were.

I understood, of course, about my Mom and Dad. But as for those others milling about, all bigger than me, it was time to take charge and settle this question for good. They had to be here for a reason other than to tell me “no.”

What I wanted to do was get them all home, these people I figured were my brothers and sisters, home at the same time. I would herd them all into the three-bedroom apartment’s hallway, the part that opened into the dining room. I would have them stand up against the wall in a line, from oldest to youngest. And I would walk down the hall, stopping at each: “Okay, there’s Vinnie; there’s Regina, yeah; Stephen, yeah; Patty, yeah. There’s Kathy, and…me. One-two-three-four-five—I make six. Now I have it!”

I never got to it. Aside from the reality that two-year-olds didn’t give the orders, at least ones named Eddie, it was also hard to get everyone together. Dinnertime was the exception, though with so many people sitting so close together, I often left the dinner table in tears over some slight. (I guess it’s time I stopped that.)

As I got a bit older, I learned I wasn’t the only one who had trouble figuring out who was who in Apartment 10F. The other one was Stanley Dabrowski, who lived with his mother in 10E. I realize now that, despite our youth, we called a man in his 40s by his first name was odd. But “Stanley,” we reasoned, was preferable to Mouth, our other name for him.

We could also have called him Eyes, since we often caught him looking into our windows. Whenever we spotted him spotting us, though, one pull of the shades was all there’d be of Stanley. No, he earned his proper moniker mostly because we lived so high up. Long elevator trips became even longer when Mouth would corner me—as the youngest, the easiest target—and speak words I dreaded. “Let’s see now,” he’d begin, “First there’s Vincent. Then there’s Regina. Then there’s Stephen. Then….”

Looking back, I suppose this litany was better than the other line of conversation…the one where he’d ask about various objects on our windowsills. And the posters in his line of vision.

Stanley, I guess, might have been less lonely, less weird, if he’d had brothers and sisters. And I eventually learned that families were all different sizes. My Uncle Ray and Aunt Betty in Maryland had eight kids. Most kids my age had one or two siblings. And then there were married couples who, for any number of reasons, had no kids at all.

But times change. Fewer couples seem to be having kids. And who, moreover, says that a married couple needs to be a couple? Chen Wei-yih of Taiwan doesn’t think so. Unimpressed with the crop of available men and feeling pressured to tie the knot, the 30-year-old Chen has invited friends to a lavish reception celebrating her marriage—to herself.

At first blush, I feel sorry for this woman. On second thought, I suspect she wasn’t trying hard enough. Taiwan, two years ago, had about 2 million males between the ages of 25 and 34. If that island nation’s marriage rate is 40 percent, that leaves up to 800,000 possible candidates.

All she needed to do was line them up. It would take the better part of a day, so she’d need to start early. “Okay, first there’s Chao, then there’s Yong, then Déshì….”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What’s not to smile about?

Seems lots of people thirst for power these days. Some rise to leadership in the media so they get to control others’ thoughts and beliefs. Some go high in the military so they can lead others into battle. Some enter politics—presumably so they can tell the media and military what to do.

I’m into power, too. Why not? But when I grow up, I want into the profession that, for sheer will to unbridled power, puts all of the above to shame.

Yes, I might yet become…a school photographer.

Taking pictures of students, individually and in groups, never used to make anyone rich. And if the photographer held power, it was solely the power, however unintentional, to make a mouth clamp shut just by uttering the words, “C'mon, show your teeth….”

What made it tough, besides us kids, was the cost of film—along with the gear and supplies needed to produce endearing representations of snot-nosed kids. When the photographer was coming, parents had plenty of notice. And once he arrived, he took his time to ensure he shot pictures that were acceptable, at least to parents. Why? Because every extra shot cost him money he couldn’t charge.

The game changed when the business went digital, and we parents see it every year. First comes the notice, a few weeks into the new school year: “School pictures will be taken one day next week.” Which day? Beats me. There’s no point in asking, because school staffers won’t know. Or won’t say.

If your child is in elementary school, maybe you’ll get away with sending your cherub to school dressed up every day of that week. Once your kids hit their teen years, though, you can just forget about it. With some kids, even one day of careful grooming is out of the question. And the trouble is, you might even agree, having been a teenager once yourself. Is it so hard for the photographer to share with the school at least his intentions for which kids he expects to do when?

Apparently so. But there, behind the delay and uncertainty, lies the introduction to the school photographer’s power: the order form.

Before the photographer even aims the camera or, if you filled out the form online, perhaps learned which direction to point it, he has the order form you spent days completing. Plus your check or credit-card number. It won’t be pretty.

For whichever package you pick, you’ve got myriad selections: colors, backgrounds and other options. There’s also the retouching, which ranges from none whatsoever to an option that will whiten teeth, even skin tone, remove blemishes of all kinds and remove stray hair. You might call it the Mister Hyde option.

All this presumes, however, that you were first able to choose from among varying configurations of photos in a range of sizes. Each package, you see, is the result of careful market research. I picture, in the photographer’s studio, three dart boards. One is sectioned off by photo size; the second, with the numbers 1 through 50. For each package, he throws darts at each of the first two boards to come up with, for example, 24 2 x 3s, nine 5 x 7s, and five 8 x 10s. How else could the photographer have come up with the countless permutations outlined on the order form?

But from package to package, there’s a congruence worthy of Euclid. In the end, no matter how you work it out, you’re doomed to have the same number of photos left over.

Oh, if only this alone were the full essence of the photographer’s power.

You won’t even see the breadth of this power, in fact, unless your son or daughter happens not to smile or…oh…sneezes the instant the photographer takes the picture. Even if your child is flailing at a sudden swarm of yellowjackets, this guy is taking one picture. Not because of the cost of the film; there isn’t any. And not because he didn’t notice that, say, a pterodactyl entered the room during a hiccup in time and is carrying away your offspring by the head. Since the camera is digital, he can view the photo moments afterward and decide the photo perhaps needs reshooting then.

No. Despite the 100+ options you spent hours poring over, he’s spending two seconds to take one and only one photo because he feels like it. Want a retake? There’s a promise about reshoots on the order form. That sentence is printed on the back of the part you’ll fill out and give away, rendering it lost forever—barring, of course, another hiccup in time.

There’s also an asterisk printed beside the guarantee. Look all over the order form for what the asterisk refers to—you won’t find it. I suspect you can find the explanation at the photographer’s studio; visits are by appointment only. In tiny type, it’s stuck to the third dartboard. You’d best not lean too close.

Elena and I were just finishing up this year’s form, for our son, Andrew, when I saw the last display of the school photographer’s power. “You know,” my wife was saying, “that’s one thing I feel sad about Katie being in college.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“They don’t do photos anymore.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Not what they mean by ‘sales volume’

It seems like only yesterday that I was in the aisles of an electronics store, scratching my head. No, not from the usual lice. I was there to pick out a DVD recorder for my father-in-law. And I couldn’t make a decision for the life of me. What’s more, it was lunchtime and I was hoping to actually get some food, too.

If you know I wrote about electronics in a previous life, you know my trouble wasn’t from feeling clueless about the technology. No, my issue was that I couldn’t think. I glared toward the corner of the floor, where one of a rack of auto sound systems was playing music at a volume loud enough to make the deaf hold their ears.

“Excuse me,” I called over to a passing employee, “could you please turn that down? I’m trying to pick something out here.”

I tried to put myself in his position and imagine the answer that would come: “Sure…and can I answer any questions for you?” Which made it all the more surprising when he sauntered to the offending device… and cranked it up even higher. Smirking, he walked away.

Shopping, it’s time I admitted, just isn’t about the shopper.

This is about more than the din. Just arrive at the intersection of aisles, for instance, at the same instant as an employee in most department or grocery stores. Do you think you get to go first? Or pick up a customer-service phone to ask for help in, say, housewares. Don’t worry, you won’t have to step aside for the stampede of clerks arriving to help; they’re no suckers. Once in Kmart, I saw a skeleton with a pocketbook, leaning against a shopping cart. It was nowhere near Halloween.

Yet the music, so to speak, sets the tone. Just try to walk through the doors of the typical store with something in your head. Anything from the quart of milk the kids need to the brilliant notion of a new invention that will make you millions—forget it. One blast of that music, and whatever was in your thoughts is long gone.

The Muzak many of us once heard in stores was bland, incredibly boring and annoying to listen to—but only if you listened to it. Muzak, after all, was background music; you could tune it out without much effort. For most stores today, what you’ll hear instead is one beat-heavy track after another. You only have to be in the store for ten or twenty minutes? Tough. You have to listen to what will get them through their agonizing shift.

My father-in-law, Eddie, probably the coolest man I know, takes matters into his own hands. It’ll be the middle of the afternoon when he goes up to the manager. “Tell me who you see shopping here,” he’ll tell the 25-year-old, who doesn’t have to look: Everywhere around are seniors. “Do you think they want to hear this music?”

Not that his strategy always works. I could tell him what does work: shopping online with his music of choice playing softly on iTunes. But at 82, he just wants his store back.

Someone else probably does, too. And it’s only proper to accept heavenly justice with that certain demonic glee.

A few months after that DVD-recorder shopping experience, you see, the last bit of news about Circuit City hit. My first thought was sympathy for the many, many good people who would soon lose their jobs, with the hope they’d quickly find new work. But in my next thought, I could almost hear one particular young man’s feet pounding the pavement. Now, that was music.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Summertime, with one jam after another

It’s often during a long workday, with one deadline piled onto another like those medieval tortures that involved piling up rocks—with a person beneath, of course. This particular person sees a restful evening ahead and calls his wife to confirm. But it is not to be. “Weren’t you going to the jam tonight?” asks Elena.

That’s right—my other life. You see, I’m part of the Westchester live-music scene. Me and my…my…you were waiting for an instrument? Me and my daughter, the guitarist. I go along to most of them, as parent, chauffer and roadie—not necessarily in that order. Over four summers plus holidays, a couple of times a week, it turns out I’ve been to more than 120. Sleep? Silly Daddy.

When Katie isn’t working or in school, it seems she’s either practicing, playing at jams or playing in her own or others’ gigs—engagements that, in theory, are paid. (Silly musicians.) Every jam kicks off with a “house” band that includes the person running the event. That band opens with several songs that set the tone: rock, blues, R&B or a mix. As they play, anyone who wants to play in the jam signs a list with name and talent: voice, guitar, bass, drums, sax or whatever. So far, no didgeridoos. But you never know.

The house bands are always good, with professional talent that would intimidate relative newbies but for their welcoming attitudes. (If it were me playing, I’d be intimidated anyway.) For us, though, the next part affects how good a night it will be for Katie, not to mention those of us watching and listening. The guy running the jam has to put together one set after another. Sometimes it’s with musicians he doesn’t even know; other times, with ones he knows too well. And despite his best efforts, the results can be mixed.

Where it sometimes goes wrong has to do with the nature of jams. It’s one thing for a musician to learn a song. It’s quite another, when the person running a set points to say it’s your turn, to improvise a solo that’s both technically impressive and melodic. With someone who knows how to do this, it’s quite possible, often moving, and fascinating for a non-musician to watch. All the soloist needs is for the other musicians to cooperate. Silly soloist.

Despite my lack of musical talent, I know how things are supposed to go. Rhythm guitarists, um, play in rhythm to help the soloist. Katie is told she does this well, keeping her own volume down when other musicians are soloing. But some guitarists don’t play well with others. A rhythm guitarist who experiments with all the pedals in his collection as the other guitarist is trying to solo doesn’t seem to be playing nice. But the disrespect is clearly equal-opportunity. Imagine the diplomatic skills needed if you’re running a jam and a guitarist waiting to play decides to tune his guitar, at full volume, during the house set. Try to keep from killing one who sets up in front of the house band and begins playing along without being asked.

It gets more interesting. Drummers keep the tempo, right? Tell the one who was looking to the bass player for cues as to the beat. I suppose it’s better than the occasional drummer who thinks he’s playing Yankee Stadium and drowns everyone else out. (Where's an umpire when you need one?) And then there’s a guy I suspect is former CIA. When he’s running a set, he knows the chords and key of a song they’re about to do. He just doesn’t want the other musicians to know.

But such times won’t go on forever. In fact, Katie’s departure for her last year of college tells me this night-after-night jam sandwich could eventually give way to more paid gigs. Plus, of course, a music career with enough cash rolling in for our little girl to help Elena and me live to high on the hog in our golden years. Maybe we’ll even get backstage passes on her international tour.

Silly parents.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The only way to unravel

The 206,000 who clicked “Like” on flight attendant Steven Slater’s Facebook page is a small crowd compared to the millions who bought the 45-rpm record of Johnny Paycheck’s “Take this Job and Shove It” back in the ‘70s. But the sentiment is the same. Even in this dire economy, quitting an unrewarding job resonates.

Still, the questions remain—and not just about the brand of beer he made off with, two cans’ worth, as he slid down the emergency chute into stardom—on the way to jail. I want to know what really happened between him and the passenger. I want to know why the passenger who allegedly hit Slater with her bag wouldn’t apologize.

I want to know why Steven Slater reminds me so much of Stephen Stucker, who played Johnny the air-traffic controller in the movie Airplane.

If Slater has his way, everyone will buy his tell-all book to get our questions answered—and to view the dark underbelly of a business we see, of course, as only glamorous. What tell-all book? The one I suspect has already hit the printer, having been ghost-written from recorded transcripts and edited in a matter of hours. There’s no time to waste, after all. Already the fickle public has been distracted by a charming girl who quit her job using a dry-erase board and squealed on her Farmville-addicted boss in the process. And the employee and company don’t even exist.

But you can count me among the few who haven’t yet clicked “Like” on Slater’s fan page. I fly a few times a year, often on Jet Blue, and haven’t seen anything that would make a flight attendant throw away a career over one bad day.

Take me, for instance, a model passenger. I’m not one of those travelers who arrives at the gate with monstrous baggage that would never fit into the overhead bins. Nope, I keep it in a smaller-sized bag that’s easy to swing around as I barge to the front of the line. Passengers with children? Sorry, your adorable walking time bombs should more properly go on last—the less time aboard the better. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor.

Once I’ve raced on ahead of the herd, I stow my bag above and take out my kazoo. It calms me before a flight, you see. The only hitch is that the only time my fellow passengers quiet down enough for me to play is during the flight attendant’s explanation of the safety procedures. And before you ask, I’m not one of those people who needs to be told ten times to stow my personal item fully beneath the seat in front of me. What do you take me for? Seven or eight times is plenty enough.

Jet Blue is special among airlines in that each passenger’s seat has a little TV in front of it. When the flight attendants come around to offer us headphones, I am only too considerate. To show respect for my fellow passengers, I avoid raising my voice even a decibel as I tell the flight attendant where he can put his headphones, which used to be free—but now cost two bucks.

Once the plane is in the air, I’m not so discourteous of the flight attendants that I ignore federal law to make cell calls and check email right before their eyes. Nope, I wait till they go down the aisle to fetch us free drinks and snacks. I even make sure, when in the bathroom, to properly dispose of my cigar butts before returning to my seat.

Flight attendants are people, too. That’s why I make a point of thanking each and very one of them on my way off the plane. This is tougher than it sounds—I’m out of breath, after all, from climbing over passengers in my way. But you know, it really should go without saying: Courtesy is everything. Just ask Steven Slater.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where a man can shed his anxieties

Listen to my wife, Elena, and you’ll come to think it has a flat-screen TV, the latest digital-surround sound, a satellite dish, reclining leather chair, and a temperature-controlled wine fridge. Plus the requisite fold-out table to put the pizza box. I hear my beloved myself whenever I grab the little key and mutter something indecipherable about yard work. Invariably comes the grin, followed by the comment. “Ohhhh,” my darling chimes in, “you’re going there.”

Some guys buy red sports cars when they hit their mid-life crises. Me? I put up a shed.

If the shed’s construction was my mid-life crisis, I have a funny way of choosing one—it probably took five years off my life. I couldn’t even have predicted the very idea of needing a shed, having spent the first two-thirds of my life in an apartment. There, I needed only a little shovel for when the plows pushed snow up against the parked car on three sides. Lawn gear? Snowblowers? Those contraptions were what those people needed to take care of the grounds. In fact, snowblowers seemed specially designed to pile up snow against parked cars on the fourth side.

During the many years we looked for a house, I understood that those people would someday be rolled efficiently into one person: myself. Still, I never thought I’d need so much equipment to take care of the property that it couldn’t all fit in the garage along with the car. All that changed two winters ago, when the little snowblower gave up the ghost after years of being grossly outmatched. The new, beefier one indeed would also fit snugly in the garage. As soon as I finished sawing the trunk off the car.

“Hey, Andrew,” I said to my son, “let’s put up a shed!” Both of us were game for the idea; there’s something exceptional about a father and son sweating like pigs together in the summer sun. Besides our smell, I mean. For an eight-by-ten-foot shed, we needed to clear a space at least a foot wider all around. Which meant removing several hundred pounds of hill, along with a mélange of stubborn roots from nearby trees. It was slow, tedious work, and eventually reason made an appearance. “Hey, Andrew,” I said. “Let’s finish clearing the site—and let someone else put it up.”

As it turned out, the most labor-intensive part of putting up a shed is everything that comes before the actual shed itself. You won’t understand until a pickup truck comes to deliver a couple of cubic yards of gravel and crushed rock you ordered, and dumps little mountains in your driveway before driving off. Forty wheelbarrow trips later, Andrew and I spread out the stone to form the shed’s foundation. And as we finished, a heavy rain came. The two of us sat for a while on our little wooden bench, drenched, and shivered as the cool rain ran down our backs. If I’d ever regretted taking on this onerous task, I’d have changed my mind as we sat together, relishing our success.

I consider the shed a win-win on several fronts. Because I can get at the mower and other lawn gear more readily, the property theoretically looks better—except for grass-scorching droughts like the one we just suffered. The site prep kept my physical therapist busy for several months. And now we can get in and out of the car while it’s in the garage. Not that I want to drive places anymore, though: I have a shed.

The one we had delivered and installed has a little window with a planter beneath, which made it good for Elena, too. My sweetheart, after all, needed something nice to look at as she peers out the back window…and wonders what I’m doing out there this time.

With such troubling news lately, I know I’d better enjoy the new addition while I can. Any day now, I expect to come home one day and go to the shed to find the lock broken and all the outdoor gear piled up in the pachysandra. I’ll open the door; a shaft of afternoon sun will reveal several puzzled faces. “Cierra la puerta,” I’ll hear a woman whisper. “The baby is sleeping.”

Sunday, July 18, 2010

It’s the slice of life

Yes, doctor, I’ve been told I should see someone about my favorite…obsession. I won’t keep you in the dark: It’s pizza. My wife has mapped out my brain, you see, and pizza forms the biggest part. No, she’s not a scientist, doctor. And you are, yes, of course I’ve noticed your certificates; you positioned the couch so I’d face them. So—cheesy. But that’s what I mean. And it’s gotten worse, as I’ve been pining for a long-lost pizza place.

Let me stop you there, doc…. Where I come from, the word “pizzeria” might be on the sign, but nobody who grew up in Flushing, Queens, a generation ago used that word to describe a business that made and served pizza. It’s a pizza place, Bub. Okay, okay, Doctor Bub. Not a pizza parlor, shop, or restaurant. And certainly not “ristorante” unless you want tomato slices in place of sauce.

Yes, doc, I know I have just an hour, but it’s my dough. So...back to my obsession. I don’t often make it down to Flushing these days. But I’m plotting to go back. To a pizza place I’ve never visited. To have another slice or two of the best pizza I ever ate.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I can explain. My brother Vinnie tells me that Gloria Pizza opened a year before I was born, and it’s among my earliest memories. It was on Main Street in Flushing, a block from where the 7 line ended, and it had a narrow storefront whose customer space wouldn’t fit a fat man—ironic considering how many Gloria must have created. Judging from that belly, doc, I’m sure you have a favorite place of your own! Anyway, its counter was on the right. It ran front to back plus a street-side window that also sold ices. The left wall was all mirrors, and along it ran a shelf for eating what you bought: just pizza and soda in those early days. In between, no matter when you went, it was wall-to-wall people.

Tender and gooey, with sauce that had just a hint of sweetness, the pizza was always fresh out of the oven. In the mid-sixties, a slice cost 20 cents; a cup of soda, a dime. But you could get both for a quarter, something you with your fees could appreciate. It’s a pizza that other people, not just me, talk about on lots of websites, including this one—take it down, Doc. You have room in the margins of that crossword puzzle you’re doing. It even has its own Facebook fan page. Pretty good for a place that closed down in the ‘90s, huh?

But even though my favorite pizza place is long gone, I suppose I’ve been looking for that taste ever since. When the kids were small, I remember paying close attention during those pandemoniac birthday parties. Not to our kids but to the stacked boxes of hot, steaming pizza that some local pizza place would deliver. If the pizza showed up and no one made a move to serve it, I was prone to get agitated. Weren’t they…? Didn’t they see…? Shouldn’t someone…? And if any pizza was left once the kids were done, well, those bite-sized half-slices went down pretty quickly. Which was a good idea in case one of the little buggers came back for more.

Before I go on, doc, the seven-letter word you want for 8 Down is “anchovy”—yes, I can even smell pizza questions. And I thought something was fishy in how seldom you were spouting the requisite “uh huhs.” Not that I’ll eat pizza with any old thing on it. In fact, doc, if people ordering for a crowd with me in it plan to get that so-called pizza with broccoli, radicchio, artichoke hearts, pineapples or other such nonsense, they’d better also have plain-cheese slices around, or it won’t be pretty. You might think it’s more efficient to have your salad and pizza at the same time, doc, but I don’t see a single certificate on this wall for good taste.

Okay, doc, I know I’m talking in circles; if I liked Sicilian pizza, I’d talk in rectangles. So back to Gloria Pizza. That little hole-in-the-wall business is long gone, but apparently the pizza itself never quite did. No, I’m not getting all supernatural on you. My best friend, Jack, just told me that members of the same family that ran Gloria for years apparently have been running another pizza place, in a different part of town, since I was a teenager. Jack recently went back to Flushing to learn if it was indeed the same stuff he and I grew up on. He couldn’t just walk in; the line went out the door. But one slice, one soda, and he was back in time. So you think I have to go there, too, doc? Not quite.

Oh, you’ll want to answer that buzzer—they’re right on time. Stop your little clock and maybe you can have a slice.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I can carry a toon, all right

A little cast-iron anvil sits in front of my office computer. I’d bought the three-inch doodad at a gift shop, probably in Williamsburg, and initially thought of it as a metaphor of the work I do—as if my job of stringing thoughts together somehow compared to a blacksmith’s sweaty, grueling job of pounding and twisting red-hot metal.

But over time my true intentions have surfaced, like the slag in a vat of molten metal. (Allow me one bit of mileage out of that metaphor before I cast it aside.) The anvil is there to remind me of my upbringing. I’m actually not talking about my dear parents’ boundless love and devotion. I’m referring to what I learned from countless hours of watching cartoons as a kid. And how I’ve made it through the years despite how often advice from my parents and, say, Warner Brothers conflicted.

When my family visited the Empire State Building, both Mom and Dad warned us kids to stand back from the ledge, not that we could’ve scaled the high fencing. But in my heart, I knew that I could have run off the edge and make my way back safely, without falling, so long as I didn’t look down to see how far it was to the ground—at which point, of course, I’d have fallen. But even if I had, I’d have gotten up a few moments after I hit the ground, made a little dust cloud, and left a spread-eagle Ed impression in the concrete below.

Stay away from fireworks! I can still hear my mom, and I mostly listened. But I knew better: Any explosives that went off, even several sticks of dynamite inches from my face, would only cover my face with ashes and fray the edges of any hat I’m wearing. (It worked for Elmer Fudd, after all.) I’d have no wounds.

I dated my wife, Elena, for about six months before I realized she was the one. Had I consulted my parents, I know they’d have said it was enough time to feel sure. But from those old Krazy Kat cartoons, I know that the whole process could have taken six seconds…if only one of us had thrown a brick at the other’s head.

While I'm sure I got my share of parental advice about bullies, it's from cartoons that I truly know how to defend myself. (It frequently comes in handy at the office.) Whenever someone needs a good hit on the head, for instance, all I need to do is reach behind me to find a big mallet. Granted, there’s a bit of uncertainty here; instead of a mallet, I might produce an anvil. But then again, an anvil is just as likely to drop from the sky—directly onto someone who truly deserves an anvil to the head. The downside? The anvil’s recipient will only walk around a few moments as a head with feet, probably in circles, before straightening back up to normal size.

As a last resort, I can whip out a can of spinach; never mind that I might have no memory of packing one that particular day. I don’t even need a can opener; the generic version opens with a squeeze.

When we were teenagers, my best friend Jack Cotter and I walked around in Flushing Meadow Park every chance we got. Once near the edge of the park, we watched as a nearby bakery flashed messages on a rooftop LCD sign. The entire message:


Since there wasn’t room for all that, the sign displayed the first line, paused, and then displayed the second. But an instant after seeing “WE WISH YOU A SAFE,” Jack and I turned to each other and shouted in unison: “BOOM!” Everybody who grew up with cartoons, after all, knows that safes are just likely as anvils to fall from the heavens. More than 30 years later, it’s still a running joke we share.

Ah, but I'm afraid I've given a wrong impression: I'm really not so violent of nature. In fact, I'm so polite that I'd like to invite you to sit down to a nice cup of tea. Perhaps you'd like some sugar! I've got some here...yes, I just happen to have it behind me. One lump or two?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Runneth over by The Cup

Yes, World Cup tournament, I understand. Thank you for the reminder. Let me get this straight: I’m to take off from work. I’m allowed to eat, so long as I do so in front of a TV showing whichever of the games the media tell me matters most at that moment. Probably a flat-screen set, too, with a the latest flavor of Dolby Digital so I can hear those infernal vuvuzelas from 360 degrees as well as at 360 decibels. I get it—all this goes with the package. And sleep? I guess I’m out of luck. South Africa is six hours away from EST, which means that if I must work, it’ll be at night rather than during the day. If I want to sleep, I have to do it in, oh, mid-July.

That’s what the Fédération Internationale de Football Association seems to want. It’s what the media seem only too happy to relay, panting, to their audience. It’s easier than reporting.

The way I see it, though, the soccer gods should consider themselves lucky at least that I know, as of this past weekend, what FIFA stands for. Insist I watch a soccer game and, for all I know, I could end up like that fellow whose family decided he wasn’t going to watch the World Cup on TV—or, for that matter, anything else. Ever again.

Not that I’ve never paid attention to the World Cup. On July 11, 1982, Elena and I were walking in Manhattan, celebrating in the vicinity of speeding cars full of loud, cheering Italians. Italy, after all, had just won that year’s World Cup. Of course, we and the fans weren’t rejoicing over the same news. Soccer? What was soccer? I’d just proposed to Elena, and she’d said yes.

I can’t blame FIFA for all the breathless excitement. Its public-relations reps, like those of any organization, do what they’re paid to do: peddle the product to the most people possible, if not with as much alliteration as possible. And it isn’t merely the World Cup. How often do the media tell us what we ought to watch, read, listen to, even believe? We’re supposed to be gaga for Lady Gaga, the way we were supposed to worship Madonna. The 6 p.m. news, moreover, is never going to lead with a real story when someone unexpected just got voted off American Idol.

Even as a kid, I was bothered by how a rock band I’d never even heard of (we called bands “groups” then) would come out with a live album that my brother Stephen would bring home. At the beginning of the album, I’d hear the band announced, followed by throngs of people cheering for them or the album’s opening song. This sort of thing always unsettled me, since the band and song were new to me. How could they cheer so loudly for a band and song they didn’t yet know were any good? I’d later learn that not only was this not the band’s first album, but that several had come out before this one. I was eight years old and already uncool.

A few years older now, I’ve come to realize I’m destined to know only some of all that the world has to offer. I just would like to partake of it with my own little spoon—without some reporter shoving it down my throat.

Excuse me now, I have to vote a few hundred more times for the ballplayers I want in the All-Star Game.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hey, I heard that

You know who you are. Actually, you probably don’t—though it’s time you knew. If you’re like most people, you don’t even notice when fluorescent lights buzz or floors creak. Or when someone close by is tapping, tapping, tapping.

But if you’re like me, you notice everything.

It isn’t a matter of exceptional hearing. Plenty of people besides me ace their hearing tests, even a select few who attended more concerts as teenagers. Yet I don’t miss much. Cars that pull up in the driveway. Conversations in other rooms of the house. The difference between the low and medium fan settings on the kids’ air conditioners. Upstairs. When I’m downstairs.

Mostly, though, it’s that that my antenna is always up. If I’m having a conversation or deeply engrossed in something I’m writing, little that’s going on around me will jar my concentration. (The political yappers in the office hallway are the exception.) But trust me: Those other little sounds have not escaped my notice. I suspect I’m the product of having grown up in a family of eight. Any time we were home at the apartment, chances were that someone, in some room, was talking about me.

Is it a problem? You tell me. I wake up each morning still peeved at whichever bird outside was discourteous this time. (I don’t happen to believe that a bird whose call is Jeter-Jeter-Jeter, for instance, should wake up a Met fan.) If I park to get coffee on the way to work, I’ll notice every SUV that simply must bark to tell its owner that the keyless-entry remote works. Should your watch’s alarm go off—tattling on you for never learning the settings—believe me, it registered. And don’t get me started about Velcro.

I’ve known for some time that I lack the ability to tune out ambient sounds. At one school I attended in the Coast Guard, I wished I could change my morning schedule so that I wouldn’t be shaving at the same time as one fellow student. He’d run his razor down one swath of his face, then strike the razor against the edge of the sink to knock off the excess: Tap-tap. Another swath: Tap-tap. And so on for seemingly ten minutes, which I found odd since his beard didn’t leave much surface to shave. Never a tap. Never a tap-tap-tap. Either of these would have broken his unintentional yet accursed pattern. I considered deserting.

And these days, I drive to work with special memories about the years I spent riding the Metro-North commuter train into Grand Central. Yep, there’s something about riding a train, that certain rhythm of the wheels as the air beneath the cars stumbles over the rail ties with a gentle woppata woppata that can lull me to sleep. And would have, too, if not for my fellow passengers. It wasn’t merely the cellphone talkers, however much I’d wished them into a special prattle car. It also wasn’t just the loud headphones, or the man who once napped beside me and hummed a long note each and every time he exhaled. My special beef was with those who habitually came onto the train with a newspaper and proceeded to tear it to shreds. One article after another: a little reading, then a lot of ripping that, somewhere inside my brain, was breaking apart lobes. If this happened today, I’d be writing Santa. Not for noise-canceling headphones but, rather, a few online Times subscriptions—for them. Smart phones and laptops are a lot harder to rip.

Fortunately, what often seems a curse can become a blessing. My wife, Elena, often tells the story from once, in Ogunquit, Maine, that we were walking through an open parking area at Perkins Cove, on the way to some shops. Without warning, I suddenly gave her a good, hard shove. What added to her shock was that she was seven months’ pregnant. But before she could respond, the car that had been approaching us from behind, its driver passing out from a stroke, rolled by. An instant later the passenger, the driver’s wife, got her foot on the brake. Elena hadn’t heard it coming.

So I’ll take it. If anything, I’m first in line at the ice-cream truck.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Don’t try this at home

You know the drill. You get some ailment, go to the doctor and get a prescription. Whatever your problem, the medicine you end up with shares this common trait with all others: Among the myriad potential side effects listed is one that’s identical to what the drug is designed to relieve. A drug for stomach upset, in other words, could give you stomach upset. One for sleep trouble might keep you awake. Got pain? It might be from the stupid way you lifted something—or from the drug prescribed for the pain. The original pain, for all you know, might be long gone.

It isn't just medicine. Watch a commercial on TV or listen to one on the radio. Car leasing, cellphone service, investments...the commercial's ending is invariably a monotonous rambling slew of syllables detailing how all exceptions to the commercial you just heard apply to you. If you could make any of it out, that is. Remember the speed-talking Joe Moschitta of that award-winning Federal Express commercial of 1981? I'm convinced he must make a big living as a coach to those who recite disclaimers at the ends of commercials.

Some of this, of course, comes from how we’ve become a super-litigious society. Consider all the disposable coffee cups with “Warning, this beverage is hot” printed on the side if you don’t agree. If you list every contingency imaginable, the theory apparently goes, the manufacturer can always say you were warned. But let’s face it—nobody takes responsibility for anything anymore. Just ask your weatherman.

Don’t think this trend has gone as far as it will. But maybe it shouldn’t stop here. I, for one, think it’s high time the rest of us had our own legalese disclaimers that could be posted at the entrances to our offices or cubicles, and piped into the phone as the boss is left on hold. Here’s one that could apply to many of us on Monday mornings—just not me (disclaimer):

Employee subject to lethargic fugue prior to ingestion of coffee, after lunch and throughout afternoon. Hunger prior to lunch may produce similar response. Guarantee to answer ringing phones and emails subject to prevailing mood and whim. Nodding in meetings not indicative of understanding or agreement. Help provided to mentored employees inversely related to level of perceived talent. Instructions carried out solely until receipt of written compliment supporting annual case for promotion.

Still, we’d better be careful here. The latest wave of entrants to America’s labor force is graduating this month, and if we fogies-in-training don’t get cracking, we’re bound to disclaim our lazy behinds right out of our jobs.

That is, until employers take the time to read the disclaimers some graduates present once hired:

Employee punctuality subject to length of line stood in to buy double-espresso raspberry mocha frappachino. Employee not responsible for time required to read and comment on status updates of 400 Facebook friends per hour. Texts received from friends and others during work hours immediately addressed with LOL or other appropriate response. Employee’s agreement to perform assigned duties subject to nullification should volume of manager’s voice exceed volume of music playing on employee’s personal audio device. Employer recognizes employee’s reserved right to corner office as per 16+ years’ inflation of self-esteem.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can you hear me still?

As cellphone users go, I’m the equivalent of a stuffed animal—the silent part, of course, not the cute cuddliness. That's how seldomly I use the phone. But having been born without the ability to tune out ambient sound, I can’t help but notice that many, many more words are being spoken into cellphones than before these products became ubiquitous. Is more actually being said? That’s for another blog.

What I find most interesting is that after years of work by manufacturers to implant a cellphone into every hand, other manufacturers are working very hard to get people talking on these devices to shut up and give the rest of us a break.

The product in question, a cellphone jammer, had served merely as an object of my fantasies for years before the other day, when I read about it in The Wall Street Journal. The columnist described his friend, Philip, as “one of the most civilized and heroic people I know.” But it seems one person’s right to speak loudly into a cellphone confronted, once too many, Philip’s right to his private thoughts. So after politely requesting that a person lower his voice, Philip’s next step was to reach into his pocket. To press a button that sent a scrambling frequency. To deliver justice to a lawless band.

I could have used one of these devices during my return from one particular business trip to Washington, DC. Having decided to return by train, I'd actually been looking forward to taking Amtrak again. I settled in to enjoy the ride, feeling my eyelids growing heavy. Until, that is, a few minutes after the train left Washington’s Union Station. When the fellow across from me pulled out his phone, called a friend and talked about absolutely nothing that needed saying…for 250 miles.

Let’s face it: Whenever we hear someone talking on a phone within earshot (okay, maybe it’s just me), we make judgments. We decide whether this side of the conversation is of a topic, volume and pitch we consider reasonable for public airing. If so, some of us have a chance to tune it out. If not, we might well imagine someone, anyone, grabbing the phone out of the offender’s hand, throwing it to the ground and stomping it to pieces. Other than the phone’s owner, who wouldn’t cheer?

On one hand, I understand why cellphone jammers are typically illegal except for, say, the military and police. Consider, for a moment, that a jammer blocks the signal not only of the offending phone but also of surrounding phones on which people are discussing important things. You know, like precisely when to make a stock trade as someone’s life savings hang in the balance. How much bleeding a sleep-deprived OR intern should consider inappropriate as he performs his first surgery. Or where I can find the nearest breakfast buffet.

On the other hand? I don’t just want a cellphone jammer—I’m far too ambitious for that. Intended only for phone conversations, jammers do nothing, nothing, for those other distractions.

I want a universal mute button.

Think of the sheer implications of such power. I expect I’d quickly get creative once I've taken care of the obvious uses: garbage trucks, car alarms and barking dogs. Think of the doofus with the crooked ballcap who likes to gun his car—the one whose muffler has long popped its welds—past your house late at night. I’d be waiting at the window …Mute. Take those Jet Skis and other “personal watercraft” that plague more and more beaches. Sorry if your engine’s drone is part of your fun, Bub, but we came to hear the wash of the waves. Mute. And what about the ubiquitous music blaring in restaurants, malls and supermarkets? It might be okay…if only it suited the tastes of the paying customers, not the employees. Mute. Mute. And mute.

Alas, there’s a downside to all this. Were the technology to truly exist that could cancel out any annoying sound at the touch of a button, you can bet it would be very expensive, at least at the get-go. It would also be illegal—or some short-sighted people would be using it on every police, fire or ambulance siren.

And for all I know, sometime I might be at the counter of, say, the post office. I’d be in the middle of trying to explain to someone who doesn’t speak Queens how I want something mailed, and the patience of someone behind me on the line will reach its end. He’ll reach into his pocket, press a button and “…all I’m trying to tell you—” …will be nothing, since my lips would suddenly produce no sound whatsoever.

Thankfully, I’ve a backup plan. I’ve got Italian blood, you see, so have a cultural advantage no technology can erase…not counting a chain saw. I can gesture my way, arms flailing, for the rest of the conversation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

At least we’re never alone

We all watched cartoons as a kid. One common scene is when a character, facing a moral decision, hears conflicting advice from two little floating companions that look like him (females have no such conflicts) but with distinct differences. One has wings and a halo; the other, horns and a pitchfork. We’ve never forgotten those critters because we have, in real life, our own individual twosomes telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. They follow us everywhere. And they never, ever shut up.

Oh, if life were only as easy as that these days. To follow the right path, you had to just listen to what the angel said and tell the devil, well, to go to hell. What’s hard about that?

But the little angel and devil, you see, are no longer alone.

Take the first little critter. Though floating in the air like the others, he’s shuffling his feet. He’s looking at his watch and furtively glancing at the nearest doorway. He exhales through his nostrils like a bull preparing to charge. Somewhere, anywhere.

His name is Agita.

Agita doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong. Strict rules of the International Critter Union—the acronym is no accident—keep jobs from overlapping. His job is to whisper in your ear, whenever you’re in a hurry, what will raise your blood pressure the highest. He asks little questions like, “Aren’t you leaving a bit late for work?” Answer yes to a question like this at your peril, because the follow-up comes next: “Didn’t you mean to buy gas on the way in? Didn’t you need to stop at the ATM?”

He uses both the angel’s and devil’s words for his own ends. The angel’s: “Sure, pick up the check, big spender. You can tell the family you’re vacationing on Staten Island this year.” And the devil’s: “Yeah, find a reason to hit the men’s room just as the waiter comes with the check…but every wife at the table will notice.”

If you’re not in a hurry? You will be. That bill you have to pay. That email you have to write. That repairman you need to call. You might, in a moment of clarity, decide no…no! I don’t want to get to work frazzled by doing everything that occurred to me before I left. Those things can wait till tonight!

You might get away with it, too, except for another critter: Agita’s companion-in-arms, Gotta.

Gotta wears a bow tie and, though he resembles his host, has twisted his version of your face into a sniveling expression. He isn’t there to tempt or to make you worry over things you really ought to do. Because to Gotta, there are no two ways about it. He stands and stares, arms crossed, blows a whistle and recites from his clipboard everything that’s your job to do. What’s on it? Everything. Take that computer you’re probably looking into at this very moment. Gotta’s list is long: Anti-virus, anti-otherbadstuff. Software and driver updates. New printers, mice, keyboards. Printer ink and paper, too. You need to back up your data and, every now and then, delete those emails with big, fat photos that fill up the hard disk. You think your computer works for you? According to Gotta, it’s the other way around.

The way Gotta sees you, it’s all just duty. But he has a way of turning everything around, if you let him, to take all enjoyment out of everything you do. Plant a garden? “It needs weeding, dead-heating, and fertilizing.” Take a walk in the park on a nice, sunny day? “You need sunscreen and mosquito repellent!” Stay home, make a nice cappuccino and read the paper? There…what could get in the way of that? Nothing, except that your most talkative friend’s own Agita tells her that she really ought to call you—at the very moment you sit down and bring the cup close enough to your lips to smell the cinnamon.

Besides, relaxing is really no option when all of them—well-meaning as the angel is—work on you at the same time. The din can be deafening:

• “Why don’t you go clear the snow from your neighbor’s driveway? He’s getting too old for this.”
• “What, the same fine fellow who complains if you don’t get to mow often enough for him? He can hire out like anyone else!”
• “If you don’t spend every available minute to make your own driveway perfect, the mailman will fall on his butt and sue yours.”
• “You’ve got another hour’s worth of chores indoors after you finish this alone, and it’s almost 11 p.m.!”

I don’t know what it says about 21st-century life that it’s the little devil who seems to have gotten reinforcements. I’m also wondering about another friend of Agita and Gotta.

I only notice this one while I’m at work. It has a constant cigarette, rolled-up sleeves and a raspy voice with a short but devastating repertoire: “You call this writing? You call that writing?”

I suspect that anyone who makes a living as a writer knows this one, who combines the worst qualities of Agita and Gotta, union regs be damned.

If you do any writing whatsoever, no matter what the job, you might even have met Edita yourself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Even a paper tiger has his resources

The newspaper is there long before I wake up. I presume it comes flying out from the passenger-side window of one of many cars that pass by in early morning. I have never met the driver. I suspect it might come from an unmanned drone, one possible reason today’s newspapers are going broke.

Folks who grew up in upper Westchester would likely tell me that newspaper delivery has always been for adults of driving age. But that’s not the way I grew up. No, the wilds of upper Queens spawned throngs of paperboys as young as 11 armed with canvas shoulder bags, bikes or shopping carts. We had three basic goals. One, of course, was making 20 bucks or more a week. Another was nobly serving customers—as long as they behaved and paid their bills with a fat tip. The last? Turning our parents’ hair gray, of course. This wasn’t something I would ever have thought of at age 13, when I first started delivering the Long Island Press. But looking back on it now, and with a son and daughter of my own, I realize it had to be high on the list.

Weekdays could not have worried them much; I did my route after school and still got the homework done. On Saturdays, I’d pick up my papers at 10-ish and was done by lunchtime. But there were two times of the week that had to be a concern. The first was my weekly collection on Thursday night. At one point I had two routes: one my manager gave to me and another I started on a block other paperboys were scared to deliver to. (Yes, it was my neighborhood.) And by the time I finished collecting, I had a hundred dollars or more in bills and coins bulging rather noticeably from one jeans pocket.

Thieves were one potential threat on collection night. Dogs were another, since most times I’ve been bitten were during collections as a teenager. But oh, those were the tangible fears. After the first five kids, I guess neither parent had sufficient breath to ask Number 6, as my dad affectionately called me, to please, please not go out at 2 a.m. to deliver newspapers. They might not have known that most paperboys did their Sunday deliveries at 6 or 7, when at least a few people would be out, and it never occurred to me to tell them. It was my adventure for the week, after all, and I relished the notion that no matter how early my customers got up, they’d find the paper outside their door.

Presuming I made it to their door alive. Take the bald guy in the trenchcoat who kept talking to me as I awaited the truck, which was late. Long before he asked the question he’d been leading up to, I’d pegged him as a pervert for being out alone at 2:30 on a Sunday morning—and for chit-chatting so long to a 13-year-old. I had the advantage: I waited in the street, not in the windowless office, and kept myself between him and the police station, a half-block away. Months later, I learned he lived next door to one of my customers. He’s probably now in Congress.

Then there was the bozo who decided to follow me in his car as I carried the papers toward my route. He’d drive up a few feet past me—and smile diabolically as I passed him. This went on several times till I ran out of patience. His car could go only in the direction of the road; I could go, more or less, where I wanted. So I cut over to a one-way street where he couldn’t follow except in reverse—which would have looked pretty silly for someone intending to look diabolical. By the time he circled back, he’d lost me for good.

Still, I learned lots of good stuff, too, as a paperboy. Sure, there was all that boring stuff about entrepreneurship and growing a business. I’m talking about the cool things. I figured out how many newspapers my parents’ fold-up shopping carts were not designed to hold; I went through two or three. I showed exemplary manners to building superintendents to wheedle out keys to their apartment buildings, so that I didn’t have to buzz my customers on the lobby intercom at 3 a.m. on Sundays, and to pick the lock of one building where the super had said no. I learned how to stalk customers who tried to pretend they weren’t home when I rang the bell to collect. And, through empirical study, I ascertained how many bell rings the average human being can bear before giving up and, sobbing hysterically, opening the door to hand me a rubber check for any amount I desired.

Come to think of it, the world was somehow safer then—even for foolhardy 13-year-olds. I guess I have to prefer the unmanned drones. Ones that can pull fold-up shopping carts, pick locks and fire the occasional heat-seeking missile.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Suppose you could call it a turf war

Talk about not taking a hint. They’re back. They leave phone messages and send me letters. They aren't stalkers, but if they were I might take them up on their offer. Because then, I’d know they’ve prowled around the property. They’d know precisely what the lawn needs, and might thus have some solution other than randomly spraying chemicals at everything wider than a blade of grass.

Yes, the lawn folk are back. They go by various names, but they might as well be the same company. Imagine if you went to your doctor for a physical, and—instead of doing the usual examination—he immediately handed you a prescription that most other people your age, gender, height and weight needed to take. That’s what your lawn gets. I might as well hire someone who spent the first two-thirds of his life in an apartment.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I have by doing the job myself. And as I dwell a little more on this matter, I realize I had all the necessary experience even before we got the house.

I hadn’t planned, as a teenager, to go into the yard-care business. What credentials could I have shown, living in the tenth-floor apartment with do-not-walk-on-the-grass signs everywhere I looked? It started while I was delivering for a corner grocer. Mrs. Harris, a widow from around the corner, asked if I knew how to mow grass, and I said “Sure.” (It works for politicians.) After a couple of times doing that, the widow next door asked if I could do some work for her. I wondered, while saying no thanks to all Mrs. Weber’s offers of soda, what it was with these dead husbands. And it turned out I wasn’t far off.

Mrs. Weber asked me to transplant some pachysandra from one part of her yard to another. I’d never transplanted anything before, though it didn’t look hard: Dig enough under it, put it in a hole the same size, pat it down and soak it. As I recalled with pride when I was done, the hardest part had been shoving some annoying flagstones out of the way with my foot.

When I reported back, Mrs. Weber seemed interested in one detail. “Did you move any of those flat stones?” she asked.

“Um…I don’t think so,” I’d replied.

“Because they’re where I buried my cats.”

My fine performance led to recommendations, then a job offer working with “Doc,” a local landscaper who often stopped in at the grocer. Doc needed a helper; for some reason, his son could no longer lend a hand. And I needed a lesson in what not to do for a living. At each job site over one very long weekend, Doc told me half of what I needed to know about whatever he needed me to do. The other half? It came, in a blood-freezing scream, after I botched up each job—as I was destined to do, armed with only half-instructions. “Open the hatch on the side of the truck and put away the tools…NO, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRUCK!” I believe he was an editor in a past life.

On our own property, I think I do okay. The front lawn looks pretty green; lawn-company mailings make good fertilizer. In fact, it looks healthy enough to ward away not only the weeds but also the most diligent of lawn-care company reps—were one to actually drive by to see the lawn. The back is another story. I do the best I can against dandelions whose roots extend down to the Earth’s mantle. I yank out the clover when I can, but much of it must be four-leafed; it seems to have more luck than I have time. Much of the rest has evolved over the past, oh, 16 years to grow with three broad leaves that resemble poison ivy or oak. So it gets by, untouched, for much of the summer.

Someday, of course, I’ll need more help with the property. If we haven’t fled altogether to the planet Condo, we’ll know it’s time to let in the landscapers and lawn-care pros and let them at the property. And by the time I’m ready to hire one of them, I’ll be more than polite as I walk onto the stoop to offer positive criticism on their work.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rolling with life’s challenges, sparingly

The good news of the week is that I’ve gotten the okay. After six months, my physical therapist says that finally my arm is up to this. I feel ready, at last. And boy oh boy, I’d better try to keep my mind out of the gutter.

I can already feel that bowling ball in my hand.

But I’d better keep my perspective, for bowling isn’t what it used to be. When I first played in St. Michael’s School’s league at Whitestone Lanes in Flushing, there were rules. I mean, there were rules. You wore bowling shoes, or you weren’t allowed onto the alley. You never stepped over the foul line—if you did, a buzzer went off and you lost your score for that throw. You kept quiet when someone was bowling. This meant you never hollered, since at a 48-lane bowling alley, someone was always rolling a ball on some lane. And if you valued your life, you let the bowler to your right roll first.

If you can find a bowling alley in New York’s Westchester County, you’ll find bowling today radically different. Big speakers constantly blare dancing music, and there’s almost no lane you can bowl without being near one or another children’s birthday party. Just try to bowl when next to you, two or three bowlers from one such gathering are going at the same time, on their own lanes and adjacent ones, while bowlers awaiting their turn stand immediately behind holding their bowling balls. And dropping their bowling balls. Whoever isn’t actually on the lane is buried to the belt into 55-gallon drums of Cheetos, moments before approaching the lane and grabbing a ball, probably yours, with yellowed, greasy hands. And those are just the parents.

Then there’s an invention that, at first blush, seemed a way to make kids enjoy bowling: bumper bowl. If you asked that your lane have bumpers, the counter folk would flip a switch. Guard rails would rise on both sides of the lane to block any ball from going into the gutter. So no matter where even a small child rolls the ball, if it makes it down the lane at all, it will hit pins. Loud cheers and clapping ensue to celebrate each and every glorious triumph.

To parents, bumpers keep their kids interested, so bowling-alley management has to oblige to stay in business. But there’s a dirty little secret to bumpers. Imagine if you spent your entire early youth bowling with these self-esteem guards safely in place. Eventually, you get into your teens, show up at the bowling alley with some friends. Then comes the shock. You all realize you’re too embarrassed to ask for the bumpers, so you tough it out. Gutter, Gutter. One pin, Gutter. Three pins. Gutter. More gutters. The upshot, once you’ve all gotten disgusted? “Bowling sucks!” You never go back, since none of you had ever learned to aim the ball in the first place.

Which is all fine with me. My concentration on bowling, you see, has developed in a unique way. Besides allowing the bowler to my right to roll first, I let the one on the left go, too. The same goes for the bowlers on the next lanes over. And the next ones from there. In fact, I've come to bowl best when no one in the entire bowling alley is rolling a ball at the same time. While we’re at it, off with the speakers. And none of that hooting and clapping, either. So for the likes of me, bumper bowl means more peace and quiet.

Much as I hate to admit it, though, bowling alleys are bound to go away—at least in the New York metro area—long before I can afford my own private lane. So for my own good as a bowler, I’d better learn to concentrate no matter what the distraction. Okay, then…I suppose I can bowl right next to the party; with three balls going down the lane, my average has to go up. If I’m shooting for a spare, the high frequencies of the screeching could well start the pins shaking before I even release the ball. I might even learn to get more spin on the ball, like the pros have. Just let me at those Cheetos.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

C’mon, team, sometimes it is whether you win or lose

Elena handed me the phone, anticipating the look she was about to see on my face. “It’s Eric,” she said, “from the Mets.”

Ever since I first bought four tickets online to a Met game, several years ago, Eric has been calling once a year. A call from Eric, soon after opening day, has become as much a part of spring as the rains, the first dandelions and the mosquitoes. But until now, the answering machine had always done its duty by taking the call.

Eric didn’t hear what he wanted to hear in answer to his question, that I was ready, able and willing to spend up to $29,950 for a season ticket . Or at least a multi-game pack. He couldn’t even be sure, in fact, that I was going to attend a game at Citi Field this year at all. What kind of Met fan, he likely wondered, was I?

It’s a fair question, and a familiar one. Probably before Eric was born, I was rooting for the Mets. I grew up down the long block from Shea along Roosevelt Avenue, the one that crossed Flushing Creek, fetid in the stretch where it made a few last bends before Flushing Bay and LaGuardia Airport. Our building was close enough for us to hear the cheers from every good play, let alone the Beatles, The Who and other bands that performed at Shea. Without me, my Mom might never have gotten to watch the Mets on TV. “Turn the antenna left—no, right—now back—a little more. Now stand right there—don’t let go!” I remember my Mom’s grin as she’d say that last part.

I paid attention from their first World Series win in 1969. I went a few times a year with my next-door friend Anton or best-friend Jack with tickets we’d get from saving milk-carton coupons. I kept track through my mid-teen years, after which I seldom watched other than the play. (Fishing and girls took precedence, in that order.) The exception was during the 1986 World Series—a year after I married my girl—when the Mets’ Mookie Wilson shot a grounder through Red Sock Bill Buckner’s legs.

If all my fandom dated back to the ‛80s, I wouldn’t be having this discussion with myself. I’ve better topics if I were going to do that. But once the kids got old enough to care about baseball, Elena’s suppressed Yankee roots also resurfaced. And all three of them began accusing me of not being a fan: What kind of Met fan are you? So…I got back into the game for, oh, about as many years as I did in the ‛70s. I can’t blame fishing or romance this time. But I could blame my team. It's what Met fans, after all, do best.

This is the team whose fans, during the opening-day pre-game ceremony, booed the trainers. Its best players spend much of every season on the disabled list, and even if I studied the roster closely every day, invariably some player would come up to pitch or bat and I’d say, “Who the heck is this?” Donna, a colleague of mine down the hall, gave an analogy that went something like this: Imagine spending hundreds for your family to go to a Broadway play, only to learn that understudies were in the top roles. And for a role or two, they had nobody. (I suppose they went to the nearest restaurant and snatched up the first waiter they saw.) And she has a weekend season ticket.

Gian, with whom I work, takes a bleaker view of the sport in a recent Facebook post. “It all ended in 1993, with the Worst Team Money Could Buy.” He then describes the Mets as mostly “a kind of bizarro simulacrum of a once-proud franchise, kind of like the Knicks.” I don’t know about the Knicks. I don’t know about 1993 other that it was when my son, Andrew, came into this world. And I will never, ever know how to pronounce or use “simulacrum.”

What I do know, at least, is that I’m some kind of fan of David, Jose, Carlos and the gang. If I’m thinking of baseball at all, I’m wondering about how they did. And no matter who’s on the team, who gets traded (and however idiotically), who should get fired but doesn’t, I’m a fan. I never could play the game well, but plenty of people do. And when the game is going well—never mind that they’re coddled millionaires on HGH—it’s a joy to watch.

That “if” about thinking of baseball? Sure, It’s a mighty big if. I suppose I could have responded to Eric’s question about buying season tickets with an offer of my own, considering my team’s already under-.500 record. I could even have conjured up a good New Yawk accent worthy of the Mets’ Brooklyn Dodgers roots: “What’s it woith t’ya?”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

About this experience? I’d like to sleep on it

My mother’s dad, at least, was one serious sleeper. The event I recall hearing about occurred when Grandpa, just a teenager in West Virginia, awoke to the smell of smoke in the middle of the night. He jumped out of bed and woke up his parents and siblings, all of whom got out safely. Minutes later, the fire department arrived and put out the fire without much damage. Once things quieted down, though, the family noticed someone was missing. “Where’s Clyde?” they asked of my grandpa. They eventually found him on the far side of the house, opposite where the fire had been. He was on both feet, leaning against the house. Fast asleep.

Despite what my brother Stephen told me for years, I really wasn’t adopted. I might even have inherited my grandpa’s sleep gene. I needed it while growing up amid the sounds of subways, buses, 18-wheeler trucks and jets that passed scant feet above our ten-story building—we just had to live on the tenth—en route to landing at LaGuardia Airport. Barring the occasional night, as a teenager, that I tossed and turned over this or that girl, I slept fine those years. Could it be these past twenty-five years in quiet suburbia that have brought me to an appointment at a sleep center?

After all the years I put off a sleep study, my imagination had had lots of time to prepare. In this fictional narrative, I’m be shown a room where I’ll spend the night. A big two-way mirror is there to monitor my every move, and I’m tempted till the lights go out to make faces and stick out my tongue. A nurse on the other side documents every flail of my arms and legs during the night, especially after I kick off first the polyester covers, then the loose-fitting hospital gown. The room’s temperature is too warm, or too cold, and feels more humid—or less—than home. Before I lie back, humorless nurses fit my head and body with electrodes designed to monitor my every thought, eye movement or smile. Myriad wires the thickness of those going into our cable box are connected to the electrodes, and when I turn to see the clock bolted to the nightstand, they pull at my hair. “Now sleep,” one snaps before disappearing for a smoke break. Fumes waft into my room, and I hear the occasional shuffle of cards. I cough once. Again. The sun comes up.

In truth, the setting was more soothing and professional. Two soft-spoken male technicians greeted me and showed me to a small room with a bed, a lounge chair, tranquilizing hotel art and dark-wood wainscoting. The pillows looked flat the way I like them, and warm air wafted into the room with a benign hum. Yes, I thought, I could sleep here.

But in the short while the technicians let me be as they wired up other patients, I learned I wasn’t exactly alone. I stepped over to the window to close the drapes and noticed two ladybugs on the sill. Except they weren’t those cute red ladybugs but rather Asian beetles. We’d gotten these orange bugs in the house over the winter, and unlike ladybugs they don’t come in one at a time by accident. They like the warmth of homes and gather in numbers wherever in the house it’s warmest. With the first few, we’d thought they were just orange ladybugs and courteously escorted them out the door. Asian beetles, though, aren’t so friendly. They fly in your face when annoyed. They’re known to bite. And in a room where I needed no distractions, I thought it best to rinse these two down the sink and be done with the problem. I found four more and dispatched them the same way.

Then I pulled back the curtain—to find at least fifty more.

The facilities guy and his vacuum took a good hour to show, during which the technicians weren’t sure I’d be there for the night. How scientific could the study be if I’m kept awake from the sound of little feet scratching across the rigid-plastic acoustical-time ceiling? (Yes, alas, my hearing is even better than my memory.) The man must have sucked up beetles for five minutes straight. A few more showed up before the technicians returned, and I resolved that whatever I didn’t hunt down while mobile, I’d be hearing till dawn.

That crisis over, the technicians returned and more than met my expectations. Granted, the wires were thin. But these fellows indeed stuck 22 electrodes to my face, neck, hair (think Rogaine in reverse) and calves. Three heavy straps around my chest weren’t too tight—unless I inhaled. The men attached a nasal cannula to monitor my breathing and draped the tubing over my ears. On one middle finger, they taped an oxygen monitor; I’d have to hide its red glow if I turned onto my left side. I didn’t think this would be a problem. Though I eventually did turn, and often, I felt at first that I could hardly move, let alone turn. I suddenly felt very sleepy. Just one night, and it’ll be all over. Just one night. Just one….

I didn’t really fall asleep that quickly. I took at least an hour, which included calling the technicians to get a green light on the TV to stop blinking. Also, little feet scratched across the ceiling above. Don’t yawn, I reminded myself. I’d just fallen asleep, though, when THE SOUND came. Never mind the beetles. Never mind the occasional flushing of toilets or the peg-legged pirate pacing in the room above. I awoke, startled, to what sounded like a 55-gallon drum of water being slowly poured down a metal pipe that emptied onto a plate of sheet metal—with a microphone catching every drip and gush. (Even without its utter loudness, it was not a relaxing sound given our family’s recent experience.) In a daze, I called out to the technicians to kindly inquire what the hell they were doing across the hall. The older gentleman came in, listened and shrugged. “It’s the heater,” he said. “Just a sound. Sounds are okay.” He left. Easy for you to say, Bub. After that 20-minute cantata I needed another hour to fall asleep, and I was awake again long before the 5:45 a.m. reveille.

As the pair of technicians yanked off the various tapes and electrodes, the older guy explained that they’d analyze my data and get back to me within the next couple of weeks. I didn’t care: I felt freer by the moment. And when the younger one removed the cannula from the front of my nose, I commented that it had been the most uncomfortable part of the whole ordeal. “Well, we only put that on the first time,” he replied.

“The first time? You mean….”

“Yes, some people need to come back a few times.”

Nevertheless, I’m grateful. I’m going to sleep well tonight. I’m going to sleep fine from now on. Because I’ve learned the purpose of a sleep clinic. It isn’t merely to monitor your sleep and diagnose, say, sleep apnea. It’s meant to provide a point of reference for all nights to come. It’s okay, I can tell myself. Whatever else is going on while I’m trying to sleep, no matter what’s troubling me, at least I’m not there.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A voice says, ‘Go to the light’

Part of our spring ritual is thinking about summer vacation. Thinking about it, mind you. The planning itself, including making reservations? That’s for summer—perhaps a week or two before the trip itself. Counting on rooms available at such late dates, in fact, is the closest we come to a gambling habit.

If past years are any indication, though, wherever we end up going will satisfy a pastime of mine: visiting and photographing lighthouses. While Elena does the heavy lifting of looking through guide books, making lists of interesting towns, museums and other sights, I’m doing my own vital research. I’m staking out every lighthouse within the vicinity, not only on the way to where we’ll stay but also en route to places on Elena’s list. (See, I do read it!) We won’t necessarily get to every one on my list; I’ve already been to some of them, after all—just with my old camera. But the 100-plus we’ve seen over the years tells me I’ve a pretty good track record.

The easiest for the family are those you can drive practically right up to from a major road; Maryland’s Concord Point Light, about a mile off I-95, is one such example. And then there are some along the coast of Maine, which would measure 3,500 miles long if you could pick it up and straighten out the myriad coves. The upshot, for us, is that a lighthouse “down the road a few miles” from Route 1—yes, I’m quoting myself—is actually 15 miles or more to the ocean, where ships needed lighthouses. Pemaquid Point, the one on the Maine state quarter, is like that. Fortunately for me, a gift shop and luncheonette await nearby.

It’s one thing for me to drag the family along on these escapades. Putting the coordinates into the GPS has helped, especially after the years I used printed website directions that always seemed to screw up one little detail. (GPS improves the search by screwing up one big detail.) No, the big question for Elena and the kids is rather when pastime crosses the line into obsession. More plainly, when Daddy becomes a lunatic.

I haven’t yet stolen anyone’s boat to get a better shot at a lighthouse; I have some scruples, after all. But on land itself, rights to property tend to be, um, subject to negotiation. Single-party negotiation. You see, a century or more ago, these structures I find so beautiful and inspiring came into being through public funds. For many of those years, the Coast Guard (my former outfit) ran them, before LORAN and now GPS made most of them obsolete, and the government began to unload them. Sometimes it was to towns or foundations intending to keep them available to visitors. Other times, the property fell into private hands. So on two counts, taxpayer and Coast Guard veteran, Possessed Ed feels entitled.

Got a “Keep Out” or “Private Property” sign in your driveway? I might not see it, not even through the camera’s viewfinder, if a few steps up the driveway gets me a better angle of "your" lighthouse. And if you come out and holler at me—like that Connecticut gentleman who lived next door to a lighthouse with a good watchdog—I’ll apologize and leave. Yes, really. Because by the time you got your behind out of the lounge chair, Bub, I was taking the last shot I needed.

Only one neighbor really made trouble for me. At Provincetown, I let my family visit the neighborhood while I began the 1.7-mile trek to the Race Point Light. The day was blazingly hot, and hiking was slow in the sand. But what made it worse were the terns, which nested in the nearby beach grass. Signs I’d seen had warned that terns could get aggressive if you walked too close to the grass. Alas, there was no sign for the terns saying that if a human were walking close to the surf as possible, he had no interest in their blasted hatchlings. So besides the sun, the heat, my tiring feet and more than a little dehydration, I was getting strafed by birds—flying close to my head, one at a time, with an occasional rap on my head. Ultimately, I would turn around without reaching the lighthouse.

I like birds. Birds are cute. I feed them every day and talk to ones I see or hear in the yard.

That day I wished for a tennis racket.

The irony of all this lighthouse hunting is twofold. First, since no points of interest (other than Elena) are visible from my property alone, I can’t fathom the notion of one of the kids coming over and saying, “Daddy, there’s a creepy man in the driveway taking pictures.” Second, where was all this interest while I was in the service and, while on Guam, climbing up to the very top of two lighthouses that had no public access?

Eventually I suppose this pastime will run its course. I’ll have all the pictures I want, and I might even get a little bored with lighthouses. Vacations will get carefree—and stay that way.

But you know, bridges also look awfully picturesque.