Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not so Heavenly

It isn’t always easy being smug and self-righteous in the here and now, and it might be even more difficult in the hereafter. According Dr. Johnny Joe Dennis, Saved Person, writing in the latest issue of Oh Joy: The Journal of the Really Special People God Truly Loves, the self-righteous might find their eternal rest less than restful.

Dr. Dennis assures those certain of their salvation that their salvation is certain. After all, God’s love is the greatest love of all, and the love of the self-righteous man for himself is a close second. Therefore, Dr. Dennis says, the self-righteous are the most god-like of God’s creatures, which, of course, they already knew.

But there is one lingering question: Who, besides the smug and self-righteous, will be granted entrance to the kingdom? A noted Stringentarian, who frequently assures his congregation that Heaven will not be overcrowded, Dr. Dennis has always believed the answer to be “no one.”

He has always pictured Heaven as a gated community where the objects of God’s affection can be safely and comfortably segregated from all the riff-raff and other less-than-special persons. At first glance, it is an enticing picture, but the longer Dr. Dennis looks at it the more he wonders.

The riff-raff and less-than-special persons, he notes, are responsible for the preternaturally prodigious self-image of the smug and self-righteous, from whence cometh their happiness. A nose, Dr. Dennis notes, will be of little use in Heaven if there is no one to look down upon. In a place where everyone is as wonderful as everyone else, the smug and self-righteous might start to feel average, no better than anyone else, run of the mill, less than special, uninspired by their own being. And with God and the angels just down the street, the smug and self-righteous might even feel some inferiority.

To avoid that, Dr. Dennis urges the saved to occasionally go to the edge of the abyss and watch the less fortunate doggy paddle on the lake of flames. But, while the smug and self-righteous have that wonderful ability to gain strength and comfort from the misfortune of others, he wonders if the salubrious effects of the scene from the precipice will last for more than a few thousand years.

There is also the possibility, Dr. Dennis writes, that the riff-raff will be frolicking in the flames. Watching those inferior to them drink and wench their way through eternity while they are cowed by the perfection of God and the angels, will not be a gratifying experience.

Of course, God could be a Latitudarian and allow in some of the riff-raff -– the homeless, with their soiled and smelly trousers; the drunks and the druggies; the centrists; the leftists; maybe some communists, even; some Muslims and Buddhists; some agnostics and free-thinkers; some Darwinists, maybe old Charles himself; the prostitutes; the Roman Catholics; and, perhaps even, the homosexuals. Dr. Dennis does not think it’s likely –- God’s selections just couldn’t be that slipshod –- but it might happen, although it would deeply disappoint the self-righteous, and God certainly would not want to do that.

Besides, the presence of riff-raff in Heaven would serve to make things more tenuous for the smug. Having a less-than-special person next door would give the prim-and-proper prig a neighbor to look down on, except this is Heaven and all the residents were chosen by God and everyone is special. As Dr. Dennis points out, the self-righteous have a special need to feel special, but where everyone is special, no one is special.

Dr. Dennis urges his readers not to despair. They are, he says, the greatest of all God’s creations, and God has a plan, a wonderful plan, for them. But he ends with a cautionary note, “Eternity,” he writes, “could be a hell of a long time.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cuddles Gets Cuddly

It has taken some - more or less a year - for Cuddles to live up to her name. In the twelvemonth since Cuddles the Cat condescended to allowing us to share our home with her, she has been anything but cuddly. In fact, she has been downright standoffish, preferring to chase reflected sunlight across the wall to spending quality time with them what feed her. But, over the last four weeks, she has plopped her carcass on my lap for at least three thirty-minute spells, allowing me to stroke her luxuriant coat and otherwise treat her as a pet.

I am pretty sure this has nothing to do with my warm and loving personality - warm and loving though it is - and a lot to do with the paucity of sunlight in Ashtabula this time of year. And in so far as it does not have anything to do with short days and overcast skies, it might have everything to do with the space heater beneath the table where I sit.

Still, it is nice to be loved - even if it is only because there is no reflected sunlight to chase and because I am a dependable source of hot air.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Sporadic E Skip

Around the middle of the last century, orthographic professionals suffered a surfeit of seizures brought on by numerous protests over the inconsistent application of the “I before E except after C” rule, or the Sporadic E Skip. This refers to the sporadic manner in which the “e” skips to one side or another of the “i” in willful violation of the rule. The orthos, as the orthographic fraternity refers to its members, thought about taking this bug out of spelling, because so many people were confused by the weird problems presented by it.
The demands for change were heightened by the swiftly evolving society of the post-war era. The boys who had defeated the Axis powers were now men attending college on the GI Bill. Suddenly, the veterans were competing with their neighbors for preeminence in the classroom, and spelling mattered. Honest men all, they could not in good conscience cheat, but they certainly didn’t wish to be accused of having gneiss, or other rock forms, in their heads.
Unfortunately, neither the vets nor the orthos anticipated the challenge posed by a group of prescient pedagogues, who foresaw declining respect for teachers if spelling was made less complicated. The teacher, they felt, should stand before the class as an omniscient deity, and the removal of the Sporadic E Skip would make spelling proficiency an attainable goal for even the below-average student. Rather than saying, “Heigh-ho and away we go,” when the orthos proposed their new rules, the teachers became intransigent and refused to implement them. They said it was the least they could do for the heirs to their profession.
Now the British, and what a bunch of weisenheimers they are, have buried their heads in their eiderdown pillows and decided the rule is deficient, unveiling another freight car full of evidence on how they forfeited their sovereignty of the language.

Friday, November 26, 2010

When the World was Old

Years ago, the boy sprawled on the living room floor, rested his chin on his hands and looked up at the television. The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports was on the air and men were urged to look sharp and feel sharp too by baseball players, who were frequently seen shaving on national TV. In those days, ballplayers had to be clean-shaven, because during the Eisenhower administration only bankers and diplomats with graying slicked-back hair on their heads were permitted to grow hair on their faces, but only a pencil-thin moustache and nothing more.

The country was hopelessly naïve in those days, completely unaware of the insidious gay agenda. Not a single eyebrow was raised over commercials in which an incompletely dressed baseball hero stood before a mirror admiring his face, while a bevy of his less talented and incompletely dressed teammates crowded around and admired him too. While the freshly showered star, who had just driven in the winning run, shaved, one of his admirers would say:

“Gee, Hank, you always look so good. How do you do it?”

“Well, Stu, the secret to looking good is getting a close shave every time.”

“Golly, Hank, I try, but my razor never gives me the close, comfortable shave I crave.”

“Well, Stu, I’ve found that the Gillette double-edged razor is the best there is. It keeps me looking sharp, and it never irritates my skin.”

“Wow! That must be one swell razor. I’m going out to get me one.”

“Atta boy,” Hank said as he slapped Stu on the butt.

The question the boy sitting before the TV asked himself was: Why are those guys worried about irritating their faces? The boy had a shoebox full of baseball cards, and every player on those cards had a gnarled, weather-beaten face. During televised games, the announcers sometimes talked about a new player, “he’s just a youngster,” they’d say. But when there was a close-up of the new guy digging in at the plate, he didn’t look like a youngster. He looked like someone who had plied his trade for years under the broiling sun in Altoona, Biloxi, Helena, Yuma and a dozen other uninspiring burgs, chasing ground balls on dusty, rock-strewn infields and going after fly balls in outfields littered with cow pies.

The face of a ballplayer, every ballplayer, in those days was impervious to irritation – their skin was like leather and their whiskers like wire barbs. That image stuck with the boy who sat watching TV.

As he got older and older, the players he saw on TV and in the sports pages got younger and younger. Some of them appeared to need special dispensation to stay out after curfew on game nights. But, the players he remembered from his boyhood had been rough, rugged, gnarled and wizened to a man.

That is until recently when he came upon a review of a biography of Mickey Mantle. The picture on the cover wasn’t of The Mick the boy remembered. Mantle is wearing a Yankee’s cap, but he looks far too young to be a major leaguer. He doesn’t look old enough to need a date for the prom.

And then Ted Sorenson, an advisor to President Kennedy, died. In a picture from his days as

a White House aide, Sorenson looks more like a prissy high school student on a tour than a

member of the Kennedy brain trust.

So, now the boy wonders: have his perceptions changed, or have the photos been retouched?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Book I Didn't Write

In March 1997, I was working at Ash/Craft by day and moonlighting as a stringer for the Star Beacon’s sports department. There is very little work for stringers in March - the basketball and wrestling seasons have ended and the baseball, softball, track and tennis seasons have yet to start - and I was getting antsy.

If the Star Beacon wasn’t going to keep me busy, I needed to find someone who would. I walked to the Harbor Topky Library and cozied up to The Writer’s Market, making note of the publishers who used freelancers to write books – mostly for middle-school libraries - on assigned topics. Then I went home to update my resume, make copies of some clips and compose a cover letter.

The spring sports commenced a few days after I dropped my letters in the mail, and I was a busy writer again. Two weeks later, a staff position opened at the paper. I was hired and the lulls disappeared from my sports-writing schedule. None of the letters to the publishers sparked a response and I soon forgot about them.

But one pleasant afternoon in September 2001, the answering machine was blinking when I got home from Ash/Craft. I listened to the message a couple of times before realizing the caller was asking about the resume I had sent out four years earlier. I returned the call, and the woman asked if I was still interested in writing a book. “Yes I am.” She read off the available topics. There were three, with the common thread being that I knew nothing about any of them.

I opted for “The People of Central Asia,” because it was barely three weeks after 9/11, and I thought that Central Asia included Afghanistan. I soon found out that Afghanistan is not considered part of the region, although a number of other Stans are. Unfortunately, that was all I found out. Reading about the peoples of Central Asia proved to be wonderfully soporific after a day at Ash/Craft and an evening at the Star Beacon. In a week or two, the thrill of being asked to write the book was displaced by the certain knowledge that the project was destined to end in embarrassment and failure. I called the editor and told her it wasn’t going to work.

That fall, working a reduced schedule at the paper to give myself time for researching and writing was out of the question. I needed the steady income of two real jobs. Debbie and I had been divorced in June, so there was child support and a pile of credit card debt. There was also an October Surprise that year: my furnace died.

The disappointment lingers. But these days, I often think it was all for the best. It was a worrisome and hectic time. And yet, in the spring of 2003, almost as soon as the credit cards were paid off and I was able to relax a little, my legs began to clamor for attention. Funny things had been going on with my legs for several years, but only once in a while and never for more than a few minutes at a time. Now the funny things were more frequent, lasting longer, and intruding on my life, which they had never done before. I can’t help but think the circumstances that kept me too busy to write that book also kept the progression of my Multiple Sclerosis on hold for eighteen months.

Instamatic Jealousy

Baby pictures; I’m the first born,

There are so many more of me.

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

Four albums full that I adorn –

Pictures of me and not those three.

Baby pictures, I’m the first born;

I’m on Dad’s shoulder, they’re forlorn,

And there I sit upon Mom’s knee.

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

Barb says, “Your bare butt; that’s just porn!!

Is there not but one shot of me?”

Baby pictures; I’m the first born.

Ed’s become a whining thorn.

Jim asks, “Was I an absentee?”

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

There’s no need to blow my own horn,

The Kodak made a star of me.

Baby pictures, I’m the first born,

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

Thoughts from the Gutter

A few years ago, live fish were seen flopping around on the streets of Manna, India, which quite some distance from the Indian Ocean. They were carried there by a waterspout. This is the story of one of those fish.

Well, Mother was right. Here I am, flopping around along the side of the road in Manna, India. She always said if I didn’t straighten up, I’d land in the gutter some day.How was I to know? I’m a fish. Until today, I’d spent all of my short, uneventful life in the Indian Ocean. Have you ever seen a gutter in the Indian Ocean? Neither have I.

This morning, I was feeling jaunty and looking mighty dapper, if I do say so myself, as I set out for the spawning grounds. It would have been my first time, but then I was scooped up by a waterspout. Lifted from the ocean and carried gloriously aloft, I thought at first it was the intoxication of love. Alas, it was but a fleeting thrill, and this day, that was to be given over to youthful, lusty, masculine desires, came to an ignominious end when I fell from the sky.

Dorothy was swept away to Munchkinland; I wind up in Manna. I wish I had landed along the Yellow Brick Road. I can see it now; a yippy, furry creature would rouse me with its cold nose. A moment later, I’d hear a girl screaming.

“Toto! Leave that nice fish alone,” she’d say. “He’s so cute.”

She’d kneel down and gently lift me from the gutter. A tear would drop from my eye. She’d kiss me and tickle my dorsal fin. I’d try, but I wouldn’t be able to force a smile.

“Why are you so sad?” she’d ask.

I’d tell her I was hundreds of miles from the ocean, and that I didn’t have any way to get back. She’d tell me we were just a few miles from the Emerald City.

“It’s an easy walk,” she’d say. “And there’s regular bus service from there to the beach. You’ll be home by the weekend.”

With that, I’d break into song:

“It’s ever so sad a story

When you are born piscatory

And haven’t got two legs.

I could sashay and amble,

I’d go in the woods and ramble,

If I only had two legs.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl would say. “You can’t walk, can you?”

“Well, duh. I am a fish.”

“I’m sorry. I’m from Kansas, and we don’t have many fish there,” she’d say. “But if you are curious about corn, just ask. Say, Toto and I are on our way to Oz to see the Wizard. He’s a very great and powerful wizard, and I’m sure he could give you legs if you ask him.”

I’d agree, of course. And eventually, after a great many adventures, the little girl would click her heels, and I’d finish my life as a goldfish, swimming around a bowl in the parlor of a forlorn farmhouse in a desolate corner of Kansas where everything is in black-and-white. But I wouldn’t die in the gutter, and that would make Mother so proud.

Words Remembered

Words in a newspaper are transitory things. They are, almost without exception, little noted nor long remembered.

The words are read at the breakfast table or at odd moments during the day, after which the paper is gathered up and put in the wastebasket or given new life as birdcage carpeting.

The words penned by those of us in the press box occasionally enjoy a longer life. Proud parents sometimes clip our articles from the paper and stick them in a scrapbook, from which they will emerge several decades hence when the former teenage athlete tries to stave off geezerdom by reliving the past. That those words survive, it should be noted, has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with our good fortune to have been assigned to cover the game in which the geezer-to-be rushed for 175 yards and four touchdowns.

There are times, though, when the words in a newspaper jump from the page into a less-than-stellar mind and refuse to leave. For instance, seven years ago, in November 2003, I was the Star Beacon’s girls basketball beat writer and busily talking to coaches, gathering information and writing preview stories on the upcoming season. One day late in the month, perhaps the Friday after Thanksgiving, all those stories appeared and the day’s paper was awash in my byline.

Reading the paper with my name in bold print scattered throughout, was like stopping in at the ego station and saying, “Fill it up, Mac.” Well, it was until later in the day when I read Gene Collier’s column on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Web site. His topic was Lisa Guerrero, who was the sideline reporter on Monday Night Football and the subject of some criticism at the time because she said dumb things now and then.

Collier’s take on the matter was, Guerrero’s male counterparts occasionally said dumb things, too. He offered several quotes as evidence, including Joe Theisman’s observation: “You got to score to put points on the board in this league.” But Guerrero had the advantage, Collier said, of being more pleasant to look at.

The words from Collier’s column that have haunted me lo these many years are: “As Coach Cowher loves to say, ‘there’s a fine line in this business’ between occasional insight and incessant vacuous yammering.” I read those words and was suddenly aware that having 19 or 20 bylines in a single edition of the paper might be construed as incessant. As far as vacuous yammering, perhaps I slipped into that mode once or twice, but that was all. Or so I told myself.

For a long time afterward, I worried day and night over which side of the fine line I came down on. Only in recent years, after going from staff writer to freelance writer, have I been able to find peace. After all, I reasoned, I don’t write enough these days to be incessant, and the latest research has shown that small doses of vacuous yammering pose no danger to the otherwise healthy reader.

With the dark cloud of incessant, vacuous yammering lifted, I was able to go out with my head held high again. But that ended Sunday as I read the Plain Dealer, which included a story by the Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut, that began thusly: “If anyone had a excuse for wanting to vanish in January 2009, it was George W. Bush, his approval ratings in the 30s, his hair graying, his legacy of two long wars and a fractious tenure wiped away by the election of a charismatic young president promising to fix all the messes left behind.”

Graying hair? Low approval ratings, two wars and a fractious tenure, I can understand. But graying hair? All that time I spent struggling with my propensity for incessant, vacuous yammering, and now Kornblut tells me about the shame that is my hair.

I want to vanish.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, November 12, 2010.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bethany: Love and Determination

Bethany’s first bicycle was small - the appropriate size for a girl of five - and pink - a dainty, girlish pink that would likely make her nauseous these days. And the bike had training wheels, although not for long.

Bethany had had the bike for a week or two, when, one overcast Saturday morning, the Harris family went shopping. On our way back to the Myrtle Avenue estate, Bethany said, “When we get home, take the training wheels off my bike.” Debbie and I did the responsible parent thing and attempted to convince Beth that the training wheels should stay on for a few more weeks. She would have none of it. When we got home, perhaps hoping to teach her a lesson the hard way, I took the training wheels off. Then, as Debbie and I watched, Bethany got on the bike and rode down the sidewalk like she had been doing it for years.

One summer evening, a year or two before Bethany started school, we were at Cederquist Park watching Russ’ Little League game. Bethany wasn’t enthralled with the baseball action, and she spotted some friends playing on a pile of dirt. She was so excited, she fell off the top row of the bleachers. As Debbie and I jumped down, Bethany got up and dusted herself off. She allowed us to ask her a few questions and to look her over, but she did so with a great display of impatience. Then she ran off to get dirty.

Bethany’s interest in science is limited, which might be due to an experiment she conducted as a child. Her question: How long does it take for the coils of an electric stove to cool once the burner is turned off? The answer turned out to be: Longer than she thought. The result: Two burned fingertips, great wailing and many tears. We rushed her to the sink, held her fingers in a stream of cold water for several minutes and then slathered them with Vaseline. By then, she had calmed down enough to pretend she was listening to the parental lecture, and when that was over, she was on her way.

Bethany has never lost that confidence that seems to say, “I’m going to do this, and don’t even think you can stop me.” Until 2001, when Debbie and I divorced and she and Beth moved to Idaho, Bethany’s concept of untamed wilderness was Lake Shore Park. Since then, she has become quite the hunter and fisherman. A few years ago, she shot a bear. And one day last week we were talking on the phone and she said she was going to get some grouse for dinner. This didn’t mean a trip to the supermarket. She was going to go up in the mountains and get the evening meal the way Daniel Boone did.

Bethany has another side, of course. One night years ago, she sat on the kitchen table, looked at me with those expressive eyes and sang, “Say, Say My Playmate.” It was enough to make a grown man cry, and the thought of it still does.

Confidence, determination and love are always needed, but Bethany needs them more than ever now. On Friday she gave birth to a son. Hayden appeared abruptly and unexpectedly three months ahead of schedule, weighing in at one pound, eleven and a half ounces. It’s hard to judge a person’s reaction when the only thing available to you is the sound of her voice. But what I hear on the phone is the love, confidence and determination that have always been there. Debbie, who is on the scene, has told me our daughter is amazing. One doctor, Debbie said, was so impressed with how well Bethany was handling the situation that he told her once Hayden gets through this, Beth should consider becoming a nurse. She’d make an excellent nurse, he said.

I haven’t met Colt, Beth’s fiancé, but they say he’s a fighter, too. Hayden has a long and perilous battle ahead of him. But with Bethany and Colt in his corner, I’m betting Colt makes it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Clouds Over Cuddles

The sun did not shine on Ashtabula yesterday - not once, not at all. The dark clouds and drizzle conjured up visions of November, which can be a very depressing month, indeed. Cuddles was unaware of this for most of the day, her schedule being what it is. It was just a routine day for her. Up at 5:30 a.m., she prowled around the house, making sure all was in order and then nudged her bipedal housemates into consciousness; shortly after nine, satisfied that she had done all she could to keep the homo sapiens in her life from wasting the day, she retired to a chair, curled up and fell asleep. And there, except for an occasional foray to the basement to use the facilities, she remained.

Had everything proceeded as scheduled, sunlight would have streamed in through the glass in front door and the living room and dining room windows by 3:30. The late afternoon sunlight is Cuddles' cue to get up, stretch, groom, and get at it. This is the busiest part of her day, the part she spends chasing both the sun's reflections and the shadows created by the sunlight. She listens for the sound of each approaching car and watches the wall, hoping to see a reflection of the sun's glow scamper across the wall as the car passes. When it does, she gives chase. If she is frustrated by her inability to capture light in her paws, she doesn't show it, and she will pursue the next whispy sprite and the one after that and the one after that with the same eager determination as she did the first. Cuddles is a master multi-tasker, and she listens for my wheelchair even as she listens for traffic. When I move, she springs to life, scanning the walls and floor for her prey, the elusive beam of light. Sometimes as I sit idly, she will crouch inches from my chair, demonstrating her deep desire to hone her instincts, along with her misplaced faith in my ability to spot her there and to avoid her once the wheelchair is in motion.

But there was no sunlight to brighten the house on Monday afternoon, and Cuddles never got off the recliner. Oh, she woke up a couple of times and stretched a little only lay back down and fall asleep again. What a pity that a cat barely a year old can't find a reason to get out of bed. But perhaps today will be a better day. There have been moments of sunshine this morning; maybe blue skies are on the way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hurry back, DQ

On Sunday, the Dairy Queen will close for the season, a sure indication that "summer's almost gone and winter's coming on." It also means that after Sunday, Nancy and I won't be walk up there and hang out several evenings a week and be seen. Apparently, on a summer night, Route 20 between Route 11 and the mall attracts people from everywhere in Ashtabula County. Almost every time Nancy and I run into someone we haven't seen in a while, we are asked, "Was that you guys at the Dairy Queen the other night?" Yes, it was us.

Alas, the six months or so the Dairy Queen will be closed will transpire much more slowly than the six months or so it was open.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Awake in the Wee Hours

At 2:13 in the morning, the mind that is too busy to sleep wins its battle with the body that is too tired to stir. I lie awake and my mind frantically generates thoughts and ideas. Some are sentimental, some biting, some gentle, some serious, some wistful, some humorous, some poetic, some witty, some effervescent, and some maudlin. They are wonderful ideas, and for the next forty-five minutes, my mind churns out verses, sentences, paragraphs and pages of scintillating prose and poesy, rhymed and unrhymed, silly and profound.

Six hours from now, when I sit at the computer, the ideas will have lost their luster. The words that now sparkle with the liveliness of a cascading stream, and the words that flow with the languid beauty of a river on a summer’s day will later spread across the page like scum on a stagnant pond. I know this will happen. It always does. By three in the morning, when my mind begins to tire and the surge of ideas becomes a trickle, I wonder if there is a program that can transfer tonight’s musings from my head to the computer and then be retrieved at a decent hour. And I wonder if it would make any difference. Are these nocturnal notions as dazzling they seem? Or are my powers of discernment too tired in the middle of the night to be discerning?

My mind has worn itself out and longs for rest. Fall is approaching, the window is open and the air conditioner is off. The quiet of the night is not the same as the quiet of the day. It is softer and more comfortable. The leaves rustle in the gentle breeze; enjoyable white noise, unlike the refrigerator that I noticed only when it shuts off. The dog across the street barks for a minute or two. And a critter, probably a raccoon, pushes a tin can around as it searches through the garbage for a bite to eat. It doesn’t stay long. Maybe it doesn’t like the selection and is going away hungry and unhappy. A siren, faint at first, gets louder and then fades as a police car races along Route 20. Two CSX freight trains, one eastbound, the other headed west, scream at each other as they approach Columbus Avenue. There is a great rumbling and clanking of metal as the trains pass, followed by a moment of silence before one of the trains sounds its horn at another crossing. Then all is quiet.

The air is cooler now, and I curl up on my side and pull the blankets over my shoulder and fall asleep. For three hours, leaves rustle, cops chase, dogs bark, scavengers scavenge and trains rumble, but I am unaware of it all until the radio comes on at 6:15.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Who was that masked man?

Nancy and I went to the rib burn-off at Lake Shore Park Saturday evening. The trouble with the lake shore in September is that it can sometimes feel like the lake shore in November. This year, however, it seemed more like the lake shore in June. It is a wonderful thing to get out on a pleasant day and hang out in a large crowd of locals, and I ran into several people I haven't seen in years.

Almost from the moment I began having trouble getting around, I noticed a marked improvement in human nature, at least in those humans not associated with FOX News. One day, when I was still using a walker, I went to the Post Office to mail a package. When I finished at the window and started out, a woman I didn't know gave up her spot in the lengthy line and held the door for me as I went into the lobby and then followed me and held the door to the outside as I left the building. Making my way out the doors, I had visions of the Harris family going into a restaurant. Walking through the parking lot we looked like a typical family, but then Dad, Ed, Jim, Uncle Jim or I would bolt to the door and hold it open. And once the ladies got safely inside, the men would stand outside for fifteen minutes saying things like, "Go ahead," "After you," "No, you first."

In any event, when I am out and about and getting in the way of people or asking people to get out of my way, they are invariably understanding, cooperative and pleasant. Is this because people react differently to me because I'm in a wheelchair? Or do I see things differently from my wheelchair? It could be that when I was not so dependent on people's cooperation and helpfulness, I failed notice it when it was there. If someone got surly, I could always find a way around him, hurling imprecations as I went. Well, being a wimp, I lobbed my imprecations, getting great satisfaction from unleashing a string of expletives under my breath while avoiding the risk of having the other person hear them and reducing me to a pile of broken bones in a pool of blood.

This question arose again the other night at the rib fest. When I decided what I wanted to eat, I made my way to the end of the line for that vendor. There were a lot of people going this way and that, and the two guys who had been at the end of the line until I got there, moved aside to let me through. Just to be sure, I asked them if I was at the end of the line. They said "yes," and I told them that's where I wanted to be. Then they turned around, and for the next ten minutes talked to each other while I followed behind watching people. But when they got to the front of line, one of the men asked me what I was going to have. I told him, and a minute later, he handed me a plate with what I had planned to order on it and walked away. I was left wondering if he thought I was needy; which I'm not. Or if he felt sorry for me; for which there's no reason.
Or if he was someone whom I should have known but didn't recognize; which would be embarrassing. Or if he was just a nice guy who in a generous mood.

I appreciate his kindness, of course. But I feel like the guy on old western TV series, who said just before the final credits rolled: "Who was that masked man?"

Friday, September 17, 2010

Neurologists I Have Known

Katie is in the writing class I go to. She is eighty, give or take a year, and has Parkinson's Disease. Somewhere along the line, Katie had cancer, which is apparently acting up again. Suzanne, our instructor, has been accompanying Katie to her appointments. Last week in class, Suzanne mentioned something Katie had said about her neurologist having a rough bedside manner.

Until a few years ago, I took the attitude that since I was going to feel better in three days, anyway, why bother going to the doctor. So, I'm probably not the best judge of medical demeanor, but the neurologists I've since come to know do seem a little different. My first encounter with a neurologist came early in 2006, when I went to see Dr. Mellick at ACMC. He was a friendly guy with the kind of cynical sense of humor I enjoy, and he provided a running commentary as examined me. I wasn't quite sure if the purpose was to keep me informed or if he was just talking to himself, but as he went through the different steps in the examination, he would say, "OK, that must be this," or "Well, it can't be that." When he finished the examination, we sat down and he began a very perfunctory listing of possible causes of what was ailing me. It was all sort of "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." One of the blahs was, "or it might be a brain tumor," which he uttered in the same dull monotone as all the other blahs. But as soon as he had mumbled it, he turned and looked at me straight in the eye and said, "Boy, I hope it's not a brain tumor." At that moment, "brain tumor" went from being one of many possible problems to being the obvious problem, at least in my mind. A week or two later, after I had had an MRI of the brain, Dr. Mellick told me my brain was normal, which was a relief to me, although nearly all my non-medical acquaintances expressed their doubts.

Dr. Mellick then referred me to the Cleveland Clinic, where in October 2006, Dr. Rudick diagnosed my problem as primary-progressive MS. That appointment began with the usual questions about the problems I was having and when they began. Then he asked me to go over and get on the examination table. As I made my way to the table, he told me to be careful and take my time, and I came back with what I thought was a witty retort acknowledging that I had no choice but to take my time. "I'm glad you can laugh about it," he said. But he said it with an edge in his voice, like the one Mom used to have when I broke something she had told me not play with, and she'd say, "We'll, I hope you're happy now."

A few months after that, I asked Dr. Bathoux at the Mellen Center about getting a disability placard for the car. He got out his prescription pad and noted that I had MS, a lifetime disability. I took the slip to the license bureau and was told that it needed to have an ending date on it: the DMV doesn't issue lifetime disability placards, six years is the maximum. The next time I was at the Mellen Center, I gave Dr. Bathoux the prescription and told him what I had been told. He gladly wrote out another slip, noting that I would have MS for the next six years. "Won't they be surprised when you show up again in 2013?" he joked. I know there is no cure for MS. But there are times when I would rather not be reminded of that, and that must have been one of those times.

Start the Music

Whatever happened to elevator music? It seems to have become extinct, at least in public places, where elevator music performed its greatest service.

Sure, the music was as bland as warmed over Cream of Wheat, as insipid as a Lifetime movie, but that was its great strength. Elevator music could be ignored. It asked to be ignored. Like one of those nettlesome tasks you really ought to do, but which no one will notice if you don't, it begged to be ignored.

The accompaniment to the unpleasant but necessary, it was found in the places you didn't want to be, usually in a waiting room where you were biding your time until the doctor or dentist was ready to hurt you.

Hugo Winterhalter, Andre Kostelanetz, Lawrence Welk, Enoch Light, Nelson Riddle and the rest were ideal waiting-room companions. If you wanted to read a magazine, work a crossword puzzle or share your medical history in all its nauseating detail with the stranger next to you, they didn't interfere. And if you wanted to sleep, elevator music was a terrific soporific.

Of course, there was the possibility you might be vaguely familiar with the lyrics to one of the languid melodies. Then those few words, that phrase, that snippet of schmaltz would linger. The mind wanted to sing, but the only words it knew were "baubles and bangles and beads," or "shall we dance, bum ba bum," or "across a crowded room," or "I'm crossing you in…a boat?"

It was frustrating. But the words had limited staying power and fled at the first sign of impinging reality.

Sadly, elevator music has been banished from most waiting rooms and replaced with televisions tuned to one or the other cable news stations. Regardless of their politics, all news networks have two things in common: announcers with screeching, grating, nasal voices; and theme music with an insistent, driving rhythm, like the music announcing the approach of the shark in Jaws, only louder, more ominous and more demanding of attention. To add to the frenzy, the announcers, who never have much to say, insist on saying it rapidly and at great length; perhaps they're paid by the word.

It's nigh on impossible to read, carry on a conversation or nod off for a moment when the waiting room is filled with the mind-jarring, ear-piercing yammering of people whose job it is to convince us that the end is near – right after this commercial break. Stay tuned or miss the apocalypse.

To make matters worse, these news people, with their degrees from some of America’s great universities in English or journalism or communications, seem incapable of asking a simple question. Five minutes of meandering speed talk and fractured syntax produce a disjointed, convoluted query that might have a point – somewhere.

Then the guest says, "Well, Sharon, I think…"

Only to have the newscaster interrupt in a rare burst of brevity: "I'm sorry, Senator, but we're out of time. Thank you for dropping by."

Then the nurse calls for you, and a few minutes later the doctor says, “I think we better talk about your blood pressure.”

# # #

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hum a few bars and I'll fake it

For whatever reason, I'm suffering from memories of Bethel Park. Part of the problem, of course, is that I can't remember. But with football season underway, my mind is awash in fight songs. Fight songs that I remember, by the way. For instance:

"On Bethel High,
On to victory.
Drive through your foe,
Show them all your might.
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Wave banners high,
We're all for thee.
Drive right on down the field
To victory!!!!"

And who among the Bobcat alumni can forget:

"Here's to the school of might,
Here's to the school of fight.
Here's to old West Virginia Wesleyan."

Why, I can even remember a couple lines of the West Virginia Wesleyan alma mater. Granted, part of the reason might be that sometime in the 1980s I heard Daffy Duck and a few others belting out the tune. Then, several days later, listening to Karl Haas's "Adventures in Good Music" - how's that for eclectic tastes: Looney Tunes and Karl Haas - I discovered that "Alma Mater of the Mountains" is set to the sextet from Gaetano Donizzetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Other than Mimi being the heroine of La boheme, a fact I picked up from doing crossword puzzles, the origin of the tune for the Wesleyan alma mater is the extent of my operatic knowledge. Still, I can remember a few lines:

"Alma mater of the mountains,
West Virginia Wesleyan.
At thy magic, mystic fountains,
Noblest dreams of life began."

But for the life of me, I can't remember a single word of Bethel Park Senior High School's alma mater, other than perhaps "Bethel" and "alma mater." Perhaps someone can help me.

Most of the people who fritter away their time reading this stuff probably have seen my e-mail on the subject. But I fancy myself a writer, and boring people is my job. So, back in the days when the Harris clan was still headquartered on Myrna Drive, Grandma was spending a few days with us. One morning, while a few of us were sitting around the kitchen table, Grandma began hurling imprecations at Kaiser Willy. The problem was, Willy got into a war with the United States, and the American not of Germanic descent got upset with the Americans of Germanic descent who insisted on speaking German. This was a problem for Grandma because she had learned her catechism in German, and now, she said, "I can't even remember the Commandments. " While that seemed to explain a lot to us, it upset her.

Then earlier this week, I came across the following article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was reprinted in the Plain Dealer. Obviously, the good Germans of Cincinnati had something other than the Commandments on their mind.

City's brewing past bubbles up with new book, tunnel discovery

Cincinnati went from the "Paris of America" to a "cesspool of hell, rot and filth" in the blink of a generation's eye.

The reason for the Queen City's ascent and its decline: Beer made by German-American breweries in Over-the-Rhine.

The city's Parisian image went to hell with the start of World War I and the dawn of Prohibition in 1920.

That change, in the words of Michael D. Morgan's upcoming book, "Over-the-Rhine: When Beer was King,'' helped rob Cincinnati of its image, its soul and its economy.

Shockwaves from that robbery still reverberate today. Over-the-Rhine remains in a 90-year struggle to regain its once exalted status.

"The war demonized everything German in America," Morgan says. That included the German-Americans' beverage of choice: beer.

Prohibition, the so-called "noble experiment" turned nightmare, arrived on the heels of World War I. The era tried and failed to turn America into a nation of teetotalers.

When Prohibition became law, the beer taps went dry. That dried up the lifeblood of Cincinnati's German-American culture. In 1915, that culture had been labeled by evangelist and temperance leader Billy Sunday as a "cesspool of hell, rot and filth."

Masters of intolerance, Prohibition's advocates "took aim at Germans and drinking," Morgan notes. "They attacked them for being anti-American with much of the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that we are hearing today."

Prohibition, Morgan adds, "killed Over-the-Rhine, with a knife right to its heart, the beer industry." Without that foamy brew, the restaurants, beer gardens, music halls and clubhouses of the heavily Germanic neighborhood closed.

Breweries and their support systems, ice houses, architects, builders, carpenters, bottle makers, printers, stone masons, farmers and teamsters, went out of business. Thousands of workers lost their jobs.

The fun went out of Over-the-Rhine. "Cincinnati lost its equivalent of New Orleans' French Quarter," Morgan adds. "And that severely altered the city's image."

Cincinnati's conservative image, "is a recent development," Morgan says. "Before Prohibition, Over-the-Rhine was a fun-loving, progressive place. And, for years, that was Cincinnati's image."

The attorney and Over-the-Rhine historian let out a long sigh. The sound of his sigh echoed in a recently discovered tunnel.

The subterranean space is located 20 feet below street level in what once was Over-the-Rhine's John Kauffman Brewing Co. and will someday soon be the new home of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co.

The stone- and brick-lined tunnel was uncovered last week for the first time since Prohibition put the Kauffman brewery out of business 90 years ago. "This old tunnel may look as though it just goes from one building's basement to another," Morgan says. The structure connected the defunct firm's brewing facility with its bottling plant.

"When we opened the tunnel, we did not find any gold or old beer recipes or Jimmy Hoffa," Morgan says.

What he did find, however, "was a symbol," a metaphor for hope.

"This tunnel, finally being uncovered, stands for our reclamation of our history and our pride. We have done a poor job of preserving and celebrating our heritage," he adds. "A lot of that is linked to its German-ness."

Over-the-Rhine was once so German that the language in the street, on street signs and in the neighborhood's newspapers was German. English was spoken there - but often as a second language.

German-Americans dominated Cincinnati. They ruled city hall, ran the zoo and the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1890, the city was still basking in the 12-year-old light of a local newspaper's declaration that the Queen City was the "Paris of America." This was when 70 percent of the population had German roots.

That same year, the Cincinnati Reds returned to the National League. The team had been booted from the league after the 1880 season when its owners refused to go along with a ban on selling beer at games. In Cincinnati, beer and baseball were synonymous.

The league came to its senses about beer in time for the 1890 season. The Reds returned to the fold. Beers in hand.

Also in 1890, Over-the-Rhine was home to more than 300 saloons, a dozen breweries and nearly 45,000 people. (Today's population: an estimated 7,000). It had 3,704 buildings. A century later, that number was down to 1,274.

Many of those buildings were related to the neighborhood's most important product: beer.

Cincinnatians brewed 35.7 million gallons of beer in 1890. Most of that beer was made in Over-the-Rhine. Moerlein, the city's largest brewer, made 500,000 barrels.

Kauffman produced 55,000 barrels. And, most of that output was consumed locally.

"Moerlein exported lots of beer to New Orleans and even to South America," Morgan says. "But most of the local breweries' customers were in Cincinnati."

The Queen City was a very thirsty place in 1890. Cincinnati was the seventh-largest brewing town in America. But it led the nation in quaffing.

"The national annual per capita consumption of beer in America back then was 16 gallons," Morgan says. "In Cincinnati, it was 40 gallons for every man, woman and child."

After 1920, the Queen City's thirst could not be legally quenched.

"Prohibition changed everything," Morgan says. "Over-the-Rhine's German culture took a one-two punch and never recovered. The city's major brewers never came back. And neither did the neighborhood."

As he looks around the dry, dark tunnel, Morgan sees a glimmer of hope.

"Prohibition hid this tunnel and our city's history just like the sands of Egypt covered the tombs of the pharaohs," he says.

"Now, with this tunnel being opened and the Moerlein Brewery returning to Over-the-Rhine, we have a chance to reclaim our history and celebrate it once more."

Have a suggestion for Our History? Contact Cliff Radel at or 513-768-8301.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dad at Twilight

On warm summer evenings, Dad would get a folding chair and sit between the house and the willow tree, on the asphalted area by the garage, where it was always shady. But after few minutes, he’d go in the basement and get a ball, a bat and a couple baseball gloves, and yell upstairs for Ed, Jim and me to come out.

It wasn’t often that the three of us immediately answered the call. But one of us would, and Dad tossed him a glove and a game of pepper commenced. Dad hit a ground ball across the driveway, which the son fielded and threw back and Dad stuck the bat out and hit the ball back. This continued without stop until the guy with the glove let one go through his legs or the guy with the bat failed to make contact.

In time, the other two brothers came out, sometimes together, sometimes not. We wandered in and out of the game, playing for a while then going off somewhere and perhaps rejoining the game later, or perhaps not. There were also several kids in the neighborhood who sometimes joined in and, like us, played for a while and then went and did something else. Six or seven kids might participate during an evening, but there were seldom more than two or three involved at a time. When the driveway did got crowded, Dad would send a few kids into the neighbor’s yard and hit pop flies to them.

By the time the sun got low, Dad was the only one left outside. And as the air cooled and the shadows faded, Dad, in a pair of erstwhile dress slacks, a T-shirt and a decaying black cap with the orange Bessemer logo above the visor, stood at the basement door. He had outlasted the younger generation, and he had outlasted the sun, and now, with a glove in one hand and a bat in the other, he was reluctant to call it a day.

Thoughts of Thoughts

Thoughts of Thoughts

I want to write a triolet
And fill this vacant, empty page.
Pad, pen and coffee - I’m all set.

I want to write a triolet,

Too bad I’m not inspired yet

By thoughts too witty or so sage.

I want to write a triolet,

And fill this lonely, vacant page.

You’d think I’d have at least one thought
That I could turn into a poem.

Really, unless my brain is shot,

You’d think I’d have at least one thought,

But all my thoughts have come to naught.

Perhaps my intellect is foam.

You’d think I’d have at least one thought

That I could turn into a poem.

I’d like to write a triolet,
A witty verse that will delight.

But there’s a chance I might forget

I want to write a triolet.

I’ve not had one idea as yet,

Nor any thoughts on when I might.

I’d like to write a triolet,

A witty verse that will delight.

A wonderful weekend

Nancy and I spent a wonderful weekend along the banks - of all places - the Youghiogheny River. Nancy took part in a bike ride on the trail that follows the right-of-way of the late, lamented P&LE RR. It is part of a system of trails that make it possible to hop on a bicycle in Pittsburgh and peddle your way to Washington, DC. Friday evening we drove to Boston, PA, a little town not far from McKeesport which had heretofore escaped my notice. There's not much there, but there is a very nice bed and breakfast that Nancy found on-line for $49 a night.

Saturday morning, almost before the sun was up, Nancy started down the trail, putting in 63 miles and then setting up her tent. A little later, I set out in my wheelchair and explored about five miles of the trail. Although it probably wasn't so peaceful when the long coal trains rumbled through, the trail is a wonderful place to spend a few hours. There are spots that are just so unbelievably quiet; all you hear are the birds and the rustling of the wind. Then, of course, the quiet is interrupted by a train, which you can't see through all the trees, going by on the other side of the river. Then the quiet returns. The funny thing about the section of trail I was on: most of the time I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, but the truth was I was never more than a half mile from somewhere.

One of the many things Nancy has done for me is introduce me to the bike trails. There is a short trail in Geneva State Park and a longer one that follows abandoned railroad right-of-way from Ashtabula to Warren, OH, and will eventually extend to the Ohio River. Several times in the summer, when Nancy's bicycle group rides on the trails I've been able to go out with them. I usually get in four or five miles in the time it takes the group to do its twenty or thirty mile rides.

Saturday evening, oddly enough, only a week or two after Russ sent word that he got a royalty check from a greeting card company for his drawing of the GPS getting smart with the driver, the Guy Noir episode on A Prairie Home Companion had Guy being hassled by his GPS. The show was a repeat, but it brought to mind the time when Russ was in high school, and he and his friend Jason were doing "Stranger than Nonfiction" for the Star Beacon's teen supplement, and a cartoon very similar to one of theirs in the Star Beacon appeared in the New Yorker a few weeks . It really was stranger than nonfiction.

On Sunday, I went down to the little park by the river, and as I was heading back toward the bed and breakfast, I went by the trail parking lot, and as I did, a guy was looking at me as if he knew me. Finally, he walked over and asked, "Are you Nancy's friend?" Then he introduced me to another guy who had also been on the ride. We talked for a bit, and they said they got an early start and were the first ones back. A half hour or so later, Nancy got back. Across the street from the bed and breakfast, at the gift shop owned by the people who owned the bed and breakfast, they were selling fried bologna sandwiches for the benefit of the local food bank. So it was that lunch brought back memories of Jim slicing Jumbo at the Family Dairy.

Then Nancy loaded me and all the other stuff on to the van and we headed north. And it all worked out so well; it was a beautiful day, the Steelers won, but they didn't do so until we were into Butler County and well beyond the post-game congestion. A very good weekend, indeed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Falling into fall

Twenty-six years ago, I spent part of the morning in an operating room at the Geneva hospital, watching as Bethany was delivered by Caesarean section. It was quite an experience. So was watching her grow up. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BETH!!!!

It's Labor Day, the traditional end of summer, so they say. And, at least this morning, we're experiencing a taste of traditional fall weather here in Ashtabula. Well, the truth is, we've been enjoying very pleasant weather for the past week - a welcome change from a summer when the term "summer-like weather" was used mostly in the pejorative sense.

The traditional start of fall has brought with it some reminders my traditional ineptitude. For example, I spent the morning putting together a submission to a magazine. This involved a series of mistakes, of course - doesn't everything - but after fumbling around for almost three hours, everything seemed to be in order, and I slipped my poor efforts into an envelope and sealed it. It was then that I glanced up at the computer screen, where my cover letter was still hanging out. I wrote the letter last week and read it over several times then. And this morning, I read it several more times before printing it. But it was not until the hard copy was sealed in the envelope that I notice the letter was dated September 1, 2020.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when I started writing for the paper. The errors that eluded me, no matter how slowly and deliberately I had read through my story, or how many times I had read through it, while I was at my desk in the newsroom, always seemed so obvious the next morning when I was reading the paper at the breakfast table. It was as if they had been printed in bold type.

Then I noticed on Facebook that niece Ashley ran a half-marathon over the weekend. During my time as a regular member of the fourth estate, I had the opportunity to get to know quite a few runners, and whether they were high school students running cross country or adults competing in 5Ks and the like, they all seemed like nice people, and I enjoyed talking to them, even if I couldn't figure out the allure of running for the sake of running. So it was, about a year ago, I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami and was moved to write a column about runners and running.

Ashley's post made me think this might be a good time to post the column. So I went to the Star Beacon website to retrieve it, and like Old Mother Hubbard, I was disappointed. The column was no longer there. That wouldn't have mattered, but having a great ineptitude for file keeping, I often depend on the web to keep my files for me. But, trust me, it was a darn good column.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trite On

When writing, the trite, in the words of William Safire and others, is to be avoided like the plague. From the moment the would-be writer walks into a writing class or opens a book on the art of writing, he is reminded that the trite and banal will suck all life from his composition. The admonishments to shun the trite are repeated so often they almost become trite themselves. But if a writer wants the reader to think about what he has written, it is only fair that he give more than a little thought to how he writes it.

This rule does not apply, however, to the talking heads and loudmouth yakkers of the electronic media, who are as comfortable slipping well-worn phrases into their broadcasts as they are slipping their feet into a pair of well-worn shoes. For them, all accidents are unforeseen accidents, all gifts are free gifts, all surprises are unexpected surprises, and nothing happens now, everything takes place at this point in time.

TV and radio executives encourage the lackadaisical use of language because they want to give news programs a more conversational tone and create the illusion that everything the anchor, reporter or commentator says comes off the top of his stylishly coifed head. Broadcasters believe the reporter with notes in hand has less credibility than the reporter who appears to be winging it.

The insipid chatter also prevents the audience from being distracted by an incisive comment or clever turn of phrase. If the viewer is given something to think about, he might think about it right through all the important messages from the sponsor.

Unfortunately, books, newspapers and magazines are being mortally wounded by the ten-second bursts of words fired from the mouths of TV personalities. The electronic media has discarded verbal artistry and replaced it with prepackaged phrases, hoping that in time every utterance will be uttered with dependable sameness. Regardless of the topic, or whether the comment is made in Poughkeepsie, Punxsutawney, Paducah, Peoria, Pocatello or Pomona, the goal is to have the mix of words be like the special sauce on a Big Mac: always the same. People with a way with words are distrusted, thought to be con men. Commenting on the common in an uncommon way creates suspicion. Americans are encouraged to be in awe of celebrities who sport seventy-five word vocabularies.

With that in mind, perhaps I should imitate a well-known alleged news outfit and insert the following after every paragraph I write: "Tom Harris: Perceptive and witty - I give the facts; you chuckle."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday morning

The days are getting shorter and the weather is improving. We had rain yesterday, and it rained hard for a while last night; the wind blew from time to time, but the lightning never flashed and the thunder never boomed. It looks like we will be getting more rain today; the temperature, however, is fit for human consumption - at least this human's consumption. A gander at the Weather Channel's website reveals that it will not get above eighty around here until a week from tomorrow. I'm not sure I believe that, but it is a nice thought.

Cuddles' predatory instincts came to the fore this morning. She was crouched on the table with every muscle taut while she stared intently at a crow that was poking around on Lincoln Dr., apparently hoping to find some road kill. She spent five minutes gazing at the alien avian, never taking her eyes off of it. She shifted her stance ever so slightly a few times, trying to get in the most advantageous position to launch herself through the screen and fly Superman-like over the front yard in order to subdue the crow before the birdbrain knew what hit him. She didn't, though. She got bored with the bird and turned her attention to other things. The crow spent several more minutes out front, strutting around like the foreman of a road crew shouting at the backhoe operator to get to work. But Cuddles didn't care. She had real work to do, which was letting Nancy and me know what was expected of us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Didn't Mean It, Really

(Former astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak) must stay away from the victim Colleen Shipman and has to write a “sincere” letter of apology to her within 10 days.
Associated Press item in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 11, 2009

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Out of the Blue
One sunny spring morning when Bethany was four, she wondered around the yard, inspecting this and that while I cut the grass. She spotted something flopping about under the lilac bush. It was a young bird, a blue jay, apparently injured, and Bethany stooped down and picked it up. Holding the helpless creature against her breast, Bethany attempted to restore it to health with soothing, kind and loving words. But Bethany wasn’t the only one awash in maternal instincts that morning. The mother blue jay swooped down and pecked Bethany on the head. She dropped the fledgling and ran crying into the house. Debbie cleaned her wound, which wasn’t much of a wound, and called the doctor to ask if there were precautions we ought to take. Beth should be fine, he said, just keep an eye on it for a few days as you would any injury. Fifteen minutes later, Bethany was back at the lilac bush, but the young bird was gone and never seen again.
Years later, after my nest had emptied, I was eating dinner one evening while my housemate, Murphy, a ten year old beagle-border collie mix, was in the backyard. At her age, Murphy had seen it all and seldom got excited, except when she saw me with leash in hand, ready to take her for a walk. But something had grabbed her attention. A few desultory barks were followed by a few more desultory barks, which were followed by an uninterrupted stream of I-mean-business barks. I got up from the table and went to the backdoor, prepared to deliver a stern reprimand. But Murphy, barking angrily and straining to break free of her chain, didn’t so much as acknowledge me. I followed her eyes to the garage. On the roof, a squirrel stared down at her, taunting her, egging her on, and thoroughly enjoying the display of canine frustration it had created. There was nothing handy to throw at the squirrel, and I was about to pull Murphy back inside when a blue jay swooped down behind the offensive creature and reduced it to its natural state: a sniveling, frightened rodent fleeing hastily and leaving a trail of urine.
Now, the mother blue jay pecked Bethany on the head for obvious reasons. But why did the blue jay shoo away the squirrel that was bugging Murphy? Did it feel sorry for Murph? Did it understand that to silence the dog it had to get rid of the squirrel? Or, was the blue jay hungry? Blue jays eat small invertebrates, and that squirrel turned out to be one spineless creature.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A few hours at the Edgewood Diner

Tuesday evening I had dinner with thirteen or fourteen former Ash/Craft colleagues: all of them women, most of them retired and several of them in the process of preparing for their yearly migration to places where the winter weather has fewer character-building qualities. By coincidence, Mrs. Harris and her husband were having dinner at the restaurant. Mrs. Harris is the mother of Tom Harris, a municipal judge in Conneaut. A few years ago on St. Patrick's Day, Nancy and I went to a performance of Irish music. While we waited for the program to start, a voice behind me asked, "Aren't you Tom Harris?" "Yes, I am," I said. "I'm Tom Harris' mother," she said. So, in her role as Tom Harris' mother, she came over to me Tuesday and me told to be sure I behaved myself with all those women.

Maxine was there, too, with her wonderful Canadian accent and dry, self-deprecating wit. She wore a ball cap to hide the smattering of hair that has sprouted since the last round of cancer treatment. She was full of life and of stories and never said much about what ails her. But as everyone was getting ready to leave, she looked at me in the wheelchair and said, "How could this have happened to two such wonderful people as ourselves?" Neither of us had an answer to that, but Max did talk about this being her life and, while she can't do much about her health, that she is determined to make the most of each day she has.

There is a very wise woman behind that Canadian accent and dry, self-deprecating wit.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Your Slip is Showing

A few months ago, Nancy and I inherited a year's worth of Reader's Digests. Now, I hate to bad-mouth the folks in Pleasantville - two of Russ' cartoons appeared in the issues we received - but judging from the sampling we have, this is certainly not my father's, or mother's or Uncle Jim's Reader's Digest. For one thing, the "Toward More Picturesque Speech" feature has been discontinued and is sorely missed. And while all the humor features and fillers are still there, there seems to be a greater reliance on stupid-people humor.

Now, I laugh at stupid people as much as the next guy, but there is always the danger when you point out the intellectual deficits of others that your own slip might be showing (another late, lamented Reader's Digest feature). So it is that page 25 of the November 2009 issue popped right out at me.

Under the headline "5 Tips to Make Life Easier," I discovered the following:

The first suggestion was to stay away from the Internet for a while, which can be done, if you're a Mac user, by going to The second suggestion was to read up on common legal problems by going to The third was to learn about the classics of literature without actually reading them by going to Then, to reduce the clutter in your home and office, you can throw out the phone books by accessing And finally, vacation planning is a breeze when you go to But remember, before you do any of these things, the first step toward a simpler life is staying away from the Internet.

I'm being picky, I know. But if "Toward More Picturesque Speech" hadn't been discontinued, I would have read it instead.

The assignment was to use the word "translucence" as part of a metaphor. What follows is notable in only one regard: it took me five hours to compose and then I spent several hours over several days tinkering with it. If the Founders had spent this much time writing the Constitution, they'd still be in that room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

So, for no reason other than it took so long to write, here it is:

The Mist Use of Words

The politician’s speech - a Hollywood shower scene, with a beautiful woman behind frosted glass in a bathroom clouded with steam, luxuriating suggestively while caressing herself with soap, that tempts the viewer to imagine transparency where there is only translucence and bawdy anatomical exactness where there is but a fuzzy silhouette – led the listener to fill the fog of artfully blurred oratory with pleasing and explicit details conceived in his dreams of life without taxes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summertime Blues

The unbearable heaviness of summer took the weekend off but returned to its post Monday. I am a little ashamed - and with good reason, some would say; although this has nothing to do with any other shameful facets of my life - to be whining about summer weather, since I spent all winter complaining about winter weather. Ah, but Grandma, who was on target with "It's hell growing old," also got it right when she said, "As a rule, man's a fool./ When it's hot, he wants it cool./ When its cool, he wants it hot./ Always wanting what is not."

I, however, have an excuse for my summertime crankiness. Apparently, it is a medical fact that people with multiple sclerosis do not do well in the heat. Hot-and-humid was never my favorite climatic condition, and a few years before I was diagnosed, I did notice the weather weighing me down more than in the past. So, when the medical professionals told me that the heat was hard on those with MS, I said, "Aha, I knew it. This weather-induced ennui doesn't have anything to do with age." And I felt so relieved. In truth, the word "ennui" did not pop up in my thoughts that day. It is, however, a word Mom introduced me to many years ago on Myrna Drive; it was the answer to a clue in the crossword puzzle she was doing that day. And since Mom also had a narrow range of acceptable temperatures, I believe my use of the word - while perhaps not an accurate quote in the narrow, persnickety sense - is justified.

The downside of summer weather has been unrelenting this year. In a more normal summer, we have tropical conditions for a week here and a few days there. The rest of the summer is reasonably pleasant - hot, but not oppressive during the day, comfortably cool at night. In those years, there are nights when friendly Canadians send us cool air from across the lake and it gets a little chilly here. This year, the Canadians have banned the export cool, dry air, and the tropical systems, like our politicians, are operating on the premise that it is better to make the people miserable than to occasionally compromise.

Still, life goes on, and in just a few months, I'll again be complaining about the cold. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I am not now, nor have I ever been, the exception to Grandma's rule of foolish men.

And, as long as I'm whining; according to the news, e-books are now outselling books. This probably doesn't mean the end of civilization as we know it - and can a civilization with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck
be called a civilization? - but if bookstores and libraries wither and die before I do, I will surely miss them. I buy most of my books on-line these days, and it's quick, easy and convenient. But, it's not much fun. It's difficult to browse on-line, and the real fun of going to a bookstore or library isn't finding the book I'm looking for, it's finding the book I don't know I'm looking for until I find it.


Alisha, the activities director, asked me to play Reader's Digest editor and condense an article on spring health tips she'd found ...