Friday, December 30, 2011

High Resolution

With 2012 looming, many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions.  And by “many of us”, I mean “me”.  Others too though.  Transitioning from an old wall calendar with photos of bucolic country scenes on it provided free by your bank to a new wall calendar with photos of bucolic country scenes on it provided free by your bank has traditionally also been a time to make changes in one’s life.  It seems like a healthy idea worth taking part in, assuming your resolutions for 2012 don’t include “Eat a car” or “Hug a gila monster”.

I have to say, I was quite successful in my resolutions for 2011.  Actually, it was only one resolution: “Wait until next year to make resolutions.”  Achievable goal achieved! 

This year, I am setting my sights a bit higher, and making five resolutions.  To make it more likely I will actually adhere to them, I am making them public here.  They are, as follows:

1.       Eat better.
Yeah, yeah, it’s such a cliché resolution, I know, but I seriously need to do this.  I’ll be 42 years old in a few months, but my eating habits haven’t really changed since I was 17, and there are numerous discarded McWrappers on the floor of my chariot to prove it.  Fortunately, I have a reasonably good metabolism and drink a lot of water as a rule, so my weight does not match up with the amount of garbage I typically inhale.  Nonetheless, my poundage has been creeping up over the past few years.  During a recent trip to the doctor’s office, I saw a chart that indicated that my current weight (200 pounds.  I’ll admit that), attached to my frame (all 5’11” of it) is technically, just technically, categorized as “obese”.   (Just technically.)   I am almost certain that some tofu-eating nut devised that chart, but it still struck me as probably a good idea to keep the potato chips out of reach and step away from the cookie dough ice cream more often.  Now I don’t plan on becoming a vegan or anything like that.  I am not even formally planning a diet.  You’ll notice the resolution is to “eat better”, not necessarily to “eat healthy”.  In other words, I plan to eat less horribly to some degree.  Avoiding junk food and processed food more often might be a good start.  Now pass me that box of Twinkies.  It's not 2012 yet!

2.       Exercise more.
I get quite a bit of exercise in my work in the veterinary hospital.  Part of what’s great about my job is that you make frequent use of both your mind and your body.  For example, I am often thinking about how I am going to get out of this mess while I am climbing a cabinet to escape an enraged pit bull who is trying to kill me. See?  Mind and body.  However, outside of work, I haven’t been exercising much at all lately.  I used to hike, ski, snowshoe, bike, and all kinds of things like that, but have been making excuses not to do them in recent months.  The truth of the matter  is, I hate sweating with a deep abiding passion.  It doesn’t take much for me to start breaking a sweat either.  The irony is that if I could get myself to exercise more, I’d be in better shape and likely sweat less.  Sweat more to sweat less.  Cruel joke, that is.

 This is how I've spent most of my free time since 1970.

Incidentally, I will NOT join a gym, so don’t even go there.  Exercising just for the sake of exercise is not my thing.  Put me on a treadmill, and I will immediately start looking at my watch and obsess about how my glasses are starting to fog. Then my stupid brain will just start saying things to me like: “Kinda sweaty, aren’t you big boy?” or “That tweak in your right leg might be a hamstring ready to snap.  You better back off pal!”  or even “Wouldn’t a Whopper with cheese taste good right now?”  It’s just miserable inside my head when I am in a gym, and all the muscle-bound, healthy-looking people around me do not help matters even a little.  At best they give me a polite smile and an inferiority complex.  Nope…if I am going to exercise, I want it to have a point to it and no small amount of mental diversion.  Biking, for instance, actually gets you somewhere, and going out on snowshoes allows you to cheat death when you accidentally stumble upon a hibernating bear under a pile of brush.

As with resolution number one, note the wording: “Exercise more”.  Not “exercise a lot”.  I am not really doing any exercising at all now, so if I start doing any at all, then I’ve met my goal.

3.       Get a dentist.
I have had every dental experience known to humankind in my lifetime.  Cavities, root canals, caps and crowns, braces, retainers, wisdom teeth extracted, you name it.  Somewhere in the Caribbean, there are several dental professionals with their own private islands thanks to me and my dental insurance.  A few years ago though, my dental situation stabilized to the point where there was really nothing that needed doing aside from six-month checkups.  So when I moved to a new town, I never bothered to sign on with a new dentist.

Well, I probably should.  I still don’t have anything pressing going on with my teeth, aside from some coffee staining.  I brush and rinse religiously numerous times a day, and floss often. I haven’t had a toothache in years.  However, given that I’ve put so much pain and money into the old choppers over time, they really should be looked at more than once a decade.  Trouble is, none of the local dentists are accepting new patients.  So, I’ll have to do a little research and probably travel a little to be seen.

I don’t really mind the dentist, though I used to hate going.  As a kid, I would start dreading dental appointments several weeks in advance.  That was in the age before common use of fluoride, and I was always found with at least one cavity every six months.  Not fond of needles as a child, I had my teeth drilled and filled without any anesthetic at all.  If I had only believed that what I was subjecting myself to was so much worse than the brief sting of a needle of Novocain!  My dentist and parents tried to convince me of it, but I was nothing if not stubborn.  I was not to be reasoned with.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that I had to walk several blocks to and from the dentist’s office all by myself, since my dad was working all day and my mother had several small children and no vehicle at her disposal.  It was the Bataan dental death march.  The temptation to not show up at the dentist and go hang out somewhere for a while was great, make no mistake about it.  However, the Catholic guilt was strong in me, even at that tender age, so I dragged myself there without fail every time.

I could go on and on about my rather unique dental history, but that is probably best left to a future blog post for those with strong stomachs.

4.       Take writing more seriously.
Ha, ha!  Look!  I am doing this one right now!  I am writing!  Whoo hoo!  Wheee!  Write, write write!

Well, I did include seriously in this resolution, so that sentence probably doesn’t count.

I’ve loved to write since I was a kid, and have always been told I have a knack for it, as I outlined in a previous post.  Only recently have I set some of my writings in front of others and received some strong pushes to do more and share it more widely.  There’s this blog, which is growing slowly and steadily.  And there’s the novel I am working on in a tandem project with a previously published author.  It’s still pretty hush-hush at this point, but we are well into the first draft.  We are teaching each other a lot, and I really enjoy working with him.  I have to admit that there are days I want to drag him backwards through a keyhole, and he probably wants to do even worse to me.  In the end though, we usually see that we’ve brought something better out by putting our heads together, so it’s worth it.  In 2012, I hope to finish work on that novel and get it out there for you, and then start work on a solo project.  I want to grow this blog some more and publish posts more frequently.  You, my readerly friend, can directly help me get motivated to do that by coming back here to visit often.

On a more basic level, I am resolving to write at least a little bit every day.  I’ve been in touch with a number of writers, and every one of them separately has told me that same thing.  They also told me to read a lot, especially in the genres in which I am writing.  I plan to do that also.

5.       Chill.
Although I am 41 and not 16, I have requisitioned this particular modern buzzword from the younger set.  I use it quite often, actually.  To “chill”, according to the Urban Dictionary website, means "to calm down" or "to be easygoing".  In other words, to take the time to do things that are good for me and those I care about, and less time on counterproductive worry.  I need to do this in the worst way, and that’s generally how I’ve done it.  Make no mistake, I don’t mean that I plan to spend hours on end in the recliner watching TV or sleeping until noon.  That’s just lazy.  Nor do I plan to close my eyes to things that require attention.  That’s just stupid. 

You see, however, I am a chronic worrier, and always have been.  I worry about big things, like paying the bills and the health of family and friends, but also the little things, like whether the food I put in the freezer will get freezer burn, or whether the mechanic working on my car will judge me for the Rick Springfield CDs I have kicking around the passenger seat.  (To borrow a line from columnist Dave Barry, I am not making this up!) The thing is, worrying has very seldom made anything that I was actually worrying about any better.  In fact, the anticipation for me is often twice as bad as the actual object of my worry.  So, I need to chill.  Not become oblivious by any stretch, but keep things in proper perspective more effectively.  Just chill.

There are some who may criticize my resolutions.  Some of my former colleagues in the education field (mainly the wonky, I-have-no-life types) would surely say “Resolutions are goals, and they must be quantifiable.  How can you measure them?  How will you know you’ve reached them?”  To those people, I would recommend they resolve to shut up. 

Seriously though, I worded my resolutions vaguely on purpose because I do not want to have a finish line to cross.  I want to enjoy the journey, without focusing entirely on the destination.  If I skip dessert for a few days in a row, then I am making progress toward eating better.  If I get out on the snowshoes a few more times this winter than last, I’ll be moving in the direction of exercising more.  That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to adhere to those resolutions if I merely do those things.  By leaving them open ended, the resolutions become more like directional signs for my life, to help me move toward becoming the person I want to be.

Whether you are one to make resolutions for New Year’s or not, I hope 2012 is a year of peace, achievement and opportunity for you.  And don’t hug any gila monsters.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Out Home At Christmas With Bing

It’s funny the things that trigger memories.  I had a long road trip alone the other day, and decided to put my satellite radio receiver in the car on scan mode to see if I could find something interesting and different.  To my surprise, I happened across a new seasonal channel called “Bing Crosby Christmas”.  Yep…all Bing Christmas, all the time.

Now sleepy-eyed crooners from the 40s and 50s are not really my thing, but they definitely were my late grandmother’s (hereafter referred to as “Gram”), and Bing was her all-time favorite.  Every Christmastime, she would pull out the Bing Crosby Christmas records and 8-track tapes and immerse all of her family in that voice as smooth as thick peppermint hot chocolate.  So, I lingered on the “Bing Crosby Christmas” channel for a while and my mind drifted back to those Christmases way back in the 70s when I was a young kid.  Specifically, I thought about the parts of Christmas spent at my grandparents’ place in the country.  My parents always referred to it as “out home”.

My brothers and I were the only “local” grandkids my paternal grandparents had.  All the others lived on the other end of the state, and typically spent Christmas there.  We, on the other hand, lived nearby, so my brothers and I were fortunate to be able to have Christmas morning in our own home, and then go to visit my mother’s mother across town and my father’s parents on the outskirts, all in one day.

My grandparents lived in a fairly small house, and their Christmas tree always fascinated me.  While ours at home was a six-foot tall goliath, at least a goliath from my young kid perspective, my grandparents’ tree was always about as tall as me, and stood on a little stand in the corner of their living room.  It was never the classic Christmas tree shape, since every year it was one my grandfather cut down after wading through the snow in the woods behind their house.  They used those huge multi-colored light bulbs that got very hot, with star-shaped foil heat reflectors behind them.  We used to enjoy melting tinsel on those bulbs, watching it curl up like bacon.  It’s a miracle the house didn’t go up in smoke with those things draped over the tree year after year, but they looked really cool.  The ornaments were a typical mixture of homemade and store-bought, but they all had one thing in common: shininess.  I think every one of them incorporated foil in some way.  If those trees had been set in the midsummer sun, the reflection would have burned holes in your retinas.  Even the garland was some sort of coiled golden thing that was springy to the touch.  The silver tinsel was so thick on that tree you could barely see the ornaments or garland.  It got everywhere, and we would often find strands of it around the living room all year round.  On top of the tree was a small angel, which was about the only non-shiny thing on the entire structure.  I never heard the story of that particular angel, but really wish I had.  Where it is now, I have no idea.

Gram always bought us clothes for Christmas as kids.  Gifts from her could always be located under the tree because they were soft.  Both of my grandparents grew up in large, not so well-off farm families, and as a result they were always practical when it came to gift-giving.  Gram knew that her grandkids would be plied with plenty of toys at Christmas from Santa Claus, our parents, and other family, so she went with needs instead of wants.  Even though my brothers and I were all about toys at that young age, Gram’s gift of clothes were always appreciated by us, and not just to be nice.  Somehow, it made sense to us, probably on some subconscious level, that she was giving us these things in the face of the annual toy avalanche.  When we went to visit my grandparents on Christmas day every year, we always made sure we were wearing whatever she had given us.  Luckily, she gave us the kind of clothes we would actually wear, like hats and gloves, socks, underwear, sweatshirts and such.  No tacky reindeer sweaters or pink bunny pajamas from her.  She wanted to give us stuff we would use. I found out later that she consulted with my mother closely before shopping for us, making sure she had our correct sizes and that she was getting something we actually needed.  The world could use more people of her practical nature these days.

I went ice skating for the first time on one of those Christmases “out home”.  I was probably no more than four or five, and it must have been a particularly cold December, because the surface of the swimming hole just down the road from my grandparents’ place was frozen solid.  Some skates had been under the tree that morning, so when we went out to visit, my father shoveled off a part of the swimming hole, and my grandmother strapped the double-runner blades onto my feet.  It was too cold for my mother to bring my younger brothers out, since they were just babies, and my grandfather, ever practical, was not going to budge from his rocker near the wood stove.  He did make sure Gram took her camera to preserve the moment however.  He’d live it vicariously with me later once the film had been developed.  At first, I moved on the ice with all the grace and style of a drunken walrus.  My grandmother then made a quick run up to the house to get an old wooden chair from the kitchen for me to use as support, and soon I was zipping around the frozen surface of the swimming hole like a pro.

Gram could cook like nobody I have ever known, and she always had treats ready for us, especially on Christmas.  Her molasses cookies were one of the most outstanding things I have ever eaten in my life.  She made them frequently throughout the year, but only at Christmas did she use her very old cookie cutters to make them into the shapes of toy soldiers, wreaths, and reindeer.  As a little kid, this made one of life’s great pleasures ever greater.  There were also containers with homemade donuts fried up to be just a little crispy on the edges, and a basket on the kitchen table piled high with fresh yeast rolls.  The sad part to me was that my grandmother had “sugar”, better known as diabetes, and could not partake of any of the terrific goodies she whipped up for us, except for maybe an occasional yeast roll.  Between her many visitors and my grandfather with his sweet tooth, nothing ever went to waste though.

When going to visit my grandparents on Christmas Day, my parents allowed each of us to take only one new toy we had received that morning to show them.  This was mainly to prevent fighting and drama between us kids, and also to ease the stress on my grandfather, who loved us dearly but could only take us youngsters and our noisemakers in rationed amounts.  The choice of which toys to take was always one my brothers and I took very seriously, and I recall second-guessing which one I should have brought during the whole ride out home.  My grandparents always visited our house the day after Christmas to see our entire haul, but for some reason that toy taken out to show them was important.  Neither of my grandparents was really plugged into kid culture, so when we showed them the latest Star Wars vehicle or radio-controlled race car, they had the same level of curiosity as an archeologist having uncovered some artifact from the sands.  Their interest was genuine, so it seemed, but they had no clue as to what they were looking at, in spite of our best efforts to explain it to them.  I guess there was something special about us sharing something we knew about and they didn’t with them, instead of the other way around as it usually was.

One of the things I remember most clearly about Christmas out home as a kid was the sky.  We always dropped in to visit my grandparents for a few minutes on Christmas Eve after attending the early Mass at church.  In spite of the volcano of anticipation for Christmas morning that was ready to erupt within me, I remember stopping between the car and front door of my grandparents’ house to look up at the sky.  It looked so much bigger and closer out in the country than it did from our house in the middle of town with all the ambient light around.  You felt like you could almost reach out and touch the stars.  The sounds of the wind blowing through the evergreen trees in the woods just added to the aura.  When I was very little, I honestly thought I would see Santa’s sleigh come over the horizon at any second.  In later years, I imagined that this was exactly what the sky must have looked like for those shepherds outside of Bethlehem those many years ago just before all of those angels knocked their proverbial socks off.

It was usually dark when we left my grandparents’ house late on Christmas afternoon.  As we made our way out to pile into the car, my grandmother would plug in the string of the aforementioned firetrap colored lights with which she had decorated her annual outdoor Christmas wreath.  She was quite proud of that little outdoor light display, but since there was so little traffic on their country road, they only plugged the lights in when they knew someone would see it.  Gram always told me to call ahead before we came to visit around Christmastime, so she could have the colored lights plugged in for us as we arrived.  I remember that you could see them from far up the road if it was dark.  Once we got into the house, they were unplugged, and then plugged in again when we got ready to leave.  I used to watch out the rear windshield of the car for Gram to unplug the Christmas lights again when we were just about out of sight.  It’s a good thing those big old bulbs were beautiful, because they were also electricity hogs in addition to being highly flammable.  My grandparents’ practical nature just wouldn’t let them leave them on if no one was going to be looking at them.  (I am sure my grandparents would love LED lights if they were still alive.)

And the seasonal songs of Bing Crosby were the background music to all of it.  Even if Bing’s tunes weren't playing, Gram was humming or singing them, and they lodged firmly in our heads.

My grandmother has been gone for nearly seventeen years, and my grandfather nearly twelve.  She would be 98 years old if she was alive today, and he would be almost 102.  I still miss them, and think about them often, especially at this time of year.  A big part of the reason is the memory triggers that Bing Crosby’s Christmas music provides.  So the next time you hear him crooning White Christmas or any other of his holiday classics, toss up a quick prayer for my grandparents, who did so much for my brothers and me, and made our childhood Christmases even more magical in their own special way.  And maybe say one for Bing too.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How Tweet It Is

If you are online at all these days, most likely you are caught up in at least one of the various social media phenomena.  Facebook and Twitter, of course, are the biggest players right now.  I took to Facebook pretty easily a few years ago.  Sure, they are selling every scrap of personal data they can mine about me to the highest corporate bidder, but I have a hell of a virtual farm to show for it.  Plus, it has given me a way to connect with longtime and newer friends instantly, regardless of where they are or what time it is.  I dig that a lot.  As for Twitter, I've warmed up to it more slowly.  It’s a different animal than Facebook in a lot of ways, and I still don’t entirely “get it”.  Of course the same could be said of my understanding of women, politics, and the appeal of Justin Beiber.   Twitter and I are still trying to come to terms with each other, but you know, it’s really growing on me.

I first joined Twitter about two years ago, mainly to see what all the fuss was about.  Very few people I knew personally were using it at the time (and by “very few” I mean “none”), but it was getting a lot of play in the media, so I thought I’d give it a try.  It seemed like a fun enough idea: Set up a free account, and start tossing out your comments and observations to followers in 140 characters or less.  It sounded simple, fast, and non-committal, which could also stand as a description of me.  What’s not to like?

The first thing I had to do was come up with a username.  This is a fairly crucial step in the process.  If you choose one that is direct and simple (“Chris” for example), it was already snapped up long ago by people who are much more hip than you and jumped on the Twitter train early on.  If you choose something more complex (“B3ANF4RM3R$N33DLUV2”, by way of another example), then no one will ever be able to remember it, and you’ll be a lonely Twitter soul.  For mine, I took inspiration from one of my favorite songs of the 1990s, “Counting Blue Cars” by the band Dishwalla.  Playing on the title, I went with “@countofbluecars”.  It was mildly clever and easy to remember, even if you didn’t know the song. (You can see the video at YouTube if you click on this link.)

Putting your profile together in a brief way can be a tricky thing.  With all due respect to Shrek, I am like an onion.  No, I don’t stink or make people cry.  I have layers.  I am a former radio announcer, was a schoolteacher, currently work in a veterinary hospital, and am also a much-less-than professional writer and blogger.  Those are some pretty divergent constituencies, and I only had a few lines in which to describe myself.  So, I told everyone that I was a millionaire bachelor living in a house with platinum shingles.

Actually, I didn’t.  Though I have to admit, I am a little paranoid when it comes to putting too much specific information in an online profile accessible to anyone.  A Nigerian prince once told me in an e-mail that there are lots of scammers out there with clever ways to hijack your life.  Ways that the average person would never imagine.  He also had some helpful hints on male enhancement and offered to send me a free iPad2 if I just paid the shipping and processing fee of $50. 

*ahem* But I digress.

Needless to say, I’d like to avoid getting scammed.  I am not hiding behind some false façade by any stretch, but I am also not putting my shoe size and bank account numbers out there for web surfers to see either.  I’m Chris.  I live in northern Maine.  I’m 40-something.  I’m a former radio guy and teacher, and a current veterinary guy and writer.  That’s all true.  Follow me, communicate with me a little, and I’ll tell you more, except maybe the bank account numbers.

So, with Twitter account activated and set up, I was ready to tweet.  Problem was, I had no followers.  I felt like the first person in town to get a telephone back in the old days.  It must have been so exciting to have, until you realized that no one else you knew had one, so there was no one to call or to call you. 

After a few days, people still weren’t knocking down the door of @countofbluecars, so I decided that maybe I needed to start following others.  Give a little to get a little.  I took to following the suggestions on Twitter’s homepage as to who I should follow.  I followed athletes and actors, writers and musicians, journalists and politicians.   Anyone who was even remotely interesting to me got added to my list.  This opened the door to some extent.  I started accumulating a few followers. 

Very few. 

They were mostly young, orangey ladies with very busty profile pics and lewd suggestions in their profiles, although a couple of legitimate people started following me too.  Evidently, there are those who scope out the lists of followers of others and follow the followers.  I am not sure of the rationale behind it exactly, since they are following me, and not vice-versa.   My working theory is that if they found my account on someone else’s list, then someone else may find their name on mine.  Whatever.

It didn’t take long before some of the people I was following revealed themselves to be about as deep as a paper plate.  Quite a few only used Twitter as a means to hock their wares.  Now I get that aspect of things.  After all, I am looking to get people to read this blog once in a while, and use my Twitter account to publicize it.  But some accounts that I followed at first were nothing but promotional.  Remember Ralphie’s reaction when he got his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring in the film A Christmas Story?  I felt a lot like that.  I “unfollowed” those lame accounts in pretty short order.

There were other accounts, however, that were kind of cool.  One writer I follow lamented the destruction of his favorite flannel shirt, his “writing shirt”, which was eaten by his Doberman pinscher.  A musician frequently shared his enthusiasm after great jam sessions in the recording studio with other artists. An actor gave a little insight into how he came to do a certain thing in a funny scene.  I really dug those tweets.

For nearly a year, my Twitter account lay in relative dormancy, like a cheesy red reindeer sweater given as a gift by an elderly aunt and kept in a drawer.  Maybe I’d have a use for it someday.  I would check my Twitter account maybe once a week, and tweet even more rarely than that.

Then, on May 1 of this year, reports came out that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S.Navy SEALS.  It just so happened that I was checking my Twitter account that evening just as the news broke.  I was home alone and it was late, but I wanted to talk about it.  Due to the universality of the event, there were a lot of reactions from the people I followed, so the floodgates opened.  Those I followed also “retweeted” (another term for forwarding) reactions of people whom they followed.  I became exposed to more interesting people, and followed them.  Not celebrities necessarily, but people who just had something worth saying.  Some of those people followed me back in return.  And the snowball kept rolling.  My followers list did not grow by leaps and bounds by any means, but I saw more clearly how Twitter works.  Just like in real life, circumstances throw us together, and relationships grow from there.  But you have to be involved for those circumstances to occur in the first place.

Now social media is no replacement for real life interaction.  People who limit themselves to social interactions on the Internet only are destined to become like those mole people in old sci-fi films who have lived underground so long that they could barely stand light anymore.  Twitter and the other social media outlets are a supplement to your social life at best.  In the case of the bin Laden killing, I had plenty of discussions with people face-to-face about it, but I also had some through social media.  The conversation was wider, richer, and better-rounded for me as a result of the two avenues of interaction.

If you are reading this and are on Twitter, follow me @countofbluecars.  If you want, I’ll even follow you back.  I believe a dialogue is always more interesting than a monologue.  And just remember, while I would be honored to make an acquaintance with Nigerian royalty, I don’t need a free iPad2, and please keep your male enhancement tips to yourself.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Spare a Little Change?

Change. It happens to all of us, all of the time. I look in the mirror, and that brown mop on my head seems to have more flecks of gray every day. People enter the workforce, people retire. People are born, people die. It’s all a big wheel, turning around and around.

Now I have to be careful as I write this that I don’t come across as a slide rule holdout who advocates riding around town in a horse and buggy. (“Back in my day, we had to walk 15 miles to school in three feet of snow year-round, and dagnabbit, we liked it! Now get off my lawn you kids!”) This is not some rant against new technology, nor is it about the natural changes that come with the passage of time. I know that people age and move on, and that physical things eventually deteriorate and need replacing. And there is no doubt that advances are made in technology almost every day. What I am talking about is what might be termed “change for change’s sake”, also known as “fixing what isn’t broken”.

A good example is the Star Wars series of films. The first movie was released in 1977, and special effects technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since then. Compared to the latest J.J. Abrams sci-fi flick, the original Star Wars looks downright quaint. But you know, that’s okay! When I sit down to watch Star Wars, I have a certain set of expectations, based on the movie I first watched with slack-jawed wonder at age 7. I want to see robots that look like trash cans on wheels, and space ships that look like they are hanging from thin strings and being moved across a black background. That’s what the movie was. If it was released in its original form as a brand new film today, I’d be disappointed. Today’s technology demands more. But for a 1977 movie, it’s terrific.

But no. George Lucas has messed with it, not just once, but now twice. His first set of remasters on Star Wars and its two sequels was done in the late 90s, just before we were subjected to the three prequel films. The latest set of tweaks was completed this year, in time for release of a Blu-Ray boxed set. The story is that Lucas wanted to use today’s technology to help make his original vision for the movies more accurate. Riiiiiight.

It’s not just George Lucas doing this. Musicians are as well. Recently, the Rolling Stones have released a remastered version of their classic Some Girls album from 1978. What was once a single album is now a double album, with the original tracks tweaked, and 12 unreleased ones included. I suppose some might see this as a good thing, but I don’t. Some Girls, as it was released in 1978, was a reflection of where the Stones were at that point in their careers, and now that has been obscured. The songs sounded that way because it was what the band wanted at the time. If tracks were unreleased, there was probably a good reason for that. Likely it is because they were not as good as the ones that were included.

Writers are not immune either. Stephen King’s The Stand is arguably one of his most loved novels. It also originally came in at about a million pages and the same weight as a Volkswagen. Nonetheless, a few years back, King decided to add more to it. Yes, more! Again, the official story is that he wanted to make it closer to his original vision. I think he either invested heavily in paper company stock, or has something against trees, since now it comes in at about a million and a half pages, and the same weight as an SUV.

Speaking as an amateur writer myself, I cannot deny the power of revision. I have always advocated strongly for revisiting your writing after a short time away. Being able to dwell on something for a bit, to get a fresh perspective, is a valuable thing for the creative process. I am sure the same applies to other creative arts as well. Painters see a great place to include another tree. Musicians come up with a terrific new bridge for a song. At some point, however, I feel that it needs to stop. Step away.

Revision is not an endless process, though it easily could be. I have no doubt that any creative person, upon revisiting something they have made, could see something they could change or do better with it. You don’t think Paul McCartney doesn’t hear things in old Beatles songs that he’d like to go back and retool? Changing a few words here, a key there? I’ve looked back on some of my older writing and seen places where I could have added something or changed the wording. It’s hard to resist doing so. But, once you have created something and reached a point where you release it to the world, I believe that it should be finished. It should stand as it is. You set it out there for a reason, let it be.

There is an elephant in this room however: money. Specifically, I mean the publishers, film producers and music companies that are always looking at the financial bottom line. There is little doubt that the money guys monkey around with the creative process of their signed talent in order to extract maximum profit. Cut this, add that, tweak these things. A new version of an old favorite is going to sell. If that’s the case I sympathize with the creators.

To a point.

Once your work is out there to share with the world, it takes on a life of its own. The originally released version of The Stand is the one that became a beloved modern classic, just like the original Star Wars films and the original release of Some Girls. Even if those were not the original visions of the artists, they got out there in the world and took on lives of their own. If the artists were not happy with the version that was proposed to be released originally, then they needed to have the integrity to stand their ground prior to letting their work out there, not later. It takes a certain degree of courage to let your creativity out there in front of the world.

And as far as using new technology on old works, just don’t do it. The only exception in my mind is to preserve them for posterity, as has been done with many very old films. But that’s it. You wouldn’t want someone to Photoshop some rouge and eyeliner onto the Mona Lisa and hang it in a museum, would you? People want to see that painting for what it is, not what it could be. You don’t go back in your family photo albums and pencil more hair on your dad because you think he would have looked better with it. That would not be an accurate reflection of who your dad was at that point. It would be a sham.

So, if you are a creative type, whether amateur or professional, then by all means revise, revise, revise! But once you’ve set your work free on the world, hands off! Let it take on a life of its own. Just because you CAN change something does not mean that you necessarily SHOULD.

And I said stay off my lawn you kids!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Save the Idioms?

id•i•om/ˈidēəm/ Noun: A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.

I’ve always been a fan of language. I was a very early reader, and developed a talent for speaking in my early teen years that turned into stints as a radio announcer and master of ceremonies at functions and events through my twenties. And then there is this writing thing I like to do. Writing is a pastime of mine that I’ve been told I have a flair for, but one from which I have never directly made a penny to this point.

As a language fan, I often notice things in how people write and speak. One of the things I have noticed is that idioms seem to be fading from common use, especially among people under the age of around 50. You rarely here some hip twenty-something in a coffeeshop observing that it’s “raining cats and dogs”, do you? I am not entirely sure what the reason for the fading of idioms might be. It could be the result of our texting society, where any use of excess words in writing is frowned upon. If so, this may have also spilled over into speaking habits. Or, it might just be a generational thing. People of Generation X and younger, in order to distance themselves from the overwhelming cultural juggernaut that was and is the Baby Boom Generation, avoided using idioms so as not to sound like the older folks.

Personally, I think that it’s because a lot of popular idioms are just wackadoodle crazy when you stop and think about them. The following are some cases in point:

“A piece of cake”: This phrase commonly means “something that is simple”. In reality, this makes little to no sense. I have attempted to bake a cake on many occasions. Well, okay, by “many occasions”, I mean “once”. Getting all those ingredients together requires, first of all, a trip to the supermarket, which is the very opposite of simple. Then there is the whole “following the recipe thing”, which is kind of a pain in the neck, but important, I’ve found. And then, to literally top it all off, there is the frosting application. I turned an average-looking cake into a broken pile of crumbs in no time flat just trying to frost it. There is nothing simple about a piece of cake, except maybe eating one. I probably won’t screech too loudly on this one, since my baking skills leave much to be desired, and a piece of cake may actually be easy for some people.

“In a pickle”: In other words, “to be in some kind of trouble”. This is something in which I am an expert. At no time, however, did I ever feel like I was encased in an edible product, such as a cucumber, that has been preserved and flavored in a solution of brine or vinegar. First of all, I am much too big, as are most people I know. Secondly, pickles are not usually hollow. This idiom obviously was created by someone who lived in a household with a lot of flaking lead paint. I think it should be changed to “in a room full of pickles”, since the strong smell of vinegar might be considered trouble for some people. Revision is definitely in order.

“Let the cat out of the bag”: It means “to reveal a secret”. It’s a piece of cake to get yourself in a pickle if you let the cat out of the bag. Now I work with cats every day in my job, in addition to being the owner of two. Even if a cat stays in a bag, there is no secret involved whatsoever. In general, cats do not like being held in a bag, and will make their presence within abundantly clear. I’d suggest we change the meaning of “let the cat out of the bag” to “inflicting great personal harm on some poor sap nearby, requiring him or her to go to the local emergency room”, since that is often the end result of doing so. I wonder to whom I would speak about that?

“Up the creek without a paddle”: Another way of stating that someone is in trouble, but with no apparent way out of it. Now stop and think about this: You are in a canoe on a creek somewhere. A crazed bear storms out of the woods and, instead of eating you (maybe you looked like you might be stringy), this bear steals your canoe paddle and leaves. You have, therefore, lost your paddle. Where would you rather be, vis-à-vis your intended destination, up the creek, or down the creek? Seems to me, if you are up the creek without a paddle, you could just drift downstream until you reach your campsite or whatever, and all is good. If you are down the creek without a paddle, then there’s a good chance you will drift downstream, maybe even out to sea to become a snack for a hungry squid. Far-fetched? Sure. Possible? I think so. “Down the creek without a paddle” would be a much more appropriate idiom for trouble. Perhaps I should start a petition.

“More *blank* than Carter’s got liver pills”: This one has always mystified me. Evidently, it means one has a lot of something. I’ve got a bunch of questions about this one. Who is Carter? How do we know what is in his bathroom cabinet? And what’s wrong with his liver anyway? Should I send him a get-well card? Do I need to get my black suit dry-cleaned? A typical prescription is around 60-90 pills per month, I would guess. Why not just say “more than 90”? It would be much more direct and clear. I’ll add this to the petition.

It saddens me to see any development that makes our language less descriptive and interesting, though it is not really a surprise. If you read published personal letters written just in the past 200 years, you can detect a distinct decline in the use of vivid description and interesting vocabulary. Idioms have their purpose. However, if idioms are to survive, I think they need to make more sense.

At least, that’s what I think. Who knows? I might just be crazier than a bedbug.

I hope you’ll still sign my petition.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Out Home"

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place growing up. These particular grandparents were my father’s parents, and they were pretty cool. Every school vacation, they let me stay with them for several days. I grew up as the oldest of four boys, and my mother took in other people’s kids to babysit as well. It was a full house, and I think my grandparents sensed that it was probably in everyone’s best interest to get me the heck out of there for at least a while, or there would be blood.

Ours was a typical middle-class 1970s household, but my grandparents’ place was stuck in the 40s, which is when they moved into it. It didn’t strike me as odd though, since it had always been that way, as long as I could remember. Their house was kind of stuck in time. Black and white TV with no cable, no electricity directly run to the upstairs (though there was a very long extension cord that snaked up there), heated only by a wood stove…you get the picture.

Take the bathroom, for example. There was none. They had a two-holer out back. It wasn’t exactly an outhouse, per se, since it was attached to the house in a manner of speaking. You had to make your way through a rickety woodshed full of gigantic spiders and nasty stray cats to get to it. In the warm weather, it smelled absolutely horrible, and in the winter, you literally froze your ass off. And the thought of those gigantic spiders was never far from your mind (or other parts of your body), especially when a “number two” was unavoidable. And don’t even get me started about the flies.

The males of the family often made it a habit to do what bears are noted for doing in the woods whenever it was practical. My male cousins and I even went so far as to keep a package of toilet paper in a sealed plastic bag in the back seat of an old car way out behind the house, just in case of emergencies. During the winter, this was not a viable solution however. It was during those times that I developed an amazing ability to hold my breath for extended periods of time without passing out.

Most of the time however, we made sure our bathroom needs were met before we went out to visit my grandmother and grandfather. When I was visiting for several days, I tried to time my “number twos” to coincide with my grandfather’s daily trip into town, so I could use the facilities at the supermarket or hardware store.

Interesting side note: In the baby book my mother kept to mark the various milestones in my life, the first complete sentence she recorded me as saying was uttered in that two-holer on a winter’s day when I was just a toddler. I will not quote my first known full sentence directly, but the gist is that I stated to my mother that a certain sensitive portion of my anatomy was very cold. (Some might say I haven’t stopped complaining since.)

That two-holer was the only bathroom in that house for the first twenty-five years of my life. My grandfather reportedly shoveled out the gruesome contents two or three times per year, well into his 80s, though I never once witnessed it. And to this day, I do not know what he did with what the contents he shoveled out. It’s probably best not to think about it.
In spite of the bathroom situation, the times I spent visiting my grandparents as a child are among my fondest memories. There were endless things to discover “out home” as my father called it.

One of those things I discovered at my grandparents’ house I was reminded of just the other day.

I am a regular user of mouthwash. I typically get some “cool mint” or “orange citrus” flavor to cleanse my palette after brushing my teeth. On a whim, however, I grabbed some good old original flavor Listerine the last time I was at the store. It was probably on sale or something.

On the hot water heater next to the kitchen sink at my grandparents’ place there was always a large bottle of Listerine. It was always slightly mysterious to me. I could smell its sharp, alcohol odor from all the way across the room when my grandfather rinsed out his mouth with it and then spit it into the sink before he went to bed at night. Smells can be strong memory triggers, and whenever I smell the menthol of original flavor Listerine to this day, I think of my grandfather and those late nights just before bedtime.

I also think of something else.

One time, when I was about eight, my cousin Dennis from downstate was visiting at my grandparents’ house. He was two years old than me, and we always found it entertaining to put each other up to things.  On this occasion, while our family was all outside having a cookout, he told me that I ought to take a great big mouthful of Gramps’ Listerine. If I could hold it in my mouth for a full minute, he’d give me the five dollar bill he had in his pocket.

I never got an allowance as a kid. Turning down five bucks for something that seemed so easy was just not an option. My grandfather used this stuff every night. How bad could it be?

Dennis seemed awfully enthusiastic for me to do this.  I reached up and got the large glass bottle from the top of the hot water heater. It was nearly full. Dennis grinned an evil grin. In hindsight, I don’t know why I went through with it, given the warning signs I was getting.

The bottle was too heavy for me to hold in just one hand, so I took it over to the kitchen table to wrestle off the supposedly child-proof cap. At that moment, my cousin Lori, Dennis’ sister, came into the house to get something. She was the same age as me, and had quite a bit more common sense, as female children often do compared to their male counterparts. She also had ample experience in dealing with Dennis’ antics.

“What are you guys doing in here?” she asked.

“Nothing,” we both said in unison. It was the stock response for boys up to no good.

“Is he trying to make you try that stuff?” she asked me.

“Maybe,” I said hesitantly.

“Don’t do it! He’s probably up to something.”

I hesitated for a moment. I should have listened to my sensible cousin, but Dennis took charge of the situation.

“Get out of here!” he hissed at her.  She was wise enough not to get mixed up in the train wreck she could see coming, so she left, knowing that she had at least warned me.

“Don’t listen to her.” Dennis told me in a comforting tone.

I was a bit more hesitant than before, but I nonetheless went ahead and got the top off the Listerine.

The strong scent of the mouthwash filled my nose. I grasped the huge bottle with both hands and lifted it toward my mouth. Then I stopped and set the bottle down.

“Let me see the money again,” I demanded.

He pulled the five out of his jeans and set it on the sideboard.


I raised the bottle again. A little of the pungent stuff sloshed onto my face and even a little down my neck. I hurried so as not to spill more and wound up with a huge mouthful of Listerine.

To that point in my life, I had experienced sweet, sour, salty, and the various other common tastes, but nothing whatsoever prepared me for the tsunami of horrible that sloshed into my mouth with that swig of Listerine. It was like something out of a mad scientist’s lab. If Hell could be distilled in liquid form, it would taste like that. The thing I remember most is the BURN. It felt like it was melting the inside of my mouth. The fact that I had just eaten a bunch of barbecue flavored potato chips minutes before probably enhanced the pain. (Spicy stuff will do that if you use an alcohol-based mouthwash too soon after eating it. Try it!)

Dennis counted off the seconds while my eyes watered and a low whimper emanated from my mouth. I don’t think he got much past ten when I could take it no longer. I spewed the evil elixir out with as much force as I could, covering almost every surface around the kitchen sink. The faucets, my grandfather’s shaving mirror, various of my grandmother’s dishwashing things, the bar of soap in the pink dish, and even the ceramic frog with the scrubby thing in its mouth were all dripping with a mixture of mouthwash and my spit.

I grabbed a plastic cup and began slugging back water like my mouth was on fire, which is exactly what it felt like. Dennis, of course, thought it was all a big laugh and I probably would have agreed it it wasn't ME going through it. I was literally trying to drown my sorrows, and the worst part was, I didn't get the five dollars.  Fair was fair, after all.

We cleaned up the mess around the sink as best we could, though we didn’t even come close to getting all of it. The nasty odor of Listerine still lingered in the room. Just as we finished cleaning as best I could, my grandmother came in to get something from the kitchen and sensed that something was not right. The fact that my eyes were red and watering, that my shirt was drenched from gulping so much water so quickly and that I smelled strongly of menthol was probably a giveaway.

My grandmother knew something untoward was up, but being the kindly grandma she always was, she merely shooed us outside without asking any questions. To this day I think she knew what had happened. The smell of the Listerine hung too heavily in the air (and on me) not to. Fortunately, swimming down at the brook nearby was on the docket of activities for the afternoon, so any trace of Listerine on me was soon washed away. She never let on her suspicions, as far as I know.

After that day, I was convinced that my grandfather was more of a man than I could ever hope to be. Anyone who voluntarily subjected himself to something like Listerine on a nightly basis, in my opinion, was as tough as they come.

For nearly ten years after that, I avoided mouthwash entirely, until I was in college and it became imperative to use in order to hide the smell of other things I had been drinking, and gum just wouldn’t cut it.

It would be easy to fill post after post with stories of the things that happened at my grandparents' house during those visits as a kid. Who knows? Maybe in time I will.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Getting All Booksy

Hey kids! I've been posting book reviews for a number of months over at, which is an excellent site for learning about and sharing books and authors. I just discovered that I can easily share my reviews THERE on my blog HERE. Woo-hoo! So, I'll be posting them on here from time to time. This first one is actually a book I finished over the summer, but I thought it was worth sharing here. I use the nom-de-plume "Phoenix Colter" on GoodReads, so friend me up if you are on board over there.

Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale SingsFluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of Christopher Moore, and have been for some time. He has the gift of being able to mix the sophomoric humor of a teenage boy (which I never really outgrew) with sophisticated subject matter and then weave it into a coherent plot with interesting characters. In other words, Moore can keep a lot of plates spinning at the same time.

Fluke is, essentially, about a bunch of whale researchers in Hawaii who get caught up in some things about whales they never imagined. I will leave it at that to avoid spoilers. Keeping one foot grounded in real science and the other in whacked out gonzoliness, we follow the members of this research team through an adventure that is both hysterically funny and thought-provoking. The environmental conservation message is always lurking just beneath the surface, but Moore never really comes out and slaps the reader in the face with it. The reader just kind of comes to it automatically.

Christopher Moore can be a bit of an acquired taste for some people. This book might be a good place to start if you are not familiar with his work. Likeable and interesting characters, a well-researched but accessible scientific foundation, and Moore's "out there" humor make Fluke a great choice for anyone with the mind of and adult and the heart of a 15 year old kid.

Monday, October 24, 2011

10 Things Your Veterinary Staff Person (Probably) Won't Tell You

I have a subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine.  Yes, the paper version.  Call me old-fashioned.  I am an avid reader, and Reader’s Digest makes for good bathroom reading.  One feature they have been doing recently is “50 Things Your ______ Won’t Tell You”.  For example, “50 Things Your Nurse Won’t Tell You” or “50 Things Your Airline Pilot Won’t Tell You”.  I find these fascinating, because they lift the curtain on certain professions.  Often, a professional, because they must act professionally,  is rarely able to directly explain why they do things the way they do, what rules they have to follow, or how they feel about certain things.  Nonetheless, those factors impact all of us as consumers in one way or the other.  It's not that they won't tell you, it's mostly that they really can't, for one reason or another, though they'd like to.

I work in a veterinary hospital.  There are some who think that my job is nothing more than glorified play with doggies and kitties.  There is more, much more to it than most people outside the profession could ever know.  Almost every single thing we do (and don’t do) with you and your pet is due to a law, a professional protocol, or from some past experience that has influenced our practices.

Instead of clogging this blog with 50 things your veterinary staff person won’t tell you, I am going to limit it to ten for now.  This posting, for the record, is NOT sanctioned by my employer!  It all comes from little old me and the observations and experiences I have had.  And while these are based on my veterinary clinic, I feel safe in saying that they apply to almost all of them, wherever you are.

1.       Your cat may indeed be the sweetest feline known to mankind.  However, with the stress of a vehicle ride and the strange sights, sounds, and smells of the vet’s office, they may not be themselves.  Please put them in a cat carrier for everyone’s safety, especially theirs.  You can even borrow one from us.

2.       And your dog may indeed be the sweetest canine known to mankind.  However, with strange sights, sounds and smells of the vet’s office, they also may not be themselves.  (Plus, the other animals they could go up to greet in the waiting room might not be as friendly as they are.)  Please keep your dog on a leash for everyone’s safety, especially theirs. We have leashes on hand if you don't have one or forgot yours.

3.       If the veterinarian recommends blood tests or x-rays, it is not a way for us to get more money from you.  If anything, it is more work for us.  However, the veterinarian would only order them if she didn’t have enough information to make the best possible medical decision for your pet.  And after all, isn’t that what you want for them?

4.       If you sense that there is something seriously wrong with your pet, don’t wait until 4:55 on a Friday afternoon to call us, especially if it has been going on for a while.  It will save you money, save us time, and save your pet needless suffering if you nip a problem in the bud when it first emerges.  And please, don't call the vet at 1:30 in the morning because your dog is itchy. That's not an emergency. (It has happened more than once!)

5.       Ours is a real medical facility, just like your own doctor’s office.  Unless it is an emergency, we probably won’t be able to schedule you for an appointment the same day you call, just like your own doctor’s office.  That day’s appointments were made by people who called several days before.

6.       We know that prescription diets are often very expensive.  We are embarrassed by it ourselves. The prices are set by the manufacturer, and we make virtually no profit on them. However, they are “prescriptions” and are therefore medically necessary for treating whatever condition your pet has.  The upside of them is that they contain higher-quality ingredients and less filler (No eyeballs and toes in there!), so your pet should be eating less of it to meet their nutritional needs.  

7.       Unpredictable animals, medical emergencies, unpredictable animals, equipment troubles, unpredictable animals, lack of staff some days, and unpredictable animals are going to cause delays.  (And did I mention unpredictable animals?) We like to avoid these things, we really do, but that’s just not always possible.  We don’t like making you wait any more than you like waiting, rest assured.

8.       By law, only a licensed veterinarian can diagnose your pet, give a prognosis on the possible outcome of their condition, do surgery, or issue a prescription.  The other staff members are there to assist the vet in doing these things.  They cannot legally do them on their own, no matter how easy it might seem.  Our vet's license is on the line, even if we hand out a simple tube of ear cream without following certain protocols.

9.       Veterinary care can be expensive, so you might want to have a rainy-day fund in case of an emergency.  There are supplies, salaries, utilities, equipment, upkeep of the facility and numerous other things whose costs are out of our hands.  Our small business must pay for all that stuff before even a penny of profit is made.    We’d love to be able to provide our services for free, but it just isn’t realistic.  And don't get me started on people who stiff us on their bills!  After all, you wouldn't walk out of the supermarket saying "I've only got $10 on me to give you, but I'll bring the rest of the money for all this at the beginning of the month."  (At least I hope you wouldn't.)

10.   Every member of the veterinary staff is in this line of work because they really and truly love animals.  They love your animal, but they also must adhere to laws as well as medical and safety protocols in order to maintain everyone’s best interests, especially your pet’s.  Things are not always as obvious and simple as they may seem.

      ***One more thing...paperwork.  You hate it.  We hate it more.  Dogs like to chew it.  Cats like to shred it.  It is, however, absolutely necessary in any medical office, I'm afraid.  We know it seems cumbersome and repetitive at times, but it is one of those things that covers you, us, and your pet from something potentially bad happening.  Humor us.  Please, just fill it out.  And don't whine.

      Okay, so technically that's eleven.  Who's counting?  Hopefully by letting you in on a few of these things, it will make your pet's next visit to the vet go a bit more smoothly, wherever you take them.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hooray, Sports!

Ahh…sports!  Baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, competitive mosquito swatting in the spring.  Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that sports play a significant part in our culture.  (Well, you could, but I wouldn’t believe you.)

I consider myself a sports fan.  I don’t come from a particularly athletic family, and have no major athletic accomplishments to brag about, aside from five goals scored in one game of floor hockey back in sixth grade.  Nonetheless, I follow the sports world every day in one form or another.  I have ESPN’s Mike & Mike sports talk show on every morning as I am reading the other news of the day in the paper or online.  I also check sports websites for scores several times a day in-season and subscribe to two sports magazines.  In the evenings during the summer, I like to have a baseball game on as background noise.  There’s a kind of comfortable rhythm to it, even if I am only half-paying attention.

Baseball is my favorite sport, and the Boston Red Sox are my team.  It wasn’t always that way, and sometimes I wish it wasn’t like that now. 

As a very young kid, I was actually a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, oddly enough.  I think it was in part because Los Angeles seemed so far away and cool to a kid like me from rural Maine.  Surely their baseball team was populated with only the best players, I reasoned.  And back then, in the late 70s to very early 80s, the Dodgers were actually pretty good.  Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero, Steve Yeager…they were winning pennants most years and even took the World Series in 1981, when I was 11.  Trouble was, hardly anyone in my hometown knew anything about them, much less followed them.  Being a young Dodger fan in northern Maine was a lonely business.  The girls all thought the L.A. logo on my baseball cap (as pictured below) meant “love always”, since that was what it had been appropriated for in notebook doodles and so-called “love notes” by young girls at that time. 

While the media juggernaut that is the Boston Red Sox was not nearly then what it is now, they were still the “local” professional baseball team.  Their games were on the radio every night, their highlights were on the local sports reports, and their caps and t-shirts were in the stores.  In time, I gradually moved my loyalties over to the Red Sox.  In my mid-teens, part of my frequent responsibilities at the radio station where I worked was to play the commercials between innings of Red Sox game broadcasts.   I was there behind the operating board when Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters in a game.  I was also there when that ball went between Bill Buckner’s legs during the 1986 World Series.  Joe Castiglione is still calling games for the Sox.  His is one of the few voices still left in broadcasting that instantly take me back to my youth when I hear it.  Almost all the others are gone.

NOTE: I have to be careful when addressing the topic of the Red Sox right now, since they are in the midst of scandal and turmoil, and it would be very easy for this posting to degrade into an angry rant.  Let’s not go there.

I like football too, but admit to not understanding a lot of it.  You see, here in northern Maine, we didn’t have football teams growing up.  For the most part, we still don’t.  The area is mainly agricultural, and when I was a kid, school let out for three weeks in the fall so students could work in the potato harvest.  Harvest break fell right in the middle of what would have been football season, and the students who were most likely to have played on a football team, the big, strapping guys, were working on the farms.  So the local schools and recreation departments never really established football teams.  Sure, there were football fans around, but for most of us, who didn’t play it or see it in person like we did baseball, basketball, and hockey, there was a bit of distance there.  Unless you really applied yourself, it just looked like big guys in tight pants lining up, falling into a pile, and then lining up and doing it again.

I understand a lot more about football now than I did as a kid.  It all started when someone explained it to me as “a game of acquiring territory”.  While I always knew this at a basic level, that explanation somehow opened my eyes and helped me open other doors.  I still do best during a football game if I have Google on standby for looking up oddball things like "fair-catch kick" or "Terry Bradshaw".

I am a passing fan of other sports too. 

In my radio days, I did color analysis for local high school basketball games on the radio.  I saw MUCH more of that brand of ball than professional basketball, though I did catch the occasional Celtics game.  However, professional basketball seems so slick and polished compared to the high school ball I was so exposed to growing up and the street games I took part in with my very limited skills.  I’ll tune in when the Celtics are on TV once in a while, but for my money, the amateurs are the best show in basketball.

And hockey is a terrific sport.  Fast paced, action-packed, physical.  It sucks on TV though.  I can’t see the puck.  Fox Sports tried to use a technical trick on a TV broadcast about ten years ago where they had a computerized “tail” that swept behind the puck on the screen, making it easier to see.  I loved it.  The rest of the world apparently did not, and that experiment was considered a failure.  If I am going to watch a hockey game, I want to be there in person.  At least then I can see the damn puck.  Looking back on local pond hockey, it’s a flipping miracle that my friends and I didn’t break more teeth, bones, etc., given the wild abandon with which we played and the complete lack of protective gear.  And absence of rules.  Pond hockey for my friends and I as kids was fast, brutal, totally exhilarating, and would probably have scared the bejeezes out of our moms.  It was great. 

I came to NASCAR most recently…around ten years ago.   I’ve figured out that the best way to watch a NASCAR race is to tune in during the last 10-20 laps.  That’s when things really get shaking.  Come to think of it, that rule applies pretty well to basketball and football games too.  Tune in for the last quarter, and you’ll see most of the best stuff live.  The other highlights will be shown ad nauseum on ESPN for the next 24 hours anyway.

And I LOVE the Olympics, summer or winter, but really could care less about most of those sports at any other time.   ABC’s Wide World of Sports was a very popular weekend afternoon program when I was young.  I remember watching it quite often, pretending to be interested in bowling and the like, since there was absolutely NOTHING else to do on a January Saturday afternoon where I lived.  My most enduring memory of that program has to be that poor sap on the skis who wipes out big-time in the “agony of defeat”.  

Other sports:  Tennis? Boring.  Golf? I've shed my blood for it, so I am done with it.  (A topic for another post) Curling?  Great after a few drinks.  Heck, what sport isn't?

At 41, I don’t play many sports these days.  I like to toss a baseball around once in a while or shoot a few hoops, but that’s about it.  However, I think sports play an important part in modern life, one that is sometimes overlooked.  

You see, they are one of the few things left in our culture that are not totally fragmented.  Back in the old days, there were only three or four radio stations to listen to, only three or four TV stations to watch, more people went to church and joined community organizations, and our worlds in general were a lot smaller.  Consequently, we had a lot more in common with the people we ran into every day.  Chances are, they DID watch the same show you did last night, or they DID hear what that announcer said on the radio this morning.  They were at the same church service as you last weekend or the same lodge meeting last night.  Those shared experiences are a lot fewer and farther between today.  Most things are fragmented.  Hundreds of television and music choices are out there, not to mention the vast array of “stuff” that is available on the Internet.   However, sports is still relatively compact.  There’s one major league in each of the five professional sports of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and car racing, which is more compact than many other diversions in our world today.  

Anything that bring us together, that helps us share our passions and feelings in a positive way, that lets us see each other as pretty much being in the same boat...well, that's a good thing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Being A Geek

I’m kind of a geek.

At my age, however, it is much easier to admit it.  I never would have said that when I was, say, 23 years old, even though it was true then as well.  Actually, anyone at this point in time can admit to being a geek and not have a whole lot of self-esteem issues.  Over the past twenty years, as science and technology has reached ever more deeply into almost every aspect of our lives, it has become more socially acceptable to be labeled as one of the geeky.  Even the thickest skulls can see that the things once stereotypically associated with being a geek (computers, electronic gizmos, science-fiction, robots, etc.) have made life immeasurably easier and much cooler.

Of course, not all geeks are science and technology geeks.  Take me for example.  I can find my way around a computer to some extent.  I can install software and empty my recycle bin.  But if you asked me to reformat a hard drive or do anything that requires taking the plastic casing off the machine, I would likely break into a cold sweat and have to go lie down. So “computer geek” is not really what I am.

Nor am I a “gadget geek”.  I have a cell phone.  I hate it.  I rarely have it on my actual person (it lives in my chariot), and it has not been off “vibrate” in months.  My current phone has been with me for three years now, and I have racked up a grand total of (are you ready for this?), 47 minutes.  The only reason I even have it is for emergencies.  Living in a rural area as I do, breaking down on the road can be a major problem.  It’s possible to not be within walking distance of any civilization.  Really.  And there’s no Triple A around here.  If you break down, you have to get hold of someone you know, and a cell phone is usually the only way to do so.  Otherwise, you could be eaten by a yeti.  Or so I’m told.  Also, I have several older relatives for whom I do a lot, and I want them to be able to reach me if there is a pressing need.  Trouble with that is, they don’t believe in cell phones, much like most of us don’t believe in the tooth fairy, and would not even think to call me on mine, even if they were starving to death and I was the only person able to bring them oyster crackers and sugar-free chocolate crème pie.

Ok, I DO have an iPod Touch.  I haven’t had it for very long, and it kind of scares me.  I can do so many things with it, and I know I am only scratching the surface.  I can convert  millimeters to bushels (or whatever), I can find the cheapest gas (usually 140 miles away), and have recently learned how fling upset avians at green porkers (that’s the game “Angry Birds” for those of you who have been vacationing in the Himalayas for the past two years).  Beyond that, the only use I have for it is my music.  (More on that coming up.)  I am afraid that if I am not careful, I might inadvertently launch a nuclear missile on a small foreign country with it, and starting an international incident can seriously throw off one’s day.  Can’t be too careful, you know.

I wouldn’t really consider myself a “sci-fi geek” either.  Sure, I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies, and had lots of the action figures (NOT dolls!) when I was a kid.  However, my interest in Star Wars as an adult doesn’t really go beyond having enjoyed the movies.  And I have never “gotten” Star Trek.  I’ve never been a fan.  It probably stems from childhood.   Back when Saturday morning programming was a HUGE deal to kids, Star Trek was the last show before the boring grown up stuff came on and the day grew exponentially less exciting.  It meant it was time to actually get dressed and go entertain ourselves.  Often outdoors.  Can you imagine?  So Star Trek, which was also the only non-cartoon on the Saturday morning slate (if you don’t include H.R. Puffinstuff, which I don’t), was the signal that the fun was over.  I developed kind of an aversion to it that remains to this day.

I am definitely not a “comic book” geek.  I associate comic books with waiting my turn at the barber shops to which I was taken as a child.  Believe you me, I had some damn unfortunate haircuts back then.  Plus, I’ve always been a fast reader, so a comic book to me would be like eating one jelly bean.

So, what kind of geek am I?  I am a music geek.  Big time.  Ever since I got hooked on rock music by the Eagles in the late 70s, I’ve loved music.  My first record, the big vinyl kind, was Freeze Frame by the J. Geils Band.  Since then, I’ve accumulated literally hundreds of albums in progressing formats: records, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s.  I even had a few 8 track tapes.  At this point, my MP3s alone add up to more than ten days’ worth of listening without a repeat.  In my teens and twenties, I was lucky enough to have worked in broadcast radio, which was a dream job for a music geek like me.  To this day, radio is the road not taken in my life…the great “what if”.

If I am playing a trivia game with friends, they all steer way from the music questions, because I dominate.  If someone at work wants to know the name of a song based on a few lyrics, I am the go to guy.  If “Name That Tune” was still on the air, I’d clean up.

For me, the best way to unwind is to strap on my iPod, hit shuffle, and then lie back and vegetate for about an hour.  Nothing clears my head nearly as well. While a rock guy at heart, by collection is all over the road.  I’ve got rock, pop, metal, some folk, some blues, and even a little country, not to mention a smattering of new age, classical, hip-hop, and jazz.  These days I average about one new album a week.  (When I use the term album, I mean a collection of songs released by the artist together, not a vinyl LP.)  My latest is Nine Tonight, a live album by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.  Bob's stuff has only recently been released in the MP3 format, so I've got some catching up to do with him.

There was one other person I knew growing up who was a comparable “music geek”.  I won’t mention his name without his permission, but he took it to a whole new level.  We lost touch after high school, but I recently reconnected with him to discover that he taught himself to play the guitar (something that I am only middling at, at best), and then drove himself to follow his dream.  He’s now a big-time heavy metal guitarist in New York City with a number of albums under his belt.  He’s still the same guy though.  I am friends with him on Facebook, and every once in a while I see the notice that “Insert Name Here now likes Bananarama” or some such thing.  He may be “metal”, but his musical taste is all over the road, just like a true music geek’s should be. 

Like a true geek, I could go on and on about this topic, which is probably of only marginal interest to most of you, but I need to end it here.  I just noticed that I can download a rare Bay City Rollers double album at half price.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Scapegoats Are People Too

Ours is a society that loves to beat the snot out of someone.  We have become Scapegoat Nation, mainly because we have more to worry about, and thus more of a need to blame things on someone.

When you think about it, the amount of information that we in western culture have literally at our fingertips is monumentally massive compared to that of similar people living just thirty years ago.  Information that would have taken years to gather back then can be pulled up in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.  Who won the first Cricket World Cup? The West Indies.  You think I knew that 30 seconds ago?  Nope.  Now think about what I would have had to go through to find that tidbit out in, say 1984.  It would have required a trip downtown to the library at the very least.

I think back to when I was a kid, spending vacations with my grandparents in the country.  My grandmother spent years and years researching basic family history for her family and that of my grandfather, using what she knew personally as a starting point.  She wrote letters.  She made phone calls.  She dug around old records in courthouses and libraries. I yawned a lot and asked when we would go get ice cream.  By the time I was a teenager, after years of work, she had fleshed out her family tree and my grandfather’s to the point from when their great-grandparents came over from Ireland.  She wrote most of it down in a notebook, but kept a lot more of it in her head.  She died in 1995.  The notebook has been lost and what was in her head remains with her.  I am kicking myself that I didn’t take more of an interest and do something to save that information.  I’ve been able to reconstruct some of it, but a great deal of knowledge was lost forever when she died.

Nowadays, I could do some of the research that took my grandmother many years in a fraction of the time.  Though I doubt I could ever do it with the dedication and love that she had.

But I digress.

My point is, we just know more stuff now.  The quality of that stuff varies a whole lot, mind you.  One of the upsides of the pre-Information Age was that a lot of crap was filtered out before it got before the masses.  If you don’t believe me, just think back to what was on prime-time TV in the mid-70s and then look at it today.

There have always been pretty, brainless heiresses like Paris Hilton.  We just haven’t been able to know as much about them as we do now.  There have always been idiot politicians acting more in their own interest than ours.  We just didn’t get as much of the lowdown.  There have always been horrific accidents and terrible crimes, probably more so then than now, but the only ones we heard about were those in our general vicinity.  Some psycho shooting up a daycare center in Asia would not have likely made headlines back in the 1950s, for example.  Today, it would be global news.

You can discuss amongst yourselves whether this is good or bad.  I personally don’t think it is one or the other, but a mix of both.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the stuff.  Murders, rapes, gangs, dog attacks, corruption…it seems like it’s everywhere.  Our world is falling apart.  What happened to the good old days?  Right?


The same things were happening back in the good old days, only we didn’t hear about them as often.  They probably occurred even more frequently, since the degree of public scrutiny was much less, so getting away with them was easier.

In response to this, however, I feel like we have become a scapegoat society.  We want someone to pay the price for the bad things that happen out there. The origin of “scapegoat” goes back to biblical times, when a goat, symbolically laden with the sins of the people, was left to wander in barren lands (presumably to starve or be eaten by predators).   Often now, it is one person that is symbolic of the problem of whom we want the figurative blood.  Sarcasm alert!: Music stinks these days?  Blame Lady Gaga, because I don’t like her.  Professional athletes are lazy and overpaid?  Blame Alex Rodriguez, because he seems kind of arrogant anyhow.  People do stupid things?  Blame the local school superintendent.  He's supposed to be able to fix stupid, isn't he? End sarcasm.

There are countless examples I could give, but I’ll use the one that is most accessible to the majority of us is the presidency.  No matter WHO is in the Oval Office, whether it is a Republican or a Democrat, that person carries the weight for all of the ups and downs of our country.  (Who in their right mind would want that job?)  I can’t remember a single president in our lifetime who was not treated with disdain over things that he simply does not control.  After all, our leader is a president, not a dictator.  He (or someday she) cannot simply decree that there be good jobs or less crime.  The constitution lays out certain powers, and he has to stick to them.  But, because he is a single individual, with his own personality and opinions, the president becomes a lightning rod, rightly or wrongly.  Our current economic woes are not the fault of Barack Obama.  Nor are they the fault of George W. Bush.  They are the result of a myriad of factors, not the action or inaction of any one person.

And it runs in reverse as well, where a single person’s plight results in arguably inordinate action.  One pretty blonde teenage girl from an upper middle-class family (whose pictures look good on news reports) is kidnapped and killed, which is a true and genuine tragedy, and a law in her name gets passed to help prevent such a thing from happening again.  Maybe that law was indeed needed, but I can’t help but wonder about the families of the many others who may have met the same fate.  Why wasn’t a law passed when their loved ones were taken from them?  Weren’t they just as important as the more photogenic person who came from the “right side” of the tracks?

Most things today are complicated, shades-of-gray kinds of things.  They always have been.  There is nothing new here at all.  But we are faced with more knowledge of bad things, and it’s just easier to wrap our minds around things that are black and white.  It’s simpler to blame a person (or a group, like religious zealots, opposing political parties, or Justin Beiber fans), instead of trying to address the array of things that led to the problem in the first place.

I have to admit, this post was not inspired by some great philosophical problem of our times, but by the dismissal of the manager of my favorite baseball team due in large part to the apathy of his players, in spite of his best efforts.  What can I say?  I am deep as a paper plate at times.

I am not going to change a whole society’s way of thinking with a single blog post.  (It may take at least two.)  But hopefully, at least a few of us can start to look a little more carefully at all sides of a situation before we hang someone out to dry.