Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Bath Towel's Cry for Help

(In order to make any sense of this post, you need to have read my post “Long-Term Laundry” from last month. If you haven’t, click the link to go there first.)

Editor’s Note: A piece of paper with this message on it blew into my yard yesterday, and I thought I should share it with my readers.

December 29, 2012

If anyone happens to find this note, we desperately need help.  My laundry mates and I were given a nice and much needed wash back in mid-October, and were put out to dry on the clothesline on a warm sunny morning.  It had happened before, and getting out in the fresh air always made us feel good, especially the underwear, who arguably have the toughest job among all of us.  (The towels used to wipe up after the dogs might take issue with that.)  Sometimes we would be out here for a few days, but we always were brought back inside to resume our normal activities.

Not this time, much to our horror.

Days passed, and those days turned to weeks. The temperatures grew colder, the nights longer, and our circumstances increasingly difficult.  We were dry, then wet, and then dry again.  We were warm, then very cold.  We ended up frozen stiff regularly.  Birds and squirrels have perched on us.  The children from inside the house spent an afternoon throwing rocks and sticks at us.  It was that day that the red flannel shirt fell to the ground, an omen of things to come.  Over time, the hunter blaze orange hoodie next to me has faded into more of a beige color, and a nasty crow left some droppings over on the “Triple H” wrestling t-shirt shortly before Thanksgiving. 

The month of December has been the toughest of all.  Some of us have been starting to show tatters from being whipped in the wind.  Snow and freezing rain has fallen on us, weighting us down and causing some of us to drag on the ground.  The socks and underwear were lucky enough to stay out of the mud and snow, but those of use with some length, such as myself, the other bath towel and the jeans with the worn-out knees, became filthy once again.

My fellow laundry refugees and I literally reached a new low just after Christmas.  A howling snowstorm came raging into town, and the winds toppled over one of those portable basketball hoop things right onto our clothesline.  It snapped, and we were plunged into the deepening snow below.  In no time, many of us were buried.  Only a few lucky dishcloths and one gym sock were fortunate enough to have their end of the clothesline stay above the snow, though they continue to be battered by the harsh elements.
“What have we done to deserve this?” we ask ourselves.  We have covered their bodies, kept them warm, wiped up their messes, and in some cases made them look, if not fabulous, at least okay.

Sometimes, late at night, buried under all the snow, I dream of the good old days, when I was on a warm shelf at JC Penney, brand-new and neatly folded, with no knowledge of my future of wiping someone’s soggy bottom after a shower, and then…this.  It all seems so long ago. 

So now, we wait.  We can only hope that someone inside the house will eventually remember us out here, shivering under more than two feet of snow now.   Don’t they know that laundry was not intended to be left hanging on the clothesline for more than a day or two?  What are they wearing without us?  How are they drying themselves off after showers?

If anyone gets this, please, for the love of all that is clean and fluffy, send help!  To say we are getting desperate is an understatement.  The wool socks are starting to look hungrily at the washcloths, and the frilly blouse can’t stop crying.  A family of mice has taken up residence in the pocket of the pink sweatpants with “Baby” printed across the rear end, and the holes in the jockey shorts are getting bigger and bigger.  At this point, we are nearing three months out here.  I don’t think we will make it until spring at this rate.

Please send help, and pray for us.

The Red Striped Bath Towel

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Winter Wonderland Is Just The Worst Song Ever

Knee-deep in the Christmas season as we are, it is almost impossible to avoid holiday music.  It’s on television and radio, over public-address systems in businesses, and frequently being whistled, sung or hummed by people around us.  My own personal rule is no Christmas music until after December 1st, though after that point I will listen to and enjoy some Christmas tunes.  The Vince Guaraldi Trio, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Bing Crosby are particular favorites of mine in the holiday genre.  Not only do they elevate my holiday mood, but their styles are quite different from the typical fare I listen to during the rest of the year (e.g.-grinding guitar-based rock), so it’s a refreshing, albeit temporary, change.
Yes, I am okay with Christmas music for the most part.  I can even tolerate some of the cheesier tunes like Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Holly Jolly Christmas in manageable doses.  However, there is one holiday song that will send me screaming into the hills as soon as it starts playing.  It’s a song that stands high atop the pile of the most ridiculous songs ever recorded.  A song that makes me yearn for something with a more pleasing sound to it, like a piano being fired from a cannon into a wall of Styrofoam.  That song is Winter Wonderland.  I just cannot stand it.

It's more of a Winter "It Makes You Wonder" Land, actually.

There is no specific reason for why this song has gotten so far under my skin, but with every passing year it gets worse.  It could be that the lyrics are so incredibly hokey.  Maybe it is that the song romanticizes snow and winter weather in general, which can be the bane of our existence here in my part of the world from November until April.  It might be that the melody is one that gets in your mind and refuses to leave for hours.
According to that unimpeachable source of information Wikipedia, Winter Wonderland was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith.  It is said that Smith wrote the lyrics while looking out the window of the sanitarium in which he was hospitalized for tuberculosis.  I suspect that he was under the influence of some kind of prescribed drug with unspecified mental side effects at the time, but have no proof other than the song itself, which ought to be enough.  Winter Wonderland has been recorded by more than 150 different artists.  Among the versions that would likely cause me to claw out my eardrums are those done by Ozzy Osbourne & Jessica Simpson, the Three Tenors, Billy Idol, and Radiohead.  It’s not even a Christmas song, really.  Nowhere is the holiday mentioned in the lyrics.
One of the hokier lyrics in the song involves a love-struck young couple building a snowman and fantasizing that it is a member of the clergy who will seal their relationship in holy matrimony. Surely you remember:
"In the meadow we can build a snowman,
then pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He'll say 'Are You Married?' We'll say 'No man,
but you can do the job while you're in town!'"
Seems to me that if you are goofy enough to think of something like that, then you are probably not of sound enough mind to get married anyway.  If you do take the plunge under those circumstances, you’d better get cracking on building two divorce lawyer snowmen pretty quick.
In 1953, the lyrics about having a hand-molded pile of crystalline water officiating at a ceremony initiating a lifelong commitment were considered by some to be inappropriate for children, likely by the same people who would later only allow Elvis to appear on TV from the waist up so as to protect America’s youth from those dangerous swiveling hips.  I mean, if we allow people to pretend inanimate objects can preside at marriage ceremonies, who knows where that may lead?  Next thing you know, toasters will be opening their own wedding chapels.  
But I digress.  At any rate, the lyrics were changed to the following, which did not completely supplant the originals, but can still be heard in some versions of the song:
“In the meadow we can build a snowman,
and pretend that he's a circus clown.
We'll have lots of fun with Mister Snowman,
until the other kiddies knock 'im down!”
It was out with ridiculous puppy love, and in with fear of bullying. Hooray for progress. Is it just me, or does this seem like something Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character from Saturday Night Live back in the day would have come up with?
It has become a game for me to make it all the way through the holiday season without having to listen to the song all the way through.  I’ve eliminated any and all versions of it from my music library.  If it comes on the radio, I switch the station.  If it comes on TV, I hit the mute button or switch the channel.  When in a store or other public place, I have been known to leave or at least go into the restroom for a few minutes if the song comes on over the P.A. 
It’s kind of silly to do this, and I fully realize that.  My evasion of Winter Wonderland is purely for my own amusement and is not even remotely serious.  Think of it as my grown-up version of that game many of us played as kids, trying to move from one side of a room to the other without touching the floor because “the floor is lava”.  I have successfully avoided listening to Winter Wonderland all the way through for four Christmas seasons now, with one tragic exception last year.  I was sitting in a chair, halfway through getting a haircut, when it happened.  The worst possible version of the song imaginable, one by 80s pop cheesemasters Air Supplycame on over the P.A.  There was no way to escape.  My head was wet, it was -10 degrees with the wind blowing outside, and only one side of my head was trimmed at that point.  I explained my avoidance streak of, at that time three Christmas seasons, to the lady cutting my hair.  She just laughed and kept on cutting, never even offering to turn the music down or off.  She did a great job on the haircut, and I've gone back to her many times since, but I still hope she got coal in her stocking that Christmas.
I can’t help but wonder if my behavior in this regard may be genetic in some way.  My 87-year-old maternal grandmother absolutely cannot stand Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, and will mute her television or turn off the radio if the song ever comes on.  It’s kind of funny, since my grandmother on my father’s side used to practically worship the ground Bing crooned on.  (See post: Out Home at Christmas with Bing from last December on this blog.)

There must be at least one Christmas song that makes your toes curl and your skin crawl.  Maybe it’s just a certain version of a particular song.  I know from listening experience, for example, that even the best Christmas songs can become cruel instruments of torture in the hands of the otherwise-talented Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland I’d like to hear from you about the Christmas songs that are your Kryptonite.  Leave a note in the comments section below, or you can contact me via Twitter or e-mail using the info in the “About Me” box at the top of this blog.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Tribute to Uncle Ralph

My father's brother Ralph  passed away recently after a period of illness, and what follows is what I said at his funeral.  It took a while to write and I got a lot of good feedback on it afterward, so I thought I would share it here on the blog as a further tribute to him.

Ralph was with us for 75 years, and all of us have mental snapshots of some segment of that time with him.  My own go back to the early 1970s, when I was a young kid.  Ralph was not yet married, and spent the vast majority of his time then driving truck for his god friend Joe up and down the east coast.  It didn’t make much sense for him to have a place of his own to maintain if he was only going to be there a few days a month, so when he was in town, he lived with his parents, my grandparents, Mark and Verda.  I was a frequent visitor to my grandparents then, so I saw Ralph often when he was in town.  He was always easygoing and loved to tease me, my brothers, and my cousins.  As kids, we could always count on Ralph to be light-hearted and fun.
When he wasn’t on the road in those days, Ralph liked to catch up on the sleep he didn’t get much of when he was on the road.  Trouble was, Ralph could sleep very long and very deeply, and an alarm clock just wasn’t enough to roust him.  So it fell to my grandmother to wake him when he needed to be up and getting ready to head out again.  Waking Ralph up was a very, very difficult thing to do.  I can still hear my grandmother upstairs, in a sharp voice that was not at all in character for her, saying “Ralph! Ralph! Time to get up!”  She’d learned long ago that the gentle approach got her nowhere when it came to getting Ralph out of bed. He’d typically ask what time it was, she’d tell him, and then she would head back downstairs.  Five or ten minutes would pass with no stirring from above, and she’d go back up and try again.  By the third or fourth time, you could almost see the smoke coming out of her ears as she went up the stairs.  There were days I’m sure when she would have picked him up and lugged him out of bed herself if she could.  My grandfather, wisely, stayed out of it.  Eventually Ralph would get up and have to race around to get out the door, and even then he was usually running late. 
If any of the grandchildren were around and willing, Gram would send one or more of us up there to try to rouse him.  I personally found that yelling and drumming on the foot of the bed tended to do the trick, though that was one of the times when I think I saw Ralph’s easygoing attitude start to waiver.  It wasn’t the gentlest way to be awakened, but he’d already had his chance to get up peacefully when Gram had tried.
Procrastination was a part of Ralph that sometimes drove those around him bananas, but it was part of what made him who he was.  Gram liked to say that Ralph was probably going to be late for his own funeral.  Well, he passed away 13 days ago and we did not have the funeral until today, so you be the judge if she was at least partly right.  She usually was.
Ralph drove a tractor-trailer for 45 years, and as a young kid I was always intrigued by Ralph’s truck.  I always kept my eye out for it when we drove past Joe's place on the way to my grandparents’ house.  His truck and Joe’s looked identical, except that Ralph’s was blue and Joe’s was red.
Ralph often liked to tell us about the things he saw and did when he was out on truck.  Being the tease that he was, some of what he told us was kind of “out there”, especially if his audience was quite young.  Gram always made sure to monitor his tales and didn’t hesitate to step in and set it all straight if Ralph got a little carried away.  Nonetheless it was clear to us that he enjoyed his job and his life.  Sometimes the stories he told about his trips into cities like New York and Boston made them sound like fun and exciting places I’d like to see someday.  I remember being very impressed that he had seen the Statue of Liberty and Bunker Hill in person, even if it was through the windshield of his truck. 
At other times though, his stories made the big cities sound like places I never wanted to set foot in as long as I lived.  The shady characters and dangerous situations he sometimes encountered on some of those trips to the inner city were pretty hair-raising.  I believe Ralph was robbed more than once while loading or unloading his truck in dark city depots late at night, but in the retelling it never seemed to bother him.  It happened, he was smart and survived it without injuries, and he moved on. And it never scared him away.
To the young kid that I was at that time, Ralph made driving a tractor-trailer seem like quite an adventure.
Years passed, and lives changed, as they always do.  Ralph got married and had a family.  My cousins, siblings and I grew up, moved on and started lives of our own.  I didn’t see nearly as much of Ralph in my adult years as I had when I was a kid, but when I did, he still seemed like the same old Ralph that I remembered, right down to the procrastination for which he was so well-known.
One of my most recent memories of Ralph is from the winter before last.  We had just had a large snowstorm, and I had driven out to his place one morning to do some snowshoeing.  The plow had come by while I was out on the trail, and my car got stuck in the pile of snow at the end of the driveway as I went to leave.  Even though it was brisk and windy, and the snow was deep, Ralph didn’t hesitate to come out into the cold with a shovel and offer to help me get my car out of the snowbank.  It made more sense for my bulk to do the digging and pushing, and for him to get in the car and work the accelerator.  That car was very mired in the heavy wet snow, and it took us quite a while.  I was getting frustrated and was ready to call my father with his four-wheel drive and a chain, but Ralph kept his cool.  He had some ideas, we tried a few, and eventually we got the car unstuck.  Incidentally, the following spring, I traded that car in for an all-wheel drive. 
It’s kind of nice that one of my last interactions with Ralph was like that.  For me, it was a good representation of the man he was: kind, easygoing, helpful and giving.
There were good times and bad times in Ralph’s life, some easy ones and some very difficult ones.  Through it all, he stayed true to himself, and I respect him for that.  You always knew what you were getting with Ralph.  He missed his wife Carol a lot over these past 11 years.  It’s time now for him to rest in peace with her, and time also for those of us who knew him to hold on to the fond memories he gave us.
Godspeed, Ralph.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Long-Term Laundry

NOTE: An update to this story was posted here on December 30, 2012.

What follows is absolutely none of my business, nor probably yours, but we are going to discuss it anyway.
My hillbilly neighbors have had the same load of laundry hanging from the clothesline in their yard for 43 days, and it is driving me bonkers!  I know it shouldn't.  It’s not that big of a deal in the overall scheme of things, I know.  After all, the economy is in the toilet, there is unrest in the Middle East, people are starving in Africa, and yet I am still vexed by this load of clothes that has been hanging up for longer than Noah was in the ark.
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog already know that I am kind of persnickety.  (See post: The High Poohba of Persnickety, September 2012.) I am not a total neat freak or borderline obsessive-compulsive by any means, but I do like things to be a certain way.  It is almost impossible for me to tolerate anything sticky on my hands, for example.  (See post: Don’t Pour Some Sugar on Me, March 2012.)  It is almost like an irresistible itch that must be scratched, and I can think of nothing else until I do.  If I get some jam from my toast on a finger, I must walk to the sink and wash my hands at once before I can do anything else at all.  Fortunately, my persnicketiness* rarely applies to other people.  If you, for instance, want to share a meal with me after having dumped a jar of honey over your head, I could probably deal with it, though if you attract any bears, I am out of there. 
And so it was with this load of laundry on my hillbilly neighbors’ clothesline.  After it had been there for a week or so, it didn't really bother me.  Stranger things exist in this world.  However, after the one month mark passed, it began to irritate me, and now, after 43 days and counting, it is making me somewhat crazy.
Of course, I've wondered why these clothes are still there after all this time, but haven’t really come up with any good theories. 
There are men’s, women’s and children’s clothes hanging there, so presumably it is a load of the whole family’s clothes.  I can’t imagine that someone in the household is trying to teach someone else a lesson by leaving them up there until they get the hint.  If they are, then they are failing miserably and going without their best pair of pajama jeans and “Larry the Cable Guy” muscle shirt.
It could be that the load of laundry hasn't actually been up there all that time.  Someone takes it all down after dark, the family then wears the clothes overnight, they launder them before dawn, and then put them back up to dry again before I am up for the day at 6 a.m.  While remotely possible, I think this theory of mine holds as much water as a pasta strainer.
I suppose it’s possible that my hillbilly neighbors are part of some obscure religious sect that does penance for its sins by leaving a perfectly good load of laundry on the line until such time as it is all as faded away to almost white.  If that is the case, they don’t have much longer to go.  A hooded sweatshirt on that clothesline that was once blaze-orange is already more of a blaze-peach color at this point.
Maybe, just maybe, they are aliens, and the clothes on the line are a signal for the mothership to come pick them up.  If so, the mothership is quite late.  Maybe it got called away to some intergalactic disturbance in another galaxy, and my alien neighbors are biding their time watching “My Big, Fat, Redneck Wedding” and WWE wrestling matches on their 60-inch widescreen television until their ride comes. How do I know about the 60-inch TV, you ask? Apparently, they don’t believe in curtains or blinds for some reason, and as you drive around the corner near their place, you can’t help but see whatever they are watching from the street.  Heck you can probably see it from space.
But the most plausible theory I've come up with is also the simplest, they are so relentlessly lazy that they make the three-toed sloth look like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  Remember, these are the same hillbilly neighbors who haven’t mowed the lawn between my house and theirs since they started renting it last July, causing it to become a haven for rodents and consequently, neighborhood cats. (See post: Hillbillies, Cats, and a Ruined Breakfast, October 2012.)  In addition, their children have left their very new and not-inexpensive looking bicycles lying on the front lawn for the past few weeks, through several rainstorms and one snowstorm.  I suspect the bikes will still be there after the spring melt, rusted solid.  I wouldn't be surprised to see those clothes still on the line then too, which by then will be faded as white as the snow they will have withstood all winter.
There have been times when, far, far in the back of my mind, I've considered conducting a midnight raid on that clothesline.  Dressed in black from head to toe, with black greasepaint smeared on my face and the Pink Panther theme playing in the earbuds of my iPod, I’d stealthily make my way into their yard and take down each item of clothing from the line.  I’d fold each with care, place it in a neat stack, and then ever so quietly place the folded pile at their back door.  Then I would slip quietly away into the night.  It would be like they got a visit from some deranged laundry fairy.
So far, I've managed to resist the urge to actually carry this plan out, and likely will continue resisting to do so.  It is not only creepy, but suspiciously like actual work.
To be fair, my hillbilly neighbors are not the worst neighbors by any stretch.  They are relatively quiet, smile and wave politely when I drive past, and seem to be nice enough people.  In the event of a disaster like an ice storm or blizzard, I am sure that we would gladly help each other out in time of need.  So, if a permanent load of laundry on the clothesline is the biggest problem I have to deal with (other than that hayfield of a lawn, which is a moot point in winter), then I guess I can live with that.  Plus, like I said at the outset, it’s not really my business.
Oh, did I mention that it’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, and they still have their Halloween decorations up?

*If "persnicketiness" is not a word, it should be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Thanksgiving Post

Image from
Thanksgiving is coming up later this week in the United States.  It’s a holiday I really like, not only because of my fondness for food and football, but also for the sentiment behind it: giving thanks.  Most of us in western society live in a world that our ancestors of less than 100 years ago would be astounded to see.  When I was young, my grandparents often told me of the awe they felt upon getting electricity in their homes for the first time, and the thrills of their first car, telephone, and television.  The jobs people had when they were young were harder and a lot more dangerous than most today, and things we do now in the spur of the moment, like a trip to get groceries, was a weekly event that was carefully planned for and highly anticipated.  When you stop and think, we really do have a lot for which to be thankful.
For many bloggers, there is great temptation at this time of year to write the stereotypical “what I am thankful for” post, sort of the grownup version of those essays we used to have to write in grade school.  I’m going to do that, kind of, but instead of highlighting that for which I am obviously thankful (freedom, family, friends, faith, employment, health), I am going to turn my attention to some less-heralded things that make my life just a bit nicer.
I am grateful for all-wheel drive vehicles.  Although I have driven in Maine winters for 27 years, I am only in my second winter with all-wheel drive.  I never knew what I was missing.  How great is it not to get stuck in a four-inch pile of slush at the end of the driveway?  Last winter was a cold one here in northern Maine, but not especially snowy.  We had a number of small storms of a few inches, but no blockbusters, and frankly, I was a little disappointed. I never really got a good chance to give my all-wheel drive a real test in deep snow on the ski slope I call a driveway.  It was during a storm the winter before last, when it took me 17 tries to get my two-wheel drive car up the driveway, that I decided it was finally time to upgrade to something more snow-worthy than an Oldsmobile.
Everyone who lives with even a little bit of snow should have all-wheel drive.  I bet I could park on my garage roof with my all-wheel drive if I wanted to, though it would probably be best if I didn’t try to actually do that.  Upon mentioning this notion, some of my friends have suggested that I may have been a tank driver in a previous life.  Or dropped on my head as a baby.  Or both.
I am thankful for Christmas lights that do not cause the entire set to go out just because one stinking bulb does.  The inventor of those instruments of torture should be charged with crimes against humanity.
Typically, I light up a spruce tree in my yard each December.  The trouble is, it’s tall and on a steep slope, which makes it about as easy to string lights on as Mount Everest, only pricklier and stickier. In the past, I have spent hours risking life, limb and stickiness draping “net-style” lights over it, and no matter how many times I check, there are always a few that end up burning out after placement, leaving a gaping black hole in the middle. I just can’t leave it like that, and thus the battle begins, and continues through the rest of December.
In addition to going completely dark at random, the net lights also require the patience of Job to untangle, and are impossibly complicated to put up while stretched out, balanced on one foot on the top rung of a ladder in the back of a pickup on the side of a hill.
None of that this year!
Those crappy net lights are history!  They’ve been replaced by LED lights on a reel, which will go up more easily and stay lit even if tornadoes carry the tree into the next county.  Well, maybe not, but they are really sturdy lights.  My wallet is lighter, but so too is my heart. 
2012 was the year I stepped up to high-definition television, and sports will never be the same.  For this I am thankful.  One complaint I always used to have about TV sports is that it can be hard to clearly see who is who and where the ball/puck/shuttlecock/golden snitch/whatever is at any given time.  In the past, for example, a play in a football game can be over before I can even figure out where the ball is.  And hockey?  I gave up watching a long time ago, since the puck is so hard to see.  One network did try an experiment with an electronic puck that left a virtual “tail” on the TV screen during the game, but apparently I was the only person on Earth who liked it.  Now that I have hi-def TV, it has all changed.  I can see everything clearly at just a glance.  The London Olympics were especially impressive in hi-def.
It’s not all great, mind you.  The downside of hi-def sports is that you can also see whatever bodily fluids are oozing out of the participants, whether it is sweat, slobber, or blood, in nauseating crystal-clarity.  And it is  also rather sobering to see every gray hair, wrinkle, and pot-belly on retired athlete-commentators. I hate to say it, but many of them might be better suited for radio than hi-def TV these days.  Of course, so would I, truth be told.
I am thankful for great new music from great old artists.  This year has seen a number of AARP-eligible musical acts with new albums. (Is the term “albums” even a thing these days?)  Coming as they do in the face of so many musical acts that are nothing more than corporate inventions enhanced by recording studio technology, it is nice that these old war horses are not only still putting out music, but putting out really good music that is selling pretty well.
I’ll toss a few examples out for you: ZZ Top’s La Futura is one of the best overall rock albums I’ve heard in a long time, and their best in years.  Bonnie Raitt released Slipstream, a new collection of her signature blues rock that sounds as fresh as anything she’s ever done.  Bruce Springsteen hasn’t lost a step with his Wrecking Ball album, full of socially-conscious and catchy rock tinged with folk.  And Rick Springfield, yes the “Jessie’s Girl” guy, has just released Songs for the End of the World, a terrific, solid rock album that sounds like it was influenced by some work Rick recently did with the Foo Fighters.  Paul McCartney, Heart, Rush and Van Halen also had attention-getting new releases in 2012 that are worth your attention.
All of the acts I’ve mentioned are well into their 50s and 60s, and they still sound great.  I can only hope that I am as on top of my game at that age.
And finally, I am thankful for the online writing community of which I have become a part.  There are not a lot of like-minded writers near where I live.  Heck, there’s not a lot of anything near where I live, except maybe trees.  And moose.  I know a few, but connecting regularly in person is a challenge with schedules and distance being what they are.  Fortunately, Twitter, Goodreads, Writers Digest and this silly blog have helped me make connections with hundreds of talented writers from all over the world.  Some are old enough to be my parents, some are young enough to be my kids.  Some are published, some are trying to be, and some just write for themselves.  Some are famous, while others have never shared their writing with another soul.  For some it’s a career, for others a hobby, and for others, therapy.  They range from poets to naturalists, and from horror masters to technical writers specializing in physics.  It is gratifying to hear that my writing struggles and theirs are so alike, in spite of our diversity.  And it is great to be able to give and get support for our various writing projects.  Regardless of specific content, the writing process is mostly the same for a lot of us.  We also share our successes and our predicaments, we laugh and sometimes shed a tear together, and generally help keep each other inspired.  It’s been great, and I look forward to “meeting” even more of you.
Enjoy your family and your turkey (though not in the same way!).  Enjoy your football games and your holiday parades.  Enjoy your Black Friday shopping (yuck!) and your pumpkin pie.  If you are outside of the United States, well, enjoy your Thursday.  Whether it is officially Thanksgiving where you are living right now, take some time to step back and look at all the things, both big and little, that you can be thankful for right now. No matter who you are, I think you will find that are an awful lot if you take the time to ponder them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Gang Who Couldn't Rake Straight

I was part of a gang when I was younger.
Wait…that’s not what it sounds like.  You have to understand that I was a kid in a small town in northern Maine in the 1970s.  In that context, a “gang” could be defined as “a bunch of kids in roughly the same age group from the same general part of town, playing together spontaneously because they had all been thrown outside by mothers or sitters to get them out of their hair”. That’s the kind of gang of which I was a part.  At any given time, there were usually five or six of us in my neighborhood gang, the core being me and my friends Andy and Rick (names changed for privacy, of course).  There was also a rotating cast of other characters of both genders that included siblings, other kids who lived nearby, and kids who often visited the neighborhood because they had relatives or friends there.
Almost the entire neighborhood was our playground.  There were always one or two of the “you dang kids stay off my lawn” types around, but for the most part it was a less suspicious and litigious time, and people were not as hung up on kids playing on their property as they are now.  It was not out of the ordinary, nor particularly worrisome, for one of our neighbors to look out the back window and see upwards of a dozen kids gathered at their picnic table devising plans for a game of Whiffleball or British Bulldog.  The neighbors knew us and our families, and we knew well what the limits were for our activities on certain properties, having been warned numerous times by our parents to be respectful of them.  The main rules were pretty simple: Don’t play too close to the house or cars. Stay out of gardens and flowers. Don’t play with outside “stuff” (e.g.-hoses, decorations, tools, etc).  Leave no sign you were there when you were gone.
There was a notable exception to that last one, however, and it typically came up at this time of year.  Everybody’s fallen leaves were fair game for us kids, and no one in the neighborhood minded a bit if we gathered theirs up and hauled them off.
Our usual home base was Rick’s house, mainly because it was centrally-located and had a large, flat backyard that was perfect for many activities.  Rick’s yard, and most others around, had numerous large maple trees in or around it.  As the leaves first began to fall, we’d ignore them in favor of touch football, a favorite autumn pastime.  They became harder to ignore when they became a carpet several inches thick.  At that point, Rick’s father would break out a couple of rakes while the gang was playing nearby, and leave them strategically placed against his garage while he raked up a small pile of leaves and let Rick’s younger brothers jump and play in it.  Obviously taking a page from Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Rick’s father was trying to make a mundane chore seem like a barrel of monkeys for his unsuspecting son and his friends.  And it worked.
For a span of about three years, my friends and I were old enough to do a good job at cleaning up the leaves, and young enough not to care that we were not being paid to do it.  Rick’s yard alone yielded a massive pile, which we would then jump into in the most outrageous manner possible, emulating our two heroes of that time, Evel Knievel and the Six Billion Dollar Man.  We’d jump from the deck or tree low tree branches, we’d bail off our bicycles, or we’d catapult each other in.  I will not confirm or deny that we may have even found ways to jump off a garage roof into a particularly large pile one year.  There were no limits to the number of ridiculous things we would do to ourselves and each other in the name of taking a cool dive into a gigantic pile of leaves.  It’s amazing that none of us ended up in wheelchairs.

There was more to it than jumping in, however.  Hiding in the leaves and leaping out to scare some unsuspecting person was also great sport.  One member of our gang was a pretty blond girl named Darcy who lived in the house next to Rick’s and was very cool.  The problem was, Darcy had the most sour and irritating older sister in the world.  The sister’s name was Karen, and all she ever did was complain, look down her nose at us, and tattle on every little thing that she didn't like, which was most everything we did.  We loved nothing more than teasing our neighborhood party-pooper.  I wouldn't be surprised if Karen works for the I.R.S. now.
Late one afternoon when it was nearly dark, Darcy told us that Karen would be coming home any minute from some after-school activity she had been attending.  She thought we ought to do something to scare her.  (You can probably see why we liked Darcy so much.)  My friends and I hurriedly relocated our large pile of leaves to the edge of the lawn near the sidewalk, where Karen would have to pass on her way home.  Darcy, Andy and I buried ourselves under the pile, while the other kids acted as lookouts, milling around the yard, tossing a football and looking as innocent as possible.  We didn't time things out terribly well though, and the three of us were sweating under the pile for what seemed like forever.  It was probably more like 10 minutes, but that’s a long time to hold still and be quiet at that age.  Eventually, we heard stage whispers from the others that Karen was coming down the street.  A low whistle by Rick was the agreed-upon signal to act.  The three of us who had been hiding under the leaves in great anticipation immediately jumped up, waving our arms, screaming and lunging at Karen.  Her reaction was absolutely electric.  She screamed louder than anyone I had ever heard in my life and reflexively swung her full bookbag at us, missing by a mile, before running at top speed down the sidewalk to her house.  It was priceless, especially the look on her face.  Did I mention that the three of us were also wearing gruesome Halloween masks when we popped up?  If we’d only had a video camera in those days, I know we would have become YouTube sensations.
After a while, however, our large pile of leaves was not nearly as large.  All of our jumping in them and moving them around eventually shredded the leaves into pieces the size of a quarter.  Undaunted, we would just go collect more leaves from nearby yards.  Not surprisingly, none of the neighbors had a problem with a group of rake-wielding kids descending upon their yards to clean up all their leaves for free and carry them away on a large borrowed tarp.  Little old ladies who normally shooed us away from anywhere near their homes would step out onto their porches and summon us over.  “You can have all these leaves if you want them,” they’d tell us, feigning great benevolence and generosity.  “Just take them back to the pile you already have.”  The rest of the year, these ladies only gave us dark looks and occasional threats, but for a few days in the late fall, they acted like they were our best friends.
Now while my friends and I were just kids, we were not stupid.  We knew full well that collecting all those leaves was providing a handy and apparently free service for the adults in the neighborhood.  However, we were young, full of boundless energy, and there were quite a few of us in our group.  The actual amount of work done by any one individual kid was not that great really.  And, the payoff we got from the things we could do with such a huge pile of leaves was plenty of recompense at the time.  There was nothing more satisfying than having a pile of leaves so large that your could stand upright in the middle and still be covered.  Granted, we were not that tall, but still, it was a lot of leaves.
There was one linchpin to this whole endeavor that made it feasible: the willingness of Rick’s dad to allow us to cart all the neighbor’s leaves onto his lawn.  Why would he allow such a thing, you might ask?  Two words: avid gardener.  Rick’s dad had the largest and most prosperous vegetable garden in that part of town.  He spent hours and hours working in it during the growing season, and even after everything had been harvested he was testing soil composition, adding fertilizer, planting cover crops and generally fussing with it.  By the time we kids had grown tired of the leaves we had collected, they had been chopped into a fine mulch from the beating we put on them.  The pile that had once been as tall as we were was now just a few inches high.  Before the ground froze for the winter, Rick’s dad would back his pickup truck onto the lawn, shovel the shredded leaves into the back, and then take them out back to his garden, where he would spread them around and till them under.  It was very much a mutually beneficial arrangement between Rick’s dad and his son’s gang of friends.
At this time of year, as I am raking up the leaves in my yard, I like to think back to those days when piling up leaves was a game and not a chore.  Even now in middle-age, when I've accumulated a particularly large pile, there is a temptation, deep down inside, for me to take a running leap into it.  Of course the temptation not to break a hip is even greater, so I don’t do it, but that doesn't mean the thought hasn't crossed my mind.  Like most things in life, it’s our perspective that makes a crucial difference in the things we undertake.  I believe we’d all be better off sometimes if we could only see things through the eyes we had when we were at the age when we could stand upright and yet hidden in a large pile of fallen leaves.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Rutabaga Dispensing Machine

Indulge me for a few moments.

As I walk out through the lobby of my apartment building one Wednesday morning, I catch something out of the corner of my eye.  In a once-empty corner, with tasteful potted plants on either side, is a newly-installed vending machine.  It’s a Rutabaga Dispensing Machine.

Now I do not eat rutabagas myself.  In my formative years, my family did not grow or eat rutabagas, so they are not really in my culinary repertoire and never have been.  I don’t care for the taste of them, and they give me gas.  So, most likely, I will not be ironing out dollar bills to slide into the slot for rutabagas any time soon.  Several other people in my building whom I consider friends DO like rutabagas however.  They are vegetarians.  Surely, this machine will be a boon for them and their cooking habits.

As for me, the Rutabaga Dispensing Machine is just there.  It is not in my way.  It is not gaudy or ugly.  It does not replace the lobby’s French Fry Dispensing Machine, of which I am quite fond.  And I am by no means forced to use either one.

This little story is intended to illustrate where I’ve landed on the issue of legalizing gay marriage in Maine, which I came to support in this election cycle and which was approved by a majority of voters in the state this week.  For me, legalizing gay marriage is analogous to installing a Rutabaga Dispensing Machine in my apartment building.  As long as I am not forced to use it and it doesn’t replace my French Fry Dispensing Machine, then I am fine with it.  It just adds to the freedoms available to Americans who choose to exercise them, without taking freedoms away from anyone else.

I suppose the analogy could be extended to other freedoms we have the option to exercise in this country if we choose: the freedom to choose our leaders, to bear arms, to voice our opinions, to listen to Carpenters albums, etc.  We are not required to do any of those things (most thankfully in the lattermost case), but we are not restricted from them either.

Freedom is just a part of what’s cool about this country of ours.  Never take it for granted.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Politics (Yes, I'm Going THERE!)

I tend to eschew controversy here at Wicked Awesomology, but once in a while I need to touch the third rail.  This is a rare post about politics.  However, take heart: I am not advocating a particular candidate or issue.  I am skewering the process as it currently exists.

As I write this, the political election season is reaching full screech mode, with mere hours left before voting at the polls begins.  Here in Maine, we voters have a number of choices to make, including who we want as our president, our representatives in the U.S. House, one of our senators, as well as state legislators and whether we want gay marriage to be legalized in the state.  The presidential race and the gay marriage referendum have raised the election year hysteria here this year from its typical “hyperactive preschoolers in a room full of sugary snacks” level to a new high of “Richard Simmons on crack”.  Intense media coverage and immense amounts of cash flowing in from every special interest for advertising and “special consultants” has turned many normally-taciturn Mainers, present company included, into raving lunatics.

When possible, I try to make lemonade out of life’s lemons, and one way to do this is to at least attempt to extract some lessons learned from things that have sucked out loud.  What follows are the five things I have learned during the 2012 election cycle.

Outside Influences Are Kind Of Insulting

A lot, and I mean a whole lot, of the advertisements, events, etc. surrounding this year’s elections in Maine have been developed and paid for by interests from outside the state of Maine.  I am sure that this is not unique to those of you reading in other parts of the country or world.  Now I am not talking about local candidates and advocacy groups intentionally hiring people from elsewhere.  I am talking about outside groups that have come into jurisdictions entirely on their own and tried to influence voters to go with their point of view: Political Action Committees (PACs)  It’s almost as if the PACs are saying “Oh you poor stupid people, let us tell you how you are supposed to think.”  Anyone with even a third of a brain knows that it is nothing more than a bald-faced attempt to increase their own power in some way.  Even when one of these PACs is advocating for a candidate or position that I support, I still resent the hell out of their interference.
While I am sure that this type of outside influence rubs many people around the country the wrong way, it really, really, really doesn’t fly in a place with people as self-reliant as most Mainers.  It is not only possible this interference by PACs can backfire in Maine, it is likely.

Politics and Religion Are A Miserable Combination

Religion and politics just do NOT mix well at all, and I am saying this as someone who goes to church every Sunday and takes his faith seriously.  Every candidate holds varied positions on varied issues.  How on God’s green earth are we supposed to vote only for candidates who support the tenets of our particular faith?  Is it okay to vote for a candidate who is in favor of abortion and yet also pledges to protect programs that provide direct aid the poor and elderly?  What about someone whose policies decrease the level of government interference in our lives and private institutions (including religious ones), and yet at the potential cost of decreased access to healthcare or harm to the environment?  We are told to love our neighbors, and yet oppose gay marriage?  Religious leaders tell us it is our moral duty to vote, and to do so in concert with the faith we have been taught, and yet I am not aware of a single candidate for any political office who completely “lines up” with a given religion on every issue. Every candidate and most positions seem like a Catch-22 when viewed through the lens of religion.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

“He’s Worse Than I Am” Is A Lousy Strategy

The old saw “you attract more flies with honey than vinegar” has been around for such a long time because it is true.  And yet, the majority of political ads I have seen or heard this year have not been telling me what is right about a candidate or position, but instead what is wrong with the opposition.  It’s hard to deny that negative content tends to garner more attention, and the fact that it stokes the fires of fear among the less-informed is another point in favor of negative ads.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  However, if I were a politician or advocate for a side in a referendum, I would much rather want to win because the voters supported me, and not that they were merely voting against the opposition.  In other words, I would want voters to like me more than the other side, not hate me less than them.  Being the “lesser of two evils” is hardly a mandate.

Taking Politics Personally Is Pathetic And Sad

I have friends who are flaming liberals.  I have friends who are ultra-conservatives.  To say that I don’t entirely agree with either group of them would be a major understatement.  Nonetheless, they are my friends and I genuinely like them.  It’s okay if they think and vote differently than I do.  I find it terribly disturbing that so many people these days make political discourse into personal grudge matches, delighting in the prospect of bad things happening to people who don’t believe in the same political views that they do.  In my opinion, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, for example, are both decent men who love their countries and their families.  While I lean more toward the views of one than the other, I don’t for even a second think that the candidate with whom I do not align deserves to have anything bad happen to him or his supporters.  The politics of hate has always been with us, but it has become much more pronounced over the past twenty-five years or so, since the rise of talk radio and 24-hour cable news which give those views a platform. These media entities often do so under the cover of “free speech”, but it is more often simply a means to drive up ratings and to fill time. I saw it from the inside at the beginning of that era, when I was working in radio myself.

Getting "Out There" Counts For A Lot

If you really want to attract my attention to your position or candidate, do not have a robot call me on the phone.  Instead, get yourself out there so I can come to you.  Walk in a parade in my town.  Hold a “meet & greet” in the area.  Talk to my local newspaper, radio or TV station.  Respond personally to tweets or Facebook posts.  Show me your face, shake my hand and make it personal!  Those things are going to cause me to take you much more seriously than someone who hides behind a barrage of carefully scripted advertisements, brochures, signs, and debates.  I feel that this applies to all candidates and positions, but especially to incumbents who think they can take votes in certain places for granted.
          And above all, no matter how disgusted you are with all of it, please, please, a thousand times PLEASE go out to vote on November 6th!

            We now return you to our regular blog programming.