28 November 2008

The Ones Who Left

When I was in college, I once spent an afternoon with a British professor. He was a guest at our school and I was tasked with escorting him from place to place.

Naturally, we talked quite a bit. At first, we chatted about the differences between British and American colleges and universities. I was horrified to learn that, in Britain, changing majors was not just discouraged, it was frowned upon. In fact, according to him, after a certain point, if one decided to change their major, they had to go back and start at the very beginning, as if they were just starting school. Seeing as how, at the time, I was changing my mind, and my major on a weekly basis, I would have had a problem.

“What do you think is the biggest difference between Britain and America?” I asked, sincerely curious.

“Well, the one thing I have noticed when working with Americans is that, you decide to do something, and jump right in and start doing it. When you encounter a problem, you figure out a way over, under, or around it, and keep going. When you come to another problem, you figure out a way over, under, or around it, and keep going.”

“In Britain, what happens is, someone comes up with an idea, and we all sit around and think of all the potential problems we could possibly encounter if we did it. Eventually, if the list gets long enough, we give up.”

“The only thing I can attribute this to is, we are the ones that stayed behind.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, everyone here, no matter who they are or where they are originally from, at some point, either they themselves, or one of their ancestors, got on a boat or a plane, left everything and everyone they knew behind, and came here. We, who still live in Britain, and Europe and wherever else, went down to the dock, looked at the cramped, smelly ship and the wide open ocean, thought of all the bad things that could happen, turned around, and went home. We stayed behind.”

I had never thought of it quite that way, but it made perfect sense. It was true of course; all of us came from somewhere else. Whether we came ashore at Plymouth Rock, or Ellis Island, or LAX, we all can trace our lineage to “the Old Country” (except Native Americans of course. Sorry about the whole stealing your land and genocide thing. It wasn’t my idea, I swear).

Today, we fly back and forth over the world in record time, but for most of human history, the world was a lot bigger, travel took a lot longer, and was a lot more dangerous. For the Pilgrims, and folks like William Penn, who my ancestors came over with, the trip to America took six weeks at least, longer if they ran into bad weather. And, they could never be absolutely certain they would make it at all.

Even if the ship itself managed to avoid sinking or running aground, disease was rampant, especially on a cramped ship without modern plumbing (if you know what I mean). Even if they made it, they faced a vast untamed wilderness populated with lions and tigers and bears (well, bears anyway), not to mention Native Americans who, once they caught on, were not all that overjoyed to see them. It was the luck of the draw.

In her new bookThe Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell describes the Puritans gathered at Southampton, waiting to depart for the Massachusetts Bay Colony this way:

“These people...are scared. There's a boat in the harbor that just might sail them to their deaths. They may never see their friends again until heaven (or hell, depending how this dumb plan goes). For years they've grumbled that England is a cesspool governed by an immoral king under the spell of the Whore of Babylon, which is their cute nickname for the pope. But now that it's time to light out, their dear old mother country seems so cozy, all warm beds and warm beer and days of auld lang syne.”

They were scared. They were facing an uncertain voyage. They might die long before reaching the Promised Land. They might die all too soon after reaching the Promised Land. They could have stayed behind, but they didn’t. They overcame their fear. They boarded the ship. They left.

In Ireland, before an emigrant left for America, their family held what has come to be known as an "American Wake." It was a time for friends and family to gather and say goodbye to the soon to be departed, because, in all likelihood, they would never see each other again. It was one thing to leave, it was quite another to come back.

Even today, with planes, trains, and automobiles, cell phones, email and instant messenger, the move is a daunting one. It never ceases to amaze me how many people make the move to this country completely alone.

Sure the plane ride over here is pretty smooth, and once here, you can call your loved ones back home and tell them that you got here OK. You can post a journal on a blog and stay in contact with friends on facebook, but, when you hang up the phone, and shut off the computer, there is no escaping that you are thousands of miles from home, a stranger in a strange land, and you are on your own. It takes a certain type of person to do that. A brave one.

And let’s not forget those who are boarding homemade rafts and paddling 90 miles over open ocean, or dodging the Minutemen and the Border Patrol in the Mexican desert just to get here. We can debate what to do about it, how to stem the tide, but that doesn’t change the fact that it takes a certain kind of person to do that as well.

Seeing as how I live a work within 20 minutes of where I grew up, I am quite certain I would have stayed behind given the option. But I live where I live today because my ancestors boarded a ship and sailed from Holland never to return; because my great-grandfather left the family homestead in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and set out for the “Big City” of Chicago; because my grandfather left the mean streets of Chicago for the relative tranquility of suburban New Jersey;because my father left his hometown of Nutley, and moved an hour away to stake his claim in suburban New York. Change any part of that chain of events and my life would have turned out much different

Perhaps the one thing that truly unites us; that allows us to live in relative harmony despite our diversity of race and religion; our differences of opinion on politics, global warming, and Barry Manilow; the one thing that gives us all the right to call ourselves Americans, whatever our point of origin, is the fact that we are the ones who left.

09 September 2008

Color my World

When I was a kid, I thought that people in the 1950’s could only see in black and white. After all, all of the TV shows from back then that I watched as a kid, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, Mister Ed, Ozzie and Harriet,, were all in black and white. Furthermore, all the characters on these shows seemed to think nothing of it, going about their daily lives as if it were perfectly normal that everything was shades of gray.

Then, some time in the mid1960’s, something happened. Something mysterious. Something BIG. I wasn’t sure exactly when or how, but, sometime between seasons one and two of Gilligan’s Island, SOMETHING HAPPENED, and humans were able to see color.

Picture yourself, falling asleep on night in a world that is black and white, as it had been all your life, and waking up to find the world alive with color. I imagine that it would have been not unlike the scene when Dorothy takes her first steps out of her black and white Kansas farmhouse and into the marvelous Technicolor Land of Oz.

The “Wizard of Oz” actually supported my hypothesis. For Dorothy, only Oz was in color, and she seemed sufficiently amazed by that fact. When she returned to Kansas, it was back to good old black and white.

I was surprised this hadn’t been mentioned in my history books. After all, you’d think it would’ve been kind of a big deal at the time. Surely it would have made the paper. But where were the old news clippings? Where was the news footage of a television announcer, Walter Cronkite perhaps, announcing excitedly that the world was suddenly and mysteriously full of color?

Did people just not notice? Was there a conspiracy afoot? Or, was it simply a situation wherein they just didn’t want to talk about it. It all seemed like a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, and trapped inside of an enigma.

Nevertheless, I am aware that there were some gaping holes in my “Something happened” theory. For example, how did I explain the full color paintings of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in my elementary school classroom? For that matter, how did I explain “Little House on the Prairie” which, though it took place way back in the 1800’s, was awash in color? In truth, I never fully reconciled these disparate facts. I was six. And anyway, the 1800’s were so long ago, that the might as well have been, well, the 1800’s.

But, looking back now, there never really was any contradiction. My theory was not that the WORLD was black and white. It was that humans could only SEE in black and white, just like my dog. I surmised that human beings had some how evolved, or “grown up” during this time, and the result of this maturation was the ability to see color.

Today, when I watch those old shows, especially those shows like Gilligan’s Island, or Andy Griffith, that straddled the black and white and color TV line, I enjoy the black and white episodes a bit more. They somehow seem more authentic. Particularly with the Andy Griffith show, the colored seasons seem as if they were filmed in black and white and then painted over by an intern.

Maybe it’s because color brings out the details, those subtle differences on hue and shade that highlight the complexities of our world. Black and white, on the other hand, is cleaner, better defined and straight forward. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats, it was as simple as that

In some ways, the mid-sixties change from the clearly contrasted world of black and white TV, to the subtleties of color television mirrored the cultural shift happening at the time. After the fall of Camelot, the moral clarity of our culture, at least the perceived moral clarity, was coming apart at the seams, what with the struggle for Civil Rights, the rise of the drug culture, and war protesters, and burning bras. Even now those times seem so far removed from the idealized Leave it to Beaver version of the ‘50’s that it is hard to believe they took place in the same century, let alone less than 10 years apart.

World War II, the great, morally justifiable conflict between the evil Axis powers and the righteous Allied Forces: Black and white. Vietnam, the murky, morally ambiguous war of foreign intervention: Color.

The black and white Beatles were witty, lovable mop tops in three piece suits who sang about how much she loved you, wanting to hold your hand, and the virtues of yesterday. The color Beatles were long haired, pot smoking, LSD experimenting rock gods who sung of hallucinogenic trips through Strawberry Felids, happiness being a warm gun, and as long as we are here, why don’t we do it in the road.

In 1960, the number one TV show was the black and white version of Gunsmoke, where Matt Dillon always did the right thing and good always triumphed over evil. By 1969, the number one show was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with its counter-culture leanings, veiled references to sex and drugs, and a cast who seemed obsessed with looking things up in Funk and Wagnall’s.

The advent of color TV brought the complex inconsistencies of our society into our living rooms, and showed us that, as much as we might want it to be, our world was definitely not black and white. Black and white TV may be cleaner, but color TV showed the world as it was, warts and all.

In the early ‘90’s when Ted Turner was intent on colorizing every black and white film he could get his hands on, there was a cultural backlash, and he eventually gave up. I think this is because black and white movies and TV remind us of an earlier, somehow simpler time. A time when Good guys were supposed to wear white hats, and Bad guys are supposed to wear white hats. Because that’s the way it was back then, even if it wasn’t.

11 July 2008

My Generation: Part 2, Verse 3, Chapter 4, Jackson 5, Nikki 6

Do you get the impression that 20 years from now, when we look back on the summer of ’89, the only thing we are going to be able to reminisce about is how much we reminisced about the summer of ’69?”

So asked Todd Snider in this Youtube video introducing a song off of his 1994 album “Songs from a Daily Planet” called “My Generation, Part 2”

The song is a tongue and cheek defense of the “Me” Generation, written to counter the claims of ageing hippies lamenting that “You’re generation hasn’t done shit..(and Live Aid doesn’t count)” In the chorus, he sings wryly “Here’s to living off dad as long as you can and blending in with the crowd/Yeah, My generation should be proud…

I am not sure that I agree that my generation “hasn’t done shit” (Though I must admit that, as I write this, nothing comes to mind). I will admit, however, that the music of my 80’s youth is utterly forgettable. Twenty years on, I only have fond memories maybe 10 songs from the 80’s and have less than a handful in my CD and digital music collections. A quick survey of the songs on my Ipod finds that of 907 songs (pathetic I know, shut up), less than 25 of them (about 2.7%) were hits in the ‘80’s By contrast, my Ipod is littered with all kinds of music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

Part of the reason for this is because my dad still has his box of original 45’s from his teenage years in the 50’s (Don’t know what a 45 is? Google it). Every now and then when I was a kid, he would take them out and blast Elvis’s “Hound Dog”, Ricky Nelson’s “Hello, Mary Lou” or Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” through the house. I don’t care how old that music is, it’s impossible not to dance around like a happy go lucky fool when that stuff is playing full blast.

Also, I had a music teacher in middle school who introduced us all to 60’s and 70’s rock and pop. He wasn’t one of those “cool” teachers who wore jeans and said “man” a lot in order to “get down on our level.” He was the complete opposite. He dressed in a suit and tie every day, wore horn rimmed glasses and shiny leather soled shoes, and carried a briefcase. But within that Reaganesque conservative exterior was a rocker yearning to breath free.

He showed us the Chuck Berry concert film “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll” on movie day. We spent an entire week dissecting Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. He handed out the lyrics to Don McClean’s “American Pie” and took us through a lecture on the history of rock and roll, verse by verse. We spent an entire class period discussing Simon and Garfunkels “I am a Rock” More than anything else, he is the reason I love rock and roll.

But, on a generational level, in the 1980’s there was a sense, at least amongst white suburban teenagers, that as hard as our music rocked, it paled in comparison with that which had come before. For every Gun’s and Rose’s, who legitimately rocked for at least one earth shattering album, or Motley Crue, who did a lot of Smoking in the Boys Room with Girls, Girls, Girls there are 10 or 15 Warrant’s or Wingers, White Lions, Whitesnake’s or W.A.S.P. (what’s with all the W’s by the way?) who are utterly forgettable.

At school dances, the most popular slow song was Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” , released in1977, when we were three years old. During the schools battle of the bands the loudest applause were reserved for “Stairway to Heaven” from 1971 or “Sunshine of You’re Love” from 1968. You always knew that the long haired kid who sat on the playground playing guitar was a “serious artist” when he burst into Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” from 1975.

Its not that I dislike ‘80’s music. When it “Pour Some Sugar on Me” comes on the radio,I will turn in up, and for a moment reminisce about mullet’s, and summer days alternating between my friend’s pool and Legend of Zelda. But the feeling is fleeting, and I quickly pull up the Beatles or the Stones, or Tom Petty, or Ryan Adams on my Ipod, and free my soul, getting lost in that rock and roll and drifting away.

I can compare listening to the music of my youth to watching the TV shows of my youth. The advent of the DVD box set has made it possible to relive cherished TV memories, some of which are best left alone.

I was shocked when, after shelling out $40.00 bucks for the complete first season of the A-Team, I realized just how ridiculous the show was. I will only say this. If I ever find myself on the run from the Military Police for a crime I didn’t commit, I would not buy a van with a distinctive red stripe on the side, ride around, and blow up bad guys in every town I came to. I just doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. But that’s just me.

Whether it be the A-Team or LA Guns, my inner voice asks “Why did I used to like this?”

There has been a resurgence of interest in ‘80’s music that is in part due to nostalgic Gen X’ers, it is also driven by the current crop of teenagers. Just like it was cool for us to like classic rock, it is cool for them (at least some of them) to like ‘80’s rock (at least some of it).

In a way it makes sense. For them, as for me, it was the music of their older brothers or sisters, the music of the cool high school kids they looked up to in grammar school, the kids wanted to be like. Maybe, a part of casting off the chains of the former generation is to revere it, even as you cast it aside. Maybe I am just an idiot who is writing this because he can’t sleep. Who knows?

One this is for sure though, at least in terms of music, my generation hasn’t done shit, (and Live Aid doesn’t count).

06 June 2008

How I Learned...

A while back I was walking with a friend of mine in the woods I roamed as a child. He is about ten years younger than me, and though he lives closer to the woods than I did growing up, had never been back there. When we came to the old mill pond (I know that sounds all like Norman Rockwell, but can I help that it really is an old mill pond?). I stopped at the edge for a moment, next to the sandbag dam, looked out over the water said, “We used to ice skate back here.”

”What do you mean?” asked my friend, a bit confused.

“What do you mean what do I mean,” I said, “We used to ice skate back here in the winter, and play hockey”

“That’s insane!” he said, his jaw dropping to the floor.

“What?!” I asked, genuinely puzzled by his reaction.

“What if you fell in?”

“Well, we didn’t go ice skating in April, only in the dead of winter. My older brother and his friends would check the ice first, and mark off areas to stay away from, and then we just skated and played hockey”

“I would never do that!” he said, his mind still reeling. “That’s just insane”

This then seems to illustrate the main difference between his generation and mine. They think we are insane.

I don’t have any kids yet, so I am sure I don’t really have the right to comment on how they are raised these days. But I will anyway.

It seems that many parents are convinced that their children are on the verge of a violent bloody end at any given moment. In the interest of safety (and really who can argue with safety), we basically prevent them from doing anything that may be even the slightest bit dangerous. So, instead of teaching kids how to safely ice skate on a frozen pond, their parents tell them not to do it, because its safer that way.

They support this position with tales of all the horrific things that can possibly happen to anyone who attempts to skate on a frozen pond. You might fall in. If you fall in you will get stuck under the ice and drown. If you do manage to pull yourself out, you will freeze to death. I you manage not to freeze to death, you will almost certainly loose your legs, or your arms, or both. Then you will be a stump. A stump with no arms and no legs and you will never be able to go outside and play ever again. All because you didn’t listen to your mom and tried to skate on the pond. When the kids are sufficiently terrified, they drive them to the local rink, where you can ice skate year round for $7.00 an hour, because its safer that way. The thing is, isn't nearly EVERYTHING safer if you don't do it?

A friend of mine tells her kids to never open a can of soda all the way, to only just barely crack the seal. That way, a bee can’t fly into their soda, and sting them in the mouth. When they go to the shore, they are not allowed to go in the water, because they might drown. They are only allowed to ride their bikes around their small block, never on a main road, because they might get hit by a car. This is all well and good, until I remind her that a few years ago, in Florida, she kept trying to pet wild alligators.

“Now which do you think is more dangerous, riding a bike, or trying to pet a wild alligator who really doesn’t want you around? Hmmmmm……” I ask as she glares at me.

Its not that I am being critical so much as I just can’t relate to it. My dad did not raise me this way. To my dad, danger was not something to be avoided. Danger was just motivation. And the more you feared for your life, the more motivated you would become.

Take how I learned to ride a bike. I was a late bloomer in this arena as I was with most everything else. As I got bigger, my dad had to continually reinforce the training wheels on my bike with strips of metal he bolted on to the frame. After a while, not only was my bike stable, it weighed about 100 pounds.

I took the requisite ribbing from my friends willingly enough. But, by the age of 8 or 9, my dad decided that it was high time I learned to ride a bike. He took the training wheels off and refused to put them on ever again, no matter how much I begged.

“Come here” he said, “I am going to teach you how to ride a bike.”

I was reluctant, but didn’t seem to have much choice. He sat me on the bike and held me up for a moment. Pointing the bike towards the side of our barn (yes, we had a barn, get over it) he said “OK, on the count of three I am going to push you, and you will have two choices: You can crash into the side of the barn, or you can pedal and steer, and not crash into the barn”

I wasn’t liking this. My whole body trembled. I may have wet my pants. I really, really really, didn’t want to do this, but at the moment I had no say in the matter.


I froze. I heard a loud noise that I soon realized was the sound of myself screaming. The bike careened towards the barn. I tried to pedal, but my brain couldn’t seem communicate with my feet. Instead they got all tangled in the pedals as the barn got closer and closer. My survival instinct took over and a single word found its way into my terrified mind:



Steer, God dammit!! Steer!!

With every ounce on strength in my body, I forced my heretofore frozen hands to turn the handlebars just before I hit the barn. The bike swerved to the right and dumped me off onto the blacktop. I was in shock. My hands ached and there was a rather large road rash on my ankle.

“That was pretty good!” said my dad enthusiastically. “Lets try that again.”

The funny thing is, we did try it again, and I got better. The second time I actually was able to pedal a little bit. The third time, I swerved and rode halfway across the driveway before falling. The fourth time, I didn’t fall at all. Within about 10 minutes, I was riding around in circles whooping and hollering. The pain was numbed by the shear elation. I did it!! I could ride a bike!

This pattern repeated itself throughout my childhood. I learned to swim when my dad threw me off the boat without a life jacket and told me to swim back. I learned ski when he took me to the top of the bunny hill and skied away, telling me he would see me at the bottom.

Now you are probably expecting me to say how much I resent my father for doing such horrible things. How the memories of these events haunted me into my adult life. But the thing is, I don’t resent any of it. While I will admit there might be better, more organized, and less terrifying ways to learn such things, my dad never did any of these things out of anger. He simply felt that the best way to learn things was by doing them, and the best way to deal with fear is to face it head on. And in that sense, he is right. Absolutely right.

In each case, I found that the crippling fear that kept me from attempting these things was unfounded. In confronting my greatest fears and surviving, I was set free. My world widened, and new opportunities opened to me. I still find that true today. Do I have scars? Sure I do, both literally and figuratively. But they are simply memories of times when I faced my fears, and survived.

And OK, there is that one that I got from falling off my house after trying to scale it like Spiderman, but that’s another story…

03 May 2008

Of War, and Peace, and Sandwich bags

It was a cold, wet, December day. Saturday I think. For my father’s regular Saturday afternoon drive, he decided to drop in on Alex, one of his customers. My father was and is a landscaper, and in Alex’s case he took care of not only his house, but also his nearby factory and warehouse. I don’t remember the exact purpose of the visit, but it was probably to collect a check or give an estimate or some such. What I do remember clearly is my dad’s stern warning on the drive over.

“Listen,” he said “Alex walks with a cane, all hunched over. And his wife has a limp. When we get there DON’T SAY ANYTHING and DON’T ask him about it.”

I said I wouldn’t , but I was instantly curious. When we arrived, Alex and his wife invited us in welcoming us in mixture of broken English and Russian. He did indeed use a cane, and when he walked, hunched over considerably, though not as much as I had imagined. His wife didn’t limp so much as she slid one foot across the floor, dragging it behind her as she moved about.

I followed my dad’s instructions and did not say anything but my mind was swimming with questions. Sitting at their kitchen table with my mother and father, eating sweet cake I couldn’t help but notice a calendar on wall indicating that Christmas was January 7th. This was just too much for my young mind to fathom. How on earth could ANYONE celebrate Christmas on January 7th when EVERYONE knew that Christmas was December 25th. Against my better judgment, I sheepishly said:

“Um, why does that calendar say that Christmas is January 7th? Christmas is in December.”

My question was received pleasantly enough, and it was explained to me that Alex and his wife were Russian Orthodox and they used a different calendar. So for them, Christmas was January 7th. I didn’t really get it, but it was enough of an explanation, so I let it rest.

After a while we said our goodbyes and headed home. Back in the car, I couldn’t help myself.

“So, why does he walk so hunched over? Why does she limp like that?” I asked my dad.

“Well” he said, “That’s kind of a long story…”

As a teenager, Alex fought for the Czar in World War I and in the Russian Revolution. On the eastern front, the fighting was a bizarre mix of old and new. While they had modern weaponry, the cavalry was still an important element of the Russian army and hand to hand fighting often involved swords and sabers.

During one battle, Alex was run through with a sword and left for dead on the battlefield.. But he was a tough old boy and he patched himself up and made it back to his unit. This then, is why he used a cane and was so hunched over. Years later, he would find out that the saber passed within and inch of his heart. As a result of his actions in battle, he was awarded what my dad described as “the equivalent of the Medal of Honor” given to him by Czar Nicholas himself.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917 resulted in the abdication and murder of the Royal family, the Bolsheviks seized power and began executing those loyal to the Czar. Alex’s future wife was shot in the leg as she ran into the forest to escape the turmoil.

Their small band, including Alex and his wife and at least one of Alex’s brothers, made it into the mountains and managed to avoid Bolshevik forces, living, as my dad tells it, on snow and the occasional rabbit. Eventually, they made it to Yugoslavia, and settled into a relatively peaceful and successful life. Alex and his brother got into the steel business, and eventually owned a steel mill. They lived there until 1941, when they managed to escape to the United States just as the Nazi’s invaded.

Their steel mill was destroyed in the war, and after the defeat of the Third Reich, Alex and his brother received substantial reparations from the German government due to the loss of their property.

They invested their money wisely and, in a chain of events that is still unclear to me, in the 1950’s invented the re-closable plastic bag. This is what was manufactured at Alex’s nearby factory. The one my dad did the landscaping for. According to my father, at the time, in the ‘80’s they were the sole patent holder and so made all the bags for Ziploc and other companies.

I am starting a research project to find out more details about this man, his life and times. As I always say, I can’t make this stuff up.

16 April 2008

A Dog's Life: Then and Now

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine lamented the disappearance of the rough and tumble childhood. Gone are the days of going out to play in the neighborhood or the ubiquitous “woods” with little or no supervision. Such carefree times have been replaced by play dates and latchkeys, and playstations. This generation of children are among the most watched over in the history of our nation. Childhood has changed in America, and the debate is raging as to whether it is for better or worse.

I don’t have children as yet, but I do have a dog. I must admit that I, like many dog owners, particularly single or childless ones, have often made the comparison between having a dog and having kids. It should come as no surprise then that the lives of dogs today, like those of kids today, are much more tightly controlled and organized than they were a generation ago.

In my neighborhood, growing up, dogs were everywhere. Nobody chained their dogs so they were free to wander and roam. Even during times when my family did not have a dog, there were always dogs in my yard. There was Picoh (Pee-KOH), a collie who lived over the hill and through the woods (literally). Sasha, my best friends Siberian Husky (For some reason, she liked to lay on the double yellow line, right in the middle of the road. She was eventually hit by a car). Bopper, a Doberman Pincer mix, lived about a half mile up the road, but spent most of his time down by us, because his owner beat him.

Once, when Bopper showed up bleeding after a particularly harsh beating, my mother went and confronted the owner, threatening to call dog control and the police. A few days later, he shot his aged parents, killing his father and seriously wounding his mother. He was killed in a standoff with police that same night. My mom always wondered if she set him off.

Then there was Duck. Duck was a Black Lab. She was one of a kind. Why they named a dog Duck I will never know. But I can tell you that it caused problems for me in Kindergarten. Any time the teacher showed a picture of a dog, I would point at it and say "Duck".

She originally lived in a house that lay behind ours, a short walk through the woods. But, she belonged to the Old Wife and when the New Wife came along she simply stopped letting her inside and stopped feeding her. She became a neighborhood dog. She wandered about the neighborhood and everywhere she went people fed her, took care of her.

After a time she developed an aversion to being inside, preferring cold but wide open spaces to a warm, but cramped living room. The only time she voluntarily came inside was when we had a bear in the back yard. She faithfully met me at the bus stop every morning from the time I was in first grade until I was a senior in high school. One day, in the spring of 1992, we found Duck in the back yard. She had laid down to sleep that night and never woke up. I still miss her.

Alas, most dogs today do not know such a carefree existence. Consider the life of my current dog Tippy, when compared with one of my childhood dogs, Molly:

NOW: When I leave the house everyday, I make sure the Tippy is IN. My neighbors wouldn’t tolerate a loose dog, and besides, he might run away!!!

THEN: When I left for school in the morning, I made sure Molly was OUT. My mom wouldn’t tolerate letting the mangy mutt have the run of the house all day. Besides, she might run away!!! Unfortunately for my mom, we also put food and water outside. She never did run away. The neighbors never seemed to mind.

NOW: When I want to take Tippy for a walk, like around my quarter of a mile block, I put him on a leash so as not to disturb strangers. Since I have lived in my current house for more than a year and have not met a single one of my neighbors, pretty much everyone is a stranger.

THEN: When I wanted to take Molly for a walk, like walking a mile or so across town to get soda and Ice Cream, I just let her tag along behind. I didn’t want to do anything that would prevent her from protecting me from strangers. Since I, and Molly, knew pretty much everyone on our block, almost no one fell into this category.

NOW: When Tippy wants to go outside, I let him run in my small fenced in back yard, again, so as not to disturb my neighbors, who are also complete strangers.

THEN: When Molly wanted to go outside, I opened the front door and let her out. My parents did not have a fenced in yard, and neither did any of our neighbors. Nobody seemed all that disturbed. They all let there dogs run loose too.

The lives of out children and our dogs have changed. There is nothing I can much do about it I suppose. But I don’t have to like it.

08 April 2008

Roger and Me

"Play me a song about pistols and rifles
Winchesters, Smith and Wesson, .45's and Enfields
Saddle 'em up and ride 'em down
There's a darkness out on the edge of town
Preacher at the graveside with a bible
Play me a song about pistols and rifles"

--"Pistols and Rifles" by Fred Eaglesmith

I once read somewhere that every boy needs an old man. It takes an old man to teach a boy how to do important things, like how to spit, how to skip rocks, the proper and correct way to capture a frog, and how to protect yourself against Indians. I was lucky enough to know such an old man while I was growing up. His name was Roger. He was my friend.

He was born, September 9th, 1901. Just three days before, President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, NY. Five days later, Mckinley was dead and Theordore Roosevelt took the oath of office.

The town he grew up in was very different than the late 1980’s suburb that we knew. While he always knew of cars, he also knew of horses, buggies, and blacksmiths. He was in his early 20’s when radio came to prominence and in his fifties when TV supplanted it. He had first hand knowledge of things we had only read about or had seen on TV like milkmen, iceboxes, and speakeasy’s.

My friends and I started visiting Roger for one reason and one reason only, CANDY! Roger ALWAYS had candy, or cookies, or some other kind of sweet treats and he happily shared with us. We would drop by, and listen to him tell us stories about the good old days while we munched away.

There was the time when he and a friend “borrowed” an old buckboard wagon and rode it down a winding mountain road, whooping and hollering, until they hit a tree and were thrown off. There was the time when he shot three deer with one bullet, and another when he caught five fish on one hook. Not to mention his numerous victories against the local Indians.

He had done it all. In his life he had been a cowboy, a pirate, a bootlegger, and an astronaut. But, would you expect anything less from a man who graduated high school in the top ten of his class? (There were only eight students).

One day. when I was about 12, I noticed a .22 rifle leaning against the wall by the front door. I asked if it was loaded and he said it was, that he always kept it loaded, “in case the Indians attack” he said with a knowing grin.

“Do you want to shoot?” he asked heartily.

“Sure!” I said, both excited and a bit nervous. I had never shot a gun before

He sprang to his feet, picked up the weapon and walked spiritedly out the door. He pointed the rifle away from the other houses on the block, into a pocket of woods, leveled the barrel, took aim at nothing in particular, and fired. He handed me the rifle, showed me how to brace it against my shoulder, how to put the safety on and off, how to work the bolt action, and and how to gently squeeze (never jerk) the trigger.

I followed his instructions carefully, and, trembling just a bit, ever so gently pulled the trigger. It was only a .22, but it seemed to explode in my hands, the but of the rifle pushing back against my shoulder. I am pretty sure I didn't hit anything. I hadn't even really aimed at anything. I re-loaded and fired at will, shooting wildly into the woods. When we were done, he loaded the rifle, and put it back in its place leaning against the wall by the front door.

As far as I know, the rifle stayed right there for the next six years until one day in the spring of 1992. Roger, now blind, and nearly deaf, and unable to care for himself, felt his way to the front door, stood the rifle upright, raised the barrel to the underside of his chin, and pulled the trigger.

I didn’t know it at the time, but on that day, six years before, on the first day I ever shot a gun, I watched Roger load the bullet that would one day take his life. Every time I hear “Pistols and Rifles” I can’t help but think of him. I never got to say goodbye.

05 April 2008

Where I come from....

One day in eighth grade, as part of a lesson on immigration, my history teacher went around the room asking each of us where our parents were from. This was the northern suburbs of New York, and for the most part, my classmates were the children and grandchildren of Irish, Italian or other European immigrants who came to New York in the early to mid-20th century, and left the city for the peaceful environs of Rockland County. As he worked his way around the room, we were regaled with tales of “The Old Country” and Ellis Island, and childhood in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. Then he got to me.

“What about you Planck, Where are you’re parents from?”

“Jersey…” I said with a flat, disinterested tone.

The teacher smiled a bit reluctantly and asked “No, no, I mean where are they FROM?”

I looked him in the eye and, slightly frustrated, said again “JERSEY…”

“You’re parents are not from New Jersey.” He said, getting a little annoyed and staring back at me.

“What?” I said “Both my mom and my dad were born in New Jersey, the grew up in New Jersey, they are FROM NEW JERSEY…”

The teacher sighed “OK fine…so where are your grandparents from?”

“Well, I only really know about my father's parents…” I said

“That’s fine” he said. “So where are they from?”

“Chicago” He rolled his eyes.

“WHERE ARE THEY FROM?!” He was starting to lose patience with me.

“What?” I said. “They were born in Chicago, grew up in Chicago…They are FROM CHICAGO….can I help it if my grandparents are from Chicago?”

I was starting to get pissed. I fidgeted in my chair while my classmates stared and whispered things to each other. I was already a social misfit, and this little episode was not helping.

“OK, FINE…” he said, raising his voice even louder. His face was red, and he was now genuinely angry. “What about your great-grandparents, where are THEY from?”

He was staring right at me now, challenging me. I glared back at him, unflinching. This had become a battle of wills, and I was not going to break. I had no choice but to put up with the constant teasing and antagonizing I received from the popular kids, even the not so popular kids. But I was not going to be bullied or intimidated by a teacher.

I knew he wouldn’t like my answer, that it would probably put him over the edge, but I didn’t care. I looked him dead in the eye and said...


His face got even redder, his hand started to tremble. I knew he was debating whether or not to send me to the office. He was probably racking his brain, trying to figure out what he would put on the referral slip. I'm guessing that "His great-grandparents come from Michigan" would not be seen as grounds for suspension. He started to say something, but I cut him off.

“Look!” I said. Now I was pissed, and I had given up trying to hide it.

“My family has been in this county since, like, the 1600’s or something. They came over with William Penn. The town of Verplanck, you know, right across the river, is named for them. They fought in the Revolution. They are originally from Holland. They’re Dutch, OK, Dutch. Is that what you want to know?”

The teacher stepped back, the blood drained from his face. “Oh” he said quietly. Then he looked at me with crooked smile and said, “Why didn’t you just say all that in the first place."

I rolled my eyes..

"Next up, Robinson, what about you…let me guess, Ireland right?”

26 March 2008

Video Games

I was a video game kid. Having been born in 1973, I have seen it all, video game wise. In 1977 when Atari released its home video game system, I was four years old. We didn’t have one. The first person I ever knew who owned a video game was Ty, the kid across the street.

Ty’s family was rich, which meant that they had a pool, so it was no surprise to me when I went to his house one day and found him crouched in front of his TV, moving little blue dots around the screen with a joystick.

The game was “Combat”, and it came with the Atari system. It let kids control blips of various colors, representing different pieces of expensive military hardware. You could be a tank, a plane, and I think a ship or submarine, maybe both. The object of “Combat” was the same as any self-respecting video game, past or present. Kill your opponent.

Such was my introduction to the world of home video games. From there my childhood reads like a history of video game technology. While we never had a Atari, we were the first, and only family I ever knew to have a Colecovision.

For a short, glorious time in 1984 we were video game snobs, looking down on our friends with their paltry Atari’s, with its blocky two tone graphics, its cheesy one button joystick. When compared with Colecovision, Atari was so 1982. Colecovision boasted better games, better graphics (They looked nearly identical to their arcade counterparts) and nifty add on controllers like the steering wheel with gas pedal add-on so you could feel like you were actually driving a car when playing “Pole Position” or “Dukes of Hazzard”.

At first, my brothers and sisters and I would dutifully sit up straight with both hands on the wheel, gingerly tapping the gas pedal, as was careened through digital landscapes at top speed. Pretty soon though that got boring, and we took to sitting on the gas pedal, and spinning the wheel wildly, making the car crash indiscriminately into trees and passing cars. With a little creativity, violence can be found in any video game.

Then, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Six, God said “Let there be Nintendo”, and there was Nintendo, and God playeth Nintendo, and it was good.

The summers of my early adolescence were spent alternatively swimming in my friend Kyle’s pool (Ty had moved away some years before, and anyways, Kyle’s pool was better) and playing Nintendo. We played ‘em all, sports games, war games, adventure games, you name it. While other kids marked the achievements of their youth with trophies and report cards, the milestones of my youth consist of twice beating Gannon in “The Legend of Zelda”, and knocking out Mike Tyson in a the third round of “Punch Out”.

We even invented a quasi-Marxist system of game sharing. We would pool our money to buy the games we wanted, and then share them, two weeks on, two weeks off. But like communism in the late 1980's, the system was doomed to fail. Ultimately, the games would end up permanently stored at one of our houses. Somehow I always ended up with the lesser video games. Apparently, while all video games are equal, some video games are more equal than others.

By the time the original Nintendo System petered out, my parents had long since past the point of buying me pretty much anything and I was forced to finance my own entertainment. I couldn’t afford to upgrade to a better system, so I entered into a period of my life I have come to call “The Lost Years” when I lost touch with the home video game scene. Instead of crouching in front of the TV for much of the day, the days, weeks and months of my late adolescence were spent doing such outdated, quaint things as hiking, camping, and sweating behind a lawnmower for my old man. And OK, I still crouched in front of the TV a lot. But I wasn't playing video games. Honest.

Then, in college, I scraped enough money together to buy a computer and it was deja-vu all over again. I was exposed to a wider assortment of games than I ever imagined. In the 12 years I spent frying my brain in public education, video games had taken a quantum leap. Titles like "Sim City" "Star Wars: Tie Fighter" and "Doom" brought a whole new level of sophistication and "realism" into the equation (as well as more blood and guts violence).

I am not entirely proud to admit that even now, in my 30's, I still play video games, though my play has been necessarily curtailed to make room for a job, car payments, monthly mortgage, and a reluctant, but all the more necessary “sense of responsibility."

A while back, I picked up “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault” , a 2001 game from Electronic Arts. (Since I am cheap, and since I have an old (2004) computer, I am still behind the times. I only buy out of the bargain bin). Its what us gamers call a “first person shooter”, which means that the unseen character (you) runs around and kills everything in sight while carrying a stockpile of weapons big enough that, if they belonged to a small third world country, George Bush would bomb them.

In this case, you are running around Western Europe, performing secret missions for Lt. Colonel Hargrove in World War II.

In my 30's, and still buying video games. I rationalize this by reminding myself that it was on sale, and that it is a “historical” game. This is not violence for violence sake. This game recreates, with stunning accuracy, real events. The invasion of Normandy. The Battle of the Bulge. It’s educational, I think to myself. In playing this game, I am getting a sense of just what the "Greatest Generation" was up against.

Thinking of these things, I load up the game and start playing. The controls are confusing, and my first mission ends within minutes of its beginning, with me getting annihilated by a German machine gunner in a pill box. Apparently I have confused the “Primary Fire Key” with the “Secondary Fire Key” I hate when that happens.

I curse to myself and hit the escape key, restarting the mission. I get a little farther this time, until I am cut down while foolishly attempting to charge an enemy bunker. I reset the game and try again.

And then, all of the sudden, it hits me. This game has nothing, absolutely nothing, in common with World War II.

In the summer 1944, if some wet behind the ears, scared shitless 18 year old fumbled for his gun in combat, if he rushed around a blind corner only to run into fully armed German soldiers playing cards, if he zigged when he should have zagged, that was it. There was no escape key, no reset button. He couldn't start over and think “Gee, now that I know where the bad guys are, this time I will change my strategy.” He didn’t need to be shot 47 times before finally dying. There were no little flashing canteens laying about that would instantaneously restore him to full health. If he got shot even once, chances are, It was GAME OVER, forever.

The weight of this leaves me motionless for a moment. Then, with visions of dying men in my mind, I decide I have had enough virtual reality for one day. I turn off my computer, and go outside….

19 March 2008

How my mind works...

I was walking though Home Depot the other day when, in the garden section, I saw a sign advertising a sale on “Creosote” Bushes. Now, I have to say upfront that I have absolutely no idea what a Creosote Bush is. But, the very sight of the word Creosote immediately brought to mind the Woody Guthrie song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" which, in the opening verse contains the line “The crops are all in, the peaches are rotting/The oranges are piled in their creosote dump” (yeah right, like you wouldn't have thought of the exact same thing....).

The song is about a 1948 plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California. The plane was carrying 29 illegal immigrants who were being deported back to Central America. Woody Guthrie wrote the song as a protest to what he felt was the openly racist treatment of the immigrants.

For starters, in the newspaper article dealing with the crash, only the three white crew members were named. The 29 passengers were referred to only as “deportees”. On top of that, the dead were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. The workers at the crash site did not finish placing all of the bodies in the grave on the first day. They clocked out at the usual time and left an open pit full of makeshift caskets, with the remainder of the dead left where they lay until the next morning.

In the chorus, Woody gives names to the nameless “deportees”, singing, “Goodbye to my Juan, Goodbye Rosalita/Adios mi amigos, Jesus y Maria/You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be “Deportee”.

As a wander through the plumbing aisle, looking for a 2” to 1 1/2” drain coupling, it strikes me how relevant the song is to today, what with the immigration debate, talk of border fences, and modern day minutemen. Some things, I think to myself, haven’t changed all that much in 60 years.

Coupling in hand, I head over to look for some heat tape and begin to think about what America was like in 1948. The war was over, and so was The Great Depression. Truman had narrowly won the Whitehouse and about to embark on what would become just one of many modern interventionist wars, this one in Korea. My father was 7. My mother was 5.

Finding the heat tape, I set out to find some hinges for the door of my shed. After staring at a dizzying display of hinges for ten minutes, I ask a teenager in a Home Depot smock where I can find the type of hinge I need. He begins to stare at the display along with me.

As we both search. I begin to make a mental list of all the things that have changed in the last 60 years. Forget computers, the internet, playstation. Back then, those things seemed as far off and Star Treks transporter beam. In 1948, people were still excited about refrigeration.

In 1948, only the richest people could even contemplate buying a television. My father, the man who now has a flatscreen TV with a DVR cable box, would not have a TV in his house until 1956, when he has 15. To quote from some movie or TV show that I can’t remember at the moment, “When I was your age, television was called radio”. And listen to the radio my dad did. Mostly westerns like The Lone Ranger, Straight Arrow, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. He would race home after school and curl up on the floor in front of the radio and listen with baited breath to their adventures, always ready to “Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!!!”

I have XM Radio, and one of my favorite channels is the Old Time Radio channel that plays radio dramas from the 40’s and 50’s. I do like westerns, but my favorites are the science fiction shows like Dimension X or X Minus One, or Into Tomorrow. I especially like the ones that take place in “the far off future year of 1995” or some such. In these shows, in the year 1995, there are always spaceships, and people are living and working on the Moon and Mars. There are Robots and flying cars and,,,,,

I begin to think of the Allstate commercial where the spokesman is lamenting the fact that it is the year 2007 and there are no flying cars. Where are the flying cars? What happened? Why don’t we have them? WE WERE PROMISED FLYING CARS!!!!

So by this time, I am in my non-flying car, and three quarters of the way home, and I remember that I forgot to buy a funnel….

I hate when that happens....

17 March 2008

Racism, Mercenaries, and Walmart

Every time I venture to Walmart around midnight, I am reminded why one should not venture to Walmart around midnight.

First of all, have you ever actually tried to shop at Walmart around midnight. Its next to impossible because the aisles are littered with pallets stacked to the sky with everything under the sun. Its almost impossible to navigate with a cart. Inevitably, when you see an item you actually want to purchase, it is obstructed by one of these pallets. This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be there at a time when they were waxing the floor. To accomplish this they roped off nearly the entire grocery section making it almost inaccessible. Lucky me.

Secondly, this whole idea that they are open 24 hours is a fabrication. At my local Walmart, every register closes down for 15 minutes at 11:45 p.m. While they keep the doors open, and you are free to walk about, you cannot actually purchase anything for those 15 minutes. In reality then, they are open for business for a total of 23 hours and 45 minutes. This is especially inconvenient when you are next in line after waiting 20 minutes, and you have ice cream in your cart. Sure I know, OPEN 24 HOURS rolls off the tongue better, but lets be real.

As an added bonus, during your time waiting, you get to talk to the people in line. Let me just say this upfront. If you ever find yourself waiting in line at Walmart at midnight, DO NOT TALK TO THE OTHER PEOPLE IN LINE, under any circumstances. If someone tries to engage you in conversation, I would suggest you feign deafness, or look at the person and confusedly say “No habla Englais”. Trust me, you will thank me later.

A few months ago, I was in line behind a group and giggly yet annoyingly adorable young ladies. Behind me there was a guy in camouflage pants, combat boots and a ripped up Metallica T-shirt. He looked over at the girls, and looked back at me and said, with all seriousness:

“Drop them in the Jungle and they’d be dead in an hour”

He then went on to regale me with tales of his time as a mercenary in South America, how he ate dirt, and bugs, and nearly lost his arm. As he lifts up his shirt, presumably to show me his scars I looked at him with a confused look and said, “No habla Englais”.

This past weekend, while waiting at the single open checkout during those 15 minutes of closing time I walked into a conversation regarding the state of America. According to a rather tall, and large gentleman with a scruffy beard, who seemed to be talking to no one in particular, America today was worse off then it was in the great depression and that within five years, if things kept up, we would be taken over by Mexico and Canada in what he described as a "classic pincer movement."

“This all started when Roe v. Wade made abortion illegal” he said.

I couldn’t resist. Breaking my own policy of non-participation, I broke in, “Um, actually, Roe v. Wade made abortion LEGAL” I say ever so politely.

“Well not really,” he said, “it lets the states decide, that’s why its legal in NY but illegal in NJ…”

“Umm, I think you might be….” But he had moved on to explain to us why, in Britain, there are so many black people with English accents.

“You see, in the 1600’s…” but before he could continue, one of the women on line (who incidentally, had told me previously that she had just gotten back from a St. Patrick’s day party and was all hopped up about being Irish, so I “had better watch out”) noticed that he had taken the trouble to wrap paper towels around the handle of his cart.

“What are you, some kind of germophobe?” she said confrontationally (she was all hopped up about being Irish).

“No, no” he said “I am not a racist but you see, when I moved up here 20 years ago, none of this was all here, and it was all white. But, in the ’80's they (and I will remind you that this is a direct quote, his words, not mine) “flushed the toilet” in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx and all different types of minorities came up north, and now there is so much more diversity, so I decided that, yeah, I had better wrap the handle with paper towels. But I am not a racist."

I try to fathom the logic of this for a moment. Essentially, while claiming not to be a racist, he was saying that because, in his opinion, dirty, disease ridden minority groups were more plentiful then they had been in the past that he now feels the need to protect himself from their germs. Now, it’s been quite awhile since I actually looked up the definition of racism, but this seems to fit the bill. But he wasn’t a racist, he was just sayin’. O-K, perhaps you would prefer being called a bigot? Or just a plain old asshole?

“You see, each culture carries their own diseases. That’s what killed the Indians you know, it was diseases”

“And the Gatling gun” I say dryly.

“That too. Say, I forgot to get some motor oil, where is it?”

I point him towards the back left hand corner of the store. The hopped up Irish lady offers to watch his cart and keep his place in line.

“No thanks” he says, “You never know, I might have a stroke” and walks off with his cart, never to be seen again. Perhaps he really did have a stroke

Next time I decide to go to Walmart at midnight, remind me to stay home.