It soon will be Christmas…again. The annual wait for this most joyous, yet cantankerous of holidays, seems to shorten each year as my life lengthens. Wasn’t it just last month we took down the decorations?
Christmas is famously the one holiday that stirs the emotions more than any other. It builds towering, lifelong memories, many reinforced by family traditions we adopt along the way. Christmas elevates the best feelings and gestures in all of us, and yet, it has the power to deflate, inhibit and depress. Christmas does all these things and, depending on your current state of mind, you welcome the holiday with open arms…or you prepare for the emotional hit.
My childhood memories of Christmas are shared by many. I believed in Santa Claus until I was about 8 or 10 years old; wanted to continue believing for a few more years, although I knew better. Thereafter, facing the reality of Santa never threw coal on the excitement the holiday brought each year. Absolutely not! Santa’s spirit lives on, just as I have.
My younger Christmas years were bountiful with toys. I remember the fort, complete with Indians attacking and the cavalry saving; there were bikes, skates, board games, fads like hula hoops and always lots of candy. In my early teens my brother and I were heavy into model railroading and most of our presents supported that phase of our lives. Later on, new clothes, once the boring under-appreciated gift, now took on a much higher ranking. And, just after making it through my first semester of college, Rosemarie arrived in my life and she brought with her a whole new sizzle to the holiday. And here we are now, soon to decorate our 58th Christmas tree together.
Christmas, just as I have, has begun showing its age. The excitement is much lower key now, the gifting somewhat routine and the overall luster of the holiday has lost some of its sparkle. Christmas, after all, is really for the children. It is a time to spoil them, while hopefully embedding the joy of giving and the value of kinship. Fortunately, there are sufficient numbers of grandchildren still available in my life and most of them want Christmas dinner to be at our house. Since I am the primary chef in our household, this means I will be busy enough Christmas day not to worry about my aging body and thoughts about how many more Christmases there will be for me. The holiday has become bittersweet. But like that flavor of fine chocolate, it is still the preferred morsel that I instinctively reach for once the holiday season has arrived…again.
I’ve mentioned in the past that wife Rosemarie loves to go fishing. Being the faithful, supportive, sacrificing husband that I am, I will accompany her. She’ll fish; I’ll read a book or otherwise keep myself occupied. And too, I will fulfill the role of assistant schlepper and help her lug her gear to and from the site. This has been the fishing “format” we have been following for years. There is one important notation I will bring to your attention: she never, never, never catches a fish worthy of taking home and having for dinner. But that’s ok. She simply enjoys “feeding the fish” as she puts it.
Since we moved to Naples, Florida two years ago, one of Rosemarie’s favorite places to feed the fish is the Naples Fishing Pier. This modern structure is a mix of human-made wood that does not rot supported by several tons of concrete that juts out a few hundred feet into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a mecca for people who like to fish and who possess the two requirements for having a good time: a fishing rod and hope.
Besides the smell of bait, there are usually a few other annoying aspects of the sport of fishing that cause it to be a turn-off to me. One of these pesky items is the pelican. Yep, the pelican. These rather large, grungy-appearing, big-beaked species hang around fishing piers and are relentless fish hunters. The pelicans at the Naples Fishing Pier are especially adept at dive-bombing Kamikaze-style into the water after small fish who wander too near the surface. I will admit that the pelicans do provide a good amount of entertainment as they soar high, spot a fish and then come full-speed, head-first into the water.
I suggested to Rosemarie that she might pick up a fishing tip or two by observing the diving birds. She didn’t seem very receptive to my comment…or should I say she didn’t take the bait. Okay, I’m sorry. Puns have always flowed freely for me and in this case I was just casting about…
Note: This piece was originally posted on my blog back in December, 2018. Lately I have spent a lot of time and some of the space here thinking about family and friends and the role they have played in my life. I had forgotten about this particular posting and when I came upon it unintentionally, it seemed to strike a nerve. Family relationships can be tough–I well know. Some of those in my family haven’t been easy. Perhaps you have had similar struggles. I keep hearing and keep reminding myself of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” the last line of which is “preserve your memories…they’re all that’s left you.”
Now, I don’t expect many to stick around for this posting. It’s one of those long family sagas that I guess I have to get off my chest. No, there is no guessing–I HAVE TO get this off my chest. It’s about my brother, Paul, my only sibling. I need to come to peace or closure as some call it. It is not a happy story, though one with many happy memories. Somehow, I wish the two of us had more opportunity, or desire, to tackle what it was that held us at a distance once we left childhood.
My brother died over three years ago. He was two years my elder. He was the one who inherited the family heart and diabetes issues while I accommodated other, less harmful genes, or perhaps later-developing ones.
I think it is true that children adopt certain positions or rankings within the family. These are sometimes dictated by age, other times by whatever traits have been left on the table for one of the siblings to spoon up and swallow. My bother was the rebel; I the pleaser. The roles were well defined and they played out beyond our family years. More on that in a moment.
My mother always told us that she wanted two children so that, unlike her, an only child, we would have someone close with whom to grow old together. I am sure early on she felt confident that would, indeed, happen—at least based on how well my bother and I got along throughout our childhood.
Two years was a good span between us. Paul assumed the big brother leadership role and I appropriately followed. The difference in age, however, wasn’t enough to stop us from being good friends. We rarely went separate ways. We shared the same friends along with all our activities.
Paul and I were pretty much always together. If one of us got into something, the other soon joined in. We were both big on trains, real ones and the model ones on a basement platform my father built. Paul taught me how to always get on the first car of the subway or commuter train. That way, if the spot were available, you could stand at the very front door and peer out the front window. The subways are especially cool. You can see all the tunnels and the stations ahead appearing as little bright specks growing in size as the train approaches each one.
Despite our compatibility as playmates, that’s where it ended. We had totally different personalities and dispositions. We didn’t even look alike. He was obstinate, bucked authority and usually felt his best advice to follow was his own. He was exceptionally smart, like my father, but he failed to exploit it.
Report card night was always tough. He’d come home with the D’s and F’s and a list of excuses about how bad his teachers were. Meanwhile, I sat quietly displaying my mostly B’s and A’s and a smattering of C’s, the latter always in math and anything technical. I loved my brother enough that I attempted to keep my performance low-profile and even chimed in how terrible some of his teachers were. But I could not help think he resented my decent grades, not in a jealous way, but more because they simply made the evening more difficult for him.
My brother chose not to hone the superior brain my parents built for him. He could have easily had a successful, professional career, if he wanted it. I, of course, went down the other path. Paul left school his senior year and enlisted in the Navy, followed by a variety of clerking jobs and selling cars for the rest of his life. I went on to Penn State, struggled but made it through and launched a bumpy but lifetime career in radio that took me to retirement. Ironically, he never seemed to have regrets about choices he made, although he would have never admitted them anyway. I always have a list of wanna-do-overs.
When he left for the Navy, I became an only child. I got the room to myself, the perks of learning to drive and having access to the family car and eventually inheriting a gorgeous hand-me-down ‘53 Chevy from my grandfather. School was going well and I hung with two good friends who remain so today.
Eventually my brother became plagued with health issues. Again, he would follow his own advice and live as he wanted and ignore the consequences. He was constantly in and out of the hospital during his last few years. Even his death was contrary to me. The details remain elusive. He donated his body “to science,” meaning a bunch of med students got to practice on him and eventually he’d be bundled up and put in a piece a donated cemetery ground with others who had done the same, including my father. There would be no funeral, no memorial service, no family gathering…nothing. Just a lifetime that had passed and, other than leaving behind three remarkable daughters who have successfully countered their father’s otherwise lethargic lifestyle, my brother seemingly left little trace that he had ever been here.
So what now? Well, I have compulsively put things in order for myself, as I am prone to do. I have made adjustments to my thinking…made things right, at least for me. I wish my brother and I had a closer relationship as adults. But if I have to settle for the portion of Paul I got, I should be grateful. I miss the boy I grew up with, shared 15 years of my life with, took extraordinarily long bike trips with, built model airplanes with, went swimming with, played Monopoly with, cut grass and shoveled snow with and a bunch of other endless childhood “with’s.” And intertwined among all these activities is the exclusive family heritage we both share. These are memories indelible and unforgettable. And in some ways, Mom, they have made it possible for Paul and I to have lived on together, just as you had hoped for… perhaps not the whole package you envisioned, but for me, enough to cherish for the rest of my life.
My father lost a good friend he had worked with for many years. They didn’t hang out much together outside of the workplace, but that did not lesson their friendship. They worked all day together, went to lunch together every day and I am sure they shared all their woes along with all the happy moments each went through during the hours they weren’t at the office. This was many many years ago but something my father said to me at the time has been packed away somewhere deep in my head…until recently. As he grieved quietly about the loss of his friend he told me that you know time is getting short when your peers begin to die. Nothing particularly profound there, but now that my peers and those of my wife are doing just that…well, suddenly my dad’s comment has surfaced and it carries a lot more meaning to me now than it did the 30-or-so years ago when he shared his thoughts with me. One of my wife’s former schoolmate’s just last week took it upon herself to publish a list on Facebook of some 20 of their classmates who are no longer answering rollcall, in school or otherwise. As she read the list on her iPad, my wife’s hands appeared to quiver even a bit more than is usually attributed to her onslaught of Parkinson’s.
It’s true, the clock ticks louder lately and the months, then years, seem to smear more rapidly into each other’s borders, one after the other…relentlessly. But I am one of the lucky ones. My wife and I have been best buddies for almost 60 years—married for 54 of them. These are the toughest times we’ve faced and I am sure things will continue as such. But there are gestures and mentions and even a few almost indetectable vibes that tell us our presence here has not gone unnoticed. Our youngest grandchild hoping, insisting our semi-dysfunctional family will join together once more for Thanksgiving dinner hosted, as usual, by MomMom and PopPop. And, yes, I do the cooking. And, meanwhile, the phone rings every day with a friend or family member checking in, sometimes just to see how we are doing, others seeking our world-famous sage advice on everything from medical disorders to dating therapy.
So despite the ticks and tocks that are compelled to continually creep up behind us, there are still many kodak moments ahead. My mother always quoted Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” It’s one of the few things I disagreed with her. My dad, in yet another cherished moment of wisdom, or maybe it was whimsy, was more succinct. He simply told me, “growing old stinks!”
STOPPPPPPP! Good God, what ever happened to fair pricing. Things are just plain out of control. I know all about inflation, capitalism and the Great American Way (Corporate Way). The goal is to make as big a buck as possible even if it’s way more than your product or service is worth!
Like many my age, my survival depends on my Social Security check. Our meager retirement savings is there to help with the periodic big bills like taxes and insurance and, God forbid, a medical catastrophe. And as our savings are depleted, unlike when we were working, they are not replenished BECAUSE WE DON’T EARN A SALARY ANYMORE! What the hell is so hard to understand about that economic theory???
Through no fault of mine, my body is aging. It’s been functioning reasonably well up until now. But after running nonstop for over 76 years, some parts are wearing out and I just can’t run over to the auto store and buy new ones and have them installed. But holy crap, that’s what I just did, sort of.
I have a few vacancies in my mouth—teeth that gave up the struggle over the past few years. I guess they didn’t want to be included in the autopsy so they either fell out or had to be yanked so I’d stop waking up the neighbors with my screams. After they left I began smiling less, mainly because I looked like an old geezer with a bunch of holes in my mouth. Hell, I AM an old geezer but that doesn’t mean I want to look like one. So off I go to the dentist because one of my molars is aching and I sense this will lead to another vacant lot opening on my lower right. Before he can do anything to help save my tooth, I have to go to another dentist to have root canal. Wow! The golden years just keep getting more and more exciting.
I won’t mention—but then yes I will, even the painter came in twice what I wanted to pay to have the kitchen painted. Twice! And he wouldn’t haggle. I used to do my own painting but nowadays I can’t be climbing up and down a ladder since I’ve become a “fall risk.” I know that’s what I am because every time I visit one of my doctors or have a test done at the hospital around the corner they put a yellow band around my wrist. That’s the international symbol for “timmmmber!” But I digress.
I’ll cut to the chase and just sum things up: root canal + two crowns = $3000. No, dental insurance doesn’t factor in anymore and implants are out of the question. And, oh yeah, I didn’t ask the dentist to check out the other tooth on the back left that’s developed an attention-seeking attitude. I figured that’d be another two grand and given this is the month when my car insurance is up for renewal and one of my home owners association payments is due…well, you know how it goes. But think of it—THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS for dental work that used to run in the hundreds at the most.
So where am I going with all this? Certainly not to the Mercedes dealer. Nope. Instead, me and the little lady are hunkered down in the hall closet with pillows all around us. She’s knitting baby blankets and I’m weaving potholders. These we’ll sell at next week’s arts and crafts fair at the church down the street. Because we are senior citizens we get a free chocolate pudding for dessert at the potluck dinner that follows. Ca-Ching!
I once smoked when I was younger, back when it was cool and no one worried about what all those polluted puffs were doing to your lungs. It took me quite a few attempts to give it up but I finally did. I had my last cigarette on February 28, 1976 in Sligo Creek Park in Silver Spring, Maryland. Yeah, I know, that’s a bit much, but so was my addiction.
I have one more addition, although many of you might think I exaggerate. Having gone through smoking, I honestly believe my appetite for ice cream is as real as any addiction one might have. The few times I try to ease up on my I.C. intake, I go through the same kinds of withdrawal symptoms any hardcore addict suffers while trying to quit whatever. I get nervous, anxious, impatience, quarrelsome, irritable and all the other negatives that go with kicking a habit. My brain becomes obsessed with thoughts of mint chocolate chip, mocha fudge and Chunky Monkey. Eventually, I give in and wind up stocking up with a few half gallons and all is well with the world once more…to hell with my fat stomach.
My passion for ice cream is so strong that I realize I need to control it any way I can. That’s why I keep most of my “supply” in a box freezer we have in the garage. This provides some restriction in that I have to “make a trip” to the garage. If the ice cream is in the fridge in the kitchen, well that makes a quick walk-by spooning way too convenient. Sometimes I think my entire life revolves around ice cream. I anticipate when the last carton is near empty and will make sure a new one is there in time to replace it. Flavors? Brands? Sure I have my favorites, but if I am desperate…well, I may even settle for sherbert.
Now I know there are thousands, if not millions, of suffering ice cream addicts just like me. This has stirred my need to pay it forward. If other addicts can join associations and sign up for clubs or enroll in boot camps and other initiatives in attempts to control their habit, then why shouldn’t ice cream addicts do likewise? I’ve been thinking about forming an informal association of sorts. We could have regular meetings for group therapy; we could develop a step program aimed at walking us back to a normal, moderate consumption of ice cream; we could exchange low fat ice cream recipes…the ideas are endless. I’ve even developed a prototype logo and membership card. Waddayuhthink?
I was thinking about my father today. He would have been 105 years old this week, had he miraculously figured out how to achieve that goal. There was a time I thought he could do just about anything, which reminds me…
When I had been driving for only a few months, I wanted to get behind the wheel every chance I could get. I think all 16-year-olds are that way when they first get their driver’s license. Even though it was only around the block, I nagged my father to let me wash the car just about every other day. We lived in a row house with a basement and a garage. The garage was in the back of the house. The back alley ran the whole length of the block. That’s it in the picture, looking pretty much as it did in the 1950’s. There was a steep ramp from the top of the alley down into each garage. The ramp was about the length of a car. Here is where everyone hung their laundry out to dry on clothes lines that ran from poles at the top of the ramp down to the garage wall. Most everyone kept the poles up permanently. They were inserted into metal sockets cemented into the ground.
Now, here’s is where things get tricky. Assuming I talked my father into letting me wash the car, I would have to drive the car from the front of the house, around the block and up the alley to the ramp that descended into our garage. At the top of the ramp, one on each side, were the clothes poles. Now, since cars do not turn on 90 degree angles and there was no forgiveness from the poles if you tried, it took an accomplished driver to manipulate a car from the alley, between the poles and down the ramp. While I had accomplished this task a good number of times, I am sure my father was thinking that eventually I would miscalculate the turn and wind up putting a dent in the side of the car. Isn’t it curious how fathers can actually predict these kinds of things happening? Well, I don’t have to tell you how difficult it was to have to go into the house and tell my father I didn’t quite make it past the pole and I put dent in the side of the passenger door.
My father softly muttered, “Jesus Christ” and headed off to the basement and out the back door to inspect the damage, with me not far behind. My father never yelled and cursed when he was really angry. No, he’d maintain a quiet demeaner that screamed much louder. I figured he’d appropriately express himself when he saw the big inward pucker in the car door. As it turned out, he squatted down, inspected the damage and then quietly told me to go back into the house and get the toilet plunger.
Honest, I have never witnessed a true miracle firsthand, except that day when my father rammed a toilet plunder into the center of the dent I had put in the side door of the car and then proceeded to pull a mighty pull until the plunger unsucked itself from the surface of the door, fully pulling out the dent with it. The door looked perfect. It was confirmed at that very moment: my father was the smartest man in the world. My jaw remained slammed against the cement between my feet as he handed me the plunger and told me to put it back in the bathroom. Then he went back inside to watch whatever it was on TV that I had interrupted. It was probably a popular show at the time called …wait for it… ”Father Knows Best.”
RANDOM THOUGHTS FROM MY THINKING CHAIR…ABOUT SPORTS
It has been a while since I have lazy’d up and spent time in my thinking chair on the back patio. Sports was the topic that came to mind this time. As I have confessed before, I am not a big sports fan, at least in terms of how I define BIG sports. To be a big sports fan you have to follow and worship big sports: football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and soccer—all of these. Now don’t start adding onto my list. These are the big sports, as far as I am concerned. There are plenty of others, (yeah, I know, I hear you shouting Nascar) but they are not worthy of the same bigness. Big sports clearly achieve a very specific list of accomplishments: They breed individual big-star athletes within a team environment. They are mass appeal and attract a big fanatical fan base. They generate big amounts of revenue. Okay, good. Now we are on the same big page.
I follow two of the big sports, baseball and football, but on a limited basis. The only baseball team I follow is the Chicago Cubs and the only football team is the Miami Dolphins. Now, since I have recently moved I may well add or switch to two other teams: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Rays. And, oh yeah, being a grad, I’ll watch Penn State football when the game is on TV.
In my former life as a radio producer/program director, I spent a number of Sundays producing the radio network broadcasts for both the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins, now called the Washington Football Team. This experience actually taught me more about the nature of football players than it did about the game itself. Nonetheless, I grew to like the game better than any other.
When you live year-round in South Florida one thing you lose is your sense of timing. There are no clear-cut boundaries between the seasons. To the point, there is little awareness of spring and fall. There are no radical changes in temperature. Leaves do no fall leaving trees with bare limbs. Rested flowers don’t suddenly awaken and burst into colorful blooms. Pumpkin patches are few and far between. But wait! There are two indicators of the seasonal changes, at least for me. There’s baseball in the spring and football in the fall.
Hence, the proverbial crack of the bat and the quarterback’s hut-hut welcome us Floridians into spring and fall respectively. I favor the fall. I used to like wearing that first sweater on a chilly day or looking as spiffy as I could in a three-piece suit. Then too, fall signals the holiday season is just around the corner. And, of course, what’s not to like about the food and family gatherings that fall brings to our tables. It is a great time of the year. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about as I sit in my thinking chair on the back patio. As I grow older I find these are the kinds of things that warrant more appreciation than the materials we seek and the impressions we feel we much make. Yep, I am indeed … ready for some football!
(Note: It is acknowledged Rubbermaid is a registered trademark, not indicated as such within this posting only because of technical restrictions of the format)
Hi, Captain Consumer here! I just declared myself a superhero and adopted that name. I got unusually good reaction to a posting I did a few months back. Actually, I’ve discussed the issue a few times previously. It has to do with consumer product packaging. I was born with a gene that makes me supersensitive to the pictures on packaging that do not accurately depict the product inside. Last time it was crab cakes, this time it’s not the illustration itself that has me upset, but the deceptive design of the packaging and obscure disclosure.0.
Okay, what started today’s rampage? Rubbermaid. Yep, Rubbermaid, a company whose products I’ve always purchased with absolutely no hesitation. They make all kinds of quality household goods from outdoor sheds to picnic coolers, to big and small trash cans, to a gazillion boxes and containers. Oh, did I say containers? You’ve seen the ones for food storage that all the supermarkets sell. You know, the ones with the bright red lids. I’ll bet at least half of America’s refrigerators, at this very moment, have at least one Rubbermaid container filled with some kind of leftover sitting on a shelf inside. And what do you do when you discover you don’t have the right size container or some of the lids mysteriously no longer fit any of the bottoms? You buy more Rubbermaid containers. Of course you do.
And so, today I got some new Rubbermaid. I bought two of the super big ones because I never have a large enough container when I make chocolate chip cookies. Then I got a 3-pack of small containers for things like leftover veggies. And now we’ve come to the main event! This package appeared as it always has (see second picture beIow). There were three food storage containers stacked together as usual, but when I pulled them out of the cardboard sleeve , guess what? They consisted of one container of the size I expected, and two SMALLER ones stacked inside the larger one. That’s the three of them pictured below.
Of course, Rubbermaid will tell me they weren’t being deceptive since it is clearly disclosed on front of the sleeve that the containers vary in size. Hence the next picture.
Now, you tell me, if you have been buying Rubbermaid food storage containers for several years and they’ve always been packaged the same way and the containers in each package have always been the same size…well, you get my point.
Oh God, all I can here is my father oft-quoting Sir Walter Scott: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Why is it so hard for some companies to simply be truthful when their economy calls for a product price change? I rather pay another honest dime or two than have their marketing experts sit around their board room contriving ways to make obscure changes, thinking I’m too stupid to notice. Is that too much of a stretch for Rubbermaid? Shouldn’t be …think of their name.
I was reluctant to begin this posting with the overused line, “When I was a young boy…” but I am at a loss for what to say otherwise. See, today I got to thinking about some random things out of my past, so tough it up and get ready…and, yes, that’s me in the picture…when I was a young boy.
When I was a young boy…Every drug store (now called pharmacies) had a soda fountain. For six cents I could get a fresh made chocolate soda with a straw. The person behind the counter (usually a high school kid who was referred to as a “soda jerk”) would grab a glass and pump a few squirts of chocolate syrup into it from a dispenser. Then, he’d put it under a spout and pull a lever to fill the glass with seltzer water. While the glass was filling he’d be whipping it all in a frenzy until the glass was full with a frothy chocolate head on top. I must have consumed thousands of these when I was a young boy.
When I was a young boy…While I sipped away at my chocolate soda I could, if I wanted to spend an additional penny, lift the metal lid off a round glass container that rested atop every fountain counter in every drug store and help myself to a pretzel rod. Yeah, I just reached in with my well-traveled dirty hands like everyone else and pulled out one of the unwrapped pretzel rods. Mind you, these rods were nothing like the ones you buy today that are in a cellophane bag at the supermarket. No way. When I was a young boy the pretzel rods were longer and at least 2-to-3 times thicker.
When I was a young boy…At the very same fountain where I sipped my chocolate sodas and munched on pretzel rods, was where, every once in a while, my folks would spring for some ice cream. Back then you could always get fresh ice cream like today: scooped from five-gallon cardboard tubs kept in freezer compartments behind the counter. Except for cones, ice cream was sold “loose,” not packaged like today. You would tell the jerk what flavor and how much you wanted and he’d scoop your order into a paper tray, slap a piece of wax paper tissue over it, shove it in a brown paper bag and off you’d go, getting home as fast as you could.
When I was a young boy…There were no 7-11’s, Circle K’s or WaWa’s or anything called a “convenience store.” Nope, instead we had “luncheonettes.” These sold a conglomerate of limited essential goods–food and household products and fresh sliced cold cuts. You could also sit in one of the small booths in the back and order a sandwich or a piece of pie with coffee. This is where I was sent to get a loaf of bread or anything else we unexpectedly ran out of. There was always a huge array of candy bars in front of the cash register. And like the pretzel rods, these were much larger than the same ones today–and a LOT cheaper. This is where I stole my first and only piece of candy (a penny block of double-bubble) that left me scarred with guilt up until this very moment at which I am now confessing the crime committed.
When I was a young boy…Memories like these were abundant. Like just about everything in one’s time, there are events, and occurrences, and people that are no longer a part of your life. Memories are all that’s left you. I hope you have, or are, compiling your own collection.