A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

 

 

 

 

I turned off the television following a re-broadcast of “Schindler’s List.”  Though I’ve seen it several times over the years it always leaves me speechless for a while.

“That wasn’t much fun,” I finally said to my wife, Katie.

“There’s more to art than just enjoyment,” she sagely responded.

“I know,” I said, like a petulant child. “But who aims to torture the audience?”

We smiled at each other and said, at the same moment:  “Iris.”

 

*****

During a visit to Rhinecliff, NY last summer, our friends, Donna and Rick, invited us to join them to see an opera at Bard, the local college, where a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall anchors a scenic campus.  Though fond of classical music, I’d never attended an opera in person.  When I heard about the evening, I assumed we’d be seeing one of the anchors of the repertoire, something by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart.  Boy, was I surprised!

 

*****

 

“Who?” I said.

“Mascagni is the composer,” said Katie.

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“I’m sure the opera will be enjoyable,” she said.  “After all, it’s a summer college presentation called ‘Iris.’  It’s probably a comedy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.  Mascagni, I speculated, was probably a pop sensation in the 1890’s.  We shared a great dinner with Donna and Rick and then drove to campus. After admiring the beautiful setting and building, we filed inside.  We found our seats, the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced an overture both melodic and romantic.

“This will be nice,” I thought.

Suddenly, the melody stopped and a discordant murmur issued from the strings.  The curtain lifted to reveal two performers, a man and a woman, dressed in rags. They appeared distraught, thrashing and wailing while hidden figures above them atop a wall ripped pieces of paper and dropped them, like confetti, on the performer’s heads.  For several moments this activity held my interest. Unfortunately, it continued for twenty minutes.

Katie and I looked at each other and fought the urge to laugh, as though we were Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.  (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube).  The “action,” if that is the right word, never changed much over the next two hours. Rags and debris, cries and moans, deaths and dismemberments.

Occasionally, the music swelled with snippets of melody, but they never lasted long.  What kept us in our seats was the expectation that relief must be on the way.   A happy ending must be just around the corner.  But, no, Mascagni had different ideas.

At intermission, during which a sizable portion of the audience departed, I read the detailed program notes. Mascagni, it turns out, had early success.  His opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” remains a beloved favorite to this day.  But he came to believe applause during his operas was insulting and intrusive.  Therefore, he constructed his later works to minimize the possibility of adulation.  Each time the music in “Iris” built towards conventional beauty, Mascagni brought it down with a crash.  Any time a singer appeared to be on the verge of an ovation, he or she retreated offstage to be replaced by a scene both ugly and sad.

“How did ‘Iris’ become popular?” I wondered.

It didn’t, is the answer provided by the program.  Its most recent revival was in the 1930’s in Europe when, perhaps, discordance seemed de rigeur.  Personally, I will be surprised if “Iris” is revived again in this millennium.

As to Mascagni, he was confident his new ascetic aesthetic would become popular.  He felt “purity” was a virtue greater than “beauty.”  It’s not up to me to declare he’s wrong.  Time has told the tale.  Mascagni’s contemporaries, like Puccini and Verdi, are still famous and beloved.  Beyond his youthful “popular” works, Mascagni is forgotten.

 

*****

 

Following the opera, Rick and Donna took us to an on-campus tavern and performance space.  A rock band played loudly while a mostly college-age crowd danced and drank.  Normally, this is not my scene and I would seek a fast exit.  But this time, I enjoyed watching everyone have fun.  The mood was festive.

“Sorry about the opera,” said Rick. “We had no idea.”

“No problem,” I said.  “I suffered for two hours but gained a memory to last a lifetime.”

 

 

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THE HIGH-HANGING FRUIT

 

Whenever I wedge my body into an airplane seat, I wish I were shorter.  Otherwise, I’m happy to be taller than average.  It is helpful in such disparate contexts as viewing art, playing tennis and picking blackberries.  This morning, we did the latter, and I benefitted from the abundant fruit available where small children and most adults do not reach.

My wife, Katie, and I arrived at the farm at 7:04 a.m.  Confident the early hour promised a private experience, we were startled to find the parking lot nearly full.  A stream of pickers spread through the rows of bushes like pac-men on a video screen.

Forty minutes later, we’d gathered eight pounds of fruit and headed home to commence a jam-making frenzy.

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Not necessarily in chronological order, the process involves cleaning the fruit, sterilizing the jars, measuring the sugar, adding the pectin and, here’s where I come in, mashing the berries in a special contraption to remove the seeds.  Once upon a time, when we were both younger and less experienced (about four years ago) we made blackberry jam WITHOUT removing the seeds. The taste was good but the consistency resembled dry grape nuts.  Not recommended.

  By the end of the three-hour process we beheld fifteen eight-ounce jars and the prospect of Smuckers-free life for the next 10-12 months.  Whoopee!  (We have already given some away….)

 

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*****

 

I cannot say the agrarian life style is exactly coursing through my veins.  If I went back three hundred years to some Ukrainian village, I’m confident my forebears would not be found tilling the soil; rather, they likely sold the hoe to the farmer.  Canning and “putting up” provisions as household activities never crossed the threshold of my childhood nor my married life until we moved to North Carolina and found ourselves close to several “Pick-your-own” opportunities.  Along with visits to a strawberry farm and occasional support for the local famer’s market, Katie and I now make jam creation an annual event.

The motivation for this activity is a several-fold.  First, it’s fun for those lucky enough not to pick berries every day for a living. Second, the end product of fresh-fruit jam making is delicious.  Third, there is a sense we are preserving (no pun intended) a farmer’s lifestyle otherwise under assault from many factors, such as urbanization, traffic and labor shortages.  Not all of the factors of modern life are harmful to the farmer – – some are probably viewed as wonderful opportunities.  For instance, we would not live two minutes from the berry farm if some other farmer hadn’t realized his land was more valuable as new homes than cultivated.

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Though I’m not an agricultural economist, I think it’s safe to say the remaining local farmers who own their land (as opposed to tenant farmers) do not face a forlorn future.  On the contrary, their land’s value has soared so much that their labors, I imagine, are constantly measured against the temptation to “cash in.”  By picking their crop and cheerfully paying to do so, we hope to encourage the farmer to continue farming.

 

*****

 

 

Our farming efforts at home consist of six tomato plants wedged into the townhome-sized side-yard that also contains our air conditioning compressor.  The crop is treated like the newborn child of first-time parents.  We water it daily, trim its lower branches meticulously and support its limbs with stakes so it doesn’t stress too much.  We worry at the dearth of pollinating insects and do our best to shake its fragile yellow flowers to promote fertility. Each little tomato that emerges is like a jewel.  We guard against wicked, non-pollinating insects who might emerge to chew on the foliage.

 

 

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How many tomatoes will we harvest? Enough for several salads?  Enough to support a spaghetti dinner? Maybe.  A neighbor who grows with enough chemicals to support the economy of Delaware has scores of tomatoes hanging from every branch, like a Christmas tree in tricolor green-orange-red.  But our organic plants refuse to offer unearned gratification. We seek satisfaction in quality, not quantity.

And so it goes with our blackberry jam. It is said: “One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp.”  But a farm stand is not in the offing.  It’s also said:  “Everything in moderation.”  I’m happy to have used my reach and grasp for enough blackberries to provide a season of deliciously spread toast.

 

 

 

 


DISILLUSIONMENT

 

 

I wistfully recall my excitement when I visited Washington, DC on a fifth grade trip. We took a bus to the Capitol and walked as a group through its marble hallways.  Legislator’s offices were heralded on both sides by imposing wooden doors. To me the doors signaled power, purpose and prestige.  A flag or motto indicated which state’s representative was behind each door.  The vast enterprise of American democracy impressed me so much!  We were hushed and uncharacteristically well behaved for twenty or so eleven-year-olds.  When a door opened and a middle-aged man emerged, adrenaline swept through me.

“Could it be?” I wondered.  “Could I be just steps from a real-life senator?”   My classmates craned their necks.

“That was an aide to a committee,” the tour guide announced.

“Oh, just an aide,” I told myself, unimpressed.

Still, the aura of being in our seat of government was awesome.

 

*****

 

Fast-forward fifty years.  If I were to take a word association test, I would associate “Congressman” with “narcissist,” “crook” and “hypocrite.”  The personality traits “craven,” “obnoxious” and “needy” come to mind.  Of course, it’s unfair to paint with such a broad brush, just as it was naïve to perceive total greatness half a century ago.   But the aura is long gone.

For me, the first cracks occurred with the election of Nixon and the subsequent secret bombing campaigns. Attending a Quaker school during the Vietnam era compounded the daily drip of skepticism I received at home. My father snarled, “Good for nothing” or worse in response to mentions of politicians in the news.  He was even-handed in his distaste.  It mattered little whether Democrat or Republican, just as it mattered little what denomination a religious leader represented. The man called out hypocrisy when he saw it, and he perceived it everywhere.

The Watergate hearings of 1973 probably finished off whatever confidence I had had in individual politicians.  At least, I felt, the process vindicated our system.  It wasn’t fast or easy, but a reasonable amount of the truth eventually came out, and some of the bad guys were punished.

 

*****

 

Political focus dimmed during my prime working and child-rearing years in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  Following the bumbled election of 2000 I reluctantly tuned in again.  I realized I had no respect for our president whatsoever and succeeded in never hearing him speak for longer than it took to reach the remote.

When the Iraq debacle was ginned up, I resurrected my father’s reflexive disgust.  “Liar, idiot,” I said to the television, and anyone within earshot, whenever the evil vice-president or arrogant Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld appeared. I noted how smoothly their messaging evolved from “We will be greeted as liberators” to Rumsfeld’s formulation: “Iraq will be a long, slow slog.”

The night in 2003 we commenced “Shock and Awe,” my eleven-year-old son, Sam, and I were in our basement kicking a soccer ball, as was our wont.  CNN murmured in the background.  Their ubiquitous “Breaking News” noise (something they used sparingly compared to present-day constancy) alerted us to pay attention: flares, fireballs and bombs lit the sky over Baghdad.

Commentators excitedly speculated about our chance to hit Saddam Hussein directly and end the war in just one day. I was extremely doubtful there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  I believed our motivation was nothing besides Lesser Bush’s desire to outdo his father who’d refrained from sacking Baghdad in 1991.  I take credit for declaring IMMEDIATELY the only beneficiaries of the fiasco would be the mullahs in Tehran and the likes of Lockheed Martin, who produced military hardware.

Yet, I’ll admit to considering Dick Cheney’s formulation here:  “the one-percent rule.”  For him, it meant, if there was even a one percent chance Iraq had nuclear weapons, we had to eliminate them.  For me, it meant, maybe, just maybe, there is a one percent chance our military could actually succeed in changing Iraq’s regime.   I would have been pleased enough with that result, I suppose, despite my lingering sense that we were simply making Iran great again.

After a few months, it was clear to anyone with a brain (not to Fox watchers, in other words) that total, one hundred percent cynicism was warranted. My one percent of hopefulness was gone.

 

*****

 

And so we come to another round of warfare as distraction in 2018.  Shall we call it Desert Stormy?  Once again, we have a clown who declares:  “Mission Accomplished” when any objective observer knows Syria is mission impossible.  Though I harbor some hope in the ingenuity of individual humans, I question the sanity of anyone who aspires to political office.  The dishonesty and fecklessness of our “leaders” is displayed daily on cable TV.  I’m sorry to believe the ideals I felt as a child, however naively, will not exist for today’s youth.  Sad.

 

 


FOOTBALL RECAP

 

My wife, Katie, and I awoke this morning and immediately commenced discussing football. That particular subject had never arisen so early. Like local politics in Louisiana or the culture of coffee in Canada, the subject of football has almost never arisen at all between us. But we do consider a variety of rare subjects these days in order to NOT discuss Donald’s daily depredations.

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Why football? Well, as everyone knows, the Eagles won the Super Bowl. And though I’m not a football fan, and have often been ostentatiously oblivious even to the participants in the previous 52 Super Bowls, I admit to being a fair weather Philadelphia sports fan. That’s like seeking sunshine in a rain forest.

 

*****

 

My earliest exposure to football consisted of playing catch with my older brothers. I enjoyed that, I recall, but both my brothers had moved on to college by the time I was eight. Football always fell far below baseball, basketball or tennis in my sports hierarchy. Possibly, as I consider it now, that’s because, in the absence of similarly aged kids in the neighborhood, all the other sports could be practiced alone with a wall or a hoop and an imagination.   As for being a fan, baseball appealed to me because of its statistics and history.   Tennis appealed as a chance to witness a deeply personal struggle without the brutality of, say, boxing. Football, with its helmet-shrouded giants, was unrelatable to me.

 

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Football next pricked my consciousness in high school. I played soccer, and we shared the locker room with football players, if 170-pound linemen at a Quaker school really qualify. The teams shared a ritualized sort of relationship. In the parlance of the early 70’s, football players felt compelled to refer to soccer players as faggots and sissies, and we mimicked them with ape sounds and knuckle dragging. “Foo-ball” I still remember pronouncing, like an imbecile. The next morning, in class, we amiably dissected Shakespeare’s sonnets or railed against Nixon’s bombing campaign in Cambodia, as though no unpleasantness had ever intruded.

 

*****

 

When I became a parent to a son I spent a moment or two pondering what might happen if Sam ever wanted to play football against our wishes. Would we have one of those agonizing debates? Who would prevail?

I needn’t have worried. Sam seemed as averse to hand-to-hand combat as I’d been and gravitated straight to soccer and then tennis. We never even had to fend off martial arts. (Thank you, Sam).

Though it doesn’t cost me any sleep, I lament the nation’s football obsession and its eclipse of baseball during my lifetime. But I understand it, to some extent. Professional baseball is grindingly dull. Yet, when the movie “Concussion” came out several years ago, highlighting the dangers to the brain from playing football, I felt vindicated in my distaste for the sport. I’d always wondered why young men (and a few women, nowadays) would risk a lifetime of back, neck or knee pain for a high school activity. Now the effect on the brain is paramount in the media (Duhhhhhhh! Who could be surprised?).

 

Many thrill to the sport for the same reasons Romans loved gladiatorial combat. But gladiators were slaves!   Sure, an infinitesimal few eventually get paid to play, but nearly all football players, from “pee-wee” through college, are volunteers. Over the years my eventual viewpoint on football became: it’s appalling, and (paraphrasing the Supreme Court), without redeeming social importance.

 

*****

 

So what to do about the Eagles being in the Super Bowl? Some base tribal instinct deep within compelled me to locate a green sweater, green sweatpants and my Phillies cap when we were invited to a neighbor’s watch party. Yet, I still felt ambivalent – could I join in watching a bunch of young men destroy each other’s bodies and futures, e.g., the ability to walk without a limp after age forty, for entertainment? Did I have no principles? How could I allay my moral dilemma?

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I started with Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots. I know he is a dear friend of the Commander in Tweet and donated millions to his cause. For a moment, rooting against his team seemed easy. But then I pondered the fact that most owners are arguably plutocrats. Don’t they all plunder the public for tax breaks while they wrest millions, if not billions, from the networks who, in turn, charge us extortionate cable rates to watch their barbaric product? Robert Kraft may be awful, but he’s no different from the others. The owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, for instance, also donated a million dollars to the inauguration festivities. And he’s a Muslim! Hmmmmm, I decided to check out the situation in Philadelphia and hope, at least, the Eagles’ owner isn’t a convicted swindler or, just as bad, a member of the Republican National Committee.

 

*****

 

Ah, nirvana! Jeff Lurie is the Eagles’ long-time owner. Everything written about him indicates he is an exceptionally decent person. A former movie producer, he’s described as kindly, genial and endlessly positive. His passion is social justice. He encourages his players to express themselves. He is described as unique among NFL owners.

 

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And if Lurie’s basic decency isn’t enough, it turns out he’s a dedicated environmentalist. The Eagles’ motto “Go Green” is not just figurative – their stadium is outfitted with wind turbines, thousands of solar panels and a bio-digesting plant, all with the goal of producing zero waste and being carbon neutral. Whenever the Eagles determine they have failed to achieve 100% renewable energy, they pay for tree-planting projects and the like to offset the balance. In the world of sports franchises, the Eagles are unique not only in America, but also in the world.

 

 

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*****

 

 

Phew. Research successfully completed, I could go to the party and root for the Eagles without inhibition. And I did. And it was great. And no one described the halftime show as more entertaining than the game. Only one player appeared to have been maimed, as far as I could tell. And Philadelphia has a championship.

Am I now a football fan? No. But rest assured, whenever there is a team whose owner is a wonderful person (I’m not checking with any ex-wives or business partners) and a carbon-neutral stadium, I will root for them to the best of my ability. My efforts certainly helped on Sunday.

 


SPECIAL DELIVERY

 

Due to equal parts nostalgia and habit, I subscribed to the local newspaper when I bought a new home last year. It is tossed from a car, shrouded in plastic, to the end of my driveway. Only two or three other homes in my community are similarly barraged, a far cry from the uniformity of newspaper saturation in not-so-distant memory.

A man named Calvin delivers the papers, usually. Most days, he arrives before I am awake. I first communicated with him directly only because I called the circulation department to advise that my Sunday paper had not arrived for the second time in a month, and an exasperated representative said: “Here’s Calvin’s number. He just gets angry when we call. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”

This suggestion seemed strange.

I asked: “Do you think a customer should confront someone who visits his home every day? And should you really have a hostile deliveryman?”

“Oh, he’s not mean,” said the representative. “He’s just ‘different.’ We don’t have many deliverymen these days. We have to use who’s available.”

 

*****

 

When I was little, in early 1960’s West Philadelphia, a slew of delivery and service people were connected with our household. As such, they were tangentially connected to me. As to newspapers, my family received the “Inquirer” every morning and the “Bulletin” every evening. I never met or even saw the delivery persons. I’m not sure they angled for year-end tips the way they might now with holiday cards accompanied by self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Paper routes were profitable.

Less anonymously, a man named Mr. Tribble cut our lawn throughout spring and summer and raked leaves in autumn. A woman named Naomi ironed our shirts and sheets once a week. A farmer named Mr. Abba brought milk and eggs. A franchisee of “Charles Chips” brought snacks. Mr. Davis washed the windows each spring. Mr. Brown failed to complete necessary repairs. And a succession of women including, but not limited to, Essie, Pearl, Gina and Jasmine pushed mops and vacuums with varying degrees of diligence.

Looking at this list, it seems I lived in a veritable Downton Abbey. But, in reality, we were modestly above “middle class” and lived in a comfortable, but unremarkable leafy neighborhood. My father chose to work seven days-a-week at his clothing store and, to make up for his lack of assistance on the home front, I suppose, afforded my mother the means to employ “help.”   Except for vying with Naomi for the Breyers’ coffee ice cream in our freezer, I rarely interacted with the service people beyond a nod or to say “hi.”

 

*****

Upon answering the phone, Calvin deployed alternative pleading like an experienced defense attorney.

“I’m sure you got the paper,” he said

“No, I looked all over. No paper,” I said.

“Maybe somebody stole it,” he suggested.

“I’m sure no one stole my paper,” I said.

“Well, my wholesaler didn’t give me enough copies this morning,” said Calvin.

“The wholesaler?” I said.

“Yeah, and I had car trouble, too,” said Calvin.

I recognized there was no point in expressing skepticism or being angry. “In the future, I just want the paper to come,” I said.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin. “I won’t miss again.”

 

*****

 

By 1974, when I left for college, most of the characters had disappeared, except for a weekly “cleaning” woman, the deliverer of the morning newspaper, and Mr. Tribble’s son, who had inherited his father’s lawn-cutting business. In just ten years, a revolution like the present-day Amazon phenomenon seemed to have wiped out such service providers, at least for homeowners who were not conspicuously wealthy. Supermarkets provided eggs, milk and cookies. The evening paper had gone bankrupt. Window cleaners and handymen were scarce.

 

*****

 

The next morning, I opened the front door intending to walk to the driveway and nearly tripped over a pile that included not only the local paper, but also a New York Times, a Wall Street Journal, and another local paper, the “Herald.” This abundance continued for a week. One day, Calvin included a Barron’s, another day the Financial Times. I couldn’t keep up. My reading area resembled a tornado site.

I called Calvin again.

“Thank you for all the papers. I appreciate the extras. But I can’t read that much. The local paper is enough.”

I didn’t tell him I’d already transitioned to reading the NY Times on-line. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin.

“And you really don’t have to get out of your car and place it at the door. I’m happy to pick it up from the driveway,” I said.

“Are you sure?” asked Calvin.

“I’m sure,” I said.

“You’re great,” said Calvin.

I hung up the telephone basking in the approval of my newspaper deliveryman. Though I’d never met Calvin in person, I felt like I knew him. But I was also questioning if I WANTED to interact with my newspaper deliverer.

 

*****

 

Not long after, I went out one morning to retrieve the paper and found none. I wondered, as I stood, empty-handed, not for the first time, if continuing my subscription was worthwhile. My mind reviewed well-rehearsed arguments: “I can read any paper I want on-line for less than paper delivery.” “Less paper and gasoline is better for the environment.” “I won’t have to call Calvin anymore.”

At that moment, a rattletrap SUV raced down the street, its fenders scratched and dented. Exhaust belched from the rear. Calvin had arrived.

“Sorry I’m late,” he shouted, as he pulled up.   “Sorry. Car Trouble.”

Seeing the car, I believed him.

Calvin appeared to be of an indeterminate age between forty and sixty-five. A gold front tooth nestled among several open spaces. He hadn’t shaved in awhile.

“Are you Sanders?” he asked through the open driver-side window, as the car idled like an asthmatic.

“Yes,” I said, taking the paper from him.

“I need a new car,” he said. “But since I bought this damned paper route….”

“You bought it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Calvin, a far-off look in his rheumy eyes. “Thought it was a good deal.”

I immediately contemplated the last person who’d invested in a Moto-Foto franchise around 2005 or, as the expression goes, “Whoever bought the last ticket on the Titanic.” I didn’t know what to say.

“Maybe it will get better,” was the best I could muster, my tone and forced smile almost certainly giving away my doubtfulness.

“Don’t know,” said Calvin, slowly shaking his head. “Don’t know ‘bout that.”

No words filled the moment, just car exhaust.

“Well, nice to finally meet you,” I said.

“Yes, “ said Calvin. “Have a good day.”

He drove off. One thing had become clear: I will continue to subscribe to the local paper for however long it lasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 


REPORT FROM DOWN UNDER

 

A visit to Australia and New Zealand is a sprawling event. It’s hard to characterize or describe each aspect of the experience so I’ll dissect just a few, namely:

 

THE TRAVEL is daunting. For us, it involved a five-hour flight to Los Angeles, a three-hour layover and a fifteen-hour flight to Sydney. When we arrived, we found ourselves fourteen time zones ahead of North Carolina. Ten a.m. equaled midnight to our bodies. Advised to stay awake until “normal” bedtime by all the literature, we proceeded, Zombie-like, for the first day of sightseeing.

“Ah,” says an observant reader, “Why didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“Can’t,” I reply miserably. “Never have, apparently never will. Even the sleeping pill had no effect.”

 

THE PEOPLE are friendly. If you pause on a street and look confused, chances are excellent that one or more pedestrians will offer assistance. Often, they insist on leading you to your destination if it is within a block or two. Others consult their phones for directions or flag down other strangers for consultations.

 

CAUCASIANS ARE IN THE MINORITY. In Sydney, particularly in the vicinity of the airport or university, most people are Chinese. As a person who is open-minded in terms of immigration issues this fact provokes no immediate negative reaction. However, I wonder how I would feel if my hometown, Philadelphia, somehow became 80% Chinese. Would it, in essence, still be Philadelphia?

I believe Australians struggle with this issue in private but they accept the influx as an economic necessity. I sensed some resentment when speaking with several Australians during the course of our tour, but they are too polite to complain openly. An Aussie sitting beside me on the plane captured the attitude when I said I looked forward to seeing how Australians live.

“You staying in Sydney?” he asked. “Good luck finding some.”

 

THE SCENERY, particularly in New Zealand, is amazing. Days of seeing snow-capped mountains, fiords, glaciers, swift-moving rivers and waterfalls means I may not have to travel to Alaska or Iceland in the future. Below the mountains are the greenest of green pastures, populated by domesticated deer, cows and millions and millions of sheep. The latter had just birthed and the lambs, be it one or two or three per mother, are sooooooo cute. No more lamb chops for me.

 

RUGBY is an obsession in both countries. Before this trip, I believed rugby to be a primitive form of American football played in total obscurity. Now, having scanned newspapers and surfed television, I know there are actually THREE types of rugby, each with its own networks, teams, leagues and fans. Not at all “obscure,” rugby is pervasive Down Under. How does a country of only twenty-four million (Australia) or four million (NZ) support such so much infrastructure?  The passion for sport runs deep. Aussies are pretty good at tennis, too, and facilities for recreation are everywhere.

IN MELBOURNE, our final stop, we anticipated bringing home memories of vast public gardens, stunning architecture and commerce. Though we saw some of those things, our primary impression is quite different. The evening we arrived, the local rugby squad had won a championship game and jubilation ensued. The next morning, fans were still stumbling around, hung-over, clad in the black and yellow of the Richmond Tigers, a team based in the very neighborhood in which we were staying. One store clerk, dressed dutifully, confided that she wasn’t really interested in rugby, but her admission came in a whisper, lest she offend her boss or a local customer.

 

POLITICS rarely came up in public discussions with our tour-mates. Since we were the only Americans, couples sidled up to us privately, at some point to ask, of the United States: “If I may, what happened?” “How is this possible?” We knew what they were wondering. How did a reality television buffoon become president? We tried to explain two things: 1. Part of the enjoyment of being abroad for us was to NOT discuss “he who shall not be named” on a daily basis; and, 2. Suffice it to say one cannot underestimate ignorance and hatefulness.

I LEARNED that Australian politics is much like ours though they have not YET descended to total lunacy. As in America, solid majorities of the population support protection of the environment, freedom of choice for women, equal rights for all and gun control. However, as in America, government is controlled by money. For instance, mining interests battle alternative energy projects though there may not be a country in the world more suited to solar, wind and geothermal power. Religious groups battle women’s rights and gay rights and their older cohort show up to vote.

GUN CONTROL is the exception, perhaps because there is not a wealthy, native industry as we have in America, along with twisted reverence for the Second Amendment.   In 1996 in Australia, the mass murder of thirty-five took place with semi-automatic weapons. It was the deadliest of thirteen such events in the preceding eighteen years. In its aftermath, a CONSERVATIVE government acted to buyback all but necessary hunting and farming-related firearms and to ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The population acquiesced without drama and Australia’s rate of gun violence is now miniscule.   There have been no mass murders since 1996, and firearm-related suicide rates have dropped by eighty percent!

 

AFFECTION for Americans adheres in New Zealand and Australia, though the Las Vegas massacre occurred during our last night in Melbourne which provoked an outpouring of news coverage about “What is wrong with America?” Still, there is a deep reservoir of patience. Largely without complaint, both nations Down Under continue to contribute troops to every one of our military adventures.

QUESTION I asked several veterans in both countries: “Why is there no resentment, at least about failed expeditions in Vietnam or the second Iraq war?” Each time, the response hearkened back to World War II. Apparently, when Japanese warships threatened invasion Australia and New Zealand appealed to Winston Churchill for help. He refused, citing the burdens his troops were already facing from Germany. America, however, sent ships immediately and routed the Japanese. We sowed seeds of affection still alive seventy years later. I hope we don’t poison the field or take it for granted. Hanging up on Australia’s prime minister last January was probably not a great first move by the con-man, but….

 

DOUBTLESS Australia and New Zealand are wonderful destinations. If only they were closer. Both countries have a pace and friendliness that seems like the America I imagine of sixty years ago. They are comfortable countries for an American, as they speak the same language, but with enough accent to make you feel you’ve “gone somewhere.” Cars on the left side of the road reinforce the difference.

 

OBVIOUSLY, if one visited America and saw only Miami and New York they could hardly claim to have “seen it.” If the flight were five hours or less I’d want to visit Down Under again and again to see all the places not included in our trip, including, but not limited to: the Outback, the Great Barrier Reef, the cities of Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Auckland, among others. Perhaps, when the jet lag is finally forgotten, once and for all, after another month or two… I’ll consider it.

 


GRANDPARENTHOOD

 

My next job description in life’s journey appears to be that of “grandparent.” In a matter of months I expect the title along with the attendant salary. Oh, there is none? Well, I’m not surprised. In order to succeed, I will rely upon my experience as a parent and also as a sort of grandparent to three dogs. I’m reasonably confident I would get good references from my three children, and I’m absolutely confident in the canine corps.

 

*****

 

I’ve not reflected upon being a grandparent prior to learning “it’s happening.” This approach is consistent with my attitude towards parenthood, to marriage and to my former career. Some say this is “not normal.” Apparently, I have a natural tendency to conserve brain cells. Yet, when the bell has rung, I’m proud to say each endeavor has been successful. The kids are healthy, happy and “off the payroll;” the marriage is nearly thirty years old; and, the career didn’t need to extend past my 40’s.

How did I do it? I cite adherence to three basic tenets, namely: the best action is often inaction; if at first you do not succeed, quit; and, no good deed goes unpunished.

My wife, Katie, an ultra-diligent sort of person, has often taken issue with all three pillars of my philosophy.   Probably in conjunction with her admirable example, we raised successful kids. In addition, as I’ve always admitted with regard to my career path, I had a lot of LUCK.

 

*****

 

Grandparenthood looms with a tinge of bittersweet. When I became a parent, in my thirties, mortality never crossed my mind. Cinematically speaking, if I’d considered my expected view of my children’s lives, (which I did not) I would have realized I might not make it to the final credits, but most of the good parts would be seen. To become a grandparent in one’s sixties is different. Realistically, I hope to be functioning well enough to enjoy some high school graduations and, perhaps, see a college graduation or two. Weddings? If I’m there, I may be wielding a walker and brandishing a bib.

How to process this? Clearly, I will have to focus on enjoying the time I do have with the grandchildren. Some grandparents emphasize their favorite aspect to be: “At the end of the visit or activity, you give them back.” But there must be more to it than that – a second opportunity, perhaps, to enjoy youth sports with less heart-pounding seriousness; or a chance to see new sites and activities that didn’t appeal to my own children.

Another mental hurdle is my sense that grandchildren cannot possibly be as enjoyable as grand-dogs.   My mortality is not in play with regard to the dogs, due to their shorter life spans and presumed obliviousness to mine, and they always seem thrilled to see me. The dogs are unfailingly cheerful and undemanding in circumstances that human offspring are not. True, they need to be taken outside in any weather to relieve themselves, but changing a soiled baby diaper is not exactly a pleasure.

 

*****

 

If I accept that I have aptitude to be a successful grandparent, I must also wonder how much of that aptitude will be tapped. When it came to parenthood Katie and I operated on the basis of “all hands on deck.” If assistance was available, we availed. Grandparents’ involvement, however, is measured by a critical intermediary layer. Will our input be valued by our children and/or their spouses?

We have experience and they do not. Yet, there is a tendency for every young parent to believe they know what’s best in every situation. A lot has changed since Katie and I felt certain we made all the right choices. Now there are movie screens in cars, I-pads and computers everywhere, smart-phones. My interests will skew more analog — a walk in the woods, a simple game of catch. Delicate negotiations with the parents may be necessary. A bitten tongue may be essential.

 

*****

 

Katie and our daughter, Sarah, were recently slated to enjoy a mother-daughter day at a Disney musical production of Beauty and the Beast. The animated version was a staple of Sarah’s childhood circa 1993-1996, ages four-seven. Sarah didn’t feel well so I filled in and found myself nearly the only male in attendance not describable as a father, grandfather, or supremely unhappy little brother.

Pouring into the theatre were excited little girls in gowns and tiaras. Several sported gossamer wings. The production was splendid and, I must admit, I enjoyed seeing the inevitable happy ending. It didn’t hurt that the Beast’s ultimate triumph was to throw the bad guy, Gaston, over the wall of the castle. Gaston reminded me of someone much in the news, preening in front of his mirror, flexing his muscles and abusing even his own sycophantic henchmen.

Most important for me, I had a chance to savor the show as seen through the eyes of hundreds of enthralled little girls. When Sarah watched the tape three or four times a week back in the day, I doubt I was enthused. I hope she never noticed me roll my eyes when she asked to see the tape again. From a young parent’s busy perspective, those hours and years seem like they will never end.

Unexpectedly seeing the show offered me the opportunity for a healthy perspective to approaching grandparenthood. Embrace the moments you NOW know are not forever.