THE SHARING ECONOMY

 

 

Use of Airbnb instead of a hotel is second nature to anyone under thirty but for the rest of us, it’s a brave new world. For the edification of my “mature” readers I will describe our experiences using the “sharing” economy while traveling, and offer what I hope are helpful suggestions.  Spoiler alert:  the perfect solution does not exist.

 

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Facing what seemed to be astronomically high hotel rates, my wife, Katie, was willing to take the time to scroll through numerous Airbnb listings before a trip to California’s wine country in 2016.

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That’s the first thing you must know:  unless one is reckless, this is a time-consuming process.  By that, I mean, failure to do extensive due diligence risks victimization by a number of potential hazards, such as:  pets to whom one may be allergic; sagging mattresses; talkative and/or omnipresent hosts; quirky access procedures; and, surprising additional fees.  One might also encounter problems one may not anticipate in a property let out to the public, such as:  insect infestation, mustiness, traffic noise and, non-functioning appliances.

To be clear, several of the pitfalls above could also be encountered in a hotel.  But if one encounters a bad mattress or smelly room in a hotel, there is generally recourse via the front desk.  One can move to another room or, failing that, one can proceed to a different hotel.

Recourse is not as easy with Airbnb. The owner may not be on site.  He or she may not be easily reachable by phone or email.  One has paid for the room in advance to a landlord who may not agree with a subjective determination of smell or noise, so a refund is refused.  Also, an Airbnb is often located in a residential neighborhood where other overnight options are not available.

 

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Our first Airbnb stay occurred in St. Anselmo, CA.  We attended a wedding and Katie found online a home surrounded by gardens walking distance from the wedding site.  Wonderful, until we arrived.  First, we couldn’t access the property because of what appeared to be a locked exterior gate.  Fortunately, we reached the on-site owner by phone to render assistance.  She’d thought we were coming the next day, so hadn’t left instructions about the balky door – it was actually unlocked, but required a level of strength like an NFL linebacker’s to overcome humidity-swollen wood.

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Following a long explanation of the garden and house and of her artistic career, our hostess showed us our room. It was lovely as advertised and contained a bowl of fruit and a kettle for tea. Wonderful, again, until we realized the host’s kitchen, living room and painting studio were separated from our quarters by only a floral sheet and she intended to be present throughout our stay. Any noise either party made, beyond a whisper, reached the other.  She showed us the small section of the refrigerator that was “ours.”  Each visit required an exchange of pleasantries.

Bottom line:  ultimately, our two-night stay was marginally satisfactory due to the pleasantness of our room, a good mattress, a great location for our particular need and a great price.  But there were hurdles as well as lots of whispering and tip-toing around!

Our next two nights in Wine Country were spent in what turned out to be a marginal neighborhood of tiny, ramshackle homes and trailers.  We were deeply concerned upon arrival, as we followed a skinny driveway to a detached garage behind a hovel. But the landlord’s instructions for entry were exact.  When we climbed the exterior stairs and entered the apartment we saw an incongruously pleasant space, open and airy with sleek furnishings over a hard wood floor.

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The rear view was a citrus orchard, and the owner had left muffins and fresh-picked fruit on the counter of a fully appointed, brand-new kitchen.  Per her written instructions, unless there was a crisis, she did not expect or desire to communicate with us.  We did not even know where she lived except that her instructions indicated she did NOT live at the premises.

We spent two terrific nights there and departed happily after re-depositing the key in its hidden spot. Now seems a good time to note an interesting tidbit about Airbnb’s.  While this apartment included welcoming muffins upon arrival,  that hospitable gesture was not repeated.  Despite what the name of the company implies, breakfast is not included.  There is no second “B” in an Airbnb.

 

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Our next adventure in Airbnb took place a year ago in Australia where our son, Sam, was conducting research. Since we were visiting for ten days it seemed a wonderful opportunity to settle in and experience real-life Sydney. Katie found a one-bedroom apartment in a modern high-rise walking distance to a subway.

The owner’s representative/friend met us, as promised, at the metro stop and escorted us to the building.  Though middle aged, he appeared to have been lost on the way to a Grateful Dead concert.

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Despite our determination to be understanding and “not judge a book by its cover” during the course of our three-minute walk we learned about his divorce, health issues and addictions.  Thus, we took to heart his admonition:  “I’m really not in any condition to handle stress.”  His hangdog expression reminded me of Droopy of the Seven Dwarfs.

Upon arrival at the apartment he oriented us and explained “just a few little nits,” namely: the clothes dryer, dishwasher, and coffee maker were not operational.  “I’ll be dealing with them one of these days, but not this week” he said.  Granted, these are first-world problems, as they say.  But we weren’t paying a pittance.  When he left, we declared: “no way we are going to call him for anything.”

As to our lodgings, our first two days were uneventful.  We enjoyed the sights of Sydney, its gardens and coffee culture.  We usually ate out but apparently accumulated a few breakfast crumbs and the like since we came home on day three to an infestation of ants in the kitchen like in a horror movie. The counters were crawling.  The appliances were teeming.  The floor flowed like a river.

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“We’re on the sixth floor,” I observed. I didn’t think such a thing was possible.

“Oh,” said, Sam, who’d lived in Sydney for several months.  “Australia may be the insect capital of the world.  There are no boundaries.”

If this had happened in a hotel, we would have moved.  But our only choices were to call Droopy or deal with it ourselves.  We cleaned and cleaned, as though we were preparing the property for sale.   After a couple of hours, the whole apartment was pristine.  But we spent the additional five days paranoid about eating anything.  And what we had seen in and on the stove sapped all enthusiasm for cooking. Ironically, this Airbnb had the largest “cleaning fee” we’d experienced.  Yes, that’s another distinction from a hotel – at an Airbnb you will often pay an additional fee for “cleaning,” detailed in the small print, on top of the advertised rental fee.

 

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Would I use Airbnb in the future? Considering the cost is about half a normal hotel rate in many situations, perhaps.  But one needs to spend time doing research, be willing to accept quirks rarely encountered in a hotel, and not be hung up on uniformity. Is the Airbnb experience more interesting?  Usually.  Can it be treacherous?  Yes.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.

 

 

 

 

 

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FLORENCE UNFOLDS

 

Hurricane Florence visited last week and dropped enough rain to warrant a tsunami of cable television coverage. The forecasts were dire for our Durham, North Carolina residence.  A late shift took the worst of the wind and rain two hours south and left us with, essentially, a tenacious but otherwise unremarkable four-day rainstorm.  Some localized flooding occurred but our community missed the much-hyped direct hit.  Of course, I’m delighted the storm didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, the impulse to disregard future warnings might be stronger as a result.

 

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Skepticism about the meteorologist/media combination is not new to me.  When I was little, my family listened to KYW News radio every morning during breakfast.  At the slightest hint a snowstorm might approach I took a rooting interest as fervent as I felt for any sports team.  “Maybe school will be closed,” I cheered/prayed/hoped.  My mother, a public school librarian, added her hopes, too, though with less enthusiasm.  Perhaps, having lived longer, she knew the unlikelihood of a large-impact storm in far-sub-Arctic Philadelphia.

I’m not sure why I rooted so hard for a day off.  School was not onerous for me and my at-home activities would not have been so fabulous.  Truthfully, I didn’t like cold weather and had limited enthusiasm for sledding, fort building and snowballing due to the resulting cold fingers and toes.  In addition, I would have been expected to shovel our front walk and might even have been guilted into clearing several of the neighbors’.  Two doors down, in particular, lived an ancient widow (I now realize she was probably in her 60’s.)  Somehow, a no-cash economy prevailed on 50thStreet circa 1962; she paid me with one or two old golf balls she had saved for decades or, perhaps, a tennis ball that no longer bounced.

Perhaps, I cheered on snow forecasts for the same reason I cheered for Nixon during the Kennedy debate or for the Cubs against the Phillies.  I wanted to get a rise out of my father who calmly, confidently, and almost always correctly intoned:  “They’re wrong.  It’s not going to snow.”

When it didn’t snow, my father never bragged.  In a way, his silence was even more infuriating than if he’d danced a jig in celebration. “Implacable” is a word that comes to mind.  “Smug” is another.  Oh, how I wanted it to snow.

 

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My early working life featured a couple of notable storms.   In Summit, NJ, in 1982, I was a first-month lawyer when the forecast called for some flurries, and it improbably snowed ten inches in the middle of April.  The storm disappointed doubly since I’d been counting the days to springtime, and it occurred on a Saturday.  I didn’t even get a day off!  Several years later, around 1985, a much-ballyhooed hurricane called Gloria aimed at northern New Jersey.  The forecast was so dire that the law firm I worked for allowed us to go home at the first gust of drizzly wind.  My co-workers and I gleefully anticipated several days off.  With sincere apologies to anyone who lost their home to Gloria elsewhere nothing stronger than steady rain ever reached Ridgewood.  We shuffled into the office the next morning shaking heads and complaining, as usual:  “Weathermen are idiots.”

 

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Moving forward twenty years my attitude towards predicted storms had inevitably become my father’s.  I assured my disappointed children as he’d assured me: “It’s not going to happen,” every time the television and radio foretold a weather apocalypse.  Also like my father, I was always right… until a storm named Floyd.

It was 2005, and we lived in Ramsey, NJ in a contemporary-style cedar shake house as leaky of air as a sieve.  The builder seemingly built it as a contribution to the utility industry.  Still, I loved the look of our house and, in particular, the fact that the garage was not visible from the street.  I reveled in not being part of the car culture dominating suburban America architecture.  Landscaping hid a driveway that curled down from the street to a below ground entrance.

Floyd approached like numerous events before it, as a weeklong media extravaganza. Reliably, the storms ran aground at the coast an hour southeast of us.  Alternatively, some storms came from the west but ran out of steam over Pennsylvania.  For whatever meteorological or topographical reason, in my prior twenty-three years of life in northern New Jersey, we never bore the full brunt of a hurricane despite almost annual predictions.

What I remember about Floyd is not so much the wind as the frenzy of the rain.  It fell sideways, splatting against the thin walls like hail.  The gutters gurgled in harmony.  And it wouldn’t stop.  For three days the rain continued.  As always, water rolled down our driveway and followed a stone path to the right of the garage doors through the backyard where it disappeared into the woods.  The first unusual thing I noticed during Floyd was that our back yard eventually began to retain a few water puddles of water.

Slowly, and then more quickly, these puddles resembled little ponds and then formed a lake.  My teenaged children gleefully raced out to enjoy floating in our backyard on a neighbor’s rowboat.  “Fun” I thought, at first, until I realized the water in the yard was approaching the garage from one direction and rain was still rolling down the driveway from the other.

“I think it might reach the garage,” I said, in unconcerned understatement.  I knew we had a sump pump in the basement for just such an event.

“Glug, glug,” went the sump pump continually from its subterranean hole in a corner.  Never having considered the matter before, I imagined the sump pump discharged somewhere distant.  Only during Floyd did I realize it discharged through a pipe onto our front lawn and, from there, the water eventually found its way back to our driveway.  But the discharge was only a tiny piece of the crisis; the first significant problem arose when the pump’s plastic discharge pipe, which ran up the corner of my wife’s office just off the recreation room in the basement, failed.  A spray of water shot through the air soaking, among other things, my beloved ping pong table, my wife’s collection of educational consulting books, family photographs, the kids’ astro-turfed indoor soccer area (didn’t everyone have one?) and a large carpet.  We turned off the pump and ran around frantically with towels.  “Nothing could be worse than this!” I declared.

Still, the waters around the house seemed to hold back despite a continuing deluge; the backyard continued to fill and would do so indefinitely, I imagined, for a few more ridiculously naïve minutes, while we struggled to deal with the sump pump calamity.  And then, as though one water molecule communicated a signal to a trillion others, the water at the garage entrance began to creep towards the house.  It was like a scene from a horror movie.  Even a perfectly functioning sump pump would have been overwhelmed.  The situation had become much, much worse.  In about ten minutes, the entire garage and surrounding office and recreation area succumbed to ten inches of water.

 

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Though I’m still to the skeptical side of the spectrum about meteorologists and media hype, Floyd showed how wrong I could be.  There may be more misses than hits, but having experienced what a monster storm can do, I learned a few things, namely:  the disasters that arise may not all be ones you anticipate; the media goes overboard but they are not ALWAYS wrong; and, it’s best to view natural disasters on television, from a distance.  I wish for a quick and safe recovery to all who have found Florence to be more of a hit than a miss.

 

 

 


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.”

 

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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!

 

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“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.

 

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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.”

 

 


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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.