I thought there might be another adult or two.  At least, that’s what the club director told me to expect when I’d signed up for a week of summer table tennis camp at Triangle Badminton and Table Tennis (hereinafter TBTT) in Morrisville, NC.  However, when I arrived that fateful Monday morning, I appeared to be the oldest camper by half a century.  For sure, no other participant had driven himself to camp; many had a parent or two hovering nearby to make sure they signed in properly and remembered their paddle, water bottle and lunch bag.  Me?  I was on my own.

     The instructors, twenty-one-year-old twin brothers Gal and Sharon Alguetti, originally from Israel, gathered us near the tables promptly at 9 a.m.  There were eighteen participants, the youngest about eight, the second oldest perhaps fifteen.  About half were boys and half were girls.  Several appeared surprised to realize I was a camper, not a volunteer assistant from an old-age home.

     “This week you will learn about consistency,” announced Gal, while Sharon stood beside him nonchalantly balancing a ball on the edge of his paddle.  His act was, at once, distracting, mesmerizing and totally amazing. These guys, who the camp fliers noted are the sixth and eighth highest ranked players in America, are freakishly well coordinated.

                                                            *****

     Ping pong has long been part of my life.  Like many mid-twentieth-century Americans, I grew up in a house with a table in the basement.  More used by my mother for laundry than for play, it still hosted spirited games with my brothers as well as occasional friends.  Our equipment was basic – the “pimple” paddles that came in a set with the net, and balls that cracked more easily than eggshells and had the uncanny ability to hide behind furniture and appliances like skittish kittens.

     Thanks to playing with older siblings and also to practicing against a wall on my own, by high school, I was considered pretty good.  Of course, the concept of having an entire facility devoted to the sport, with thirty-five tables, as well as coaches, specialized rubbers on either side of the paddles, camps, tournaments and the like, was still decades away.  I’d never played with a person from Asia until law school in the early 1980’s; at TBTT in 2022, I represent a small and shrinking minority.

                                                            *****

     Before we could do the first drill, Gal announced, we would spend twenty minutes conditioning and stretching.  Not the same as taking the stairs at home a few times a day or the movement involved in a tennis match, this was actual RUNNING.  I hadn’t run a half-mile in decades.  Yet, here we were commencing ten laps around the facility.  And some of these laps included skipping, wind milling arms and sliding sideways.  We were led by the highest-ranked players among us: Carla Wu, Leah Wong and Tyler Zhang, who presently are the second and third-ranked 13-14-year-olds in the country and the number one ranked ten-year-old, respectively.   I immediately assumed my place at the back of the pack.  Mentally cuing up the theme from Chariots of Fire, and fighting the constant urge to cut corners (sometimes losing the fight) I managed to complete all the laps and proudly strode last into the stretching circle while everyone else was completing the first of ten exercises. 

                                                            *****

     Talking with Gal and Sharon during a water break, I learned how difficult it is to star in a non-mainstream sport.  Though members of the “national team,” and Olympic hopefuls, the brothers receive minimal funding, largely consisting of travel costs and occasional training sessions.  Their equipment, consisting of shoes, shirts and paddles, is provided by sponsors.  However, prize money from tournaments is minimal, certainly not enough to make a “living.”  Thus, they spend their summers away from college at Indiana University, teaching camps. 

     “How does it look for 2024?” I asked Sharon.

     “It’s tough,” he said.  “There are only four spots allotted to North American and the Caribbean.  And the top players from the US and Canada usually have freshly printed ink on their passports.”

     In other words, Chinese exports are not limited to consumer goods.  

     “Our best chance was in 2016,” added Gal.  “I was an alternate.”

     “You were fifteen years old,” I said.

     “Yep,” he agreed.  

     Apparently, gymnastics isn’t the only sport where one’s “prime” and one’s puberty are fairly closely associated.

                                                            *****

     After stretching (a wonderfully non-aerobic activity) the coaches paired us for the first drill.  We were assigned two to a table along a row of nine tables to hit cross court forehands for ten minutes, then backhands, then take turns looping (think lots of spin) while our partner blocked (a flat return to a predetermined location).  The coaches strode behind us offering corrections and suggestions.  “Don’t stand straight up.  Keep your chest forward,” said Gal.  “Follow through to the target,” said Sharon.  “You go a little sideways.”

     The rhythmic popping of ping pong balls hitting paddles and shoe rubber squeaking on floorboards resounded.  I concentrated so hard I almost forgot it was 80 degrees and humid inside TBTT on this 95-degree North Carolina day.  The next drill was a little more involved, with shots targeted from forehand to middle to backhand to middle, and so on.  Eventually, after cooperating with one’s partner to hit at least twelve rally balls, you could “play out the point.”  Yet, I knew not to play these points with game-like intensity because, well, you need your hitting partner’s respect and goodwill.  In other words, don’t act like a ten-year-old, even if you are playing with a ten-year-old. Don’t be “that guy.”

                                                            *****

     We switched partners several times during the three-hour session.  My first partner, Sara, played a straightforward game.  Her rubber was “normal” and she hit a standard mix of topspin, backspin and straight shots.  But my second partner, Xinwen, was a “chopper.”  That means he hit every ball with a maddening backspin.  He also used “pips” on one side of his paddle, and “long pips” on the other, meaning rubber surfaces that resembled the old “pimple” paddles of childhood in appearance, but with varied, more confounding rubber pips.  His goal was not to hit fast, but rather, to have you dump the ball into the net or pop it long in the futile effort to judge just how much backspin was coming.  As my blood pressure rose with each miss, it became more challenging to make the fine-motor adjustments necessary to return the ball on the table.  

     “This is good for you,” said Gal, laughing.

     Easy for him to say.  Gal then showed me several swing angles and techniques that might counteract various spins.  But all I could think is:  “Thank goodness most kids prefer to hit hard.  That I can handle.  If everyone ‘chopped,’ I’d quit.”

     After a few more drills and two more partners, I’d almost survived the first day.  The last activity consisted of playing games to 11, but starting with the scored tied 5-5.  “This will increase the pressure,” explained Sharon.  “You will quickly be at the end of the game.”  He was right.  In my experience, one can take an early lead, but in a game to 11, there is sufficient time to figure things out (a weak backhand or a strong serve, for example) and make adjustments.  However, essentially playing a game to 6, there is a premium on eliminating unforced errors, thus the theme of the camp: consistency.

                                                            *****

     I needed a nap after the first day.  Surely, I thought, I would not last the whole week.  Though I nearly “hit the wall” after Tuesday’s session, (shoulder feeling like dead weight, feet dragging, wrist announcing its presence during each point) each day thereafter seemed a little easier.  There was less anxiety about appearing out of place and out of shape.  While some of the kids surely found my presence in camp strange, most seemed to respect that my play was around the 60th percentile of the group.  And they’ve all played in tournaments – one of the best aspects of of table tennis, in my opinion, is that participants’ ages range from about eight to eighty and gender is irrelevant.

     On the third day, the final competitive drill was to start at 10-10 and play out the game.  The winner must win by two points.  Therefore, total concentration is essential on each point.  The winner progresses up along the line of tables, and the loser goes down.  I stayed around the middle of the group except for one lucky streak that landed me near the pinnacle where I faced off against Carla.  She served first.  I lurched to get my paddle on the ball, but its spin exploded off my paddle at a forty-five degree angle.  “What just happened?” I wondered.  I served.  She blasted the ball past me in a blur.  Back down the line I headed.  So much for ping pong camp glory.

                                                            *****

     By the end of the week I felt my blocking had truly improved.  Several other aspects of my game probably improved as a result of daily repetition and its effect on muscle memory though I’d probably need ten more weeks to really be sure.  The highlight of the last day was to play five-minute-long games with the winners moving up and losers moving down.  I never reached the top but had played the nation’s best ten-year-old to a draw when the clock ran down.  A moral victory!

     Is it ridiculous to declare a moral victory over an opponent so vertically challenged?  Well, probably.  But while I have longer arms and more experience, he is much faster and his shots are naturally launched from a beneficial, lower angle.  My strategy was to tempt him with high, slow balls to his backhand (certainly not to his lethal forehand) and then block the resulting backhand loops to the opposite corner of the table where he couldn’t reach.  He wasn’t crying when we finished but he clearly was shook up.  Mental note to self:  do not play Tyler Zhang two years from now when he is several inches taller.  Revenge will surely be his….


                                                           SPORTSMANSHIP

     Society prizes “good” sportsmanship.  When I coached youth soccer, coaching clinics always emphasized its importance.  For instance, we were encouraged to never allow a game to be decided by more than seven goals.   Profanity was not allowed.  The teams lined up to shake hands after the final whistle.

      My earliest lessons on sportsmanship took place at home.  At about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a Scrabble defeat: clearly unacceptable.  I also knew of an opponent who hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so she’d have it available in a crucial moment; also clearly wrong.  (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

     However, baseball consumed most of my thoughts during the first decade of my life.  Through baseball I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small:  “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

                                                            *****

          What constitutes “good” sportsmanship evolves with society.  We’d be angered, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that dominated professional sporting events in the first half of the twentieth century.  As shown in every recounting of Jackie Robinson’s career, athletes not only tolerated hateful speech, they often participated in it.  Yet, they also enforced a code of honor that’s now violated regularly.  For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1960.   The only question would have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own. 

     A professional tennis player recently created controversy when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match.  Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself.  She said, in paraphrase:  “I’m trying to beat her.  I don’t want her to have good luck.  Why should I fake it?”  I found her honesty jarring.  Yet, it sort of makes sense. 

                                                            *****

      “We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for lunch, “for iced tea.”

     This quotidian statement dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred since 1965.  I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates.  Most of my teammates’ names are lost in the haze of memory.  However, I remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass, and the satisfying sounds of baseballs landing in leather mitts.  

     Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed nowadays:  “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher.”  This taunt passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds.  Both teams employed the same chant, in the same teasing tone of voice, even if the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate.  (Picture Ted Cruz after an unfavorable judicial decision).

                                                            *****

     I lived for those games with the Pirates whose coach was Mr. Greenfield, a middle-aged man.  Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team.  I don’t know if he even had children of his own.  He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids.  Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.  

     I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position, but I was consigned to second base.  Unfortunately, a kid named Scott played shortstop, and his seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star.  Hoping to be cool, I wore dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy.  When I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up.  Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

     Similarly, our team, consisting of a mostly nerdy bunch of Jewish kids from West Philadelphia, fashioned itself as stars, as though historical records were posted and the Pirates perennially topped the standings.  As an adult, I understand no one tracked historical records of Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked the standings at the time.  Drawing on his decades of experience, Mr. Greenfield simply excelled at making us feel good about ourselves.  

     The Angels, sponsored by St. Donato’s, the local Catholic Church, were the only opponents we feared.  They represented the mysterious “other.”  Since their players attended parochial school and my team attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us.  Objective facts recede to stereotypes and vagaries of memory, but my recollection is they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates.  Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates:  “How old do you think he really is?”   

                                                            *****

     Following my two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-olds.  Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I worried if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband.  I agonized.  I couldn’t sleep.

     Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer.  Not only did he save the team, my own status rose:  Brother of the Coach!  To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism.  I still played second base, subordinate to splendid Scott.  Yet, it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques.  He made practices fun, and we won nearly every game.  Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to ice cream after wins.

                                                            *****

     The season proceeded routinely, as we whipped teams named the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker.  Boy, did that strike us funny!  We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a ritzy private school – they made us look tough, by comparison.  Looming in the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.  Even their coach was monster-sized!

     From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble.  Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, stood inches taller than our biggest player, Scott.  During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen.  Though only ten, I sensed the smug expression on St. Donato’s coach as he loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

     Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well enough, but batting seemed hopeless.  We sat glumly between innings.  We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant.  From my first at-bat, I recall seeing his arm move and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me.  What had happened to the ball?  How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing?  As the innings flew by, we’d only surrendered two runs, but we couldn’t get anyone on base.  How could we score?

     “Gather around,” said David, before our last at-bat.  “I have an idea.” 

     Following David’s instructions, though we were all right-handed, our first batter sidled up to the left side of the plate.  He crowded into the space just inches from the plate.  As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and chest, compressed to just a few inches.

     The pitcher looked confused.  Left-handed batters were rare.  He threw his first pitch in the dirt.  The next pitch flew over the catcher’s head.

     “Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach.  “That kid’s not left-handed!”

     The umpire shrugged:  “It’s not illegal.”

     “How close to the plate can he get?” asked the coach.

     “As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

     Our first batter walked.  Our second batter took the same left-handed crouch and took first base after four more pitches missed the tiny strike zone.

     “Hey,” shouted the coach.  “You gotta call some of these strikes!  They’re bending over.  This isn’t fair.”

     The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us:  “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

     We started our chant:  “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher!”

     The pitcher glared at us with anger, despair and humiliation.  He walked the next batter to load the bases and plunked the next batter with a pitch in the thigh to score a run.  By this time, in his fruitless effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the kid who was hit barely flinched before heading to first base.  

     “We want a pitcher….”  “We want a pitcher….”
      Shaking his head, St. Donato’s coach walked to the mound to calm his star, who may have been his son, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes.  After a moment’s discussion, the coach signaled he was replacing the big pitcher, who was now sobbing.  Scott was our next batter.  He hit the reliever’s first pitch for a double and we won the game.

                                                            *****

     Was it the right thing to do?  Was it good sportsmanship?  Did the end justify the means?  I know this:  we celebrated that day without any ambivalence, the day our David helped us beat Goliath.


                                                              A POLEMIC

   Nearly every person I know would answer: “Yes,” if asked if they are concerned about the environment.  Some even embrace the title: “environmentalist.” But beyond an occasional financial contribution and the use of reusable shopping bags when they remember to take them from the car, how many actually DO something about it?  The post below contains no nuance.  The resulting screed will strike some readers as self-righteous.  They may even conclude it is hectoring or a claim to be “holier than thou.”  It’s all those things, and more.   It is a call to action!

                                                            *****

          A beautiful moon lit my recent evening walk.  Low in the sky, it was a full, stunning ball of crimson.   To quote Procol Harum (why not?) the moon is usually a whiter shade of pale.  “Why is it red?” I wondered, alarmed, before I remembered the news:  western wildfires were so massive their smoke was affecting the air (and air quality) in North Carolina, thousands of miles away.  Alarming indeed.  The earth is in an emergency, and we mostly stand by and watch.  But what can we do?

     Well, I’ve “done” a few things and believe everyone else should, too.  

 I acknowledge not everyone is financially able to implement all the actions called for below.  Others, though financially able, live in circumstances, such as rentals, which make significant personal actions impossible.  One can only ask them to do what they can.

                                                            *****

     Of course, an individual cannot make a meaningful difference in healing the earth.  It requires full government, corporate, and systemic responses to achieve real progress.  But, just as indoor smoking became socially unacceptable over a fifty-year period, it’s possible for long-held perceptions to shift if enough individuals alter their behaviors.  Can that apply to single-occupancy automobile commuters?  To business travelers in the age of Zoom?  To purveyors and users of single-use plastics?  I hope so.  If enough individuals change their actions and advocate for others to do so, perhaps the politicians will be sufficiently prodded to act boldly.  Likewise corporations.

                                                            *****

     The largest expenditures in my personal efforts surround electricity, namely:  solar panels and cars.   We first installed solar panels on our house in Chapel Hill in 2011.  The out-of-pocket expenditure was large, about $19,000, but tax incentives then brought the final cost down to $4,200.  Saving about $700 a year on electric bills, the “payback” was conceivable in six years.  But that’s not why I did it!  I did it to deny revenue to our rapacious utility, Duke Power, and to shift a portion of our electric consumption away from the then-dominant source of electricity in NC, coal.  

     In the decade since, solar panels have become fifty percent more efficient.  We bought a new townhome in Durham in 2016 and installed an array immediately and doubled its size in 2021 to nearly wipe out our electric bill, which includes our heat!  Due to the expiration of state incentives the cost of installation had risen since 2011, but… again, recouping the investment is not why we did this.  My contention is: IF AN EXPENDITURE IS NOT SO LARGE AS TO AFFECT ONE’S LIFESTYLE IN ANY WAY, IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU “MAKE” MONEY OR NOT. Having said that, I’m confident (and studies have shown) the market value of my home increased as a result of my miniscule utility bills.  So, in this instance, over time, I will have done the right thing and will likely profit from doing so, eventually.

                                                            *****

     Depending on how one sees an obsession with environmental issues, credit or blame for mine falls on Friends’ Central School, where I graduated from high school in 1974.  To my recollection, the school didn’t do too much in that regard beyond establishing a paper recycling program, but that was enough to get me involved.   My family still received two newspapers a day, and it struck me wrong to throw so much wood pulp in the trash.  My parents were bemused at first, but ultimately cooperated in placing the finished papers in a box that was periodically loaded into our car and dropped off at the school’s receptacle.  My father was also an early believer in breaking down and separating cardboard boxes at his clothing store, like we all do now with Amazon’s debris, though I suspect his motivation was more space saving than environmental.  The boxes surely ended up in a landfill in those days, but at least I gained sensitivity to the waste involved and its stunning volume.

                                                            *****

     My next two efforts to “put my money where my mouth was” involved buying hybrid cars.  In 2007, the Nissan Altima cost about $5,000 more than the non-hybrid, and the salesman didn’t even know how to operate its mysterious, silent ignition.  But I enjoyed that car – quiet and efficient and delivering twice the mileage I was accustomed to, around 37 MPG.  After backsliding to a couple of non-hybrid cars that only managed 32-35 MPG, and feeling bad about it, in 2020 I bought a Honda Insight, another hybrid.  By then, the cost premium was only about $2,000 and the quiet car gets about 50 MPG.  Very satisfying.  But nothing to compare to this year’s acquisition, a Ford Mustang Mach-E, hereinafter, “MME.”

     Ford announced the availability of the all-electric MME around December 1, 2019.  At that time, President Con-Man was suing the State of California over its mileage standards because they were stricter than Federal standards.  Several automakers joined orange menace in his concerted effort to destroy the earth, but Ford supported California, as did Honda and Volvo.  For me, this decision was the perfect intersection of environmental concern with politics.  Accordingly, I was among the first to order an MME at about 9:05 a.m. that day.

     The order was “sight unseen,” of course, because the car was not much more than a concept at the time – some drawings on a website.  There was also some pushback on the home front.  My wife, Katie, so supportive of my earlier environmental efforts, was skeptical of this one.  Among her comments were the following:  “We’re not Mustang people.”  “We’re not car people.”  “We’ll look ridiculous in a car designed for teenagers.”  “Buying a first edition car is fraught with potential problems.”  “Buying a Ford is fraught with potential problems (recalling the Thunderbird I had in the 90’s that required its own mechanic, and the minivan that won us a Lemon Law settlement).”  

     For the next fifteen months, while Ford delayed delivery schedule several times, Katie asked if I wouldn’t like to just retrieve the $500 deposit and wait for a full slate of well-developed electric cars to reach market in the next few years.  Her point was fully rational, particularly when some of the completed MME’s were recalled to the factory in Mexico before even being delivered to dealerships.  Ford’s email, announcing yet another delay, said they’d identified technical glitches.  They “wanted to make extra, extra sure the car would be fully functional.”  There was some skepticism in this household.  Still, I stayed the course, and on a gloomy, drizzly February day, the local dealership called us to pick up our MME.

                                                            *****

     It is said there is no one more fervent than the converted.  From first sight, I’ve had to vie with Katie each day as to who gets to drive the MME. The car is sleek, spacious, silent and powerful, and in ten months, of course, has never visited a gas station.  Strangers photograph it at red lights and open their windows to ask about it.  It’s been a conversation starter at every public parking lot.  There is absolutely NO sacrifice involved in this particular environmental effort unless one considers having fun to be a sacrifice.

     The only aggravation around the MME is people’s tendency to ask, with a mixture of fear and schadenfreude:  “What’s the range?” and “How hard is it to charge?”  I answer patiently that it is about 270 miles for a full charge.  But what I really want to say is:  “How often do you drive more than 200 miles in a day?”  We charge the car in our garage for one-fifth the price of gasoline whenever we choose, with no inconvenience at all.  Public charging, which is admittedly a bit of a morass, is relevant only on that occasional (Every two months?  Every three months?  Almost never?) 200 mile day.  Even then, if we are feeling anxious about finding a charge, or the time that charging requires, we can drive the Honda instead.

     As to both solar panels and electric cars, there are those who say:  “I’m going to wait because the technology is still developing and it will be ‘better’ or ‘cheaper’ or ‘more efficient’ in a couple of years.”  Baloney!  That can be said of every new technology, always.  Come on, people!  Early adaptors are necessary to create the market that, in turn, will speed those developments.  If you can afford to do so, TAKE THE PLUNGE.

                                                            *****

     There are a host of additional lifestyle practices we’ve tried to introduce in our lives, some of more consequence than others, namely:  to always bring reusable bags when shopping; to only run the dishwasher when reasonably full, not daily as a matter of habit; to lower the heating and cooling at home; to divest fossil fuel-related investments; to refuse the plastic straws and utensils offered at restaurants; to run the laundry only when reasonably full, especially the DRYER, which is the worst energy hog in the house.  I’ve even dried clothes outside when the weather has cooperated.  It takes some time and runs contrary to the spirit of all those 1950’s housewives whose dream was to obtain their first dryer – I can only imagine my own mother’s shocked reaction if she saw me placing clothes on a drying tree – appalled or amused, I’m not sure.  But this is a win-win-win-win-win, since one saves energy, money, wear-and-tear on the clothes and the dryer, and the clothes smell terrific.

     Finally, there is an action that pays immediate, tangible dividends:  composting.  We’ve failed several at-home composting efforts, since the will to run garbage outside to a bin inevitably fails after a week or two.  But again, since we are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, we have engaged a composting company to pick up our scraps in a separate bin weekly.  Since we began, our contribution to the landfill has dropped by over fifty percent, and our trash does not smell!  Separating the compostibles takes a few moments after each meal, but we only need to put our the trashcan out about every third week.  And periodically, when our composting total reaches 160 pounds, the company delivers a forty-pound bag of beautiful, rich compost for us to use in the garden.  Anther win-win.

Sorry to have lectured, dear readers, but I warned you right up front. Most Americans over the age of forty and some people younger than that have lived their rich, materialistic existences without any awareness of the consequences to the earth. Many will continue to do so without any concern. For those of us who do care deeply, there is a tendency to feel hopeless and powerless in the face of such a huge problem. It’s time for that to change. Wastefulness needs to become socially unacceptable. Actually doing something will be better for the earth, our descendants and, I am confident, for our spirits.                                                           

    


                                                A PRO-LIFE DECLARATION

     I live in an extraordinarily diverse townhome community in Durham, NC, a city that recently voted for Joe Biden by a margin of 80-20.  When I walk around the block, I feel confident my neighbors share my political outlook even if we may have little else in common in terms of age, ethnicity, race and religion.  But there are still the twenty percent.  For instance, a gay couple, Pete and Jeff, shocked me when they moved in shortly after the 2016 election and, unasked, proclaimed themselves to be “proud Republicans.”  

     “How is that possible?” I asked.

     “We’re from upstate New York,” Pete responded.  “We’ve always been Republicans.”

     “Okay,” I said, cautiously.  “But being a Republican can mean you just don’t like taxes or you say you care about the deficit, or something.  It doesn’t mean you support….” 

     “We like Donald Trump,” said Jeff.  “He won’t be so bad.  You’ll see.”

     Fast forward to late October 2020:  After assiduously avoiding politics for nearly four years in favor of observing the weather or petting their dog, when I saw Jeff standing in his driveway one day, I thought I’d ask how he felt about Joe Biden.  After all, Biden should be his hero.  He’d declared support for gay marriage ahead of President Obama, pulling the latter along.  And, surely, contrary to Jeff’s prediction, the Orange Menace had not been as bad as originally feared; he’d been much, much worse.  Anyone could see that.  Couldn’t they?

     “We still like Donald Trump,” said Jeff.  “We think he’s good for the country.”

     I was so shocked I lost all sense of tact.  “I’m sure some Jews thought Hitler would be good for Germany, but…”

     Jeff had already turned his back on me and headed inside.  “That’s offensive, he blurted.”

                                                            *****

     Journalistic careers are being built speculating how 72 million of our fellow citizens voted to keep a mendacious sociopath in office for four more years.  The NY Times has an article or an op-ed nearly every day on the subject; it’s also a staple of The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly and every other outpost of the presumably literate and rational.  

     Perhaps I’m not qualified to opine on the subject; then again, how qualified were the pundits and pollsters who predicted a victory for Clinton in 2016 or a blowout by Biden in 2020.   So here goes, a no-holds-barred analysis of Trump supporters.

      First, Trump voters fall into three categories:  1.  Low-income and/or low information racists;  2.  Greedy bastards;  and, 3.  Evangelicals, a/k/a/ Hypocrites.  No new ground will be broken by me on the first group.  Low-income whites find comfort believing someone is below them on the ladder of society, and they look to black and brown people to fill that role.  When the “minorities” get uppity, as when Obama became president, their anger and insecurities are triggered.  And we all know how they love their triggers as well as any other part of a gun.  Promise them coal jobs.  Promise them a wall to keep out more black and brown people. Promise then “cheaper health care.” It doesn’t matter what they are promised since they don’t care or notice when the promise is not kept.  Just keep messaging to them that their “supremacy” as the “real” Americans will be preserved.

     Next, the greedy bastards.  They are also fairly easy to analyze.  These are people who care exclusively about their individual financial situations.  No other issue matters.  Protect the capital gains tax rate, lower the corporate tax rate, keep interest rates low to juice the stock market, eviscerate the estate tax so they can salt away their winnings for future generations, and they will be happy.  The common good?  Forget about it.  Equality, forget about it.  Clean air or water?  Forget about it.  The message for them is “nothing will change.”  Their castles will not be breached.  

     Finally, the evangelicals, the religious, observant, God-fearing people who voted by 85-15% margins to have a philandering thrice married buffoon who makes fun of handicapped people and Gold Star parents atop our government.  How can they not be described as hypocrites?  Some, though not too many, are also greedy bastards and many are also low-information racists.  Of the three groups, to me, evangelicals are the most interesting and confounding.

                                                            *****

     When I venture outside, I sometimes encounter our across-the-street neighbors, Dell and Christina.  Neither of us goes out of our way to chat but we wave and exchange pleasantries whenever we see each other.  Dell and Christina are retired IBM employees who married late in life and who make clear their social lives revolve around their evangelical church.  Dell happens to be Black and Christina is not, which is irrelevant except insomuch as it created in my mind an assumption of political liberality on their parts.  Both are gentle in manner, and I’ve always been impressed by Christina’s thoughtfulness.  She is the only neighbor who commemorates my birthday each year with a card, a REAL, PAPER card.  Yet, Christina is another person who shocked my wife, Katie, a year or two ago, by telling her she “supports our president.”  

     “How is it possible?” Katie and I asked each other, when she relayed what Christina had said, our assumptions blown to bits.

     As with Pete and Jeff, we subsequently confined all small talk with Christina to the weather or gardening.  Dell’s politics remained ambivalent.  In conversation he presents himself as a deeply spiritual person inclined to view all earthly politics and even all human affairs as “insignificant in the cosmic sense.”  I respect that view – he may be right.  Who knows?

     But last summer, in an unusual move, Dell purposefully strode across the street to talk to me while I was puttering in the garden.  

     “I’m so upset about George Floyd,” he said, his voice cracking.

     “Yes, it’s awful,” I agreed.  

     George Floyd, a Black man, had been murdered the previous week by Minneapolis police.  Caught on video, the act was brutal and callous and without ambiguity.  The nation was wracked with demonstrations and expressions of agony.  However, the president could barely acknowledge George Floyd’s humanity; he focused on the violence being perpetrated by a small minority of demonstrators.

     “What is wrong with this country?” asked Dell.  “Where is our leadership?”

       Dell’s pain surprised me because of how emotional he seemed, without his usual detachment.  I didn’t really know what to say except to agree, of course, that what had happened was terrible.

      “I don’t know who to talk to,” he continued.   “I’ve experienced my own pain with the police.  It’s not easy being who I am.  And my own wife is blind to what’s going on.”

     My mind was racing through various responses.  Obviously, Dell was a Black man and, as such, far more entitled to emote about George Floyd’s murder than I.  But to me, his race had never seemed central to his being.  As he was a retired professional, now focused on gardening, bicycling and church-related activities, I did not associate Dell with the greater African-American community or its suffering.  And I certainly didn’t want to get in the middle of any marital issues.

     “Um,” I said.  “I’m sure Christina cares…”

     “She cares,” said Dell.  “But she supports whatever the president says.  She is pro-life and the president is pro-life.  End of discussion.”

     “That’s ironic,” I offered, thinking about what had happened to George Floyd.  “So that is her basis for admiring Donald Trump?”

     “She doesn’t ‘admire’ Trump,” clarified Dell.  “But she does support him because of the one issue.  She likes the judges.  That’s her thing.”

     “So if your main issue is equal rights,” I said, piecing my thoughts together, “or my main issue is environmental protection, and someone else’s issue might be health care, Christina feels her issue outweighs all of those.”

     “Precisely,” said Dell.  “It’s very frustrating.”

     It should not have come as a revelation, I suppose.  I’d often heard of the one-issue “pro-life” voters.  I disagreed with them and vaguely disapproved of them.  However, I didn’t realize until I spoke with Dell just what about them so infuriated me:  They are hypocrites!!! The newest Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, for instance, has made a career of being “pro-life.”  No doubt she would deny a woman’s right to an abortion and will do what she can to limit a woman’s ability to obtain one. 

      Barrett and other “conservative” judges will not only limit reproductive choice, but will also be less likely to support reasonable gun regulations, environmental protections, universal health care, and be more likely to support the death penalty and harsh border protections such as family separation. In balance, they are the complete opposite of “pro-life.”  In her first vote, just last week, Barrett supported the right of religious institutions to hold large gatherings during a pandemic in direct opposition to the recommendations of public health professionals.  Will she “own” the additional deaths that ensue?  Of course not.  She’s a hypocrite!

     Furthermore, self-proclaimed “pro-life” politicians and judges ironically support a set of positions that may as well be called fourth-trimester abortions: they wish to require poor women (because wealthy women who want to end their pregnancies will find a way) to give birth whether or not the child is desired, but these “pro-lifers” are less likely to support that child’s eventual access to healthcare, education, housing, voting, or nutrition.

     With my newfound clarity, I said to Dell:  “I appreciate that you told me about your feelings.  It helps me to understand many things, about you, and about so-called ‘pro-life’ voters.  Come talk about it any time.”

     “Thanks,” he said.  “It feels better just to have spoken to someone.”

                                                            *****

     Now that I’ve pondered the three segments of Trump supporters, I wonder what can be done to reach them.  First, I call on Democrats to declare themselves the PRO-LIFE candidates and explain the myriad ways that is true.  No longer should they cede that wonderfully clear message to the other side.  To me, “pro-choice” sounds like part of a cable television promotion.  

     Second, drop the “Green New Deal” as a slogan.  Given the ignorance of our electorate, I’d bet less than ten percent even know what the 1930’s-era New Deal involved.  Instead, call it the JOBS AND HEALTHCARE Act.

     Third, (and this idea is not original to me) cease referring to “defunding the police.”  Perhaps, “repurposing” is a helpful term, or “refocusing.”  In any event, it should be clear that everyone, of all political persuasions, appreciates and supports police officers who “Protect and Serve.”  Police work can be difficult and dangerous.  However, the minority of officers who tend towards panic and/or sadism must be ferreted out.  A concerted effort to have social workers take over most interactions with the mentally ill, homeless and non-violent domestic disputes could, it is hoped, limit the number of disastrous encounters.

     Fourth, Democrats have already moved towards referring to “gun control” as “commonsense gun regulations.”  That’s an improvement in messaging, but doesn’t have the bite of something like:  “Suicide and Mass Murder Protection Act.”  For instance, everyone in America should know that a stunning 90% of suicides occur in gun-owning households!  They might also be intrigued to learn that Australia hasn’t had a single mass murder since the 1990’s when they outlawed private gun ownership.  But I’m sure that’s a step too far, alas.  So stick with the suicide statistic that is readily available in about thirty seconds of research. 

     The election of Joe Biden, a normal (for a politician) person with a sense of empathy, is a good start to returning our nation to some sense of decency.  My benediction is this: May his and his party’s messaging be clear enough to penetrate some ignorance and dogma, and make my future walks around the block less fraught.


DREAMSCAPE

 

I crossed a border of sorts, last night.  For the first time, I dreamed I was wearing a mask and encountering other people wearing them, too.  My dream contained all the anxieties affixed to the issue, wondering who would wear a mask and who would not.  Who would wear it properly and who would have their nostrils showing?  The scene played out at a Dunkin Donuts where eight or ten teenagers bustled behind the counter.  While waiting for the drink I’d ordered, I felt relieved at how compliant all the staff were until stung by the sudden appearance of the manager.  A woman of massive girth, she strode naked-faced from an office in the rear to accost her minions in a spittle-laced tirade for failing to achieve their speed incentives.  Abandoning the cherished promise of iced coffee I turned and pushed through the glass door into blinding sunlight and…awoke.

 

*****

 

As I imagine is commonly felt, the bizarre experience of 2020 is reshaping my mind in myriad ways.  For instance, an entire vocabulary is evolving.  It’s not just  “social distancing” I practice; I’m also acutely aware of “droplets” and “aerosols.”  I’d only ever considered the former in connection with water sizzling on a hot pan, the latter with regard to cans of hair spray.  Now, in theory, I know these things can kill me.

On a more positive note, “droplets” and “aerosols” are useful Scrabble words, holding the promise of a fifty-point bonus for using all seven letters at once.  Since the virus appeared, deprived of more active past-times, I have become adept at playing Scrabble on an I-pad.  I play against the highest level of computerized competition, a vain choice that both stretches my abilities and humbles me.  I lose most games to words I’ve never used or even seen.  I admit to some paranoia, too.  Could it be mere coincidence whenever I get a high-scoring word the machine immediately saddles me with a U, a V and a C as punishment?  In an alternative nightmare, in Scrabble terms, I get four I’s or three G’s and two W’s.

 

*****

 

Born just three years after the last great pandemic, my mother died last December, just three months before this one.  She played Scrabble against the computer as her favorite activity during the last years of her life.  At 97-and-a-half, (One counts the half if one is under five or over 90, I believe) she still had all her wits about her.  She retained curiosity, too, asking after each grandchild or great-grandchild in order, never missing a name.  All she’d lost was enthusiasm for her own life.

I never fail to think of her when I play.  The memory is bittersweet.  Our family had hoped she would enjoy her final years at her beautiful apartment, a facility with a full program of restaurants, recreation and music.  Instead, she resisted all entreaties to socialize.  She explained, in nearly so many words, she had no interest in making new acquaintances, in feigning interest in their children and grandchildren.

When I received the call that she’d died I felt sadness, but also a measure of relief.  She’d died in her sleep, without having seen a doctor, let alone a hospital, in years.  She’d never complained about her declining physical abilities, and she’d never admitted to any pain.  I regret now that an impulse to call her with good news cannot take place, but I can’t say I really miss our typical later conversations captured, almost verbatim, as follows, after we’d “covered” all the children:

Me:  “Is anything interesting happening there?”

Mom:    “Nothing.”

Me:  “What are you doing today?”

Mom:  “Not much. Reading.”

Me:  “What will you do this evening?  Is there a concert or movie to see?”

Mom:  “Not interested.”

 

*****

 

The theme at the funeral was, accurately, what a long and eventful life she’d led and what a painless death.  Born poor, she’d moved often throughout the 1920’s while her family struggled.  Only because her father ran a small grocery store, the Depression did not result in hunger.  She married my father, a much older man, right after high school, a choice perhaps more pragmatic than romantic, and proceeded to run a middle class household.  She gave birth to children when she was 21, 23 and 25, with an exclamation point (me) when she was 35.  She insisted I had not been “a mistake,” a contention I appreciated.  (My father could never bring himself to verbally affirm her assurance, though he acted sufficiently happy to have me, once I appeared).

My mother enrolled in college as soon as I started first grade, graduated with honors and completed a master’s degree by age fifty. Tired of relying upon my father to place $90 on the bureau each week, an amount unchanged from 1941 to the 1970’s, she loved her career as a public school librarian and the freedom it afforded.

 

*****

 

As good a death as we commemorated in December, the events of 2020 have served to make her passing seem providential.  Though adept at social distancing, my mother would be miserable under the present circumstances.  As at many such senior facilities, she would now be in her fifth month of imprisonment in her apartment, with meals dropped off at the door.  I think I can accurately speak for my siblings, too, when I say we all are relieved she isn’t around for the pandemic.  Those turgid phone calls would have continued, but probably in a daily, not-optional, duty-bound sort of way.

Missing politics in 2020 is also fortunate.  Before 2016, my mother would contradict any suggestion that “things have never been so terrible.”  She’d experienced the Depression and the anti-Semitic demagogues like Father Coughlin in the 1930’s, World War Two and the Holocaust in the 1940’s, McCarthyism in the 1950’s and Nixon in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

My mother was interested in politics.  She often recounted her adoration for FDR and how she cried upon news of his death.  Perhaps unusual for a high school grad with three young children she campaigned door-to-door for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.  She placed a McCarthy sticker on her car in 1968.  Though she detested Nixon like any good Democrat, she still believed the United States was special and, through his impeachment-spurred resignation, felt the political system was vindicated.

Therefore, nothing was so disillusioning as the reckless disregard of American values represented by the election of a reality-television buffoon as president in 2016.  She didn’t believe in voting frivolously and could not fathom how any rational person could vote for such a clown.  For her sake, I’m sorry she cannot at least make one last vote in November.  But the nightmare he and his cult-followers are likely to unleash in the next 100 days would likely shock even the most jaded nonagenarian.  Just thinking about it makes me understand her end-of-life attitude a little better; I will now go lose myself in a Scrabble game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


DESPERATE MEASURES

 

 

Not only does the new normal involve wearing masks and gloves in public, it also places people in other positions never before imagined.  While my hair still retains a semblance of the appearance it gained from my last haircut, albeit longer and curlier, my wife, Katie, recently perceived hers to be in dire straits.  The emergence of grey at the roots disturbed her to such an extent she enlisted me to assist in coloring her hair!

*****

 

As with childbirth and numerous household undertakings, I generally have it easier than Katie in the world of hair.  About a decade ago, silver interlopers began to infiltrate my dark brown mane.  Instead of perceiving a crisis, people said it looked good with “salt and pepper.”  Gradually, the ratio of salt to pepper increased. Now I barely have enough pepper to justify the phrase.  My hair color has so much salt, perhaps it should be called briny.  Still, there are no telltale roots to call attention to my aging appearance.  Those pesky roots are probably what cause people, men and women alike, who commenced coloring their hair to continue coloring their hair, ad infinitum.

Personally, I’m not judging the appearance of grey in a woman’s hairdo.  Grey can be attractive.  Brown or black or red can be attractive.  Nowadays, even pink or purple can be attractive.  But it’s my understanding that once a person starts coloring their hair, it’s hard to break the habit.

*****

 

First, the process:  Katie has used the same color for approximately twenty years.  Gorgeous dark brunette when I met her, she is now an appealing blonde.  Does she have more fun?  “Sometimes,” she says, “but I just like the color, and it goes well with my skin and blue eyes.” I agree, of course.

It is possible to purchase an off-the-shelf hair color product at CVS or the like.  However, Katie first obtained her particular shade from her stylist, Jimmy, in New Jersey.  The situation is akin to house paint: you can buy a ready-made can at the hardware store, but if you want to achieve a particular, precise hue, there is mixing to be done.

When we moved to North Carolina in 2009, Jimmy kindly obtained a year’s worth of the exact color for Katie’s hair dye from his wholesaler and provided it to her.  And for several years, until Katie found a local salon she liked, we’d arrange to pick up additional packages of her color when we visited North Jersey.  Once she established a relationship with Cece, a local stylist, Katie could obtain her color locally.

 

*****

 

I have never had a “stylist.”   From when I was a child of five or six, and continuing through adolescence, I had a barber named Dominic.  His coke-bottle thick glasses unsettled me, but Dominic did the job without unintended amputations or further ado except he often complained to my mother I had “two holes in my head.”  Such a concept was initially alarming.  Eventually I understood the “hole” was the whorl of hair at the top of my head; most people have one clearly defined whorl.  Apparently, I had two.  Or so he said.  No one has mentioned it since.

Perhaps, it was his glasses or, perhaps, his complaints, but I felt no loyalty to Dominic.  As soon as I attended college, I embarked on a thirty-five year odyssey through a series of barbers, cutters and crimpers.  Whatever was convenient is where I went.  While the cutters changed, my “style” did not.   In the last couple of years, I have also gone to Cece, who is invariably friendly and capable.  In fact, Cece is certainly capable of far more than I ask of her.  Every seven or eight weeks, I have a “trim.”  My annual hair budget is about $150.

 

*****

 

I knew Katie has a stash of her color.  I didn’t know, however, that another element of hair color is “developer.”  Apparently, it is built into the generic hair color packages one buys at the pharmacy.  But for bespoke hair, one must mix the color and the developer precisely.  This is where expertise comes in; also, one has to be able to obtain the developer and, as sweet as Cece is, and as doubtlessly willing to help if asked, it’s awkward to ask one’s stylist to provide developer during the pandemic hair hiatus.  That’s like asking your landscaper to provide you a mower so you can do the job without him.  Fortunately for Katie, though not for him, a new neighbor of ours owns a salon presently shut down by the pandemic.  He was happy to swap a supply of developer for several bottles of wine.  Now, to the mixing and the application….

*****

 

Katie had commenced applying a mixture of developer and color herself when she urgently called me upstairs. When I arrived in the bathroom, she had a towel draped over her shoulders and an expression of fear and anxiety I’d rarely seen.   She listed some of the problems before we even considered the greatest possible problem, namely: I was going to be taking over the application of the dye.  “There are areas on top, the sides and back I can’t see,” she said.

Further, Katie said: “I hope the mix of dye and developer is okay.  And what if it’s not covering sufficiently?”  She continued:  “Also, the brush,” (salvaged from a watercolor paint set), “may not have been applying color evenly.”  She explained there is a lag between application of the coloring and when the roots begin to transform from telltale grey.

While Katie held up strands of hair with a comb to reveal cross-sections of roots, I took hold of the brush, dipped it into the bowl of mix and prepared to apply my first strokes.  “Careful,” she said, as I immediately dripped some excess onto her ear, which reminded us why I’ve been fired for life from house-painting projects.

Gradually, while both of us were anxious, we found a rhythm.  Katie moved her comb a few centimeters and I dabbed.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Of course, I had to replenish the brush after every few strokes.  This process involved such pitfalls as placing too much color on the brush, too little, not rubbing hard enough, rubbing too hard, etc.  When we felt all the areas had, at least, been touched, we paused to see the result.  Over twenty-five minutes or so, the applied color emerged to cover eighty percent of the roots.  “A solid B-minus,” I declared, satisfied.

“Not good enough,” said Katie.  “Let’s do it again.”

I couldn’t protest because, of course, she was right.  The importance of a woman’s hair color and the sensitivity around the subject cannot be underestimated!  I tentatively loaded the brush again and aimed for the remaining grey.  Tightrope walkers probably concentrate less when crossing a thousand-foot gorge.

After ten more interminable minutes that seemed much longer, we stepped back from the mirror, put down our respective comb and brush, and waited to see the results.  Slowly, slowly, it came.  “Hmmmm,” we looked at each other in surprise.  “Not bad.”

Indeed, her hair color looked almost as it did after a professional job.  It was, at least, in the ballpark.  And our marriage was still intact.  The job will not last as long as if Cece had done it, but a few weeks of benefit had been earned.

We’d achieved a win-win-win.  We saved money; we appreciated each other’s efforts; and, we derived a great deal of satisfaction from the accomplishment.  So, do we want to do it again?  Please, no!!!  My maiden entry into the world of cosmetology went as well as could be hoped, I think.  But the disclaimer “you wouldn’t want to do this at home,” still adheres.

Now, for someone to cut the bangs….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A MOTHER GOOSE TALE

 

 

We live across the street from a pond.  For the past three springs there have been geese but no goslings, ducks but no ducklings, and swans…. Well, actually, there has never been a swan.  Last Friday morning, for the first time, I noticed a goose had chosen to make her nest and lay eggs.  She’d built the nest seemingly overnight.  It leans against the dry side of a concrete storm drain outlet separated from a parking area by about thirty feet of grass.  Her partner (for geese are said to be monogamous) swims or rests nearby.  Basic research into goose behavior indicates the mother will incubate her eggs for 25-30 days, rarely, if ever, leaving to bathe or eat.  The parents will also defend their nest aggressively if they feel threatened.

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*****

 

This slice of natural life allows one to witness thrilling aspects of animal behavior.  One also learns about humans behavior, which has been less than thrilling.  Within just a few hours, for instance, the nest attracted the attention of a young mother walking her two-year-old.  From my vantage point across the street I saw them immediately express excitement and bound towards the nest, stopping just several feet away.  The mother goose snapped to rigid alertness, and her mate flew across the pond to monitor the possible threat.  I’m not certain what the human mother thought, but she did gather her child and step back.

Only moments later, a teenaged boy approached within arms length of the nest and just stood there.  He stared as though he were seeing a ghost, not a goose.

“She might need some space,” I suggested, from across the street.

“But I’m not doing anything,” he responded, with the special tone of aggrieved defensiveness only a 15-year-old can muster.

“Perhaps you cannot do anything from a few steps back,” I said, with the tone only an officious boomer can muster.

He grudgingly moved back.

For the safety of the goose and people, it occurred to me I should make some sort of barrier at least twenty feet from the nest.  I did so by hammering into the ground several tall gardening stakes and connecting them with thick electric tape.  Surely, I thought, people will give the nesting mother her privacy.

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I am so naïve.  At first, the barrier only served to capture peoples’ attention.  All of a sudden, neighbors who have never previously appeared to notice the pond while they drove or walked past stopped to see the ”attraction.”  And there are a lot of neighbors around now, staying at home due to the virus.  They snap pictures; they gesticulate; they call over their spouses and children like the scene is worthy of a David Attenborough nature documentary.  Most stayed behind the tape.  I felt I had done what I could.

 

 

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*****

 

The next day dawned warm and sunny.  I saw the mother goose on her nest.  She sat serenely all morning despite the parade of people.  Mid-afternoon, I walked across to the parking lot to pick up mail.  When I turned back towards home, I saw a neighbor who I will call “Mark” emerge from his driveway with a golf club and a handful of balls.  This appearance was not unusual; Mark is a thirty-something-year-old Naval Academy graduate who works as an engineer.  I know from brief interactions over the years that he loves to golf.  He practices on the grass near the pond several times a season.

To my astonishment, however, he appeared to be lining up to target the nest.  His first shot landed just short of the tape barrier and rolled within feet of the nest.  His second shot was identical.  The third went farther and splashed into the pond beyond.

Outraged, I shouted:  “Are you kidding?”  I strode towards him from 100 feet away.  He ignored me and walked to retrieve his golf balls.

“You know there’s a goose there, right?”  I said, when I drew closer.

“Hunh?” he replied.  “Why do you care?”

Mark continued to move towards the nest and reached for the balls with his club.  The mother honked with alarm.  Her partner flapped his wings nearby.

“They will attack,” I said.

“I have this,” he said, brandishing his golf club.

He seemed truly mystified I was upset.  For an instant, I nearly let loose a stream of blurted insults and threats. The words “moron” and “cretin” would have been included.  But I didn’t.

 

*****

 

Dear Reader:  Have you ever had a moment when a river of thoughts cascade through your mind at once and, perhaps, bring you back from the brink of making a terrible decision?  During this moment I considered the following information:

  1. Given his mind-set Mark could reasonably be surprised I cared about a nest of Canadian geese. After all, in reality, once those geese hatched and learned to walk as far as my lawn, I will be chasing them away with a broom due to their prolific pooping;
  2. Canadian geese are the opposite of an endangered species.  If anything, they are overpopulating;
  3. Mark has all the hallmarks of being our neighborhood’s only Trump supporter. Unnecessary pick-up truck: check.   NRA sticker: check.  Deep Southern accent and military hairdo: check.  Barbell set-up in his garage along with a wall television invariably tuned to Fox: check.  In other words, if I went one phrase further in my verbal assault on behalf of Mother Goose, he might have decided to exercise his second amendment rights.  It could have become: “Thoughts and prayers” for me.

*****

 

All the foregoing merged into the following change of topic and de-escalation gambit:

“So, Mark, what did you think of Captain Crozier’s firing?”  I asked.

“I was a little surprised they took it that far,” he answered.

“I just finished reading ‘Indianapolis’” I told him, referencing the book about the World War II naval disaster.

“Yes, I remember that,” said Mark.  “But I wasn’t really into naval history, just engineering,” he added.

I paused.

“Well,” I finally said, gesturing towards the goose, now settled back onto her nest, “I was just hoping to give her some privacy.”

Mark considered my remark in silence for a moment.  His blank expression provided no clue to his thoughts.

“Oh” he muttered quietly.  “I was just really… really surprised the balls bounced that far… really.”

I was skeptical.  Knowing he’s an excellent golfer, if he were truly surprised, he would have adjusted his second and third shots after the first one bounced directly to the nest.  But I decided to accept his statement at face value as his way of offering de-escalation.  “Quit while you’re ahead,” I told myself.

Still, I couldn’t resist asking:  “Isn’t it odd that the guy in Washington would pardon someone who slit the throat of a disabled prisoner, but comes out in favor of firing a hero like Commander Crozier?”

He didn’t respond.

“Well, enjoy your practice,” I said, and departed.

Mark’s subsequent shots were directed away from the nest.

 

*****

 

Reviewing the incident and the community’s extraordinary fascination with the nest (Mark being the exception) over the past week, I can only conclude the coronavirus is making us desperately crave a positive example of nature’s wonder.  It has certainly made me more emotionally invested in a goose’s nest than I could have thought possible.  Throughout the day a continuous stream of people come to gaze at Mother Goose.  They point and marvel at the devotion of the gander as he hovers nearby.  It may be a bogus anthropomorphic perception, but I think he’s DEFINITELY puffing his chest farther than usual with pride as he glides across the pond.

 

 

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If all goes well, my brief research tells me the eggs will hatch in another three weeks or so.  The goslings will be able to walk and swim in just a day or two, which seems miraculous.  And they will doubtless be adorable!  They will be able to fly in two-three months.  Thereafter, they will become a nuisance.  For now, at least, let’s focus on the positive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


HINT OF MORTALITY

 

 

I recently experienced my first “Mohs” surgery, a “minor” procedure to remove basal cell skin cancer from a spot above my right temple.  Two weeks earlier, when the dermatologist had found the offending spot at the end of my routine, annual check-up, he exclaimed, “Wow, 99.5% done with the examination and there it is!”  His enthusiasm was somehow lost on me.  It was as though he’d found a missing wallet or keys, as always, in the last place he’d thought to look.

First, let me acknowledge clearly a patch of basal cell skin cancer is not in any waycomparable to “real” cancer, the type that kills or debilitates.  My “suffering,” if I dare use that word, is infinitesimal compared to that of numerous friends, relatives and millions of other cancer patients around the world.  Still, the first time one hears “CANCER” in a doctor’s office in connection with oneself, it is a bit of a shock.

 

*****

 

The young doctor followed up his diagnosis by explaining my two options:  first, since the spot appeared small and largely covered by hair, he could scrape it off at his office, and patch me back together, leaving a small scar.  “That will almost certainly take care of it,” he said.  “Of course,” he added, with a nod towards my age appropriate receding hairline, “you might not always have hair there.”

Second, he could refer me to a Mohs surgeon who, as I understood it, undertakes the same procedure, but with greater precision to make sure “it’s all gone,” and who repairs the resulting wound in a manner less likely to leave a scar.  Though irrelevant in the scheme of things, it is interesting to note the cost of the first procedure, barring complications, is in the realm of $300-$500; the second procedure costs $1,500-$2,500, the variable largely based on whether all the cells are deemed gone after the initial scrape or if several scrapes are necessary.

“Take a week or two to think about it,” he said.  “No rush.  This cancer grows very, very slowly.”

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, who is wise and efficient in these matters, searched reviews of local Mohs surgeons within ten minutes.  “It might take awhile to get scheduled,” she said,  “And we can always cancel if you just want to let the dermatologist handle it.”  She was right, as usual.  The first appointment with “the best one around” was two months away.

What price vanity?  The internal debate proceeded as follows: Each morning for a week I looked at myself in the mirror.  On one hand, my forehead already has a few scars from a college soccer injury and a childhood fall.  And it would be nice to just visit the doctor I already know and have him “take care of it” expeditiously.  On the other hand, the idea of a “specialist” handling the situation seems prudent.  And, yes, though there surely is a point at which vanity is tooexpensive, $1,000-$1500 isn’t too much to avoid another scar.  I’d hate to feel compelled to do a comb-over – Commander Bone Spur in Washington has made that distasteful.  What to do?

*****

 

My telephone soon vibrated with the answer.  A cancellation at the surgeon’s made it possible for me to undergo Mohs on half an hour’s notice.  No more waiting, no more walking around with cancer cells growing, however slowly, in my scalp, and no scar.  I drove to the office with as much enthusiasm as I could muster for the prospect of someone applying a scalpel to my skin.  In two or three days, I thought, I’d take off the bandage and be done.

Boy, was I naïve.  Again, Mohs surgery is minor in every respect compared to “real” surgery, but to my surprise, it’s a lot more than “a scrape and a band aid.”  First, after the customary twenty minute wait in the chilly room, the nurse arrived to review my medical history.  Next, my vital signs were taken.  Then, after another multiple-minute interval, the surgeon entered and introduced himself along with an assistant (resident doctor) to look at and touch my temple.  “Hmmm,” said the surgeon.  “Yes,” said the resident.  “Should be okay this way,” said the surgeon.

The doctors took photographs.  They drew a diagram on my head of the planned incision, a slightly ticklish sensation.  They injected me with local anesthetic.  They told me they’d be back in “a little while,” and left.  After half an hour to assure the anesthetic worked, the team reassembled.   My effort at humor in regards to being a “numbskull” fell flat.  Perhaps, it was not the first time they’d heard that one.

Finally, excavation began.  And continued… and continued.  I pictured myself ending up like Jack Nicholson in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”  After a few particularly decisive scrapes (I felt no pain, but could feel pressure) the doctor and his assistant pronounced themselves satisfied, took some photographs, and explained that I could go to lunch and return in 60 minutes, by which time they would know if they had “gotten all of it, even the roots.”  The surgeon used an instrument to temporarily cauterize the wound and left me in the care of the nurse who placed a massive gauze bandage over it.

 

*****

 

I stopped in the restroom to wash my hands and glanced at the mirror.  Ugh.  I looked like I’d truly had a lobotomy.  Could I really be seen in public?  Fortunately, my self-consciousness receded when I arrived at the local sandwich shop and noticed three other people with roughly the same appearance.  Apparently, the surgeon’s offices are in a hotbed of Mohs activity.  The procedure is practically a rite of passage for people “of a certain age,” an age I have now attained.

When I returned to the waiting area at the appointed time I waited for an additional hour.  Apparently, said the receptionist, someone’s surgery became “much more involved” and the surgeon was running behind.  “Hmmmm,” I cringed to myself, “I hadn’t considered the possibility this procedure could become ‘much more involved.’”

To my relief, the nurse came out shortly thereafter and informed me the examination of my cells indicated all the cancer was removed, and I would not need additional scraping.  “We’ll bring you in in a few minutes for stitching,” he concluded.

“Stitching?” I said.

“Just two layers,” he responded.

So much for a couple of days with a Band-aid.

 

*****

 

Two layers of stitches helped me realize the procedure was a lot more than just a scrape.  The surgeon and his assistant seemed to take turns tying and snipping and pulling.  The process probably took ten-fifteen minutes but I perceived it took hours.  When they finished, a relatively smaller bandage covered the incision. I received three pages of instructions for “wound care.”  Basically, after the first week, one must change the bandages every day after a thorough cleaning with a Q-tip (sort of a contradiction in terms), slathering of Vaseline, and placement of a fresh bandage.  The doctor’s final words were:  “Don’t be too active for two to three weeks and try to minimize bending over.  Also, don’t sleep on that side.”

 

*****

 

Three weeks have now passed and all seems well.  The outer stitches have fully dissolved and the instructions indicate the inner stitches should be dissolving also.  Some sensations are returning to my right temple.  I’m back to athletic activities after a period of extreme antsy-ness.  And I have resumed sleeping on both sides, which is a relief.  I have a new respect for wearing a hat when I go into the sun.  Also, though fully aware my procedure was not major and unworthy of excessive self-pity, an appreciation for what should be a proverb:  “Minor surgery can only describe surgery that occurs to someone else.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?

 

 

We moved to North Carolina from New Jersey a decade ago.  The first neighbor I met, an elderly man, spoke Southern.  He approached from across the street, but kept both arms by his side, not reaching out to shake hands.  His pronunciation made single syllable words sound like three.  “Whose si—ii—de are ya aw—ww-n?” I thought he meant the Civil War.

I must have appeared startled because he hastened to add:  “Y’know, Caroliiiiiina or Doook?  Basketba – aa – ll is what Ahhhhm talkin’ about.”

Relieved, I laughed and said:  “That’s easy.  Our son goes to UNC.”  For a second, though, it occurred to me he might be a Duke fan.  But he clasped my arm, offered a broad smile, and declared:  “We’re gonna get along ju – uu—st fi – ii –ne.”

 

*****

 

Having moved from New Jersey, I didn’t consider college basketball to be an object of passion.  In my experience, no one lost sleep over the result of Rutgers versus Seton Hall.  In Philadelphia, where I grew up, professional sports dominated the sporting scene.  College basketball commanded some attention during the dead months of January and February, when the Eagles and Phillies rested.  Still, coverage was limited; it focused on infrequent match-ups between the local “Big-5” schools:  St. Joe’s, LaSalle, Penn, Temple and Villanova.  I rooted for Penn because my brother, Barry, went there.  However, I never thought less of people who preferred one of the other schools, certainly not the way UNC and Duke fans disdain each other.

 

*****

 

I didn’t play much basketball as a youngster.  For reasons never known to me I always stubbed my fingers when I “shot hoops.”   Around age eight a group of us occasionally played at a friend named Mark’s house where a wooden backboard with peeling paint hung flat against the wall of a garage.   All of us were appropriately height-challenged; the short and adjustable fiberglass backboards enjoyed by kids nowadays hadn’t been invented.  Frustration inevitably caused us to quit and resume playing something baseball-related.  Alternatively, if we were tired of playing, Mark’s family had an enormous, 16-inch television.

When Mark moved away around age ten, my basketball career came to a merciful end.  It didn’t resume until intramural play during college. Alas, no magical transformation had occurred though I was modestly taller than most.  I still stubbed my fingers and evidenced no special talent.

 

*****

 

Now that I’ve lived in ”The Triangle” for ten years I can honestly say I am well versed on all-things related to UNC basketball.  I’ve visited their museum, I’ve attended several games in person and I can recite the years of their national championships.  I have opinions, however half-baked, about each of the players.  Not only me, but my wife, Katie, also has formed opinions based upon even less expertise than I.  In part, this is due to our present desperation to discuss ANYTHING other than politics.  Heck, we’ve even taken to discussing the football team on occasion, and few people who follow UNC sports have sunk that low.

Fortunately for us, supporting UNC basketball from 2009 to the first half of 2019 has been a winning proposition, like rooting for the Yankees in baseball or Ken Jennings in Jeopardy.  This season, however, the script is flipped.  All of last season’s top players graduated, exhausted college eligibility or chose to forsake their “educations” for greener pastures. When I say “greener,” the connection to NBA money is intentional.

The remaining spare pieces from last year are not particularly competent, and the top freshman recruit is now injured.  The situation is so dire the coach has resorted to utilizing several walk-ons in actual, meaningful minutes of game play.  For the uninitiated, walk-ons are the guys who sit at the far end of the bench and perform as cheerleaders during games.  Besides offering encouragement to their abler teammates, their roles on top teams are to fill out a practice squad and do well enough in class to prop up the team grade point average.  They almost NEVER play in an actual game.

Walk-ons are an enduring mystery.  However far down the bench they sit, most of them doubtless starred in high school.  These kids were masters of their driveway basketball hoops.  Yet, their high schools were not in the crucible where future NBA players are forged.  Rather, they hail from far-off suburbs or rural areas with small schools and relatively weak competition.   Some might have achieved stardom at a small college, but they’ve chosen to be cheerleaders at an elite program instead.  Apparently, the level of play at the top is in a different universe, because these hitherto excellent athletes suffer humiliating stage fright.  They can’t pass.  They can’t catch.  They definitely can’t shoot.  The hoop is a standard size, no matter where you play, but for walk-ons at UNC, it appears to be smaller than a golf hole.

 

*****

 

Our neighbor lived long enough to see UNC’s most recent national championship, in 2017.  He died a happy man shortly thereafter.  UNC plays Yale this evening.  According to our local newspaper (yes, there still is one), Yale is expected to win. In this sense only, it is good the gentleman is deceased; the ignominy of a defeat at the hands of an Ivy League school might have killed him.

 

 

 

 


THERE IS NO PLANET B

 

The United Nations hosted meetings last week devoted to the environment.  As usual, politicians, celebrities, and celebrity politicians urged action, the largest countries obfuscated, or worse, and nothing meaningful occurred.  Among the speakers was the now-famous 16-year-old from Sweden, Greta, who lambasted the “adults in the room” for their failures.  Until recently, I found Greta’s lack of nuance and diplomacy somewhat off-putting.  I preferred a more mature, polished and politically correct presentation of the need for action.  Al Gore, for instance.  Now, I conclude:  “Greta is right.”

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My personal introduction to environmental activism arose in 8th grade (1970) when my school commenced a newspaper-recycling program.  Actually, to call it a “program” overstates reality.  A box marked “paper” was placed next to a dumpster in an obscure, far-off corner of the faculty parking lot.  If a person were self-motivated to gather newspapers, and able in turn to convince their carpool-driving parent(s) to detour to the box, a tiny contribution to the world’s salvation could be achieved.

I recall being fairly diligent collecting the papers and both my parents cooperated.  The activity satisfied my desire to “do something” but didn’t go further.  My only other environmental impulse from the teenage years was to object to my mother or sister’s tendency to want to take a walk and to then drive thirty minutes to do so.  The “drive to a walk” concept always bothered me as vaguely “defeating the purpose.”  However, I didn’t know what the “purpose” might be.  Concepts like wasting gas or creating emissions had not occurred to me.  Compared to many teens, I just wasn’t excited by driving.

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For most of the intervening years until 2000, environmental destruction remained, for me, vaguely disturbing.  Of course, I supported “conservation” and even made the occasional contributions to the Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund.  They sent me t-shirts and calendars in return.  But I certainly didn’t expect climate changes to occur in my lifetime.

Now that I’m a grandfather I look at the world differently.  I not only concern myself with the several decades I might still experience but the six or eight or ten that my grandchildren can anticipate.  Yet, if I only view my own lifespan, there are shocking changes taking place.  Without recounting all their now-famous names, it is common to see a “500-year hurricane” or “1,000-year flood” on an annual basis.  Fifteen of the eighteen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.  While not being so naïve as to confuse short-term weather with long-term climate, on an emotional basis I am alarmed to look at a thermometer on September 26 and see it is 93 degrees.  It’s been too hot all summer to play tennis outside.  While such an example seems trivial, the warming climate is actually affecting daily life!

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As recently as 1999 I bought a car that obtained a wasteful 19 MPG without a pang of conscience.    But as the new millennium proceeded I began to question my daily lifestyle a little more.  My recycling efforts were increasingly diligent.  To the dismay of my children I became fanatical about “turning off the lights.”  Admittedly, my motivation was partially economic, but I also turned off unnecessary lights at work, where I did not pay the electric bill.

“An Inconvenient Truth” struck a chord in 2007, right around the time I also saw “March of the Penguins.” Between the two documentaries, I recognized mankind is blithely ruining the earth not only for our selves, and future generations, but also for every other creature.  Most infuriating to me, a huge segment of society, including one of our two political parties and their media shills, are actively discouraging improvements.  They are overturning long-established clean air and clean water policies that were originally signed by President Nixon!  Doesn’t everyone breathe air and drink water?  Don’t people throughout the political spectrum have children and grandchildren and/or concern about nature?

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I took my first concrete action shortly thereafter when I traded in my gas-guzzler for a hybrid.  Sad to say, the salesman didn’t know how to turn on the silent car and in his embarrassment encouraged me to buy something more conventional, something cheaper.  Can you imagine a car salesman discouraging a ready and willing buyer?

I found it immensely satisfying to leap from 19 MPG to 40 and wondered what else I could do.  In 2011, I added solar panels to the roof, thus cutting our coal powered electric use in half.  Every day, in the beginning, I raced to the computer to see how much the sun had produced.  Now, eight years later, and in a different home, to which we also added solar panels, it’s still satisfying.  In a small way it helps with the problem, it saves money, and in a more spiritual way, I enjoy being conscious of the power of the sun.

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These days, my efforts  (with the full cooperation/endorsement of my wife, Katie) have moved towards the obvious (refusing straws and plastic bottles) and the slightly less obvious, such as:  bringing our own re-useable take-out containers to restaurants and our own utensils if we know they only offer plastic.  We are fanatical about using our own bags at stores and even our HANDS when we buy just a few items.  It’s amazing how confused and even offended some cashiers appear when we refuse their offer of a plastic bag.  We’ve nearly cut out red meat from our diet, which is another win-win; less meat consumption leads to less abuse of the earth via methane releases and land-use, and is almost certain to be healthier for us.

 

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Friends have reacted to our behavior in a variety of ways.  Some appear not to notice.  A few congratulate us for our efforts and say they are inspired to emulate us.  The majority, however, fall somewhere in between.  They would vaguely like to “change a few things” and “help out” but state:  “It’s just so hard to remember to bring my own bags.  I can’t be bothered.”  With a few exceptions, none have purchased a more efficient car with the environment in mind or purchased solar panels.

Until recently, my response to those who spurn re-usable bags by saying: “it’s too much trouble,” or, “it’s too difficult to remember” formed from the empathetic, compassionate part of my brain.  I nodded and said: “I understand.”  But now my thoughts (if not yet my spoken response) arises from somewhere more primitive.  “Come on, people.  It’s not difficult.  You are not a moron.  You can really put a few in your car and remember to use them.  DO SOMETHING!”

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I read the foregoing with a sinking feeling some will view me as self-righteous.  That exemplar of moral clarity, Dick Cheney, once dismissed energy-saving efforts as matters of “personal virtue,” an unnecessary indulgence.  To that, I can only ask: “What is wrong with righteousness?  What is wrong with a little virtue?”  It’s available to everyone.  For free.

Greta feels the situation is urgent.  I agree with her, both from a practical viewpoint and a moral viewpoint.  The aforementioned Dick Cheney, in fraudulently pushing our nation into the second Iraq war, once argued:  “If there’s just a one percent chance Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, we have to do something and do it soon.”   With regard to the changes mankind is wreaking upon the earth and its climate, unless we change course immediately, does anyone doubt there is more than a one percent chance it will end in catastrophe?

 

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