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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REPORT FROM DOWN UNDER

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 


GRANDPARENTHOOD

 

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

 

*****

 

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

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

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

 

*****

 

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

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

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

 

*****

 

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

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

 

*****

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 


HOME SECOND HOME

 

 

Upon arrival at my daughter, Kelly’s new second home, I encounter scenic mountain views, fresh air, and initially, solitude. I hear rustling leaves, chirping birds and the burbling of a babbling brook. The hubbub surrounding her primary home in Brooklyn recedes. So, too, does the effect on my lower back of the as-good-as-possible three-hour drive. But is this purely paradise? Not exactly — within twenty-four hours, Kelly introduces me to the pool man, the pest man, the tree man, the lawn care man, the general maintenance man, the generator repairman and the tractor repairman. (Apologies for the anachronistic-seeming gender designations, but it is what it is.) All these men knew Kelly would be arriving, except for the last two; they came in response to the maintenance man’s call informing them that repairs were needed. Rest assured, they all have their hands out for payment.

 

*****

 

My wife and I once owned a second home. For added degree of difficulty it was in Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country 2,800 miles south of our then-New Jersey home. How we came to own such a property is a long story. In brief, an opportunity arose in 2003 to obtain something special. For the price of a garage in northern Jersey, we bought an acre lot atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Every time we thought about our acquisition, the part of the brain devoted to happy things fired neurons. We planned to build a house. We interviewed builders. We contemplated sunsets.

By early 2004 our project commenced. We’d hired a husband-wife team who’d moved to Costa Rica from California a decade earlier, herein referred to as “Tim” and “Lisa.” Tim was the builder and Lisa the designer, decorator and landscaper. We embraced several of her dream concepts that no one had before, namely: an interior garden to separate the living room from the master bedroom; a waterfall in the family room; and, a roof line that appeared to be floating above clerestory windows.

When Tim faxed photographs of the cleared lot before we even owned the property, we were thrilled.  We wondered how he had achieved this feat.   Was it pure trespassing?   Was it bribery of local officials? We chose to consider it extreme efficiency. Things are a little looser than in New Jersey, to say the least.

Each month, roughly in conjunction with the timing of our wire transfers, Tim sent photographic updates. To my surprise, construction proceeded on time and on budget. The story of our house in Playa Hermosa is NOT a horror story about being ripped off in a real estate scam. (Luckily, we turned down opportunities to invest in, among other things, a marina “guaranteed to be completed by 2005” which still does not exist. We also turned down a share of a teak plantation that might break even by 2040).

Our experience of second home ownership, initially so exciting, is a litany of little irritants, the “death by a thousand cuts,” that gradually erodes enthusiasm.  It is said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Indeed, once completed, our house could have appeared on the cover of “Architectural Digest.” But it contained plumbing and electrical systems seemingly completed by trial and error.

The infinity pool, achingly beautiful as it led one’s eyes straight to the ocean beyond, leaked in myriad ways. Was it the plumbing? Cracks in the liner? In the tile? The pool man suggested the daily loss of a foot of water might indicate we were in a “special evaporation zone.” In eighteen months of ownership, the mystery never resolved.

We received a faxed picture of mold forming under the roof during the rainy season. “$1,000 should do the removal,” wrote our property manager. Another email told us about the irrigation system prone to being run over by the lawnmower. “Don’t worry,” wrote the manager. “It’s only a few hundred…every few months.” The front gate, a wrought-iron creation by a local artist, looked beautiful. If only it operated without repair for more than a few months at a time.

And the staff, oh, the staff. It included: one property manager, two rental agents; a succession of lawn companies; a “weed man;” two pool-related teams, one to maintain the water quality and one for structural matters; a “gate man;” a cleaning crew; and, an irrigation manager. If only it included an irritation manager.

 

*****

 

For a year or so, we experienced our adventure as originally planned. We visited often, hosted friends and family, and reveled in how different it was from our humdrum existences at home. But the sheer weight of aggravation and complication wore us down. To defray costs we occasionally rented the house to strangers.   After damages wrought by a large percentage of such people my outlook soured. For years afterwards, I referred to tenants as “a lower form of humanity.” Only time and large security deposits eventually restored my mood.

We put the house on the market and sold in October 2006 for a windfall profit. What geniuses we appeared to be! The worldwide real estate market sputtered to a standstill shortly thereafter. But we weren’t clairvoyant, just exhausted.

Kelly is still in the glow of new second home ownership. We hope it never wanes. But experience sometimes outweighs hope. For my part, I now enjoy visiting OTHER people’s second homes.

 

 

 

 

 


PHILADELPHIA PHUTILITY

 

 

The Philadelphia Phillies blew a baseball game in the final inning last night. That’s unfortunate, but not notably so. In fact, it has already happened eight times in this young season. Losing is an art form for the Phillies, the only professional franchise IN THE WORLD to have lost over 10,000 times. They hold the record for longest losing streak, too – 23 games in 1961.

When ahead in the final inning, they lose by way of home runs, errors, strikeouts, etc. Basically, they lose in all the usual ways. And once, in 1964, just once, they lost in an extraordinary way – the opposition stole home to deliver a 1-0 verdict. For non-baseball fans, stealing home in a major league game is like a total solar eclipse; it happens a couple times a year somewhere in the world, but rarely.

 

*****

I recently read a long article in the New Yorker (is there any other length?) about an author’s personal recollections of his grandparents. It’s touching and meaningful and made me ponder my own lack of such familial connections. Three of my four grandparents were deceased before I was born. I only knew my maternal grandfather, Joseph Nemerov, who died when I was nine. By all accounts, the man known to me as “Grand-Pop” was a beloved patriarch, friendly and easy-going, a hero to my mother and her siblings, and also to my father who wholeheartedly embraced him to fill a parental void in his life.

I’m certain I loved Grand-Pop, but my recollections of time spent with him are almost nil. His images in my mind are like disparate photographs, not films or even short videos. I recall the vacation boarding house where we joined him in Atlantic City, but I don’t picture him in any of my memories from there. I vaguely recall being in the backseat of a car he drove; I recall him presiding over a Passover Seder, though honestly, my memory may not be as much my own as based on a photograph I’ve seen. I remember the morning he died because I heard my mother and aunt sobbing in the kitchen downstairs when I awoke. Not knowing what to do, I stayed upstairs and tried to play a baseball-themed board game on my bedroom floor.

I’m sure I was upset about Grand-Pop’s death, and also confused, but what I most remember is feeling ashamed to be concerned about my lack of breakfast. I chose to remain hungry and alone upstairs rather than go downstairs amidst the crying adults.

 

*****

 

One of the few one-on-one experiences with my grandfather I recall, a full-blown memory with time, place and appearance, is tied to the worst historical moment in Phillies’ history.   Given the number of bad moments they have accumulated in their 125-year existence, that is saying something.

Despite their history of futility, in 1964, the Phillies approached the end of the season with a large lead in the National League standings. The city was abuzz with anticipation of the World Series where the Phillies would seek their first title since 1915. In my grandfather’s kitchen, with him and his radio, I remember settling in to listen to the entirety of the late-September game between the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds. (Only weekend games were televised in that era; the radio was still prominent).

I recall Grand-Pop’s shock of white hair and vivid blue eyes. I also remember the square, brown pattern on the linoleum floor in the kitchen and white appliances. I remember the rounded radio, shaped like a toaster, and the familiarity of the sounds at Connie Mack Stadium, the beer and peanut hawkers (“Peanuts here, peeeeenuts!”) that intruded into the background of the broadcast. I recall the familiar ads for Ballentine’s Beer (“Hey, get your cold one”) and the sonorous voice of the team’s long-time announcer, Byrum Saam.   Sitting comfortably beside my grandfather at a card table, we rooted for the home team. It didn’t occur to me then that where he was born, in Ukraine, loyalty to a baseball team was as likely as my rooting for a sports team based on Mars. Most likely, he feigned interest for my sake.

Were this a story in the New Yorker, I would explain in great detail something profound about my interaction with Grand-Pop that evening. But other than the sense that I enjoyed his easy-going company (we played a card game, either “War” or “Casino” while we listened) my specific memory is what happened in the game. It was a tense, scoreless tie until the final inning, when Chico Ruiz, an infielder for the Reds, STOLE HOME to win the game for Cincinnati, 1-0. I remember trying to explain what had happened to my grandfather. “By” Saam better conveyed the amazing moment with his tone of voice – something startling and rare had occurred, but for the WRONG TEAM.

At that moment, it only seemed the Phillies had lost one game, and their unaccustomed position atop the standings wouldn’t be threatened.   Only as the next two weeks unfolded, and they lost ten games in a row, did it become clear Ruiz’s audacity had sent the team into a tailspin from which they never recovered.  The St. Louis Cardinals swooped in like birds of prey to win the title on the last day of the season. Though painful to the Phillies, I didn’t sense a personal connection in that moment, but the intervening half-century has rendered the memory significant to me.

 

 

*****

 

I’m sorry I don’t have more memories of my grandfather. In that era, his presence at every one of my little league games could not be assumed like nowadays. My youthful lack of perspective prevented me from taking more note of the times we did spend together. I hope circumstances will allow me to make more of an impact when I’m a grandfather. At present my only “grandchildren” are dogs. Stella, Boris and Bea definitely love me but I’m doubtful about my place in their long-term memories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


BOYCOTTS

In these hyper-partisan times it’s a chore to keep track of all the personalities, shows and businesses I have to boycott. There’s Papa John’s mediocre pizza due to its owner’s odious positions against raising the minimum wage and universal health insurance. There’s Fox News, the inventor of “we deceive and you believe,” and my related disinclination to watch anything on a Fox station that might incidentally benefit the Murdoch family, the owners. There is, of course, anything owned or supported by any Trump. Ivanka’s products don’t interest me nor do the con man’s golf courses or ugly ties, garish hotels and failing casinos. Thus, while I boycott the foregoing businesses, these are not painful sacrifices. It’s like skipping cigarettes or broccoli rabe, products I skip in the absence of moral or political motivations. I simply don’t like them.

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A dilemma is presented by Chick-fil-A. Here’s the problem: Several years ago, when taking cheap shots didn’t appear to have negative consequences, Chick-fil-A’s bible-thumping owners expressed their feelings against marriage equality and gay rights, in general. They helped fund a referendum their preferred political party used in a cynical (and successful) effort to prod their old and hateful core to vote.

After a backlash, the owners retreated behind a semi-sincere effort to “not offend anyone” and have been circumspect and non-controversial in a corporate way ever since. But I’m confident the owners of the company continue to harbor views I would consider hurtful and would express them openly if it didn’t cost them money. In addition, I’m certain whom they supported for president. I tend to wish for nothing but failure for such people. Accordingly, I know I should continue to boycott their restaurants.

Unfortunately, my new home is only one minute from a Chick-fil-A. I pass the building nearly every day, often more than once. When I returned late from a long tennis match hungry for lunch, and didn’t wish to drive out of my way, I recently offered myself an indulgence. “Just once,” I rationalized, “you can go to Chick-fil-A. Maybe they’ve changed. It’s proper to forgive and forget, at least occasionally.” (Even as I thought that last thought, I knew it didn’t sound like me; I didn’t really believe it, and I knew I was simply justifying an indefensible moral position).

As I entered the restaurant, I felt a tinge of embarrassment as though every person there sensed my hypocrisy. I wished I were wearing my “Bernie for President” tee shirt so I wouldn’t be assumed to be among the 71% of Caucasian males who voted for the con man.

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But no one looked at me. I approached the counter. An impossibly cheerful and scrubbed young man wearing a tie asked: “Good afternoon, sir. What would you like?”

Taken aback by his pleasantness, I stumbled, but eventually uttered: “Um, ah, the basic chicken sandwich and fries, please?”

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“Will you be dining in?” he asked.

“Hunh?” I said.

“Will you eat in or take out?” he asked, smiling patiently.

“Oh, I’ll stay, ah, sit, ah, dine here,” I stuttered, hoping my use of “dine” didn’t sound mocking since he really, really seemed sincerely interested in my choice and he really, really seemed to consider what I would be doing with my chicken sandwich and fries to be “dining.”

“And your choice of beverage?” he asked.

“My drink?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Iced tea. Can you mix unsweetened and sweet fifty-fifty?”

“Of course, sir,” he said. “That will be my pleasure. Thank you so much for your order. We’ll bring your meal to your table.”

 

*****

 

My earliest boycott performances were spotty. In middle school, around 1970, I became aware of Cesar Chavez and the campaign to boycott grapes on behalf of the United Farm Workers. Gifted at rationalization, I avoided seeded grapes and red grapes for several years. But I really liked green grapes, and convinced myself they were picked by fairly treated workers.

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Later, when car shopping became relevant to me, I joined many of my co-religionists in not considering a Mercedes or Volkswagen due to their Second World War complicity in the Nazi cause. When my eye caught a cherry red BMW circa 1983, however, I rationalized its purchase on my childhood misunderstanding that BMW was a British company. I knew better by then, but…the car was really beautiful.

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Subsequent boycott efforts lacked political motives. Like most people, I avoid restaurants known to be dirty, stores known to have unpleasant salespersons, etc. But what to do about a restaurant displaying sanitation scores of 100%, friendly workers, and unsalted waffle fries made just the way I like them? This brings me back to Chick-fil-A.

 

*****

 

I take my seat and observe the cheerful and bustling scene around me. Customers run the gamut from toddlers to senior citizens, from every ethnicity, and, I imagine, every gender preference. After only a minute, a young woman with a broad smile brings my meal to my table and sets it before me. “Would you like ketchup, mayonnaise or barbecue sauce?” she asks.

“Just ketchup,” I say.

“Here it is,” she says, as she retrieves several packets from her pocket. “Y’all just let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” I say.

I behold the food before me. In a neat cellophane package is my chicken sandwich. It is hot and juicy, the chicken tender, the pickles zesty, the bread fresh. I’m not claiming this to be a healthy or gourmet choice, but for a fast food sandwich that costs less than $6, it’s good. And the fries? They are plentiful, soft and hot. The table and tray are immaculate. The iced tea is cold and tasty.

“What,” I ask myself as I eat, “am I going to do about my boycott?” Finally, I have an idea. After I eat, I seek out the “Suggestion Box” and write the following to the manager: “I enjoyed my meal today. I would enjoy it even more and, probably more often, if Chick-fil-A would issue a statement in support of all people, no matter their preferences in gender, color or political persuasion. Such a statement should be issued on rainbow paper.” I drop my suggestion in the box.

I’m not going to eat at Chick-fil-A often, but each time I do, I will leave a similar note. If my suggestion is ever followed, I will declare an end to my leaky boycott and urge everyone else to do the same.

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FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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