Archives for category: Reflections

BUCKET LISTS

     A recent visit to Madison, Wisconsin afforded me a host of new experiences. “Look at how many bucket list items you checked off,” enthused my wife, Katie, upon our return.
     “But none of those experiences were on my bucket list,” I responded.
     “They still count,” she insisted.
     “Do they? Can a bucket list be vicarious?”
     Katie’s brother, Harry, worked for several decades developing a commercial real estate business. Though he derived satisfaction from his job, his real dream was to live on a farm. Finally, with his children grown and his rental properties functioning smoothly, Harry bought a one hundred acre farm forty minutes outside of Madison. For better or worse, the property included a house with an award-winning rodent collection, a barn that was falling down, and a well that did not work.
     Harry spent several months between closing and our visit to ameliorate the more odious manifestations of the rodent condition. (We saw nothing larger than a mouse). He fixed the well and developed plans for a major barn reconstruction.
     The first thing we noticed upon entering the property was a spectacular vista of wildflowers. These sprung from seeds sown by Harry and his wife, Jane, on both sides of their mile-long, gravel driveway. When we reached the house, we saw that Jane had also planted a profusion of sunflowers and flower-pots to festoon a shaky, but beautifully situated, wooden patio. Monet would have felt at ease. I was just starting to relax and anticipate a barbecue when Jane proudly announced that we would be the first to share something that she had always wanted to do: lunch would consist entirely of items she had grown or found in her gardens.
     I had forgotten that Jane is beyond vegetarian in the culinary arts. She could aptly be described as a “peculiarian.” Thus, the first unique experience of our visit, a meal made of homegrown vegetables along with a variety of leaves, roots, seeds and weeds. There were some berries, too, but only a bird or a botanist could have identified them.
     The main afternoon activity was to tour the property. Harry was bursting with pride to show off his toys. He had a big green tractor, a small red tractor, and a variety of splitters, grinders and winches. None of these items are exceptional, or even notable, if one has spent time on a farm, but for a Philadelphia boy like me, this was serious machinery. The pinnacle of my previous automotive mastery consisted of attaining semi-competence, one summer, driving a VW Beetle with a stick-shift. I vowed, twenty-five years ago, to never do that again.
     But here I was, taking my turn behind not only the steering wheel, but also more sticks, clutches, buttons and gauges than I had ever seen in one place, guiding several tons of tractor down a furrow (if that is the right word). Thanks to the expert tutelage of the man recently escaped from commercial real estate, there were no calamities.
     The next bucket list experience of the day involved trying to fall asleep on an air mattress in the loft of the barn, surrounded by tools, ropes, cans and countless smells indicative of rural life. It was windy that night and the building groaned like a ship at sea. When I stopped worrying about whether the barn would fall over, I heard my first lifetime coyote howls somewhere disturbingly nearby. I contemplated, for what seemed like hours, whether such animals know how to open doors.
     After what could not have been more than two hours of sleep, I was awakened for the first time in my life by the sound of actual roosters. As the sun finally appeared on the horizon, I segued, as in the finale of a fireworks show, immediately into another new experience – the cold, outdoor shower.
     In sum, the new experiences were interesting and memorable. But, as I learned in an earlier stage of life, when I insanely agreed to co-train for four months to run a marathon, in order to further a friend’s most ardent goal, it could be ill-advised to participate in the completion of other peoples’ bucket lists.


BUBBLE-WRAP

Aunt Bessie was not really my aunt.  Around 1960, she’d married my widowed grandfather and, as such, put herself in an impossible position. Grandpop was the beloved father of three grown daughters. These daughters had deeply loved their mother and venerated their father with devotion and awe.  As a result, at any family event, Aunt Bessie was dissected like a fly being flayed, one wing at a time, by a ten-year-old boy.
“She’s got those funny shoes on today,” noted one of the daughters.
“Her wig is off center,” observed another.
“I bet she’ll fill up the tea-cups half-way,” predicted the third.
“Maybe only a third of a cup today,” said the first one. “There’s a drought.”
All three laughed.  As a result of repetition and, yes, more than a grain of truth, Aunt Bessie’s foibles became family lore. I recall one gathering at my grandfather’s house in honor of my eighth or ninth birthday. In our family, like many, it evolved that only females were responsible for buying gifts. This was unfortunate for me since Grandpop’s more generous nature wouldn’t prevail.  Instead, the woman who famously recycled wrapping paper before “recycling” was even a word, held my fate in her hands.
I spied a misshapen package on a table in the corner of the room, wrapped in creased holiday paper that I knew was destined for me.  By its shape, at least, I knew it wasn’t a tie.  Instead, it was a wooden train engine, exactly the same as I’d received the year before, with the $1.49 price tag still attached.

*****

A decade later, after Grandpop had died, Aunt Bessie lived alone in Atlantic City.  She may have been the last person to move to that town before casinos opened in the late 1970’s to complete its downward spiral.

My mother dutifully visited Aunt Bessie once or twice a year, which was infinitely more than her sisters did.  On one occasion, when I was home from college during a winter vacation, I went along.  We parked beside her windswept apartment building adjacent to the boardwalk.  Angry, grey clouds spread drizzle around screaming seagulls.  Seeing boarded-up storefronts, we worried whether our car would be there when we returned. It was hard to imagine that Atlantic City had once been renowned for sunlight and fun.

Once inside, we walked down a dimly lit, green-wallpapered corridor to Aunt Bessie’s door.  We knocked several times before the noise of the television quieted inside, Aunt Bessie opened up.  Barely five feet at her tallest, she appeared to have shrunk several inches from when I’d last seen her. She peered up at me through thick glasses.
“Oh, my, you’re so tall. Which one are you?” she asked.

*****

During the ride from Philadelphia, my mother and I speculated whether Aunt Bessie would have made a dessert or merely bought whatever was on sale for our visit.  I guessed the former.  My mother predicted the latter.
The apartment was tiny, but neat. My mother enthused about how clean it appeared. Aunt Bessie explained that a cleaner came once a week.
“She’s Puerto Rican, or something like that. I pay her $10. It should only be $5, but what can you do?  People want so much.”
She directed us to a tiny dinette.  On a paper plate was evidence of my mother’s  wisdom – not even a name brand, but generic, store-brand cookies.  My mother looked at me and nodded.  Aunt Bessie offered us a choice of tea or freeze-dried Sanka.  I chose tea, just to see how full the cup would be. Sure enough, she only filled it half-way.
We struggled through polite conversation for half an hour. I told Aunt Bessie about life at college and about my soccer team. She didn’t seem very interested but did perk up when I mentioned that the dorms were coed.

“You mean there are girls where you live?” she asked, surprised.

After my mother filled her in on other developments in the family, which Aunt Bessie tenuously followed, the conversation wound down. She didn’t ask any questions.
“Well,” said my mother, after an awkward silence. “We’ll head home now.  We’ll visit again soon.”
“Wait a minute,” said Aunt Bessie, as we rose from our seats.  She walked slowly into her bedroom and emerged a minute later with a small package of hastily scrunched bubble-wrap, held together by a piece of tape.  She handed the package to me.  My mother looked surprised.  I felt something small but hard inside.  I was glad it didn’t feel like a train engine.  When I pulled the tape apart I held a silver dollar from 1892.
“That’s the year I was born,” said Aunt Bessie.  “Remember that.”
Aunt Bessie died before I saw her again.  But I still have the coin.


TRAJECTORY

     Never had a commercial event in our small town generated more anticipation than the opening of an ice cream shop known as Scoupe de Ville.

     For months, after the “Coming Soon” sign was posted, the former nail salon at the corner of Central and Main was under renovation. First, the nondescript exterior gave way to vivid streamers of pink and blue bunting. Next, the parking lot was repaved from pitted concrete to smooth asphalt with stripes painted like candy canes. Excitement reached a fever pitch when a half-sized replica of an electric blue Cadillac appeared. It hung from a crane in the parking lot for two days awaiting installation, long enough for everyone in town to see it. Finally, after we tired of telling the children: “Soon, soon, it will be open soon,” balloons and banners announcing “Grand Opening” were hung around the building.
     Children were not the only ones who were excited. Adults viewed the store as a sign of class, of local distinction.      

     “Who needs Baskin-Robbins or Haagen Dazs?” we asked each other. We will have an authentic ice cream parlor. We speculated that it would not be long before a cheese shop and an art gallery would open.
     Needless to say, the first week of business was spectacular. The parking lot was full. People waited in line around the block. Families strategized that it was necessary to have ice cream at four in the afternoon, before dinner, just so that they could sit at a table. Following the decorating theme, sundaes were served in cardboard containers shaped like Cadillac convertibles.
     It was a week or two before the first hints of disappointment seeped out.
     “The service was slow,” said some.
     “My ice cream was melted,” said others.
     “Mine was lumpy,” said one.
      “The prices, my God, can you believe the prices?” commiserated several adults.
       At the end of the first month, there were spaces available in the parking lot and several empty tables in the parlor. The jovial owner, a jowly Floridian, who had beamed in the first week, now appeared sullen. He raised himself slowly from a corner stool to supervise the teen-aged employees.
T     he model Cadillac still gleamed in the center of the dining room but the juke box now had an “out of order” sign. The tables were sometimes dirty. When a dish dropped, the now-quiet room heard it break, clatter several feet, and finally spin into agonizing silence.
     After two months, there appeared a sign in the window: “Check out our new, lower-priced menu.” However, the children had moved on – prices were not their issue.
     “Let’s go to Baskin-Robbins,” they begged. “It’s faster.”
     “Let’s go to Haagen-Dazs, their cones are bigger.”
     After three months, Scoupe de Ville was a ghostly scene. The owner served the few customers himself, since business was so slow. No one was fired, he assured a concerned customer, since most of the teen-aged staff, dependent upon tips, simply quit showing up.
     A “Business for Sale” sign marked the fourth-month anniversary. Hardly anyone noticed when an “Out of Business” sign appeared several months later. By the sixth month, weeds grew in the parking lot; the brilliant colors were faded. Someone said the owner had skipped out on his lease and gone back to Florida.
     “What do you think will go in there?” people asked, eventually.
     “We need a bagel shop,” said one.
     “How ‘bout a Thai restaurant?” asked another.
     “Maybe a nail salon,” one woman said. “We could really use one.”
     “Yes,” nodded the others.


     Laying awake this morning it occurred to me that there are at least three things that mankind has been wondering about as long as there has been mankind, namely: religion, dreams and birdsong.

     We all know about organized religion.  According to Mark Twain, it has been part of human debate since the first con man met the first idiot.  Thinkers ranging from the ancient Greeks to Martin Luther, Mohammed, Buddha, Thomas Moore, and that guy on the television with the extraordinarily large ears have been explaining it forever and we are still no closer to a definitive understanding.  Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), a thinker no less cynical than Twain, but slightly less succinct, defined religion this way: “A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”

     Dreams are another bottomless mystery.  Freud and others have dissected them.  Frankie Valli has sung about them.  Scientists have used MRI’s to determine which parts of the brain are involved with them.  Art and music and even human love and affection have been equated with dreams and inspired by them.  Authors have exploited them in the interest of telling stories.  Yet, these adventures still afflict and/or mystify most people most nights and we still have no idea what they mean. 

     A dream is a positive concept in most artistic and philosophical usages, Poe and Hitchcock aside.  Yet, in my own experience, dreams are more likely to involve struggle or stress than something wonderful.  To me, dreams are the best, or, at least, most indisputable argument in favor of some sort of soul or existence beyond the physical realm.  But do we know what that existence is, beyond pure speculation?

     Finally, I approached my computer this morning with absolute confidence that birdsong would have been figured out.  That was naive on my part, given the difficulty in interviewing birds.  Why do birds sing, I wondered.  Why do they sing more enthusiastically in the morning?  And what’s the story with the mockingbird, impishly running through a repertoire of songs?

     After what have doubtlessly been thousands of years of contemplation and study, human knowledge has only assembled the obvious theories for why birds sing: to attract a mate and to mark territory.  Did you know that the vast majority of singers are males?  At least that nugget of knowledge is verifiable.

     As to the preference for morning singing, theories range from the faux-scientific to the purely speculative.  Mostly, they contend that there is less humidity in the mornings and less wind, so voices can travel farther, though that does not take into account that the greater singing competition in the morning makes a cacophony that drowns out the otherwise more effective singing.

     Some observers think that birds sing in the morning because they have more energy when they wake up and, since singing takes a lot of energy, that is when they are more capable.  Conversely, a bird might not have a preference for morning singing; he is just too exhausted at the end of a day of searching for food and love and avoiding predators to put on much of a concert.  Speaking of predators, doesn’t a bird announce to one and all his location by singing?  Isn’t that a bad idea?  Truthfully, though PhD’s have been minted on the subject, no one really knows.

     I was confident that my scroll through the literature of birdsong would clarify the purpose and effect of mockingbird singing.  Scientific analysis has quantified that a mockingbird can imitate between 50 and 200 songs!  Are other birds impressed by this skill?  Do they hate the mockingbird for the confusion that he he wreaks?

     It turns out that most of what the mockingbird sings is merely fragmentary.  Few other birds are fooled, though some are.  Why, then, does the mockingbird do this?  To irritate gullible birds?  To wake sleepy humans?  Brilliant scientists theorize that the more tunes a male can imitate, the more impressive he is to female mockingbirds.  Presumably, they monitor the extent of his repertoire and, if it is extensive, conclude that he is a promising mate.  A profligate singer, it is speculated, will be better at finding food, building nests, fighting enemies and producing offspring.

     To me, this sounds like an exceedingly anthropromorphic analysis, ascribing human motivations and conclusions to an unknowable subject.  But what do I know?  All the preceding distillation of research is attainable by anyone with a computer and an available hour.  For all their similarities, have the three subjects of this essay previously appeared together in one piece?  I doubt it, but to boast would be obnoxious.  I wouldn’t dream of it.