Modern Family

dozen

The nuclear family has become an anachronism.

The concept of a father, a mother and two or three children has become the stuff of situation comedy reruns.  The laugh track seems the appropriate accompaniment to an institution that has been reduced to a joke, and a decidedly unfunny one at that.

Right-wing demagogues love to expound on the breakdown of the family, but I find that an untenable position.  The family hasn’t so much broken down as been reconstituted.  Today’s family is alive and well in all its unpretentious, non-nuclear glory.

I looked up the word family in the dictionary and discovered that it hails from the Latin familias, meaning “household.”  How very appropriate.  The ancient Latin is a snug fit with modern times, in which a family consists of whoever happens to share a household.

And if we no longer have Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best, we have plenty of television depictions of families of every ilk and shade.  Parading across the little screen we have gay couples, single parents, extended families, roommates, friends with benefits, foster parents, adopted children, halves and steps.  We leer in half-hour segments at polyamory, serial monogamy and polygamy, practices that may or may not result in families, but are always good for a few yuks and rating points.

Who can blame the networks from holding up a mirror to the lives we lead?  On the other hand, I have to wonder whether we may be slipping into life imitating art.  Oh, the possibilities!  If they’re displaying it on TV, how bad could it be?  Perhaps some family comedies need to come with disclaimers saying “don’t do this at home, kids.”

I remember the titillation that resulted from a new word entering the language during the 1980 census.  Form followed function:  The increasing prevalence of unmarried couples living together demanded that the Census Bureau come up with a term to describe this state of affairs.  And so the acronym POSSLQ (pronounced PAH-sell-kue) was coined, “person of opposite sex sharing living quarters.”  The inevitable snickers generated much forgettable quasi-romantic doggerel.  For example:

Roses are red, violets are blue

Will you be my POSSLQ?

Even in my own family, I am impressed by the variety of living arrangements we have managed to conjure up, either by necessity or by choice.  When my wife and I were married fourteen years ago, my mother-in-law lived with her mother, her sister and her daughter.  All three have since passed away, and now she lives with her granddaughter.  My sister-in-law lives with her daughter and granddaughter, three generations sharing an apartment.  Most of my nieces and nephews live with roommates, some of whom may or may not be boyfriends/girlfriends.  It changes from one day to the next and I’ve given up trying to keep track.

A few months ago, I found myself discussing the show Sister Wives with my mother.  I expected her to be disgusted, perhaps because she’s 79 years old or perhaps because she’s my mother, for God’s sake.

Was I ever wrong.  My dear mother pointed out the benefits of having more than one wife to a husband to provide child care, elder care, housework and transportation for the household.  This way, she said, if one family member is sick, children have to be carted to school and activities, and still the cooking and cleaning must go on, there is more than one adult to bear the burden without the breadwinner having to take time off work.  If he can afford two wives, then why not?

Although polygamy has never appealed to me, I have to admit, my mother’s logic made me think twice.  However, despite the admitted advantages of division of labor in an extended family, it’s just not for me.

I think my wife would agree that she has her hands full with the one husband she’s got.

 

Desert Spring

blueberriesplum

 

I don’t need to look at the calendar to know that winter has given way to spring.  Out here in the desert, three indicators clearly announce that March has arrived:  The fair, the heat and the first fruits.

The fair is in town this week in all its schlocky, throwback, family fun glory.  Kids from the high school perform, stuffed animals line the midway, the rides whirl and everyone eats cotton candy and funnel cakes.  The 4-H Club and the FFA strut their stuff; for weeks, I’ve heard nothing but tales of whose son has the finest pig and what prices the livestock auction will fetch.

As for the heat, well, March is the start of the long desert summer.  While New England suffers under yet another foot of snow, we have already had two days on which the mercury has reached 95 degrees.  We will likely hit the 100° mark before the end of the month, where the midday temperature will stay put for the next six or seven months.

Although I’m not a big fan of the fair and the relentless heat gets old quickly, I always look forward to the return of some of the best fresh fruit anywhere, just in time for Easter and Passover.  My treats today were an incredibly sweet, juicy red plum and some explosively tasty blueberries (photos above).

And let us not forget the flocks of birds that nest in our tree, sing us shrilly awake each morning and poop all over our cars.

Apparently, however, not all of our avian friends are keen about celebrating springtime in California.  I hear the Argentine cliff swallows have not returned to Capistrano this year.

 

 

Passover Prep

matzo balls

 

PALM DESERT

For those of us who follow the Passover dietary rules, the eight-day holiday (which begins next week on Monday at sunset) requires more than a bit of preparation.  With the extremely limited selection of Passover goods available in our little town, this is the season for making the hundred-mile trip to the Coachella Valley to locate food items that we purchase only once a year.

One could say that I practice a middle-of-the-road variety of Judaism.  In my elementary school years, my parents sent me to an Orthodox school known as a yeshiva, even though my mother is a Conservative Jew and my father is what he refers to as a “cultural Jew.”  Today, the Judaism that I practice reflects all of these influences.  On one hand, I don’t pray three times a day, but I do pray and I do believe in the power of prayer.  I am not fanatical about the rituals, but they do still mean something to me.

Do I “keep kosher?”  Sort of.  I have been unaffected by the virtually unavailability of kosher meat in our remote desert area, as I sloughed off my meat-eating habits more than twenty years ago.  Am I a vegetarian?  Not even close.  One could say that I am a devoted pescatarian.

The Passover dietary rules are even more complicated than the regular kosher rules.  For one thing, we eat nothing leavened, which means no bread, bagels, muffins or donuts.  Instead, we eat unleavened bread, called matzah.  And although I no longer search for hametz (bread crumbs) in corners with a wooden spoon, a feather and a candle, I do stick to my hard, crunchy matzah boards throughout the holiday.

Passover is a festival of freedom, a yearly reminder of how our people were enslaved and mistreated by the Egyptian Pharaohs many centuries ago.  The Biblical book of Exodus describes how, when we were finally freed, we had to leave without a moment’s notice, with the result that the dough placed out on the hot rocks of Egypt to bake had  not the time to rise.  Hence, the unleavened flatbread cracker that we eat for eight days.

We were able to pick up a pack of five boxes for $2.99 at Von’s in Palm Desert.

Although there is no synagogue in this area and we are too far away from family to share the traditional Seder dinner, I still make it a point to obtain some of the traditional Passover foods that I grew up with.  Chief among these is matzo ball soup.  The little round dumplings are a delicacy that I look forward to all year.  Although it bears no resemblance to the lovely soup my mother makes, the “matzo balls in broth” that comes in a jar is really not half bad.  It’s a quick meal that I can heat up in the microwave.  Matzo balls are traditionally served in chicken soup, but some brands of the jar soup are meatless, which is perfect for me. (For those who cook, I noticed a yummy-looking vegetarian matzo ball soup recipe on Momtastic.)

The only problem is that, at the one large supermarket in our little town, a single jar of matzo ball soup goes for $8.99.  Yikes!

At Von’s in Palm Desert?  (Drum roll, please…) $4.39 per jar!  Hallelujah!  I laid in a supply of a half-dozen jars.

We also don’t eat legumes on Passover, which includes corn, beans, peas and peanuts.  This excludes almost everything that comes in a can or a box, as it is difficult to find anything these days that is not made with soy or corn products.

Even canned tuna is an issue.  The water-packed tuna sitting in your cupboard probably contains such ingredients as soy, corn oil or polypropylene.  For the Passover-observant, the trick is to find canned tuna that contains only two ingredients:  tuna and water.

Trader Joe’s to the rescue!  Fortunately for me, TJ’s in La Quinta carries exactly the type of tuna I need, albeit at the steep price of $1.69 a can.  But it is what it is.  Passover comes but once a year, and now I can carry matzah and tuna to work for lunch.

Finally, there is the matter of Passover deserts.  I’ve seen many mouth-watering delicacies pictured in Passover cookbooks, but the sad fact is that I don’t cook.  Lucky for me that Von’s carries numerous varieties of canned macaroons, made with coconut instead of wheat flour.

So I think I’m all set!  Now, if only I could get hold of a few boxes of those Pechter’s Passover chocolate fudge brownies that I remember so fondly from New York . . .

To my Jewish friends around the world, a zissin, kosher Pesakh!

 

 

Brooklyn

BMT

YUMA, ARIZONA

I’m originally from New York City, where there are people who still talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were a major league baseball team that went all the way back to the nineteenth century, played at Ebbets Field in Flatbush and moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s, two years before I was born. New Yorkers who remember are still bitter.

Even as a ghost of the past, the Brooklyn Dodgers remain an icon of that borough, as much as the Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan’s hot dogs in Coney Island.

My parents are from the Bronx, and when I was six years old, we moved to the suburbs. So I’ve only visited Brooklyn a few times.

My first Brooklyn experience was at the age of ten or eleven, when my sisters and I rode there in the back seat of my father’s metallic blue Dodge Coronet. They were there to interview a woman who had applied to be a live-in maid in our home. My parents had busy professional lives and the three of us were a handful. We had a spare bedroom downstairs, near the garage, which we referred to as the “creep room.”

My parents never could bring themselves to hire a “creep.”

As an adult, I had a wild hair one day and decided to embark on the solo adventure of driving to the New York Aquarium in South Brooklyn. This involved about two hours of driving to Manhattan, then down the West Side Highway, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and all the way around the great western curve of the borough on the Belt Parkway. The killer whale was amazing.

My last time in Brooklyn was just before I moved to California, leaving New York for good. I attended an engagement party in Brighton Beach, making the long trek home in the middle of the night.

These days, I think of Brooklyn when I stop by the local Subway sandwich stop to pick up dinner on the way home from work. Subway has a sandwich called the BMT (not to be confused with a BLT, which they also sell), which is pepperoni, Genoa salami and Black Forest ham, topped with whatever veggies and dressings you want. Don’t ask me if it’s any good. I don’t eat meat.

I have to wonder how many of my fellow California and Arizona desert rats have any idea that the BMT, aside from being a sandwich, is the name of the Brooklyn subway line. Back east, the décor of every Subway sandwich shop location that I ever visited prominently featured a map of the New York subway system papered on its walls, from the IRT up in the Bronx, to the IND in Manhattan and the BMT in Brooklyn. I once remarked to my wife that the Subway in our little town lacks this New York memento. Au contraire, she responded. And sure enough, I discovered she was right. The pale yellow subway map wallpaper is so faded that I never noticed it until I stood right next to the wall and squinted. Only then was I able to make out the pale outlines of the J and Z lines to Utica Avenue and Broadway, and the D and M lines that rattle and hum all the way down to Coney Island.

When I lived in California’s Central Valley, I attended a synagogue where I occasionally heard the rabbi or his wife wax nostalgic about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park. These days, however, I don’t think about Brooklyn that much.

Last night, my wife and I were eating dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Yuma, Arizona. We struck up a conversation with the two women at the next table, who were accompanied by a little girl who was coughing her poor head off. One of the women went out to the car to get the kid’s inhaler.

Our neighbors explained that the girl has asthma, and that they had spent the day at the ball field where the dust had aggravated her condition. The three year old’s mother explained that she had planned to name the girl Olivia, but that when she was born, at the last moment she changed her mind and named her daughter Brooklyn.

I’ve heard of other people named Brooklyn, but the whole idea of naming one’s child after a New York City borough seems kind of goofy to me. Still, I suppose Brooklyn is a better baby name than Queens or the Bronx.

As for me, if I had a daughter, I think I’d name her Staten Island.

The Men’s Room at Wal-Mart

mens room

YUMA, ARIZONA

The measure of a store or a restaurant is its rest rooms.

Everyone compares prices, service and quality, but the bottom line is that the customer is not going to be happy without a satisfactory place to pee.

This evening, we took a jaunt over to Yuma, which, while a substantial drive, allows us to walk the aisles of Wal-Mart and eat dinner at one of our favorite chain restaurants.  Living out in the desert, the closest Wal-Mart is 45 miles away.  Yuma is twice that distance, but provides a much larger variety of opportunities to divest us of our money (an activity that my wife refers to by a strange foreign term, “shopping”).

The drive down U.S. 95 takes you through featureless desert and hence is mind-numbingly boring.  To compensate, nature provides heart-stopping thrills for the driver’s entertainment.  We have not been to Yuma since last June, at which time we wondered whether we would ever go back at all.  That was the time we almost didn’t make it home.

It was a Saturday, a day we normally sleep late, but we had rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn to make an 8:00 car maintenance appointment at the car dealership.  By the time we finished all our business with the local merchants, it was late afternoon.  Donna began the trek back up the 95, but soon felt sleepy and pulled over for me to drive.  I hadn’t been driving for more than ten minutes when it started to rain, a light spattering of drops at first.  Soon, it began to pour.  I came to a dip in the road and notice that, in the space of a few minutes, it had filled up with water that had begun spilling onto the roadway.  Having stopped, I woke up Donna and asked for advice on whether to cross.

I didn’t think we had any choice, so I moved into the center of the road and began to creep across.  Donna, a very calm person in most circumstances, was as close to hysterical as I have ever seen her.  “We’re gonna get swept away!  Go faster!” she yelled.  We made it across, but two minutes later we approached an even deeper dip that was filled with water just like the other one.  By now, the rainwater was running furiously down the wash like a whitewater rapids.  Cars were stopped in both directions, everyone fearing that they would float downstream if they dared attempt a crossing.

We switched drivers again.  We consulted with the driver of the vehicle in front of us, who had no words of wisdom to offer.  As the water washed over the road, we began to wonder whether it would rise enough that we would need to climb onto the roof of the car to await rescue.  Donna phoned her mother and her sister to ask them to pray, as this might be the last of us.

We realized that there was nothing we could do but wait it out and hope for the best.  It might take hours for the water to recede, I thought, and only if it stopped raining.  Well, we had bottled water and the food we had just bought.  Let’s just hope we didn’t need to use the rest room.

Finally, the huge motor home stopped in the opposite direction gunned the engine and barreled across.  Encouraged, the truck behind it zoomed across as well.  The vehicle in front of us gingerly picked its way across, followed by us.

My story was met with much laughter when I told it at work.  We had always ignored the “Flash Flood Zone” signs, but apparently they weren’t kidding.  “You don’t go to Yuma when it rains!” my incredulous coworkers exclaimed.  “You don’t go to Yuma when it might rain!  You don’t go to Yuma when there is a cloud in the sky!”

After that, we were gun shy for nine months.  But today, with a clear, blue sky, we decided it was time to try it again.  Passing the “Do Not Enter When Flooded” and “Flash Flood Zone” signs, we expected an uneventful trip.  Nature, however, had other plans.

I noticed a sign that warned “Watch Out for Animals.”  Animals?  What kind of animals?  A couple of times we had seen a fox tear across the highway and once we saw a buck with impressive antlers on the side of the road.  I figured that’s what the sign referred to.  Donna mentioned that animals were usually not too hard to see due to the reflection of their eyes in the headlights.

That’s when we spotted a donkey on the side of the road.  I told Donna that I had read that the desert was full of wild donkeys and horses.  She asked where they came from and I told her that they were the progeny of beasts abandoned many years ago after they had outlived their usefulness as work animals.

Not ten minutes later, I was barely able to see a set of legs running furiously across the road, directly in our path.  Donna blew the horn.  Whatever it was couldn’t have been more than a few feet from our tires.  “Did you see that?” she exclaimed.  “That was a horse!  That was almost some accident.”  I agreed that our car and the horse would probably not have survived such a collision.  Nor would we have, she added.  The horse was entirely black except for some patches of white on the legs, making it all but invisible to a driver.

Having managed not to pee my pants, when we arrived at Wal-Mart I desperately needed to use the rest room facilities.  Not just the urinal, mind you.  I needed to go the full monte.

Just like many Wal-Mart locations, the men’s room in the one we visited today offered only two stalls, one of them a “handicapped” stall, enlarged to allow entry of a wheelchair.  The handicapped stall was occupied.  As I was about dying at this point, I was very grateful that the remaining stall was available.

The stall had no lock, but in my extreme need, I was undeterred.  I pretty much knew what would happen.  The next customer to need a stall would simply push the door open and then embarrassedly mutter apologies.  I have been through this routine many times over the years.  When the door begins to open, I yell “Excuse me!” or “Occupado!” and hope that my visitor will quickly go away.

When I heard someone walk into the rest room, I gave out a here-we-go sigh.  But the handicapped stall had been vacated and the guy made a beeline therefor.  My neighbor felt the need to announce himself and his mission.  “Time to release the Old Yellow!” he sang out.  Moments later, he was done and I heard him call out “mission accomplished!”

Thank you, dear sir, I really needed the running commentary to get a full picture of your activities.  You do realize you could have just posted a status update on your Facebook page, right?  Or perhaps you could pull out your cell phone and send a tweet:  “Now peeing in Wal-Mart.”

I have always believed that it is in good taste to flush the toilet when you are done.  Am I wrong here?  The problem, however, is that it is often a challenge to figure out how to do this in a public rest room.  As alluded to in previous posts, in many things I am hopelessly old-fashioned.  I actually still expect there to be a handle for this purpose.  Good luck with that, mister.

In the absence of a handle, I hope for some manner of instruction, such as a button emblazoned with the helpful label “Press.”  Nope, not in Wal-Mart.

My last best hope was that perhaps this was one of those newfangled self-flushing toilets.  I seriously doubted this, as those usually flush before I am ready, sending a jet of water up my butt like some kind of diabolical bidet.

I was ready to give up.  I said a silent apology to the next visitor, who would withdraw in revulsion upon opening the door to God’s little excretory acre.

That’s when I noticed what looked like a steel bolt that helped to hold the toilet apparatus together.  I felt foolish as I touched it, as if for good luck.

Whoosh!

I should mention that I am one of those people who feels the obsessive need to wash my hands before leaving the rest room.  I attribute this to early religious training.

One would think that, at my age, I would have learned how to use a freakin’ sink.  Hahahaha!

My father always told me that one place is pretty much the same as the next.  “The grass is green, the sky is blue and they have hot and cold running water.”  Perhaps in most countries, Dad, but definitely not in Wal-Mart Land.

Like the toilets, the sinks at Wal-Mart do not come with instructions.  This should not be a problem, as I have been using sinks for a while now.  I expect two handles or knobs, one on the left and the other on the right.  Typically, they are labeled C for “cold” and H for “hot” or, in Spanish-speaking areas, F for “frio” and C for “caliente.”  I don’t know what language they speak in Wal-Mart Land, but I was horrified to find that there were no handles or knobs whatsoever.

How was I to get a little hot water and soap?  My intention was to lather up and wash not only my palms, but also between each of my fingers.  With the flu going around, I keep reading about the importance of hand-washing to avoid the spread of infection.  And it’s important to make sure that you scrub long enough to kill all those nasty bacteria.  Some recommend that you recite the entire A-B-C song, including the part about “next time, sing along with me” (when I was a kid, it was “teacher, teacher, don’t hit me,” but I suppose the modern version reflects the general disappearance of corporal punishment in the schools).  As for myself, I prefer to sing “Mary had a little lamb.”

In public, I try to sing very quietly, almost under my breath, to avoid icy stares, laughter and the chance that the nice young men in the clean white coats will come to take me away.

Not having a clue as to how to turn on the water in Wal-Mart’s rest room sink, I simply placed my hands under the spigot and hoped for the best.  Voilà!  Out rushed the water — ice cold water.  I came to the realization that Wal-Mart’s sinks do not offer hot water!  I resigned myself to settle for cold.  At least I could wash my hands.

“…It followed her to school one day, which was against the rules.  It made the children laugh and play to see a lamb at school.”

As soon as I withdrew my hands, the flow of water stopped!  Will modern marvels never cease.

Next came the matter of drying my dripping hands.  Heading straight for the paper towel dispenser, my task was to determine from whence said paper towels could be pulled.  I generally expect a little bit of white or brown towel to peek out from some part of the dispenser to give me a clue.  No such luck.

I looked for the little, circular knob on the side of the dispenser that one is supposed to be able to turn to make missing paper towels magically appear.  I was unable to find such a knob.

Finally, I ran my hand along the bottom of the dispenser, which was probably loaded with germs and counteracted the whole purpose of hand-washing in the first place.  My hope was that I would feel a paper towel stuck in the opening.  I did feel the opening:  An empty hole.

Next, I proceeded to the electronic hand dryer.  “No Touch!” it proudly advertised.  I waved my hands back and forth under the opening, as if making some type of magic incantation that would cause hot air to begin flowing from the loins of the machine.  No luck.  Perhaps I forgot to say “abracadabra.”

Thinking I would have no choice but to wipe my hands on my pants, in a last act of desperation, I touched the No Touch machine.

Whoosh!

 

The Big C

Letter C

I work in a very small office, so it was nothing short of shocking to me when two of my coworkers recently shared with me, in the same week, that they had just been diagnosed with cancer.

Now, what exactly is the proper protocol for this situation? First, pretend not to be shocked so that you don’t make the other person feel worse than she already does. Then say something. But what?

“I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem right even though, of course, you are. That’s what you’re supposed to say when someone tells you her Aunt Mabel passed away in her sleep at the age of 92.

Gasping “Oh no!” and covering your mouth with your hand doesn’t cut it either. An overt expression of shock makes it all about you.

But it’s not about you; it’s about the sick person. Wait, now I’m using my coworker’s disease as a label. Suddenly, she’s not “my friend in accounting” or “Joan, the funny one from work I was telling you about,” but “my sick friend.”

You can ask your coworker how her doctor appointment went and when she’s having her next MRI and what kind of treatment they’re talking about. You can commiserate about what idiots the insurance company is. You can offer to drive her to her first radiation session.

You can also cry. I mean, how can you not cry, right?

No, no, you have to be strong. Only the sick person is allowed to break down. If you get all emotional, how do you think that will make her feel?

You can hug. Hugging is supposed to be healthy for all parties involved. Hugs can make both of you feel better. There is one little problem, however. Hugging doesn’t come naturally to men. Well, not to me, anyway. It kind of seems forced, like I’m doing this because I think I’m supposed to but I feel really uncomfortable so can we stop now? Also, when you’re a man, the specter of sexual harassment perpetually hangs over your head. Do the wrong thing and your job is toast.

As my nieces and nephews are quick to recognize, I am not a with-it kind of guy. (The very use of the term “with-it” shows how hopelessly old-fashioned I am.) So would someone please tell me what the manly equivalent of hugging is in the modern age? What I mean is, I don’t exactly expect to shake your hand when you’ve just told me you have cancer.

So I end up staring at my hands, staring at the floor and generally looking like a Class-A dork (or whatever term they use these days to refer to an oafish idiot with the social skills of a flea).

Inevitably, I return to my first instinct: Just be supportive. Lend a willing ear. Sympathize. Offer to help in any way you can. Ask about her family. Help to take her mind off her bodily woes by discussing her interests or joking around about office politics or funny things in the news or American Idol, like you always do.

Don’t pretend that nothing has happened, but don’t dwell on her illness either. As they say on TV, “you have cancer, cancer does not have you.” So whatever you do, don’t define someone by their illness. While it certainly looms large right now, it’s only a small part of her world. What she’s really thinking about is what to make for dinner and whether she’s supposed to bring cupcakes to her son’s school on Wednesday, or was it Thursday?

Emphasize the good stuff, the fun and the family. After all, that’s what’s going to get her through this. That and friends like you.

Anywhere in the World

Pismo2:

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

It’s a tough choice, considering the endless banquet of beautiful and intriguing locales the world has to offer.  There are places I have visited and enjoyed immensely.  Then there are the exotic places I have only visited in fantasy.  Finally, there are millions of wonderful places I have never even heard of.

Undoubtedly, the perfect place for me falls in that last category, hiding from my awareness.

Here are my own picks, in no particular order:

Pismo Beach, California – I think the above picture says it all.  The cool, salty, ocean air, gorgeous sunsets, fabulous seafood (including one of my favorite restaurants, improbably a steakhouse named F. McClintock’s).  Reality Check:  Pismo is very close to a large nuclear power plant as well as a major earthquake fault.

Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island – Located in the Town of Westerly in Washington County, on a clear night you can see Montauk lighthouse across Long Island Sound (oh, and about a million stars over the ocean).  In the winter, you have the place to yourself.  I have walked the beach for an hour without seeing another soul.  Misquamicut is packed with college kids and families in the summer, but that’s when the carnival booths and the food stands and the live music is available.  Also, the best ahi tuna I have ever had was at Paddy’s on the beach.  Reality Check:  Most of the houses are rentals, cheap in the winter, with prices skyrocketing into the stratosphere in the summer.  Two other words worth uttering:  Hurricane Sandy.

Portland, Maine – Close enough to Boston for a shopping trip to Faneuil Hall or a day of browsing the museums, but far enough away to lose the big-city feel.  Also close enough for a drive to the piney Maine woods, Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, or even a jaunt over to Nova Scotia.  By now, you can see a pattern of my picks:  Beach, beach, beach.  Need I say more?  Yes, I do:  Fish ‘n chips and Maine blueberry pie.  Reality Check:  I’d need to win the lottery, as I’d likely be unemployed.

New Mexico (preferably Las Cruces or Truth or Consequences) – Okay, no beach here, but wonderful weather all year round.  Las Cruces is a college town with enough culture to keep me occupied and is a short drive to El Paso TX for shopping or Mexico for tacos.  Truth or Consequences, aside from having a cool name, is a bit up in the mountains with four seasons and summers that are not unbearably hot.  Reality Check:  Summer in Las Cruces is hotter than an oven.  I can only take so much desert. 

New York, New York – The Big Apple.  The city that never sleeps.  The center of the universe and the place of my birth.  Where you can get anything at any hour of the day or night if you have enough money.  The place oozes with culture and adventure.  Reality Check:  Crime, rats, roaches and impossible rental prices.  Also noise, congestion, no parking spaces, insane taxi drivers, humid summers and snowy winters.  But that’s okay.  It’s still worth it.

Marysville, California – Home of my little grandniece.  ‘Nuff said.  Reality Check:  The worst combination of hick town and urban sprawl.

And then there are the places of dreams:  The Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), the Swiss Alps, Montmartre in Paris, Copenhagen, southern Italy, Tel Aviv in Israel (right on the Mediterranean beach, but an easy drive to Jerusalem’s historical sites).  And I suppose I’d have to include the Big Island of Hawaii (volcanoes, great beaches and well-separated from the hoo-hah of Honolulu), Fiji and some of the Out Islands of the Bahamas.  No reality check needed.  I’d have to win the lottery several times over to afford most of these places.

So, how about you?  Where would you live if you could live anywhere in the world?

Happy 79th Birthday, Mom!

Fishamajig and a Fribble

fribble_304fishamajig

The Boston Business Journal reported today that Friendly’s Ice Cream is changing the recipe for its iconic Fribble, for the third time.  In most parts of the country, this ice cream drink would be known as a thick shake, or just a milkshake.  But in Massachusetts, where strange-sounding terms for everyday objects are the norm (anybody watch Southie Rules on A&E?), the Fribble is known as a frappe.  In Rhode Island, where I resided briefly, the Fribble would be called a cabinet.  I always thought the best cabinet around was Newport Creamery‘s Awful Awful (“awful big, awful good!”).  Yes, it’s a huge milkshake (although Californians think it’s a giant hamburger from The Nugget in Reno), but don’t use that word in a cafe in Providence or Narragansett (you’ll get a chocolate milk, shaken, not stirred).

Back in the day, the Fribble was made from ice milk, a commodity that today’s kids have never heard of.  Later on, Friendly’s started making it with frozen custard (as we called it in New York) or “soft serve.”  Now, Friendly’s has announced that it will be removing the soft serve machines from its restaurants, instead making the Fribble with “hard” ice cream.  Hallelujah!  The Fribble will now be available in any of Friendly’s large number of ice cream flavors.

When I was a kid in New York, Friendly’s Ice Cream was something of an institution.  No trip to Nanuet Mall (which, sadly, was demolished last year) was complete without an overstuffed Friendly’s ice cream cone, smothered in sprinkles (not “jimmies”), either chocolate or rainbow.

Later, in high school, when my family moved to Wappingers Falls, dinner at Friendly’s became a regular once-a-week event for us, either at 9 Mall in the Town of Poughkeepsie (now closed) or at the cutesy, Colonial style location on Main Street in Fishkill.  We used to joke about ordering “a Fishamajig and a Fribble,” because it sounded so funny rolling off the tongue.  The Fishamajig, for the uninitiated, is a fish filet and grilled cheese sandwich on toasted white bread.  In reality, although we ate plenty of Fishamajigs (and grilled cheese ‘n tuna sandwiches), we never once had a Fribble.  My mother always said it was “too fattening.”  We’d settle for a Coke or a root beer.

As if changing the Fribble recipe weren’t enough, now the Fishamajig is undergoing an overhaul as well.  That’s right:  Friendly’s is switching from pollock to haddock.

Nothing stays the same.

 

Abby Cadabby and Raisin Raspberry Ravioli

ravioliAbby Cadabby

MARYSVILLE

I’ve always heard that your life changes when you have your first child. You are forced to grow up fast. Suddenly, it’s not all about you anymore.

Not having children of my own, I had taken these assertions at face value. I had no reason to believe otherwise. But I never experienced any of this personally, so the whole kid thing didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Until now.

This is not about nieces and nephews. I have eleven of those, at last count. Jonathan, Joey, Jessica, Jordan, Steven, Karena, Elliot, Shayna, Jacob, Rebecca and Isaac. Did I miss anyone?

Most of them are adults now, and they lived far away from me as kids. I didn’t see them often enough to affect my worldview. However, like parents who say that their grandchildren are so much fun that they should have had them first, it is my first grandniece who has caused me to see things differently.

We still have to deal with the distance problem. You have to take work where you can get it these days. Hayden, who was born in September, lives more than 600 miles away, at the other end of California.

We are undaunted. My wife and I know that we can make it in eleven hours flat if it doesn’t snow over the Grapevine and we don’t run into a traffic jam resulting from a wreck on the 5. Once there, we get to hold Hayden, talk to her, play with her. With all the advantages of grandparents, we get to hand her off to her mother or grandmother when she poops her diaper or begins to wail.

The living room of Hayden’s apartment looks like Toys R Us in miniature. I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed that we are the guilty parties. At the merest suggestion of an item her mother thinks Hayden may want or need, we are usually online looking to order it and have it delivered.

And we are dreamers. I dream of Hayden going to college one day, and we set up her college fund when she was born. I can’t imagine how much tuition will cost in 2030.

When we can’t be there, my wife gets by with technology, an area in which I am seriously ignorant. She does something called Face Time, which enables Hayden and her to see each other on the laptop or smart phone. Meanwhile, we plan for the next trip. Let’s see… Easter in three weeks? Check. Fourth of July? Check. No, no, that’s too long in between. Can we squeeze in Memorial Day? Hmm, if I take vacation the day before and the day after . .

Hayden is fascinated by the colorful mobiles that hang down from her little seat, close enough for her to bat at and squeal with delight. The DVR is set up to record every episode of Sesame Street. This way, when she sits in front of the TV, she gets to watch something educational. Not that she is old enough to understand any of it. But perhaps exposure to all those lessons about letters, numbers and words sink in by some baby osmosis that science has yet to fully appreciate.

I must admit to having been amazed to discover that Sesame Street still exists, albeit with a few characters that I don’t remember from the old days. I mean, what TV show is still broadcasting new episodes after forty years?

I remember watching the earliest installments of Sesame Street with my youngest sister in 1969 and 1970. She was in first grade and was experiencing some difficulty catching on to the reading thing. I would pore over the madly colorful pages of Richard Scarry’s books with her, wondering how anyone could fit so many things on a two-page spread. And even though I was already in sixth grade, we were mesmerized by the antics of Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. Inevitably, while engaging in a spirited game of hide and seek one day, my sister climbed into one of our steel trash cans and put the lid on, just like our furry friend on TV. (I don’t think it was worth it, as my parents forced her to take a bath after that little escapade.)

My sisters and I were TV addicts, even though only a few channels were available on our black and white set. If we weren’t indulging in our insatiable appetite for cartoons, we spent hours watching children’s shows such as Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Romper Room and, of course, Sesame Street.

We’d sing along with the “Sunny Days” theme song and laugh til our sides split when Oscar the Grouch sang “I Love Trash.” It’s good to see much of the old gang still hanging out on Sesame Street. One of the residents with whom I was not familiar, however, is a pink fairy-in-training named Abby Cadabby. Forever three years old, she can “poof” in and out of scenes and turn things into pumpkins.

Looking up Abby online, I learned from The New York Times that she has only been around on the Street for a few years and is the star of an unaired episode about divorce. Now there’s a topic I can’t imagine on kids’ TV back in 1969. The Times describes how, when some of the cast are asked to describe the house in which they live, Abby draws two pictures, one of her Mommy’s place and one of her Daddy’s. Even fairies’ parents can’t get along anymore? Who knew?

With Hayden, I watched an episode in which a detective on vacation is forced back into action to solve a whodunit when his big bowl of raspberry raisin ravioli mysteriously disappears as he is about to dig in. It seems that rapscallion rascal, the letter R, is the guilty party.

Raspberry raisin ravioli? Hmm… maybe stuffed with mascarpone cheese, this could be a nouveau cuisine dessert. Hey, anything is possible.

I do hope Hayden eventually becomes fast friends with Abby Cadabby. As Abby likes to call her mommy on her wand cell phone, I don’t think it will be long until Hayden demands her very own iPhone. When we cave in and buy her one, I hope she calls her uncle once in a while. Or she can text me. Yeah, it would have to be texting. I guess phone calls are hopefully old-fashioned. Or maybe an email. Or a tweet. Or whatever they’ll have then. One thing’s for sure: this techno-klutz will be clueless as to how to use the technology. But for Hayden, I will learn.

Maybe I’ll even spring for a ring tone that chimes “Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”

The Second Amendment vs. The Sixth Commandment

gun imagebible picMake no mistake: I am against gun ownership. I know there are thousands of peaceful gun owners out there who will wax poetic about hunting, self-defense and target shooting. There is the powerful NRA lobby who like to tell us that it is people, not guns, who kill. I respect all these people’s opinions, and it is my sincere hope that they will respect mine in return.

I must say that the NRA has a point. If someone is intent on killing me, he or she will undoubtedly do so whether guns are available or not. My killer will just use a knife or an explosive device or bonk me over the head or run me down with a car.

There are dozens of civilized nations in this world that have had the sanity to outlaw the possession of weapons. Many people, my wife included, pooh-pooh this idea on the premise that if guns were illegal, only criminals would have them. This is probably true, but at least then we could tell the good guys from the bad guys. If someone were caught with a gun, we wouldn’t have to wonder whether it was purchased legally or stolen or obtained through a straw man transaction. We wouldn’t have to figure out whether the owner enjoys mental health of sufficient quality to merit owning a gun. I think of the old-fashioned dramas in which the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black. You can tell who is who. Today, I can’t tell who is who. I won’t hold it against you that you own a gun, neighbor. You use it for shooting at squirrels, right? Umm, right?

I guess I should modify that last paragraph. Even if guns were outlawed, it is not only criminals who would have them. Law enforcement would still have them. Anyone who’s ever played cops ‘n robbers knows that the police need guns. Both the cops and the robbers do the same thing with their guns, of course: They shoot people. As a native New Yorker, I feel bound to mention that, just this past weekend, the NYPD killed a teenager in Brooklyn and shot a motorist who tried to speed away from a traffic stop on Staten Island. Both of them had guns. See? If guns were outlawed, maybe they wouldn’t have had them and they wouldn’t have been shot. I know, I’m dreaming.

I think about the recent report of a man shot three people during a mediation session in Phoenix, killing one and injuring the others.

I think about the 15-year old girl who performed at one of President Obama’s inaugural events and was shot and killed in a Chicago park the following day. They haven’t found the guy yet, but law enforcement believes that the shooter may have mistaken the teen and her friends for rival gang members. Oops.

I don’t live in Chicago. I haven’t lived in New York for years. I live in small town America, and even here the number of people killed with guns blows my mind.

I think of the young mother who, while attending a wedding party at a bar on the main drag here in town, was shot to death by a guy whose gun “accidentally went off.” He didn’t intend to shoot anyone, you see. He was just beating someone up with the gun when it discharged. Oops.

I think of the young guy who shot and killed his girlfriend in the apartment complex a couple of streets over. I guess it really is a bad idea to be holding your gun while you’re arguing with your old lady. Things my mama never taught me.

So former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and severely injured during a public appearance in Tucson, spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the end of January to urge gun control legislation. “Too many children are dying,” she stated, a reference to the twenty children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut in December. “We must do something,” she said. “It will be hard, but the time to act is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

Indeed. Thomas Friedman, in a fine book about globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, posited more than a decade ago that the lack of gun control in this country is nothing short of insanity. President Obama, reacting to the public outcry in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, has joined Gabrielle Giffords’ camp in asking Congress to act. But will our elected representatives be bold and courageous as she urges? I seriously doubt it.

After Ms. Giffords’ speech, which due to her injuries, she was able to give only with great difficulty, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick J. Leahy took the floor. “The Second Amendment is secure and will remain secure and protected,” he stated. “Americans have the right to self-defense and to have guns in their homes to protect their families. No one can or will take those rights or our guns away.”

I would ask Mr. Leahy to stop and think for a moment about the fact that the only thing a gun is designed to do is to kill. Whether it be a prize buck, an intruder into your home or 20 first graders, that is the only purpose of a gun.

I think about the moviegoers, out for a night of fun at a Batman premiere, who were gunned down in cold blood in a suburban Denver theater.

I think about the innocent students and teachers who were systematically killed in their classrooms at Virginia Tech.

I think about Columbine.

So which will it be, the Second Amendment or the Sixth Commandment? The right to bear arms or thou shalt not kill?

I believe that the Second Amendment was vital in the late eighteenth century when our infant nation was struggling for independence. The Founding Fathers knew what it was like to suffer under the thumb of a tyrannical regime that preferred that those rogue colonists have no weapons with which to challenge the ruling powers. Nearly two and a half centuries later, that time has passed. The need that existed then no longer exists now. Unfortunately, the Bill of Rights has acquired a sacrosanct aura that no politician who wishes to be re-elected will touch with a ten-foot pole.

I think about the Bible. I remember asking a Christian friend, years ago, why Christians have cast off the Old Testament rules when the Old Testament is still a part of the Christian Bible. The validity of those rules have passed, she explained, since Jesus paid for our sins in full with his blood. I believe that the Second Amendment has passed as well, it’s validity having been nullified by a world of gangs, drive-by shootings and Adam Lanza. We have paid for our sins in full with the blood of our children.

I have never visited Sandy Hook School, although I lived in the neighboring town of Bethel for several years. Newtown was a favorite of mine back then. Its diner was a regular stop on the way home after my shift ended past one in the morning. And I loved the book sales at the Charlotte Hungerford Public Library. I brought only a handful of books with me when I moved to California, but one of my treasured volumes from Newtown still graces my bookcase.

No, I had never heard of Sandy Hook School before that fateful December day. But, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, Ich bin ein Sandy Hooker. And my German accent is a lot better than his was.