Telework Dreams and Babies

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I live inside a dream, a dream from which I cannot wake, but one I can look out of, through shimmering gossamer curtains, into a distorted image of what used to be my life. I want to go out there again, but the membrane is impermeable. There is no passage, just a fogged-up window. I am stuck here inside a cocoon quarantine of my own making, from which no governor’s order can ever release me.

4:30 AM. I wake early, despite my comfy mattress, courtesy of the back pain that has dogged me since I took a fall in my own bedroom three months ago. I think of my grandmother, healthy at the age of 97, until she fell off her stationary bicycle, broke her hip, and quickly declined and died. I am too young for this.

I futz around reading quarantine journals on my phone until my back hammers at me sufficiently that I have to get up. Untangle myself from the electric blanket’s cord. Grab on to the soft leather armchair next to the bed and pull myself up. I’d better haul myself to the bathroom before my wife wakes up and has to use it.

We have a second bathroom in this house, but it is up front, where my sister-in-law and her boyfriend live. Knowing my proclivity for wandering about in varying stages of undress, I am under strict orders from my wife not to leave our bedroom without pants on. I need dibs on that toilet.

I sit on the pot for a few minutes, wallowing in self-pity, knowing it will hurt when I stand up. Not my back. I seem to have developed other problems, and I’m hoping it won’t be long until the doctor figures out what they are. Gall bladder? Cracked rib? Spleen? Hernia? Who the heck knows. It hurts when I cough. Also when I move. Also when I don’t move.

My doctor has ordered an ultrasound. They can get me in Sunday afternoon, which means I get to fast all day. Unless I want to wait another two weeks until they can schedule me in the morning. Okay, Sunday it is. I will grab my cane and venture into the bowels of Kaiser Hospital, the basement where they do all the imaging.

“Are you gonna be in there?” I hear my wife grumble, still half asleep. “I’m almost done,” I call out in response. Clean myself up, leave the light on for her, go wash my hands under the warm tap. I pump the soap dispenser filled with something called Japanese Cherry Blossom, lather up and count out 25 seconds as I scrub up. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. I always figure that a few extra seconds can’t hurt, particularly if my count is a little off.

I hear my wife’s rhythmic breathing and I know she has fallen back to sleep. It seems the two of us are always falling somewhere these days. Asleep, away, apart, on the floor, on our faces, into outer space. We live in Pandemic Land, transported there like stowaways, without a ticket or passport, as if beamed aboard by Scotty. I turn out the light and let her sleep.

Back in bed, now well after 5 AM, I hear my sister-in-law rattling around in the kitchen, see the light shine in beneath my bedroom door. I hear the metallic percussion of a pot, the clank of coffee cups. She must be emptying the dishwasher. Then the rumble, rumble of the ice maker as she prepares her first cold drink of the day. My nephew is about to arrive with his eight month old son and my sister-in-law has to clock in electronically to her VPN by 6 AM. She works from home, as does my wife. As do I, thanks to COVID-19, for twelve weeks now. Coronavirus has sent most of us home, where I supervise my team remotely, courtesy of email, text message, Skype, and endless conference calls. I avoid Zoom like the . . . well, you know.

My wife and her sister are doing double duty, not only working but also providing day care for Weylyn. I am of no help at all. And at the moment, Weylyn’s a-wailin’. He has not been a very happy baby of late. He wants to be in his own, familiar home. He wants his Mom. He wants his Dad. But they’re both working out there in the real world, at risk of infection at every turn. Our house is a perpetual wreck, strewn with toys, playpen, rocker seat, infant formula, every detritus of babyhood. Baby on board and this boat is rockin’. My wife hurries into the shower so she can relieve her sister as soon as possible.

My wife is a contractor with flexible hours, so she gets to tend to Weylyn during the day, then, exhausted, take a short nap (if she’s lucky) before plunging into her work in the evening. Some days, Weylyn is disconsolate, yells his head off, and my sister-in-law runs in from her home office, picks him up, walks with him, heats a bottle, feeds him, changes him, leaves him with my wife and runs back to her her computer, one ear perpetually cocked for the start of the next round. I don’t know how those two do it. They do it all for love. I am in awe of their dedication. They are saints.

My own office is my leather armchair, two steps from my bed. It has been wonderful not having to get up at four in the morning to snag a parking space in front of my government office in downtown Sacramento. I save so much money on gas. And I don’t miss the traffic or the driving round and round in circles in a vain attempt to find a legal place to leave my car for the next ten or twelve hours. Working from home has been a stress reducer for sure. At least this is the narrative that I let myself believe.

I never saw the downside of telework until it hauled off and bit me in the butt when I was not paying attention. I have been morbidly obese since childhood, and I never realized that my health was hanging on by a thread, that thread being the little bit of walking necessary to do my job. The 348 steps from my car to my cubicle. The 125 steps of a round-trip to the rest room. The seemingly epic trek across the indoor bridge to the building next door for meetings. At least I can still do it, I remember thinking, even if I have to stop halfway and sit down for a few minutes.

Now, after twelve weeks at home, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Use it or lose it. I know I’ve lost it. The next stop is a wheelchair, if the hospital and cemetery don’t get me first.

I can barely get my pants on and off anymore. I have been retaining water in my legs for a long time, and Doc says there’s not much she can do if I don’t lose weight. She tried water pills with me, but I cramped up so bad that I had to stop taking them. Cramps in my feet, my calves, my hands, my neck. Waking up at night with spasms, pacing back and forth to walk them off. Then came the night when both legs cramped up simultaneously, and I howled in pain as I was barely able to drag myself out of bed.

I try performing leg and foot exercises in bed. Just getting into bed is an ordeal, as I am barely able to lift my heavy, heavy legs high enough. It takes me several tries. I have developed alternate techniques, the most reliable of which tends to hurt my back.

I am gaining weight. Being at home, the refrigerator and pantry are always here, and the temptation to eat is forever with me. My only saving grace is that eating would require that I get out of my chair, and the thought of the pain of unfolding myself and standing up is a definite deterrent.

It’s not that I didn’t bring plenty of food with me to work, in the blue rolling bag that I would pull behind me, the handle doubling as a stabilizer as I made the long walk from car to desk. Meals on wheels, one of my coworkers called it. But it was limited. When it was gone, it was gone. The vegan-but-high-calorie potato chips and Oreos in the vending machines rarely tempted me due to the walking that would be required to get down to the lobby and back.

I was at my highest weight about eight years ago, before I lost my job and went vegan. For the first time ever, we had to go on Food Stamps, for which we were approved only after months of wrangling with the county and standing in food distribution lines for boxes of canned goods, rotting produce, and stale baked goods donated by supermarkets when the expiration date had passed. I lost a fair amount of weight after that, but now it’s creeping back up and I’m in shouting distance of my max, only about 25 pounds off. Scale don’t lie. I should make an effort to walk more, but it hurts too much. There are so-called “chair exercises.” I feel I am doomed.

Weylyn is crying uncontrollably in the next room, unresponsive to my wife’s herculean efforts to comfort him. I want to join him in his histrionics. I understand his feeling of frustration.

Like so many others, I want to return to what was. I want to draw the Chance card that reads “go back 3 spaces.” Only I want it to say “go back 3 months.”

I want to get a full night of sleep instead of waking up after three hours with my back on fire. I don’t want to have to think about how many hours ago I last ate and can I take an over-the-counter pain reliever now without ending up with stomach cramps.

I want to jump in the shower without grimacing in pain when I bend over to clean myself. I want to get dressed in a white shirt and tie, toss whatever I can find in the refrigerator into my rolling bag, hit the garage door opener and then the freeway, singing along with my iPod all the way to downtown Sacramento. I want to boil water for my morning tea in my little pot, then hide it under a blanket because we’re not supposed to have those (fire code, you know). I want staff to stop by and ask for advice, managers to stop by and ask me to do things. I miss my big double monitors and my shelf of reference books.

I want to take weeklong trips to southern Cali to lecture before classrooms filled with county workers, to show PowerPoint slides, to provide thoughtful answers to intriguing questions. I want to stay in mediocre hotels and eat lousy road food. I want to sit at a long table at the back of the room with my laptop and wireless mouse instead of sitting with my laptop on a folding tray in my bedroom. I want to greet the line of people coming in, look up the cases of the old lady with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask and the man in the wheelchair with his bottle of Purell. I want to help them cut through the red tape and get what they need to keep living at home and not end up in a coronavirus death trap of a nursing home.

But you can’t go home again.

I remind myself of the exhaustion of commuting and traveling, how I’d barely be able to stay awake while driving home. Drive, work, drive, sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I have been guilty of the sin of envy. I envied the techies and engineers with their headphones and laptops at Starbucks. I wished I could work from home. I calculated the number of years before I could retire and never have to drive to Sacramento again unless I was hankering for a really good plate of pad se ew. Final answer: Never. This house will not be paid off in my lifetime.

Be careful what you wish for. The grass is not necessarily any greener over here. Count your blessings.

It’s almost midnight and I gingerly pull up out of bed and go sit in my leather armchair. I am grateful it’s a rocker. I rock back and forth, hoping to work out the kinks in my back, delaying the pain of standing up a while longer. I listen to my wife snore across the room, play Scrabble on my phone, read the latest news of the riots and the virus. I realize that I have every risk factor for succumbing the moment the virus touches me. I am a dead man walking.

I’d better try to get a few more hours of sleep. Weylyn will be dropped off here at 5:30 AM, and my wife and her sister will have another exhausting day of trying to keep him calm, fed and distracted. For a while, they only had him on Mondays. But this week they had him Tuesday also, and then Wednesday, and now it’s going to be Thursday. My niece has been working more steadily as the weather improves.

At some point during the day, I know I will hear my sister-in-law coo “Did you make a poo-poo?” as she changes Wey’s diaper. Hopefully, it will not be during my Skype meeting. I have my weekly team huddle, during which I talk for about an hour and cannot stay on mute.

It’s not just me. Today, I was conducting a one-on-one with one of my people, when I could hear her 2 year old begin crying for his mom. Dad had to drag him away from the attic room where Mom works.

My team is used to it by now. They know that, at some point during the call, Weylyn will probably start screaming his head off in the background.

That’s what the word family means, I tell them. And right now, that’s all we’ve got.

Lunch Shaming

Cheese Stick

Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I read this week in the Sacramento Bee that there is a thing called “lunch shaming.”  This can take a number of forms, but it involves kids, including little ones in first and second grade, who come to school without a lunch or any money to buy one.  What the school does about this situation varies greatly from one district to another.

Some schools advance the kid the money needed to buy lunch.  Others let the kid go hungry.  Apparently, however, many schools take a middle road in which they provide kids in this predicament with a “basic lunch” such as a cheese sandwich.

The shaming comes in when kids are embarrassed when they don’t get the same hot lunch that their peers are eating but instead are stuck with a bland alternative lunch.  Most of the class may be enjoying pizza and salad, but the hapless kid with no lunch money is given some cheese sticks and crackers or a cheese sandwich.  Some school districts have elected to stop this practice and let the kid have the regular hot lunch.  And here in California, a bill has now been introduced in the state legislature prohibiting schools from providing moneyless students with an alternative lunch.

Interestingly, the Bee article failed to mention the shaming that occurs when a poor kid brings his lunch from home, which turns out to be something sparse — such as a plain cheese sandwich.  When I was in school, eons ago, lots of kids faced this situation and no one thought anything about it.  Of course, the school can’t do anything about that because it has no control of parents who send their kids to school with a crappy lunch.  What they do have control over is what they give those kids who come to school with no lunch at all.  Gee, if I had known about this back in the day, I may have conveniently forgotten to take my brown bag sandwich on a day when the school lunch menu showed something good was being served.

Apparently, the shaming gets worse.  Schools have taken a variety of draconian measures to collect lunch money from parents who fail to load money onto their children’s accounts.  These range from sending letters home with the kid to posting lists on the wall to stamping a kid’s arm with the words “Lunch Money.”

To their credit, many school districts have given up on such tactics in favor of contacting the parent directly via email or phone calls.

So what is causing kids to arrive at school without any lunch or money?  Many parents, of course, are very poor, qualifying their kids for free breakfast and lunch.  The problem is that parents forget to fill out the paperwork necessary for their kids to get on the program.  My guess is that some parents have other things on their minds (like surviving another month) and that others just don’t give a darn.  Then there are those parents who don’t read very well and are unlikely to understand any paperwork set in front of them.

An aspect of this story that particularly fascinated me is the price of a school lunch.  When I was a kid, it was 40 cents.  If we brought a lunch from home, we could buy a half-pint of milk to go with it for four cents.  My parents would keep a penny cup on the dresser in their bedroom, from which we were expected to remember to extract the four pennies necessary to buy milk.  Today, however, the typical price of a school lunch is $2.75.  This is almost a sevenfold increase over the intervening decades.  I can understand parents being unable or unwilling to pay 55 to 60 dollars per month for their kids’ lunches.

So what should the schools do about this situation?  Many say that kids should not be punished for the shortcomings of their parents.  While not depriving kids of food just because their parents make poor choices resonates with me on a visceral level, ultimately the sins of the parents are always visited upon the sons.  Kids cannot be taken away from their parents just because they happened to be born into poor families.  So one way or the other, the kids are the ones who suffer.

I propose that the answer to the “lunch shaming” problem is to provide all schoolkids with free breakfast and lunch.  The feds, state and local governments, and the school districts will have to work out the fiscal arrangements needed to pay for this.  Neither the kids nor the teachers nor the school administrators should ever have to be concerned about whether a student will end up with an inferior lunch or no lunch at all.

As for those who would criticize my “welfare state” attitude, I say hands off the innocents.  Our youngest Americans are our future.  Jeopardizing the future of our nation by tolerating kids who are not prepared to learn because they have nothing to eat is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest nation on earth.

 

Vegan Lessons from Early Disney Cartoons

My little grandniece, who will turn four later this month, loves to watch cartoons on Netflix when she is visiting us.  Although she has been a video fanatic at least since she was two (I am old enough to remember when cartoons appeared on TV on Saturday mornings only), we encourage her to get involved in other activities as well.  While she visited us over the weekend, she played with the cats, got a good look at the chickens, romped about with the neighbor kids, created things with Play-Doh (the blue and red mashed together for so long that all of her creations are now rendered in a sickly purplish hue) and was taught to play Chutes ‘n Ladders by Uncle Guac.

However, it is the cartoons that really take me back.  My grandniece’s fascination with Peppa Pig, Shopkins, Minnie Mouse and the cast of Frozen notwithstanding, I am amazed by how engrossed she becomes in some of the original Disney animation from the 1930s to 1950s, now available anytime on Netflix and YouTube.  This time around, she wanted to watch the short films “The Big Bad Wolf” and “The Three Little Wolves,” not once, not twice, but over and over again.  Aging baby boomers will likely share my fond memories of the “Mickey Mouse presents” Silly Symphonies.  A series of these feature the three little pigs and I must say that the quality of the Depression era animation is mind-blowing.  You can see how the fancy Pixar stuff of today was influenced by these early works.

I am particularly fascinated by the way the three pigs (protagonists of both of these shorts) are drawn.  Their coloring is very pink.  They have appropriately piggy ears, snouts and hooves.  The little curly tail (referred to by the wolves as the “curly cue”) is present.  Only the “worker pig” is clothed on the lower half of its body (in overalls, including a patch over the rear end while a hole for the curly cue to stick out).  The other two pigs are naked below the chest.  Their belly buttons are visible, as are the cracks of their rear ends, but no external genitalia are in evidence.  This, I suppose, not only accommodated the sensibilities of the era, but also made the series more appropriate for children.  I was a bit surprised that the butt cracks were drawn in, and I wonder how this got past the censors.  Perhaps this was deemed okay for animals other than humans?

The wolves all have long bushy tails, lots of black fur and, of course, huge mouths with prominent sets of very white, sharply pointed teeth.  As Walt Disney was involved in producing some of the war effort propaganda, I can understand why the wolves, villains of these tales, speak with a pronounced German accent.  For example, the “father wolf” teaches his lupine offspring from wall charts labeled “choice cuts of pig” and “pig product chart” that include “pigsen feet” for “pigs’ feet” and “schweine stew” (using the German word for “pig”).

Unlike the 19th century “three little pigs” folk tale, in Disney’s “The Three Little Wolves,” the pigs appear to reside together in a single structure rather than in three separate dwellings.  Perhaps this is a reference to the wolf’s prior destruction (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”) of the flimsy houses built by “fiddler pig” and “piper pig.”  In fact, it appears that “worker pig,” who is so busy with bricks and mortar, is constructing an addition to its home, perhaps because its existing residence is too small to accommodate the porcine threesome.

In addition to this reference to the original “three little pigs” story, “The Three Little Wolves” also includes significant elements of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  The former character appears early in the film; “fiddler pig” and “piper pig” attempt to escort her to Grandma’s house via the short cut through the woods known to be frequented by the wolves (against the advice of the ever practical “worker pig”).  The two musical pigs also play a trick on the worker pig by blowing a horn (hanging from a tree below a sign reading “wolf alarm, for emergency use only”) when no wolves are in evidence.  The worker pig (who hits its head on a board and nearly shoots itself in its rush to arrive on the scene) warns the other two that such antics will result in no response to the horn when the wolf really is in the area.  It’s amazing how smoothly Disney manages to mash these three stories together.

As a vegan, I have to wonder whether “The Three Little Wolves” contains a subtextual protest against carnivorism.  Not only do the lupine villains speak with German accents, but they crave “choice cuts” of pork, a German staple.  One pig is industrious and the other two are happy-go-lucky musicians, but their contributions matter not to the wolves, who visibly salivate at the thought of eating them.  When the wolves finally do catch up with the two musical pigs and truss them side-by-side in a pan, they are ordered to say “Ah!” so that an apple can be shoved into their open mouths prior to cooking.  The pigs in the pan are just on the verge of being placed on the fire when the wolves are interrupted.  Apparently, the plan was to roast the pigs alive.  While I like to think this is designed as a display of the animal cruelty involved in cooking animals, more likely it was intended as a reference to the cruelty of the Germans during World War II.  The bottom line is that we sympathize with the playful pigs who are forced to spend their time devising ways of escaping being eaten by the wolves (building a “wolf appeaser,” blowing the emergency horn) or running away from the pursuing wolves.

While this cartoon makes it very obvious that the wolves wish to eat the pigs, Disney never shows us what the pigs eat.  However, the theme of opposing the consumption of animals is extended in another Disney short film, “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion,” which my grandniece also watched several times at our house.  In that film, the wolf, forever the carnivorous villain, is after sheep rather than pigs.  At the very end of the eight-minute cartoon, after the antagonist is soundly vanquished, the audience is told not to worry about the fate of the wolf.  Although the wolf is kicked off the edge of a cliff, it is shown clinging to a branch that adequately sustains the wolf because it grows berries “every spring.”  The carnivore converted to a vegan!

My guess is that these lessons are totally lost on the generations of children for whom they were intended and that the adults watching with them just don’t give a damn (after all, the roast is in the oven).

 

Lessons Learned from Children While Waiting on Hold

On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away.  What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over.  Actually, it was quite cleverly done.  But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.

The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young.  One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:

“I am not a punching bag.”

“I need a place to call home.”

“I can’t reach my potential without you.”

“I am not a toy.”

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

And finally, the voice of a three year old.

“I need you.”

My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window.  Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.

I felt like an idiot.  There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.

For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent.  Something always got in the way, however.  Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children.  Then the inevitable happened:  I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.

But dreams don’t fade away so easily.  They die hard.  So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program.  This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley.  I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life.  This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two.  We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with.  We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games.  He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.

More than anything else, my friend taught me patience.  He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice.  This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters.  He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly.  He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother.  He never had a father.

I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing.  That’s the funny thing about kids:  They don’t judge you.  They just take you as they are.  They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.

They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine.  Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones.  They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up.  So you do.  Even when you don’t particularly feel like it.  Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before.  Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.

You get in your car.  And you go.  And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.

Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you.  It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.

And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.

Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you.  Right now.  Boys and girls who need you desperately.

Call your county or city social service agency today.  Adopt.  Be a foster parent.  Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

“I need you.”

Tantrum

One of my favorite put-downs has always been “What, are you two years old or something?”

Lately, however, I have been rethinking the wisdom of this phrase.  My grandniece, who really is two years old, has helped me to see the error of my ways.  If I put aside the likelihood of public embarrassment for a moment, I am forced to admit that I am jealous of her.

A couple of years ago, in one of my early posts on this blog, I took issue with a former boss who claimed that she wanted to be six years old again.  As I recall, I recited a litany of reasons for my disagreement with that point of view.  I stated that I enjoy being an adult, thank you, and would never wish to return to a time when I could make none of my own decisions and was subject to the whims of those around me.

Okay, so I was wrong.  Admitting to one’s mistakes is supposed to be a grown-up thing, right?

On second thought, I don’t want to be six again like my old boss did.  I want to be two again.

My current boss says that one of the reasons she chose me to work for her is that I am mature.  I told her that she must not know me very well.

This evening, my little grandniece schooled me well and truly.  For reasons not totally understood by me (and probably not even by herself), she decided to throw an unholy fit right here in the living room.  I’m talking about a regular kicking and screaming, crying and carrying-on tantrum.  I believe it was set off by being provided with a bite of an ice cream rather than having the entire ice cream handed over to her, as she felt was her due.  (Although the real reason that she put on this show probably runs a whole lot deeper.  Doesn’t it always?)

I thought the whole thing was killer cool.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to freely express our emotions in a manner that included throwing ourselves on the floor and yelling “Mommy! Mommy! Moooommmmmyyyyyy!” for, oh, about ten minutes or so?

It would be ridiculous for an adult to do this, of course.  Or would it?  It might sound silly to you now, but I bet you’d feel better when you were done.

I know next to nothing about psychology, but I’ve heard that Gestalt therapy sometimes trucks in exercises like this.  Why not?  I remember my high school psych teacher telling the class about scream therapy, which has to be a near cousin of the tantrum.

Know what the best part is?  After a few minutes of leaving my grandniece to her histrionics, my wife picked her up, carried her over to my wife’s chair and proceeded to rock and cuddle her.  She quieted down almost immediately.  My wife says that my grandniece gets so upset that she is no longer able to calm herself down.  I think this is true of adults as well, but we instead try to calm ourselves in decidedly insalubrious ways such as drinking, doing drugs, overeating, gambling. shopping, engaging in passive-aggressive behavior or general bitchiness.  I daresay that my grandniece’s method of letting it all out is far more healthy than nearly any employed by adults (and cheaper, too).

I really might be tempted to try it, if only to prove that I’m not as mature as people think I am.  My problem would be how to get my fat behind onto the carpet and how, with my bum knees, to drag myself back up again afterward.  I wonder if the true statute of limitations on tantrum throwing is not age but weight.

Adults are expected to act their chronological ages, and failure to do so is met by sanctions ranging from shunning to being locked up in a mental hospital where you can freely do your tantrum thing in a padded cell.  No one can reasonably expect to be rewarded for throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum, and certainly not by a cuddle and a kiss.

Unless, of course, you’re two years old.

Which is why I urge my family to save some money when my birthday rolls around by not buying those three boxes of candles.  This year, maybe they won’t have to burn through a whole box of matches and keep the fire department on standby.

After all, I only need two candles on my birthday cake.  Just don’t buy me any Frozen or Little Mermaid merchandise as presents.

You wouldn’t want me to throw a tantrum now, would you?

Still Life with Birthday, and Chocolate, and Angst

Birthday Cake

What a lovely domestic scene.  It’s Sunday afternoon at the parsonage.  In the living room, my wife is folding freshly-washed laundry, Pastor Mom is dozing in her easy chair, my little grandniece has toys strewn all over the floor even though she’s only been here five minutes, and I am sitting on the couch with the laptop and a pile of paperwork, trying to catch up and prepare for Monday morning.  My niece is at the kitchen table doing homework for her college classes.  “What’s a dislocated worker?” she asks me, and I yell into the kitchen that it’s someone who has been laid off.  We’ve left the front door open, and the breeze wafting into the living room reminds us that it’s nearly spring.

“Phone?  Phone?”  The little one begs my wife for her mobile.  My niece gives the okay and our two year old pride and joy begins playing her favorite videos of wildly colored “surprise eggs” being opened for the toys inside to be revealed.  This time it’s the one with one hundred Christmas eggs.  My grandniece has been mesmerized by this stuff for months.  Despite the Christmas eggs, I think she finally realizes that the holidays are over.  Halfway through January, she was still making the rounds of our home, wishing each of us “Me’y Kismiss!”

Today Little Miss brought her pink Frozen backpack with her.  Aside from the eggs, her other fascination is with Olaf, Elsa and all the rest.

When I step into the kitchen to make some PB&Js, I see that my niece is reading aloud from a textbook for her humanities class.  She is clearly struggling with some of the academic language and we begin chatting about perception, reality and context.  Somehow we flit from Descartes to Freud to Santa Claus.  She reads a paragraph about turning humans into objects and I volunteer that the ultimate example of this is murder.  She gives me a quizzical glance and I explain about turning a conscious being into a corpse, a mere object.

She asks me how I “remember all this stuff.”  Did I have some super method of studying when I was in college that allowed me to retain everything for years?  Do I have a photographic memory?  I assure her that nothing of the kind is true and that, in fact, I am a horrible studier and didn’t do all that well in school.  Certain things just stick with you, I volunteered.  My wife agrees and begins reciting snippets of Shakespeare that she still remembers from high school.  She mentions my father, who, at the age of 81, can recite from memory dozens of lengthy poems that he studied more than half a century ago.

I was delighted when my niece showed up with her daughter unexpectedly late this afternoon.  She needed us to perform babysitting duty long enough to allow her to finish her homework assignment.  Even with the attentions of my wife, my mother-in-law and myself, the little one kept wandering into the kitchen to be with her mom.  In her silliness, she began biting the tablecloth, making a hole in it.  For this transgression, she earned a tearful time-out and a detailed explanation that we eat food, not tablecloths.

I don’t generally see my niece very often, even though she lives just down the road.  With work and college and raising a two year old, she doesn’t have time to breathe, much less to visit family.  On Monday nights, she works the graveyard shift and we keep the little one all night.  She has her own bed here in the office, but partway through the night she always wakes up fussing and we take her into bed with us.  We lay three across in contented familial somnolence until I roust myself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work.  I am gone to Sacramento by the time my niece comes to retrieve her daughter.

So it was a bit of a surprise that I got to visit with my niece two days in a row.  Last night, she was here along with her daughter, her mom and her two brothers in honor of my birthday.  Earlier in the week, my wife told her that she planned to shop for a vegan dessert for me.  “Can I make him a cake?” she asked.  The result was one of the most delicious chocolate cakes I have ever tasted, with chocolate icing, no less.  My wife and I drove over to Little Caesar’s and brought back pizza for everyone.  My grandniece was in a happy mood, running amok and basking in the attentions of uncles and aunts of all ages.  My niece is taking some kind of exercise class for her phys ed requirement, aerobics or yoga or something, and she tried out some of her moves with her mom in the middle of the living room floor as the rest of us egged them on and indulged in lots of laughs as they bent, stretched and lunged.  My nephew picked up the little one, turned her upside down behind his back and walked around the house holding onto her feet, calling for her and pretending he couldn’t find her anywhere.  We could hear the giggles from one end of the parsonage to the other.

We couldn’t find any candles, but they all sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and I opened bars of vegan chocolate and gift cards for Starbucks and iTunes.  My best present was the one wrapped in lavender tissue paper that my grandniece eagerly tore apart for me.  It was a framed photo of her first drawing, one that will proudly grace my cubicle at least until she is old enough to find it thoroughly embarrassing.  We talked about maybe home schooling her, and with all of us assisting, did we think we could actually pull it off?  Yes!

I don’t actually try the cake until the guests have left and I have made myself a cup of hot tea with almond milk.  The cake tastes as incredible as it looks, and I text my niece that I would gladly pay to have her bake this any time at all.  “I hope I get to eat this every day in heaven,” I blurt out to my wife.  “You don’t even believe in heaven,” she replies, and I grin stupidly.  It is such a blessing to be so loved by family, to drown in it, to blow its bubbles out your nose and mouth and bathe in its pure wonderfulness.

My parents couldn’t make it because they don’t like to stay overnight, and it would be a long ride home in the thick Central Valley nighttime fog that is a hallmark of our California winters.  We will head south to visit them at their home next weekend.  My Bay Area nephew wishes me happy birthday via email, writes me all about his new job at a Silicon Valley startup and we begin conspiring about what we will do for Grandma’s 81st birthday next month.

But Honestly…

I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society.  Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed.  The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.

I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives.  Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed.  Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.

Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children.  Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts.  I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged.  I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing.  We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents.  How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds?  We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper.  The list could go on and on.  The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.

Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot.  Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B.  They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”

When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree.  This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve.  The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar.  Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.

As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars.  Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows.  Apparently, parental efforts are not working.  As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood.  We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.”  I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify.  One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury.  I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished.  Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time.  We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either.  The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious.  Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is.  This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood.  Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.

My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes.  I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad.  However, he is required to account for all of his expenses.  Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through.  More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him.  If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries.  If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away.  The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence.  If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled.  My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.

But who can blame the guy?  He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States.  After all, dishonesty is the American way.

Share and Share Alike

I once worked in an establishment in which one of my fellow managers would sign off nearly every email with the cloying “Sharing is Caring!”  Right after I vomited all over my keyboard, I was always tempted to hit Reply to All and type “I’m diabetic and you’re making me ill!”

You have to wonder whether she was an abused child who grew up feeling the need to excuse herself for living or whether perhaps her toddler left her an unfortunate victim of BTPDO (Barney the Purple Dinosaur Overload).  Either way, someone desperately needed to tell her that communication with one’s fellow managers is an expected part of the job and that there’s no need to make excuses for doing so.  I’m sure others laughed about her behind her back, but no one, myself included, was willing to take her in a padded room and slap her upside the head.

Only years later did I come to understand that:  1. Communication (and the lack thereof) is a really huge issue in the corporate world, and 2. Sharing, whether of ideas or of possessions, is a visceral thing that has roots deep in childhood.

As I don’t have children of my own, I live in a fully adult world and generally think about kids as little as possible.  This started to change somewhat two years ago when my little grandniece was born, and even more so a year ago when my wife and I became one of her regular caregivers.  Now that she’s two years old, her mom decided that she needed to socialize with other kids her age and, after a whole lot of wrangling, managed to get her into a good day care program.  From all accounts, the little one loves it.  There are lots of toys to play with, the teachers actually do teach lessons, and there are plenty of girls and boys to get to know.  She’s even making progress on her potty training, much to the relief of all of us.

Now, I don’t really think that kids of that age need to be “taught” anything.  For one thing, they are natural born sponges who soak up everything they see and hear.  (Uh, watch it with a couple of those words you like to use, dear nephews o’ mine.)  For another, their job is to play and be kids.  There’s plenty of time to teach them academics later on.  Childhood is short enough as it is.

So just what do they teach kids at day care and nursery school anyway?  Mostly the Barney curriculum, from what I hear:  “ABCs and 1-2-3s and how to be a friend.”  Apparently, it’s all about socialization skills.  For example, you’re supposed to learn to say “please” and “thank you.”  Little One has already learned that one at home, and she even says “you’re welcome” regularly.  Not that I give a fig, to be honest.  While displaying the trappings of courtesy may make you well-liked by adults, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.  I don’t stand on ceremony and I no more care whether a kid thanks me when I give him a piece of candy than I do whether the bar mitzvah boy writes me a painfully stinted thank you note for his gift.

When I was growing up, I rarely if ever heard my parents say “please” or “thank you” to each other.  (In my mother’s case, I don’t think I ever heard her use those words with anyone.)  Looking back, I guess it makes sense.  Half the time they were too busy screaming at each other to bother with such pleasantries.  Nevertheless, my parents expected their kids to say “please” and “thank you” when we were out in public, and particularly among adults.  They regularly became upset with us when we didn’t, and never seemed to wonder why.

About the time I became a teenager, however, I figured out that most adults were really rather shallow and would hold you in high esteem if you used those stupid words.  So I practiced the pleasantries until I became good at them.  You could have knocked over my junior high assistant principal with a feather when I addressed him as “sir.”  Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that half the ninth grade was standing out on the front lawn shouting “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your [expletive] war.”

These days, I say “please” and “thank you” about a hundred times a day, both at home and at work, without even thinking about it.  After all these decades, it comes automatically.  My wife and I use those words with each other dozens of times each day, and I must grudgingly admit that this probably does set a good example for the little pipsqueak.

All in all, I guess it’s good that early on my grandniece has learned the words required for entrée into polite society.  Unlike her quacked-up video pals Huey, Dewey and Louie, I doubt that she’ll ever need a copy of The Big Book of Manners.

But then there’s that old bugaboo, the S-word.  No, not the one that my renegade nephews like to use, the other one.  That’s right, “sharing.”

I don’t pretend to be up-to-date on modern theories of child rearing, but it is my understanding that teaching sharing consists primarily of conveying the idea that you can’t hog the toys because the other kids need a chance to play with them, too.  This is a true childhood classic that has been around forever, celebrated by everyone from Dr. Spock to Robert Fulghum.  And I don’t agree with it.

While I don’t particularly care whether or not kids use all those “polite” words (frankly, I think they’re kind of ridiculous), at least I can see how doing so can be a valuable skill in the adult world.  But sharing?  Oh, boy, don’t get me started.

I had to prowl around online a bit to discover what others are saying about sharing, kind of my way of licking my finger and holding it up to test the wind direction, before proceeding to shoot myself in the foot in this space.  What I found is that sentiment seems about evenly divided on the issue.  Some parents require their kids to share their toys, believing that childhood sharing is the gateway to adult generosity.  Others align more closely with my own views that a kid’s things belong to him or her and that he or she should not have to share them with anyone.

I have long believed that the rabid way in which many parents insist that their children share is not for the benefit of the child, but for the benefit of the parents themselves.  Most of us are not wealthy, and if we have two or three children, we may not be able to afford to buy two or three of every toy so that each kid can have his or her own.  After all, kids have short attention spans, so there should be no reason that they can’t take turns playing with their toys.  Kids, unfortunately, do not see things quite this way.  Well, that’s why they have parents, right?  Children are naturally self-absorbed and it is our job as parents to socialize the little brutes.

Yada, yada.  I wish that, just once, I would hear a parent admit that they require their kids to take turns because doing so tends to avoid The Three Plagues:  Temper tantrums, late night trips to the hospital, and social workers.  It would also be lovely to hear a parent admit that she forces her progeny to share because she can’t afford to buy three copies of this fifty dollar piece of dreck that the kid is whining for because it is advertised on TV a million times a day.

I endeavor to make kindness a major part of my life, and I attempt to incorporate that sentiment into everything I say and do.  Nevertheless, I believe that sharing is of very little value to success in adulthood, at least in our American society.  There have to be other ways to teach generosity and kindness (leading by example, for one).

I mean, come on… I am not going to let you share my car, my computer or my cell phone.  (I can hear it now:  “What?! You won’t let someone use your phone to make a call if their phone has gone dead?”  A friend of ours did this at the airport recently and promptly had her bank account cleaned out.)  If you would like to borrow a pair of my pants or one of my shirts, fine.  (If you can fit into them, I feel sorry for you.)  Just bring them back the way you found them, please, freshly washed and on their hangers.

As a child of the Dr. Spock era, I was raised to share.  Everything.  “Share with your sister!”  “Share with your friend!”  “Why don’t you give some to that little boy?”  And so, as an adult, I had to learn the hard way about lending out my things.  It took me a while to figure out that if I’d spot someone a twenty, I’d never see it again.  I lent out my car to Little One’s mom last year and she wrecked it.  My wife and I can’t afford to replace it and have had to learn to make do with one car between us.

If that’s not enough, the creeping crud is going around at work, and I have had it for the past two weeks and am now just barely starting to get over it, thanks to two doctors and two sets of antibiotics.  Do you think I’m going to allow anyone to put his or her grubby, germy little hands all over my things?  I think not!  And neither should you, my dearest grandniece!

I have no control over what they teach you at day care or at home, dear one.  However, you will never see this uncle asking you to share anything of yours.  As for playing with others, no, you can’t take away a toy from another kid because you happen to feel like playing with it right now.  But neither can another kid take away a toy from you when you are playing with it.  And you don’t have to share your cookies with them, either.  They have their own parents (and uncles) to give them treats to take to day care.  What’s that you say?  They’re poor and don’t have any cookies at home?  Uh, well, dear one, I hate to break it to you, but your mommy is a single teenaged mother without two nickels to rub together who is trying to go to school while working the graveyard shift at a drugstore.

I know you’re too young to understand right now, but in our great American society, we have a little thing called “personal property.”  Not every culture embraces this paradigm, but it is very much a central ethos of ours.  If someone breaks into your house or steals your car, we call them a “criminal.”  You will work hard to buy most of your things.  Other things may be given to you in love by those who are close to you.  In either case, you are not required to share them with anyone.  And I, for one, refuse to require you to share as a child when you should not be sharing as an adult.

Now, dear one, if you want to learn the proper way to be generous, carefully observe the work we do here at the church, the homeless people we feed, the random acts of kindness we so enjoy engaging in.  None of that means that you are expected to share with someone just because they ask you to.

Oh, and please do me one favor, dear grandniece.  Never, ever sign your emails “sharing is caring.”  Barney and his sickening “I love you” song notwithstanding.

Homeless Youth of California

No one really knows how many of California’s young people are homeless at any given time.  But on one day in the middle of the winter last year, a PIT count (a flash census — PIT stands for “point in time”) estimated the number to be about 15,000.  That’s 15,000 youngsters aged 12 to 24 sleeping under bridges and over heating grates, in cars, in shelters, in the woods or on someone’s couch.

I’ve known for some time that there are a lot of homeless young people, but I found this number to be truly appalling.  And that’s just for one state!

Many of these “throwaways” were abandoned at a young age or fled to escape homes marred by physical abuse, drinking and drugs.  On the street, they are frequently victims of sexual exploitation and encounter a downward spiral due to a life to day-to-day survival that prevents completion of high school and renders them unemployable.  They may find themselves with early and unplanned pregnancies, AIDS or malnutrition.

Among the greatest risks of homelessness among the young is aging out of the foster care system.  It has been estimated that about one out of every four foster children will become homeless upon turning 18.  The reasons for this are complex, and include such factors as a lack of family support, immaturity and the reluctance or inability of foster parents to continue to house their foster children after compensation from the state stops.

Drawing a bright line at the age of 18 makes no sense.  I fail to see the logic of stating “yesterday you were a foster child under the protection of the state, but happy birthday, today you’re on your own, go fend for yourself.”  Even the children of intact families are rarely in a position to support themselves the hot moment they turn 18.  So it’s really not a surprise that, after a childhood and adolescence of being bounced around from one placement to another, at the age of 18 foster kids fall off the edge of the earth.

I think of my late sister-in-law’s three children.  I didn’t know them when they were young, but they were removed from their drug addicted mother early in life.  This was fortunate, as my wife tells me stories of going to their apartment, only to find the kids without food and their mother gone.  One of my nephews was adopted as a baby, while my other nephew and his sister went into foster care.  They were fortunate to enter a stable foster home with committed parents and never had to go anywhere else.  All three are in their twenties and thirties now, and I am pleased to report that they turned out very well.  One is finishing up college and still living with his mom.  Another just celebrated the birth of his first daughter.  And the third has settled into her career and lives close enough to us that we are able to see her often.  What all of them have in common is that they never had to deal with homelessness.

Shouldn’t the story turn out that way for all of California’s foster children?

Visit the California Homeless Youth Project blog and read the touching stories of their struggles.

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Ghosts of Halloweens Past

I have always been rather ambivalent about Halloween.

I tend to think of Halloween as primarily a kids’ holiday that, as a childless adult, doesn’t really have that much to do with me.

Then there’s the whole religious thing, both the Jewish one and the Christian one.  I get a good laugh reading novelist Adam Langer’s description of how kids in Hebrew school are told that this is a Christian holiday named for St. Halloween.  He’s kidding, of course, but if you’ve been through a Jewish religious education, this is funny in a bitter sort of way.

I remember being five and six years old and being allowed to go collect candy from a few old ladies who we knew on various floors of our walkup in the Bronx.  After that, however, I was supposed to be old enough to understand, via my Orthodox Jewish education, that trick or treating is just not something that Jews do.  We have Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover.  The goyim have Christmas, Easter and Halloween.  On Thanksgiving, all of us eat turkey, although “theirs” is a Butterball and “ours” is an Empire.

I had been an adult for a couple of decades before I began to understand the Christian objection to Halloween as a Pagan festival that glorifies a host of images related to the occult.

So if the Christians and the Jews are both opposed to Halloween, why do we still celebrate it?  Considering the objections of most of the United States’ major faiths, one would think that this holiday would have faded into obscurity long ago.

I think it comes back to the kids, to our nation’s insatiable sweet tooth and to the boost in the economy resulting from the purchase of everything from tacky Halloween costumes to candy corn to plastic jack-o’-lanterns.  I was in the Goodwill store today to make a donation, and they had all the racks set up neatly by category — angels, devils, witches, vampires, feather boas.  (Feather boas?)  The place was packed.

It’s always about money, isn’t it?  It’s not much different than the commercialization of Christmas, about which I expect to encounter much hand-wringing in the next couple of months.  No one seems to care who you worship these days, as long as we all worship money.  (Goodness, I am getting bitter in my old age!)

I suppose there is some part of me that longs for a more innocent time when there weren’t so many Christian radio stations decrying Halloween as a tool of Satan and when the Jewish and Christian kids of suburbia ran about the streets in packs, dressed as hobos, witches, black cats and pirates, all collecting Tootsie Rolls and Bit O’ Honeys along with pennies for UNICEF.  The days when we’d load up the station wagon and head up to Dressel Farms for donuts and cider fresh from the press, bringing home pumpkins to cart into our elementary school classrooms on the school bus.  The days when you could still hang a bunch of Indian corn on your door and light a candle inside a pumpkin shell on your front step without being a sinner.  Sure, things weren’t perfect.  We weren’t allowed to take any apples because they might have razor blades hidden inside.  But all the neighborhood kids stuck together and no one worried about being lured into a strange car and being kidnapped by a rapist.  We all ended up back at home, safe and sound, with a huge load of trick or treat candy that we fought over with our brothers and sisters even though the vast sugar haul would last us at least until Thanksgiving.

Back then, Halloween was still fun.  None of us were scared out of our wits by Freddie Kruger or bloody apparitions jumping out at us from the darkened interiors of “haunted houses.”

The only thing we had to be afraid of was our next dentist appointment.