Grandma’s silver

My “Black Irish” mother wore big hats and high heels she bought at B Altman’s in Manhattan.  She was the prettiest, most stylish,  most effervescent woman anyone had ever met.  Jet black hair, piercing blue eyes, she looked like Jackie O, only prettier. 

It was 1969, I was 7, and surrounded by siblings, and love, and a dog named Spot. 

True story.

My parents threw elegant cocktail parties at our big house next to a babbling brook in Fairfield, an upscale commuter town that we moved TO, but could never be FROM.

We would all get ushered off to our bedrooms in our matching pajamas just as Grandma’s Silver would come out of the hutch.  The linen napkins and fancy long stem goblets would make their appearances, and impressions.  Tommy Dorsey and the Big Bands would show up as the guests arrived. 

It was a privilege to polish Grandma’s Silver.  A privilege bestowed on the well-behaved and trust-worthy. (I can’t imagine any of my 4 brothers being allowed the privilege, for instance :)).  

The musty smells of the plush red felt and cold silver would waft out of the heavy wooden box and into my senses every time I was asked to polish it.  The experience filled me with a quiet comfort….I was only ever able to suppress my adolescent impulses when I was shining Grandma’s Silver.  

My parents had received the heirloom collection as a wedding present from my maternal grandparents.  

My Grandmother told me they only used it during special occasions.  

The sounds of happy times would sneak out like a music box melody as I carefully opened the hinged lid.  I imagined my Grandfather playing his harmonica, people smiling to spite the Depression. 

I remember being amazed by the weight of the dinner forks, and fascinated by the way the silver polish  would magically wipe away the blemishes and bring the metal to a reflective shine! 

Solid silver!  Wow, I thought to myself, we must be rich if we own such a box of treasure.  

When I was 8, our superstar yacht-brokering father bought a marina up the Connecticut coast, in Old Saybrook. 

Next time you take Amtrak over the Connecticut River, peer DOWN at our old house, on the northwest corner.  It hasn’t changed. It’s even the same dull grey. You have heard the saying “living on the other side of the tracks”?  Well, we took that metaphor a step further, by living BENEATH the tracks. 

Our Dad’s marina dreams died a quick death.  Nobody was buying yachts in 1970, not even the banks.

Looking back on those days gives me pain; pain a clinically shy 8 year-old would not have been able to understand, or describe.  I had the misfortune of contrast: I knew what a big warm house in a leafy suburb felt like.  I knew what more than enough food felt like, but now I knew what NOT enough food felt like. 

Old Saybrook is a beautiful New England shoreline town with stately homes and a quaint Main Street.  I visited the town recently and noticed small plaques on many of our neighbors’ homes….merchant Captains and wealthy descendants of our Founding Fathers.

I had no idea, this was a very upscale neighborhood,  we lived here?  How could that be?  We had NO money, how did we live in North Cove?  I know WHY, no need to dwell on that, but the real question is: HOW did we live, there?  

If 1970 was a “transition year”,  1971 was the year we arrived….in hell.

Imagine having 7 children , with one more on the way, and NO money.  Phone turned off.  No heating oil, we owed them money, so we used electric heaters, and lots of blankets.

My mother got on a bike and rode down to the Dock-n-Dine to get a job as a waitress.  I will never forget how she worked 12 hours on Mothers’ Day. She assured us that she was grateful to have the opportunity to wait on our neighbors and friends from church.  

My mother’s job quickly transformed my older sister Lia into a mother figure, at age 12.   She did laundry, cooked, even scolded.  My brothers and I changed our fishing competitions from catch-and release to catch-and-eat. Nobody I knew ate Snapper Blues and Catfish, but we did.  We would get shad from the lobstermen  and run home with smiles on our faces, not knowing or caring that it was actually a lowly bait fish.

In the winter my mother would pray for snow.  A good snowstorm meant her 5 sons could shovel driveways and bring home cold cash that she could turn into hot calories.  We delivered newspapers, raked leaves, cut lawns, anything in trade for money or fungible favors. I’m not complaining, just reporting, I loved my childhood.  Mostly. 

Our Dad was trying to sell boats during the day and doing odd jobs at night….emphasis on trying, and odd.

Our mother was, and is, a “Saint”, it has been told to me 1,000 times.

One of her skills was to package and market horrible jobs as privileges.  (“Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”  Said Tom Sawyer, and my mom).

The “bundles job” was delivering newspapers to newspaper boys.  We would drive to the local New Haven Register depot in the dead of the night, (3am I was told later) still in our hand-me-down pajamas and assemble all the sections of the newspapers and bundle them while our father would drive the old station wagon to the various newspaper boys’ homes…..neighborhood by neighborhood.  Nobody else in the streets except us, and the occasional milk and bread trucks. 

Our lack of food and heat during those lean years gnawed at me.  I remember being afraid that a friend would come over and ask for a snack, or wonder why it was cold inside our house.  I made up all sorts of excuses to keep my shame sheltered. 

I kept an eye on the big burlap bag of potatoes in the kitchen.  Like a canary in a coal mine, the bag was a leading indicator of our near-term prospects. 

We endured.  Mom distracted us with geography games on our wobbly globe. She held spelling bees, and impromptu grammar quizzes.  We played sports, lots and lots of sports!  Scrabble was big. 

Our Mother’s Mother, (she of “Grandma’s Silver” fame) darned our socks, patched our dungaree knees, taught us the difference between your and you’re while using words like “chum” where I would have used “friend”.   Grandma Kane…Estelle Buckley Kane.  Giver of silver, and much more. 

We wore plastic bread bags as insulators over our unmatched socks and inside our leaky boots as we wrestled siblings off our toboggans at full speed.  Mom dragged us to Sturbridge Village, the Liberty Bell, the Bronx Zoo. 

She knew life was moving fast so she made sure we were going, learning, doing, experiencing.   We would fill up our tank with quarters and off we went, pinching and poking each other the whole way…..while minding the distance from our Dad’s long arm of “discipline”. 

Gettysburg, the Empire State Building, Mystic Seaport.  My mother put those waitress tips to good use. If we had gas and some PB&J’s , we were road tripping! Who needed a phone, we needed memories!  And memories Mom gave us.  My memories are rich, I treasure them all.  

Well, maybe not ALL. 

It was 1972.  Midnight.  A very dark night.

I thought I heard what sounded like weeping coming up from the kitchen below, so I crept down a few steps of stairs and looked through the railings.

The potato bag was laying empty, limp on the kitchen floor, at my Mother’s feet. She was crying softly. 

The fear overwhelmed me, but I managed to beat it back as I saw how broken my mother was.  I straightened up as tall as a 12 year-old could get. 

I walked down into the kitchen and said “Mom, what’s the matter?” 

She was startled to see me and quickly wiped away the tears.  I looked over at the open refrigerator and saw a half-empty bottle of ketchup.  I looked in the freezer and saw a few metal ice trays, and some frozen bait, and nothing else.

I turned to my mother, and we shared the dark moment very quietly.  Her head was hanging, eyes fixed on the kitchen floor as she held my hand.   This was the bottom I had always feared. 

She spoke to me like I was an adult, like we were in it together.  “I don’t know what to do.  We don’t have anything to eat.  I don’t have anything to feed my family when they wake up.”

Again, quiet.  I don’t think I remember talking or moving.  The fear had me in its clutches. 

I am unclear on what happened next, except for the important detail that my Grandmother showed up with bags and bags of groceries that next morning.  

(We have all learned not to ask Mom for details related to our troubles. I suspect she went next door and borrowed the neighbor’s phone and called her Mom.)  

Whatever it was, Grandma was now in the boat with us, rowing and bailing.  That gave me relief.

I’ll never forget the day Grandma’s Silver entered the drama.  My mother called me into the living room; Grandma’s Silver was on the coffee table, lid open.  She was pensive, determined. 

She handed me a couple forks, knives and spoons. 

“I need you to get on your bike and ride down to ////store name escapes me//// and hand these to the man behind the counter. He will weigh them and give you cash. Bring it straight home. Go”.

I remember that long bike ride down to the pawn shop, Vividly.  

What could this mean? My Mom was selling our beloved silver?  

My heart and soul were low, my heartbeat high, as my feet pedaled me forward.  I was 10, but I was not a kid, not on that day. 

I don’t remember tears, just adrenalin, and focus.  

The pawnshop man weighed the silver while informing me that the knife blades would not be included since they are made from stainless steel not silver. 

I pedaled straight home, wad of cash in my pocket, proud that I had successfully executed my Mom’s instructions. And happy we were going to get a new giant sack of potatoes.  (And maybe even hamburgers!!) 

That was 1972.   Times got better, VERY slowly.  We dishwashed and babysat and busboy’d our way through Xavier and Mercy.  My mother scratched and clawed her way through all the college paperwork, the aid forms, the loan applications.  All while typing our papers and making our lunches and doing our laundry.  

Time went by, 8 college degrees later, we all became successful enough to ride on airplanes, eat in restaurants, enjoy heated and air conditioned homes, that we own.

We all have full refrigerators.  

Now WE are the ones tipping the newspaper boy, the babysitter, the waitress, the snow shoveler.  Mom had gotten us through college.  Dad had taught us how to work hard. 

We all knew better than to replace the silver as soon as we could afford it.  Our mother eschewed material things right after that heavy lid slammed shut on an empty box of silver.   

So, for the 40th  anniversary of that horrible 1972 winter I found an antique solid silver pie server and we had it engraved: “Thank you God for Grandma’s Silver”  We gave it to her at my sister’s farm with the babbling brook. On Thanksgiving.  The room was crowded, with 21 grandchildren, but it was so quiet you could have heard an empty potato sack drop.

  I can imagine my children will one day get me a silver pie server on account of all the pie I have consumed.  

Perhaps they should engrave it: “Thank you God….for Grandma”

Do me a favor. Keep Two Songs!

When we were growing up and struggling to put food on the table, circa 1972,we had to sell our piano. I LOVED playing piano. I had done a couple recitals, I was quite good and quite proud of my abilities. But the piano represented food, and my 7 siblings and I were more in need of meals than we were in need of melodies.

Fast forward to 2001, our three-year old boy is getting good on the piano, in our pale pink house in Los Angeles, by the famous Farmers’ Market on 3rd and Fairfax.

He had learned to read music before he could read words. Thank you Nyra! Warren’s Russian piano teacher was so great! She gave us such a gift! The ability to make music is a gift!

Warren got better and better, his music finally fun to listen to as his feet still didn’t even reach the pedals. I loved watching his little fingers flying up and down the keys, never missing a note or a beat.

I would often sit on the bench, by myself , staring at the keys, sad that my songs had left me. Sad that I had so much music inside me but I could no longer express it with my fingers. And I remembered my piano teacher, Mrs Cunningham, and her beehive hairdo, and I smiled, a sad smile.

Fast forward to 2007, Warren’s now 9 and we have moved to Old Greenwich Ct, and he has lost interest in piano and has moved on to entrepreneurial endeavors too numerous to list. Geography, the cosmos, technology, language, travel, all have our son’s attention at this point…..So I sit him down and I say “Warren, I need you to do me a favor, Keep Two Songs. Please don’t lose your two best songs”.

He looked at me inquisitively and nodded that Ok can I go now? nod.

He was still able to play two full songs, but not like he used to, he was getting rusty. And when it comes to piano, it is NOT like riding a bike…..if you don’t use it, you lose it! So I begged and pleaded.

I told him my story. I told him how I lost my songs as the piano got traded for groceries. He listened. I said “there will come a time in college when you will all be hanging out and a piano will be nearby and you will be able to saunter up to it and BANG! You’ll play your two songs! And you’ll thank me that I made you keep your two songs”. He nodded, nodded that smart kid nod. We had a deal.

So he spent time making sure his two songs were perfect.

But then something really amazing happened!

He took the keyboard up another level. He bought an electric piano, fell in love with EDM DJ’s like Avicci and Calvin Harris, started his own DJ company, his own record label. Made his own EDM songs.

Fast forward 5 years to today, he’s 18 years old, and can learn a pop song from ear. He is writing his own music and merging multiple songs into his own House versions. The keys falling and jumping as he runs up and down the octaves like he did when he was three. Nothing makes me happier than listening to him rock the keyboards like Elton John. Our bedroom is right above the piano and his songs fill my room , up through the floor boards, as I watch TV or read.

His music fills the house like the sweet smell of his mother’s Greek cooking.

Our boy leaves for college in about 6 or 7 weeks. It will be a profoundly sad day. Our little piano player has grown up. The music is leaving the house, but it is not leaving our hearts. And I am warmed by the thought that as he packs for college, he is taking his two songs with him……and countless more.

Find Your Happy Place

My mother sent me a short article written by Marie Howe, and I am attaching it here for your enjoyment. Whether you are right, or left, or straight down the middle, Ms Howe’s words will inspire you to seek refuge in your own personal concert hall, your library, your favorite field. Our life experiences should be relied on to get us through troubled times, and for 60% of us these are very troubled times. If you are happy with the State of the Union, perhaps you are already in your “happy place”.

For me? I’m boiling sap into syrup and reading Emily Dickinson while listening to Yanni Live at the Acropolis……COME ON HAPPY PLACE!! SHOW YOURSELF!

http://lithub.com/protecting-your-inner-life-in-times-of-political-turmoil/

Love Thy Neighbor, Fund a Hero

I think it was Bono who said “Love Thy Neighbor. It’s not a suggestion, it’s a commandment!”
Haiti is a neighbor. We need to love Haiti.

Have you ever known a Haitian? I have. I was a busboy at a restaurant in Ft Lauderdale in 1981 and the dishwasher was a 50 year-old Haitian man named Risha.

I have never seen anyone work so hard, for such long hours. He worked two jobs, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. Remarkable, humble man. Every week he sent his earnings back to his family in Haiti. (After deducting his rent). I am sure my co-workers (brothers Warren and Nick) remember him as fondly as I do.

Risha kept a curled up picture of his family propped up above the sink that he hunched over for all those hours. He was a quiet man with a radiant smile. He was always so happy, and grateful. He taught me French (or was it Creole?), but I will never forget Risha. He left his family so he could find work to save their lives. He was grateful for his American neighbor.
He loved America, told me so every day.
He was my hero, then, and more so today.
Imagine leaving your children and moving to another country to wash dishes 7 days a week in order to save their lives.

America helped Risha save his family. I am sure he has left this earth but he has not left my heart.

We are a great nation. But we are not great because our buildings are the biggest , or our golf courses are the nicest. We are a great nation because we love our neighbors. We are great because we broke DOWN the Berlin Wall. We are great because we stormed the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from Hitler’s unfathomable deeds.

We are great because we airlift humanitarian aid to nations in need, all over the world. Earthquakes are still shaking as our C130 cargo planes are going wheels up, filled with life-saving supplies, doctors, nurses.

Brave Americans of ALL ethnicities run INTO fires to save strangers. Americans of all faiths dive out of helicopters INTO freezing oceans to save drowning strangers. We are great because we respond in the blink of an eye when a neighbor cries out for help. Our National Guard , our Coast Guard, our First Responders. All great, beyond words.

We need to love our neighbors and we need to find heroes to show our children.

Domus in Stamford educates the neighbors that everyone else gave up on. Mike Duggan and his team are my heroes.

Neighbor-to-Neighbor in Greenwich feeds our hungry neighbors. Nancy Coughlin and her staff and volunteers are my heroes.

My wife Katrina was a Meals on Wheels driver. She would bring food, and love, to neighbors who are starving for both. Lynne Stewart and her staff and volunteers are my heroes.

Katrina was also a volunteer at the addiction rehabilitation center called Liberation Programs. She has been mentoring a young woman from gang-infested South Central LA since 1998. She taught her how to change diapers and warm milk and administer medicines. Her 10 year-old son “Little Lowe” calls her “Godmother”. Katrina is my hero.

Find one, thank one, support one, maybe even become one.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-14-56-amMother Teresa of Calcutta is the ultimate hero to me. I have been reading a book about her.

She devoted her life to TOUCHING the lives of the people called the UNtouchables (the “poorest of the poor”). In 1950 she started a religious order called the Missionaries of Charity and walked into the Calcutta slums and delivered love and respect and food and medical attention to God’s poorest children. That level of heroism is hard to fathom for me. Mother Teresa’s legacy? Her religious order 15 years after she died consisted of 4,500 sisters devoted to delivering care and love to our neighbors. She won the Nobel Peace Prize; her religious order is now ministering in 133 countries! She is at the top of my hero list.

So who is your hero?

If you know my sister Lesley, you know who her hero is.
2Doctor Paul Farmer. We need to know who our heroes are. I get a good feeling when I find myself admiring good people.

They need encouragement, appreciation, money, help. Paul Farmer doesn’t have 15 million followers on Twitter. He hasn’t sold 100million records or hit 600 home runs. But, I will tell you this: he is our era’s Mother Teresa. Did that get your attention? I urge you to read “Mountains Beyond Mountains” and learn about what Paul Farmer and his Partners In Health co-founder Ophelia Dahl have been doing for the last few decades. Learn about the work the thousands of PIH heroes do every day to heal our neighbors in Haiti, Rwanda, Mexico, Liberia, Navajo Nation, and more.

Take a look at my sister’s overview of PIH and a report on what’s happening in Haiti three weeks after the devastating Hurricane Matthew hit:

Haiti is often defined by what it lacks: a stable economy, high employment, solid infrastructure, and access to quality food, clean water, and universal health care. For nearly three decades, Partners In Health has worked to reverse that definition. Our program in Haiti, known locally as Zanmi Lasante, is our oldest and most replicated. We operate clinics and hospitals at 12 sites across the Central Plateau and the lower Artibonite, two of the country’s poorest regions, and we are the largest nongovernment health care provider in Haiti, serving an area of 4.5 million people with a staff of more than 5,700.

The hurricane largely spared our principal catchment areas in the Central Plateau, and it had only modest effects on the Artibonite region but it devastated the “southern claw” of Haiti. The death toll has risen to over 1,000. Homes, schools, roads, bridges, health centers and other critical infrastructure have been severely damaged. There has been major loss of crops and trees from what used to be one of the most fertile areas of Haiti. The risk of famine is substantial.

Local and international organizations are mobilizing to provide much needed immediate emergency relief, but the basic health infrastructure is in dire straits. Zanmi Lasante (ZL)/PIH is one of the Haitian Health Ministry’s most important partners in this effort. With the expectation of increases in malnutrition, diarrheal diseases including cholera, tetanus and severe psychological and emotional trauma, it is imperative to fortify and support the whole health system. Our partnership with the Ministry of Health will enable us to play a major role the full spectrum of health care delivery, from treatment to prevention, including participation in the effective distribution of the 1 million doses of oral cholera vaccines which have been made available to Haiti.

 

Paul Farmer and his team of physicians and health workers flew INTO Liberia to fight the Ebola virus two years ago. Imagine that. I was probably watching Notre Dame Vs Stanford on my high-def TV while Dr Farmer and his team were scrambling into their HazMat suits and running into the inferno. THAT is heroic.

We can’t forget our suffering neighbors. It’s a commandment. Let’s take a moment and say a prayer, or meditate if that’s your way, for the souls of the hundreds of Haitians who lost their lives in Hurricane Matthew and the thousands who are mourning them. If you get quiet enough you can hear their tears. Don’t be afraid to feel their pain, be inspired to act. I hope Risha’s family escaped harm.

Love thy neighbor. Haiti is our neighbor. They need our love. Paul Farmer, and Ophelia Dahl , and my sister, can help you help them.

Or just go to PIH.org. They are doing heroic deeds for the poorest of the poor. As we speak.

From Walton Mountain to Sound Beach Avenue, the evolution of a Country Store

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 2.01.08 PMAs far as I’m concerned, “The Waltons” tv show from the 1970’s was a documentary.
Who did I want to be when I was 10 years old?

 

 

 

 

John Boy Walton….writer, dreamer, all around American , son of a sawmill owner, trusted part-time employee of Ike Godsey.

My infatuation with country stores can be traced back to two original influencers.
There were two merchants who introduced me to the romance and intrigue of a traditional general store.

One of those merchants was “Old Man Mr. Patrick” who owned Patrick’s Country Store in Old Saybrook, Ct. (Opened in the 1930’s). And the other was Ike Godsey who owned Ike Godsey’s General Merchandise on Walton Mountain.

Raise your hand if your world stopped spinning when The Waltons opening music played. We would run to get a good spot in front of our 150-pound black and white TV.
Shhhhhhhh!

Patrick’s was my real life Godsey’s.
I can close my eyes and hear the crooked screen door with the bell on it. Wide plank worn-out and warped wood floor…..high glass counter keeping all the confectionary delights safe from my ten skinny fingers and 7 skinny siblings. Paper airplanes, fire crackers, the latest copy of Mad Magazine. SO many kites!

Mention Patricks to any of my siblings and they will sigh and respond with their favorite candy. I did a “reply all” with them the other day and the responses came flooding in like a clerk ordering candy from their supplier. Bazooka bubble gum was somebody’s favorite. Rock candy was mine. No, maple sugar was mine. Along with black licorice. And those hard candy root beer barrels. Sugar in any shape was my favorite candy. And let’s not forget the cold Coca Cola in those glass bottles.

That was the beginning of my country store obsession and I didn’t even know it.

Ike Godsey’s store was an historically accurate depiction of a country store.
He would hand out mail, give directions, let you use the only phone in a 100 mile radius.
In rural America, to this day, there was/is a general merchandise store. The country store is a socio-economic byproduct of the American settler movement. A movement that was both literal and figurative. As the country expanded inland from the coasts, the production of food and timber and produce became “industries” as opposed to subsistence endeavors. Entrepreneurial merchants packed their wares onto carts and headed to the hills to peddle knives and soaps and perfumes and exotic products like Irish linen or indigo dye to all the homesteaders. (Indigo was such a valuable trading commodity it was referred to as “blue gold”).

If you didn’t have currency the peddlers would trade for non perishable commodities like maple sugar, butter, eggs, smoked meat, yarns or cloths. Anything that could be converted into gold or silver in the city, or used to buy more products, the peddler accepted.

Eventually the peddler was making enough money in a two or three village area that he would put down permanent roots and start operating out of a room in his own house, near the church. The birth of a “town”!

No more weekly “commuting” to Boston. The peddler would accept shipments on the stage coaches and eventually the trains. His shelves would be stocked with seed, tools, barbed wire, pies, pots, and luxury items. He was now a merchant, no longer a peddler.

If you want to learn about the settling of inland America you can get it all by studying the General Stores. (Which I have been doing for 45 years).
They go by many names, including Mercantile, Dry Goods, General Merchandise, Grocery……potato, potahto, a country store by any name smells as sweet.

The general store was where the locals gathered to gossip, hear the national news from the stage coach drivers, collect their mail. Everything happened at the General store. Tobacco was chewed, smoked, rolled, traded. Rocking chairs were rocked on the creaking front porch. Everyone knew your name.

The Waltons tv show was inspired by Earl Hammer’s semi-autobiographical book , “The Homecoming”, and Ike Godsey’s store was based on the S&H Grocery Store…..still standing in Hammer’s real-life hometown, Schuyler, Va. (Pronounced Sky-ler)

We describe the Back40 Mercantile as a modern interpretation of an old fashioned country store. We don’t handle your mail or let you borrow our phone, but we would if you asked. We won’t trade you a hand carved wood bowl for butter, but we might, is it from your farm?
We want to be sellers of unique and well made products by small batch purveyors, local whenever possible.

Unfortunately the old-fashioned country store was broken open as the butcher, the baker, and the candle stick maker opened their own free standing stores. They wanted to cut out the middle man. (The very fate served cold to the next generation by that other Walton family, owners of Walmart)

Newspapers started delivering the news directly to our homes, we all got our own phones, and woe to us all, China started making all our products. And then it got worse! Walmart, Kmart, Stop and Shop, Target, Costco….supply, demand, volume pricing, convenience, 24 hour news, high speed trains and paved roads….They all have contributed to the demise of the general store, and a wearing down of our consumer experiences; a fraying of our human interactions with our neighbors.

Where is the romance and charm of buying a hand crafted gift, made by a local artisan? Where can you buy honey harvested by one owner and jewelry hand made by the other? Where can you buy a book written and published by your neighbor? At the Back40 Mercantile.

If you see me sitting on the bench in front of the store, smoking the occasional cigar, after driving my 1939 Farmall tractor to the store, you can bet I am pretending it is 1940 and I own a thriving pumpkin farm and sawmill.

The traditional General Store is almost extinct. There are still some incredible hold outs that have survived the paving of paradise…..The Warren Store in Warren, Vermont is by far my favorite example of a classic country store. Their molasses cookies! The antique ice box that still sells the local farmers’ milk and cheese and bacon. Unique sandwiches. Uneven floors, creaky stairs leading to room after room of perfectly curated products in every possible category. You wander in looking for a sandwich and you walk out wearing a turquoise bracelet from an artist in Santa Fe, clutching a bag filled with books and honey, a chunk of fudge, and maybe even a kite.

A moment of silence and respect for the intrepid and industrious peddlers who helped America grow into the Great country that it is.

Goodnight Mary Ellen
Goodnight John Boy.

Have you thanked your teachers today?

Attachment-1Villanova’s exciting NCAA championship sent waves of nostalgia across my mind.

I remain good friends with the star of our 1985 championship, Ed Pinckney. He and I had fun texting back and forth throughout this tournament, reminiscing about the proverbial good ol days. Seems like a lifetime ago, and yet, all I needed to do was load a daydream track and it was yesterday.

I decided to look up my two favorite professors from my days as an English Major at Villanova and I started with Professor Mitchell, an eccentric literary savant who resembled Bernie Sanders speaking with a William F Buckley-esque accent. I call the dialect American Lockjaw. Did that help? No? Ok, how about Thurston Howell the 3rd from Gilligan’s Island!

Professor Mitchell would walk around the 100 year old classroom with its 15 foot ceilings and fill every cubic inch of the room with rambling verbatim quotes of poetry, arms dancing as he sang out “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me”…..verse after verse after verse. He had no limit. He was a true genius, I have never seen anything like it. No notes, just walked around the room and performed like one of those famous British stage actors whose name always escapes you.

Flamboyant, sarcastic, hilarious. He would pounce on whoever he knew was passing notes or perhaps unprepared for class. We became good friends.

My other favorite teacher was Professor Wilkinson. He was chair of the English department, and the Felix to Mitchell’s Oscar: Impeccably dressed, genteel and measured , very proper. Mitchell wore yesterday’s shirt, askew, while Wilkinson wore a perfectly tied bow tie and tweed sport jacket.
If you were to pick Hollywood actors to play them Mitchell would be a cross between the mad scientist in Back to the Future , and Nathan Lane in Birdcage. Professor Wilkinson would be played by Sean Connery. (The James Bond version).

Looking back on it, their theatrical Queen’s English accents were probably acquired from decades speaking Shakespearean. Life was a stage for these two characters, whether in the hallway or reclining in their creaky office chairs that looked 50 years old, because they were. Mitchell would infuse his personal advice with insults that felt like compliments served up with a wry smile and a wink to his office mate: “Jeffrey. Does your girlfriend realize she will never be able to love you as much as you love yourself?” Ummm, no? I remember one time he scribbled across my paper: “prolixity prolixity! Thy name is Jeffrey!” Huh? What the firetruck is prolixity?

I loved being around those two teachers; they made life so rich. They could make you hear a song from the hissing noise of an old radiator. Their classes were always packed and there was always a crowd mewing about in their big double office.

I was so taken by the obituary attached. So many emotions, mostly gratitude, but a regrettable amount of regret.

I am sad that I never reached back and thanked Professor Mitchell for all that he taught me, and the way he informally, and perhaps unknowingly, mentored me outside the classroom. And our friendship…. I always meant to call him, or send him a note. Hence the sadness.

I was amazed to read how he had such a love for Emily Dickinson, I had forgotten his obsession. And then the light went on in my head! My love of Emily started in 1982; I never could recall who had introduced us. Talk about a gift!!

Imagine being responsible for introducing a person to an artist who goes on to entertain you and teach you and comfort you, for decades! Hence the gratitude.

And lastly, I was intrigued by his recovery from alcoholism. I was too sauced up in college to know Mitchell was in the program. But it makes sense…..of course he was an alcoholic, and of course he beat it! (I turn 21 this July 10th, of course).

What a life he lived. I encourage you to read the attached obituary. It’s never too late to say “thank you” to that favorite teacher. Well, actually, it can be too late, if you wait as long as I did.

Teachers so rarely get thanked , and yet so often get remembered. Professor Mitchell was the best teacher I ever had. And I never once told him. Imagine that! It could bring a tear to your eye; if you were a hopeless romantic English Major.

The only way I can right the wrong is to make sure my children thank their teachers. Not today. And maybe not tomorrow. But definitely not never.

I am going to go thank the Principal at Greenwich Catholic. She started a math club because she had heard some students weren’t feeling challenged, and she taught it herself, to 3 students after school. For a whole semester. Imagine that.

Have you thanked your teachers today?

http://articles.philly.com/1989-02-28/news/26151161_1_emily-dickinson-lindback-award-rank-of-associate-professor

“Carpool Tunnel” and Other “Smart” Phone Maladies.

phonesI finally gave up my Blackberry and went out and bought the iPhone 6S deluxe.

I endured a decade of ridicule and scorn as a Blackberry user. Why did I stay loyal to that awful phone? The keyboard! And the auto correct. (Lack thereof). I loved the fact that the makers of Blackberry trusted me enough to say what I was intending to say , without their help. If I wanted to misspell a word for a creative flare? I could do it!

Blackberries were made for English Majors. Apple is made for you-tubing, face-timing , snap-chatting , video-splicing, music-downloading, photo-shopping, app-buying people. I just wanted to write an email and google something every now and then.

Was it the peer pressure that made me give up my Blackberry? No. It was their hold music. I once listened to 45 minutes of horrible hold music just to see if they could break their previous record of 40 minutes.
What else? Was it the fact that when I called the Blackberry “help line” it would usually go like this: “please hold, I need to find someone who works on the Blackberry account”. Insert hold muzak.

Twenty minutes later: “how can I help you? Which device do you have? The Q10? Give me a minute, I need to find the manual for that device, is it ok if I put you on a brief hold?”
“Noooooo” , I implored, into the hold music.
Ten minutes later: “How can I help you?”

And yet, that happened to me so many times! Why did I stay? The keyboard!

I wanted to form sentences that made sense the First time I typed them.
Apple’s touch screen keyboard is celebrated for ALMOST getting the right word. “The phone is SO smart it guesses what you were trying to say!!” Yay!! What if it guesses wrong?

Let me quote my idol Mark Twain: “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug”.

I would always get so miffed reading texts and emails from the applers that were replete with hideous misspells and malapropisms followed by the two word correction that I call the “Apple oops”.

Just as I would be replying “What did you mean by: ‘donut new lite?’ an Apple oops would pop up: “Don’t be late”.

I especially like the Apple signature that people place at the end of all their messages: “Please excuse all typos and misspells”.

Imagine that…. We all just accept it.
Please excuse my car, sometimes it stops in the middle of traffic and the windows open and close !

Speaking of Windows try to spell Windows without a capital w on your iPhone! I dare you ….go type Windows. It was a noun long before it was a software company! Windows Windows Windows …….every time!

My brother Warren sent me a text three days ago, and I quote: “I saw easy as paint me at the Wizards game”
I replied:
“Huh? Are we speaking code? Who is Easy as Paint Me? Is he that Native American friend of yours?”
Warren: “Sorry, Siri translated EZ Ed Pinckney to easy as paint me”.
Ahhh, got it, cool, that was fun. Two can play this game, so I asked him:
“Was my kill tom’s son playing?”
Obviously not, Michael Thompson is hurt.
I just wanted to confuse him! Give him a taste of his own medicine.
He quickly replied:
“No, he’s still hurt”.

Applers are like those code breakers from World War Two.

And then there was the Apple emoji scourge! That also wore me down.

Applers would send me 5 or 6 of those little gremlins and my blackberry didn’t have the wherewithal to translate so all I would see is little tiny question marks inside diamond shaped icons.

Is she mad? Is he happy? Was he offended? Am I supposed to pick up milk?

I would sometimes just have to say: what were you trying to say to me with those little icon thingies? Talk about demoralizing!

Why couldn’t we have just stayed with the two accepted and universal messages of a smile and a winked smile? My Blackberry and I could do those!

But, NO, they couldn’t leave it alone!

….the skateboarding , frisbee throwing, hula hooping Apple techies in Silicon Valley decided to convert the punctuation smile into an actual yellow smiley face.
That changed the whole game! Blackberry never caught up. The company was basically killed by a little yellow smiley face.?

(Hang on, I need to take a break, this email is long! My Carole tunnel is acting up. Sorry, I meant to say carpool tunnel. OK, one more time, let me get a running start: carpal tunnel.)

Ok, I’m back. I put on some Ben Gay and I can move my fingers with only a modest ache. I have Typer’s Elbow.

Where was I? Ahh, emojis. Short for little stupid colored pictures designed to humiliate Blackberry owners.
Made me crazy.

And I am sure it was an appler who decided “k” is a word! I can appreciate why we shorten and abbreviate WTF, but K?
….you are in such a hurry that you can’t type “ok”?
The word has already been cut in half once!
Now we need to cut it in half again?
Am I the only one outraged by all of this?
Where the he&@ are my fellow English majors? Someone needs to stand up and say “Give us back our words!!”

I heard my mother yell at her iPhone the other day: “I am purposely tying to misspell that word!!! “. (She is also a recently , reluctant, iPhoner. We need a support group).

Making fun of Apple’s short battery life and hideous auto-correct gave me great joy but then SHE showed up. I’ll never forget the day I first heard Siri. She replied to my son: “it is going to be 65 and sunny in Reykjavik tomorrow, would you like that converted to Celsius?”

Say this in your best Jan Brady whine:
“Siri Siri Siri”. I hated Siri! I could get over the emoji thing, but to have your very own , know-it-all , talking personal assistant? That did it for me. I was a broken man. You win Apple.

Me: “Siri! Set my alarm for 530am”
Siri: “Okay Big Daddy, your alarm is set”

And then she says, in a hushed tone: “did you notice how I used four letters to spell okay?”
Siri loves me. ???

Dear Santa

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 7.59.20 PM“Farm and Ranch Living” just published some “Dear Santa” letters from the 1920’s…..written by children in Fife, Texas to the local newspaper.

I want to share some of the highlights. I am confident the letters will warm your heart, and perhaps transport you back to your childhood, especially if writing to Santa was a tradition in your home, as it was in mine.

Dear Santa,
I’ve been the very best little boy lately, and if you don’t hurry and come, I don’t know if I can stay good much longer. I just want a few things this year, as daddy says Santa is as poor as he is. I’d like a tractor, a car, a ball, a bat, gloves and a lot of fruit and candy and nuts.
Love to you Santa,
Forrest Roberts
Age 9
(1930)

Dear Santa,

We have tried to be good little children. Please bring me a velocipede, a tinker toy set, some fire crackers, a ball and some caps for my gun that you brought me last Christmas. Please bring my little sister a kiddie car, a doll that says “mamma” and a doll bed. Please bring us lots of fruit, nuts and candy.
Bye-bye Santa
John and Elizabeth Tedder
(1924)

Dear Santa Claus,
I would like to have a new doll, as my old one has lost a leg, and I want a doll bed, and I want a doll that can walk and talk. And I would like to have some little dresses, also. Dear Santa don’t forget my little brothers J.D and Sid they want a coaster wagon.
Lovingly,
Charlotte Painter
(1925)

Dear Santa,
I have been a good little boy. Will you please bring me a velocipede, a flashlight, some apples, and candy. Bring Grandpa a pair of socks and I’ll put some corn at the gate for your reindeer.
Your friend,
Robert Pearce
(1930)

One more:
Dear Santa,
As Christmas is near at hand we thought we would write and let you know the things which we would like most as presents. W.D wants a school dinner bucket, a big rubber ball, Nellie Fay wants a doll, sand bucket and ball, Gladys wants a doll and we also want some nuts apples and oranges.
Your little friends,
W.D, Nellie Fay, and Gladys Bradley
(1920)

I had to google “velocipede”; it was/is a toy tricycle. And a dinner bucket is a lunch box.

I found it interesting that so many of the letters included fruit, nuts and candy and couldn’t help but think this was the beginning of the “beloved” holiday fruitcake. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fruitcake-101-a-concise-cultural-history-of-this-loved-and-loathed-loaf-26428035/ 

I also found it interesting that none of the children asked for ponies, and then quickly realized that perhaps they had plenty of those running around the farm. (Spoiled farm kids!)

And then I thought of my poor mother (and father) who had to scrape together enough money and energy to throw a party for 8 “needy” children every Christmas morning.

We would always get stuff we needed , strewn amongst the toys we so desperately wanted.

I don’t recall writing:

Dear Santa,
I have been a good boy , can you please bring me underwear, socks, mittens , and some notebooks for school?

I even remember getting a toothbrush in my stocking one year. Try giving today’s children a spiral bound school notebook or some dried apricots for Christmas. That would go over like giving your wife a vacuum cleaner for her birthday. (Hey! We all make mistakes!)

My mother sure was a magician back then. She could make $100 look like $1,000 under a Christmas tree. She could take a quart of egg nog and turn it into a gallon. (It was only a few years ago that I learned egg nog tasted better without being diluted by milk.)

My siblings and I still celebrate winter with a laugh , through tears, about our “Pepperidge Farm socks”. (Mom saved the plastic bread bags through summer like farmers split and stacked firewood-they functioned as waterproofing membranes for whatever ill-functioning boots we were assigned).

Don’t get me wrong, Santa and her helper always managed to put some memorable toys under the tree. Mostly ones that could be shared.

Greg got a football? Awesome, he needs someone to toss it to. Richard got a big toboggan? Great! We could all pile onto that! I got a set of those little green army men? Good! We needed more of those.

Warren got the yellow shiny Tonka dumptruck? “Hmmm” says mother to father as she checks the wrapping paper and notices “for Nicky” crossed off and “for Warren” scribbled over it.

Lia got white figure skates? What size?! Lesley got books and new glasses? Good for her, she needed the latter to enjoy the former. Rachel got ski goggles? Maybe she will get skis next year!!! Christmas morning was a pandemonium of flying wrapping paper and oohs and aahs.

I will always remember that glorious new sneaker smell that wafted out of the box as I tore open my pristine Chuck Taylor’s. Archie comics, and Mad Magazines were big hits, rolled up in our stockings, hung by the chimney with care.

Looking back on those incredibly joyous Christmas mornings, I have to bow my head and give a shout-out to our Mother.

Dear Santa,

I want nothing, and need nothing, for Christmas. You gave me everything a child could ever ask for.

The 5 Best Black & White Cookies in New York

I remember the day I had my first “drop cookie”. (That’s what my best friend’s Sicilian Grandmother called them). It was 1974, Middletown, Connecticut.

I was 12 and it was a Sunday. The sauce was simmering, on its 12th hour of dutifully marinating the homemade sausage and meatballs. The bread had just been pulled out of the oven and I was in a state of anticipated euphoria as I peered from the doorway not daring to enter the kitchen.

Grandma Patavina was barking instructions in Italian, leveled at her poor shrinking husband: “VI DIRO QUANDO E IL MOMENTO DI MANGIARE !!  NON ANDARE VIA!!”

My friend would whisper the translation like we were watching some grainy black and white movie: “I WILL TELL YOU WHEN ITSA TIME TO EAT. NOW GO AWAY!”

Which is a good segue to mentioning the most amazing Black and White cookies I have ever tasted. The tray of those puffy cakey pancakes would sit on top of the ceramic stove, beckoning like the forbidden fruit.   If you wanted to feel the sting of a wooden spoon across the back of your head, by all means, go grab one, dip it in the white chocolate, or should I dip it in the milk chocolate??

I always had a tough time deciding which side of the cookie I liked better and would end up delaying just long enough to hear the Whack! followed by the ringing in my ear.

OR? Better strategy:

Send your friend up to the giant bowl of steaming pasta in the sink and distract Grandma Patavina: “can I taste the macaroni Grandma?”  He would get the spoon Smack on his dirty knuckles while I would grab a cookie, dip one side in the dark chocolate, rotate it, dip the other in the white chocolate, and get out of the kitchen like it was on fire.

We would always have to apologize, while licking chocolate off our lips, feigning remorse and regret.

My wife’s BFF, Stephanie Liner,  has her Black and Whites flown to her dinner parties in Los Angeles. First Class.

She was kind enough to forward the attached article for us. If you can’t make it to any of these stores soon enough, just ask any NYC commuter to grab a couple at Zaro’s in Grand Central. (Always feel the frosting through the bag, if it isn’t soft, ask for one off the bakers’ cart behind the counter. They also now have “Only Whites” if you prefer just the white frosting)

As my brother Greg likes to say: You’re welcome.

Article link: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/top-lists/nycs-5-best-black-white-cookies/

If I Had a Hammer

If I‎ had a hammer, I could muzzle my father’s harangue, which bounces around my head like a pinball every time I look for a lost tool.

I am sure my siblings remember all too well, the loud laments of my father: “Where is my hammer? NANCY!? I need the boys to come out here and find my hammer right now! Richard? Greg? Who has seen my hammer? WARREN? Did you and Nicky leave the hammer in the treehouse again?”.

Try and imagine a very large man yelling at you to find a tool that you most likely lost. Very large, very mad…red-faced ranting, rummaging through the shed like a grizzly that just came in through your fishing cabin’s window looking for peanut butter.

My brothers and I would run out the nearest door, and head right for the treehouse, our “happy place” (also the hangout for Dad’s missing tools).

Fast forward 40 years….now I’m the one missing hammers….the problem?  I’m losing them myself.

The other day I was standing on top of my tractor, changing the spotlight on my garage and what do I see perched on the top of my garden cage? My rusty hammer. Missing since the Fall of 2013.

I then cleaned out my shed‎, always a fun experience.

I found 4 hammers, plus one in the garage, and the one on top of the garden, that makes 6.

What else did I find? At least 6 cans of fix-a-flat, 8 flashlights and enough extension cords to light a lamp in Lesley’s house.

More redundant inventory:

Four hose nozzles‎, 4 plug adapters, 6 different duct tapes…….5 tape measures…..ok, what’s my point?

Why so many of the same thing? I’m in a hurry, and when I complete a project, either the tool stays where it was used, (Farm, back of car, on tractor, near woodpile, shed, garage, basement),  that I declare it Stolen next time I need it, and head down to the hardware store to buy a new one.

The guys at Feinsod’s must think ‎I am giving away tools for birthday presents.

I just counted 8 chainsaw chains. It’s quicker to buy a new one, $22, than to pay them to sharpen the old one, $12.

I do the cost/benefit analysis at the counter of my tree management company:

“I can stay here and wait while you sharpen this, or, I can buy this one and leave now, for $10 more? Give me three. You lost me at WAIT”.

“And I need some bar oil, and a case of pre-mixed chainsaw gas”

A “helpful” man overhears me and says:

“Why don’t you just buy a chain file and sharpen your chains yourself? They’re $2”

I turn and look at him:

“Do you know how many of those files I own?”

So, I run out to my idling car like a bank robber, jump in, and announce to Warren and Liam, ‘let’s go!‎”

I have limited minutes, limited gas, limited battery.

Gotta get it, and GO.

Back to the hammer. I have trouble shot my problem with myriad solutions:

I have spray painted handles fluorescent orange so as to better reveal themselves, I have put hooks on the wall of the shed to always keep it in a safe place… the problem with that solution is sometimes it doesn’t land on the hook when I toss it from the door, and once something hits the floor? It bounces off paint cans, fishing nets, deflated basketballs, other hammers, and isn’t seen until the annual cleaning.

The other day I was squirrel proofing my wooden garbage “locker”, (the first one was eaten through in spite of all sorts of defenses ranging from plumbers’ mesh, duct tape, coyote urine) and there I was, using my kitchen hammer, cursing, barely able to hear myself over the din of my father’s yells.

The kitchen hammer? That’s the one small enough to fit in your suit jacket pocket, and barely large enough to tap in a small nail to hang a picture. The head has a beautiful bouquet of flowers brightly painted on it.

The day before that? I used the back of my dull hatchet to tap in the nails on my new woodpile shed. ‎ (I could have used one of my 10 tarps but I swore off tarps as last January’s new year’s resolution).

Today? I am going to throw away the 10 different half empty cans of white paint, consolidate and locate my tools, and walk into Feinsods and say: ‘do not let me buy any more ‎hoses, bags of grass seed, or clippers!

Then I’ll head over to the fishing tackle store and yell at them.25