Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Thursday, November 24, 2011
NOTE: This originally ran in the Connecticut Post in November of 2008. My intent was to capture what it was like growing up in my family, so I did not even attempt to account for my wife's family (and their Jell-O addiction) but I would like to dedicate this to the memory of Kathy Cribbins and all the members of our family who are no longer with us at the table, but will always be in our hearts.
As much as I love over-eating and being with family, Thanksgiving was never that big of a deal for me. It felt more like a day off than an actual holiday – probably due to the lack of presents. It started when I was a kid, when a holiday wasn’t a holiday unless there were gifts involved. And I’m talking about real gifts…from a store. Not those so-called “gifts” of good health, loving family, and fresh food on the table – I wanted something in a box, or a basket, that I could put batteries in and play with. But year after year Thanksgiving guests would arrive bearing nothing more than smiles and pies, leaving me with nothing to open (unless you count all the walnuts I had to crack for my arthritic aunt.)
It’s not that I disliked the day, it’s just that everything Thanksgiving had to offer, some other holiday did better. Take decorating for example. My family needed the entire month leading up to Halloween, Christmas, and Easter to properly decorate the house for the big day. But Thanksgiving? With maybe an hour to go before the company started arriving, my brother and I would “decorate” by setting out a few pilgrim and Indian candles, filling the cornucopia (but only after we took turns wearing it as a hat), and creating place cards for our guests. For some reason we fought over who got to fill the relish tray with the assortment of sweet pickles and olives, so that became my dad’s job (which he didn’t seem to mind since it gave him the opportunity to steal a couple of olives for his martini before sneaking off to watch football until it was time to carve the turkey.)
My mom’s job was to cook the turkey – a task she approached with the delicate precision of a bomb squad, since she considered the turkey to be a time bomb that would kill us all if not cooked long enough - though she didn’t seem quite so concerned for our health the year she accidentally cooked the turkey with the plastic bag of giblets still stuffed inside – “It’ll be fine” she declared, peeling off the melted pieces of probably toxic plastic. "Just don't eat the middle."
Normally a late riser, she’d set her alarm for 6:00 a.m. Thanksgiving morning in order to put the turkey in the oven so it could cook long enough (a time determined by a complicated formula derived by scientists at NASA, but later made obsolete by Butterball’s pop-up timer.) She would then spend the rest of the day sticking to a strict basting schedule.
When we were really little, every time she opened the oven to check the turkey (which was quite often) she’d start shrieking and screaming, claiming that it was trying to escape My brother Joe and I would come running into the kitchen just as she was closing the oven door, wiping her brow with an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Not quite done yet,” she’d say before shooing us back into the living room to continue watching the Macy’s Umpteenth Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade – a six hour snooze fest that she somehow always convinced us to watch.
Which is another area that Thanksgiving was clearly lacking – good TV specials. Christmas had Frosty and Rudolph. Halloween had Charlie Brown. Thanksgiving had…balloons. An endless parade of big boring balloons, their tedious passing narrated by the likes of Lorne Greene, or some other washed-up celebrity, who would share “facts” about them as they floated by. We didn’t care that six people could swim in Snoopy’s supper dish or that Bullwinkle’s nose was so big you could park a Volkswagen in it. All we cared about was seeing Santa, who traditionally brought up the rear of the parade, ushering in the start of the real holiday season.
But the star of Thanksgiving was dinner, which somehow always managed to coincide with half-time. Now most normal families start their feast with a prayer – seeing as how the whole reason for gathering was to give thanks for the food and so forth, but not us. When my mom would ask, “Who wants to say grace?” We’d all yell “Hulford!” - the last name of our neighbor, and the only Grace we knew.
But what we lacked in prayer, we made up for in toasting. We toasted everyone. Those who were at the table with us, and those who were no longer with us. We toasted the turkey, the stuffing, and even the bread, quite literally one year when my cousin, trying to clink a glass across the table, accidentally tipped a lit candle into the napkin-lined basket of rolls, setting them on fire. After the flames were extinguished, someone (I like to think it was me) held up a burnt roll and said, “Well, you did say you wanted to make a toast!”
Yes, we had the traditional “kiddy table” but it was purely for logistical purposes. We never felt left out or unwanted, we knew that there was simply not enough room for everyone at the main table. And it didn’t really matter how old you were, if you were someone’s kid, you sat at the kiddy table. Therefore, graduating to the adult table didn’t have that rite of passage feel for us – if a seat opened up, it was only because someone had died (or even worse, was spending Thanksgiving with a girlfriend’s family!)
And while we could fill the seat of a departed loved one, we could never take their place. They brought something to the table that couldn’t be replaced. But we kept them alive by sharing stories and making toasts in their honor so that the new additions to the kiddy table will know what it was like to eat with Grampa, and George, Gramma Rose, Auntie, Uncle Paul, Bobby…
Now that I'm older, I've come to appreciate what a special holiday Thanksgiving really is. Looking back, as much as I liked getting them, I can’t recall a single Christmas gift any of my deceased relatives gave to me. But I do have countless memories of conversations and moments with them from Thanksgivings past – and I know now that it wasn't their gifts I was missing, it was their presence.
Monday, November 21, 2011
|Porky's, circa ? - see if you can find me, Where's Waldo style!|
NOTE: Call it lazy, but I plan on rerunning my holiday "Greatest Hits"pieces year after year. This would be one of them!
Tomorrow night, aka Thanksgiving Eve, has quietly grown to become one of the busiest bar nights of the year. Whether it's college kids home on break or prodigal sons returning home a bit too early, everyone seems to feel the need to head to their neighborhood bar before spending the big day with their families.
Here in Shelton, we call it "Valley New Year" and for some reason, many of the bars we flock to are the same places we desperately avoided growing up. They were dives, places to be steered clear of since that's where our friend’s fathers (and father’s friends) hung out. But somehow, without changing (or cleaning) a single thing, they get transformed, for one night at least, into friendly, lively, homey places where everyone knows your name…or at least your face.
Which is how most of the night is spent: naming names and figuring out faces of all the “friends” and acquaintances bellying up to the bar. They'll look vaguely familiar, but receding hairlines, expanding waist lines, and fake tan lines will make it hard to be sure. The sad part is that it wasn’t that long ago that you were good buddies, signing yearbooks and claiming to “Never forget the good times...” and now you don’t even remember their names.
On the other hand, people you once passed by in the halls without so much as a nod will be recognizing and hugging you like long lost friends. And who knows, maybe they are! So just to be safe, give them a hearty “Hey, how’s it going? Good? Good!” greeting and maybe raise a glass in a toasting motion. And then hope to God they continue on their way, for you will have absolutely nothing else to talk about.
But they won't go away, and will usually linger for a couple rounds of “Name That Dude,” where the two of you, lacking any real connection, will start naming all of the people you once commonly knew. So, you still hang out with Greg? Seen Jerry around? How about Gina? Once you run out of names, a few moments of uncomfortable silence will follow as the two of you nod and smile insincerely at each other with an, “Isn’t this great, the whole gang’s together!” attitude, until one of you sees someone (anyone) else to go talk to.
And if you're lucky, that someone else might actually be a person you not only recognize, but are truly happy to see. Unfortunately it will be too loud and crowded to carry on any type of real conversation, so you’ll settle for the quick catch-up, covering the past five years in all of five seconds before reverting back to the old nod and smile. It'll go something like this:
You: “Hey, how have you been? It’s been years since I saw you last! What’s new?”
Them: “Not much. How about you?”
You: “Ah, you know, the usual…”
Them: “Yeah, me too.”
Commence nodding and smiling. Never mind that during the last five years, one or both of you could have been married, divorced, hired, fired, jailed, bailed, promoted, demoted, and so forth - all of your highs, lows, and in-betweens will be summed up with a simple “not much” and “the usual.”
And maybe that is what’s so appealing about Thanksgiving Eve: that no matter what has passed over the past year (or years), all your hardships and dramas and tragedies suddenly become “not much” and “the usual.” And that truly is something to be thankful for.
So whatever your Thanksgiving plans are, try to spend a few hours the night before down at your local bar. Time with the family is great, but it’s also nice to hang out with a roomful of “friends” who don’t really care who you’ve become or what you’ve been doing. Most are just happy to know your name - and maybe buy a round of drinks that you can raise together in recognition of just how truly great it is that the whole gang is together.
Monday, November 14, 2011
The doorbell rang the other day (an unusual occurrence around here - unless my two-year old is pushing the button) and I opened it expecting to find a UPS man or something. Instead I was greeted by a stranger looking to get me to switch cable providers.
Now, before I go any further, you should know that I can not stand telemarketers. I despise them. Hate them. Rue the day they were born. When they call, I either: A. hang up immediately B. pass the phone off to the aforementioned two-year old and let him "talk" to them, or C. offer to go get "Mr. or Mrs. Wood" and then leave them waiting until they hang up.
Basically, I don't like attempts at selling me things in my own home. I don't care if you're a Girl Scout, Jehovah's Witness, or political candidate - if I want what you have to offer, or am looking for information, I am more than capable of contacting you or finding it for myself.
But here was this guy offering me a money saving opportunity that I was actually considering just a few days before, so I gave him a few moments of my time. He was nice enough, a little nervous, but seemingly on the up and up, so I gave him my phone number asked him to call me back on Monday after I had some time to look things over, compare offers, squeeze my current cable provider for a discount, etc. We agreed on a time, shook hands, and went on our merry ways.
Then, two days later, at dinnertime, the doorbell rings again, and it's him. And while I may come across here as a take no prisoners, call it as I see it sort of guy, in person, I'm rather timid. I never send food back in a restaurant. I don't confront neighbors about obnoxious fireworks. I accept less than stellar service with a smile. But for some reason, I let this poor guy have it. Before he even had a chance to open his mouth, I laid into him about how unacceptable it was to show up at my house, that we were in the middle of dinner, yada yada yada.
He got all flustered and started fumbling through his binder, and assuming he was looking to leave me with more information about his cable company, I cut him off and said I didn't need any more pamphlets and I was not interested in any of his offers. And that's when the poor guy hands me the paper he was looking for, which turned out to be a printout of a writing website his sister had created (It had come up in our first conversation that I was a teacher) that he thought I might be interested in.
I felt horrible, but already committed to being a dick, I took the paper without comment and sent him on his way. I closed the door, feeling none of the manly pride one might expect after going to battle with the enemy. In fact, I felt like a real jerk. So much so that I sent the following letter to his sister's website in hopes that he might get it.
"Dear Mike, I want to apologize for the way I treated you. I know you were just doing your job, and sales are hard to come by these days, but I was REALLY put off by your second visit to my home. To tell you the truth, I was put off by your FIRST visit as well, but since I don't even like when friends or family stop by unannounced, I let it slide. But regardless, you still didn't deserve to be treated like that. Had you been some pushy jerk or intimidating individual, I wouldn't have thought twice about brushing you off, but you seem like a genuinely sweet and sincere man, and should have been treated accordingly. Point is, I feel terrible about being such a jerk to you (not bad enough to sign up for Comcast, mind you, but still pretty bad!) and I wish you success in your endeavors.
Speaking of, not to dismiss the job you have, but I also hope you find something better suited to your skills and personality that WON'T put you in the line of fire from jerks like me. You have such a warm presence about you that it seems a shame that it's being "wasted" on pimping cable! But I know we all got to eat, and jobs are scarce, and sometimes we just have to make the best of it - and I'm truly sorry that your job led to you seeing me at MY worst.
I hope you know that my reaction to you at my doorstep had nothing to do with YOU as a person, as I think you would make a great neighbor, it's just I really don't like intrusions, or even surprises for that matter! I hope this message finds its way to you, and if it does, that you will accept my apology. Sincerely, Mike Wood"
This is not to say I'm going to hug the next a-hole who tries to spray me with cologne in the mall, but I am going to try to remember that he's just doing his job and politely decline. As for the telemarketers, they can continue to talk with Eli.
Friday, November 11, 2011
My nemesis, Renee, just asked why I didn’t have a blog post about Veterans Day. My initial response to her was that I knew my limitations and didn’t feel capable of capturing such a BIG story with my silly sensibilities. I was afraid my sarcastic tone and self-effacing style would come across as disrespectful and that my take on the topic would be inconsequential. So I decided to do the right thing and keep my mouth shut.
But as I was gearing up for a rare mid-morning bike ride, courtesy of a day off in honor of the holiday, I started to feel guilty. How could I enjoy the day knowing so many have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods in order for me to do so, without at least acknowledging their service?
So here I sit, struggling to come up with the words to convey what their bravery has meant to me - feeling foolish even using the word “struggle” - like it’s a real freakin’ hardship for me to be sitting safely in my warm(ish) kitchen typing on my expensive laptop while sipping some hot tea, and just now taking a break to talk to my mother on the phone. Our servicemen and women would love for the opportunity to do such simple, everyday things, and here I am whining about how "hard" it is for me to thank them? How messed up is that?
I try to convince myself that living the good life and enjoying every day is the best way to show my appreciation for the sacrifices of others. But deep down, I know it’s the lazy way. Reflecting on their courage while blithely going about my business doesn’t do much but make me feel better. But what about them? Even at my most sincere, my selfish inclination would be to talk about how much their actions have meant to me. But what about them? Is it even possible to show such gratitude? Can anyone really pay them back for what they’ve given up?
It’s such a daunting task, I can’t even begin to think about it. Throwing money at the problem seems like the easy way out – but even if I had the money, how much would make up for a lost leg, damaged mind, or missing time with a loved one? A million dollars? Two? And even then, no amount is ever going to bring any of it back.
So what can I do? I like to think I do what I can by flying flags in their honor, participating in moments of silence, nodding gratefully at them in airports, clapping for them at parades, crying at the sad news, getting angry and the bad, and cheering for the good, but I know it’s not nearly enough. I can tie a yellow ribbon around every oak tree I see and it would still only be a token gesture. A pitiful way to make me feel better about not being one of the brave ones.
But for what it’s worth, I offer my simple and heart-felt thank you. Thank you for doing the things I don’t even like to read about. Thank you for enduring things I don’t want to hear about. And thank you for giving up the things I never want to go without.
And Renee, screw you for making me do this!!!
Monday, November 7, 2011
Since moving into our new home, I’ve been pretty much riding the same trails damn near daily for the past year or so. My “problem” is that even though there are dozens of great trails within a half an hour’s drive, I really don’t see the point in getting in my car to ride my bike, so I tend to stick to the ones close to home. But after 300 trips down the same path, things were starting to get a little boring.
So the other morning I decided to mix things up a bit and ride my route backwards. Wait, before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify: I wasn’t facing backwards on my bike, which would be sort of cool, I just went in reverse order, so that my usual starting point was my new ending point.
And not to get all Zenny on you and stuff, but that simple change of perspective turned my well-worn routine into an unexpected and exciting journey. Everything was the same, yet completely different. Gear grinding “ups” transformed into freewheeling downs. Rocks became ramps. Boulders become rollers. It was a brand new experience. So much so that I even managed to get lost…twice, which was strange considering I was in completely familiar territory.
I returned home invigorated and looking forward to my next ride. All from a simple change in my routine. Which got me thinking about all my other habits and tendencies. Could they also be switched up in order to get a similar charge?
Turns out doing my ironing in the morning, instead of at night, didn’t make for a more exciting start to the day. It just made me late for work. And my plan for entering the house through the seldom used front door, instead of the usual kitchen door, just made me realize I hadn’t gotten around to fixing the wobbly front step.
But before I go burying my real point in my typical foolishness, let me break from that routine as well and get right to it….
The reason life seems to pass so much faster after thirty has nothing to do with getting older. It’s just that so much of our lives have become routine by that point, we don’t take the time to experience it.
Think about it. Our first 20 years had milestones every ten feet. EVERYTHING was a new experience. First words, first steps, first grade, first kiss, first beer, first car, first time… Every day seemed to bring something new and unfamiliar, forcing us to pay attention and notice every moment. But once you hit thirty, not much new happens. Our routines and roles are established and familiar. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since there’s comfort in predictability and reliability. But too much comfort breeds complacency, so every once in a while, we need to step out of our comfort zones and try something new.
Much in the same way we wind up on autopilot when driving the same way, every day, to work, life is passing us by without our being aware of it. One day blends into the next, and before you know it, a year has passed. Then three. Then five. Now, I’m not advocating simply stopping to smell the roses. In fact, I’m against it. For one thing, we have to deal with enough pricks as it is. And another, it’s really not about stopping at all. It’s about starting something.
So find a way to add more "Firsts" to your day. And I don’t mean finding your first gray hair or feeling the first signs of menopause. I’m talking about taking those first steps towards doing something new. Or even revisiting something old. As my reverse bike ride proved, it doesn’t require a huge undertaking to put off the inevitable visit from the undertaker. It just takes a willingness to break from the old routines and try something different.
They say time flies when you’re having fun, but what they don’t tell you is that it flies even more when you’re having none. We may not be able to turn back our clocks like we did this past Sunday, but we can still turn back. I know life is supposed to be about moving forward, but that doesn’t mean it’s a race to the end. So skip the shortcuts, move into the slow lane, and enjoy the ride. From both directions!
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
I try not to tackle too many timely topics on this blog, as I don’t want future readers scratching their heads over references that were mere flashes in the pan. I’d rather discuss the things that are cast in iron. Eternal things. Universal things. Things like Jell-O Wars, or Icy Hotting my privates, or where to buy my book: Alchemy. You know, important stuff. But the recent snow storm on the East Coast was so destructive and disruptive, I felt obligated to cover it. I figured since so many were covered in it, and many are still trying to recover from it, it was the right thing to do.
And when it comes to dealing with inclement weather and the power outages it brings, I typically do all the right things. I have 6 propane tanks, 5 gallon water jugs, 4 cans of gas, 3 days of food, 2 emergency exits, and 1 generator. NONE OF WHICH WERE READY FOR THIS STORM! Sure, I heard the reports, but did not take them seriously. I saw the forecast, but did not believe it. In fact, I blithely drove past several gas stations, in the snow, knowing I had less than a quarter tank of gas, yet never even considered stopping to fill up. Had it been December, I would have made sure that, and everything else, was taken care of. But it was October. I still had my lawn furniture and fire pits out, hoping to have another outdoor party or two before winter came. It was 60 degrees the day before. I rode my bike to work. It wasn’t going to snow. And even if it did, it wasn’t going to last.
But winter came like Forrest Gump on Jennie’s roommates robe, only I was the one caught with my pants down. So when the snow piled up and the power went out, I was without my generator, which was loaned out during the hurricane. Not that it mattered, as the fuel cans needed to fill it were sitting empty in my garage. Next to the empty water jugs that we could have used for flushing toilets, along with the broken snow shovel I had planned to replace this season. Inside the house, things weren’t much better. My cell phone was uncharged, Kindle battery depleted, and snack cabinet nearly empty. Even our gas fireplace, which we typically used for ambiance, but could have used for heat, was not working.
We did have plenty of wine, thank god, and we made good use of it to flush our toilets. Just kidding. That’s what the Miller Lite was for! But the wine did help bring a flush to our chilly cheeks. I also managed to find some flashlights and get the fireplace functioning without any major gas leaks or explosions and we settled in for a long winter’s night in the middle of fall.
Speaking of fall, a loud noise from the deck announced that the gazebo I had neglected to winter proof had collapsed under the weight of the snow, and had come crashing down on the outdoor firetable I had also neglected to stow away, while smashing the outdoor chandelier that I had failed to bring in. Are we starting to see a pattern here?
With nothing else to do, I went to bed and awoke the next morning in a 47 degree house. My two-year old and I had fun snuggling on the couch pretending to be dragons with our frosty breath, but the novelty quickly wore off. Reports that the power might be out “for a while” had my wife and I emptying the fridge and packing the perishables in snow. With four toilets in the house, we were all able to claim one as our own and use them without too much discomfort - my brilliant plan of filling Gatorade coolers with snow and using the melting water to flush the toilets had failed, since, well, it turns out coolers are made to keep things cool. But my son had fun making snowballs with it in the living room.
And while our frontier forefathers would be ashamed, after only 24 hours of no lights, heat, water, or internet, we gave up and headed to my wife’s father’s, who still had power, for showers, coffee, and Giant’s football. On the way, we were shocked at the amount of damage we saw. The roads were completely clear of the snow that had started all of this, but were literally covered with downed trees and power lines. It was both awesome and awful to see.
An hour later, from the warm comforts of my father in law’s living room and a belly full of hot soup, I sat and read through the day’s paper and watched the local news reports on the storm, and I have to admit, there was some comfort in knowing that I was not the only one unprepared for it. Even the trees were not ready, as I learned that bare branches and frozen sap helps them withstand the harsh weather. But since there was no time for this to happen naturally, many were destroyed. Compared to them, I was lucky.