Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Belated Thanks

An icon from my childhood just passed away, and the sadness I felt upon hearing the news showed me just how hard this poor woman had to work to earn my respect.  I know that sounds strange, and cruel, and basically, it is. You see, even though I grew up with a good group of kids in a great neighborhood, for whatever reason, we needed a common nemesis, and Mrs. Bednarik filled that role.

She was older than the other parents. Her son was overweight. She never tipped me as her paperboy. The list goes on.

Okay, it really doesn’t. And even the three items on the list do not merit the abuse we heaped on her and her family. Yet hers was the only house we egged and TP’d on Mischief Night.  Her son was the only one we ridiculed and bullied at the bus stop. And her paper was the last one I’d deliver.

We were good kids, but we did some cruel things. I don’t why. There seems to be this odd Lord of the Flies period between the ages of 9 and 12 where kids feel this need to demonstrate their powers of destruction. Toys get destroyed. Property gets defaced. Feelings get hurt. Yet try as we might, we could not break Mrs. Bednarik.

When we started aiming our terrible sights at her son, she took to waiting at the bus stop with us. She was the only parent out there, braving the elements and ridicule to protect her son. She tried a variety of tactics, from bribing us with candy, threatening us with punishment, and hurling some mean comments of her own toward us.

I’m not sure if her approach worked, or if it was a stage we eventually grew out of, but we did end up becoming much friendlier with her son. There were football games in their yard, video games in their house, and I remember going with him and his dad to my first automated car wash.  All under her watchful eye.

She had no reason to trust us, yet we felt insulted by her suspicions, which was really just an excuse to continue casting her as the neighborhood villain. So even as we played with her son by day, we still soaped up her driveway by night.

What can I say? We were jerks.

If we had one of those Wonder Years/Stand By Me-style narrators following us around and romanticizing our actions and exploits, he might be able to excuse our behaviors by talking about how we were just looking for a dragon to slay. That growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with no real problems caused us to go out and create some of our own. That Mrs. Bednarik, with her foghorn voice, quick to anger disposition, and refusal to ever back down, was a perfect target for our adolescent slings and arrows.

But even if he was right, we were still wrong.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until years later that I realized that those very same qualities that made her a target were what made her worthy of my respect.

She was outspoken.

She was a fighter. 

She was loyal.

She never gave up. 

Sure, she was gruff. I know many adults who were afraid of her. But as I grew up, literally and figuratively, I began to see a softer side as well. Still a bit prickly, not exactly warm, but certainly softer.

When I was 15, her husband died, and Mrs. Bednarik had to get her driver’s license. Problem was, she was 53, and had never driven a car!  She made it very clear that she would not rely on anyone for help or rides, so she did what she had to do to take and pass the driver’s test. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that was pretty brave of her.

Somehow, after that, roughly twenty years passed without our paths crossing, until I found myself married and attending the same church as Mrs. Bednarik.  At first I was afraid, worried she would still (rightfully) hold a grudge, but she seemed genuinely happy to see me. So much so, that some other members later approached me, wanting to know what my secret was!

But SHE was the one with the secrets. For instance, I had no idea what a great baker she was until she started pointing out to me that all the cakes I’d been sampling during Coffee Hour were made by her. I also had no clue she could sing, but there she was, up in front with the choir every Sunday.  

She made no secret of her many ills and ailments, opening many conversations with her latest health concern – but it was never “woe is me,” it was just a matter of fact. Matters she bore with great strength and dignity, as she continued to go about her daily business in spite of her cane, or walker, or oxygen tank.

It was also no secret how much she loved her son. They were inseparable, and could often be seen out and about together; shopping and dining, while people watching and drolly commenting on the state of the world. My mom was overjoyed if we went to church with her on Easter, but they went together every Sunday. And they went everywhere else together, too. I may have come a long way from those days at the bus stop, but the two of them never changed, remaining protective and true to each other right through to the end.

I can’t take back all the dumb things I said and did as a kid, but I’m glad I had the chance to at least connect with you as an adult. I didn’t have the guts to say I was sorry when I had the chance, so I won’t bother now - but I WILL do my best to try and impart what I learned to my son, so that maybe he can avoid that disturbing, destructive phase of slaying imaginary dragons, and put his energy towards simply treating others with kindness and respect.  

So, thank you, Mrs. Bednarik. Thank you for tolerating me and teaching me and forgiving me. I may not have always appreciated you, but I do now. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Parting Glass

As someone with ZERO musical ability – seriously, I can’t even play the radio (and I suck at musical chairs!) – I consider myself extremely fortunate to have spent my entire adult life in the company of many talented musicians.  For whatever reason, almost every one of my friends either plays in a band or is in a relationship with someone who is. And while many come and go, two bands, Hubinger Street and the Highland Rovers, have been providing the soundtrack to my social life for the past twenty years. Unfortunately, one of them is calling it quits.

I first saw the Highland Rovers before they even had a name. I’m not sure if it was their very first show, but they were definitely soliciting the audience at the brand new Gaelic club for suggestions.  I admit, at the time I was more impressed with the discounted drink prices and incredible interior of the club, and frankly did not pay the band that much attention. But I was there! As were many others, who I would soon become quite familiar with in the coming years as they followed the band on their tipsy travels throughout the state…and beyond.

The first time the band got MY attention was with a funny sing-a-long to the tune of Do-Re-Mi… only it was “Do, is what we pay for beer. Re, the guy who pours the beer. Mi, the guy who drinks the beer. Fa, the distance to the bar. So, I think I’ll have a beer. La, la la la la la laaa! Ti, tanks I’ll have a beer. And that brings us back to Do, oh, oh oh…” What can I say? I was young and fresh out of college and used to playing drinking games, and here were a trio of guys who were basically a living, breathing drinking game. What wasn’t to like?

But I soon learned to appreciate them for their true talents. Whether it was spot-on renditions of Irish classics, truly original originals, or inspired covers of modern hits, the boys had talent. And their hilarious interplay between songs was worth the price of admission alone. They could sing. They could play. They could make you laugh. And they could drink! Again, I ask you, what wasn’t to like?

And I was not alone. The size of the crowds continued to grow with each passing show. And as word of the boys’ charms spread, the look of the crowd changed as well. No longer was it just wool wrapped, kilt wearing, tam sporting Irishmen and women, there were other people there too. Hippies and yuppies and rockers and jocks. It was like the Breakfast Club. Make that the Irish Breakfast Club, minus the black pudding!  And speaking of breakfast, the Rovers also introduced a new generation to the glorious, but overlooked, “classic” by the Fabulous Farquahr,  “My Eggs Don’t Taste the Same Without You.”

I also did my part to introduce new people to the band. While it was not always easy convincing my friends to give up a chance to see established (and, let’s be honest, cooler!) acts like Simple Jim, Deep Banana Blackout, or Gargantua Soul, in order to check out those “Irish guys in vests” - but once they did, they were hooked. 

Unfortunately, as VH-1 has made all too clear with their documentaries, no band is devoid of drama, and The Rovers had their “Behind the Music” moment when the trio became a duo (before remerging as a quintet, and ultimately a sextet!) But the changes added new life to the band and for whatever reason, seemed to push them to reach for new heights, both creatively and professionally. I wasn’t privy to the conversations, but imagine that the break-up was sort of a wake up call, where they realized how quickly things can change and that they needed to make the most of the situation. And did they ever!

As the years passed, the boys expanded their ever-growing fan base and journeyed further away from their home base.  And while we’re talking about bases, who can forget their gig at Shea Stadium?  Or their nationally televised appearance on FOX? Not to mention their Marshall Tucker period, where founding member, Doug Gray, served as mentor and head cheerleader, inviting the Rovers to open for, and join, his band on stage.  But what impressed ME the most were their St. Patrick’s Day gigs, where they would play a full 3-hour set somewhere in Connecticut, complete with shots…and more shots, then jump on a bus and play another full set up in Boston!

On a more personal note, the band was somewhat responsible for the completion of my first novel, Alchemy. I had an idea for a story, and wrote the first chapter, back in the early 90’s, but it did nothing but collect dust until I tore my Achilles tendon dancing at a Highland Rovers show in 2004. Laid up for several months, and with nothing better to do with my time, I dug out the old manuscript and started typing away. A few years later, I was thrilled to be able to present them each with a copy of the finished book.

Equally thrilling was kissing my wife, Sarah, for the first time…which, wait for it, was at a Highland Rover’s St. Paddy’s show at O’Neill’s! Technically she wasn’t my wife at the time, but she soon would be (coincidentally right around the time the band released a song called Sara, which, even though it was about the birth of a band member’s daughter, and missing an H, applied to my new-found love as well: “Sara, you’re the answer to the questions my heart has been asking…”

And then there was the wedding of my childhood friend, the VERY Irish Mary Callahan, who married the even MORE Irish Jimmy Kelleher, and naturally they hired the Rovers to play their reception.  The highlight of the evening, and one of my favorite memories ever, was when they played “Goodbye, Mary” – an original song about a guy who finds out a lost love is getting married, which while having no connection to the bride, was both funny and apropos as it sent them on their merry way with the refrain, “I wish you all the happiness in the world.”

And I want to wish The Highland Rovers all the happiness in the world.  You guys (and gal) have provided me, and thousands of others, with wonderful music and memories for the past twenty years, and we owe you (and your patient families!)  a debt of gratitude for sharing your gifts with us. As much as I would like to have you play on forever, I know all good things must come to an end. And while my heart and soul and feet will miss you and your music, my liver is heaving a huge sigh of relief!

 I’m also a little sad that you won’t be able to teach my 5-year old how to swear, as many a young one has learned to shout “BULLSHIT” whenever they hear, “And his fate is still unlearned.”  And god help those who ask who Alice is!

But in all seriousness, thank you. Thank you all. Thank you, Tommy and Jimmy and Billy. Thank you, Al and Jeff and Michael. Thank you, Colleen and Turk and the Madden Group. Thank you, friends and fans and families.  Thank you for the music, the mayhem, and the memories. And thanks again for snapping my fucking tendon, you bastards!!!!

Good night, and joy be with you all

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Moving On (With Mixed Emotions)

I never thought I’d feel anything but pure, unadulterated joy when I no longer had to pay for childcare  - but as I dropped my son off for his last day at A Child’s Garden, those were not tears of joy seeping from my eyes. Turns out, I’m really going to miss that place. As will my son!

Eli has been going to A Child’s Garden since he was five months old. Like most parents, when we made the decision to put our kid in daycare, we felt guilty, thinking, “No one can give our kid the same love and care that we can,” – but they did. So much so that we still felt guilty, only it changed to, “We can never provide as much fun, education, interaction as they can!”

On rare days off, it was a constant struggle to keep up with what he had come to expect from the day. By lunch time, I was the one needing the nap. And we only had the one kid! I still have no idea how they did it, but I was continually amazed at what he came home with, be it artwork, a new skill, vocabulary, even mannerisms. He wasn't just being watched, He was being raised. By people who loved and appreciated him almost as much as we did.

Each new year brought a twinge of trepidation, as every time Eli was transitioned up, we worried that the next room’s teachers could never be as good as the previous ones. But from Miss Jane in the baby room to Miss Kim with the toddlers and Miss ‘Sette in the 3-4-year olds up to Mr. Ben in with the five-year olds, we were always happy and comfortable with who was taking care of our boy. And there were MANY more, but I don't want to start naming them, as I’m afraid to leave someone out. Suffice to say, we loved EVERYONE!

On the days when I picked our son up, I always tried to sneak into the room so I could catch him in action (otherwise, he’d drop what he was doing and rush over to give me a big hug), and I was always impressed with what they were doing. I’d often walk in to find over a dozen 3- and 4-year olds seated around a table, conducting an elaborate science experiment – and NO ONE was ever arguing, or messing with things they weren’t supposed to, or clamoring over who was next. They were always fully engaged and active learners. My wife and I are both veteran elementary school teachers, and it was eye-opening (and a bit embarrassing) to see the staff getting pre-schoolers to cooperate and participate with such interest, while we struggled to get our 6th graders to simply stay in their seats!

And not only did they have fun, they learned! I’ll never forget bringing Eli to visit my mom one summer afternoon when he was around three. A thunderstorm came rolling through, and when Eli jumped at a particularly loud rumble of thunder, my mom tried to calm him by saying, “Don’t worry, that’s just the angels bowling.” Eli looked her dead in the eye and said, “No, it’s not. It’s the sound of a warm and cold front coming together.”  My mom looked at me, as if to say, “Where does he get this stuff?” But I knew right away. It was Miss ‘Sette!

There are so many examples of things my son learned without our assistance. Sure, we helped, but it was at A Child’s Garden where he first started to dress himself, use the potty, clean up after himself (still has not mastered THAT one at home!) read and write, count money, tell time, play fair, share, show compassion, use his manners, draw, color, feed himself, walk a balance beam, celebrate the holidays (even ones I never knew existed), dress up, dress down, cut, glue, pedal, meet fireman and policemen and magicians and Santa, nap, build, climb, jump, dance, sing, and smile, smile, smile. We have an entire wall in our kitchen cover with photographs taken at school (and the other three walls covered in artwork created there) And in every picture, and on every drawing, is a smile.  

Here’s proof, in case you don’t believe me:

Five years of smiles and support and sincere concern for my child’s well-being. Five years of Open Houses and family picnics and holiday celebrations. Five years of summer camps and Back to School nights and birthday parties (OMG the birthday parties! I’ll shed no tears if I never step foot in Bounce U again!) Five years of making multi-course lunches and making sure the backpack was packed (and ALWAYS making drop-off and pick-up on time, but only because they open early and close late!) And most importantly, five years of never having to worry about what was going on with my kid between the hours of 8-4, M-F, as I knew he was safe, happy, and engaged. 

Five years that felt like five months. And now my son is off to kindergarten. I KNOW he’s prepared. I KNOW he’s ready. I KNOW he’s excited. And I know just who to thank for it. A Child’s Garden.

I just never knew I’D be the one so sad to say goodbye L

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Man Behind the Counter

These aren't exact numbers, but for the past twelve summers or so, on my twice weekly bike rides to the beach, I’ve been stopping at a little mom and pop deli to grab a sandwich on the way.  It’s called Armon’s (pictured above), and back when I was writing for the Connecticut Post, I submitted a column on it, but my editor said he never heard of it, and therefore, neither had the readers. I tried explaining to him that I thought that was the point of a newspaper: to inform readers about things they didn’t know about, but he refused to run it (and may be one of the reasons I started this statement with “when I used to write for the Post!”)

But, as much as I hate to admit it, he was sort of right, for on my route, I pedal past people lined up outside the popular Pickle Barrel, go right by the wonderful Gaetano’s (and completely ignore the Subway directly across the street) in favor of Armon’s, where there’s usually not much of a wait. A few minutes later, I’m out the screen door, sandwich in hand, heading for the shore.

Unfortunately, this is not my overdue review of the deli. Nor is it a plea to check them out (but you so should!) Sadly, it’s a tribute to the owner, who I just found out, passed away at the age of 53.

Every time I set foot inside, I was greeted with a hearty, “How are you?” by a man I always assumed was named Armon, who was assisted by his ever-present (and equally pleasant) wife.  And even though we were both New York Giants fans (as evidenced by the numerous plaques and posters on the wall) we never talked about sports. Or current events. We talked about our kids.

I learned all about their son’s hockey skills and school exploits. They got an earful on my dealings with a pre-teen stepdaughter (and later newborn son) and later still that same stepdaughter all grown up and off to college, and that same son coming in with Daddy for lunch.

Twelve years of “How are you’s,” and his insistence that I put down the Diet Snapple in favor of his hand-crafted ice tea, and Maria sneaking homemade cookies in with my sandwich (thus necessitating the Diet Snapple!) Twelve years of school photos of their son, Mathew, on the wall. Twelve years of simple yet sincere, interactions with two people whose names I didn’t even know, yet I felt like I knew them well.

I didn’t make it down there this summer until around July 4th, when I walked in, and for the first time, neither of them was there. The counter was manned by two young “kids” (guessing in their 20’s) who, while nice, seemed confused and out of their element. My first thought was that “Armon” and his wife sold the place, but a closer look at the hot food case showed her unmistakable macaroni and cheese (with shredded ham and full slices of cheese on top) so I assumed they were just on a well deserved vacation.

Summer continued to fly by, and for a variety of reasons, my beach trips were fewer and farther between, so I did not get a chance to stop back in until just last week. I was meeting my family at the beach, and stopped off to get sandwiches for me and Julianna. The same young girl was at the counter, but I was relieved see “Armon’s” wife manning her usual spot behind the deli case. And even though we had not seen each other in close to a year, she immediately set out making my sandwich (ham and cheese on a Portuguese with lettuce and mayo) while asking about my kids. I got her caught up on Eli heading off to kindergarten and Julianna returning home from Uganda, then mentioned how surprised I was when I walked in back in the beginning of the month to find strangers in their spots. I was in the middle of saying how glad I was the she and her husband didn’t sell the place, when her face went all white and she informed me that he had passed away on July 10th.

I was shocked and saddened. I felt horrible, and told her so. Adding that I wanted to come around and give her a hug, but I was all sweaty from my bike ride. She went on to say that he was diagnosed with cancer back in January, and six months later…

I left heavy-hearted. Even though it was a bright sunny day, I pedaled the rest of the way to the beach in a fog. Such a nice man. So energetic and full of life. Someone I had little in common with, and knew very little about, but someone who added a little something to my day. And not just me. He made everyone who walked through his door happy, with his homemade iced tea and Giants memorabilia and “Sure, sure…” in response to every request. People appreciated his work ethic, and refusal to take an extra single, as he always insisted on rounding down the change. And on a more subtle level, I’m sure customers recognized the lovely relationship he had with his wife. I know it can’t be easy working with your spouse (every day, that is! Love you, Honey!) but you could see the love and respect they had for each other. And suddenly he was gone. And I felt terrible.

When I got home, I looked up his obituary, and learned that “Armon” was actually named Asadollah Khorasani,  He moved here from Iran (I sort of thought he was Greek) and was the former owner of Mr. T’s. I have no idea where the name Armon came from, as he was “Ozzie” to his friends. And while I was not fortunate enough to call him friend (or Ozzie, for that matter!) I am honored to have made his acquaintance, and greatly saddened by his passing. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Guest Blog from Uncle John

The following story is from the fabulous Uncle John, who has many more where this came from, so please encourage him with your likes, shares, and comments! To the best of my knowledge, what you are about to read is 100% true...

Kiwi the Siberian Husky in Heat 
- John Cribbins

I don’t know if you ever experienced living with a dog when she is “in heat.” I will spare you the physical details, but is not pleasant. Kiwi, our Siberian husky, was in heat.  I walked out of the house one morning, on my way to drive to college, and to my astonishment, there had to be at least 15, or even 20, dogs stalking our house.  These dogs must have come from a 5-mile radius.  It was absolutely amazing that even though Kiwi was an “in-door” dog, that her smell could attract animals from such a distance.  Needless to say, this was a nuisance and we were so afraid that Kiwi would get out, or those dogs would get in.  Some big male dogs are even known to jump through plate glass windows to get at a female dog in heat.   The worst part is that the family that lives with the dog can pick up the scent on their clothes and the male dogs start to follow you around like you are the female dog, especially if the dog has poor vision.

It was around the 3rd day of our putting up with these male dogs, and I was walking to my car and I thought wow,that is the BIGGEST St. Bernard that I have ever seen!  Wow, what an enormous dog.  It only took an instant, and all of the sudden this huge animal stood up facing me with one huge paw on one shoulder and his other huge paw on my other shoulder.  His paws were the size of grapefruits.  He looked at me “eye to eye.”  If the dog was not taller than me on his hind legs, he was at least close to my height and I can say he definitely weighed a lot more than me as he almost knocked me over. 

 And then I realized…there was no doubt in my mind; that dog had lust in his eyes.  I can’t describe the look the dog had in his eyes other than to say that, “once you see it, you know it” regardless of the species.  I never saw anything like it.  I looked down and was aghast at this enormous pink item pointing and throbbing right towards me.  My whole life flashed through my mind like a near death experience.  It was at that point that I started screaming at the top of my lungs.   Mother came to the door and screamed to me, “Push him away, push him away!”  I felt for sure that I was moments away from being “deflowered” right in front of my Mother, on Maltby Street, in broad daylight.

With an adrenalin rush of super strength, or perhaps the distraction of Mother screaming, I grabbed both of his paws with my hands and pushed him away.  I ran ran ran…with Mother yelling, “Run, John! Run, John! Run!”  I slammed the house door and locked it tight. I peeked out the window from beneath the curtain, and there I was again, eye to eye and panicked.  This pooch meant business.

For the next week (or so), the routine was for me to stand at the front door window, and Mother would stand at the living room window as a “look-out”, Mother would yell “coast is clear, run John run…run John run”…and I would run out to the car.

Both Kiwi and I were both able to keep our virginity for the next 14 days.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Impromptu Lecture

It started as a simple question from a student. More of a complaint, really. I had just given the class a quick preview of the new state assessment that would be taking the place of the CMT, and a boy raised his hand and asked, “Why does it have to be so much harder?”

And rather than go on with the day’s planned lesson, I decided to tell him...

“The new test is so much harder because, frankly, life is getting harder. And I don’t mean the stuff adults are always telling you about growing up and increased responsibility. I’m talking about how you will actually live your life and earn a living. In a crazy way, all the things that seem to make life easier will actually make your lives harder, because it is going to be that much more difficult to stand out from the crowd.

You guys spent your first few years of school under No Child Left Behind, a giant umbrella, or safety net, where the goal was to ensure that all children received the same education and equal opportunity to succeed. Now it’s Reach for the Top, and common sense will tell you, there’s not enough room for everyone at the top, so some of you will be left behind.

My son is starting kindergarten in the fall. He’ll be five. We had to bring him to his school the other day to be evaluated. They wanted to make sure he would be ready for kindergarten. When I was his age, we were “ready” for kindergarten because our mothers were ready to be done with us! We spent the first 26 days learning the alphabet. Literally an entire day dedicated to each letter. Well, not really an entire day, as we had morning snack, and nap, and recess. Plus there was lunch, and “Exploration Time,” and music. We sat on little rugs to look at books (because we would not be able to read them until First Grade) and practiced our manners. We glued and glittered and cut and colored. We fought over who would get picked to wheel the little wagon down to the cafeteria to bring back the morning milk.

By the end of the year, we were expected to know the letters of the alphabet, the colors of the rainbow, some basic shapes, and how to count to ten. Some of the smarter kids (like me!) might also leave able to write their first names, with these huge red pencils, and maybe read a few sight words.

At my son’s evaluation, he was expected to know all those things before starting kindergarten. Meaning his class will not be spending the first 26 days learning the alphabet, or using their fingers to count to ten. When they sit on their little carpet squares, it will be to READ, and not just look at the pictures. When he colors an apple, it won’t be to learn that apples are red and start with the letter A (and make the a sound) – it will be to solve a math problem. And in order to accomplish all that, he probably won’t be spending much time napping, or playing, or dressing up, or exploring. He might have to do a research paper on explorers, but that’s about it.

So, to keep answering your question, the test is so much harder because kindergarten has gotten harder. Making First Grade that much harder, and so on. The bar has been lifted. The expectations have been raised. The workload has increased.

And speaking of work, my teachers used to threaten us that if we didn’t do well in school, we’d wind up flipping burgers or hanging off the back of a garbage truck.  But now, people feel lucky to have such jobs – if they even exist anymore!

Think about it In your lifetime - what, maybe two years ago? A garbage truck would pull up at the curb, and two guys would jump off the back and empty the cans. The guy in the passenger seat would let the guy driving know when they were done, and the truck would pull away and head for the next house.

Now, a single driver in an automated truck drives up so a robot arm can lift the single oversized can and dump it in the back. That’s three guys out of a job. For just that one truck, mind you. Three less jobs for every single new truck. And the new trucks themselves are faster and more efficient, so there are less off them, meaning fewer mechanics needed to fix them. And when they dump the load at the transfer station, the garbage has already been presorted, thanks to you people with your blue recycling bins, so there’s no one getting paid to sort the trash either.

As far as flipping burgers, have you noticed that no one fills soda anymore? Well, if you go inside, you’re handed a cup and have to do it yourself. But at the drive-thru, there’s a nifty machine that does it automatically. Pretty cool right? Except at one time, that was a person’s job. And those cool touch screens at Sonic? (Murmured agreement) Well, thanks to them, now there’s no need to pay someone to take your order, it goes directly to the guy who prepares your order. And if you think the guys who invented that nifty soda-filling machine and the cool order-taking machine aren’t busy working on an awesome burger-flipping machine, you’re simply not thinking.

Ant that's the problem. The jobs waiting for you when you graduate high school, and hopefully college, are going to be jobs that require the sort of thinking and skills that machines have not yet mastered.  And since they’ve pretty much taken over all the basic tasks that schools used to consider essential parts of the curriculum, we’ve got to start teaching you how to think, rather than telling you stuff to know. And to continue answering your question, that’s why the test is so much harder.

Right now, when I ask a question you don’t know the answer to, I get blank looks and empty lines. Maybe the occasional “IDK” - if I’m lucky. But you need to realize that just because you don’t know the answer does not mean you are incapable of figuring it out. And I don’t mean by Googling it! The teachers that complain about smart phones in the classroom because kids can use them to cheat have it all wrong. If they’re asking you questions that you can Google, they’re not teaching you how to think. They’re telling you stuff to know. Unless it’s some pop quiz to make sure you did the night’s reading or studying, the real purpose of asking questions is to see how you go about figuring them out. And a lot of the time, it will be trial and error.

It’s right there in the name of the strategy: Trial and Error. You must try and fail. Not try TO fail, all you smiling right now.  Nor is it saying you will try, only to fail. It means try. And maybe fail. And then try again. And then repeat until you get it right. But too many of you are stopping before you even start, and the rest of you quitting after the first attempt. You have got to learn to stick with it. You need persistence. This isn’t bomb defusing school. If you make a mistake, you will survive. And even better, you get a chance to do it again! It’s like a video game. Reset and try again – which, by the way, you all are also much too quick to give up on. You try for all of three minute to beat Level Seven before you give up and start tapping in cheat codes or watching walk-throughs on YouTube. I don’t get it. You spend 60 bucks on a game that’s meant to give you hours of entertainment, but instead, you’d rather spend another 15 bucks on a glossy guide so you can “beat” it in 45 minutes. Where’s the fun in that? And where’s the sense of satisfaction?

So, to finally finish answering the question, maybe the real reason the test seems so much harder is because you guys are that much weaker. (Disgruntled murmurs) Relax, it’s not entirely your fault. Your coaches and teachers started it by encouraging you to feel good about good hustle or strong effort (code words for, “You failed!”) Your parents continued it by framing your Participation Certificates and displaying your Participant trophies (basically showing the world that they’re proud of their loser.) And you guys allowed it. You bought into it. You let yourself believe that coming in 2nd, or 473rd , were equally commendable. Even worse, some of you expect to be rewarded for simply showing up, and can’t understand how something you did could possibly be wrong.

Sure, you can’t (and shouldn’t) win ‘em all, but when you don’t, you shouldn’t be celebrated for it. I’m not saying you should be punished or put down, either, just that losing shouldn’t feel good. You guys have been watching the Olympics; have to seen the looks on some of the Silver and Bronze medalists' faces? Some are crying because they are “only” the second or third best…in THE ENTIRE WORLD! To most people, just being there is an amazing achievement. But to them, second best, again, IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, is a failure. Yet you guys have been trained to expect cheers and praise simply for trying. And not even trying your best. Just trying.  And most of the time, only once – which to me is the most trying! (Confused murmurs) Trying has more than one meaning, look it up!

Now that I’ve talked for the entire period, making you even less prepared for that much harder test, I should wrap things up. I know some might see this as a wasted period, while others might be feeling like they just got away with doing nothing for the past 50 minutes! And maybe there’s a few of you who found some value in what I had to say. But either way, I’m sure we can all agree that a question was asked, and I tried to answer it…repeatedly! So my question to you is, what will you do with the answer?"

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Politics of Mo

My 4-year old was just telling me the exciting story about how he ended up with a particular Hershey Kiss. He had received a bagful of them for Valentine’s Day, all wrapped in festive colored foil, and after eating a half-dozen or so, was about to get cut off.

“Mommy said I could only have one more ever for the whole entire day,” he told me, “and guess which one I chose?”

            “The purple one?” I guessed, seeing as it was still in his hand.

            “No,” he said, like I was an idiot. “I picked Mo! I did Eeny Meeny Miny Mo – and Mommy says you can choose Mo or the next one, so I chose Mo because I wanted the purple one!”

            “Then why didn’t you just pick the purple one?” I asked. “Why leave it to chance?”

            “Who’s Chance?” he wanted to know.

It was too early in the morning to explain (Yes, I said morning. Don’t judge me.) Besides, he had gotten me thinking about the power of Mo. When it comes down to the Final Two, is Mo the winner or the runner up?

I’m pretty sure as kids, we had to declare our position before putting our “potatoes” in. And it wasn’t just Eeny Meeny Miney Mo. We had a wealth of rhymes to help us make life’s biggest decision, namely, “Who would be It?”

But before we determined that (after we decided on what game to play, of course) we first had to figure out who was in charge.

Typically, the first to shout, “King sayer, naysayer, no higher!”  got to take control.  Their first official act was to inform the group whether we’d be using “potatoes” (our hands) or “puppies” (feet). Then we’d circle up, stick out our fists or feet, and wait for the King to decide which rhyme to start with.

Like I said, we had a bunch of them. From the babyish, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four! Five potato, six, potato, seven potato, more! Out goes Y…O…U!” to the slightly more mature, “Ink-a-dink, a bottle of ink. The cork fell out and YOU stink!” to the PG-13, “My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother punched your mother right in the nose! What color was the blood?” – at this point, the person whose potato or puppy was last touched had to name a color – and here’s where it paid to be smart, as one could quickly count up the number of people still left in, and then choose a color, that when spelled out, would result in them getting out.  Problem was, a sharp King could thwart your plans by changing the wording. Instead of “B…L…U…E….spells blue, and out goes Y…O…U!” They might go with, “B…L…U….E….spells blue, and you…are…OUT!”

Things really got ugly when it got down to the final two, especially if the King was one of them, as there was nothing more embarrassing than being the one in charge and winding up It. But even if the King was safely out, complications still arose based on presumed favoritism between the King and one of the remaining two.  Either way, Eeny Meeny Miny Mo was the go-to rhyme to deliver the knockout blow.

You would think that such a simple and silly song would make for a clean and clear decision, but you would be wrong!

First, whether it was between the King and another kid, or just two kids, where the King started (his own potato/puppy, or one of the kid’s) was a hotly contested debate. We all knew that when it came down to two, whoever’s fist or foot was touched first would also be the one to be touched last, and therefore out and not It, so a wise King would always try to start with himself. But if the group balked at this, which we often did, because like I said, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a King being It, he or she had to resort to the ambiguity of Mo.

When it came down to that finally syllable, the kid whose fist was last touched would thrust it in the air and exclaim, “Not It!” But a cagey King could try to convince the crowd that Mo meant the kid was It.  And depending on the popularity of the kid, and King, we’d side one way or the other.  

Then, after all the arguments, negotiations, and disagreements had been resolved, we’d play the game. Or, more likely, get called in for dinner or bed, as we usually wasted all of our time picking who was It. Clearly, it would have been more expedient to just nominate the kid we didn’t like as It, but that wouldn’t be “fair” so we let Chance decide….with a little help from Mo! 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Take a Tip from Me

As a former waiter, and someone who eats (and drinks) out a LOT, I consider myself to be a fairly good tipper. Typically, I leave at least 20% for good service, but even the worst, most incompetent, cigarette stinking, drink spilling, order fucking upping servers still get 15%.

And not only do I tip well, I behave well. I clean up after my kid, treat the servers with respect, rarely complain about the food, and never ask for water unless I plan to drink it!

My medium-rare steak comes out well done? I eat it. My fish comes out as chicken? I eat it. My Sierra Nevada comes out as Miller Lite because the keg kicked and the bartender’s too busy to change it? I’ll drink it. And then lie to the server and say everything is fine.

I only have one rule: If the waiter adds the automatic 18%, they GET the 18% and not a penny more.  To me, it’s an insult. Back when I was a server, I only used the automatic gratuity when I was 100% certain I was going to get shafted on the tip. Not due to poor service, mind you, but because the person paying was a tool.

An experienced server can quickly size up a party. There are groups who are very demanding and give you a run for your money, but, you can tell that at the end, they will give you your money. Unfortunately, there are others who are equally demanding, and just give off a vibe that says, you’re here to serve us, and there will be no quid pro quo. Problem is, with large groups, it’s not always easy to tell who’s picking up the tab So, to me, adding the 18% was always a gamble.  And even though we’re only talking about a few percentage points, at the end of the shift, they add up, so it was a risk I did not often take. Plus, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Which is why, when I get auto-gratuitied, I take it personally.  I feel judged. I stare at the line item and think, do I look cheap? Were my Groupons sticking out? Was I a tool?  Was it something The Warners did? But rather than ask, I simply sign the check and snap it shut, leaving them nothing more than what they bargained for.  But I want to leave a note and let them know that had they taken a chance on me, they would have made an extra five bucks.

Or, more accurately, an extra $5.23, as I have an odd habit of making every check an even number. If the bill comes to $89.15, I leave a tip for $20.85 to make it an even $110.00, This drives my wife crazy for some reason (and not just because of her poor math skills)  - I think she thinks they end up going home with a pocket full of change, but I know that at the end of the night, the tips get rounded to the nearest dollar.

Speaking of dollars, the dollar and change I leave for EVERY Dunkin’ Donuts transaction usually results in a 70% tip. I get a medium hot chocolate for $2.33, hand the drive-thru person a $5, and ask for a dollar back.  But, the poor kid at McDonald’s gets shit. Why is that? Why do we tip coffee pourers, but not burger flippers?  Why do we tip the people who cut our hair, but not the ones who fix our brakes?  Taxi drivers get tipped, but bus drivers get exact change. We tell the guy at the pretzel cart to keep the change, but when we buy one at the Kwik-E-Mart, we wait for our 37 cents.  Try to tip a cop, and you can get arrested for offering a bribe.  But you’re a bad person if don’t put money in the fireman’s boot.  Crazy, right?

Maybe we should take a lesson from Mr. Pink and not tip anyone. Or, we could start tipping everyone. Or, what if we only tip those who don’t get paid, yet still provide a service? Like, say, a blogger, for instance!  

Have a nice day!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Kicking the Can

     One would not expect the replacement of a kitchen garbage can to be a difficult task – but – we’re four years into the process and we’re still not happy.

It all started when we moved, and my wife declared that a new house required a new can, so we ditched our old reliable one* and bought a similar, but, we soon learned, slightly inferior, replacement. First of all, it was rectangular, instead of oval, so the bags were a tighter fit. And it had a “sticky” latch that didn’t always catch.  But, other than that, the new can served us fairly well for several years. Until my wife decided that it was too dirty on the inside and we needed another one.

           I tried explaining that it was a garbage can, and getting dirty was sort of the point.  Not to mention I’m the ONLY one to see the inside of it, as the last time she took the garbage out will be the first time. But, apparently it’s not my kitchen. Plus, knowing my wife, she was probably worried that at our next party, some helpful guest might offer to take the garbage out and be aghast at the unsightly stained interior. Personally, I can’t think of any of our friends and relatives who would be upset or offended by the sight of garbage in our garbage can – but, if you’re out there, I should probably inform you that we also have water in our pool and salt on our pretzels.  Oh, and chances are good that there’s dust in our Dustbuster.
But the chances were equally bad that I would win this argument, so I bought a new one.

This one lasted two months. And it SUCKED. Literally! It was 13.2 gallons, but all kitchen bags are 13 gallons, so the bags dangled in the can and would collapse into it once the weight of the trash exceeded one pound.  Plus, the fit was too tight and bags tore when we tried to stretch them around the rim. But the worst part was, once I finally managed to install a bag, it always left an air pocket that had to be released after throwing something out, otherwise the bag would balloon in at the top and appear full.

It’s hard admitting the hatred I felt toward such an innocuous and inanimate object, but next to the cat, that garbage can was the most despised thing in the house. Thankfully, the press to open latch soon snapped off and left the can permanently open, displaying all of our garbage to any passing guest - which, truth be told, seemed to me like poetic justice for ditching the too dirty one. My wife felt otherwise.

In fact, she blamed me for bringing it home, and insisted that this time, she’d pick one out. I watched as she wandered through the aisles like Goldilocks. This one was too big. That one, too small.  One was just right, except for the color.  Another would have been fine, if not for step-on feature, which for some unspecified reason, she does not like.

She settled on one with a swing-top, and after two weeks of using it, I have to say…I hate it even more than the last one! It has ALL of the bad points described above, with the added bonus of not staying open, so when I go to peel a cucumber (a daily occurrence for my son’s lunch) or scrape a dish, I have to stick my arm  (and most of the cucumber) IN to the garbage.  Call me crazy, but I think that’s a lot grosser than a few stains hiding under the bag.  

But what do I know? It’s not my kitchen!

There he is, middle left corner. Had I known how much
 I'd miss him, I would have taken a better picture.

* They say you never forget your first, and in this case, it’s true. It was white, plastic, and about waist high. Kitchen-size garbage cans fit snug and perfect. It had a press to open lid that popped up reliably at the touch of a finger, and snapped shut with a gentle push. I cost all of $18 and served us well for many years.