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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Mourning the Loss of the New York City Parking Meter

While I know there are many things to complain about in New York City, one that bothers me the most is parking. At this point in my life I do not even attempt to drive a car in Manhattan, and that is because city rules and regulations have made it difficult if not close to impossible to park on many streets, usually making the only alternative terribly high-priced parking garages.

The Parking Meter
One of the most salient reasons why it is infinitely more difficult to park now is because of the loss of an annoying but nevertheless beloved item – the parking meter. The parking meter was one of those things that were a part of everyday life that I totally took for granted. Walking down the street and passing them along the way never used to give me a reason to stop and study them, but there was an inherent beauty in the parking meter. Like the subway token and the phone booth, the parking meter was an integral part of the city I never appreciated until it was gone.

A parking meter designated a real parking spot. This meant that I could pull up to the curb and be confident that I found a place to leave my car. There was also pleasure in jingling the quarters in my pocket, realizing I had enough time to park there as long as my coins didn’t run out. I liked slipping the quarters into the slot and seeing the black arrow show how many minutes I had to shop or eat or just walk around.

Now the parking meter has been replaced by the Muni-meter – the hideous invention which I first saw in France 30 years ago. There are no designated individual spots with the new meter, and rarely can I park near one. Usually I have to take a spot almost a block away and then race down the street to get my little coupon to put on the dashboard, giving the ambitious parking agent a chance to ticket my car before I get back to it.

There also can be other people ahead of me trying to figure out the way to get the money into the Muni-meter to get their coupons. This gives the parking agent even more time to give my car a ticket before I can get back to it.

Besides these very practical complications, there is another reason to detest the Muni-meter – it is aesthetically unpleasant, having an appearance less appealing than a cereal box. Compared to it the lost parking meter had symmetry and substance, with curves like Venus de Milo and the countenance of a metallic Mona Lisa. As I think back on it now each one did indeed encourage a little smirk on my face because even though I was annoyed to have to pay for parking I was happy to find a parking spot.

Now to get my parking meter fix I can visit little Long Island towns where they are happily still in place. Going shopping or out to lunch in these picturesque villages, I take comfort in backing into a parking spot, taking out my change, and sliding that coin into the slot.

Using these parking meters is bittersweet because it brings back memories of the past when I could do the same thing in the city I love. These days when I go about the city I must take the subway, bringing back memories of my youth riding the trains with the jingle of tokens in my pocket. I have become adjusted to using a MetroCard now, but that too is just not the same. I still miss dropping that token into the slot and going through the turnstile and getting my subway ride through the magic of one little coin.

Lovely Rita

I mourn the loss of the parking meter as I do other things from my youth like the phonebook, eight-track tapes, and Dad’s Root Beer in big glass bottles. No one ever gave the poor parking meter the respect it deserved, appreciated its integral place in the landscape of the city, and its cultural importance.

Just think about all the people who lost jobs because the parking meter has been replaced. All those repair people who used to fix them are no longer needed. The guys who collected the coins from the meters are now out of work as well, and the erstwhile meter maids of the past are a distant memory.

Come to think of it, Paul McCartney would never have been able to write the song “Lovely Rita” without the parking meter. The titular character would have been off working in some boring job instead of walking around in the sunshine and writing parking tickets in her little white book. Thank goodness for the parking meter.

And In the End

There is not nor will there ever be something like the parking meter again. I have leaned on them waiting for someone or just watching the city go by. Now there is a vacancy that only seems apparent when I look at the city sidewalks and think something is missing.

With parking meters it felt as if I had a fighting chance to get a parking place, but now I know the game of looking for a spot is over. With all the restrictions and limitations now in place, it seems that Mayor de Blasio’s plan to keep cars out of Manhattan is going to be realized. It really feels as if there is no place to park anymore. Rest in peace, New York City parking meter. Please tell the token and the phone booth I said, “Hello!”

Friday, November 10, 2017

Veterans Day and Everyday – Let’s Make Sure to Honor Our Vets

When I saw the little flag my son brought home, I thought of the flag we were given after my father’s memorial service, so perfectly folded into a triangle by young men in crisp uniforms who now serve as my Dad served. It now occupies a place of honor in our home, and when I pass it each day I think of my father – a wonderful man who made it through the horrors of war and came home and never bragged about it or expected any fuss.

My son came home from school yesterday carrying a little American flag. When asked where he got it, he said that he was given the flag by “two old men in uniforms who came to school to talk about the war.” He wasn’t sure what war they were in but knew it had to be a long time ago because he said, “They had to be 80 or maybe even 90 years old.”

I was happy that his school recognized Veterans Day not just through lessons but by bringing in real people who could speak about their service to our country. We celebrate Veterans Day to show gratitude to them – the men and women who served their country at times of war all over the world and at home as well.

According to The National World War II Museum, about 492 World War II vets die every day and there are approximately 855,000 surviving of the 16 million who served during that conflict. My father, whom we lost a few years ago, was one of them – the brave people who helped save this world from the brink of anarchy and disaster.

My grandfather served in World War I, and my uncle and some cousins served in Korea, Vietnam, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them are veterans of foreign wars. They and all those who have served, whether they are living or deceased, deserve our respect and to be honored each year on this day no matter how some of us may have objected to these wars.

When we look at the statistics of those lost in all wars fought by this country, it is staggering to realize the numbers. More importantly, we come to understand that these people left the everyday comforts of life in our country to go into dangerous situations in order to protect it.

Unfortunately, political differences sometimes interfere with some people recognizing the sacrifices of those who were lost, wounded, or came home emotionally changed forever. Politics should never prevent us from honoring veterans.

When I spoke to my Dad and other family members, I came to understand that politics seemed to have nothing to do with why they served. My father and his older brother signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor, and their desire was to join the battle against the brutal enemies of our country and not to support any political ideology.

Over the years that I knew my Dad, he rarely talked about the horrors that he saw and the friends whom he had lost. Mostly he spoke of the men and women he knew, the camaraderie they shared, and the rare humorous moments that he could recall vividly more than 60 years later. I could tell by the glow in his eyes and the smile on his face that these memories burned brightly in his mind, and I was happy that he could recall them so clearly after so much time had passed.

The thing is that we owe all who served more than just this day which we observe annually; they deserve respect and the eternal gratitude of a nation that owes everything to them. When I told my son that I’m going to take him to see the veterans marching in the parade tomorrow, he said, “I’ll bring the flag and wave it for Papa.” In doing so, he will also be honoring all the rest of the people marching in that parade and every parade occurring across the country.

Hopefully, attendance will be robust at these parades and the turnout will let the veterans know that we are all grateful for what they have done. Considering that they have put their lives on the line to keep us all safe, that is the least we can do.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Media Gave the Las Vegas Shooter Exactly What He Wanted

I cannot believe that I have to write about this again, but I am compelled to do so because the sickening pattern continues. Every time people turn homicidal and inflict death and injury on a massive scale, the media play right into their hands. Within a very short time span, the killers become household names, and their faces are beamed out for all the world to see. It is truly quite a despicable but by now predictable practice, and this not only gives the killers the exposure they crave but also encourages potential mass murderers out there.

The recent shooting at the Harvest 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a perfect example of the media falling right into a depraved killer’s hands. This monster slaughtered 58 people and wounded over 500 more, and the media do everything in their power to get his story out to the public. Keeping to my own personal practice, I refuse to mention the killer’s name or include a photograph because this murderer does not deserve any of the fame he obviously and most desperately sought.

The insatiable greed of the media is never more apparent at times like these. In the incessant drive to stoke ratings, the media will do anything to keep people watching and reading. Yes, there will be a few stories about the victims, but sadly not as many as there are about the killer. For the media, in this story the victims are just tertiary characters; the killer is the star.

I do not care to know about the killer or his motivation and his back story. I want to know more about the victims. These people were going about their lives in a perfectly ordinary manner, attending a concert because music is one of life’s greatest joys. None of them should have been subjected to this pernicious and senseless violence; they should have been able to go home and have wonderful memories of that event.

Each one of the dead has a backstory, and that is what the media should be broadcasting instead of stories about the killer. We should be hearing about their lives and from the people who loved them. All of these individuals have a right to be known to everyone in the world, while their killer should languish in anonymity and remain only known to law enforcement officers who need to investigate this crime.

We should also hear much more about someone like Greg Zinis of Chicago, a retired carpenter who fashioned beautiful crosses for each of the Las Vegas shooting victims who died. Zinis drove all the way to Las Vegas to install these beautiful symbols of love, each personalized with the name of a victim. Zinis proves that goodness and generosity are alive and well, and that people like him are why we should continue to believe in the best of humanity.

There is no reason to make killers like this one into a household name and his face recognizable the world over. They do not deserve the spotlight they crave and no one should be giving it to them. Unfortunately, as long as ratings come before common sense and decency, this pattern will continue.

Let us focus on the faces of each of dead. They are all such beautiful faces filled with a glow showing their vivacity, and the fact that they were cut down like this is an outrage. We cannot disrespect those who lost their lives by turning their killer into a poster boy for recruiting more unhinged people who seek similar infamy through horrific actions.

We can all send a message to the media by voting with our remote controls and our clicks. I will not support anything or anyone who continues to put killers like the one in Vegas in a spotlight. If enough people join me in boycotting irresponsible media outlets we could really affect change because the only thing the media understands is their ratings, and it is time to hit them where it hurts the most.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

TV Review: Twin Peaks: The Return Finale – The Dreamer’s Nightmare

“To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.”
-William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

*This review contains spoilers.

Since seeing last Sunday’s season (or is it series?) two-part finale of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, I have watched episodes 17 and 18 several more times and have come away with some understanding of director David Lynch’s denouement. I cautiously use the word “understanding” simply because, as is almost always the case with Lynch’s works, there is enough ambiguity for there to be multiple interpretations, so that mine is just one possibility.

I have had enough time to hear the reactions to the finale by fans and friends, and they range from surprise to shock to delight. I wonder how anyone could be surprised with the cliffhanger ending, when season one of Twin Peaks ended with Agent Dale Cooper (the outstanding Kyle MacLachlan) getting shot and season two ended with Cooper’s dopplegänger taking his place in the world possessed by the evil spirit Bob (the late Frank Silva). Obviously based on this history, Lynch is not concerned with giving us what we want but rather what he needs to tell the story and conclude it his way.

Back in episode 14 the luminous Monica Bellucci appears in a dream sequence experienced by Deputy FBI Director Gordon Cole (played hilariously by Lynch himself), and in it she tells him, “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream.” Of course, the most important thing she says is the question, “But who is the dreamer?” This left us to contemplate the depth of not only the inquiry itself in relation to Cole’s dream but to the entire series. Are all 48 episodes (30 of the original series and 18 this reboot) going to be like an entire season of Dallas that was really just a dream?

The dream aspect is intriguing because alternate realities are in play here – think of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) being in the Roadhouse one moment and in a stark white room the next. Audrey’s “dream” of being trapped in some dark office with Charlie (Clark Middelton) who may have been her husband, shrink, or warden seems unending.  At one point as Audrey is complaining about everything Charlie says that he can end her story, but eventually she makes it to the bar in her search for her lover Billy, does her Audrey dance, and then seems to be in a straight-jacket in some institution. This dream is the thing our nightmares are made of.

During the first part of the finale when the plot threads start coming together, Evil Cooper goes to the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department first. Even here Lynch taunts us – the reunion of Cooper and the gang we were hoping to see and expecting never happens. Evil Cooper gets in and refuses coffee (red flags should have been popping in everyone’s head) and then sits with Sherriff Frank Turman (the terrific Robert Forster) and chats until the real Coop calls on the phone asking if the coffee is on. As Truman prepares to go for his gun so does Evil Cooper, but he is taken out by ditzy Lucy (Kimmy Robertson nailing the scene) who now understands the reasons for cell phones since she got a call on one from the real Coop.

The prospect of a battle between Coop and Evil Cooper are shattered, but there is serendipity in Lucy being the one to kill Evil Cooper. At this point the burned woodsmen ghosts come into the room and start their routine with Evil Cooper’s dead body, and a dark orb emerges from inside with Bob’s face in it. Good Cooper has arrived with the gang from Las Vegas in tow, and they all watch in amazement as Freddie Sykes (Jake Wardle) and his super green glove pound Bob into little pieces.

At this point viewers have been lulled into thinking all is right, yet episode 17 isn’t over yet and we have another full hour to go. Cooper’s face suddenly is superimposed on the screen as he recognizes Naido (Nae), the woman with sewn up eyes, from his time in the White Lodge. The dream-like reunion becomes even more unreal as Naido transforms into Diane (Laura Dern) in a red wig. This is the real Diane and not her tulpa who had been manufactured to do Evil Cooper’s bidding.

The “ghost” of Cooper’s face shadowing these events seems to be more telling when Diane and Cooper notice the clock in Truman’s office is stuck at 2:53. The notion of time stopping in connection with Evil Cooper’s death and Diane’s emergence reminds viewers of the Bellucci dream, and we wonder if Cooper’s evanescent countenance means that he the is dreamer inside the dream.

Cooper, Diane, and Gordon suddenly appear in the basement of the Great Northern Hotel where James Hurley (James Marshall) had heard the powerful vibrations. Using the Room 315 key – Cooper’s old room in the hotel – Cooper unlocks the door to what seems to be some other dimension. He bids Diane and Gordon farewell and then enters.

Cooper appears in the woods on the night Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was murdered – so this dream, as it were, includes time travel. The “what if” factor of how Laura’s death could have been avoided comes into play. This beautiful, tortured soul is with James Hurley in the woods. This is the lovely young Laura (in a scene from the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), who will argue with James and then go off for her rendezvous with death at the hands of her father Leland (Ray Wise) who is possessed by the evil Bob.

However, Cooper stands in the way of Laura and her cruel destiny. He reaches out his hand as the only man who had never exploited her in some way. Cooper’s desire is pure and he wants to right a terrible wrong, and by preventing Laura from meeting her death he is not only saving her but knowingly erasing his future in the town of Twin Peaks. It feels sort of like in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gets a chance to see what life would be like if he had never been born; but, of course, changing history has many implications as we see in that film and the same thing will happen to Cooper.

As he leads Laura to safety, she is pried from his hand somehow and disappears with a bloodcurdling scream that we last heard when she encounters Cooper in the Red Room of the Black Lodge in episode one. Cooper has saved her but lost her to time and space and the void that is the netherworld between asleep and awake.

We get another scene, this time from the original TV series, when Pete Martell (the late, great Jack Nance) goes out fishing and should be discovering Laura’s body. Her iconic corpse, wrapped in plastic on the pebbly beach, is seen briefly and disappears. Cooper has succeeded in erasing her murder, and Martell goes on fishing with no body to find.

While we foolishly may have thought that all was right with the world now, with Lynch at the helm we should have known better. Episode 18 takes all the good feelings from episode 17 and dumps a bucket of ice water reality on them. Cooper and Diane are driving in a very old car and they stop at a point where electric line wires vibrate and it seems to be a portal into yet another reality.

They drive on through the portal, and in this dimension they check into a motel and make ugly, disturbing love. Diane seems in agony as she rides Cooper’s body, looking up to the heavens for deliverance. Their joining may remind her of when Evil Cooper raped her so many years ago, and she uses her hands to cover up Cooper’s face as to block its view and almost smother him.

The next morning Cooper wakes in a different room and finds a note addressed to Richard from Linda – we then recall The Giant/Fireman (Carel Struycken) tells Cooper about “Richard and Linda” in episode one – and now Cooper remembers this too but is confused. Cooper also seems to be on a mission of some kind. He exits the motel room but the exterior shot indicates he is leaving a completely different motel and gets into a different car than the one he drove the night before. As Cooper begins his journey a signpost lets us know he is in Odessa, Texas.

Eventually Cooper arrives at the home of a woman who looks like an older Laura Palmer. She claims not to be Laura and calls herself Carrie Page. When she learns Cooper is from the FBI, Carrie is willing to go with him and leave her troubles (and a dead man who seems to be her ex-husband with a bullet in his head) behind.

A silent road trip occurs, repeating the frequent Lynchian road into the darkness that is foreboding and monotonous. The tension between Laura/Carrie and Cooper is palpable, cut only by ominous headlights coming up from behind in the night that makes for a tense but in the end harmless moment. Lynch excels at lingering in scenes like this, unafraid to let silence reign supreme when the audience is craving a moment between these two characters, wanting them to have the conversation that they have been waiting to happen for 25 years.

Finally, Cooper drives the car into Twin Peaks and passes the dark Double R Diner. Cooper couldn’t bring the young Laura home to her mother Sarah (Grace Zabriske) but he is determined to do so now, as if that act will erase the anguish that her death caused so long ago. This would be the ultimate happy ending, but Lynch does not do them, at least not the way we would define happy.

A strange woman named Alice Tremond (Mary Reber) opens the door to Laura Palmer’s childhood home. She has never heard of Sarah Palmer, her husband Leland, or their daughter. In Twin Peaks at one time everyone knew the name “Laura Palmer” – at least the Twin Peaks that existed before Cooper stopped Laura Palmer’s murder. Now it is as if Laura had never even been born, and the woman is adamant in her denials and Cooper realizes it is another dead end.

Laura/Carrie’s expression starts to change in a subtle way, as if some recognition begins to materialize for her. Cooper and she stand in the street in front of the house and he suddenly understands that time has shifted and asks, “What year is this?” Laura/Carrie lets out a heart wrenching scream like she did in the woods when Cooper tried to save her long ago, and we fade to black. The credit scene shows Cooper and Laura back in the Red Room, with Laura leaning over and whispering in his ear.

The One-Armed Man (Al Strobel) had said to Cooper in the Red Room, “Is it future or is it past?” Laura told him “I am dead, yet I live.” Now Cooper is returned to the Red Room where he is with Laura once again. Or is he? Is Cooper even really Cooper, or is he a guy named Richard who had this incredible dream about a girl who had been murdered whom an FBI agent wanted to save?

There is no way to look at this like a regular narrative that we find elsewhere on television. Lynch (and partner in crime co-writer Mark Frost) crafted this work like an extended symphony, the beauty of which cannot possibly be assessed by standards used for other composers. Beside the rich texture, the at times painfully slow pace, and the deliberate bewildering complexity of the story, Frost and Lynch are convinced that beginnings and middles and ends are malleable; in fact, they could be saying who needs any structure to the narrative at all?

Lynch’s work has always taken the American landscape and turned it upside down in order to shake loose the assorted nuts and bolts. In Twin Peaks the beautiful, seemingly perfect homecoming queen is murdered, and then the whole town discovers her secrets and realizes everything they thought about her was a lie. 

Laura is an exquisite beauty yet a tortured soul, but we recall that the Log Lady (the late Catherine Coulson) claimed that Laura was the one, and we know the Giant sent her to earth for a purpose, but was this to suffer evil or to almost absorb it, pushing her into a situation where she set herself up to die because she will take that evil with her?

The Cooper we used to know – the chipper, coffee loving, pie eating FBI guy with a unbreakable code of honor – is gone forever. In the end he tries to complete the mission but is not truly aware of what that mission is about. Cooper does not realize that saving Laura or bringing her home doesn’t matter anymore. Death can never be cheated and, even if it can be, his desire to do good is subsumed by the fact that nothing he believed in still exists, and perhaps even he is not who he thought himself to be.

The end of Twin Peaks cannot get any bleaker on the surface than what we get in the finale – Laura Palmer’s piercing scream is like a needle that punctures the night like a black balloon that blots out the world – and with a resounding “pop” we know that she is never going home again and in essence neither are we.

Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return is an 18-hour majestic and powerful work of art, and taken as a whole it is filmmaking (and yes, let’s face it that it is a very long film broken up into TV episodes) at its finest. The series makes me think of how Picasso said that art is the lie that tells the truth, and Lynch has shaken us up with this world he’s crafted, and therein Cooper, Audrey, Laura and the rest live in a dream that is a recurring nightmare where they discover everything they know and believe is a lie, and that is the most uncomfortable truth of all.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Labor of Love: A Short Story by Victor Lana

By the spring of 1897, things were looking up for our family. We moved from Baxter Street to a new tenement building on Cherry Street. Now we had a kitchen, a parlor, and two bedrooms and there was a toilet down the hall instead of outside in the yard. Even though we had to share it with three other families on the floor, we all thought we had moved up in the world.

Papa came home from another hard day working as a longshoreman and smiled as Mama filled a big pot with water. “Now we have a proper kitchen,” Papa said. In our old flat we had no running water or stove.

I was doing homework at the table. Papa put his hand on my shoulder. “What grade are you in now, Davey?”

I looked up at him and saw how weary his eyes were. “Third grade.”

He kissed my forehead and said, “You stay in school and get smart and a job where you don’t have to break your back all day.”

“Yes, Papa,” I said.

After dinner Papa sat with his pipe and a glass of wine, watching Mama put my sisters to bed. The three girls slept in a bed in the parlor; our baby brother Nicky slept in a crib in my parents’ room.

“Julia, when does Tessie start school?” he asked.

Mama said, “Tessie starts in September, Tony. You already know that.”

“I want them all to go to school and get smart.” Papa got up, took the toilet seat from the hook near the door to the hallway, and said, “I hope Mr. Lasky isn’t asleep on the bowl again.”

“Be nice, Tony,” Mama said.

I had finished my homework and went into the bedroom that I shared with my older brothers Sonny and Louie. They were tough on me and made me sleep in the middle. Sonny was already snoring in bed, and Louie stood looking out the window smoking a cigarette. 

“I’m starting a job over in Brooklyn tomorrow.”

I put down my notebook and said, “That’s great, Louie, but what about school?”

Louie flicked the cigarette into the darkness beyond the window and mumbled, “No more school. This place costs ten bucks a month. Someone’s got to help Papa. Sonny’s going to quit too.”

“I didn’t know it was so much more than Baxter Street,” I said.

Louie sat down and took off his worn old shoes. “It’s six bucks more a month. That used to buy food.”

“Oh, boy, I better quit too.”

Louie grabbed me by the arms and squeezed tightly. “No, Sonny and I are doing this so you and the girls can go to school. You can become something then. You stay in school. Understand?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.


The next day after school I decided to visit Papa at work. I liked going down to the docks and seeing all the ships and imagining them coming into New York from all over the world. I saw Stretch, the tall guy with no teeth who was Papa’s best friend. Stretch pointed to where Papa was working, and I went and watched him drenched in sweat carrying a heavy satchel.

He dropped it on a pile with others like it. As he turned Papa saw me, a big smile lighting up his face. “Davey, what are you doing here?”

“I just came to see you,” I said.

Papa wiped his face with a rag and pointed to a ship. “You see that one? It’s from Genova!”
“Oh, where Nonno came from?”

“We come from a long line of sailors,” Papa said.

“But Nonno's an organ grinder,” I said.

“He’s too old now, but he once sailed the seven seas.” A man yelled at Papa and he looked at me. “I have to get back to work.”

“Okay, bye, Papa!”


Papa never came home that night, so Mama sent Louie to find him. Mama had put the girls to bed and sat in the kitchen looking at me with sullen eyes as I tried to do my homework.
Louie came back with tears streaming down his face. He stood there twisting his cap with both hands. “I’m sorry, Mama, but Papa…”

Mama jumped up from her chair and started crying. She grabbed Louie by the arms saying, “No, it can’t be….”

“He collapsed on the dock, Mama.”

I wanted to cry but stopped myself as not to upset Mama more.

Mama looked at Papa’s place at the table where a covered plate and glass of wine awaited him. She wiped her face with the backs of her hands and stared at us in a way that frightened me like nothing ever before or since.


Papa lay in the plain wooden coffin in our parlor for three days. Nonno came with Teo, his monkey in the little bellhop uniform and kept saying, “My boy; oh, my boy.” Aunts and uncles and cousins came and went, bringing bowls of food and jugs of wine. Everyone was crying and Mama, who hadn’t cried since she learned the news, kept staring into an oblivion beyond the walls of our flat.

Papa’s three brothers, Stretch, and Sonny and Louie carried the coffin down the stairs after the service. We all came home from the cemetery and sat quietly in the parlor, the smell of Papa still hanging in the room after those three long days.

The next day Mama took me to Heinz the milkman and got me a job, thus ending my schooling. I worked hard each day and hoped that my sisters and little Nicky would be able to go to school one day.

Mama sewed, cooked, and cleaned for other people all day long, and each night sat at the kitchen table almost too tired to eat.

One night I touched her hand and said, “Mama, I feel so bad how much you work.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said touching my cheek with a rough hand, “it’s a labor of love.”

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Buying School Supplies – The Saddest Happy Family Ritual

Each year my family and countless other ones participate in a time-consuming and expensive process – the search for and purchase of school supplies for the academic year ahead. No matter how many times I’ve gone through it, I find it never gets easier.

Each year the supply lists seem to get longer. Years ago when my teenage daughter was in elementary school, the list seemed doable and usually consisted of reasonable items such as marble notebooks, pencils, crayons, glue sticks, and erasers. Now as my son heads into third grade we are buying all of that plus boxes of Kleenex, cleaning supplies, Ziploc bags, and paper towels as well.

Getting to the store with kids in tow and searching for the items on our school supply lists is about as welcome as a colonoscopy prep. It never fails that seemingly hundreds of other people are looking for the same items at the same time (no matter what day and time we go shopping). It is amazing how quickly parents can navigate the aisles and load up the shopping cart with things that we need on our lists, making it necessary to get back into the car and head to another store.

After years of suffering during the last week of August on this journey into the heart of retail darkness, this year my wife and I decided to go on our supply quest a week early – what a shock to discover other parents had the same brilliant idea.

I recall years ago when my daughter needed a specific calculator that could not be found even online. Apparently, teachers everywhere participated in a nefarious plot to require the same damn calculator for fifth grade math. This year my challenge was on my son’s list – green pens. Red, black, and blue pens are available in copious supply in a variety of packages containing two pens at a reasonable price. I discovered after searching several stores that green pens are only found in large (and expensive) packages that contains 20 pens of various colors.

This year as we maneuvered the treacherous aisles of our local Target – made so mostly because of dropped packages of supplies on the floors and fellow shoppers blocking the way – my children’s faces looked more solemn than when they hear school is open on what they thought would be a snow day. It made me recall the classic Staples commercial with the hysterically happy father gleefully putting supplies into the shopping cart as his kids look at him with sad faces.

While the commercial is still very amusing, it does not capture how I really feel now. In one way I am happy to see the kids starting a new school year and moving forward in their lives, but I also share their solemnity because during the last ten weeks we have shared wonderful times together and I am going to miss that.

As we approached the checkout counter with a cart overflowing with supplies, I felt trepidation and almost wanted to grab my kids by their hands and rush out the door without the supplies hoping that would prevent time from moving forward, but we ended up going up to the cashier and paying for everything – a different kind of feeling overwhelmed me as I looked at the bags filled with supplies and realized what they all cost.

After leaving Target we all seemed exhausted; as we got into the car it felt as if we all survived The Battle of Green Pen Mountain. A quick trip to the ice cream shop rewarded the kids (and us) with a sweet, cold treat that we enjoyed – even though we realized that the dripping ice cream cones we held in our hands represented one of the last gasps of a summer that was almost gone.

Once again, we participated in and survived the quest for school supplies. It is a ritual all families must go through, and the sadness mixed with happiness involved is always bittersweet. Still, when they hoist those new backpacks on their shoulders and walk out the door on the day after Labor Day, a new adventure will begin, and I can be confident they have every supply they need for success.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Major League Baseball Has No Plans for Robot Umpires – At Least Not Yet

Recently there has been a rise in ugly incidents between players, managers, and umpires regarding close calls made by umpires. Disputes about umpires’ calls are as old as Major League Baseball itself; however, in this era of increasing prevalence of technology the idea of using robot umpires keeps rearing its ugly head.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has come out and clearly stated that MLB will not being using robot umpires or automated strike zones (as has been suggested by some of the disgruntled players such as Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs) anytime soon. Manfred claims he is a “traditionalist” who believes that the umpires make right calls “90% of the time.”

Interestingly, this comes from the man who wants to speed up games with a pitch clock and limiting coach or manager visits to the mound. He also has initiated research into baseball bats as the reason for this year’s surge in home runs, even though many players believe it is the baseballs that are the culprits.

Over the course of many years of watching MLB, I have to say that the interactions between players, managers, and umpires have seemed mostly civilized. Of course, when a bad call is made – or at least one that a player or manager perceives as a bad one – sometimes fireworks occur and they can range from entertaining to disturbing moments.

Managers such as “Sweet” Lou Piniella and Billy Martin could lose their cool very quickly. Their antics, while sometimes bordering on the hilarious, also sometimes reached a point where the umpires involved could feel threatened. Nevertheless, this human factor provides drama that fans enjoy in some respects more than the game itself.

As a lifelong fan of the New York Mets, I have seen calls go against my team more often than go its way (or so it seems to me). The introduction of the instant replay review has helped reverse some bad calls (excluding balls and strikes), but at the heart of the conflict is the strike zone and an electronic one is appealing to those players who feel umpires have individual strike zones that are far from equitable.

I personally like the idea of human umpires only because I have played baseball games with them and without them. Games without umpires – when the players and both sides either agree or disagree on a call – are like driving without traffic lights. These contests are accidents waiting to happen. Umpires provide a sense of balance that both teams need, and the good ones merit respect and likewise treat players and managers respectfully.

MLB’s umpires are human beings but many times are treated as if they are not there – until they make a call that rubs someone the wrong way. Then the players, the manager, and then the crowd will let them know how they all feel.
I recall watching baseball games with my grandfather and, when the umpire made what he felt was a bad call, he would scream all sorts of unprintable words. Pop was not the only person I know who enjoyed yelling (and cursing) at umpires – but I wonder how they will direct their anger if the umpire is a robot. You cannot argue with a machine – one that is supposed to be infallible.

All around us the human factor seems to be disappearing. I used to know tellers in my bank by name. Now most of them are gone and the lines are incredibly long, forcing me to use the ATM most of the time. In my drugstore, there is usually one cashier with another long line that forces me to use the automated checkout, and a similar situation forces me to do so in the supermarket as well. On the highway toll booths are being eradicated and the E-Z Pass is the only way to go.

Basically, human interaction is being subsumed by automated alternatives everywhere we go.  Consider how driverless cars and buses are no doubt going to rule the roads sooner rather than later. The regular pleasure of getting behind the wheel to drive will be taken away from us, and a creepy feeling of powerlessness and fear comes with thinking our freedom to drive and go wherever we want may be taken away.

Progress is always a wonderful thing if it increases the quality of human life. Unfortunately, all of this automation has led to people losing jobs and limits our opportunities for interaction with other members of our species. The idea of robot umpires is just another example of moving forward without any regard for what is being left behind.

One day soon we may have an umpire version of the Terminator calling the plays. No one is going to argue with something like that, and that will be an incalculable loss. For the time being MLB games will continue to have those men in black on the field. Most of them do their best to make the game fair and one that fans can enjoy watching. Players, managers, and fans should try to enjoy the game the way it is played now – the one we know and love – before it is too late.