Saturday, May 29, 2010

Flag rekindles hope this Memorial holday

While cleaning out my garage recently, tossing aside paint cans and rusted rakes, boxes of old clothes and crates filled with crumbling papers and fading memories, I happened upon a flag. It was protected from the elements -- dust and dirt, spiders and their webs and other icky things -- folded neatly inside a plastic cover.

The stars, white against a field of blue, first caught my attention and I immediately recalled the history of this particular pennant. It was the flag that had covered my father's coffin when he was buried over a decade ago in Columbus.

The flag was just one piece of the military honors that were part of his funeral, the reward for his Army service in the South Pacific during World War II. My father was part of the "greatest" generation, that group of men and women who lived through the dark days of the Great Depression, then put themselves in harms way to protect a precious way of life, this idea we call the United States of America.

I often wonder what he'd think about the country today, a land divided by contentious issues that have many hunkering down in warring camps of Blue and Red. Of course there have always been divisions and disagreements here, an obvious byproduct of the rich immigrant stew that has been part of America since its founding.

But people use to talk and listen. Now they yell and hold ever tighter to their core beliefs. That there's plenty to be truly frightened about these days doesn't help.

The economy has soured and it could be years before it bounces back; we're fighting wars in foreign and distant lands where our enemies are deadly and invisible; nature and greed has unleashed an oily mess that could lead to the worst ecological disaster this country has ever known while irreparably altering the lives of millions.

And then there's my father's flag.

The last time I remember holding it was a little over eight years ago. The nightmare that we now remember as 9/11 had just happened and there was fear across the land. But there was also something else, a stronger emotion that, for lack of any other word, I'd call patriotism. Sometimes it takes something really bad to bring us all together. And for a time America was in a special place, everyone pulling for one another.

Flags started showing up in public places, in front of government buildings and businesses, at schools and shopping malls, at apartment complexes and draped over the entrances to neighborhood subdivisions. They hung from makeshift flag poles in front of homes, dangled from second-story windows and covered front doors.

I wanted to join the crowd, be part of the neighborly effort. But I was a little late coming to the game and there wasn't a store in my little corner of the world that had any flags to sell.

Then I remembered my father's funeral. I found the flag that had draped his coffin buried in the back of a closet. It was huge, but I managed to drape it between two windows outside a front bedroom of my home, tying it off with a length of rope.

I stood in my front yard, a light wind rippling the Stars and Stripes and felt something stirring in my heart, my thoughts filled with my father, the struggles and successes of his generation. Hope was right there in front of me, once more part of my life. It was Red, White and Blue and I knew that everything was going to be okay.

And that's my message on this Memorial Day weekend. For just a moment, as you relax and spend time with family and friends, remember the millions who have served this country, sacrificed their time, their comfort and their lives for an idea that remains a work in progress.

Most importantly, remember those who continue to serve today and for an instant remember that we're all in this together and that hope is a commodity we still have control over.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Jewish resistance fighters focus of Memorial

Editor's note: It's Friday, time yet again for another "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F) posting. Today we visit a memorial found in the heart of Warsaw, Poland.

Sculptor Nathan Rappaport captures both the horror of the Holocaust and the heroic efforts of resistance fighters in his larger-than-life monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The ghetto, the largest created by the Nazis, sprawled across a dozen blocks in the heart of Warsaw and held an estimated 450,000 Jews in the early 1940s.

As conditions grew untenable and it became clear the Nazis were intent on slaughtering everyone in the area, a small band of resistance fighters grouped together to battle their tormentors. The uprising was doomed from the start.

The insurgents had few weapons and little training. They also had nothing to lose and managed to hold out against the fierce onslaught of battle-hardened troops for several weeks before the entire ghetto was destroyed.

A bronze relief dominates the memorial, between Karmelicka and Zamenhofa streets in what was once the heart of the city, focusing on a defiant image of Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the ghetto's Jewish Fighting Organization.

The back of the monument is filled with a melancholy image of a group of Jews being marched to their deaths by their Nazi captors.

HEROIC REMEMBRANCE: Mordecai Anielewicz and other members of the Jewish Fighting Organization (photo above) are the focus of this massive monument in the heart of modern-day Warsaw.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Warm memories and a cool, tasty treat

Looking for a little decadent delight, something that's tasty and cool on a hot spring night?

If so, one option is probably just around the corner if you live anywhere in the Southeast. Chick-fil-a has brought back its Peach Milkshake, a bit of heaven made with real peaches and something the franchise bosses call "icedream".

It's all spun together and topped off with a mound of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. And it's good -- hot, sexy good in a cool, creamy sort of way. It's also 859 calories and filled with 21 grams of fat.

But if you're willing to share -- as I did the other night with my honey, Miss Wendy -- that means you're only scoffing down 429.5 calories and 10.5 grams of fat. But, hey, who's counting?

Dipping into this delicious treat also had me dipping into my memory, recalling the dairy bars and lunch counters of my childhood in Columbus where all sorts of treats were available during the hot, humid days of summer.

Once upon a time, there were soda fountains where for a nickel a soda jerk -- think Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" -- would mix together a squirt of cola syrup and carbonated water, an effervescent delight that tickled your nose while quenching your thirst. Add a shot of cherry and you had, well, a cherry coke. Replace the cola with a couple squirts of cherry and, bingo, you had a cherry smash -- same tickling and quenching sensation, but with a rich, sweet cherry flavor.

I did my drinking at a family-owned pharmacy, Jacob's Drugstore, that also featured an assortment of creamy, icy treats -- ice cream cones, milkshakes and sundaes -- chocolate, strawberry or hot fudge! Cones went for a nickel a scoop; the shakes and sundaes would set you back a quarter -- whipped cream, nuts and cherries included.

The peach shake at Chick-fil-a will cost you $2 and change. The tasty treat -- memories included, if you're of a certain age -- is worth the price. But you better hurry. Peaches are a seasonal thing and the shakes are only available through the end of June.

Now if I can figure out how to get a copy of this posting to the bosses at Chick-fil-a, maybe I can get a discount on some waffle fries!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Katrina, Camille and a massive oil spill

The images out of the gulf coast are alarming, nature once again showing who's boss -- and who ain't. The daily horror show -- oil-slicked beaches, wetlands, birds, turtles and other critters -- is a heavy price to pay for our inexhaustible craving and need for energy.

The area, of course, has been hit hard before, most recently and dramatically when Hurricane Katrina roared onto shore, demolishing man-made structures and pristine beaches from the Florida panhandle, across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

New Orleans has yet to fully recover. And it's the Crescent City that I've been thinking about lately, that jazzy happening of a place snuggled up close and tight against the mighty Mississippi.

A little over four decades ago -- it was the summer of 1969 -- I was working as an intern for my hometown paper, the Columbus Enquirer. I stayed busy taking obits over the phone, writing short feature stories and occasionally tagging along with the cop reporter as he made his daily rounds.

The job was all about the basics -- read and study reports; know the right people to interview and the right questions to ask; take good notes and transcribe them quickly; pay attention to everything that is said and everything to be seen. When writing, use active verbs and short, declarative sentences. Grab attention with the story's lead, then explore and explain and finish with a flourish!

I learned more that summer about reporting and writing in eight weeks than four years in journalism school. But that's another story for another day.

The last week of my internship, we began hearing about massive storm clouds building in the Gulf of Mexico, a deteriorating weather system that spilled across hundreds of miles of ocean. It seemed headed for the Texas coast, then turned on itself and sprinted toward Mississippi.

It was called Camille, a monster of a storm, a category 5 Hurricane with sustained winds nearing 190 mph. On the evening of August 17 and throughout much of the following day, Camille made landfall. When she finally moved inland, 259 people were dead, thousands were injured and tens of thousands were homeless. Back when the dollar was worth, well, a dollar, Camille caused $1.42 billion in damage.

There were no computers back then, no web to monitor the storm's progress, or 24-hour Weather Channel to broadcast warnings. It was a different time, when things happened and it took hours -- sometimes days -- to learn the facts.

Slowly news began trickling into the newsroom, press reports from the Associated Press and wire photos in black and white that detailed broken buildings and broken lives. It was days before the full extent of the damage was widely known.

Just a month later, I was on my way to New Orleans, traveling along a road that hugged the Gulf of Mexico through Western Alabama and Mississippi. The interstate system was still only an idea in this region, so I meandered along the coast on U.S. 90, passing through major cities and little villages -- Pascagoula, Gautier, Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.

The destruction was massive. Entire blocks of buildings were reduced to rubble, trees uprooted and power lines snapped. Cars and trucks were tossed about like toys, pushed aside now into vacant lots to allow traffic to once again flow smoothly.

Two images linger.

A huge barge, tons of twisted metal and broken glass, had been grounded by the storm in Gulfport. It rested atop a home, at least 100 yards from the beach on the far side of the coastal road.

A bit further west, in Bay St. Louis, the facade of a two-story house had been ripped away by gale-force winds. The capricious forces at work, however, had left the home's furnishings in place and intact.

It only took a month or so to clear away the obvious signs of the storm, a year to mend and rebuild most of the homes, offices, schools and resorts. Lives were lost, tears shed, families uprooted.

But life went on. Camille became a distant, painful memory. It's been left to the poet to suggest that "time heals are wounds". But nature has returned, offered an opening by our collective wants and needs. This time around time is killing us, an open wound on the ocean's floor spewing death and destruction that apparently can't be stopped.

If you're the sort to cry, weep for a way of life slipping away in an oil slick that grows by the hour. Then take a little time to pray that the smartest and the brightest figure out a solution soon, before the Gulf of Mexico becomes a distant, painful memory.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Oil-stained pelican (photo above) tries to leaves its nest as oil washes ashore near barrier island just inside the coast of Louisiana / AP

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Puppet nudity, silliness and progress

Shocked, absolutely shocked!

What more can I say? It's just not all that often that I attend a Broadway musical in the "Land of Cotton" and find myself blushing. But Avenue Q visits unexpected places in its efforts to entertain. The profanity, scatological humor and obscene gestures set the scene, but I just wasn't prepared for full-frontal puppet nudity. And when a guy and gal get naked -- even puppet guys and gals -- then you know what's, ahhh, coming next!

Doing the deed has never been funnier or furrier. But what exactly were the creators of this Tony winning show thinking when they decided to take the huffing and puffing to the next level?

Yep, that's right! Puppet sixty-nine. Yech!

Have these people no shame? The next thing you know they'll be making fun of Gary Coleman! Oh, that's right, they did make fun of Gary Coleman -- and Sesame Street, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, being gay, being straight, being in love.

In fact, making fun of just about everything is what all the silliness was mostly about. And silly is good. That said, I can only wonder what would have happened if Avenue Q was scheduled here 15 years ago.

That's about the time the local county commissioners passed a resolution condemning homosexuality, then decided to cut off all arts funding rather than figure out what sort of art offended community values.

Cobb County, the state of Georgia and, well, most of the rest of the country, has moved forward since those dark days and now Avenue Q can poke fun without fear of crosses being burned on the lawn of the theater or politicians foaming at the mouth.

That's good. So is Avenue Q.

CAN YOU SAY SILLY? Broadway cast of Avenue Q (photo above) and their human handlers mug for a promotional shot.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poignant memorial honors Jewish hero

Editor's note: One great thing about having your own blog is you can do whatever you want with it. So I declare each Friday on "This&That" to be "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" day (IJS&F). Our premier entry begins with details about a Holocaust memorial in Warsaw that I visited during a trip to Eastern Europe. Return next Friday -- and every Friday -- for more "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" focusing on Jewish ritual, Israel and the Holocaust.

When visiting the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, one of the first sites that will capture your attention is a memorial to Janusz Korczak.

Off to one side of the main walkway, the poignant sculpture features Korczak holding a child while other children follow behind. Where they're headed is the focus of the piece and the stuff of legend.

Korczak was a Polish-Jewish children's author, pediatrician and child advocate. A Jewish orphanage he created and ran in the early years of the 20th Century was moved to the Warsaw Ghetto after the Germans occupied Poland in 1939.

In the summer of 1942, the Nazis ordered that the orphanage be closed and the 200 children living there be deported to Treblinka.

Korczak, beloved and respected for his children books and philanthropic efforts, received several offers to smuggle him out of the ghetto. He declined. Instead, Korczak remained with his children, telling them they were headed to the country on holiday.

He had them dress in their best clothes, then marched along with them to the Umschlagplatz, the staging area in Warsaw for Jews being transported to Treblinka. Legend suggests he was still marching with the youngsters when they entered the gas chambers at the camp and were murdered.

MEMORABLE MEMORIAL: This poignant statue (photo above), showing a Jewish orphan clinging to Janusz Korczak, is on the fringes of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Running to capture a dream

It was a fantasy, one of those little dreams that float through your mind when thinking about goals well out of your reach.

And it was long forgotten until earlier this month on Mother's Day when Dallas Braden of the Oakland A's did the impossible -- pitched a perfect game. The Tampa Bay Rays took 27 shots at Braden and he accomplished what only 19 other pitchers in professional baseball have managed in the history of the game.


He's now a member of a tiny fraternity that includes such iconic personalities as Cy Young, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson. "It's pretty ridiculous," Braden told The New York Times, "to be in that kind of company."

Watching the news clips and hoopla play out on the evening news, my mind started drifting back a few years -- actually a few decades. And there it was -- the fantasy! I was once again back on the road, huffing my way through another training cycle, living the dream.

The fantasy, in one fashion or another, is out there in many of our minds -- the quarterback in the Super Bowl, tossing the winning pass as time runs out; the humble slugger facing a fiery closer in the seventh game of the World Series, whacking a walk-off homer; the tiny point guard, playing for a cinderella team in the Final Four, going for three and hearing only the whoosh of the net and the roar of the crowd.

But my fantasy was never about such mega-events, team sports played with a ball. Truth be told, I was always too small and too slow to make it big in football, baseball or basketball. I played at all three sports as a youngster, even made the all-star team my last year of playing little league baseball.

But after vegetating on the sidelines for two decades, I joined a softball league when I was in my early 30s and immediately realized that I had absolutely no talent for the game.

So I started searching for the athlete I knew was part of my life and ended up finding that guy while jogging in my neighborhood. It began with a very slow mile -- 15 minutes or so. But something clicked and over the next few days, weeks and months I managed to shed a few pounds, significantly increase my pace and create a fantasy. But first, a little history and context.

In 1972, I found myself in Germany, in the army and stationed at a NATO base outside of Heidelberg. That summer, the world returned to Germany after kicking Nazi butt 25 years earlier. The summer Olympics were being held in Munich and each evening the international community I was part of gathered together to watch the Games and cheer for our country's athletes.

The men's marathon took center stage as the Games were coming to an end. It's the first time I recall watching a long distance race and it was an American, Frank Shorter, who entered the Olympic stadium first that day, tens of thousands of fans calling his name, millions of others watching the event on television.

Twelve years later in Los Angeles, a young woman, Joan Benoit, managed to capture center stage and the world's attention by winning the first woman's Olympic marathon.

It was a breathtaking achievement, this wisp of a woman from a small community in Maine pulling away early from the pack of world-class talent, cheered on by hundreds of fans on the streets of Los Angeles, thousands waiting for her to enter the Olympic stadium and millions watching the spectacle play out on TV.

It's that spectacle that became my fantasy, my dream, to run into an Olympic staidum, my name on the lips and in the hearts of thousands. It's a fantasy, a mind game really, that I thought about each time I laced up my running shoes and pounded the pavement.

And, of course, it's a fantasy that never came true.

No, I've never experienced the thrill of dashing through a darkened tunnel into the light of a packed Olympic staidum, or heard my name called out by thousands as I floated around a track.

But this much I know is true. All those years ago when I was running every day, I managed to grab hold of something special, a tiny piece of the magic that Benoit and Shorter shared.

The dream kept me running and kept me company when I was tired. It was there on frigid mornings in winter and blistering days in summer, on painful runs that lasted for hours and short sprints that took my breath away. The fantasy pushed and pulled and prodded and waited patiently as I grew faster, stronger, willing to go the distance.

My reward?

There was a slight chill in the air as I approached the Queensboro Bridge, just one of thousands of runners pounding onto the span that would take us into Manhattan. We were two hours into the New York City Marathon and I knew the winner would cross the finish line in minutes.

I was yet another two hours from Tavern on the Green in Central Park and growing weary. I had managed to hold to my pace, a mile every eight minutes, but now I was slowing, banging against the proverbial wall, just about ready to call it quits.

And then I heard a noise, a rumble off in the distance. With each step the sound grew, a tiny muffled roar that seemed to call my name. The dream was waiting, out there again, pulling me into the Big Apple.

The noise grew and my pace quickened. The shadows of early afternoon cast me into momentary darkness and for an instant I was running toward the light, through a tunnel and into my dreams.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of fans were clustered at the foot of the bridge. They were filled with energy and good cheer, offering a hearty welcome and words of encouragement for family and friends, neighbors -- and me!

This was real. No fantasy, no dream. I had done the work, paid the price and here was my reward. Magic!

POUNDING THE PAVEMENT: Thousands of runners (photo above) make their way into Manhattan, looking for magic as they take part in the New York City Marathon.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Perfect drink for a perfect day

Turns out the ritzy, new theater in our neighborhood serves booze. Apparently a little alcohol makes even mediocre plays and concerts a fun and memorable experience.

So there I was, a few minutes before the curtain was due to rise on "Fiddler" recently, ordering a gin and tonic. The young woman behind the cash register explained that the bartender had stepped away for a moment, but would be right back.

And he was. We chatted as he whipped together my order, then I turned to pay. That's when the cashier asked the bartender, "Ahhh, what's in a gin and tonic?"

I'm not sure, but I think I actually heard the sound of the bartender rolling his eyes when he responded, "Gin and tonic!"

Absolutely right. He did forget to mention the wedge of lime and the sprinkle of magic that makes this creation one of the most popular, refreshing mixed drinks around the world.

It's such a simple libation to pull together and yet it can be sabotaged so easily -- just a little too much ice, not enough gin, the wrong brand of tonic water. But take care of the details and your reward will be a drink that will tingle your taste buds and refresh your spirit.

I've spent years mixing and matching brands -- Tanqueray with Schweppes, Bombay Sapphire with Canada Dry; Hendrick's with Stirrings -- tweaking the booze versus tonic proportions, squeezing lime slices till my fingers ached, replacing the fresh fruit with frozen lime concentrate.

It's been grueling, dirty work. But, hey, someone had to do it. Then I spotted this recipe on Works for me!

3 ounces of Tanqueray; 5 ounces of Schweppes; a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lime juice; lime wedge for garnish. Place the ice cubes in a tall, narrow, chilled glass. Add the gin, then the tonic water, then the lime juice, stirring well. Garnish with lime wedge and serve immediately. If you have nothing better to do and want to take this baby right over the top, freeze an ice cube tray with tonic water and use the cubes when preparing your drink.

Now go sit out on your patio and put your feet up. Own Bill Murray's line from Groundhog Day and "say a small prayer for world peace". Then take a sip of that beverage in your hand and remember just how darn good life can be and how lucky you are to be alive.

Next week's recipe: Scotch, rocks!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lovely -- and full of crap!

Here's a "crappy" fact I find a bit alarming. One Canadian Goose defecates 28 times a day!

And if you do the math -- and apparently there are people that have -- that groaning effort produces up to two pounds of, ahhhh, feces per goose, per day.

Down here in the "Land of Cotton", it would seem that that's a nugget of info that's interesting but of little concern. Au contrair, mom ami!

Let me explain. There's a lovely walking path in my neighborhood, parallel and only a few yards from several parks, natural green space and the Chattahoochee River.

I spend a good bit of time there, exercising and thinking, watching people and being watched in return.

Walk far enough -- the trail meanders about for nearly six miles -- on a gorgeous day when the Georgia sky is a deep blue and the temperature has yet to break a sweat and there's a good chance you'll share the space with joggers and bikers, kids on skateboards and teens on rollerblades.

There are often couples cuddling on blankets and families having picnics; fishermen on the banks and boaters in the water; dogs and cats, squirrels, chipmunks and an assortment of other critters too shy to show themselves.

And there are Canadian geese -- gaggles and gaggles of geese -- waddling about, drawn by the river and the inviting marshlands nearby. They spend their days doing what geese do -- sleeping and swimming, eating and pooping.

Did I mention they crap up to 28 times a day?

So, other than aesthetic considerations, why should this concern me -- and you, if you happen to live in an area that these flying rats call home?

It turns out goose turds are loaded with all sorts of bad stuff. Recent research at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta confirms that Canada goose excrement is laden with potentially dangerous bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella microbes.

So, the CDC suggests, be careful where you walk, where you eat, where you play when visiting the Chattahoochee. Because it turns out my lovely walking path -- and other similar areas across the U.S. and Canada -- is nothing but a pretty toilet for our feathered friends.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The stuff of dreams

I just got off the phone with Mom.

She managed to get one of the aides at the assisted living facility where she now lives to call me. She was hysterical. It took a few minutes for me to calm her and find out why she was upset.

"I feel so lost and alone," she sobbed.

The journey continues, my Mom moving deeper into a fog that will one day cloak her very being. But for this moment, her tears have washed away the haze and she finds herself adrift, living in a home with strangers, the "stuff" of her life now reduced to all that can fit into one small room -- a bed, chair, nightstand and lamp, a clock, dresser and handful of precious photos.

I find myself soothing her, telling her all will be okay, that her family is nearby and thinking of her constantly.

"I just don't know," she says, "I just don't know how much longer I can take this."

And again I offer up the words a father whispers to his frightened daughter, the world now turned upside down as this disease makes the parent the child and the child the parent.

"It'll be okay ... I love you ... It'll be okay."

But it isn't okay and it certainly isn't fair. Life has become a dark place for my Mom, shadows pushing aside the light, tears the only remaining link with all that she was and all that she can recall.

After asking her to let me talk with one of the aides at her "home," she mumbles a melancholy good-bye and hangs up the phone.

It takes three calls to finally reach someone in the "Memory Care" unit, the laughingly euphemistic term this home uses for its dementia wing.

"Oh, she's fine," the aide tells me. "She had dinner and spent time in the living area ... she's fine."

No. Not really. My mother is many things right now. But fine is not one of them. Once upon a time she was the sweet, young girl in the photo above, her hopes and dreams spilling into a future that would play out over decades. And then she blinked and even the memories of all that was have become a distant dream.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which is inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
is rounded with a sleep.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My secret obsession

It's small and stylish and steady around the curves. I picked the eggshell white model with just a touch of chrome and I get a little giddy when I take it for a ride.

The controls are perfectly designed for easy access, everything in place to gently kick this baby into overdrive.

It was love at first sight.

I spotted it at Kohl's and even though the sales clerk wouldn't budge on the price, I managed to get my new Black & Decker, Automatic Shut-off, Adjustable Steam Iron on sale last month, just this side of $40.

It came fully loaded, easily able to handle the toughest fabrics, special settings for cotton and wool, nylon silk and polyester rayon, acetate acrylic and linen -- yes, that's right, even linen is no match for my Black & Decker honey.

I hear you chuckling out there. But of course you've probably never felt the smooth, silky ride this iron is capable of, steaming out every crease and wrinkle in its path.

I've taken to staying up late after my wife is fast asleep, sometimes setting aside extra cotton shirts and linen pants, wrinkle resistant T-shirts and polyester jackets. Occasionally, I've grabbed a few pillow cases and, okay, even a few pair of underwear.

There's something cosmically comforting about ironing away all the problems I spot. Wrinkles disappear and crooked pleats are straightened, collars are laid to rest and cuffs are creased to perfection. After only an hour or so, order has once again been restored to my universe.

So keep your anti-depressants and exercise classes, booze and recreational drugs. I've got my Black & Decker iron -- and life is sweat, ahhh, sweet.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Call of the wild -- in my neighborhood!

It's a zoo out there. No, really, my neighborhood is starting to look like a zoo.

There have always been dogs and cats, birds, squirrels and chipmunks. Occasionally I've spotted a snake sunning itself on my driveway and a raccoon or two looking for a snack on my patio. Rabbits have been multiplying like, well, rabbits around here for years.

But this week nature has grabbed hold of my little corner of the world and reminded me once again of the collision the 'burbs and the beasts are facing these days.

While weed-whacking my yard into shape recently, I took a break to adjust my, ahhh, whacker and something grabbed my attention. I whirled around and caught sight of what, at first, I thought was a good-size rat staring back at me. Yech!

What I saw was mostly a mound of fur with a huge tail, but it seemed a bit unsteady and a little puzzled. After only a moment I realized I wasn't looking at a field mouse, but a really tiny, baby raccoon.

Apparently my weed-whacking had disturbed its nest (do raccoons have nests?) and now the baby raccoon was lost and unable to find its mother. I figured I had a couple of choices: Go ahead and weed-whack the ball of fur and dump it into my neighbor's yard or the ivy-filled outer regions of my yard, invite some friends over for burgers and raccoon, or call animal control.

Since I like my neighbor and want to hold onto the few friends I have, I contacted animal control. An officer showed up a few minutes later and carted the ball of fur away, hopefully somewhere pleasant -- and far away.

But nature week was just beginning.

Two days later, once again in my yard (this time hedging and edging and, yes, I do need to get a life that doesn't involve lawn tools), I heard a startled yelp from my neighbor and glanced around to see two deer loping into my yard. This way definitely a first. I don't know who was the most startled -- the deer or me.

We stared at one another for an instant before the deer dashed off down the steet, hanging a left into a nearby stand of trees. A moment later I heard the yelping of a couple of dogs, spotted two hounds -- you can't make this stuff up, honest -- dashing across my yard, sniffing the air, obviously picking up the scent of the deer and looking to corner dinner.

It appears someone is invading someone's space. The question, of course, is who's the invader?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A special Mother's Day wish

I received an e-mail this week that had a chain-letter vibe about it. Generally such stuff has me reaching for the delete button. But I took a moment and read through the note and couldn't help but think it landed in my mailbox for a reason.

Today is Mother's Day, one very special day for all of us to salute our Moms and thank them for, well, being motherly.

The problem I'll have this year is that my Mom is sliding into a fog, vaguely aware that I'm her son, but not at all certain about the details. If she's having a good day she'll smile and chat awhile, then grow distant and perhaps a bit agitated.

The cards from me and my brothers and other family members will go unread, the flowers unnoticed. The fog thickens and soon she will be lost.

That's the truth my family lives with each day. It's the painful reality that many other families also share.

With that as context, here's a slice of the e-mail I received.

It was a very busy morning, when an elderly gentleman arrived to have stitches removed from his thumb. He said he was in a hurry, that he had an appointment at 9 a.m.

A nurse took his vital signs and had him take a seat, knowing it would be over an hour before someone would see him. Then she saw him looking at his watch and decided she would go ahead and evaluate his wound. Turns out the thumb was in good shape and it was a quick and simple procedure to remove his sutures and redress the wound.

After finishing up, the nurse asked if he had another doctor's appointment since he seemed in a hurry. The man said he did have an appointment, not with a doctor, but with his wife at a nearby nursing home. He quietly reported she was suffering with Alzheimer's and he made it a point to spend time with her each day.

The nurse then asked if his wife would be upset if he was late.

Not really, the elderly gentleman replied, explaining that his wife no longer recognized him.

Shocked, the nurse asked: "And you still go every morning, even though she doesn't know who you are?" The man smiled as he responded, "She doesn't know me, but I still know her."

As I said, the story has sort of a chain-letter feel about it. The situation is just a little too perfect, the quotes just a little too poignant.

And yet, in the very near future I fear I'll be sitting next to a woman who will no longer know me. Perhaps on a really good day she'll look my way and for an instant she'll recall fondly that this middle-aged man was the boy who once upon a time called her Mama.

For that moment and the thousands of others that have played out over the last six decades of my life, "Happy Mother's Day" Mom. Here's hoping it's a "good" one.

Stress: A way of life

Thumbing through some old files, I came across a column I wrote in the mid-90s about "Gulf War Illness".

At the time, veterans of the Persian Gulf War were filing claims for a host of ailments and a special presidential panel reported that many of the problems were "stress related".

Well, duh!

The bulk of the column explores the causes of stress and what strikes me as odd and interesting is I could have written the column last week and it pretty much would capture what's happening in the world today and the challenges many of us are facing.

Here's a taste.

Stress has certainly been a factor for Persian Gulf Vets as they've attempted to make their case and bring it before the American people and the federal government.

And their struggle speaks of our age, the world we live in and many of us continue to find puzzling. The veterans are frustrated and angry. They feel like they have been used and abused -- and now ignored.

Sound familiar?

The demise of corporate America; layoffs and firings; families struggling to stay afloat economically and emotionally; separations and divorces; people alone, isolated adrift.

Frustration, anger, stress!

Welcome to the '90s (now we can add to the 21st Century) and welcome to the club.

So pervasive is this problem that an entire industry has grown up in recent years to help people, families, businesses and communities cope with the problem.

The answers are many and varied.

Focus and work harder. Scale back and simplify. Meditate on your belly button or on things divine. Jog or swim. Take up boxing, karate or ballroom dancing. Join a support group and make a friend. Find God, a therapist or a new hair stylist. Mix and match or pick all of the above.

Or stop, take a deep breath and take the time to figure out the problem, the options that are available, then make a decision.

And that's pretty much where many of us are today ... didn't have a good answer for the Persian Gulf Vets and their problems a decade ago; don't have a good answer today!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Spock, happiness and dreams

A friend and I were recently exploring the metaphysical nature of life and trying to understand what, ultimately, each of us want and need.

After a bit of chit-chat, we cut through the fog and agreed that we could best define our emotional and spiritual journeys as a constant search for happiness.

It seemed a simplistic discovery, until I woke that night from a dream that had been a replay of a vintage Star Trek episode from the late '60s. As dreams go, this one was filled with static -- figuratively and literally.

I was watching a television set, one of those ancient affairs that had a small screen and knobs that needed to be manually fiddled with to get the right station, color and sound. I kept having to get out of my seat to raise the sound so I could hear the message.

The show was a classic episode of Star Trek, the one in which Spock manages to mind-meld with an alien beast that is terrorizing a distant planet needed by the Federation for its wealth of chemicals.

That I still have a working knowledge of such Star Trek minutiae speaks of the brains ability to retain such stuff more than any desire on my part to continue boldly going where no one has gone before.

In my dream, as in the televised episode, Spock lays his hands upon the alien, grimaces with a look that falls somewhere between concentration and constipation, then moans and shouts in anguish, "Oh, the pain."

The worth and impact of the dream might be greater if I could report that at some point I became the alien beast that was in pain, or that Spock morphed into an image of my metaphysical friend who had come to understand the importance of happiness.

Neither epiphany happened, and I was forced to briefly study my night's work until it all seemed to come together.

What would happen, I wondered, if I gained Spock's powers of empathy?

I imagined myself walking into Perimeter Mall, heading straight to the food court and setting up a mind-melding kiosk between the clown that makes balloon animals and the woman who paints little stars on children's faces.

For only a dollar, bored shoppers could experience the delights of mind-melding while their children waited patiently with the clown nearby.

I would lay my hand upon their heads and after a moment we would become one, my thoughts theirs, their thoughts mine. I would see and understand their hopes and desires, their fears and insecurities.

And what would I say?

Spock's words spilled from my mouth: "Oh, the pain."

We're all searching for happiness. But in many of our lives it's pain that we live with on a daily basis. It seems to be part of the human condition.

So pervasive is this thought, that the noted psychiatrist and self-help guru Scott Peck (a fading memory these days) began his seminal work "The Road Less Traveled" with the sentence: "Life is difficult."

Of course he's right. It's an idea that has been understood for thousands of years, embraced by mystics, studied by philosophers. Buddhists, perhaps, were the first to understand and state this reality, believing that all life is suffering.

I offer no solutions. I'll leave that to the myriad of self-help gurus and therapists, religious leaders and New Age guides. I do offer this footnote as small comfort:

We're not alone -- not in this problem, and not in the world.

Understanding this one truth might not be enough to transform humanity's primordial pain to joy. But it's worth remembering when the beauty of the world is momentarily hidden by darkness.