Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"My Name is Michael Anthony...."

There are a lot of tough jobs in this world. I'm reminded of this every day when I pick up the newspaper and read about a cop who was killed or a construction worker who fell to his death. We can probably all agree that jobs like police officer, fire fighter or soldier are inherently dangerous, but there are things about work that make it tough besides physical danger. We will differ on this point because a person's makeup and point of view help define a tough job in their eyes. Outdoor types who hate dressing up would find working in an office torture, while those who abhor the thought of working up a sweat in all kinds of weather think office jobs are ideal.

I have come to think of teaching as a tough job. I taught college courses for a couple of years and it's hard work. I believe teaching children is even harder, especially with all the crap elementary school teachers have to put up with from disrespectful brats, interfering parents and archaic bureaucracies. Throw in low pay and it's difficult to understand what would motivate anyone to enter this field. We should feel lucky that there are teachers out there who find their reward in the satisfaction of knowing they influenced a child's life. Thanks to all teachers (not the ones just taking up space waiting to retire) for their dedication and sacrifice. Yours is one of the noblest professions and you deserve more for choosing it.

One of my past jobs was managing a customer call center. That experience causes me to list "public contact" jobs as tough. I'm not talking about civil service jobs where people who deal with the public are routinely rude and never held accountable, but real customer service jobs where people have to bite their tongues and live by the philosophy: "The customer is always right". In fact, many customers are total a**holes who come into a store with a chip on their shoulder knowing the people they belittle can't fight back. I have bullied my share of clerks, but only after they show by their attitude that they had no interest in helping me. They must put Valium in the water coolers in these places so the folks at the counter can get through the day without throwing a punch.

High stress jobs can take a toll. Air Traffic Controller at a really busy airport like Newark is an example. As you ride on the New Jersey Turnpike, you see all these planes stacked up just waiting to land. Planes are lined up on the ground in traffic almost as heavy as on the Turnpike waiting for a runway to take off. Most of us can have a bad day at work with no serious consequences. People in jobs like this don't have that luxury. A bad day for them can end in flaming wreckage and body bags. Doing an eight hour shift day after day would take its toll on me. And how about the people who staff those suicide hotlines...holy Toledo, I'd be out on the freakin' ledge myself!

Jobs where people deal with mind-numbing monotony can also wear you down. Imagine rounding up grocery carts in a supermarket lot, cutting lawns in 90 degree heat, or drying cars in a car-wash all day. I applaud the folks who do this work. Many are immigrants (some illegal) but they see work of any kind as a way of providing for their families. For many native-born welfare recipients, this kind of job is undignified or somehow beneath them; I guess it's more dignified to sit around playing Dominoes and drinking beer all day while taking other people's hard-earned money.

One endeavor that doesn't usually get classified as a "job" is "mother". determined that the time mothers spend performing 10 typical job functions would equate to an annual salary of $122,732 for a stay-at-home mom. Working moms have it even harder. Moms just don't get enough credit for the way they perform a very tough job. Yes, Dads help to a degree, but the day-to-day, grind it out, thankless work unfortunately falls largely to Mom. Take time out to let your Mom or wife know how much you notice and appreciate what they do.

Enough about hard jobs....what are the best jobs in the world? The experts say the hottest fields are computers, education and healthcare. If we're fantasizing here, I'd like to be Michael Anthony, the character on the 1950s TV show "The Millionaire". Every show started the same way: "My name is Michael Anthony. and until his death just a few years ago, I was the executive secretary to the late John Beresford Tipton. John Beresford Tipton, a fabulously wealthy and fascinating man, whose many hobbies included his habit of giving away one million dollars, tax free, each a total stranger. " I'd love searching out all the hard luck cases in this world who deserved better, and handing them that check. Be nice to could happen.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Little Things in Life

Sometimes I feel like I spend so much time planning and looking forward to the "events" in my life, that the little things go unnoticed and unappreciated. I started thinking about this after reading a post written by my daughter Laura called Weekend Notes. (Like blogger, like daughter.) She talks about how simple, unplanned days can produce especially satisfying dividends, and she's so right.

I feel like I'm always looking past the things I do every day because they are not momentous enough. I tend to lump them together as routine, and worse, boring. When's that next vacation, or that big family wedding? When do we go back to Atlantic City or even out with friends to the new restaurant we've been dying to try? The funny thing is that a lot of these events don't live up to our expectations for them. We plan, make reservations, and build these things up so much that by the time they're over, it's like that old Peggy Lee song: "Is That All There Is?

The same could be said for living in the past. I love nothing more than to reminisce about how great it was growing up as a kid in Brooklyn. I know I am probably looking back through rose-colored glasses, but I can't help it. These were the days when I was young and strong and had the whole world before me. Nothing ached and nothing seemed impossible. Someone asked me at dinner last night if I could go back in time, would I change anything I did in life. I answered truthfully that the only decision I ever made that I was 100% certain of was the partner I chose to share my life. Everything else is a roll of the do what you think is best and move on.

I like to work in my little backyard garden. Staten Island's red clay soil pretty much repels anything planted in it. Over the years we have found some extra-hardy perennials that can stand up to it, and thankfully every year they poke their tough little shoots out of the clay as if to say: "C'mon, you wanna a piece of me?" I also plant veggies in the much friendlier environs of planter pots filled with real soil, and these have produced nice yields of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. I rarely stop to think about how much pleasure it gives me to see these things grow, knowing my weeding and watering helped them come to life.

I am lucky enough to have a very special family. Like most Italian families we get together often for holiday dinners or for any reason to enjoy a meal and some good wine. I sometimes take these occasions for granted because they are routine for us, but the pleasure of looking around the table and seeing how happy they all are, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, not only for themselves but for each other, is something I should cherish. So many families don't enjoy this togetherness and it should be savored for the beautiful thing it is.

I'm not saying we shouldn't get excited and suppress all expectations for the things we think will bring us pleasure, or not look back and think about where we came from that helped make us who we are, I'm just giving myself a much-needed reminder to not let the past or the future rob the present. Here are some people who expressed this idea far better than I ever could:

"We are always getting ready to live but never living." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"It's but little good you'll do a-watering the last year's crops." ~George Eliot, Adam Bede, 1859

"When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us." ~Alexander Graham Bell

"Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That's why we call it the present._ ~Babatunde Olatunji

"We crucify ourselves between two thieves: regret for yesterday and fear of tomorrow." ~Fulton Oursler

Go stitch that on a pillow my friends and live for today.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Money for Nothing and the Chicks are Free

I read today that the Obama Administration is considering the idea of paying farmers in Afghanistan to NOT grow the poppy flowers that ultimately are processed into heroin and sold all over the world. This killer crop not only undermines our country’s efforts to combat drug use, but profits help to fund Taliban terrorists who use them to wage war against us. Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world's heroin-producing poppy crop. The Taliban has set up a sophisticated business in which farmers are paid ahead of time to be poppy sharecroppers, and the Taliban takes care of getting the crop to market. The United Nations estimates that opium poppies earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million last year. The Bush Administration took a different approach by burning these crops, but was criticized for driving the farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

I was never a big fan of paying farmers (or anyone) to NOT do something. For many years our government has been paying huge subsidies to U.S. farmers to NOT grow certain crops because of surplus supplies of wheat, corn and other commodities. Generally, economic theory and the marketplace regulate oversupplies by the simple expedient of supply and demand; as supplies of a product increase in the marketplace, demand shrinks and prices drop. At some point, growers of these crops get the message and grow something else for which there is a greater demand. To pay these farmers for not growing these crops and to leave their fields unplanted just goes against common sense and the traditional American work ethic.

Why should my tax dollars go to support a farmer who is essentially doing nothing? If wheat is in a state of oversupply, then plant soybeans or whatever crops the world is demanding. If you can’t make a living farming, then sell your land and move on to something else. Give someone else a chance to use your land for more productive purposes. If we extended this ridiculous logic, the very foundations of economics would be shaken. If I’m a computer programmer and the job market is flooded with programmers, should the government pay me to not seek work as a programmer? It’s the same thing as far as I can see.

As a political conservative, I worry when the government gets involved in anything. The massive investments they’ve made in the banking, insurance and auto industries are just mind boggling. I know the economy was in free fall, and it was put there by greedy Capitalists, but where do we draw the line? President Obama and his people did what they thought was right, and I am rooting for a happy ending to this story, but I have my doubts. What if General Motors and Chrysler fail despite the massive infusion of taxpayer dollars? Are we throwing good money (mine and yours) after bad?

I guess only time will tell if the economic policies we are pursuing are the right ones. Clearly the system failed in a big way, and we need to learn from our mistakes to make it better. Getting back to the poppy farmers….what’s to stop them from taking our money and growing the poppies anyhow? Clearly we can’t monitor every remote Afghan farm to see if they are keeping up their end. I truly believe the maxim: “There is no free lunch”. Somebody pays for everything. Giving people money for nothing, whether its welfare, food stamps, health care or for not growing something gets put on our collective tax tab. Helping people who may be down on their luck for a while is fine, but don’t subsidize a whole permanent economic underclass with my hard-earned money. Definitely a bad idea and not the way America became the greatest country in the world.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Wizard Will See You Now

Somewhere in China, deep in an underground factory, gangs of underage, underpaid workers labor to turn out one of the worst products ever inflicted on an unsuspecting pens. Although the technology for making a simple pen is at least half a century old, somehow whoever makes these pens for the bank market can't seem to get it right. I dare you to walk into any bank and find a pen that works. It's really laughable that they chain these suckers to the furniture so that gangs of defective pen thieves won't make off with them. It also seems silly in an age when computers rule that it is even necessary to fill out the deposit slip by hand in triplicate like they did in Grandma's day. Memo to Citibank: You own a trillion dollars worth of computers; lose the G** D*** pens!

You struggle, strain, and try every way you know, but the barrier will not give way. You tear at it, scratch it, even bite it, but no luck. What devious security device proves so impenetrable to your most clever attempts to crack it? Is it some lock box skillfully made to prevent tampering with your valuables? An encrypted computer system that even James Bond is powerless to decode? No friends, its the un-openable cellophane wrapper on your music CDs. Even if you break through the outer defenses of the cellophane, there are the tape strips around the plastic case to deal with. I'm afraid to take the tape off for fear there is an exploiding dye pack to mark me as the intruder. Memo to the music industry: It's a freakin' Bee Gees CD....enough with the homeland security already.

You step up to the roving bar and order a Beefeater Martini with a twist, straight up. You're looking sharp in your "wedding suit" as you casually look around, feeling the admiring glances of every woman in the room. (OK, maybe it's just the gay busboy.) You shoot your cuffs, showing the recommended one-half inch of shirt protruding from your suit sleeves, and make your way to the table where your wife is sitting. You lift the rim of the chilled glass to your lips as you sit back to bask in your coolness. And then it happens...a horrible scream escapes your throat as the one pin you forgot to remove from your new shirt penetrates your back! Memo to shirt manufacturers: five or six pins should do the trick.

Let's stay on the packaging rant for a moment. Why is it when I go online and buy an item the size of a deck of cards, it comes in a box big enough to fit a lawn mower, and the extra space is taken up with those styrofoam "peanuts". I'm finding these things weeks later hiding under furniture or clinging like fugitives to the sides of the garbage pail. And how about those hard-plastic bubble containers that defy opening without the loss of a limb, or the bubble wrap they put in to protect an object during shipping. If you accidentally step on this stuff it sounds like the St. Valentine's Day massacre.

I like the way a suit comes back from the dry cleaners. First there is the plastic sleeve over the hangar, the one that may cause death from asphyxiation if a child or a Democrat gets hold of it. Then there is the plastic tab that holds the suit together as it it were buttoned; why not just button it? Also, the sleeves of the suit are stuffed with tissue paper to help keep its shape; the damn suit looks better empty than with me in it! I guess they have to do something to justify what they charge for dry cleaning a suit these days. (That's another do you "dry clean" anything? Memo to self: Separate blog needed on this.)

Memo to the wizards responsible for these abominations: ...FIX IT!


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"We Shall All Hang Together...."

I'm reading a biography of Ben Franklin in which the author recounts the circumstances that led up to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. This extraordinary document has been used as the blueprint for fledgling democracies all over the world. At the time of its signing, John Hancock, whose familiar signature stands out among all others said: "We shall all hang together", to which Ben Franklin added: "...or most assuredly we shall all hang separately". These men risked their lives and all they possessed to put an end to the tyrannical rule of King George III over Britain's American colonies. Against all odds they fought and won the Revolutionary War so that they could live free. What ever happened to that patriotic fervor in the United States?

My wife was summoned for Grand Jury duty and reported this week to serve. As it turns out, they didn't need her and she was excused. She was there long enough to witness a scene that illustrates how people's feelings about their country and what it stands for have changed. As the clerk questioned each prospective juror, the litany of excuses was pathetic. My health, my job, my beliefs, blah, blah, blah. After giving a series of instructions, the clerk asked who did not speak English. One gentleman stepped forward and said that, despite being in the country for 18 years, he did not understand English well enough to serve. The clerk said: "You understood my instructions well enough...not excused!" (Sorry, trick question.)

Many foreigners who are welcomed into this country and allowed to live free, practice their religion and earn a good living show no appreciation for these privileges. They see America as a golden ATM where they can start a business, (they quickly learn the advantage of a cash business so they can underpay their taxes), and send money back to their country of origin. Many have no desire to live here permanently, just to stay long enough to finance their retirement in the land of their birth. Don't get your shorts in a knot...I'm not saying all immigrants do this, but certainly enough to be noticeable.

Native-born Americans are not exempt either. The first thought many citizens have on receiving that jury notice is: "How can I get out of this". Our system of justice, flawed though it may be in some respects, is still the best system in the world. We don't chop off people's hands for stealing something to eat, or stone our women for not covering their faces. We do however rely on seating juries of our peers to judge guilt or innocence. This means men and women from all walks of life, not just the senior citizens who repeatedly volunteer for jury duty to supplement their income. Serving on a jury is a citizen's duty to help maintain the greatest democracy the world has ever known.

Back in 1776, Americans wore their patriotism on their sleeves. Down through the years, men and women have given their lives to preserve the liberty and independence carved out for this country by men like Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Lincoln. Why do some people today feel the need to apologize for America's greatness before the world? America's way of life is the envy of the world, and America's form of government is the template for every freedom loving people. Our country works from the bottom up, NOT the top down. Show your pride in America by participating in its democratic institutions...thank God we live here and run, don't walk, to answer that jury duty summons. It's not a nuisance, it's a privilege.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gilligan, Burn in Hell

You're all packed up for a trip to the beach on Long Island. You know it will be a long drive because in the summertime, it's easier to go virtually anywhere in the tri-state area than it is to travel from NYC to Long Island. You load up the kids and get an early start. As you come off the Verrazano Bridge and on to the Belt Parkway, the traffic is moving surprisingly well. You know it will slow down to get past Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay and some of the other pinch points on the Belt, but at least it's not stopped dead in a sea of red taillights. Then it you approach the Mill Basin Bridge, just before you cross, the lights start flashing and the gates come down. The single worst event in the whole array of bad NYC traffic events is unfolding before your eyes and you are powerless to stop it.

For nearly two centuries, NYC was primarily a maritime center. Ships from all over the world entered our busy ports, while the narrow roadways were used for slow moving, horse-drawn wagons. I'm guessing (if any body knows, please enlighten me) that during this time, a law was passed in NYC that said if a boat approached a drawbridge over a road, the boat had the right of way. Probably a reasonable law when the worst that could happen by giving the boat precedence was that Jacob would be a little late getting his load of turnips to market. No big deal. But in case the wizards in Washington and Albany haven't noticed, THINGS HAVE CHANGED!

Now, when you stop summer traffic on the Belt Parkway or any major thoroughfare to open the drawbridge so that Skip and Muffy can sail their nifty sloop to Kennedy's Restaurant in Breezy Point for a Pina Colada, you are inconveniencing thousands of sweaty, pissed-off motorists who sit steaming in their overheating cars while that sailboat mast glides at 1/8 mile an hour through that open drawbridge. The traffic on the Belt backs up to Maryland just so these Yuppie a**holes can pass. Have we lost our minds??? I am not alone in tilting against this are some thoughts from a blogger in Seattle:

Drawbridges Inciting Boat Rage? (March 13, 2009)

Unnecessary drawbridge interruptions during peak rush hours are increasing the likelihood of Seattle spawning a boat rage phenomenon, i.e., cars turning on boats. Maybe we’re just psychotically impatient, but watching a single leisure craft casually cripple the 6:15 Thursday evening commute for every working stiff in the vicinity of Ballard, Fremont, and North Queen Anne brought evil visions of Molotov cocktails and burning Gilligans to our non-right-of-way automobiling minds.

Federal law gives marine traffic the right of way, but in the middle of Seattle where traffic only seems to get worse, the situation is screaming for reappraisal. For "marine traffic" (aka a single, leisure craft-owning retiree) to bring the commute to a grinding halt is nonsensical. The city claims the typical bridge raising on the canal is only "four minutes" but we all know that’s bullshit. Traffic is slowed in some cases for up to a mile while Gilligan putts smugly through.

If the city’s arcane right-of-way bias is not remedied we foresee all-out class warfare on the boaters. While the rest of our benefits, 401K's and retirement earnings are whittled down to the value of a domestic six pack, the city’s wealthy and leisurely unemployed get the royal treatment. We weren’t there, but we’re pretty sure this was how the French Revolution started.

I thought the laws of the land were supposed to be made for the "greater good" of the people. What gives one lowly sailboat owner the right to inconvenience thousands of drivers. The reference to "boat rage" above is not so far fetched. Someday some fed-up motorist is going to scale that drawbridge gate and drop a cinder block on Gilligan's head, and if I was sitting on that jury, I'd hold out for "Justifiable Homicide".


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding

Some years ago we visited an Atlantic City casino for the first time. Back then there were only two casinos on the boardwalk. I think Resorts International was the first to open followed shortly by Bally's Park Place. I am too lazy to study enough to become proficient at table games like Blackjack and Craps, and a no-brainer game like Roulette has the worst odds in the house. Consequently, and practically by default, I decided to try the slot machines. We played for a while and it was a little, lose a little. Then, on a slot machine called California Dreamin', I hit a jackpot that paid 800 quarters, not a lot of money but enough to get my heart racing. Ever since, we have made regular trips to A/C, Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, Empire City, and even a trip to the gambler's mecca, Las Vegas.

The exciting thing about playing the slots is that, even though you know the odds are against you, every spin of the wheels could bring you the flashing lights and ringing bells of a jackpot. There also used to be the sound of coins dropping into the tray when you won, but most casinos have eliminated coins in favor of paper vouchers. If you win, they do you the favor of playing a sound like coins dropping into a tray just to push your reward button (like Pavlov's dog), but the real reason for vouchers is to get you to play faster and with less regard for how many quarters you're pumping into the slot. And the strategy works...if you get a slot that's not paying out at the time you're playing it, you can drop a hundred bucks in ten minutes. Most casinos also give you complimentary drinks to further reduce your defenses.

There are some wonderful myths about playing slots. One is that machines in high traffic areas are programmed to pay more so that idle bystanders sitting on their wallets will be caught up in the excitement and jump into the action. Another is to watch machines that have not paid off for a while on the theory that "they're due". This is all nonsense. Slot machines are programmed to pay off at random. One machine could hit three jackpots in a row while the one next to it might not pay off for a month. Every spin of the wheels is a random event with the same chance of a payout as the last spin. Casinos do program in a payout percentage, which in New Jersey ranges from around 90% to 93%, but that's for the entire casino, not on a machine-by-machine basis.

There are some things to remember when playing slots. First, stay on a budget. Calculate how much you can afford to lose and divide that amount by the number of days you will be visiting. It is important to stick to your budget because the casinos make it very easy to get more money. If you hit a really bad run and are in danger of losing your allotted amount for the day too quickly, take a long break and come back. If you bust after an hour, you will be tempted to hit the ATM machine. If you're with someone, just watch them play for a while,,,it will slow the bleeding and preserve enough cash for you to come back later, maybe with better luck. Another tip is to drop down a level, for example, if you normally play quarter machines, drop down to nickles. You won't win as much, but you won't lose so quickly either.

Note how the machine you're playing pays out. Most machines require you to play the maximum number of coins or bills to collect the big jackpots. If you don't play the max, your payout on a jackpot is greatly diminished. (Been there, done that.) If you hit a win for $50 or more, cash out and put the voucher in your pocket. If you don't, you'll get caught up thinking you have a "hot" machine and play it all back before you realize it. You can still play the same machine, but put another 20 bucks in rather than risk playing back the $50. If you hit a decent jackpot, cash out and hold it until the end of your visit. It may be enough to cover any losses of money you budgeted and lost. It's a great feeling at the end of your stay to know all the fun and excitement you enjoyed was bought with "house money".

Gambling can be fun if you keep your play under control. I see people at the $10 slot machines making the maximum bet (that's $30 per spin of the wheels). Some of these folks look like they can't afford to lose that much money, and there are no smiles in sight; their play is grim and deliberate. We were at Foxwoods in Connecticut this week, and since my losses for the day were low, I dropped a twenty in a dollar slot machine (I usually play quarter machines). On around the eleventh spin, I hit a $500 jackpot, not enough to change my life, but it certainly was a nice profit to end the day. It reminded me of why I play...for that rush that comes with seeing those three little symbols smiling back at you, and feeling the envy of those around you as bells ring and lights flash. Have fun, but gamble responsibly.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Are There No Prisons?"

In the holiday classic, "A Christmas Carol", two gentlemen knock on mean Ebeneezer Scrooge's door seeking contributions for London's poor. What shall I put you down for? "Nothing!" Scrooge replies. "You wish to be anonymous?" asks one of the gentlemen? "I wish to be left alone," says Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Those who are badly off must go there". A bit extreme maybe, but Scrooge lived in a time when charity was not an entitlement. If he lived today, the old guy would be appalled!

He would see ads from credit "negotiation" companies promising to knock thousands off people's credit card debt. Why? Is this not the debt they piled up buying all the s**t they just had to have while the rest of us just pressed our noses against the glass of the store window and wished we could afford it? Did they not understand that someday the piper would have to be paid when all those purchases, together with the usurious interest rates credit card companies charge came due? My favorite ad line is: "We're not here to judge, we're here to help." The implication is that somehow this is all not their fault, and that they are entitled to pay only a portion of the debts they've accumulated.

Well I am here to judge, and I say that's bulls**t! I say that because every dollar the credit card companies write off in these ridiculous settlements translates into higher credit card interest rates for me and the rest of the responsible adults out here not running out to buy on credit every laser nose hair clipper that hits the market. It's another form of wealth redistribution, and if we don't make our voices heard by complaining to the credit card companies, they will simply raise our rates to cover the cost of these negotiated payment agreements.

Reason it out...where do you think the money is coming from to compensate Visa and Master Card for these losses? Do you think they are just writing off the money and charging it to good will? To paraphrase those Master Card commercials: "Mailing unsolicited credit cards to every high-risk adult with a pulse, $5 million; agreeing to have these mouth-breathers settle their debts for 50 cents on the dollar, $50 million in lost revenue; getting innocent cardholders to pay for it all through higher interest rates, priceless." Well I for one am getting tired of being Master Card's bitch.

The same credit orgy created the home mortgage scandal that very nearly sank the United States economy. People who couldn't afford to buy high-priced homes were given mortgages by banks under pressure from liberal politicians to do so on the assumption that the homes would appreciate in value and that they could use the equity to refinance before the nasty provisions of these "smoke and mirrors" mortgages kicked in. Well the home market tanked, the mortgages went into foreclosure, but wait...did the people who played fast and loose with money they never had pay the consequences? Why no my friends, the people who played by the rules now have to pick up the tab for those who spent like drunken sailors.

For those who lost their homes through no fault of their own (e.g. they lost their job after buying a home well within their means), I say do what's possible to help them. To those who bought fancy homes because they felt entitled to the American dream, even if they had no prayer of making the mortgage payments" I say: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dinner with "Strangers"

Last night we had dinner with two people we never met before. Let me back up. About a year ago I was Googling my old grammar school principal, Brother Justinian, who ruled Our Lady of Lourdes school like a benevolent tyrant. My expectations were low, after all, when I went to grammar school, Conestoga wagons were still heading west. Much to my surprise, I got a hit. It was in a blog called DelBloggolo written by a guy named Joe Del Broccolo who, as it turns out, attended the same grammar school as I, and lived around the corner in our old Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Joe was a year or two behind me in school; his sister was in my year, but girls and boys were kept separate so I don't remember her.

Joe and I began an electronic correspondence based on a mutual admiration for each other's blogs which were about growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s. Our remembrances of those days were uncannily similar. Besides school, we shopped in the same stores, both got our hair cut by Benny the Barber, played the same street games, and hung out in Callahan-Kelly park. Our families were typical descendants of Italian immigrants, and without asking him, I just know our mothers both wielded a mean wooden spoon when discipline was called for. We remembered attending the same magnificent church, and shared laughs about the priests we recalled. I believe Joe was an altar boy, and I sang in the Lourdes Boys Choir, a group of some renown thanks to Brother Justinian's skill at playing the organ and convincing 12-year olds that missing choir practice was a mortal sin.

Another thing we have in common is that our birthdays are a day apart, mine on July 5th and Joe a day later. Joe introduced me to Jack Daniels Manhattans, and one day I half-kiddingly e-mailed him that we should have one together at lunch to celebrate our birthdays. Joe was all-in. I then got to thinking that it would be nice if our wives joined us. I had read so much in Joe's blog about his wife Ellen (referred to as TLW- The Little Woman) and I wanted to meet her. All was set...on July 8th my wife Jasmine and I met Joe and Ellen at Calagero's Restaurant in Garden City. That's about half-way between Staten Island where we live and their home in Suffolk.

You would think that there might be an awkwardness in this situation, but even though we had never met Joe and Ellen, we knew them. Our backgrounds, values, and views of life and raising children were so alike. Both our families have known challenges and great joy. Sometimes you meet someone and immediately feel comfortable in their presence. Conversation is easy and it's as if you've known that person your whole life. Ellen (as I knew she would) turned out to be charming and funny just like my wife. I have no doubt that whatever success Joe and I had in life, it was because of the partners we were lucky enough to choose.

I honestly hope that Joe and Ellen feel the same way about meeting us, and that they're not seeking an Order of Protection as I write this. We agreed to make this dinner an annual event, God willing. I think it's funny that I lived around the corner from Joe for my whole childhood, but that it took a chance encounter on the Internet for us to finally make the connection. Here's to Brother Justinian, to Our Lady of Lourdes, and to East New York for all the good people it produced.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Day at the Beach

There was a story in the news this week that the Seaside Heights amusement park at the Jersey shore is experiencing reduced attendance, and a number of concessionaires complained of financial difficulties. A TV reporter interviewed visitors to the park who reminisced about their childhood days going to Seaside Heights in the summertime. Children should have memories of magical places like Seaside Heights that defines what it means to be a kid and to have a place that is special in your life. For me it was Coney Island (see 10/6/08 post on Spaldeen Dreams...."Coney Island - Land of Enchantment" View

I can't think of anything as an adult that generates the kind of excitement than a trip to the beach did when I was a kid. (Winning the Mega Millions drawing might get the job done, but I'm not holding my breath.) You woke up feeling different knowing that in a few hours you would be splashing in the waves with your cousins, or building sand castles waiting for that interminable hour to pass after eating so it was safe to go swimming again. I don't know if there's any scientific evidence that it's unsafe to swim on a full stomach, but mothers firmly believed it and that's all that mattered.

We would ride the Brighton line elevated train to Coney Island or Brighton Beach. It was a couple of blocks walk to the boardwalk, but then the real work began. How to get from the boardwalk to the water's edge over baking hot sand without scorching your feet. Our family liked to camp near the water so they could watch the kids swim. Keeping your sneakers on helped, but walking was tricky and very slow going in the soft sand. Usually we did the "blanket walk", stepping other people's beach blankets and towels (excuse me, sorry) as we traversed the hundred yards of desert down to the cooler sand near the water.

We always set up a rented umbrella to create some shade for the younger kids to take naps between dips. I'm amazed that we traveled on the subway carrying beach blankets, towels, shovels, pails, gigantic lunch bags, drinks, and changes of clothes for when we hit the rides after spending the day on the beach. Nobody complained about not having a car, you just did whatever it took to get to the beach. This was an all-day deal; we got there around 10 in the morning, spent the day on the beach, and then hit the boardwalk and Steeplechase Park around 5 pm for another couple of hours of rides, games of chance, and of course frozen custard.

Every once in a while, we got a rare ride to Rockaway Beach with my Uncle Joe, (called "Buddy by his wife for some reason I never knew) in his '54 Chevy. See "Buddy and Mae"
View for more on Uncle Joe. Rockaway was different from Coney Island in that the waves were a lot rougher and the undertow trickier. I was pretty cocky as a kid and fancied myself a good swimmer. I loved diving into the waves as they crested just before crashing onto the beach. I remember one day trying to impress my older cousin Joan and her boyfriend Johnny with my diving prowess. As I entered one huge wave, it pushed me down. I struggled in the water not knowing which way was up. The next think I knew, Johnny had a vise-like grip on my ankle and hauled my soggy (and humiliated) ass onto the sand. I don't know if I would have made it without Johnny's help, but thank you Lord for the backup.

When I think back about Coney Island, I can almost taste the sea air, see the garish freak-show signs on the boardwalk, feel the hot sand on my feet and smell the Coppertone lotion. I don't know how the mind does it, but those special memories from childhood, like a day at the beach and on the rides along the boardwalk, are easier for me to conjure up than the names of people I met last week. That's what the people who were interviewed for the Seaside Heights story were remembering. The mention of that special place brought a dreamy look into their eye, and they were no longer just talking about Seaside Heights, in their minds they were there! Every child should be able to make memories like that, but it's getting harder as the amusement areas we grew up loving fall victim to the developers wrecking ball. That's progress you say...I think not.


Children's Craniofacial Association