Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Year-End Rant

I want to get in my last licks for 2009 before I roll out the 2010 complaints. I have no fear of ever running out of material for my rants because there is no end to the dumb or annoying things people do.

The other day in the Daily News there was a story about a man who totalled his Corvette and now wants to sue Allstate, who insured him even though he had an expired driver's license at the time the policy was written. He claims Allstate was negligent for not doing sufficient research to uncover the fact that he had no valid license. Frivolous lawsuits (it was dismissed) like this infuriate me. How can these morons be allowed to waste the court's time with such ridiculous cases? There should be a better screening process to weed these suits out of the court calendar before they ever come to trial. As an alternative, there should be penalties like paying court costs to be shared between the greedy plaintiffs and their ambulance-chasing lawyers to prevent junk litigation like this. Finally, people should take responsibility for their own stupid actions.

Here's another winner right out of today's paper. We all know that NYC Transit and the MTA are in a financial hole because of mismanagement and a failure to get a decent day's work out of the union-protected slugs that get paid for 8 hours although they only work 4. They want to raise fares yet again to make up the deficit. They are strapped for cash and yet they provide Access-a-Ride service to people traveling to the Empire City Casino in Yonkers! OK, I can see if seniors need to get to a doctor's appointment, or even to the grocery store to shop for food, but taxpayer-subsidized transportation to a casino to gamble with what little money they have is just beyond the pale.

Last week NY State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo released the findings of an audit of NY State Medicaid. It seems that millions (does anybody realize how much a million dollars is anymore?) of dollars are being wasted on paying phony claims, people with duplicate eligibility receiving payment two or three times for the same claim, but the best one really blew my mind. In one case, auditors found a Medicaid recipient from Poughkeepsie who had gotten $300 round-trip taxi rides to visit her son at a long-term care facility in Albany five days a week. The Dutchess County Local Department of Social Services approved the trips, at a total cost of nearly $196,000. After the comptroller’s audit, the taxi trips were classified as not medically necessary. (It would have been cheaper to just buy her a house in Albany!)

One all too common consequence of spending other people’s money is failure to think ahead. An example can be found in San Jose, California whose school district approved the purchase of a $725,000 pizza machine it claimed would “churn out 800 pizzas a day to sell on various campuses in the district.” In reality, the machine reportedly produced only 2,000 pizzas in two years due to frequent breakdowns, which works out to roughly $360 per pizza. What’s worse, the San Jose school district eventually took pizza off its menus completely when it realized there weren’t enough trucks to deliver pizza to different campuses, all of which had the same rigidly enforced lunch time. The machine is mostly retired at present, trotted out only on Fridays at various elementary schools for “pizza day.” Ever wonder why Californians pay such high taxes? (Story from "12 Outrageous Wastes of Taxpayers’ Money")

We need some accountability folks. People who do stupid things should just fess up and shut up. Lawyers should stop taking cases that have no merit on the chance they'll get a jury dumb enough to pay something to their undeserving clients. And last of all, politicians should stop wasting taxpayers' money as if the well will never dry up. Unemployment is so high because people do better sitting at home collecting their "entitlements" than they do finding a job. Peter Finch's speech from the movie Network pretty much sums it up. YouTube - Mad As Hell ...

There, I feel much better now. Wishing a happy and healthy New Year to my faithful readers.


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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

No Job Too Small

I just finished sorting my screws. As pathetic as that may sound, I take great pleasure in tasks that involve organizing things. Years ago I bought one of those plastic, multi-drawered storage containers that I set up with assorted screws, bolts, nuts, washers, anchors, and electrical/ plumbing miscellany. Over time, the little bins got all jumbled up and it bothered me. So, I bought a new plastic, multi-drawered storage container and re-organized everything. I even made little labels for each drawer on my computer and pasted them on. It's not a major accomplishment, but something that had become disarranged is now in perfect order. It's the "Monk" in me. (If you don't watch Monk on TV, please ignore that last reference.)

Another job that doesn't sound exciting, but that I enjoy none the less, is washing the car. When I was younger, and my friends and I were getting our first cars, nobody would be caught dead with a dirty car. Black was a popular car color back in the Sixties, and anyone who's owned a black car will tell you that they show the dirt very quickly. I had a black '61 Chevy Impala, and washing the car every Saturday was a ritual I loved. That car was gleaming inside and out when I was done, and I would always tool around the neighborhood with the radio blasting and the windows rolled down to show it off. To this day I can't stand a dirty car.

Before we hired a gardener, I also used to like mowing the lawn. As a city kid, we never had a lawn; nobody did. When we bought our little piece of the rock on Staten Island, I went out and got a Black and Decker lawn mower with a hundred foot electric cord. Every week, weather permitting, I was pushing that mower over our front and back yards, marveling at how the grass clippings flew into the bag attached to the side of the mower. One day I was cutting wet grass on our steeply inclined front lawn. The mower got stuck, and without thinking, I gave it a kick with my foot. I saw the front part of my sneaker fly over my shoulder a second before I felt the pain. With me holding a towel over my bleeding toes, my frantic wife drove me to the emergency room. Did I mention we hired a gardener?

Painting is another chore that most people dread. Enjoy might be too strong a word for how I feel about painting, but I do like how something looks after its been freshly painted. It's so much easier these days with latex paint, custom-mixed colors, and all the great gadgets they've invented to make the job easier. In the past couple of years, I've painted the entire inside of my three children's houses. I prepare the rooms ahead of time by moving furniture, taping off around windows and moldings, and patching any uneven spaces on the walls and ceilings. I also bring my radio along to listen to the oldies while I work. I enjoy working alone and never plan more than I can do in an 8-hour day. I know, I'm weird.

I like to cook too. I'll never be as good a cook as my wife, but I do like trying different dishes to see how they come out. The variety of recipes available on the Internet is astounding, and if you follow the recipe, generally the dish turns out alright. I enjoy experimenting too, making up dishes with whatever ingredients are around the house. Stir frys with some pasta thrown in are a great way to clean out the refrigerator. Breads too are a favorite...not the great crusty Italian and French breads that I love but are hard to make in a home oven, but the pan breads like cornbread and pumpkin-nut loaves that are so nice with a cup of coffee.

I think as I get older, I take pleasure in simple things. It's important to stay busy after you retire or you begin to lose your sense of purpose. I should go sort out my socks now, but that's a job for another day.


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Saturday, December 19, 2009

I'll Be Home for Christmas

I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents under the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

The song titled "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was copyrighted on August 24, 1943, by Walter Kent (music) and James "Kim" Gannon (words). Kent and Gannon revised and re-copyrighted their song on Sep. 27, 1943, and it was this version that was made famous by Bing Crosby. Crosby recorded "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra for Decca Records. Within about a month of its being copyrighted the song hit the music charts and remained there for eleven weeks, peaking at number three.

The song touched a tender place in the hearts of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, who were then in the depths of World War II, and it earned Crosby his fifth gold record. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific, and Yank, the GI magazine, said Crosby accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era. In December 1965, when the astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell were returning to Earth after setting a record for the longest flight in the US space program aboard Gemini 7 spacecraft, they requested this carol to be played for them.

This bitter-sweet Christmas song never fails to raise a lump in my throat. It's a mythical letter home from a soldier, and sounds so upbeat and hopeful until that fateful last line when we realize that the writer will not make it home for Christmas this year, or maybe never again. I usually try to keep these posts on the light side, but every time I hear this song, it reminds me of the brave people who risk all to keep us safe in our beds. They sometimes show on TV news clips of soldiers sending holiday greetings home to their families, and it's just so sad.

All our lives we are told that wars are necessary to keep the bad guys at bay. Wouldn't it be great if everyone realized that the human race, wherever it may be found, has a lot in common. Instead of going to war over the ethnic, religious and political differences that divide us, how much better would it be to take those billions spent on waging war and use it to make the world a better place for all peoples. I'm as patriotic as anyone, but I'm tired of seeing pictures in the paper of a twenty-year old coming home in a flag-draped coffin.

Please forgive the seriousness of this post; I know it's Christmas and we should all be in a mood to celebrate with our families. Please pray for the safety of our soldiers overseas and that one day, soldiers all over the world will not have to dream about going home, but will actually be able to put down their guns and return to the arms of their loved ones for good. Merry Christmas to all.


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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Funny Fat Guys

Before everybody had their cholesterol count and percentage of body fat memorized, fat people were a lot less stigmatized than they are in today's "thin is in" culture. In fact, it was even OK to refer to them as "fat" since that's what they were. Now, like other perfectly good terms, the word "fat" has fallen out of favor. We refer to the overweight as obese, as if that changes anything. The conventional wisdom about fat people is that they were jolly, and that was very often the case. Maybe they figured out that their looks were not going to get them a date to the prom, so they found another way...a sense of humor. Just for today, I want to resurrect the word and tell you about my favorite fat, funny people.

I guess Jackie Gleason would have to top the list, not only because he's a Brooklyn home boy, but also because he had the secret of turning sad into funny. So many of the characters on his TV show were not inherently funny. Ralph Kramden, the poor shlub full of dreams that would never come true; Charlie Bratton, the loudmouthed bully who tormented the meek Clem Finch as played by Art Carney; the Poor Soul, a completely hapless sort who never seems to catch a break, played by Gleason in pantomime as a tribute to silent screen comedy; in all these basically sad people, Gleason mined the humor like the talented pro he was. He got us to see the laughs, and sometimes the pathos, in everyday situations. The Poor Soul - Jackie Gleason Video Clips

Oliver Hardy, half of the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, was a very funny fat man. He and Stan Laurel were paired together by accident when another actor who was supposed to appear with Hardy in a film was injured, and Stan Laurel filled in. They were magic together, doing some of their best films like Sons of the Desert and Way Out West at the Hal Roach Studios. Having been schooled in silent films, Ollie could express more with a look than most actors could with pages of dialogue. Stan was the perfect foil, getting the two of them into impossible situations that Ollie would often summarize by saying: "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into". Laurel and Hardy: Getting Up, Getting Down, and Getting Dirty

John Candy, like so many talented people, left us too soon. He always seemed to me to be like the characters he played in films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles with the great Steve Martin, and Uncle Buck. (Watch these movies immediately if you have not seen them. If you don't find them funny, I'll personally refund the rental fee.) John was born in Ontario, Canada and broke into television with the Second City troupe that included such future stars as Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Shelly Long. Later in his career, John played some serious parts like the corrupt lawyer Dean Andrews in the 'Oliver Stone' film JFK, and Cool Runnings about the first Jamaican bobsled team. YouTube - John Candy & Steve Martin

Saturday Night Live has given us many talented people including one of my favorite funnymen, Chris Farley, who, like John Candy, was a Second City alumnus. Chris was the loveable slob who would back into the table and topple Grandma's antique lamp, and while trying to catch it, knock over an entire breakfront filled with china. His sketches on SNL as motivational speaker Matt Foley were classic, leading to a number of funny movies like Tommy Boy. Chris had problems later in his career with alcohol and drug dependency. On December 18th, 1997, he died from a heroin and cocaine overdose in his apartment in Chicago at the age of 33. Tragic end for such a funny guy. SNL-Matt Foley Video

It’s long past time this man gets the respect he deserves. One of the most well known stand up comedians of all time, Rodney Dangerfield also had a fairly impressive movie list including one of my all-time favorites, Caddyshack. Of course above everything else, Dangerfield was known for his nightclub routines, polished over the years in small-time comedy club venues. His success came late in life but Rodney made the most of it. A frequent guest on late-night shows, his one-liners, mostly at his own expense, have become pure comedic gold. He also opened his own club, Dangerfields, where many young comics launched their careers. At long last the very respected Rodney Dangerfield has taken his place in the pantheon of funny fat guys.

Sometimes a good laugh is all we have between us and the window ledge. My hat is off to anybody who can make people forget their troubles, even for a little while, especially when their own demons may be hot on their heels.


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Random Harvest

My wife got a $25 gift certificate to Bloomingdale's a couple of years ago that she never redeemed, so off we went to the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey. Now this is a fancy place in a rich town filled with stores like Nieman Marcus, Saks and a ton of high-end retailers. People from Staten Island come under immediate security scrutiny when they pull into the parking lot. We spent a long time just trying to find something that cost $25 or less. The sales associates (not clerks please) give you that "you must want Macy's in the poor part of town" look as they try to help you without ever getting too close. I just want to say: "Yo, where's the terlet, I gotta take a leak", but my wife would be appalled, and so I bite my tongue.

The great Jerry Herman song "We Need a Little Christmas" from the musical version of Auntie Mame came on the radio last night. We began to think that this show needs to be revived. Casting would be tough, since the role has been played by such greats as Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury and Lucille Ball. We came up with Bebe Neuwerth (who was so great as Lillith on the TV show Cheers, and also on Broadway in Chicago) for the lead. The part of Mame's secretary Agnes Gooch, played brilliantly by Peggy Cass, would go to the very funny Tina Fey who would undoubtedly steal the show. We couldn't agree on the male lead. My wife likes John Schneider who played Bo Duke on the Dukes of Hazard. I think George Clooney would ace the part. So get busy Broadway producers and give this feel-good show another run.

Remember the big lie they told us when we first started paying for cable TV? No commercials, they said, the benefit of paying for cable television would be that you get to watch commercial-free. So we all lined up to give them our money and they actually kept their promise...for about six months. Now the commercial breaks on cable stations like USA and TBS are long enough for Tiger Woods to get another affair going. Not only do they inundate us with commercials, they crank up the sound. And how about those annoying station logos that pop up on screen in the middle of your movie. Shame on the FCC for screwing the entire country with this boondoggle. Gee, the government never lied to us before!

As I write this, the wind is howling, the skies are gray, and the rain is blowing sideways. I half expected to see Dorothy and Toto sail by when I looked out the front window to see if the old door I put out with the garbage had become airborne like a flying carpet. I know we're supposed to treasure every day we're alive, but really, this day sucks. When people say they LOVE winter, what they really mean is they love being sheltered from it. I think I have SAD (Seasonal affective disorder) a form of depression that occurs in relation to the seasons, most commonly beginning in winter. Even on the coldest days, bright sunshine elevates my mood from grouchy to cranky...that's the happiest I get.

Don't you love those commercials where these sappy people babble on about how they found their life's soulmate. (By the way, the guy who runs that website is really creepy...he used to do the commercials himself, but I guess his icky personality gave the Marketing Department second thoughts.) Anyhow, they should have to do a "one-year-later" segment where they bring you up to date on how these losers are getting along. I guarantee you that most of those clueless guys, who are so beside themselves with happiness today, are just an ill-timed fart or a toilet seat left in the "up" position away from a one-way ticket back to single-ville.

We were listening to Christmas music on 106.7 FM last night...they start playing it on the Fourth of July right through the holiday season. A little girl called in to ask the DJ to play a Christmas song for her school principal, Mrs. Knox. She said, in the sweetest angelic voice, that Mrs. Knox was smart and fun and coached the horseback riding team in her school. The DJ said that Mrs. Knox sounded like a lot more than a principal, and that maybe she inspired this little girl. The girl answered simply, "Yes". I really hope Mrs. Knox was listening. Teachers will never become rich or famous, but I bet a lot of people out there would give anything to hear a dedication like that from a sincere little girl. (I may be a grouch, but things like this always get to me.)


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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Christmas at Our House

I read in this weeks paper that most U.S. Post Offices are shredding kids' letters to Santa for fear that pedophiles will somehow get their hands on them. There was also a funny e-mail going around about how many times a memo announcing the annual Christmas party had to be changed to avoid offending those who don't celebrate Christmas. (Eventually the party was cancelled.) This opening might suggest the beginning of a rant about how some politically correct people try to suck the joy out of everything, all the while trying to convince the majority of us that their actions are for the greater good. I'm going to leave that rant for another day. Instead I want to talk about how, in spite of all the humbug, Christmas is still a big deal in our family.

For many years now, our traditional Christmas celebration has remained the same. We do not observe the Italian custom of the "seven fish dinner" on Christmas Eve, mainly because our two principal cooks are not fish lovers. We do eat like the world was coming to an end however, with my sister-in-law Paula cooking on Christmas Eve, and my wife Jasmine cooking on Christmas Day. We do most of our present opening on the Eve, with a few "Santa" presents opened Christmas morning, a practice carried over from when the kids were little and I would drag the old Super 8 movie camera with the "jailbreak" floodlight out of the closet. As the kids got older, they grew to hate that bright light in their eyes first thing in the morning, but I will always treasure those flickering memories of their reactions to getting those special toys on their Santa list.

Our decorations have a tradition too. In 43 years of marriage, we have accumulated enough Christmas stuff to deck out a small mall. With a few minor variations, the method for putting them up over the years has not changed. Maybe ten years ago, I stopped decorating the outside of the house because it got too cold. Instead I put a lighted wreath in every window so that they are visible from outside. It gives the house an old-fashioned Christmassy look, and allows me to put up the wreaths in the comfort of my warm home, with Christmas carols playing in the background, and my Drambuie on the rocks within easy reach.

One of our oldest traditions is the "name balls". We hang red Christmas balls with the name of each family member written on them in white along the stair railing in the living room. As our children have married, and grandchildren have begun to arrive, each new family addition gets his or her red ball added to the collection. The old fashioned balls are very fragile and break easily, but thanks to the miracle of science, they now make unbreakable Christmas balls that you can actually bounce. This is our own silly tradition, but it has become a regular part of our decorating scheme, and Christmas would not seem the same without it.

We also have a "Santa shrine", really a collection of every Christmas Santa we've ever received, arranged on the top of a living room cabinet. It's amazing what variety there is, with Santas in every shape and size. Some of these Santas have been with us nearly as long as we've been married. Others have special meaning like the pins with pictures of our kids visiting Santa when they were young, or the firefighter Santa that reminds us of our son Michael's service as a Lieutenant in the FDNY. It seems only fitting to honor the old
gentleman, who has the power to make naughty kids nice, even if its only for a month.

Then there is the music box table. My wife said once that she liked Christmas music boxes, and there followed a steady stream of them into our collection. So, every year, we clear off the coffee table in the living room and put this collection on display. I think my personal favorite is the "White Christmas" box that plays the song from the Bing Crosby movie of the same name. The song and the movie have become holiday staples, and I associate them closely with my childhood. Other familiar theme boxes include Santa's Workshop, Frosty the Snowman, and Winnie the Pooh.

I can't forget the Nutcracker collection. Somehow, like my wife's music boxes, I began to receive different themed Nutcracker statuettes. These were inspired mainly by the Balanchine ballet based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story of a young German girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King. I came to like the Nutcracker figurines, some of which are functional and can actually crack nuts, but most of which are purely decorative. We often go to Lincoln Center to see the ballet performed at Christmas time, so its only natural that the Nutcracker collection is part of our holiday.

I saved the best for last. Some years ago, we switched from an artificial Christmas tree to a real one. The switch coincided with the removal of the wall-to-wall carpeting from our living room. No longer hampered by carpeting that swallowed pine needles that were still turning up in July, we began buying magnificent, floor-to-ceiling real trees from a local vendor. He charges a few bucks more than Home Depot, but his trees are worth it. Our collection of decorations has grown over the years, as ornaments have become more and more elaborate. We have our share of those, but our favorites are the ones made by the kids out of pop sticks, pipe cleaners and paint.

It's easy to become Scrooge-like, as life can sometimes pile on the burdens, but Christmas should be the season when we set our cares aside and thank God for our health and our families. Here's wishing you a blessed and happy Christmas.


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