Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Toast to the Renewal of Old Acquaintances

At this time last year I was in "clean out the office" mode. I had - admittedly seduced by the siren's song - elected to walk away from the place that had been my professional home since January 1998 in pursuit of......what exactly I do not know. In my head I was off in pursuit of a new challenge. I am not getting any younger - or taller for that matter - and while I was born sans a biological clock I do have a "professional" clock. In my mind's ear I was hearing it tick quite loudly. While I do not know now - and sadly did not ever know then - all that factored into the decision I made I do know that at this moment twelve months ago, while I was very much anxious about all of the unknowns that were staring me in the face, I was very much excited about converting some of them into "knowns".

Excitement erodes quickly in the face of unrealistic and unrealized expectations. We learn as children that the grass is not always greener on the fence's far side. No one ever tells us that sometimes what appears to be grass over there is not even grass. Rather it is painted concrete. Falling upon it leads to something more dire than simply skinning one's knee. Once upon a time as a much younger man, the combination of too short a fuse and too large a love for vodka left me perpetually intolerant of much of what went on around me. Age and abstinence from Russia's greatest export have made me much more so. Yet late-discovered tolerance has its limits. And shortly after arriving at my new "home" and realizing that little was as it had appeared to be, my limit was reached. And then it was overfilled. Again. And again. And again.

Once I reached my breaking point - and beyond it I think - I was reminded of something that I had probably learned for the first time as a child watching Saturday morning cartoons. There is no "perfect place" and I, much like Yogi and Boo Boo, had no shot of reaching its non-existent shores. At or about that point I shifted into "How do I fix this?" mode. I say with no sense of pride that on more than one occasion the notion flashed through my mind of driving my car as fast as I could into a bridge abutment or some such thing - or strapping one or more individuals to the hood of my car and then driving it very fast into something very hard. Fortunately as I was lost in mid-wallow, I received a bit of guidance and inspiration from a source I have been mining my whole life. My brother Bill sensed a disturbance in the force around me and not only talked me off of my metaphorical ledge but also reminded me that for every problem there is indeed a solution. All I had to do was be willing to pursue it.

Pursue it I did and by the end of May 2009, having summarily flushed the first half of Aught-Nine and having essentially ensured that I shall never be given the key to the City of Boston or invited to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park (although one never can tell), I had placed Hell squarely in my rear-view mirror. I moved forward professionally by returning to the only place I have known for more than a decade. And although it likely either makes no sense or is considered to be complete bullshit by anyone reading this who has never done what it is I did this year - returned to a job - I did indeed move forward by coming back. For one does not re-enter the river at the same point. The currents move differently, the depth of the water is different and its temperature as well.

I received a stark reminder this year that even when one is a human of limited intellect (if you could see me right now you would see me sitting with my hand raised while attempting to type) one can always learn something. The old dog of "Hey man you can't teach me no jive new trick!" fame is not a canine long in the tooth but - instead - one old in his mind. One with a mind closed off from the possibility of learning anything about anything. I was pleased to find out - though it was a painful lesson to learn - that while I am wrinkly and gray I am not yet an old dog.

Although I think I might very well be a Shar-Pei.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Requiem For A Champion

On an earlier occasion in this space I wrote about a quite extraordinary young man named Adam Frey. A young man whose acquaintance I never made yet about whom I have learned much and from whom I have learned much simply by reading. I read much that he had written about himself and much that others have written about him. I have come away from all of it with one inescapable conclusion: Adam Frey was one hell of a human being.

In a world where justice and reality had more than a casual, on-again/off-again relationship, death would not come for our young. The insidious bastard that is cancer would not take the life of a 22 year-old man. Sadly, we reside in a flesh and bones universe, not one in which happy endings can be contrived courtesy of the good folks at CGI. Thus, bad things happen to good people on a far-too-frequent basis.

On the afternoon of December 26, 2009 Adam Frey died. A young man who inspired all who knew him (and those of us who never met him) with his refusal to quit against the longest of odds and with his refusal to take a dim view of the hand he had been dealt or to dwell on the inherent injustice of it all finally lost the battle he had been knowingly waging since March 2008. Yet cancer did not defeat him. He simply ran out of time in which to fight against it.

2009 is about to disappear into history's scrap heap forever. As we move forward into 2010, perhaps we can all keep a little piece of Adam Frey in our hearts for a while.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wanted: One Bag of Magic Beans

Sunday afternoon the New York Giants played their final game in their eponymously named stadium in the Swamps of Jersey. The result in their final game was identical to that of their first game in October 1976 - they lost. The difference between the two games however was that in 1976, all of us who are Giants fans knew that the team stunk so we reasonably anticipated that they would lose their Stadium opener. They had after all invited an opponent to participate. In Aught-Nine those of us who root, root, root for the boys from Mara Tech were seduced by their 5-0 start into thinking that this year's edition of the G-Men did not stink. Judging by the smell arising from the playing surface on Sunday afternoon, construction crews either unearthed the long-lost remains of a certain labor leader ("Remember kids that there is no "I" in Teamster") or our collective expectation for the Giants was tragically unrealistic.

Beginning in '10, the Giants and their brothers from other mothers the Jets shall move across the parking lot at the Meadowlands Complex to a brand, spanking-new stadium. While the name of the new facility has yet to be determined, there is no truth to the rumor that the uber rich families who own the Giants (the Maras and the Tisches) and the Jets (the Johnsons) are wrestling over the following options, "We Know No One Needed It & No One Wanted It But We Are Rich So Shut The Hell Up" Park (a suggestion apparently given to them either by Fiona Apple or Soulwax) or my personal favorite, "F*ck Our Season Ticket Holders" Field".

For the past year the NJSEA (that is the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority for you acronym-phobes out there) has contrived what amounts to a farewell tour for Giants Stadium, reminiscing about all of the events that the venue has hosted and sharing some of the many stories it could tell. Perhaps it is just me. Perhaps the whole thing strikes me as a sham because I try not to think of myself as "old" at 42 rounding 3rd and steaming towards 43 and every event that Giants Stadium has hosted has not only occurred in my lifetime, it has occurred since my 9th birthday. Gerald Ford was President of the United States when the joint opened for crying out loud. How the hell can a building that is less than forty years old be obsolete?

The honest answer is that it cannot and it is not. Messrs. Mara, Tisch and Johnson are engaged in the time-honored practice of tycoons everywhere - the money grab. One would think that if Woody Johnson was short on pin money he could have goosed up the price of Q-Tips or Band-Aids or that "No More Tears" Baby Shampoo he has been hawking for years. It is not to be. Instead the Three Banditos have constructed a monument to themselves and in so doing have found a way to price some of their longest-standing season ticket holders right out of their shiny new building. Well done gentlemen, well done.

During the time that Giants Stadium has been nestled in our Jersey swamps I have been there too many times to count. We have had season tickets to the Giants since they moved across the river to the Jersey side in '76. I remember Dad swapping our two tickets for the Giants first game at the Stadium (against the Cowboys) for 4 tickets for Rutgers v. Princeton at Rutgers Stadium. He made the trade with his old pal and colleague John Chandler. If memory serves me correctly, Dad only made it "a trade" because Mr. C really wanted to go to the Giants opener at their new facility and would not simply take our tickets but rather insisted on a quid pro quo.

I had the opportunity throughout the Stadium's lifetime to be present for a number of memorable events, including but not limited to Giants games. While it would have been nice for the Giants to send the [not nearly] old [enough to be demolished] gal into oblivion with a rousing victory on Sunday afternoon, it is perhaps fitting that they were annihilated in their final game there. For at its end the Stadium was what it was at its beginning - a facility better than the team whose name it bears.

Step to the line Mister?


Monday, December 28, 2009

The Latest in the Series

Relatively speaking, four days can seem to be a lifetime. If you are stranded at sea or trapped in an avalanche or at a Bar Association convention, then four days can seem to be forever. But when your son who lives 2000 miles away is in your time zone for four days, it is not nearly enough time. In Deep Blue Sea, LL Cool J's character said it best, "Einstein's theory of relativity. Grab hold of a hot pan, second can seem like an hour. Put your hands on a hot woman, an hour can seem like a second. It's all relative."

These past few days, the hours have seemed like seconds. And now today, Rob and Margaret are on a plane jetting west, depositing him back in the Mountain Time Zone. We should have developed a bit of a rhythm performing this dance by now. It seems as if I have spent the better part of the past eighteen months saying either picking Rob up an airport or leaving him at one. While the leaving part of the dance is never fun, I take a bit of solace in knowing at the time of drop off when it is that I shall be seeing him again.

This trip home however was different in that he heads back to the place where he currently resides without knowing when he will next be here. If I had to wager a guess, I would not anticipate seeing him again until either the spring or the summer. What is six months when you say it really fast? It is six months. Trust me when I tell you that saying it faster does not make the time pass more quickly.

Man that Einstein was a real son of a b*tch. And I am afraid it is time for goodbye again.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Walking Along The Ocean's Edge

A long December and there's reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last. There is quite a bit of activity afoot 'NTSG these past few days. The celebration of Christmas has ebbed just a touch and ceded a bit of the spotlight to the travel preparations of all but yours truly. In what amounts to a bit of a trick of the mind, I shall try to delude myself into thinking that Rob is really not disappearing back into the Great Wide Open for an indeterminate amount of time but rather that he is going away with Margaret for a while.

Even with a below-capacity sized mind such as mine it is an impossible trick to pull off. For I know that while tomorrow afternoon Margaret will be seated beside him on the plane that flies west out of Newark (sorry, "Newark Liberty" because it sounded so much more upbeat than "Newark Another G*ddamn Murder") Airport on its journey to Denver, on the red-eye Friday night my bride shall be flying solo. I am thankful however that as he relocates the home portion of his home/work duality from the town where he works to new digs across the border in Colorado that he is excited about the move. He loves what he does to earn his living but does not have the same level of unbridled enthusiasm for living where he works. While it is easy for one someplace other than there to say, "It's probably only for another 18 months", it is easier to comment from afar how easy it is to make that time than it is to be the one living through the "making" process. He reasonably anticipates that the change of scenery will do his mind and his spirit both immeasurable good. I need to know nothing else in order to support the decision (although knowing now that the drive from DIA to his home shall now be cut in half might in fact have just a bit to do with my level of enthusiasm).

Rob is going, Margaret is going with him and Suz is going west as well for a few days. She is traveling with a group of ten or twelve friends to Las Vegas to celebrate New Year's Eve. I reminded her after she booked the trip and I shall again at some point prior to her departure on Tuesday that I am not admitted to the Bar of the State of Nevada so that in the event that local law enforcement out there does not share the City Tourism Board's enthusiasm and its live and let live attitude, her band of merry-makers all are able to make their eastbound flights in early '10. Actually it is not my daughter about whom I am concerned, it is one or two of her somewhat insane (in the nicest, most benevolent way imaginable) friends whose likelihood of making an uncredited guest appearance on COPS or CSI gives me cause to pause.

Given that all who reside here with me shall be someplace else when the decade of the Aughts gasps its last breath Thursday night, I think I shall watch it recede into the annals of history rather quietly. From where I sit, the decade that began with Y2K on the lips and minds of just about everyone shall go gentle into that good night. As shall I - doing so in all likelihood hours before either the Times Square Ball or Dick Clark's latest face lift drop.

And it shall then begin again and anew - in 2010 with a hope for considerably less angst and bullshit to wade through than we had to in Aught-Nine. Let someone else play the part of the sacrificial lamb. 'Round here we have paid our dues.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Life Cycles

Yesterday morning was simply spectacular. Not only were Margaret, Suzanne, Rob and I all in the same place at the same time, which happens infrequently, but we were gathered together for a wonderful reason and with no particular time constraints upon us, which absolutely never happens. At first blush one would think that would have been enough to make for a pitch-perfect morning. And one would have been correct.

But yesterday was not only a hot fudge sundae-type of day, it was a sundae with the cherry on top-type of day. For yesterday morning Joe joined us in the commencement of our Christmas Day merrymaking. The five of us ate breakfast together, surviving my annual effort at morning cooking (it is the one day a year that I make breakfast) and then migrated into the living room for the opening of presents.

Once upon a time - OK, when the kids were in fact children - I used to take a "before" picture of the living room. It proved useful in preserving the scene for posterity when mere moments later it was gone forever - lost to the ages in a whirlwind of wrapping paper and bows. I still take the picture although the pace of the package-unwrapping has slowed perceptibly. Whether we have grown older or more mature I know not. I know that I do like the fact that the slower the process goes, the longer the morning lasts.

And yesterday morning we were - for the first time - joined by Joe in the gift exchange. He is an extraordinary fella, my father-in-law, coming through what was a tough couple of days for him - his first trip to the rodeo without his beloved Suzy - with flying colors. His reaction to each gift that he received yesterday was genuine excitement. He tried on a sweatshirt that we bought for him, he leafed through a book that we got for him and he flipped through a couple of weeks on his 2010 "origin of words" calendar. There may be no greater feeling than looking at the face of someone about whom you care and seeing their happiness. Yesterday morning was a time of great feelings. They were everywhere.

Oh yes - the cherry atop the day's sundae. It was Joe's reaction to seeing the bicycle we bought for him. He was so happy he cried. To the untrained eye - such as mine - it does not appear to be an extraordinary bicycle. It is not especially fancy or sporty-looking. It is an "Upland Beach Cruiser" and it looks as its name suggests. It looks like a bicycle you would see someone riding on the boardwalk. Yet it was exactly the type of bicycle Joe wanted - and has apparently longed for for a long time.

He was so excited about the bicycle that he shared with the four of us a story of him and a bicycle he had as a little boy in Brooklyn. It was a story that I had never heard before and was surprised to learn from Margaret that she had never heard it either. Joe lives approximately a half mile from us. While he had driven to our house yesterday morning, he rode his new bicycle home. The fact that the weather was chilly and the roads were wet was of no consequence to him. He threw on his coat and his hat and pedaled off.

(Ignore the date stamp - picture was taken 12/25/09)

And with his smile serving both as his umbrella and his security blanket, he made it home warm and dry. His maiden voyage on his new "ride" was a success. Better than that, his Christmas was a success. And by extension, that made Christmas a success for all of us.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Of Zuzu's Petals and Buffalo Gals

It is early yet here 'NTSG so the house - for present purposes anyway - belongs to Rosalita and me. That will change shortly I know. Soon everyone will kick off the cobwebs from last night's extended Christmas Eve festivities at Grandpa Joe's and will resume the pursuit of Christmas cheer. While I look forward to that eagerly, I am also enjoying the respite here in the interval.

Nona wore an ear-to-ear grin last night looking down upon an evening that she had presided over for the entirety of her adult life. Margaret and Joe had spent the better part of this week preparing stuffed escarole, vinegar peppers, stuffed peppers and too many other treats to count and last night Frank added to the mix delights ranging from stuffed mushrooms to eggplant Parmesan to shrimp scampi. And in a kitchen where it would not have been unexpected to hear a sad story or two - an expression of regret or sorrow perhaps - and to hear the sound of a sob, neither was audible. Instead, there was much laughter and much singing. There was much love.

It occurred to me, seated as I was at one observation post at the far end of our extended table, just how well Suzy B. had prepared all of us for this event. How well the lessons of life she and Joe taught to Frank and to Margaret were learned by their children. And how well those learned lessons were taught by Frank and by Margaret (in Frank's case in tandem with his lovely wife Chrissy and in Margaret's case in spite of the impediment of yours truly) to the eight grandchildren with whom Joe and Sue have been blessed. And while my bias is inherent and one for which I shall not apologize, I challenge anyone to find a bad one in the bunch of eight. It simply is not going to happen - on that you may take my word.

Tragedy befalls all of us. Sadness, while seemingly always lurking in the shadows, more often than not shows up not only uninvited but unexpectedly as well. Happiness on the other hand takes a bit of work. It is something that we can always plan for and prepare for so that when it arrives we shall be ready. And when we are well-prepared for it, its arrival is seamless and smooth. Last night we gathered as an exceptionally well-prepared family - whose level of preparedness likely surprised more than a few among our number - and enjoyed one another's happiness. A lot of things beget more of that very same thing and quite a lot of those things are not good (such as violence begetting violence, war begetting war, etc). Last night we were reminded that joy begets joy. And it was quite a wonderful sight to behold. And it was quite a beautiful evening.

Arrived home last night from Joe's in time to catch the final forty-five minutes of "It's A Wonderful Life", which is the point in the story where George finds himself lost in despair at Martini's, gets punched in the mouth and minutes later finds himself on the bridge in the driving snow preparing to take his own life. Unless you are among the seven people in the world who has not seen this film, you know that from that it is at that point that George meets Clarence Oddbody (AS2), who shortly thereafter grants George's life-changing wish: he allows George to see the world he knows and does not realize he loves as if he had never been born, which allows George to realize just what a wonderful life he has lived. At the movie's end, hope has been rescued from the jaws of despair and the Bailey family has realized a happy ending.

Among the piles of dollars and stacks of coins that are poured out onto the Baileys' table by George and Mary's family and friends who rally to his aid in his time of crisis is Clarence's copy of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", in which Clarence inscribed, "Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends." A sentiment worth remembering every day, not only on Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Twas the Flight Before Christmas

The best-laid plans of mice and men have absolutely nothing on Mother Nature. When heavy snow meets gusting winds 'neath the lights of Cheyenne, it tends to put the kibosh on one's travel plans. Thus, instead of meeting young Mr. Earp in the wee small hours of this morning I shall be meeting him in beautiful Newark (OK, at the airport anyway) this afternoon.

Rob learned again last evening that while the shortest distance between two points may very well be a straight line, when the line is the southbound lanes of travel on Interstate 25 and Point A is Cheyenne, Wyoming and Point B is Denver International Airport, it is not always an easy line to walk.

Cheyenne is roughly 100 miles north of Denver. You could theoretically (if you had an extra-sized piece of chalk) draw a line that connects the two cities. Given the proximity of one to the other and the fact that 90% of the trip is driven through Colorado and its 75 mile per hour speed limit, it is not impossible to make the trip is slightly more than an hour.

Sadly, Mother Nature chose yesterday to beat the living snot out of the Front Range of Colorado and southeastern Wyoming with a winter storm. The good people of Wyoming respect a good winter storm. At some point while Rob was at work - anticipating making the trek directly from the job to the airport, Interstate 25 southbound was shut down. And whereas here when we close a highway we light a flare and put up a cone or two, out there when a highway is closed they go whole hog. A big swinging arm barrier goes across the roadway to make it impossible for traffic to pass. Thus as Rob was trying to drive south last evening he knew instantly when he had reached the point on I-25 south past which he could drive no further. And unfortunately it was at a point that left him roughly 92 miles north of Denver.

Fortunately for every problem there is a solution. As we were contemplating alternate routes for him to drive in shit weather in order to get to the airport on time, Margaret called the airline to look into changing Rob's flight. She was pleased to speak to a very nice young woman at Continental Airlines who put Rob on a flight leaving Denver this morning at 10:00 a.m. Colorado time (he was originally slated to leave Denver at a minute or two before midnight yesterday), charging us only $50.00 for the privilege. And if you do not think that Margaret would have gladly paid 10 times that amount for the peace of mind associated with not having to worry about Rob driving south in a snowstorm at night, then you obviously do not know my wife - or any other mothers. While he is now arriving later on Christmas Eve than originally planned, he will be here - Home - in plenty of time for Santa and, more importantly, in plenty of time for vinegar peppers, stuffed escarole and to share a glass of Christmas Eve wine with his grandfather while sitting around Joe's table in the presence of family.

It shall be for us a good night. And to you and yours, may your Christmas Eve bring tidings of joy as well.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Big Wet Kiss Worth of Holiday Cheer

I tend to be a bit hyper competitive about....well, about most things so forgive my interruption of the celebration of this most hallowed of seasons for a quick game of "You Cannot Touch This!". At the risk of failing to respect the line that separates confidence from cockiness I am willing to wager that my Tuesday afternoon was more exciting than yours. Well, then again, exciting may not be the proper word choice. Exciting or not, it was certainly eye-opening.

My living is earned defending folks and entities that end up on the receiving end of civil lawsuits due to their negligence, alleged and otherwise. Sometimes they are what they are accused of being and sometimes they are not. As the poet says, "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug." I have been earning my living in this fashion for the better part of the past decade and a half. Over the course of my career I would like to think (at least I tell myself this in some earnestness every day) that I have developed some level of skill in what I do. And I know that I have developed a thick skin about what I do, which is as necessary as skill to survive.

The thickness of my skin served me well yesterday afternoon when I was taking a deposition of an eyewitness to an accident. The gentleman in question was stopped at an intersection and had the unfortunate experience of having an unobstructed view of my client's vehicle entering the intersection while making a left turn without my client apparently noting the presence of an 88 year-old woman in the crosswalk. Unfortunately for the pedestrian, unlike the twain the two most assuredly did meet and - equally unfortunately for the pedestrian - a mark was most assuredly left upon her. If you are a betting person and someone offers you action on a match up of a ton or two of sheet metal vs. the flesh and bones of an octogenarian, take the sheet metal 10 times out of 10.

Yesterday the eyewitness to the accident gave testimony that was long on dramatics but woefully light on specifics. In an effort to put a bit of meat on the bones of the testimony he was giving I asked him questions designed to elicit some actual, specific, factual information from him. Contrary to the spirit of the season, he was not in a giving mood. Well, that is not entirely true. He apparently was in the mood to give a speech and he grew more than mildly irritated when I (thinking that the performance was interactive and not realizing it was a one-man show) had the audacity to interrupt his monologue with a follow-up question. What can I say? I am the embodiment of the notion that life is not a popularity contest.

Finally, my gall at asking him questions about what he actually observed at the scene became too much for him to take and while leaning forward across the table, he exhorted me to, "Try and act like a human being.....for once in your life! Stop being a non-human!" Having only met him an hour earlier, I must confess that I was more than slightly impressed by his ability to make such a detailed assessment of me, particularly when juxtaposed by his inability to provide any such details about an incident that occurred four feet from him - an incident that he repeatedly told me was so disturbing that he would never forget it. Perhaps not surprisingly he did not take it in the spirit in which it was intended when I pointed that dichotomy out to him. Then again maybe he did.

I wish that I had enough self-awareness to have recognized my own lack of humanity prior to the afternoon of December 22nd. I could have asked Santa to bring me some for Christmas. Now, I suppose that after work this evening I will have to slog through the cold and the ever-blackening snow going from store to store hoping to find some - in my size and in a color and style that suits me. I suspect I would have better luck finding a Wii gaming system or a Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster.

Or perhaps I will wait until next week to go shopping for some. Better to take advantage of the after-Christmas markdown, right? After all, I do not want to overpay for a little humanity any more than I want to overpay for a set of snow tires - especially since for the next couple of months anyway I will likely get more use out of the latter than the former.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Ode to The Long Strange Trip

I was in my office yesterday afternoon with the radio on as background noise listening to whoever was on WFAN jabbering away about the Monday Night Football game that the boys from Mara Tech were preparing to play against the Redskins down in D.C. (a game the result of which prompts this question from a Giants fan: is it the same individual who is responsible for the Secret Service detail at the White House and who coaches the Skins' offensive line?) when it occurred to me that today marks an anniversary. Fortunately, it marks one solely for me so I did not have to run out last night at the last minute and buy something for Margaret. No, I reserve all of my last-minute Anniversary purchasing for the 18th of June.

It was one year ago today that - in a move that still causes me to stimulate my scalp courtesy of some robust head-scratching - I flew to Boston to meet with a couple of the boys from the Mother Ship. As an Irishman I should have put more stock in the fact that my flight out of Newark to Beantown was initially delayed for more than an hour and then was changed altogether due to weather issues. You would think that one who has lived his life paying keen attention to the appearance of signs, omens and all such things both ominous and optimistic might have had a better appreciation for such a whopper. Nope. Much like an optimistic yet slow-footed base runner I lowered my head, ignored the third-base coach's stop sign and charged for home.

And just like that slow-footed base runner does more often than not, having ignored the signs that morning, I continued on what quickly turned into a path of self-destruction. I ended up somewhere tantalizingly close to - yet impossibly far away from - home. Eventually, due in large part to the goodwill of others - and an incredibly fortuitous opportunity - I ended up homeward bound. But by the time I opened my eyes to realize that my self-induced nightmare was over, it was late May. I had wasted six months of my life, personally and professionally. And as my creaky knees remind me during every run through the neighborhood, I am not in fact getting any younger.

Proof either that there is no God or that he is a bastard with a far-too-dark sense of humor (I shall let you decide for yourself what camp you belong to), the weekend prior to my return to my professional roots from Hell's Ninth Circle Margaret's mom - Suzy B. - made what proved to be her final trip to Somerset Medical Center. I returned "home" on May 26, 2009. Sue left hers for the final time on May 24th and died on June 2nd. In an odd twist of fate however, her death returned the focus of our family to where it should properly be: on making such that one another are doing as well as we can be doing dealing with her death. Thankfully, after having hogged so much of the familial spotlight with my soliloquy of self-destruction during the first half of Aught-Nine, it shone elsewhere during the second half of the year.

Having learned from my mistakes of a year ago, I spent this past summer playing softball never failing to look at the third base coach as I ran around the bases - waiting for the direction to run or to stand pat. And just to play it safe, I am making but one trip to the airport this week - and it is Thursday morning to pick up Rob as he flies in for Christmas. No security checkpoints for this fellow. Nope. Not today.


Monday, December 21, 2009

If I'd Known the Lawn Was Black Tie I'd Have Worn My Tennessee Tuxedo

Here NTSG I bet the homes of our town look a great deal like those in your town this time of year. From block to block the homes throughout Middlesex are adorned with a variety of lights, lawn ornaments and other accouterments. There are a handful that are spectacular, a number that are quite ambitious and countless others that are basic but nevertheless quite festive (quick guess which category our home falls into).

Most of the homes have "traditional" decorations outside of them. Santa Claus is a popular lawn intruder this time of year. Manger scenes, reindeer and snowmen abound as well. Yesterday while the Missus and me were out doing the weekly grocery shopping we even saw an inflatable Bumble. And while I am not the sharpest pair of hedge clippers in the tool shed even I recognize the connection between all of the above and Christmas.

Yet this year I have noted a veritable explosion of lawn penguins. And for the life of me I cannot figure out what the hell the connection is between penguins and Christmas. Granted I do not watch animated Christmas shows as frequently as I did when my kids were little so it is possible that penguins have sashayed their way into featured roles in them while I was watching something on another channel. Although I do not believe that to be the case.

For reasons not known to me, Chilly Willy has earned a place in the Yuletide pantheon. And not only do I not get it - because I am essentially a disagreeable son of a bitch - I find it offensive. I support fervently one's right to festoon one's home with whatever inane and tacky crap one wishes to festoon as that particular household's celebration of Christmas. I ask simply that it bears some direct relationship to the big day itself.

Now that we have invited penguins in, we have started down a slippery slope from which we may never recover. Walruses, sea lions and narwhals will all want a piece of the action (and who wants a whale with a jousting stick super glued to its face taking up space on one's lawn?) and then all hell will break loose. The next thing you know, Eskimos and ice floes will be clamoring for some quality grass time.

And once that happens, where will we display our Homer Simpson Santa Inflatables?


Sunday, December 20, 2009

We Owe Everything to Bing

I hope all of the White Christmas-whistling morons who live - as do I - at some location in the Northeastern United States are happy now. Did you awaken this morning telling yourself, "Wow it really does look a lot like Christmas!" and begin looking in earnest for your VHS copy of "It's A Wonderful Life" to watch while snuggled up under your blankey sipping cocoa? Or did you wake up this morning and do what I did and pretty much everyone else either you or I know did - throw on some foul-weather gear and begin the process of redistributing all of the snow that was - at dawn - occupying space formerly occupied by your driveway?

I went to law school in pursuit of a career that would best mask my arithmetic limitations so asking me "How much snow did you get?" is like asking me how many children makes up a set of sextuplets. I can guess. I might even get it right but both of us would be better served if you asked someone else instead. I know that at certain spots in my backyard this morning the snow was so deep that Rosalita - my Shetland Sheepdog - almost completely disappeared while she was negotiating the back country looking for a spot to......well, let's just say, "to do the voodoo that she does so well" and leave it at that. Of course, she is not especially tall and she is extraordinarily stealthy so her disappearing act is likely not the most accurate measuring stick.

You also do not want to ask me the whole, "Hey how much snow did you get?" question because as someone who detests snow, my answer is always the same, "More than I wanted." Once upon a time I skied. I have not done so in years. I have a number of friends who enjoy skiing and I know that among my two kids Rob at least is both an enthusiastic and accomplished skier. I begrudge neither those who ski or those who earn their living operating facilities where those who ski gather for that purpose all of the snow they need to enjoy their pursuit and to earn their living. I do not earn my living operating such a place and - based upon the amount of time I spend running in the morning through the streets here 'NTSG I am confident in stating for the record that Middlesex Boro has no ski facilities located anywhere within its geographical limits. Thus, snow here is what it probably is at your house - a real pain in the ass that makes getting from Point A to Point B (feel free to insert "Home" and "Work" in "Point A" and "Point B" respectively) more of a chore than usual.

Go ahead - shake your head in disbelief at the realization that I must be some sort of Christmas spirit-challenged Atheist (and then again when you discover that you are probably at least half right). How dare anyone not feel the spirit of the season when the ground around us is nestled under a blanket of more than twelve inches of fluffy white snow? Newsflash. My alarm clock will go off as per usual tomorrow morning and then I - like you and like countless others just like us - will have to make THE pilgrimage. The one to work, not the one to a barn or manger (or even Bethlehem Pennsylvania unless that is where we work). And this morning's blanket of nestleness will be tomorrow morning's black ice baseline. Forgive me if looking out my window this morning did not give me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

One final thing to chew on before you resume your planned activity of sinking mini-marshmallows in your cocoa while looking out at your winter wonderland; a final "White Christmas" question for you. Ready? If Bing Crosby loved the possibility of a white Christmas so much, then why did he live in Southern California?

Shovel well my friends - shovel well.


Saturday, December 19, 2009


I was a boy of fourteen when my father died. He died on the 31st of May in 1981, almost equidistant between his 57th and 58th birthday. Today is the 86th anniversary of the day he was born. I can engage in no delusional "had he lived, he would have been 86 today" conversation regarding him for no reason other than there is no doubt in my mind that he had as much likelihood of seeing his 86th birthday as I do of having a growth spurt and suddenly being 11 feet tall.

When I was a boy, Dad used to like to tell everyone that he was the perfect weight for someone 9 feet tall. The joke of course was that he was (on his best day, standing on his tip toes, hair on end) about 5'7". All these years later it never ceases to amaze - or annoy - me to think that for a man as intellectually astute as my old man was (and he was significantly brighter than you or me (or the sum of you and me) unless "you" is my oldest brother Bill) that he never made any real attempt to take care of himself. He religiously ate food that was awful for him, he and exercise never crossed paths along the horizon line (even when recommended by his doctor to develop some sort of regimen after heart attack #2 (or it could have been #3, I simply cannot remember which) and he devoted far too much time to trying to buy Manhattan back from the Dutch one bottle of vermouth at a time. The fact that one so bright was do deliberately indifferent to his own health really used to irritate the sh*t out of me.

My father died at what was an awkward stage in our father/son relationship. I am the youngest of six and as a small child, I occupied a position of "favorite" in our household that was embarrassing. No matter what I did, I did no wrong. Inevitably, my older brother Kelly (the middle of My (Parents') Three Sons) bore the brunt of my mistakes. Dad had a tendency to hold Kelly responsible for everything that went awry in our home when Kelly was a teenager, even those things that he knew Kelly could not possibly have done. As a small boy, I actually hoped for some sort of cessation of the favorite child treatment.

We wish for what we wish for and then upon receipt we say, "What! That is it?" By the time I turned 12, my wish came to fruition. I know not whether it was my age or the fact that I had grown to be Dad's height by then (and spurted up 2 to 2 1/2 whole more inches before calling it a day in that endeavor), but by the time I hit 7th grade our relationship cooled immeasurably. He died over Memorial Day weekend when I was in 8th grade. By the time of his death, we had little direct communication with one another and while I am sure we loved one another, we did not like one another very much at all. Perhaps at some point there was "another side" and we would have made our way through that thicket and been alright again. I know not. And while once a long time ago I devoted a considerable amount of time to answering that question and donated quite a bit of my take-home pay to the Smirnoff Family Trust, I do neither any longer.

We are who we are and who we are is an amalgam of those who made us. To be human is to be imperfect, which makes me among the most human of anyone I know. Like the frog before the saving kiss, my father had his warts. And some of them have proven to be genetic. But what has also proven to be genetic as well is some stuff that has served me very well in my life both professionally and personally. My old man - as health-challenged as he was - could out hustle and outwork a man half his age. His combination of intellect and engine was unmatched. I get head scratches from folks often when I tell them (and I do only if they ask) that I start my day each morning at 2:45 and I am in my office working by 4:45, usually after having gone for a run of at least 5K distance.

I do not bother to tell them that I am not alone in my approach to life. I know - because we communicate frequently with each other at that time of day - that my big brother Bill is up and at it in the wee small hours of the morning as well. You believe what you want to believe and I shall as well. Among the things in which I do not believe is coincidence.

We are who we are in large part because of where and who we come from. A lesson too important to ever forget. And one worthy of acknowledgement even if we cannot - in fact - celebrate it.


Friday, December 18, 2009

The Present of Christmases Past

It has been approximately six and one-half months since Suzy B. - Margaret's mom and the rock of her family - died after a five year battle against the insidious bastard that is breast cancer. Sadly, the second half of this year has been chock full of "firsts" for Margaret and for the entire family that every one who has ever lost a loved one has had to endure. We are now at the top of the stretch of the Christmas season. Seven days from now, we will celebrate (giving that term the broadest possible definitional construct perhaps) the first Christmas since her death.

And with apologies to Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer life is a whole lot more complicated than, "Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell The Christmas you get you deserve". One week away from the other heavyset bearded fellow's arrival (one of us is actually here all of the time) I know not what Christmas shall be like for Margaret, for Joe and for the rest of the family. I take little comfort too in the fact that for once my lack of insight is not mine alone. Here on the 18th of December, while Margaret has her hopes and her fears battling for inside position in her mind and in her gut all she knows for certain is that she does not know for certain how she is going to feel on the 24th and 25th of December.

I believe however that as she been ramping up her preparations for the traditional Christmas Eve "Perpetual Pisces" Dinner (any fish you wish all night long - served along really great stuff such as vinegar peppers, stuffed escarole and too many other items to mention here) that shall take place at her parents' home - as it always has - and the annual Christmas Day festivities that shall take place at our home - as they always have, she has been able to find a bit of peace in the past.

My mom-in-law was a notorious saver of things. She was not one of those people one sees on a reality TV show - her life consumed by her need to save. She was however a faithful historian. She served unofficially as the recording secretary of the life she lived, keeping an informal, yet highly organized series of notes chronicling every significant family event. And she made sure that she filed along with her own notes any documents that cross-referenced the event. I found it remarkable the other night to listen to my wife read off the menu for Christmas Eve dinner from 1973 - as well as everyone who was present for it. But when she was then able to tell me what she and Frank had asked for that year for Christmas, because Suzy B had saved the Christmas lists each of her two kids completed, I was at a loss for words.

Family was the "everything" of my mom-in-law's life. Apropos of everything, she was the "everything" of her family. Years before she could have reasonably anticipated awakening one day to find a pain and a lump in a place where neither had been before and before she could have contemplated the journey through Hell on which those discoveries would take her, she planned for this year. She did not know then of course that "this year" would be, in fact, this year. But it is. And she was - as she always was for everything - prepared for it.

Margaret lost not simply her mom in June, she lost her best friend. Every night this week she has sat on the couch in the den, poring over the records her Mom kept and finding a reason to smile, to laugh and to cry. All of those are good things - even the crying. For we know not where we are going if we forget from whence we came. Suzy B. always remembered. Thanks to her, we shall never forget.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Ay oh whey oh" Once More With Feeling

A wise man once said (and 'tis after all the season for wise men) that the three most important things in real estate are, "Location! Location! Location!". It has always eluded me why real estate folks think that is funny or why they think it is appropriate to poke fun at someone's speech impediment. Yet, time and again, it is proven to be true.

Here in the State of Jersey Gardens and 159,817 other shopping megalopolises at which to purchase your essential, must-have holiday goodies, it appears as if good fortune may be the residue of geography much more so than design. As we rapidly approach the end of the calendar's final full work week of 2009, John Ray Wilson of Franklin Township appears to be in need of his very own Festivus miracle. Mr. Wilson is on trial in the Superior Court in Somerville for a trio of drug offenses, the most serious being first-degree maintaining or operating a drug production facility. If convicted on that charge, he faces up to 20 years in prison. That Mr. Wilson sounds like a pretty bad dude, eh? Middlebush Village's very own Carlos Escobar perhaps? Apparently not.

Mr. Wilson is a 37 year-old gentleman who is (according to the newspaper) seriously ill with multiple sclerosis. Back in mid-August 2008, his ganja grove was uncovered by a National Guard Helicopter pilot, who reported the findings to the New Jersey State Police. If you are not familiar with the NJSP, let me assure you of one thing: they are not well-known for their laissez faire approach to life. The troopers on our State Police's Marijuana Eradication Squad (who knew we had such a thing?) did what they are duty-bound to do, which was to investigate the report. Upon searching Mr. Wilson's property they found a total of seventeen plants, including one that was six feet tall. Mr. Wilson was arrested and charged as noted above. This week he is on trial.

I do not pretend to know John Ray Wilson. I did note however the utter absence in the press accounts I read of him doing anything untoward with his stash other than consuming it himself to "alleviate" the effects of his multiple sclerosis. I also do not pretend to know what most of the symptoms of the disease are (although the doctor to English translation table I found here was most helpful) but I was able to understand enough of them to conclude that it seems like a pretty damn lousy disease with which to be saddled.

Yesterday Mr. Wilson testified - a little bit anyway - regarding why he was growing the plants. He told the jury that he is not a drug dealer (again, a claim that the State does not dispute) and that he was growing the pot to treat his MS. In New Jersey, regardless of whatever the Wilburys might have told you, everything is not necessarily legal so long as you do not get caught. Legally, we have nothing here called "medical marijuana". So, prior to the start of trial the trial judge ruled that Mr. Wilson could not rely upon a defense of "I was growing it to treat my MS". The law simply does not permit it. It might someday (it might in fact someday soon) but that is of no moment to Mr. Wilson's fate, which may very well be decided by day's end. As I understand it, Mr. Wilson was allowed to say what he said to the jury solely to challenge the credibility of certain testimony the Troopers who arrested Mr. Wilson and who seized his stash had provided.

Whether Mr. Wilson is acquitted by a panel of his fellow residents of Somerset County or convicted by them - and whether his medicinal/non-recreational use of grass (I feel like Dennis Hopper circa 1969 all of a sudden) is a factor in their decision remains to be determined. Similarly uncertain is the future of a new business in Red Bank. The merchants of West Front Street now have a little piece of paradise in their midst. A store named Tobacco Paradise (either an oxymoron or a reward populated by 72 oxygen-tank toting virgins) is now open for business. Among the featured attractions in this newly-found paradise? Hookah pipes.

Everyone old enough to walk the walk of the Pharaohs (OK, at least the '80's girl band variety) knows the task for which the hookah pipe is built to perform. Of course, in polite conversation we never, ever say it aloud right? Right. Refuting criticism that the store, on 16 West Front Street, promotes drug use, the owners placed signs throughout the store saying all products are for tobacco use only.

Snicker if you want but for the past several decades although located in an area of Boulder where its neighbors have changed as frequently as the weather, The Pipefitter (sorry, now it is called "The Fitter") has thrived. Even as the Pipefitter has tried to reshape its image, its psychedelic past has yet to completely fade away; it is consistently named "Best Pipe Shop" in Boulder Weekly's annual "Best of Boulder" issue.

The owner of Tobacco Paradise appears to have studied the Pipefitter's playbook. He cannot admit that he owns a head shop for he has an aversion to incarceration - for which I cannot find fault. Thus, he is left to proclaim really silly things such as his hookah pipes are not to be used for what you think they are supposed to be used for. He says it too often and he runs the risk of local law enforcement thinking he is using his own apparatuses to sample Mr. Wilson's wares in his supply closet.

Methinks the republic will survive whether hookahs become big business in Red Bank. I just wish I had the Visine distributorship at the convenience stores located near the area high schools. Not that anyone is supposed to use a hookah pipe to know, "that".

Maybe I will drown my unfulfilled capitalist dreams in a pile of Duncan Hines brownies. Perhaps I will just drive on over to Dunkin Donuts instead.

On second thought - I think I will walk.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

And On Occasion A Nice Guy Finishes West

When I heard the news come over the radio Monday afternoon, I smiled for a moment. Not at the news but at the knowledge that on the Friday immediately following the end of the 2009 World Series the Missus and me played hooky. We played hooky so we could join the gazillion or so other fans who turned out for the Yankees Championship Parade up the Canyon of Heroes. I wanted to go because my gut told me that it was the final time I would see at least certain of the players whose playing I enjoy so much being feted as members of the Yankees.

Riding atop the first float that morning - seemingly immune to the elements in his jacket and dress shirt that was open at the collar - was World Series MVP Hideki Matsui. And while he passed by our vantage point so fast that we caught only a glimpse of him, his ear-to-ear grin was visible regardless of where you stood along the route. He really seemed to enjoy and to appreciate all of the cheers.

Upon hearing of his signing with the Angels, my thoughts returned to the news of his arrival as a member of the Yankees prior to the start of the 2003 season. Matsui was the premier power hitter in Japan. There were those who projected that he would hit 50 home runs his first season in the Bronx. He was described in the press as a home-run hitting machine - able to hit the ball out of any park but really nothing more than that. His defensive liabilities were alleged to be profound and he was considered to be an average base runner. I anticipated when he showed up in America that the Yankees had signed the Asian incarnation of Jason Giambi. Matsui spent the next seven seasons dispelling me of that notion.

The player who arrived in New York was - language barrier notwithstanding - the whole package, both as a player and as a person. In Japan he had been larger than life. In New York, he fit right into the Yankees lineup as a reliable run producer. His ability to hit in the clutch, which was resplendent in Game Six of the World Series, was established in his first at-bat in the bigs. He drove in a run in his very first at-bat as a Yankee and he did so off of a brand-name pitcher by the name of Roy Halliday. And he did it in a way that would come to define his career in the Bronx as much as his majestic home runs would: he smacked a pitch on the outer half the other way through the hole between shortstop and third base.

The hallmark of Matsui's career in pinstripes was his consistency. In seven seasons as a Yankee - including two that were cut short by injuries - he hit a total of 140 home runs. He drove in more than 100 runs four times and in 2009 he drove in 90. And while it took the completion of seven seasons in New York, which turned out to be the entirety of his Yankees career, for him to win the World Series he came to the United States to win, he led the Yankees to victory in historically valuable fashion.

And now he is on his way to Los Angeles, a victim of creaky knees and baseball economics. As a fan I forget sometimes that while the rules are the same in the big leagues as they are on the sandlot, in the sandlot it is only a game. In the big leagues, it is a business. And in the business of baseball, the man who has been an All-Star on two continents ended up as a man without a home in the only home he had ever known in the major leagues.

Seven years ago Hideki Matsui traveled east to west. And now he is headed west again. I would not have suspected that Horace Greeley translated so readily into Japanese.

But I am happy to see that he does.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Devils' Own

On the sixteenth of July, Jersey City Police Officer Mark Anthony DiNardo was shot while involved in a gunfight with armed robbery suspects. Five days later, Officer DiNardo died from his injuries. In death, the 37 year-old, 1o-year veteran of the JCPD left behind a young widow, Mary, and three children four years old and younger (Gwendolyn, 4, Marc Anthony II, 3, and Ella, 1).

On the thirteenth of December, a team of alumni members of the New Jersey Devils and a teams of members of the JCPD got together at the Devils' home arena in Newark to do something to add just a pinch of Christmas cheer to the Dinardos' home this year. The two squads played each other in a game christened the Police Officer Marc Anthony DiNardo Memorial Hockey Game. 3,000 fans paid to watch the game. The contest raised $60,000 for a most worthy of causes: a memorial scholarship fund that has been established for the three babies (please do not tell Ms. Gwendolyn and young Master Marc Anthony II that some jackass they shall never meet called them both "babies". I meant it as the highest of compliments.) who shall be required to navigate the rapids ride that is life without the hands-on involvement of their Dad.

I know not at what age a child starts to form memories. I leave all of that hard science stuff to the truly gifted (like Suzanne who continues to pursue advanced degrees in disciplines that her dopey old man can barely pronounce and that I have no hope of ever comprehending). I know not what memories of their dad each of the three little DiNardos shall carry with them. But I hope that among them is the memory of all that happened on Sunday at the Rock. Their father was a man who apparently touched the lives of many others. And on Sunday a number of folks returned the favor.

This is going to be an excruciatingly tough Christmas in the DiNardo household. But maybe, just maybe, it will not be as brutal as one might have anticipated. Kudos to Officer DiNardo's brothers in arms and the Devils for bringing just a little bit of the spirit of the season into the life of his wife and children.


Monday, December 14, 2009

The Elixir

2009 has been an extraordinarily trying year. It seems to me - from what is admittedly a subjective point of view - that Margaret and her family (Dad, Frank and Uncle Mike serving as the other spear tips) have endured more than their fair share. One hopes (at least speaking from the selfish perspective of this one) that 2010 is kinder to my wife and her family. I would say aloud that it appears to be impossible for it to be worse than this year but I prefer when my fate temptation impacts only me.

I think that what has kept Margaret and Joe and the rest of them afloat through all that they have encountered is one another. It is remarkable to watch as a quasi-outsider the closeness of the bond between them. It runs every way and all ways simultaneously. It is a bond of impenetrable strength and immeasurable depth.

I have always admired the nature of the relationships in Margaret's family for while it seems a bit difficult to believe if you have not spent twenty years observing it firsthand, it appears as if the familial chain contain no weak links. There are no fracture lines.

Candidly that is not the way it is in everyone's family. Mom is eighty years old. Among her closest friends for most of her life were her brother Jim and her sister-in-law Dot. In the almost thirty years since my father died, Mom did things she had never done while he was alive. She traveled all over the globe. And many of those trips she made accompanied by Jim and Dot - as well as my Aunt Clare (mom's youngest sister) and Aunt Marian (the widow of mom's brother John). Death claimed Aunt Dot several years ago and Uncle Jim died in May 2008. Yet at the time of each of their deaths, her relationship with each was as strong as had been when they were kids.

Fracture lines appear it seems in one generation even when they did not exist a generation earlier. Presumably they exist because regardless of the contribution of one parent to the stew that we the children are that contribution is counterbalanced by the contribution of the other parent. The issue is never the quality of each parent's contribution. Rather it is simply the degree to which one parent's contribution complements the other. Sometimes the fit is perfect. But not always.

In our generation - in my family - for years we have been separated. Living on opposite sides of the fracture lines as it were. There is no question that we have all been visible to one another on opposite sides of those lines all these years. Accessibility and visibility are not interchangeable concepts. Whether one leads to the other is something that remains to be seen.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stone Cold Perfect

It was indeed chilly yesterday morning along the banks of the Rar-i-tan. Actually, that is not accurate. At no time yesterday morning did the mercury rise to a point where it threatened the realm of chilliness. Nope. Yesterday morning it was simply cold.

And the cold deterred neither our faithful hero (me) or the mass of people who paid the entry fee of a new, unwrapped toy - to be donated to a child in need -just so we could participate in The Big Chill 2009. It is both a run and a walk, which may explain why its web site stated that 4,500 people had registered to participate and its results page listed only 1422 finishers of the 5K race - a fact also explained no doubt by the fact that they simply do not have enough automated timing chips for everyone so if you decide to register on race day you run (pun intended) the risk of there not being any chip for you.

The start of the Chill is an absolute mob scene. From an overhead shot it likely looks as if those assembled are preparing to start the 100 yard dash for people with no sense of direction - milling this way and that. The start is organized by projected finishing time - you are to line up in the grouping whose time most closely relates to your own 5K time. I lined up yesterday as part of the 25 to 30 minute group. While that group is the 3rd group from the front, given the mass of folks who gave up part of a frigid Saturday morning yesterday to do a good thing for children at Christmas time and the casual regard that most of those lined up had for the organizer's best intentions, it took more than one minute to get to the starting line from where I was lined up pre-race. Approximately seventy-five seconds or so after the starter shouted,"Go!" I walked beneath the banner that marked the starting line.

It is a race full of colorful outfits and youthful faces as more RU students than I can count (well, given my math skills that could be a figure as low as 8) roll out of bed early on a Saturday morning to do their part. The best story I heard yesterday morning was courtesy of two RU students (both male) who were standing near me at the start. One of the two lives in a house with a number of other guys - all of whom were also participating in yesterday's race. Apparently the plan was for the whole house to ride to the Chill together. Unfortunately, their plan - as the best-laid plans of mice and men often do - fell by the wayside. The young man telling the story said that when he got up yesterday morning his house was empty. None of his roommates was there. As he was trying to sort out what had happened, his cell phone rang. He answered it to hear one of his mates asking him, "Remember that movie Home Alone about the family that goes on vacation and only realizes after leaving that they forgot something at home? Well..."

In the scenario that played itself out yesterday morning, the young guy standing near me was Kevin. And as was the case in the original, he came through the whole inadvertent abandonment process just fine, thank you very much.

As did all of us who got our Chill on yesterday morning - regardless of our finishing time.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Everybody Wins......Including Us

This afternoon two of this nation's Service Academies shall renew one of college football's greatest rivalries in Philadelphia. According to the official web site of the United States Naval Academy this afternoon represents the 110th edition of the Army-Navy Game. The Midshipmen have been on a bit of a roll lately at the expense of their brothers in arms from West Point. Today they shall shoot for their eighth consecutive win over the Black Knights and during the previous seven they have put a hurting on Army, outscoring them by slightly more than two hundred points.

While there have been years in the history of this series - especially during this era of college football as gargantuan big business - when neither team has been particularly watchable on the field, during this recent spate of Naval dominance that has not been the case for the Midshipmen. Navy has won eight games already this season - including among their conquests their second consecutive win at Notre Dame (a nice bookend to the 2007 win in South Bend that ended the Middies' 40+ game losing streak to the Irish). Over the past decade, Navy has reestablished itself as a solid, respectable and winning college football team.

Army - on the other hand - has struggled. The Black Knights have ended every season since - at least - the 2001-o2 campaign with a losing record. This year however they are 5-6 coming into today's regular season finale. A win today and they become that which every Division I school hopes to become every season: bowl-eligible. With their comrades from Annapolis and from Colorado Springs already bowl-bound, it would be terrific to see the kids from West Point complete the trifecta.

Army-Navy is never just a football game. "Pagaentry" is among the most overused and abused terms in the vernacular of college football as if every marriage between intoxicated co-eds and face paint is somehow magical. However today's event is one for which the use of "pagaentry" is wholly appropriate. Even if you cannot spend the entirety of your Saturday afternoon watching the game, try to catch the "March On" when both Academies' student bodies enter the stadium to take up their respective rooting positions. It is a remarkable sight to see.

And it is remarkable as well to remember that given our current engagements around the world there are a number of the players on each of these teams who are - like countless more of their classmates in the stands - perhaps not more than a couple of months away from spending his Saturday afternoon in a place far more hostile than in the shadow of his own end zone facing a 3rd down and long late in the game. These young men know that football is a game and "combat" (yet another grotesquely overused and abused term in the college football vernacular) is something else altogether. One is for kids and the other - often times with tragic consequences - is most decidedly an adult activity.

For no reason other than I would love to see the Army players get to enjoy a trip to a bowl game this December, I find myself this year unable to assume my Swiss cheese-like position of neutrality. I really am rooting more for what we have not seen much of during Navy's recent era of dominance, which is a close, competitive game.

That is not entirely true. In the past several years, while we have been at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the broadcast has contained information about not only what a particular player's area of study is and hoped-for assignment after graduation is but - in the case of a number of the seniors - it has also featured their deployment to either war zone. I look forward to the year in the not-too-distant future where "deployment" is no longer part of the Army-Navy game vernacular.

Pagaentry is a much cooler word to say. Right?


Friday, December 11, 2009

Not a Word of This to Virginia

We are but a fortnight away from the official "it's all over but the shouting" day of the holiday season. Two weeks from this very day is Christmas - the day in which we celebrate something truly miraculous, which I confess always mesmerized me as a child. How exactly did Santa and his team of height-impaired helpers make it all the way around the Earth in one night? Oh wait, you thought I was speaking of some other miracle perhaps? One involving swaddling clothes, an unmarried, homeless couple and three fellows toting presents (although the jury is out on the wisdom of any man who comes bearing frankincense and myrrh as presents to a newborn baby and his folks. What? No Pampers or poggies where you come from Mr. Wise Man?)

As the youngest of six I always peppered my older sibs with a lot of Santa Claus-related queries as Christmas time rolled around. I suppose that I was a believer in the miracle of Saint Nick probably until the 1st grade. Surprisingly, the greatest defender of the myth to me was my older brother Kelly. Kelly is roughly 10 years older than I am so he was in high school while I was wending my way through the nether regions of elementary school. I did not need him as a source for Santa's existence too much as a kindergartner. We all believed in Santa. At least if anyone had his/her doubts, they were doubts that never uttered aloud in the presence of any of our classmates. Mrs. Spaeth was no help. She ruled our kindergarten class with an iron fist wrapped inside of a velvet glove and gave no quarter on questions pertaining to Santa. Instead of saying "yes" or "no" in response to a query, she would fend off the inquisitor with some type of pseudo-Socratic method jive. "What do you believe in your heart?" was her default answer. "How the hell should I know" was the type of response that ensured its speaker of quality bench time in the company of the Sister who ran detention. Thus, it was not a reply given more than once.

By first grade however some cracks had become visible in our collective armor. As any student of military tactics (or viewer of "300") knows, the keys to the phalanx are equanimity and solidarity. Once those cracks appeared it was incumbent upon someone to shore up our ranks around them. That responsibility fell to me. Why? Well when you are the kid with the over-sized head who has a tendency to conjure up a grand mal seizure during recess you do what you can to create positive buzz. My quest to become buzzworthy was aided greatly by Kelly.

Any question that was posed to me in school by a doubter was easily explained to me by him that evening in preparation for the next day at school. Never did one of his explanations fail to win the day when I would gather my classmates around me and share it with them. He had all the angles covered. His coup de grace came in response to this potential land mine, "How exactly can one man driving a sled with no motor and being pulled by eight reindeer get all the way around the world in one night?", to which Kelly provided an exquisitely simple explanation, "Time zones." His logic was unassailable.

Thanks to it, my fortress was impregnable. I was suddenly a first grader whose life had meaning - other than the bemusement of my fellow first-graders who were simultaneously intrigued and horrified by my occasional, spur of the moment seizure activity - much in the same way as motorists cannot take their eyes off a particularly horrible wreck on the highway. I suddenly had street cred. The fact that I was not permitted to cross from one side of said street to the other was of no moment whatsoever.

Coincidentally it was that very Christmas that I learned the truth about Santa. Kelly was as dedicated to perpetuating the myth at home as he was in helping me spread the word at St. Paul's. He was so good at it that I did not realize that was in fact what he was doing. To assist in the believing process, he used to assume responsibility for eating the cookies and carrots and whatever else was left out for Santa and washing them all down with the milk that accompanied them. On Christmas morning when I was in first grade, I dashed into Kel's room to wake him up and as I leaned over his bed to shake him awake, my foot knocked into the empty cookie plate he had hidden on the floor beneath his bed when he came home on Christmas Eve. In the time it took for the sound to travel from his floor to my ear, we both knew that our Santa Jig was indeed up.

All these years later I do not remember being overly bothered by the accidental discovery that Father Christmas was.....well was my father and mother. I remember being impressed by the fact my brother - who was a high school upperclassman - had gone to such extraordinary lengths for my benefit. For a teenager he had an advanced sense of appreciation of the phalanx's significance. An appreciation that in hindsight seemed a bit surprising.

Perhaps it should not have been. After all, he was a Spartan.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Measuring the Distance Between Correct and Right

The level of stupidity to which we - the bipeds who occupy the dominant spot in the planetary pecking order - are willing to descend in order to enforce our rights never ceases to astound me. Just when you think that life has presented you with an individual or perhaps a conflagration of like-minded morons whose exploits top any you shall likely encounter anywhere else in your life's experience - regardless of its length or breadth - someone always emerges from the muck to make you say, "Wow! I had no idea that any person could be so obtuse."

It is late in the year I know and we are all supposed to be besotted with holiday cheer - or Grey Goose vodka (depending upon your cocktail of preference). The world is awash in good tidings, right? Well, not the entire world it seems. In fact, not even the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.

At some point in time, the newly-elected Governor of the Wahoo State might want to examine the curriculum in the Henrico County School District. He might want to ensure that at some point between K and 12, the local rug rats are being taught United States History. He might be inclined to order the curriculum examined by experts in the field to make sure that it passes muster.

The new Governor of Thomas Jefferson's playground might indeed want to take those extraordinary steps to ensure that the next generation of decision-makers produced in Henrico County is less likely to scrape their knuckles when they walk than those presently in place. Actually, in fairness to the rest of the residents of Henrico County, there appears to be a "stupid cluster" occupying the space more commonly known as Sussex Square. Given the enormity of the level of stupidity crammed into this one particular "community", it is likely an unfair drag on the County's overall aptitude.

If anyone affiliated with the "community" of Sussex Square had a rudimentary knowledge of history, then they would have presumably at some point stumbled across what it takes to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And (at the risk of breaking an ankle while trying to stick the landing associated with such a prodigious leap of faith) once familiar with the fact that such an honor exists, one supposes that they would have made the acquaintance of Van T. Barfoot.

As a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army in World War II, Van T. Barfoot engaged in conduct deemed worthy of receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to the website for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, his citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty on 23 May 1944, near Carano, Italy. With his platoon heavily engaged during an assault against forces well entrenched on commanding ground, 2d Lt. Barfoot (then Tech. Sgt.) moved off alone upon the enemy left flank. He crawled to the proximity of 1 machinegun nest and made a direct hit on it with a hand grenade, killing 2 and wounding 3 Germans. He continued along the German defense line to another machinegun emplacement, and with his tommygun killed 2 and captured 3 soldiers. Members of another enemy machinegun crew then abandoned their position and gave themselves up to Sgt. Barfoot. Leaving the prisoners for his support squad to pick up, he proceeded to mop up positions in the immediate area, capturing more prisoners and bringing his total count to 17. Later that day, after he had reorganized his men and consolidated the newly captured ground, the enemy launched a fierce armored counterattack directly at his platoon positions. Securing a bazooka, Sgt. Barfoot took up an exposed position directly in front of 3 advancing Mark VI tanks. From a distance of 75 yards his first shot destroyed the track of the leading tank, effectively disabling it, while the other 2 changed direction toward the flank. As the crew of the disabled tank dismounted, Sgt. Barfoot killed 3 of them with his tommygun. He continued onward into enemy terrain and destroyed a recently abandoned German fieldpiece with a demolition charge placed in the breech. While returning to his platoon position, Sgt. Barfoot, though greatly fatigued by his Herculean efforts, assisted 2 of his seriously wounded men 1,700 yards to a position of safety. Sgt. Barfoot's extraordinary heroism, demonstration of magnificent valor, and aggressive determination in the face of pointblank fire are a perpetual inspiration to his fellow soldiers.

You can decide for yourself what you consider to be more extraordinary: (a) what he did to merit receiving this nation's highest honor; (b) the fact that he lived through the experience; or (c) the fact that having done what is described in the preceding paragraph he continued to serve in the United States Army and fought for his country thereafter in Korea and Vietnam. He apparently retired from the Army as a Colonel. Since his retirement, he has in fact been recognized for his service. A portion of a highway in rural Mississippi, his native state, was named in his honor this fall. A building at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Richmond, also carries his name.

Yet this 90 year-old living American hero incurred the wrath of the homeowners' association in the "community" where he lives when he erected a 21-foot high flagpole upon which to fly his American flag after the powers that be expressly told him this past July that he could not. The basis for the denial was that his flagpole would damage the aesthetics of Sussex Square (no doubt it would have too as history is replete with examples of things that ruin the aesthetics of subdivisions.....such as the cookie-cutter nature of the homes). Apparently, the fact that Col. Barfoot had been willing to stand face-to-face with three advancing German tanks while wearing a bull's eye on his chest and carrying a bazooka in his arms was lost on the suburban warriors of Sussex Square. He erected his flagpole and thereafter raised his flag every morning and took it down every evening.

We are a litigious bunch - the species known as the American bi-ped - so the heroes of Sussex Square did what we often do (and thankfully for those of us with limited skills like yours truly) when someone tells us politely to p*ss off - they hired a lawyer. The Association's lawyer, "sent a priority-mail letter ordering Barfoot to remove the pole by 5 p.m. Friday or face "legal action being brought to enforce the covenants and restrictions against you." The letter states that Barfoot will be subject to paying all legal fees and costs in any successful legal proceeding pursued by the homeowners association's board."

Thankfully - and (permit me just a touch of cynicism here) perhaps predictably - when the local media picked up the story and it went national, Col. Barfoot discovered that he does indeed have friends in high places. Both United States Senators from Virginia, Messrs. Warner and Webb, came out very publicly in support of him as did a fella just putting the finishing touches on his first year settling into his new digs - at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Having been chastised publicly, the Association announced that it was dropping its threatened legal action against him - at least for the time-being.

The depths to which we are willing to descend to protect our little duchies never ceases to amaze me. And the inability of those standing with their faces pressed up against the glass to step away for a moment and see the big picture is equally stupefying. Candidly I care not whether Col. Barfoot knew of the covenant against having a flagpole in his front yard prior to moving into this collection of residences that is an apparent affront to the word "community" and chose to move in anyway. The magnitude of his lifetime's worth of selflessness is immeasurable. The closest we could do as a nation to even approximating it was to award him the Medal of Honor. In the ninth decade of a lifetime spent doing for others all he asked for was a modicum of consideration. And those closest to him in geographical proximity proved to be those most far removed from him in terms of the quality of their character.

The heroes of Sussex Square probably went to sleep last night feeling fairly good about themselves, comfortable in the delusion that they had done the right thing. They did not. Doing that which is correct and that which is appropriate is not the same as doing the right thing. And it is a pity that they lack the ability to discern the difference between the two.

Especially when there is one living among them who would likely be happy to explain it to them. And undoubtedly has the chops to do so.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whatever Happened to Mary Kay Place?

If you happen to be in the greater New Brunswick area (is there a "lesser" New Brunswick area and even if there is not may we screw with my pal Jack Sanders just a bit and tell him that it exists but refuse to tell him where exactly it is located) on Saturday morning, then by all means take up a spot along the street in the vicinity of the College Avenue Gymnasium. When I was but a boy I recall getting to tag along with my big brother Bill as he matriculated his way through Rutgers University. While my favorite place was the library - as much because the newspapers were secured in big wooden newspaper sticks that appeared readily adaptable to use by the librarian in case some miscreant thought "Quiet Please!" was an idle threat as it was because of all the cool stuff he taught me to read in there - I also liked the College Avenue Gym. In the era before 10,000+ on-campus "arenas" for the conducting of games of college basketball, collegiate hoopsters toiled in Dutch ovens such as "the Barn", which was the nom de guerre affectionately affixed to it by the couple of thousand screaming fans who filled it when Rutgers played its home basketball games there.

The "Barn" ceded the spotlight to the RAC a few decades ago, but it has not been consigned to the University's scrap heap of historical phenomena. It serves annually as the staging area for "The Big Chill". The Big Chill is a 5K run/walk that is the by-product of the good works of the people from RU's faculty and staff and their comrades in karma from New Brunswick's Recreation Department. Unlike most other 5K races, there is not a fee charged for entry. Passage into the field requires but two things: (1) timely registration (because it is a great time and a lot of people sign up to participate); and (2) a new, unwrapped toy for a child between the ages of 3 to 14. Last year, the only thing that took me longer than the time I spent on the course completing the race was the time I spent in the toy department at Target the night before picking out what I was going to donate.

This year's edition will take place on Saturday morning. Appropriately for an event with its moniker and with an ice-skating polar bear as its mascot, the weather forecast is for temperatures below freezing and a sky full of bright - but mostly cosmetic - sunshine. The Mercury level is not what warms you on Big Chill Day. It is the reaction of the little ones who are the recipients of the toys and the other presents that are donated. You need not bring a ruler with you to measure their smiles as long as you are familiar with the distance from ear-to-ear. I was lucky enough last year to have my sister Jill drag me along with her (it seems as if my entire life has been spent with one older sib or another dragging me to New Brunswick) to run in it for the first time. And now, like the good karma-seeking junkie I am - I am hooked.

Saturday morning I shall be there with bells on - and lest you think I am kidding I intend to wear the entirely absurd chapeau given out by one of the sponsors at the Jingle Bell Run in Metuchen on Sunday morning - being one of the multitude who is getting better than I am giving simply by showing up. It is after all billed as "A Charity Race to Help Kids" that places neither a definition nor an age restriction on its intended recipients.

I love any event in which I am indeed the target audience.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The View from the Bridge

Last night I spent a few minutes inside of a place I had not been for 28 1/2 years. When I was a boy of 14, my father died. The wake/viewing was held at the Hillsborough Funeral Home. Last night - as a man of 42 - I stepped through the front door of that building for the first time since leaving it with my father's casket many, many Junes ago. The sad occasion of my return engagement was to pay my respects to an old friend, Jeff Friedlander, on the death of his dad George.

Mr. Friedlander came dangerously close last night to causing the good folks from the Home to run askew of the local fire department's ordinances for building capacity. People came pouring in like the sea to say our goodbyes to him and to provide solace, sympathy and love to Jeff and his family. My own recollection of my time spent inside of the Home all those years ago was that I left at day's end numbed by the whole experience. I think regardless of the age that you are when you lose someone you love - especially someone with whom you shared a relationship such as Jeff did with his dad - the first few days after he/she dies you are at least a bit numb. Autopilot on, you do what you must to get through.

I woke up this morning thinking of Thornton Wilder and his extraordinary work The Bridge of San Luis Rey. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. From the bridge, the view in both directions is simply spectacular.

And you can see forever.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Oh My Bells They Jingle Jangle Jingle

Yesterday was really a terrific day. Margaret, Gidg and I drove over to Metuchen where Gidg and I ran in the Jingle Bell 5K. None of the three of us had ever been there for the event, which meant we had no idea what to expect. What we got was a very well-run, well-organized race for a good cause: raising funds for the arthritis foundation.

Events such as yesterday's are simply terrific for someone who is a casual runner like me. Sure there were serious runners among our number yesterday morning - those who regale each other with tales of marathon entries and too good to be true qualifying times for well-known road races. But there were also a number of folks who - like Gidg and me - are just folks who like to run, who run for exercise and who are not adverse to participating in the doing of a good thing for someone else. Besides how many opportunities do you get to run down a public street wearing a red/green hat festooned with little jingle bells without having mental health professionals trying to stop you with a tranquilizer gun? Such an opportunity is not simply to be embraced. It is to be seized.

I went to law school to stay away from hard math. By my informal calculation there appeared to be several hundred runners and walkers who participated in either the 5K run or the 1 mile walk. There were dozens of people who cheered all of us on from various spots throughout the course. There were countless volunteers who took care of every detail. And at the finish line, there was my better half - braving the bitter cold to cheer Gidg and me all the way home. And - if I say so myself - we both ran quite well indeed, both finishing faster than we had hoped to run. And both of us doing so on a course much hillier than we presumed we would encounter and wholly devoid of interval clocks and monitors, whose presence usually makes it considerably easier to assess the pace at which you were running than it was yesterday. We ran the last quarter-mile of the race with a 'seasonal' December wind blowing into our faces, which was less fun than the way it reads I assure you.

And when the running was over, there was much eating and drinking and conversing in a very happening little joint - Novita Bistro - that had graciously served as the host for all of us pre-and post-race. Among our little group we made a pact to return to enjoy its dinner menu when we were a little bit better dressed - and actually carrying wallets.

And we will certainly be back for the '10 version of this event. It was too good a time to not enjoy again.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Jingle Bells, Santa and Semolina

As much as I loathe any departure from my regularly-scheduled internal programming, I am voluntarily engaging in some today. As per my usual, the early part (well, early for most normal folks but mid-to-late morning by my factory-installed alarm clock) of my Sunday morning is spent at the A&P. Given our annoying yet understandable tendency to consume our daily bread every day, it is necessary on a weekly basis to restock and to reload. Thus, every Sunday morning Skate transports me up the mountain to our little slice of grocery heaven in search of life's necessities and - more importantly - items for which I have double coupons.

Not this morning. This morning Skate shall transport me not up - but over. We shall take the ride over to Metuchen, which once upon a time was the town that the powers-that-be here 'NTSG wanted us to be when we grew up (a pipe dream not long resigned to the scrap heap of history), to take part in a 5K run. I am not entirely sure but I think that the runners who are among today's participants view a gathering as a race. Me? Considering I have as much likelihood of "winning" anything this morning as I do of being invited to join the College of Cardinals (or the Arizona Cardinals for that matter), I refer to a gathering such as this morning's as a "run".

Apparently a lot - if not all -of these 5K runs that are held all across the country year-round are organized in part to raise funds for worthy causes. Today's event is officially captioned, "2009 Jingle Bell Run/Walk for Arthritis", which means that it might just take me as long to say it as will take me to complete it - something that had no chance of happening when I ran last month in the "Turkey Trot". The good folks who organize this event annually anticipate a nice turnout of participants and fans lining the streets of Metuchen, which is a lovely little town here in Middlesex County on what is predicted to be a "seasonal" (weatherspeak for "cold") but precipitation-free morning here in the State of Concrete Gardens. Presumably all of the rain and snow that the Missus and me absorbed while sitting along the banks of the old Rar-i-tan yesterday rooting for the home team against West Virginia (without success I am afraid as the Knights' very own 800 lb gorilla defeated them for the 15th straight year) has passed through the region, leaving in its wake cold, crisp and - thankfully - dry air.

I am not a big fan of change - of upsetting the applecart in which I carry my quirks and hangups. But sometimes it appears as if a change does indeed do some good. Today is one of those days.

I hope the A&P is not too crowded this afternoon. As long as there is at least one loaf of my bread guy's bread left for me to snare, I shall endure wading up and down aisles pockmarked with more fellow shoppers than I typically encounter at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday. I suppose if it is sold out by the time Skate and I arrive, then I could always buy a different type of bread....

...of course that would represent the day's second change. Two changes in the same day? No one should ever get quite that carried away.